Summer means baseball season. It also means short-term missions season. What do the two have to do with each another? Consider the middle relief pitcher.
In baseball, you have starting pitchers, and you have closers. Many of these athletes are often well-known and well-paid franchise players for their respective teams; they might even be the face of the organization. Yet on teams you also have middle relievers. They are often nameless, faceless players who might replace a starting pitcher for any reason (perhaps player fatigue, perhaps for strategy). They usually enter at any time after the start of a game and pitch several innings. In some instances, such as in a close game, a reliever might be called in to face a single batter and throw only a few pitches. A manager who knows the skills and abilities of his players on the bench makes these pitching decisions.
These relievers are strategic role players. While they are not well known, no team could ever succeed without their contribution.
Short-Term Missionaries as Middle Relievers
Some missionaries live abroad in long-term service. Some visit on short-term missions (STM). Both play a critical role.
My family and I spent three years living and working in Cambodia from 2010 to 2013. My wife and I were bi-vocational “tentmakers” working alongside full-time, long-term commissioned missionaries with Mission to the World (MTW). In our time there, we hosted dozens of short-term missions teams throughout the year. The makeup of the teams was as diverse in purpose as they were in experience. Medical teams, for example, had team members who were practicing medical professionals as well as college students with aspirations toward graduate school. Teams included Sunday school teachers with years of experience as well as young adults who had never led VBS in English, let alone in Khmer (the Cambodian national language). Some were on STM because they sensed a potential call to long-term missionary service. Others were sent by their parents with the hope that they might take their spiritual lives more seriously.
I submit that someone on STM plays a similar role to that of a middle reliever in baseball.
You’re not the starters. You’re not the closers. You’re somewhere in the middle. No one knows your name. Your picture is not on the wall of a church. For such a time as this, you were called up to offer a few mundane yet critical innings of work to advance the mission. You do whatever you are asked to do, and you are honored just to participate.
For such a time as this, you were called up to offer a few mundane yet critical innings of work to advance the mission. You do whatever you are asked to do, and you are honored just to participate.
Some middle relievers are asked to pitch several innings regularly, while others are summoned to pitch to one player, say, a left-handed batter who has historically performed poorly against a left-handed pitcher with a decent slider. Your job is to come in and do that one thing you’re especially gifted to do. Whether you are called to three weeks, three months, or three years, what’s critical is you know you’re a role player—called to serve faithfully and joyfully in that role. It’s not for you to know what ultimate purpose you served in your role; how it fits in the big picture game plan. Only our great heavenly manager knows when to put people in, when to take them out, and why.
Humble Service of Middle Relievers
It’s important to note that middle relievers are still baseball players. They participate in the same rigorous training and are expected to maintain all their physical conditioning, even if they get little playing time. Likewise, all Christians should prioritize spiritual disciplines, biblical literacy, and learning how to defend the gospel. You never know when God will call you out of the bullpen for a specific missional task.
Most kids playing baseball probably aspire to be a starting pitcher, or the heroic game-ending closer. Few dream about becoming a middle reliever. The same might be said of Christians. Most probably never aspire for their service to be so mundane and invisible. Some full-time servants, pastors, and missionaries might think of themselves as kind of special. After all, some hold advanced degrees, received some form of ordination, and were likely commissioned for their current sphere of ministry. These honors and credentials might lead some to become dissatisfied with having to be a role player (e.g., assistant pastor, youth leader, language teacher, and so on). We might grumble or find envy in our hearts when our efforts for the kingdom go unnoticed or uncelebrated. We might want more acknowledgment and appreciation. If we’re honest, we don’t really want to be middle relievers.
Middle Reliever Calling
But in reality, we’re all middle relievers in kingdom work. We neither started, nor will we finish, the work of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. Even a lifetime spent on the mission field is a “short-term” span in the big picture of God’s mission.
The STM can be especially effective if they understand and accept the middle reliever role. What does that look like? In brief, five things.
1. Know your role. Know what you’re specifically supposed to be doing to best serve the larger team. Your contribution is small yet a significant part of the bigger picture.
2. Embrace your role. STMs shouldn’t spend their time telling the long-term missionaries how they should do things differently. As amazing as it may seem that you were able to figure out the lay of the land in two short weeks, remember you were not sent as a missions consultant.
3. Learn to be content. Serving in any aspect of kingdom ministry is a glorious calling. Even if you’re not a starter, a closer, or someone famous, God has called you to be faithful in the role you play. No one person can possibly play every position.
4. Do no harm. Do your best not to exhaust your host missionaries. They love hosting you, but they’re not there for you; you’re there for them. Remember, the locals and host nationals will be just fine without your brief presence.
5. Remember, this was never about you or me. God will be faithful completing the work he started, using different people at different times. We can’t stay on the field forever, even if we want to, because we know the time will inevitably come for us to be replaced. Learn to let go. In the end, we are all just middle relievers.