A Brethren in Christ Theology of Risk

A Brethren in Christ missionary in Southeast Asia is very frugal and looks for the cheapest flights whenever she has to travel. During a time of political unrest in Bangkok, the cheapest flights she could find would have required her to leave one airport and take public transportation to another. She was prepared to risk venturing into a city embroiled in turmoil to get from one airport to the other for the sake of a cheaper flight. Brethren in Christ World Missions (BICWM) here in the U.S. discovered that for less than $50 more, she could get a flight that did not require a change in airports. The conclusion: when you can significantly minimize risk by spending a little more, it’s probably wise to do so.

While serving in Malawi with BICWM, Jonathan Lloyd and his family experienced a violent home invasion in the middle of the night. They were robbed at knifepoint and threatened with death. Erica was able to call for help, and the police came with guns. In the aftermath of the incident, a police officer told Jonathan he should have a gun, to which Jonathan responded, “I didn’t come to Africa to kill people.” They did hire a guard company and kept pepper spray on hand as deterrents.

After a period of time back in the U.S., the Lloyd family returned to Malawi for another term. They didn’t blame anyone for what had happened, and accepted that they were called to take risks. They were also well aware that they lived much more lavishly than many others nearby—their “stuff” put them at increased risk.

These two stories, ranging from the almost humorous desire to save a mere $50 to a family experiencing the trauma of a violent home invasion illustrate why BICWM has developed a “Theology of Risk.” In addition to addressing situations like these, the policy recognizes that with BICWM’s priority for least-reached people groups, there are more security risks than in the past. Some missionaries operate in countries where it is not legal to proselytize and the risk of discovery is always there. Now settled again in the U.S. and leading BICWM, Jonathan’s personal encounter with violence and potential death gives him a particularly relevant vantage point from which to help to develop and then implement the new policy.

Previously, BICWM response to risky situations has been on a case-by-case basis. There were usually no substantial conversations about potential risks (beyond the normal health risks) before an individual, couple, or family went to their assignment. For example, Jonathan doesn’t recall any real conversation when he and his wife were preparing to go to Malawi the first time. There is a form that missionaries must sign detailing their and their families’ wishes “in the eventuality of death,” but that doesn’t on its own address other potential risky circumstances.

The new policy begins by noting that the “New Testament has much to say about danger, courage and risk in the lives of those who follow Jesus Christ and declare the gospel” and lists a number of beliefs based on biblical teaching. It recognizes that “this world can be a most unsettling place, with dangers of many kinds,” and names several principles, including (but not limited to):

  • We will provide assessments of countries and areas where we have ministry to allow prospective missionaries to consider their area of service wisely and prayerfully.
  • We will take action in a crisis incident to support the safety and welfare of our personnel.
  • We will not expect our personnel to remain in their location of service during a crisis. We allow them the freedom to leave at any time. The place of relocation will normally be decided in conversation with the team leader and the home office.
  • In the event that an evacuation is ordered, we expect our personnel to comply.
  • We expect our personnel to consider carefully how their actions may immediately or subsequently put their hosts in danger.

The policy also addresses the specific situation of hostage-taking and what BICWM will and will not do:

  • We will make a concerted effort to secure the safe release of hostages. However, we do not pay ransom.
  • We value the families of the hostages and recognize their interest in seeing their loved ones released.
  • We respect the governments of passport countries and host countries, and we recognize that these governments have an interest in the safe release of the hostages.
  • We value the expertise and experience of others who have been involved in hostage situations and will seek their advice and expertise in working through a hostage situation.

BICWM has also contracted with a faith-based security company to provide training to missions personnel. There are three levels of training: 1) all new workers take an A-level course online; 2) the BICWM crisis management team participated in a multi-day training; and 3) four staff members from BICWM have taken an intensive week-long training that involves role playing real-life situations of violence and hostage-taking. While not all groups that contract with this company would subscribe to the theology, core values, or principles of the Brethren in Christ (e.g., we won’t pay ransom and we believe in nonviolence), the company understands where we stand and prepared a customized manual for BICWM use.

The risk policy was written specifically for BICWM, but it also notes that some of the principles apply to the denomination as a whole and was endorsed by the Leadership Council. As Brethren in Christ individuals and congregations seek to respond to the ongoing risk of violence in our communities and churches, this policy can be a resource. How should we prepare ourselves to respond to a situation of violence, whether it happens in our home, our children’s school, or our church, so that “in all things we seek to honor God, boldly declare the gospel, and act with God-given wisdom in regard to danger and risk”?

This article was based on a conversation between Harriet Bicksler, Shalom! editor, and Jonathan Lloyd, director of Brethren in Christ World Missions. Reprinted from the Winter 2018 edition of Shalom!, a Brethren in Christ U.S. publication.