November 14, 2012

Letter to
 a Missionary

Dear Missionary Family,

It has been a few days since we last prayed together and said goodbye. Before you know it, you will be at your assigned post as a missionary dentist. I can’t stop thinking about you and the adventure you’re going to enjoy, the challenges you’ll face, and the joys and sorrows you’re likely to experience. I hope you don’t mind a letter from a veteran international missionary and a slightly envious friend. I think with nostalgia of my family’s mission service—all that we learned, experienced, and enjoyed. I’m sure you will always remember with appreciation what God has arranged for you. Please humor me as I give you a few bits of counsel that I hope will make the next five years a little more beneficial and joyful.

The old adage is that missionaries need three things: flexibility, flexibility, and more flexibility. It’s true that often your best strategy will be to adjust to the unexpected in your adopted culture, to the complicated logistics of a new country, and to the surprising ways your new friends and associates think about things. These differences will be frustrating and may even temporarily decrease the effectiveness of your work, but they also will provide you with a patience that you never thought possible as well as new perspectives on God, other people, and the world in which we live. These will enrich your life, expand your horizons, and give you a tolerance and appreciation for the variety in our world that will last throughout your lifetime.

Identify as quickly as you can the features of your adopted culture that are superior; there will be several. Embrace them, incorporating them permanently into your personal and family culture. This will enrich your life, make it possible for you to better appreciate your adopted home, and allow you to work on equal footing with those around you.

2012 1532 page24Also remember that you’re a minister. Of course you will care for your patients’ oral health; your technical preparation has been excellent. Remember, however, that your education at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry has included the expectation that you will work to treat the whole person. At every appointment you will influence your patient spiritually. There is no option; it is a given. You can decide only the nature of your influence. Each patient you see will have his or her own burdens to bear. Some will have heartaches, addictions, brutal memories, family problems, poverty, ignorance, health problems, and/or a host of other symptoms of sin. It’s your challenge to be aware—to perceive and address these problems. Your treatment of these injured people, your attention to their spiritual needs, and your agape love for them may be more beneficial than the physical healing you provide them. Don’t forget that each patient is a cherished child of God and that His love can be expressed to some people only through His servants. It’s possible that you’ll be the one person in the world who is best positioned to introduce some of your patients to God. This is a wonderful privilege and an awesome responsibility.

You may now be thinking that I have loaded too much responsibility on the shoulders of a dentist who, after all, is not a trained pastor, chaplain, or counselor. Notice, however, that I suggested you must address these problems, not that you must solve them. If, as a dentist, you learn your patient has an untreated heart condition, you have no professional option but to address it. You’re not responsible to treat the heart condition, but you must care about the person, communicate about the problem, and refer them to a medical professional who can help. Similarly, as a caring Christian, you cannot ignore spiritual problems, but you must know to whom you can dependably refer people with spiritual maladies. Your referral list should include doctors, counselors, priests, rabbis, and a whole host of others. The pastors of the Adventist church there are your special team members. Please get to know them well, expect them to be available to minister to your patients, and be sure that you are available to work with them. Ellen White has written that health is the right arm of the gospel. When you read the account of Jesus’ ministry, you can see this reality portrayed. He healed constantly, and His healing—motivated purely by His love of people—was a perfect complement to His communication about His Father. Just as your right and left arms work together to seamlessly, automatically, and effectively accomplish tasks, you should work with the pastors of the church to demonstrate God’s concern and care for His children.

And finally, take care of yourself. On your flight to your adopted country you will be told, “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling,” and that you must put on your own mask first before helping those around you. This principle is not only logical but biblical. Although acts of self-sacrifice are needed, you must be healthy and strong to do what God expects. Follow Jesus’ example by taking time for Bible study, prayer, and contemplation. Also reserve time for introspection, recreation, and family togetherness. Your family is your most important mission field, and you must ensure that your marriage is strong and your family is cared for before you can be the most effective in your dental ministry.

Likewise, you must care for your practice and your profession. In some parts of the world, church leaders have considered dental clinics to be little more than a source of cash, and some clinics have been destroyed because all resources were drained, starving the business and depleting professional effectiveness. Educate those around you and resist this. Your practice must have modern equipment, current materials, and cutting-edge techniques. Anything less misrepresents our mission and our God. Likewise, be sure that you invest adequate time and money into your own professional development, knowledge, and skill. Take care of the staff members on your dental team, and be sure that while they are held accountable, they are also secure, well trained, and respected.

Now that I have given this advice, I would like to remind you that while your mission service represents a sacrifice on your part, many Adventist donors have also sacrificed to make it possible, and thousands of us pray for you every day. I would also like to reassure you that what you and your family are doing is important, is meaningful, and will be a blessing to those you serve and also to yourself. Your actions will further the kingdom of God, and He will ensure success. Success—to the Christian—is found not in mere numerical results, but in faithfulness. Be faithful, wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

Please let me know if I can help.

Doyle Nick

Doyle Nick, D.D.S., M.S., is associate director of Dental Affairs for the General Conference Health Ministries Department. This article was published November 15, 2012.