By Colleen Schleh
Terrified of even the smallest spider, I was distressed when John told me he’d caught it walking across our dining room floor. I immediately gave John an ultimatum: “Either the tarantula sleeps outside or I do!”
Grinning, John asked, “Where do you want your bed?”
I won that round, but as I observed its life cycle over the next few months, John’s fuzzy new “friend” gave me some insight into the situation our teammates and national church colleagues are facing on the Dominican field.
In February 2011 the team of international workers (IWs) serving in the Dominican Republic (DR) and U.S. International Ministries came to the mutual decision to begin the five- to seven-year process of transitioning IWs out of that field. The Punta Cana church-planting project could take an additional one to two years.
Understandably, this decision brought mixed emotions to the national church and the IW team: excitement over the growth of the evangelical church and the Dominican Alliance as well as sadness at the thought of leaving the country and people we love. In the 18 years that our family has served in the DR, the evangelical church has grown from a weak 3 percent of the population—concentrated in the country’s economically challenged classes—to a healthy 15 percent, with a solid representation among the professional class.
Teamwork and Training
When we arrived in 1995, Alliance missionaries taught most of the Theological Education by Extension (TEE) classes, led the Christian Education Department and taught in the Bible institute. The majority of the pastors were not ordained, and many had never received even basic theological instruction. Missions meant evangelizing within the country’s borders.
Today, Dominicans teach both the TEE classes and many Bible institute classes, such as preaching, missions, theology, Christian education and C&MA history. Dominicans oversee the education, missions, Marriage Encounter and College of Prayer programs. The vision to reach the lost now includes DR’s less-reached professional class, and young adults are sensing God’s call to become involved in world missions. In April 2012, the first two Dominican students graduated from the Alliance theological MA program, FATELA, and 10 more are enrolled.
As we move toward transition, this numerical and spiritual growth, coupled with strong Dominican leaders, is changing the role of the IW. In many areas of ministry, the proverbial baton has already been passed, and our team provides support and further training opportunities rather than outright leadership.
These changes have not always been easy. Some leadership transitions from the IW team to the national church were not planned to occur when they took place. A near-fatal car accident in 1995 involving two IW couples and the reduction of our IW team to five members forced the Dominican Alliance to assume leadership roles unexpectedly. Despite the best laid plans, some transitions left both young ministries and dedicated Christians vulnerable. I began to realize that the slow, careful and sometimes painful transition process is like the life cycle of the DR’s most feared but relatively harmless creature—which my husband was keeping as a pet.
Over the months, John’s tarantula grew, bulking up on stray lizards and insects found in our house. But when it was about a year old, it became lethargic, developed bald spots and would not eat or drink.
“I think the tarantula is dying,” John said.
I tried to put on my best “I’m so sorry” face but inside I was thinking, Oh, thank you, Jesus!
A couple of weeks later, John approached me with a hairy, long-legged form sitting on his hand. After recovering from my blood-curdling scream, he explained that the tarantula had molted and what he was holding was its old “skin” (actually, its exoskeleton). Its new covering was extremely soft, tender and sensitive, and the spider had to be protected from even the smallest insects. Amazingly, within a week the tarantula sported a hardened shell and was eating voraciously again. It had not only survived the stressful molting process, which can last from 15 minutes to several hours, but was thriving.
Through this creature’s natural process, which He had designed, God showed me something about the transition of ministries between the IW team and the DR national church. Despite the best preparation and training efforts, an IW’s home assignment can leave a national leader or team with expectations to “mimic the missionary.” Dedicated and godly leaders in “new skins” find themselves open to criticism and comparison, when actually the newly assigned national leaders may be doing a much better job than the missionaries! A cricket can take advantage of a tarantula’s tenderness after molting and kill its gigantic enemy. In the same way Satan takes advantage of vulnerable ministry transitions, “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) through dissention or discouragement.
Transition reminds us of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:5–9).
Since the late 19th century, Latin American and U.S. international workers have ministered alongside dedicated Dominican men and women to reach people for Jesus Christ. We give God all of the glory for what has been accomplished for the Kingdom, and we count it a privilege to have been selected to serve on this beautiful island and with those who have often been called “the friendliest people on earth.”
As we work toward conclusion, I echo the words of Mary Slessor, the late Scottish missionary to Nigeria: “God has called me to preach the gospel and He will look after the results.” The Alliance team has been faithful, and we know that Jesus cares about the lost and the work even more than we do. He will look after the results!