Missionaries Returning to Congo: Familiar Territory, New Role

CHICAGO, IL (March 10, 2010) – Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries are returning to work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are not going back in the pioneering role they once played – and that’s good for everybody.

That was the opinion of the missionaries who recently participated in two weeks of training as they prepare to return over the next several years to minister in the country where some had spent most of their lives.

The Congo Covenant Church (CEUM) has asked that missionaries come and work in partnership. Most Covenant missionaries left the country due to violence in 1996. Keith and Florence Gustafson went back between 2003-2005.

Missionaries who will return over the course of the next year are Pete and Cynthia Ekstrand, Tim and Helen Smith, Paul and Sheryl Noren, and Keith Gustafson. Marta Klein will move to Africa as a short-term physician assistant. The accompanying photo shows Keith Gustafson standing in front with others (from left) including Klein, Sheryl Noren, Paul Noren, Pete Ekstrand, Helen Smith, Cynthia Ekstrand, and Tim Smith.

The cram-packed training, which was conducted February 16 through March 1, included personality assessments and discussions about contextualization and team building. Although the missionaries had engaged in similar discussions as part of their ongoing ministry, it was important to hold the discussions as a team.

Before the missionaries left Congo, they tended to direct operations in a top-down relationship, they explained. This time they return as partners.

“My job is to come alongside them and encourage them and say ‘what do you think needs to be done and how can I help you with that?” says Paul Noren, who has been serving most recently in Cameroon.

“We’re going back much more as partners than we did before,” says Helen Smith, who has been serving in Equatorial Guinea.

“We don’t want to be in charge,” says Smith. “We don’t need to be in charge. We’re going now to a church that is stronger and has something to teach us.”

Smith says she and her husband look forward to returning to Congo. “God has just given us such fulfilling ministries wherever we’ve been, but Congo has a special place in our hearts. We never expected to be called back there.”

The recent training will help the missionaries return with the right approach. “The tendency would be to not see something with fresh eyes,” Smith says. “To see in the old ways would not be good. We need to go back as if it were the first time.”

Pete Ekstrand says it is important that the missionaries return. “Congo is a long-term relationship. To have missionaries there is to say we’re committed to each other.”

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