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International Associates

Summary: Navigators first called Missionary Associates and later became known as International Associates flourished throughout the 1980s. This designation served primarily to open a path for disciple-makers to serve cross-culturally without the requirements placed on International Trainees. Associates were not classified as staff. They secured employment in their professions and, usually, worked closely with our staff.


Early Successes in the 1970s
Lessons Learned of the First Decade
Coordinating Non-American Missionary Associates
Managing Program Finances
Program Survey and Statistics

Early Successes in the 1970s

Our missionary associates program was birthed at a US staff conference in Utah in December of 1976. Jack Mayhall provided the impetus by identifying two problems in placing missionaries overseas: the high cost compared with our limited finances and the difficulty in securing missionary visas. Therefore, we decided to recruit self-supporting missionaries qualified to obtain work visas.

How did missionary associates differ from the earlier and continuing program called international trainees? Missionary associates were usually self-supporting, while international trainees raised gift support. Missionary associates were on an indefinite time commitment overseas rather than a controlled two-or-three-year assignment. Some made a lifetime commitment. Missionary associates could be single or married, male or female, with no maximum age. Retirees were welcome. They were required to be disciple-makers.

The missionary associates’ role was later clarified as, “To provide people to help fulfill the Great Commission who are qualified disciple-makers and who are primarily self-supported through professional involvement.”

Bill Threlkeld, who had a heart for evangelizing the nations, was asked to lead the new program. As part of our pilot program, he welcomed a few candidates in the early months of 1977. John O’Hair was our first applicant, opting for Kenya in March. Gary Griffith was our first missionary associate arriving on station, reaching Malaysia in May.

Edition 1 of the Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry was distributed in November 1978. It mentioned that we would send “professional and non-professional” missionaries as one way of pursuing the Navigator Aim.1

We were on a steep learning curve, making up our procedures as we moved forward. Jack Mayhall helped our progress in a letter to all American staff in July. He wrote: “Each one of us will need to be sensitive to identify those who qualify in ministry skills, professional ability, and God’s calling—and to encourage them to apply to become missionary associates.” By October, Bill remarkably had received more than one hundred inquiries, with seventeen firm requests to be appointed. Clearly, there was a suppressed demand.

By the following May, the missionary associate committee that Bill had formed2 met for the first time: They were charged with considering and selecting individuals as well as offering general counsel concerning the program’s development. They recognized that many missionary associates would probably be based in isolated situations, because of their employment, and would need some pastoral care. The committee met frequently because of the volume of applicants and the need for careful decisions.

The program was an immediate success, as a selection of comments in1980 from our field leaders illustrates.

  • “This missionary associate program has been a very great blessing in Nigeria. . . . These missionary associates are really the backbone of our ministry. . . . You can send us as many more fellows like these as you can lay your hands on” (Mike Treneer).
  • “Amy is such a winner! Kenya will take ten more like her next week if you can send them” (Bruce van Wyk).
  • “We will take in Japan all the missionary associates you can send” (Bob Boardman).
  • “In Africa, we have twenty-two missionary associates on station in sixteen countries, with fifty-four others searching for employment. By God’s grace none have had to return to the US. Instead, God has abundantly blessed the lives and ministries of these people” (Mike Treneer).

Around 1980, Threlkeld was advocating the use of missionary associates to add momentum to our US ministries3 among what we then called minorities. This had a mixed reception. However, he cited the success of Bill and Donna Cheney in an assignment to Navajo Indians on their reservation and in Flagstaff. Larry Blake was their supportive supervisor. This made all the difference. Threlkeld said that missionary associates could help establish ethnic ministries if they had the freedom to be creative without pressure to conform to norms of staff accountability.

Lessons Learned during the First Decade

In 1981, Jim Petersen presented two case studies on missionary associates in Latin America. Both couples were well able to minister as associates but, in the latter case, the receiving context changed radically. As Petersen wrote, “The first illustration is a success story. The second isn’t. Yet there were positive and negative factors in both. Lessons drawn included:

  • What an associate is can be as important as what he does, as he models the marriage of career, family, and ministry.
  • Associates should not depend on people outside the sphere of the Navigator work. This leads to division between two sets of plans and an inability to influence the fate of their contributions.
  • Conditions must be right for an associate to be effective. They should not be placed alone in a city and expected to initiate a ministry; rather, they can serve as part of something already in motion.
  • It takes as much time and attention to supervise a missionary associate couple as it does an area Rep couple. They need the same orientation, encouragement, and direction. They can quickly cost more than they contribute.
  • Missionary associates often enjoy an acceptance among nationals in politically hostile countries. They are perceived as making an immediate material contribution to the welfare of the country.

Petersen concluded that “the great majority of our experiences with missionary associates have been very positive. They have made many vital contributions and have enhanced and encouraged our teams in many places.”4

Coordinating Non-American Missionary Associates

In 1982, the committee discussed the emergence of non-American missionary associates. They agreed that the sending country leaders should approve them for service and have flexibility to evaluate them. However, they decided that Threlkeld should receive information needed to help these missionary associates find jobs, and to help receiving staff transition them into ministry.5

Africa Director Mike Treneer wrote in 1983 that

Missionary associates can make their greatest contribution in helping us to take the work into new countries. This is because increasing the number of missionary associates in our existing ministries tends to take up time from Reps who get involved with supervising them, and also creates a more missionary-oriented ministry, rather than a national one. However, missionary associates who are willing to cope with the loneliness of outposts . . . can make a tremendous contribution in the way they did for us in Nigeria.6

During the same year, in discussion with Jack Mayhall, we agreed to have two types of missionary associates: those who were self-supporting and those who raised gift income through The Navigators.7 This distinction resulted from a conversation between Jerry Bridges and Bruce van Wyk, who was speaking out of his experience in Kenya. Bruce explained, “Because some African governments are so bankrupt, it is virtually impossible for people to get jobs where they will be salaried on the field. The three missionary associate couples in Kenya are teaching at a missionary school, which cuts down on their contact with the Kenyan people. Jobs are available and easy to get if the missionary associates come with their money; but if they need to be paid, it is impossible to find employment. . . . [A salary of] $1,000 a month would be sufficient to take care of a couple in Kenya and a single person would need $500 to $700.” Bridges responded by asking why these people should not be sent out as support staff or international trainees, and thus carry insurance and other staff benefits.8

According to Threlkeld, the time of greatest prosperity in the missionary associate program was 1983-1987 when he teamed with Fred Server. Server assumed full administrative responsibilities, thus freeing Threlkeld to concentrate on recruiting. In September 1989, David R. soon became acting director, due to Threlkeld’s illness. David served as director until 1992.9

In 1984, Threlkeld had written a missionary associate mission statement. It listed five strategic opportunities that the program could meet, and it identified eleven objectives.

Managing Program Finances

The missionary associate program was never able to adequately fund Threlkeld and his administrative assistant Fred Server.10 Mayhall suggested in 1983 that returning missionary associates with a surplus should transfer those funds to the program rather than to individuals. In 1984, Scott Morton offered various fundraising suggestions.

By the end of 1985, the financial situation was becoming serious. Mayhall, then US director, had presented the budgeted shortfall to the US finance committee. Steve Prensner recommended that Threlkeld and Server should raise their financial support by August 1986. He asked Mayhall to work with Rod Sargent to organize a fundraising banquet as an interim solution. He added that lack of progress would lead to a new director who should be “an aggressive fundraiser.” Threlkeld was aware of this view, which undermined his confidence in some leaders.

Donald McGilchrist wrote to Terry Taylor in May 1986 to emphasize that “Bill Threlkeld has a reputation outside The Navigators as an expert in the field of tentmakers. He is a precious resource.” Even if a new director were selected, he said, Threlkeld should help develop a structured program. The committee was looking for a sense of direction and a solid transition.11

Program Survey and Statistics

Bill Threlkeld had to take disability status at the end of the 1980s, which prompted him to write a summary of the program’s progress as of 1989.”12 “We have sent around 310 missionary associates to approximately fifty countries over the last ten years. . . . We currently have 175 on station.” These comprised sixty couples and fifty-five singles serving in forty-one countries. They were not considered staff, but they were expected to be full-fledged members of the Nav team on the field. Ideally, their employment overseas would serve four primary purposes:

  • To earn a living (be self-supporting)
  • To make a social contribution to the people of the host country
  • To serve as a base of contact for making disciples
  • To relate to Christian churches and communities

From the beginning of the program in 1977 to September 1992, 325 people had served or were serving as associates, of whom 258 (79 percent) were Americans sent outside the US. (See link to table below.)

Table 1: American Missionary Associates Outside the US, 1977-199213

Americans had served in fifty-two countries outside the US with the most serving in Japan (thirty-nine units).

Marvin Smith distilled a survey14 of missionary associates. It shows that 37 percent joined the program on their own initiative; 26 percent were recruited on the initiative of the receiving countries; and 15 percent on the initiative of the missionary associate department. The largest occupation on the field was teacher, accounting for 62 percent of the missionary associates.

After Bill Threlkeld’s departure, the program subsided rapidly. The number of missionary associates fell from 177 in 1990 to 142 in 1991, and to ninety-one in 1992. From the ministry year 1991-1992 onward, these laborers were called international associates15 to avoid offense in sensitive countries.

In Smith’s comprehensive16 paper, written when the associate program was winding down fast, he summarizes his conclusions as follows:

The program provided opportunities for Navigator laborers to utilize their professional credentials to minister. . . . (It) pioneered the concept of bi-vocational missionary, although a few individuals17 had taken this route before the program began.

  • It made a missionary role more inclusive, encouraging and extending opportunities for service to many who would formerly have been excluded.
  • It provided missionary experience that later led many to longer service as Nav staff or with other agencies.
  • It demonstrated cost-effectiveness. The average donor support was a small proportion of the amount needed to send a traditional missionary family.
  • It enabled resident visas to be legitimately obtained in places where they would have been denied to traditional missionaries.
  • It provided local young believers with a missionary “model” of the vision to be lay disciple-makers in a career job.
  • It was never fully integrated into the Nav organization. Many missionary associates were seen as “step children” in relation to our staff team.
  • It was not universally accepted by our leaders around the world. In fact, it frequently was seen as primarily a US initiative, not always responsive to the needs of receiving leaders.
  • US organizational backing, at times, was inadequate for the scope of the program.
  • The vision and mission of the program were not critically evaluated at regular intervals by international leaders.
  • Many who had a heart to be involved with Nav missions were disappointed by the lack of involvement with local Navigators while on the field.

In light of these contributions and limitations, Marvin Smith offered twenty-eight recommendations to strengthen the program.

Nevertheless, the decline of the international associates program continued. By 1997, there were only thirty associates on the field. By 2008, only ten associates remained on the field. Of them, all but two were in the Middle East and North Africa. The majority were Americans and Lebanese.18

By Donald McGilchrist
2263 words

 See also articles on:
International Trainees
Missionary Specialists
Travel-Training Ministries
Workplace Ministries
Navigator Enterprises
Fundamentals of Nav Missions
Cross-Cultural Missions


  1. FOM 1, p. 60. In this context, it is probable that “professional” was being used to mean fully supported by gift income. To today’s ears, this could be confusing.
  2. Donald McGilchrist and Jim White. By 1981, Sanchez and Bridges had joined the committee and White had moved off. Glenn Yeager handled administration from September 1979, succeeded by Keith Luers who was invaluable during 1981-1983 in keeping track of our missionary associates and improving the program. Also in 1981, the committee approved cash needs to be raised and receipted by successful candidates. Marv Smith joined the committee in 1985. Threlkeld had to go on permanent disability in the late 1980s.
  3. The following opportunities were explored again in Threlkeld’s September 1985 paper for Mayhall.
  4. Petersen presentation to consultation on special groups, March 1982, Penang, Malaysia.
  5. Notes of missionary associate committee on January 21, 1982.
  6. Letter: Treneer to Sanchez of August 8, 1983.
  7. Threlkeld to his committee, March 11, 1983.
  8. Bridges to missionary associate committee, September 10, 1982. If a person worked for The Navigators for twenty hours a week, they had to join our retirement program.
  9. “A Comprehensive Review of The Navigators Missionary Associates Program 1977-1992,” Marvin Smith, August 1993, p. 2.
  10. Prior assistants were Ron Arndt and then Keith Luers.
  11. McGilchrist to Taylor of May 8, 1986.
  12. Letter to Warren Myers of November 13, 1989.
  13. Smith loc cit, p. 5.
  14. This survey went to all former and current American associates. We received 111 responses.
  15. Source: Worldwide staff lists. In 1980, George Sanchez promoted the term international laborer, though it did not find favor among our leaders. See Sanchez to Sparks of December 19, 1980.
  16. Thirty-three pages plus appendices.
  17. Nancy McRae to New Zealand in 1969; Diane Nelson to Australia in 1969; Bob and Mary Taussig to Nigeria in 1972; John and Nancy Deckinga to Bolivia in 1975.
  18. Source: December 2008 staff census.
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