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International Trainees

Summary: This article describes the early phases of short-term Navigator missions, beginning in 1962. Young short-term missionaries, usually single men and women, were first called “staff trainees” and later called “international trainees.” The article also documents what leaders saw as the benefits of the program for our cross-cultural work.

IT Program Benefits
New Terminology: Laborers, Specialists, Associates


The Navigators launched a program of younger missionaries first called “staff trainees” and later called “international trainees” (ITs) in support of our Reps in 1962. Americans Lyle Irvin, Charlie Johnston, and Bob Trautman were the first to reach their countries, in 1966: Irvin to Korea and the others to the Philippines. An IT was defined as a single disciple-maker (male or female) who was sent to another country for a short-term assignment.1 The first US woman IT was Marion Risdahl in 1973.

The benefits of placing ITs overseas were briefly listed by the Divisional Directors (DD) in 1970.2 Thus:

  • Bridge the cultural gap
  • Bridge the generation gap
  • Speed up grassroots Stage 1 ministry
  • Promote the international flavor of our work
  • Provide good training for the ITs
  • Give both parties a chance to observe whether the trainees should serve permanently in that country

These advantages are drawn from a list in a paper presented to divisional directors in May 1970, which explored the concept and also identified several potential problems. From a US sending perspective, these included:

  • Will this create frustrations in trainees desiring to return overseas as missionaries but being assigned to stateside contact points with a limited chance to get back overseas?
  • Will this delay the trainee from becoming a Navigator Rep and cause those who do go overseas to arrive at an age when learning a language and ultimately working with students is rapidly going against them?
  • Will the pulling out of potential Reps to go overseas leave too great a gap in a growing US work?
  • Will trainees receive better training by remaining in the US?
  • Will this practice make us even more staff and organization centered, thus increasing the problems which already exist from this?

The paper suggested that the length of term for a trainee should be “one to two years, depending on the culture. However, if a relatively easy language is involved, two to three years would make the contribution more significant. If it is required to learn a difficult language, it is best not to think of a trainee unless he could be permanently assigned to the area after a furlough. In this case, he should already be married or engaged, as there are problems with long-range single men overseas.”3

The “Dear Staff Letter” that Lorne Sanny sent out in October 1970 was accompanied by an excellent paper on “The Role of Short-Term Personnel in Missionary Service” by Wilbert Shenk. Because it stimulated our program and because using short-termers was much on Lorne’s heart, it is attached to this article.

A few months earlier, Lorne had written to our staff that, “It seems likely that we will be increasing the number of staff trainees overseas. Younger in age than most representatives, they can help bridge the generation gap. As single men, they can more easily accommodate themselves to new living conditions and help to bridge the cultural gap. Some of the staff trainees reside in dorms and attend school with those to whom they minister, becoming a vital link between the national contact and the foreign representative.”4

It was not until 1970 that ITs were sent to countries outside Asia.

At the start of 1971, Bob Hopkins produced an extensive paper5 on the preparation and scope of the work of staff trainees. Expectations were gradually rising, so that the word “staff” was dropped and we began to call them international trainees.

Some countries were expecting potential contact staff: this was to be resisted. Extensive debate on the program took place during the October 1974 International Strategy Conference. The discussion turned to how ITs should be selected: we must insist on disciple-makers and, if the language had to be acquired, three years on the field. The directors split as to whether ITs should be recruited bilaterally (country to country) or whether some priority system should be devised: Our decision was not to weigh down recruitment with such a system.

ITs should receive orientation/training before and/or after moving to another culture, but the shape of such training was not defined. There was a sense that the flow of ITs should not be centrally controlled, but should be monitored. The ambiguity of the discussion reflected in part that we had reached a stage in which we would need to attend to both our global strategy and our emerging national strategies. However, it was agreed that ITs should return to their sending country at the end of their assignments: later, if appropriate, they could be sent out as missionary Reps.

Sanny summarized: must be disciple-makers; supply and demand basis; minimize administration; ensure IT has finances before starting assignment.6

IT Program Benefits

In the first decade of the program, as regards Americans, fifty-five male ITs were sent and thirty-eight had returned. Half of those sent came from the Midwest Region. Leading receiving countries were Japan, Philippines, Germany. There were also thirty female ITs of whom eighteen had returned.7

By the early 1980s, ITs accounted for 34 percent of our American missionary force but only 13 percent of our American missionary budget. The “casualty rate” among ITs was very low. Many came home to serve as contact staff and later found their way back overseas as Reps.8 Demand continued to be for many more than we could supply.

The program became a little more elastic over time. For example, we had in service in 1982 four married ITs and four ITs who had returned to their target country for a second spell after a brief US furlough. In the 1980s, we no longer required ITs to have training objectives from his or her sending supervisor.9

We learned that it was often advisable to try to send ITs out in pairs, especially to younger ministries, for mutual encouragement and protection.

Some of the principal benefits of the program were:

1. For the receiving country

  • To provide a grassroots stimulus in evangelizing and establishing new believers
  • To act as a “model” Navigator who would often be closer to the level of emerging local Christians than would our permanent missionary Reps

2. For the IT:

  • To enlarge and clarify his or her vision for a lost world
  • To expose him or her to a second language/culture, which would test whether he or she was gifted and called for a long-term missionary assignment
  • To teach him or her lessons in faith and dependence upon God, by stretching and maturing him or her in situations where he or she needed to think about principles rather than methods, and to exercise creativity

3. For the sending country:

  • To provide a missionary flavor and a sending focus for the local ministry from which the IT came
  • To provide opportunity for those in the local ministry to start praying and giving to foreign missions

4. General:

  • ITs were much less expensive than long-term Representatives
  • ITs were usually single and young, and thus more flexible and adaptable than most Representatives
  • Because the IT returns home, we do not permanently superimpose layers of foreign leadership on the receiving ministries

ITs were heavily recruited to work with our Travel Training Ministry (TTM) based in Vienna into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. They were so crucial in these ministries that it was customary for them to stay for three years. They were often the first travelers to assess opportunities and begin ministries in Central Europe. Our TTM leaders had an excellent progressive program for strengthening and supporting ITs during their years of service, usually from our base in Vienna.10

ITs were in fact ideally suited for our clandestine work in Central Europe—and the sense of adventure appealed to young American disciple-makers. And there was some aggressive recruiting! Thus, we find in the early 1980s a unique “pull” to assignments behind the Iron Curtain. During 1983, 63 percent of the nineteen requests from EER were filled, but only 36 percent of the fifty-eight requests from other countries were filled.11

The productivity of these young men and women as disciple-makers and their excellent cost-result ratios greatly helped our ministries, especially in the developing world.

Three papers on the philosophy of ITs were included in the COSG discussions of March 1982, which confirms the vitality of the program.12

The number of ITs on the field had risen from thirty-one in 1974 to eighty in 1981.

The success of the program generated some emotional heat. For example, during a discussion by our International Leadership Team in 1980, some receivers argued that we should be sending far more ITs and some senders thought that we should impose strategic priorities before working to increase the flow of ITs. This led to a proposal from George Sanchez and his team.

New Terminology: Laborers, Specialists, Associates

George Sanchez became our International Missions Director in December 1980 and one of the first issues that he surfaced was the need for surgery on our IT Program. He held the view that ITs were being held back by senders because of rising standards which were, as it happened, implied in their title “trainees.” Trained for what? Presumably, upon their return home, to become staff.

He therefore proposed a new category of International Laborer,13 believing that there were probably quite a few capable laborers not under consideration for a staff position in the future but very desirous of going out for a two-year assignment to assist and contribute to an international ministry. The requisites for an IL would be slightly less demanding than those for an IT. This, Sanchez believed, would expedite the flow of short-term people from the US, especially to needy receiving countries.

It was suggested, in the absence of solid research, that reasons why the US leaders were holding back might also be that ITs were becoming more expensive and that too many were going to countries of low priority.14 Sanchez, in his July 1981 proposal to the International Executive Team, had suggested that receiving supervisors should separate their requests into three categories to help senders. However, doing this as an experimental exercise yielded twenty-three category A and sixty-four category B.

Incidentally, ITs had been sent out to the field with training objectives (hence the term international trainee) until this requirement had lapsed in the late 1970s. It had been designed to protect ITs from being misused merely as “gophers.”

The category of International Laborers did not take hold. Instead, we adopted the name International Specialist15 for those who were staff and thus allowed to receive Navigator income. By 1988, we had thirty-five such specialists,16 and the number of ITs had fallen to forty-four.

This new category of International Specialist (IS) would be especially useful in restricted access countries. The US Navs proposed17 that they enjoy the rights and responsibilities that Nav staff possess, including the raising of gift income if their overseas employment did not cover their costs. Their terms of service would be agreed in advance.

Recommended and sponsored by their sending countries, they would nevertheless not have to pass through our complex process for allocations. Some, we realized would decline the offer of staff services, for reasons of security. We foresaw that the demand for such specialists would be limited but locally acute. Upon their return home, we would have no continuing obligation to them.

Meanwhile, a “crossover” from IT to International Associates was under way as we entered more challenging countries. In 1980, for example, we sent out nineteen ITs and seventeen IAs.18

In fact, the International Associate program was very much welcomed (see article titled “International Associates”). However, with the loss of Threlkeld and new initiatives such as The CoMission in the 1990s and the Edge Corps in the 2000s, this also declined. By 2008, we only had 12 residual International Associates.19

By Donald McGilchrist

2998 words

See also articles on:
International Associates
Workplace Ministries
Fundamentals of Navigator Missions
Cross-Cultural Missions


  1. Concept paper of January 1975 from which the listed benefits have also been selected. Revised in January 1982.
  2. “We affirm or desire to send as many staff trainees to a foreign culture as possible,” and listed benefits. Another advantage was that it was far less expensive than a family (May 21, 1970).
  3. Taken from page 6 from the “Staff Training” paper presented to the divisional directors in May 1970. One can detect that, while the use of such trainees was agreed to be beneficial, there was a careful delineation of sending and receiving responsibilities. The paper also allowed for trainees from other countries to be sent to the USA.
  4. DS Letter, 1970-11.
  5. Staff Trainees, Hopkins January 1971, ten pages for May 1971 DDC.
  6. October 1974 ISC Minute 7.4 – 7.8 and Appendix A.
  7. Source: Hopkins’ analysis by year and by name.
  8. McGilchrist to Rhodes, July 7, 1981.
  9. McGilchrist to Hoo, November 30, 1982.
  10. Source: December 1981 Vienna IT Program, by semester (Fischer et al).
  11. Annual Summary of Filled Slots, Hopkins October 1983.
  12. Papers by Fischer, Petersen, Stanley. Papers sixteen for Consultation on Special Groups in Penang, March 1982. Don N. confirms that ITs were most valuable during the clandestine period in Romania, because they could enroll at university and carry forward campus ministries.
  13. International Laborer Concept, Sanchez paper of September 3, 1981. The term “laborer” nicely aligned with our international Aim.
  14. McGilchrist Response of September 8, 1981. Ronka also observed that having both ITs and ILs would complicate our administration and stimulate “status” rivalry: also, sending supervisors should have a grasp of those whom they intended to recruit to staff careers upon their return.
  15. Such International Specialists had, as their name implied, quite specific professional skills that were suited to particular countries. Therefore, this program never became large.
  16. During the 1980s, we realized that “missionaries” were viewed with increasing suspicion, so we changed to the neutral term “international.”
  17. International Specialists. Approved by USLT and by IET in November 1984.
  18. McGilchrist to Sparks of November 7, 1980.
  19. It should be remembered that IAs were never counted as active staff.

The Role of Short-Term Personnel in Missionary Service

“Dear Staff” Letter October 26, 1970 – 11
Summary of “The Role of Short-Term Personnel in Missionary Service” by Wilbert Shenk Occasional Bulletin from the Missionary Research Library
May-June 1970, Vol. XXI, No. 5/ 6

1. Greater need for orientation, because short-termers are generally
younger, must be weighed against shorter service time.
2. Less should be expected of short-termers and therefore productivity
will likely be lower.
3. Because of immaturity and the temporary nature of the assignment
more structuring is required to avoid frustration. If properly structured
the short-termer can move in quickly, identify the role and carry out
the task.
4. May feel he can enter early into administrative problems but has less
than adequate background. He may have some 11theory” but lacks
experience to properly evaluate the situation. He may tend to be
5. Mixing short-termers with long-termers may develop the opportunity
for tension. The short-termer may feel he is second-class because he
is largely left out of the decision-making process.
6. Motivation may be more selfish – more concerned with what he can get
out of it than what he can contribute.
7. Adding a short-term program is certainly no panacea for changing the
image of missions.


1. Mobility and adaptability – geographically, socially and economically.
Being single often facilitates adaptation.
2. Inquiring mind. He is freer of old hangups and the history that goes with
long experience. Easier to experiment, make mistakes, etc.
3. Much more aware of the world rather than ingrown in outlook.
4. Idealism. Reared in affluence and aware of economic power, he may
have a certain self-confidence and sureness that he can change the
world quickly through manipulations of structures and programs. His
idealism must be harnessed and channeled.
5.“Deprofessionalized” witness. He is not looked on as a paid, professional
religious propagandist.

Relation of long-term to short-term:

1. Contrast in average age. Because short-termer is usually single and younger a kind of “generation gap” can develop.
2. Someone has to provide stability and continuity. The worthy supervisory leader will be of a generous spirit, have a sense humor and enthusiasm which inspires the short-termer.
3. Long-term people can be unrealistic in their expectations and demands of a short-termer. They can overload him so that he soon becomes frustrated and disillusioned because he feels “used.”
4. Significant differences in expectations and goals between these groups may erupt into frustration for both. The long-termer is probably more committed to the building of the church in another culture. The short-termer is possibly more interested in social and political concerns.

Other considerations:

1. Short-termer is no financial bargain. (*Except that short-termers are usually single while long-termers are usually married and have families.)
2. Bringing short-term people in may tend to bring a kind of structural rigidity into the program because they function best in a structured situation.
3. The proportion of short-term to long-term personnel can definitely influence the character and direction of a particular program.
4. Short-term programs have a glamour about them that the long-term programs do not have. It enhances one’s record to spend a few years abroad. (Because of the uncertainty of our times, many young people are not prepared to think in terms of a long-term commitment.)
5. Short-term assignments ought to be designed so they become a kind of internship or preparatory stage for future service.
6. A few new strategies have developed – e.g. the self-supporting missionary overseas (our nurses in Beir).

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