Short-term visas, labour shortages and the reality of short-term missions

The boss at Lidl – Christian Härtnagel – has said short-term visas will not resolve labour shortages. The Times report:

The boss of Lidl has warned that short-term visas won’t solve labour shortages in the food industry as the German discounter said it is working “harder than ever before” to keep shelves stocked.

Christian Härtnagel, chief executive of the German discounter’s UK business, said there were labour shortages “in every corner you look at the moment”. The supermarket chain is raising wages for its lowest-paid workers, from £9.50 to £10.10 an hour outside London and from £10.85 to £11.30 in the capital from March 2022, as it battles with rivals to recruit staff.

Härtnagel, 39, said that only a long-term visa policy would resolve Britain’s labour shortages as the economy transitions post-Brexit. “Economies are recovering across the globe. Why would someone give up a job that they have already to come over and they only have six months and then they are running out of the visa?”

Now, whether the solution to this problem is to raise pay and encourage British workers to take up permanent roles, to offer long-term visas for foreign workers, or some combination of the two is one question that others may want to answer. But what is clear, so far as shortages go, is that short-term visas, short-term solutions in general, just aren’t that helpful.

I was set to thinking about our approach to mission. In much the same way as the boss of Lidl, I don’t think short-term thinking in mission are very helpful or credible solutions in general. Just as there are labour shortages in certain business sectors, there is a labour shortage in gospel work too. Whether there are solutions to be found in providing pathways into particular areas of ministry that we currently find hard to send people into, or we need a rethink of training options or perhaps thinking about questions of resourcing and directing people, what is clear is that short-term solutions are generally not that helpful.

I was grateful to be contacted by somebody running some short-term mission work asking how they could best serve churches in areas like mine. The truth is, however, short-term missions simply do not work here. The ministry relies on relationships. In our experience, short-term missions create a lot of work for the church and have little to no lasting gospel impact. Similarly, workers coming for particularly short period of time will also create a lot of work for the church – as we scrabble around trying to find things for them to do that probably create a false impression of what normal church life is like at any rate – while having very little gospel impact. The work here relies on continuous, ongoing relationship. Whilst there are some things we do that help us to get into those relationships and give us some gospel content to help fire our discussions outside of formal meetings, the reality is that most of it is slow burn, long-term work that relies upon getting to know people and walking with them over the long haul.

Short-term solutions generally are not helpful. We could, of course, run a mission week. We could even run a mission month. We could have all sorts of events and invite a well-known speaker. We could probably even pull in a few people and get some big numbers to some things. But when all the pizzazz is over, when the big meetings stop and the mission week ends, we will find a lot of tired people, who have put in a huge amount of effort, and find little lasting fruit from it. People coming into the town and doing the next big thing happens all the time. Rarely is there any lasting fruit that comes from it.

This isn’t just true of people coming into the town, it is true of our church too. Our best work isn’t done in the big, high profile things. I can stick up pictures of our dialogue evening, with dozens of Muslims in the room, and people will fawn over our great work. But the truth is, those meetings are just a means of getting into conversation with our Muslim neighbours. The real work isn’t done from the front – though that is required to get people into the room with us – it is done in the conversations afterwards. And those conversations afterwards aren’t really the heart of the work, they are just the means of trying to build up relationships that can carry on entirely apart from that meeting altogether. The real work is done when there is nothing to take pictures of and there are only two people talking together, privately, without anything much to see.

But inbetween the big meeting, and those ongoing conversations, there is a lot of sitting on our hands. There is a lot of pushing doors that don’t really lead anywhere. There is a lot of ordinary, uninteresting, bog-standard, talking to people who frequently don’t really listen to what we’re saying. We can be in relationships with people for ages that just don’t seem to go anywhere. And they’ll keep coming back to the big meetings, and starting conversations again, and agreeing to meet with us outside those meetings. We rinse and repeat. And sometimes, over a long while, we see might some fruit.

But we rarely see that over the short-term. The big noise of a mission week achieves very little. An intern here for two weeks won’t have the time to build up the necessary relationships to get anywhere. In the end, short-term solutions just don’t achieve very much.

That means we need long-term labour solutions. We are not against short-term visits, so long as those visits are pushing toward, or exploring, long-term solutions. We don’t mind people coming to check out what we do in the short-term, if the goal is to consider coming for the long-term. But the solutions to our labour shortage need to be long-term. We don’t want to end up doing the equivalent of offering a few short-term visas which will achieve very little. We need workers for the harvest field – and there is fruit here to be had – but it won’t be found in the short-term.