Missionaries stationed in the Alaska Bush or other rural areas face a difficult enough task with their work, not to mention the added rigors of isolation and the lack of conveniences of urban life.
As a result, the burn-out rate of missionaries in the Bush can be high, leaving some feeling frustrated and the communities they serve without the benefit of their services.
To combat this occurrence, a Kenai-based group has been building a missionary program that ministers to, well, ministers.
Arctic Barnabas Ministries is a nondenominational organization that provides a special type of support to evangelical Christian missionaries and pastors and their families working in the Alaska Bush and rural areas of the Canadian Yukon and Russia.
They don't fund the missionaries' operations. They don't provide them with supplies -- other than the occasional pizza and fresh produce. They do, however, provide something that can be even more valuable than money or supplies -- moral support.
"It's a ministry of encouragement and peer counseling," said Garry Harris, director of administrative services for Arctic Barnabas Ministries. "Sometimes in some of these remote areas when nobody is of a like mind in terms of what you're doing and your ministering, and you don't have another friend to talk to, feelings of isolation are kind of prevalent."
That's where Arctic Barnabas Ministries comes in.
Harris and the nine other staff members form relationships with the missionaries and pastors and encourage them in their work.
"We do whatever we can think of to make them aware that somebody knows what they're going through and somebody's really interested in helping them stay in the field long-term," Harris said.
The organization was founded in May 2000 by Joel Caldwell, who is now its director. Caldwell used to be a pilot for Missionary Aviation Repair Center at Soldotna Municipal Airport. Through his work with MARC, he made many stops in bush villages and began forming relationships with the missionaries and pastors there. He noticed how difficult it can be for these people to carry out their missionary work in such isolated conditions, so he left MARC and started Arctic Barnabas Ministries to support the same people he began meeting in his previous job.
The name Barnabas was chosen because it means "son of encouragement," Caldwell said. In the book of Acts in the Bible, Barnabas was the one who traveled with the apostle Paul and supported and encouraged his ministry work.
"I started (Arctic Barnabas Ministries) because we saw so many missionary groups and church denominations in the Bush with horrible (retention) rates," he said. "So many pastors and missionary families were leaving the field discouraged and worn out with the difficult living conditions. I saw some people just really struggling through rough conditions and leaving the field in a short amount of time."
He also heard Native elders lament the fact that their churches weren't growing and people weren't getting the benefit of having a long-term minister, he said.
"The whole goal was to start a ministry specifically to pastors to keep them encouraged and on their post long enough to keep a ministry," Caldwell said.
This goal is pursued in part through phone and e-mail communication with the missionaries and their families in rural areas, but the key to Arctic Barnabas Ministries is that it's mobile.
Since the ministry was formed, it has used borrowed planes to fly to remote areas and visit the people it serves in person.
"We spend a lot of time on the phone, but there's no substitute to being there in person and bringing out pizza and fresh produce," Caldwell said.
Arctic Barnabas staff members fly to remote communities and villages in areas like Bristol Bay, Naknek, Lake Clark, Port Alsworth and the Kuskokwim River and stop to visit the families with whom they've developed relationships. Trips can range from three days to seven or eight, depending on where they're going, what the needs in each community are and how much funding is available to make the trip.
Though the main point of the ministry is to offer comfort and company to missionaries, staff members try to bring something special to each family they visit.
"We find out what the family's favorite foods are. I've taken with me all of the elements for a great Chinese dinner and cooked them a dinner right there in their own kitchen," Caldwell said.
Once they make a stop, staff members help out in any way they can. Sometimes that means just being a good listener. Other times it means helping to fix a snowmachine, splitting cords of firewood or picking a family up and taking them back to Kenai for a short break from life in the Bush.
Last week, the organization acquired a piece of equipment that will make it much easier for them to fulfill their mission -- a plane of their own.
The nonprofit organization is supported through donations from various churches and individuals. It was awarded a $125,000 grant from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust toward the purchase of a plane. That, along with additional private donations, allowed the group to come up with $179,000 to buy a Cessna Seneca III. The plane was bought in Boise, Idaho, and Caldwell flew it to Kenai last week. It is scheduled to make its first missionary run Tuesday.
"It is incredible. It's exactly what we need," Caldwell said. "For the last three years we have been borrowing and improvising with lesser-equipped airplanes. This has everything we need to do our work."
The plane has two engines and turbo-charged capabilities that will allow them to fly long distances and over mountains. It has navigation and de-icing equipment so it can fly in inclement weather as well.
"This is paramount," Caldwell said. "This is what is going to give us the ability to really be reliable at meeting our commitment and being out there visiting with families face to face. That's a key part of our ministry."
Currently Arctic Barnabas has developed relationships with about 50 families. Caldwell said he hopes the plane will help them increase that number.
"What's great about (the ministry) is it's just that simple. It's just to encourage those families," he said.
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