God’s Job Description
By Kelsey McFaul
Missionary Jeff Pessina on ownership and surrender in the Philippines
If there’s anything that Jeff Pessina’s learned in 37 years of ministry in the Philippines, it’s that he doesn’t write the job descriptions in his life.
“The most significant surrendering in my life was when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to or the way I expected. The Lord’s never shown up as clearly and as audibly as at the moments when I said I didn’t want the job anymore. And He explains to me that, ‘You don’t get the job description. I do that.’”
As a steward leader, Jeff acknowledges that he’s not the owner of his projects, visions, or even his own life. Rather, he’s called to manage the things God owns, a dynamic that’s played out since his conversion.
“I’m from a dysfunctional background, drinking and drugs and all that. I got saved out of a life of dysfunction, dedicated my life to Christ, and within five weeks of being a Christ-follower I was on the mission field. And I’ve been on the mission field ever since.”
At first Jeff worked with a struggling ministry in Luzon, Philippines, that organized tent crusades throughout the island nation’s northern island.
In 1985, he assumed leadership of the ministry and restructured it into what would become Philippine Frontline Ministries. For the next 20 years, Frontline’s ministry team of 75 people travelled extensively in a mobile camp of tents and trailers to hold gospel gatherings in large big-top tents including preaching, drama, films, and music.
“In those days, I was 25 years old; I was leading a ministry here of as many as 75 people travelling from city to city with tents and trailers. I used to preach most of the 25-30 nights of gospel tent meetings. People would commonly ask me how old I was, because I think I looked older because of the stress. I think many found it unusual that such a young person would be leading such work.
“But over time, God has His ways of showing you that you ain’t going to get the job done. He begins to show you that you ain’t big enough. You ain’t strong enough. You ain’t going to live long enough. And that we need to come to recognize this and face it that we can’t really do anything without Him anyway.”
While Jeff had surrendered his life to God in a radical way, he still retained ownership of the work he was doing, finding his identity in his leadership role. But burying himself in leadership and the demanding work God had provided also caused Jeff to neglect stewarding his relationships with others beyond God, including himself.
“Early on in my walk with Christ, my main priority was my relationship with God. It seemed to me that self was enemy number one. Self was evil, so you needed to deny self….Twenty years into my walk with the Lord, our ministry had a huge shift, which was understanding that God doesn’t hate you as an individual or your body and that he wants you to love your body and take care of it.”
In 2015, as part of his MBA degree at Asian Theological Seminary, Jeff read and wrote on Dr. Scott Rodin’s book The Steward Leader. Scott’s teaching significantly impacted Jeff and affirmed his new intuitions about leadership. Immediately, he ordered a number of Scott’s books and distributed them to his leadership team.
Jeff was recognizing the critical interdependence of leadership and a stewardship that addressed physical and spiritual needs. The vision and culture of Frontline began to change, but not without some growing pains.
“The greatest stewardship challenge to me is probably others. Concern for our neighbor wasn’t really encouraged as much as we thought it was, even though we were evangelistic…And you know, I heard someone say recently, ‘You’ve got Jesus in your heart but Grandpa in your bones.’ That’s a challenge for me, being proactive about caring for my neighbors.”
These days, Jeff has plenty of opportunities for practice. Frontline has transitioned into a multi-faceted, center-based ministry based in San Pablo City, where it focuses on church planting, Christian education, social enterprise development and compassion ministries (particularly to local street children).
Thousands of children as young as 5- and 6-years-old live in the Philippines’ largest cities, many of them malnourished, sick, addicted to sniffing glue, and in danger of violence and human trafficking. Jeff and Frontline wanted to help, but parts of the undertaking seemed beyond their control and more than a little overwhelming. Despite his best intentions, Jeff again found himself questioning the job description.
“When we started our children’s care ministry for abandoned children, the first child was a blind mute who had been stuck in a room for eight years alone. He couldn’t communicate; he still can’t. When they brought him to my house and set him on my porch, I thought, ‘Now Lord, we wanted to start a ministry to children, but I didn’t ask for this much trouble….You know, this is a bit over the edge.’
“I remember the Holy Spirit telling me, ‘Look, this wasn’t your idea; it’s Mine.’ That was just kind of a smack in the face to wake me up, to say this idea of caring for children comes from God, not from me, and I don’t get to pick or dictate the terms.”
A steward of the job he’d been given, Jeff took in the first child, who still lives with his family today. And he established a formal ministry to Filipino street children, Face the Children, that includes several child care facilities and regular full-time care, education, housing and safety for dozens of former street children.
Children attend school in Frontline’s registered Christian school, Frontline Christian Academy, directed by Jeff’s daughter Roda. In addition to the children’s outreach and school, Frontline has created a constellation of ministry initiatives, including a network of vibrant, community-engaged churches (Frontline Worship Center) and business-as-ministry ventures in IT and apparel.
As a steward leader, Jeff’s learned to step back from his need to own every facet of the work, and as a result, he takes deep joy in the success of others. In 2017, Jeff sent Frontline team members to attend the stewardship course at ATS and invited Scott to speak to his leadership team.
“I think the concept of stewardship has affected the way I lead people, in loving to see what others do. Not that I’m lazy; I kind of overwork. But I get the most joy when I go to church and see our leaders meeting and preaching and doing the work of ministry. That is really what will be our greatest success, how well we equip others and allow them to do what we can’t do alone.”
As for job descriptions, the stewardship embodied in his current role is a far cry from the one Jeff set for himself 37 years ago. But, he says, that’s because it’s God’s job description, not his.
“I think the best advice I could give anybody is to have a healthy suspicion of your own ambitions, your own dreams, your own theology even, because more than likely a lot of this will change over time. But primarily, love God first and foremost, love people, love yourself, and understand that God loves this world and you should enjoy it.
Quite honestly, I’d just hand them The Steward Leader and tell them they should read this first.”