5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field

by Laura Parker on October 23, 2012

Just last year, I was a culture-shocked newbie stumbling through my first months living overseas.  And we came as independents {we still are}, brought three small children with us, and probably arrived before we had technically raised enough money to sustainably stay. You could say we’ve done a lot wrong in regards to our transition into full-time missions.

But you could say we’ve gotten a lot wrong about a lot of things.

Regardless, here are a few pieces of advice I wish I had been given {and then been humble enough to listen to} during our first year overseas:

1. Learn the Language, First and Only. When we got here in April of 2010, we hit the ground in a full-out sprint. We gave ourselves very little time to adjust or get culturally-acclimated. Instead, we dove into ministry in a panicked frenzy. And while much may have been accomplished at the girls home we worked for, our long-term ministry and effectiveness have suffered because it has taken us so. much. longer to learn to communicate.  We’ve had individual tutors, we’ve done 6-week long classes for tourists, we’ve promised {and then re-promised} to do Rosetta Stone daily, we’ve made flashcards and more flashcards. And we still only have a workably-mild grasp of the language. I assumed we would be fluent by now, honestly, and it frustrates me that I still have to pre-plan my Thai phone calls.

Learning the language while you are in the thick of ministry is like trying to get your Masters when you have small children and a full-time job. You can still do it, but it is much harder and much slower and much more frustrating. Trust me, the three months or six months {or more?} you devote to simply learning the language and adjusting to your new culture will pay off dividends in your long-term effectiveness. 

2. Sandwich Vacation. I wish our family would have taken a vacation between when we left the States and when we showed up in Asia. The stress and emotional weight of the goodbyes at the airport are brutal, for you and for the kids. And the stress and emotional weight of diving in to your new culture are equally as brutal. I wish we would have given ourselves a breather between the two— a few days at some nice hotel or some beach somewhere to process the leaving, to rest from the moving process, to collect ourselves.  I think for the kids that would have made the “adventure” of moving overseas more enjoyable, right from the start. {I think it would probably be an equally great idea as a family transitions from living overseas back to home, too, for the same reasons.}

3. Do Not Dive In. Really, Stay on the Dock for a While. The tendency for go-getters is to go-get-some-ministry-on — especially if your term overseas is two years or less. Your plane lands, and the Great Clock of your missionary life seems to start its countdown.  And so you give yourself a week to get settled, and then you attack whatever ministry it was you came to do. I get this tendency. I’ve lived this tendency. However, I wish I wouldn’t have. Because it takes more time than you think to find housing and food and the closest place to buy lightbulbs. It takes time to begin to learn the culture, to figure out your role in ministry, and to look realistically at the effectiveness of your/your organization’s work. People that jump in too quickly tend to either A) Burn Out or B) Make a Mess of Things. It’s better to avoid both of those, I am thinking.

4. Beware of Going Solo. We did not come with a missions organization. We did not come with a team. We lived out in a rural area, where we didn’t know the language, at all. {Because, obviously, I hadn’t listened to the advice of other missionaries to learn it first.} The kids didn’t have a school to make friends at, and on so many levels we felt very alone. And while I’m not a big fan of some of the hoops missionaries have to jump through because of missions organizations and while I understand the risk of your team “not working out,” I do know that community is essentialAnywhere. 

5. Expect Disappointment. From yourself. From your marriage. From the ministry you came to serve. From the culture. From your finances. From the nationals and other missionaries. From your walk with God. From your kids. And while I am typically a sunshine-daily optimist, I know I would have done better during our first year if I had lower expectations. When you are gearing up to go, you can feel a bit like you are attending a perpetual pep-rally of sorts. And in some ways, you need this inspiration to just get on that plane.

However, when you expect to walk into your new very-foreign land with the guts of Hudson Taylor, making converts like Billy Graham, while toting kids around as well-behaved as the Duggars, well, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Grace, grace, and more grace. I guess that’s advice that translates anywhere.

* Adapted from original post on LauraParkerBlog楽々まとめ買い景品セット:当選者10名様向け 豪華ディナークルージング10点セット 全品目録パネル付 景品 ギフト 景品 目録 景品 パネル イベント 目録 景品パーク, 2011


Allright, let’s play a game. Pretend you have the ear of a new missionary, heading to the field. Assuming they want advice, what would you tell them to do or not do? Is my advice off?

Laura Parker絵画 インテリア 額入り 壁掛け 油絵 ジョゼフ・マロード・ウィリアム・ターナー カルタゴを建国するディド M20サイズ M20号 727x500mm 絵画 インテリア 額入り 壁掛け 油絵, freelance writer and former missionary in SE Asia 

blogオスプレー メンズ バックパック・リュックサック バッグ Stratos 34 Hiking Pack 37800: LauraParkerBlog  twitter【SHURE ミキサー SCM268】 b0002jeuxm:  @LauraParkerBlog  work孵卵器(ふらん機) ベビーB型: theExodusRoad

60Hz(ZC200)ゼンスイ ZC−200 アルファ 純正配管セット(エーハイム1048付属)(西日本用) メーカー保証期間1年 関東当日便
シューズクリーナー アクター3(日本製) アクター3(アソート)?レッド/100点?ブルー/100点(代引き不可)【ポイント10倍】
景品6点セット《ティファール ポップアップトースター/ポータブルDVDプレーヤー 他》【イベント/ビンゴ/パーティー/コンペ/賞品/二次会/2次会/忘年会/家電】/【特大パネル/目録】【ゴルフ/ゴルフ
オカムラ ヴィスコンテ チェア メッシュタイプ ハイバック アジャストアーム 座スライド付 5段階固定 ランバーサポート付CWH5-
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About Laura Parker

Living on three continents and moving 15 times in 15 years of marriage, Laura is no stranger to transition. Recently living in SE Asia with her family, Laura now serves as the VP of a counter-trafficking organization which her husband began, The Exodus Road. Laura is the co-founder and editor here at A Life Overseas and writes at her blog, http://www.LauraParkerWrites.com.
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  • In my experience, this is advice is spot on.

  • Cathy Sampson

    Hey Laura. Thanks for this post. I am into my 3rd mission year in Nairobi, Kenya, have 3 kids, am high achieving and have a husband who is ‘manic’ high achieving. And guess who is going under with burnout – not my husband! Am currently in the middle of a ‘stress leave’ week at home trying to process it all. (We are with a mission organisation.) But also struggling a bit with whether to be a writer or not. I am a music teacher who is an avid reader, would love to write about all this ‘stuff’ over here and where the journey with God sits in the middle of it all, but haven’t quite got the guts to actually do it. “What would a music teacher know about writing” the voice in my head tells me! “Really don’t kid yourself; who would read it any way; don’t waste valuable time doing something that will not add any value to anyone’s life …” Any thoughts?

    • Cathy– YES> WRITE. I hate to hear that you are struggling with burnout, but I. TOTALLY GET THIS. Life is so hard overseas and I’m glad you have the space to take a breather. Don’t listen to the voice in your head. If you are prompted to write, girl, you should write. If not for others to learn and know you, for yourself to process. I found that it was hugely therapuetic for me to document all my struggles while overseas– I came away understanding my own story better and found that God often spoke to me in the midst of it.

      I will pray for you right now, for peace and grace for yourself and refreshment for your soul.

      I’ll also be praying that God will lead you in the practical working-out of the writing bit. Blogger is a free easy way to start a blog and you can even keep it private to give yourself some space to just try it out. 🙂
      And, if you ever want to write a guest-post for us . . . .well . . .. we’d love that, too.

      lots of love, Laura

  • Thank you for this post. This is some practical advice for a missionary preparing to go overseas to attend Bible school in a few months.

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  • When we went to the mission field, we did the opposite of what is suggested here. It was hard, but it worked. They are good suggestions, but there are exceptions.

    • Seth,

      Thanks for writing in! Yes, absolutely there are exceptions, absolutely. In Kingdom work, there are few black and whites.

      I do think, however, that many independents, as we were, struggle to tread wisely, especially that first year. Thus, they burnout or fall apart more quickly than maybe they would if they would have had support/counsel. So often we approach missions with a “sprint rather than a marathon” mentality– that’s what we did and it caused lots of problems for both our family, our work, and our hearts. We kept hearing these pieces of advice from long-term missionaries on the field as we were in the midst of trying to make sense of our struggling.

      Thanks, again, Seth, it’s neat to have your voice here, as I know you have lots of experience in missions on many levels. And, again, yes, there are always exceptions– this God we serve tends to consistently write different stories for different people and situations.


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  • I agree with every point – especially #1. The organization I went with stressed this so much, I was required to spend my entire first year (as a long-termer) doing nothing but language study and cultural immersion. No one could even talk to me about ministry placement until that time was up. I was a little disappointed at the time, but looking back I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
    I would add – make local friends a priority. They tend to have more stable lives than you find in the ex-pat community (meaning, they’re not cycling out every few years). Plus, when the “I HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS COUNTRY” phase of culture shock hits, you’ll have friends to remind you that, well… not everything. 🙂

    • Sarah– such a good rule from your organization. We were independents and we just made some big errors.
      I LOVED your point about local friends and that last sentence– packed with wisdom and truth. Perfect. 🙂
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  • Oh Laura, thank you for the transparency in this post. I am reading it months after you wrote it, but still find these words so encouraging.
    We came, in 2007, to West Africa with a large organization as assistants to others with more experience, and served for four years. We are now back on the field after a 14 month stint “home” in the US to seek God about starting a new ministry on that same field. We are now independent and decided to spend this first year back focusing on prepping for ministry, building an advisory board, and learning the tribal language (first time around we studied French). I am itching to get started in “real” ministry. Itching. Every day. The holy spirit just used this post to repeat truth to my heart- we are right where we need to be, doing what we need to be doing.
    We do sandwich vacation on our way back to the States each time we go, and also find that SO helpful. It’s like a ramp back into the Western world.
    I also want to say to anyone considering going independent to search out other avenues first. There are many organizations that allow missionaries to forge their own path. Independent can be very lonely and sometimes even more dangerous. Ultimately, we must all seek the Father and boldly obey what we feel He is asking of us.
    I respectfully disagree with point #5. We should expect that people are going to let us down, but God will never disappoint us. His plans for us may not be what we expect, but He will always be faithful. When we pray to see each situation with eyes, he will reveal that to us, and then we will not be disappointed. We just have to continue to rely on Him to help us look at things from His perspective. Don’t get me wrong, we have suffered our share of let downs and disappointments.
    Blessings to you as you walk in His grace! And thank you so much for this wisdom!

    • Hope,

      Thanks for stopping in. I loved your advice about being careful going independent– yes, it can be lonely. I think, too, you are wise for spending some time just preparing– it seems we are so quick to neglect that and opt for the sprint rather than the marathon, right?!
      And, I get you on #5– my belief, of course, is not that God ever “really” disappoints, but just that our own perception and expectations can cause huge disappointments along the way . . .
      Again, thanks for stopping in and for your kind words!

      Glad you are here. 🙂

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  • Jo-Anne

    What a great read and the last one has already hit home for me and we haven’t even left for the mission field yet. Wrote these all down and will be sharing them with my husband.

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  • Jessica Atwell

    My husband and I arrived in Thailand 13 months ago with our son who was 4.5 mo old. We took the advice of those who had gone before us and decided to not accept any calls until language study was through. Due to the timing of classes and my little still needing momma, I wasn’t able to start until we had been here 9 months. My husband has done a great job studying and practicing thankfully. Having one person able to understand and speak a little bit made it possible to survive! I guess I am writing to encourage new missionaries to take time to learn the language prior to “getting to work.” Even though the enemy makes you feel like you’re not really doing anything (his words have been heard and implied through friends and family many a time) we keep reminding ourselves that we must not give up trying. Also, for the long termmers who don’t think it’s important to learn the language, friends from a different ministry group shared a statistic they’d documented.. 85% of families return to their home country within 5 years if the wife doesn’t learn the local language. Don’t be brushed off or brush off language classes because you aren’t the one working, your husband is. NOT TRUE! Recently found this quote from Nelson Mandela, ” Speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Thank you for you article. So comforting to know there are women who have gone before us, and lived to tell about it.

  • Maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist. I’m completing my second year on the field. Adding to that, it’s my second country in the same time period. Nearly a year in Mozambique and now a year in rural Japan.
    Independent. Worked with another ministry in Mozambique. It was a wonderful experience with a fantastic team. Now, alone, in the mountains of rural Japan.

    Language is a struggle. But, I find it a very different here than in Africa. In Africa, it was easy to make local friends and work out the communication barrier with lots of laughter and hugs, while learning the language. I’m not sorry I didn’t learn the language before going. It provided a place for real dependence and relationship with locals.

    Not so much in Japan. Here the culture is not communal, despite people living in close quarters. There’s is a decided honor in not bothering your neighbors. Like people every where, there is a hunger for real relationship, but no grid for it. Not knowing the language makes everything else difficult. And unlike in Africa, here, there is a fear of connection. Without the language, connection is very difficult, whereas in Africa, the lack of language was the connection.

    I have close friends in South Africa, so any time I can make a vacation to there, I do. It provides support and encouragement that are very different from people back home or on the field. I’m single with no kids(they’re all adults) or spouse, perhaps becuse of the combination of that and my personality, formal vacation doesn’t appeal to me.

    Again, in Africa, diving in was the best thing for me. In Japan, I’ve been forced to take things slow, language learning, building renovations, and general isolation have all played a part. I hate it. The snails pace has to be balanced with lots of encouragement from trusted leaders who recognize my calling, and regular review of what is happening ~ that cannot be measured in numbers and photos.

    As for going solo, you have to really hear the Lord. I wouldn’t typically recommend it myself, however, the Lord let me know two years ahead of time that I would “be alone on the mountain” I didn’t understand initially, but after a year, I do. And it needed to be this way for me and for what He has asked of me.

    Expect disappointment. I agree, although, I’m not sure how to explain to a newbie how to do that. Like life in general, missions is like a roller coaster, there are up and downs. Enjoy the anticipation on the uphill climb, then throw up your hands and scream on the down hill fly. If you need to throw up, throw up, just don’t give up ~ there’s another thrill just around the bend.

    The only other piece of advice I would add is this, guard your heart. Well meaning people will tell you all kinds of things. Guage it against the Word and don’t take hold of any thing the Lord didn’t tell you. True, there will be trials and tribulations. You may be persecuted or martyred. But, you won’t necessarily have all the other struggles, or the same trials as everyone else. I read a lot of missionary post. Many are heartwrenchingly negative. I don’t know anything about jet lag or culture shock or sumptuous of burnout. None of those are in the word, so I never accepted it. I sleep great on international fights, focus on what time it will be when I arrive, and plan to function from that point. New cultures are fun and exciting to me. If I ever have a bit of shock it’s only upon returning to the states. So, let the Lord be your source for what to expect and enjoy the journey.

    • Ken See

      I hope to be in rural Japan as an independent missionary/English teacher here in a few months. I am in my prep phase now. My biggest worry is the language. I know enough Japanese to survive but not enough to communicate the Gospel yet. I will need patience to get there.

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