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, 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, freelance writer and former missionary in SE Asia 

blog: LauraParkerBlog  twitter:  @LauraParkerBlog  work: theExodusRoad

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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  • http://www.facebook.com/colleen.c.mitchell.7 Colleen Connell Mitchell

    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?

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      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

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pete-McCarry/1172900615 Pete McCarry

    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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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=527087281 Seth Barnes

    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.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      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.

      Laura

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  • http://www.whispersonthejourney.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    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. :-)

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      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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  • http://www.facebook.com/hope.johansson Hope Egliht Johansson

    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!

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      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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