How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak (Part 1)

by Elizabeth Trotter on January 15, 2014

I believe if a missionary family is happy and healthy, they will be more sustainable in the long-term. I also believe that the key to happy and healthy missionaries is preparation. One of the things I’ve learned while living overseas is that there is a lot of heartache among cross-cultural workers. I’ve also noticed that often, people’s heartache had common characteristics, and could have been addressed before arriving on the field.

I’m sharing practical steps you can take before you leave your home country. These steps will make your on-field life more smooth, more stable, and more productive. I’m incredibly grateful to our sending church and sending agency, who helped us take these steps prior to arriving in Cambodia. We simply followed their instructions. At the time, we didn’t realize the immense wisdom of their requirements, or how much our years of preparation would help us in settling happily in Cambodia. We could not have transitioned well without their guidance.

You should be aware that none of this preparation will prevent difficult things from happening to you on the field. Dealing with the following issues simply eases the strain of regular life, as the pain they cause is largely preventable. In no particular order, those issues are:

1)      Not having enough financial support

2)      One spouse doesn’t feel called into missions

3)      Not having marital intimacy

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

5)      Team stress

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

Part 1 in this series will look at the first three issues, with Part 2 covering the remainder.

 

1) NOT HAVING ENOUGH FINANCIAL SUPPORT

Financial troubles are stressful in America, but they become even more stressful in a cross-cultural setting. When all of life is consumed in getting the best price at the market or saving just a little more money, you have no time margin. Your mind never rests.

Please don’t try to move overseas without sufficient funding, assuming you will be able to pinch pennies once you get there. Missionaries are known to lose financial support over the years — which means it’s difficult to prevent underfunding completely. However, it also means that starting underfunded will only lead to more underfunding. Many missions organizations won’t even clear you to move overseas until you’ve raised 100% of your proposed budget.

We modeled our budget off the budget of a missionary who was already in this field, but we also added some financial margin (about 10%). Although our overall projected budget was accurate, we had to seriously shift items once we got here. Some bills were much lower than expected, while others were much higher. And we are so thankful we planned some financial margin so that when we got ripped off in the beginning (which will inevitably happen before you know the language well and intuitively know what a fair price is), we weren’t worried.

 

2) ONE SPOUSE DOESN’T FEEL CALLED INTO MISSIONS (A “TRAILING SPOUSE”)

I was a trailing spouse. Being a missionary has been my husband’s dream since he was 10 years old. I think I knew this on a sub-conscious level when we got married, but I was so blissfully in love that any missionary living seemed very far away. When he “suddenly” wanted to apply with Team Expansion about five years ago, I was shocked. Most of my concerns were about safety and health, as I’m a recovering germaphobe/hypochondriac.

We pursued the application process in spite of my reservations. At times I was less supportive, and at times I was more supportive. I thought I could survive missionary life by imitating the way Sarah followed God’s leading through her husband Abraham. In the end, though, when it came to setting a departure date, I just couldn’t leave home. I needed to hear directly from God myself.

I was able to hear my own “call” only after we set aside special time to hear from God individually. During this time we didn’t talk about the subject as a couple, but I did listen to a veteran missionary’s story about fear and faith on the mission field. Then my husband and I went to our church leaders for advice. It was after this time of individual thinking and praying that I was able to drop the “trailing spouse” label.

I have my own call now, so I don’t have doubts about why I’m here, nor do I want to move back to America. I’ve made Cambodia my home, and I’ve made peace with missionary life. But I’ve seen other women who are still trailing spouses. Their husbands’ desires to be here and do mission work are stronger than theirs, and they are unhappy. They constantly want to go home. Please, trailing spouses, take time to verify your call to missions BEFORE leaving home. Taking the time to do that now will be worth it later on.

To read a more complete version of this story, click here.

 

3) NOT HAVING MARITAL INTIMACY

My husband has always been my best friend, and he remained my best friend even as I started forming close girl friendships in my new country.  Because of my relationship with my husband, I am not emotionally dependent on anyone back home (although I still keep in very close contact with my best girl friend in America). My husband and I communicate easily and well, but if you have difficulty communicating, be aware that your difficulties will be magnified on the field.

Our church leadership required that we attend a week-long intensive counseling session.  I initially resisted this, as I did not think we had any glaring problems. We’d been happy for 10 years! Why did we need counseling?? Once we were in the counselor’s office, though, we quickly realized we needed to deal with some areas in our life that we had not yet dealt with. (These issues were separate from the trailing spouse issue, which had been resolved by that time.) The experience was a major breakthrough for us and has helped us to be more understanding and supportive of each other.

If you are planning on long-term overseas missions, make your relationship with your spouse your strongest earthly relationship. A happy marriage makes those unavoidable annoyances of daily life much less noticeable. To that end, I highly recommend counseling.

As a side note, you really do need a good friend on the field, whether you are married or not. Pray for one before you get there, and trust God to provide one. He will!

We’ll look at the next three points in Part 2.  In the meantime, here’s a review of the issues, with some practical steps to take:

1)      Not having enough financial support            

                   — Build margin into your budget, and raise it fully.  

2)      One spouse doesn’t feel called into missions            

                   — Ensure both partners have a strong missionary call.

3)      Not having marital intimacy            

                   — Make your marriage your strongest relationship; possibly seek counseling.

Read Part 2 here.

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After a military childhood, a teenaged Elizabeth Trotter crash landed into American civilian life. When she married her high school sweetheart, her life plan was to be a chemical engineer while he practiced law. Instead, they both fell headlong into youth ministry and spent the next ten years serving the local church. When her husband later decided he wanted to move overseas, Elizabeth didn’t want to join him. But now, after two years of life in Cambodia with him and their four children, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She blogs at trotters41.com. 

On Twitter (@trotters41) and Facebook (trotters41)

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Brooke

    Thanks for being honest. I am single and don’t relate to some of that 100% but I have seen it to be true in co-workers. I have also seen these things cause problems in families and thus for the entire team they work with. I’ve seen lack of prep because of funding and then when crisis hits on the field those with the least training often make the worst decisions that hinder the healing process.
    I think that in any ministry you must be sure of your call. I’ve met pastors who are just going through the motions and before they know it they have a ministry but their heart isn’t in it.
    I am thankful for your senders who made you take these important steps. Often the senders don’t see the reality of being prepared and just say, “trust the Lord.” Which is true, but it causes ministries to falter and missionaries to be discouraged and leave ministry all together.
    I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      It sounds like you have seen a lot over the years, Brooke, and it also sounds like it was hard to watch. You bring out a good point about trusting the Lord versus preparing ourselves for ministry difficulties. I think it’s probably hard for all of us to discern where that balance is (which I guess is where the trust in God comes in handy!). May God bless you in your continued work for Him.

  • mammamea

    Just a comment on this statement : “As a side note, you really do need a good friend on the field, whether you are married or not. Pray for one before you get there, and trust God to provide one. He will!”

    This makes it sound like it will be likely to make “a” friend and have that same friend on the field for a long time. I think one of the hardest things about serving overseas is all the good-byes. In the past 15 years, I have learned to enjoy new friendships even though I know I may not live near my new friends very long. And I have had times when I had no close friend in the same country. During those times I could develop my relationship with God in a different way, and focus on my relationships with my kids and with my husband. God takes us through different seasons of life and there are always some blessings.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Hey there. Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond to this. (I was returning to Cambodia after our first visit to America.) And I totally agree with you about the goodbyes being one of the hardest things about living overseas! I’ve actually blogged about how much I hate it before, and I’ve only lived overseas a short two years. So I can only imagine how many painful goodbyes you’ve had to endure in fifteen years. . . I’d like to share the story of why I recommended praying for a friend. When I was still a trailing spouse, and very fearful about leaving America, a longtime missionary gave me that very advice. She had switched people groups every four years, and she had been nervous every time. She would pray for God to give her a friend in her new location, and He did. So she told me I should pray that prayer too. . . I do have a best friend here in country, and I feel our relationship is a direct answer to prayer. I know I may not always live near her. In fact, she just moved an hour away from me, and she almost decided to move countries before that. I would be very sad to lose her, but for the present, I thank God for her. Blessings on you as you continue serving God and continue crying through all the goodbyes and loneliness that serving Him sometimes entails.

  • Elizabeth– I am so grateful for these two posts. They are practical and so helpful. I REALLY wish I would have read them before we headed out to SE Asia- argh. I think we broke nearly all of these guidelines unfortunately. And reaped the consequences of MAJOR stress and trauma that first year especially. THANK YOU for sharing!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks, Laura. If these posts are of any use to anyone, it’s because many, many people helped us along the way, and we’re so grateful for that!

  • Pingback: How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak: Six Essential Steps | The Trotter Family()

  • Scott Holly Emery

    I’m having trouble finding Part 2 of this article? Have you written/posted it yet? If so, can you provide a link? Thanks!

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