I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?

by Kathleen Shumate on May 2, 2016


I balanced a plate of rice in one hand and a plate of curried meat and vegetables in the other. I was tackling the dinner line at a missionary retreat, gathering food for the whole family while my husband settled the kids at a table. The man in front of me introduced himself and we chatted for a moment until he stated, “So, you are in language school.” I replied that I am learning with a language tutor while I stay home with our children. I was not prepared for his response: he began berating me harshly for not being in full-time language school. I answered about being fully committed to my family and to language-learning, and then left before my tongue got me into trouble.

I am a mother of three young children with another on the way. My primary calling is to raise them up to know the Lord, and I joyfully pursue that calling. I also study the local language in a highly effective, learner-driven, multi-sensory setting, and build relationships with the women around me, using my background as a counselor in a myriad of ways. It’s a multi-faceted calling; I love it and I embrace it.

But the man in the dinner line isn’t alone in viewing children as burdens and obstacles to ministry. Jesus’ disciples keep the children away from him, worried that they will distract him from his Important Ministry Work. Jesus rebukes them and turns their ideas upside down, proclaiming that children are an example for all of us in their humility and trust. They have the proper heart orientation.

So why do some people—even Christians, who purport to believe the words of Scripture—act as though women being mothers is a waste of resources?

Being a Christian mother is almost certainly the most significant ministry that I do in our field. We are broken and greatly in need of God’s mercy, but by His grace we are living as a family of love and trust in God. My husband and I have a close and joyful relationship. Our children interact with their dad daily and know his affection for them. It shocks, confuses, and amazes our friends and students; they want to know more. One friend said that experiencing the family life of Christian missionaries completely reoriented her thinking about marriage, children, and the God we call “Father.”

God has called us missionary parents both to family and ministry, and He doesn’t make mistakes. While there are always choices to make concerning priorities, there is no necessary war between the two, but rather a world of opportunity for each to season and adorn the other. Serving others demonstrates and involves our children in the other-centered love that characterizes the Christian life. And in many settings, particularly in areas without a mature Church, being and sharing our grace-filled family is one of the most radical ways we can present the application of the Gospel.

If we shame missionary mothers away from their God-given calling, we also tell the hard-working mothers amongst us and in our passport countries that they aren’t doing enough. The woman who labors to care for her young children and blind husband, in a culture that shuns disability, serves God just as surely as any ministry project. The woman who creates a home of love for her family, and welcomes in the hurting people around her, is no less influential than someone who can point to events and numbers.

If God values children and the work necessary to raise them up to know and love Him, then denigration of motherhood is an affront to Him.

I once heard someone compare motherhood to being in a boat stuck floating in and out with the tide, because each child keeps the mother from “ministry work.” This person hinted at a life of aimless drifting borne by mothers, while others zip straight to their destinations in sleek speedboats.

But the truth is that all of us, no matter our stage of life, are equally dependent on God rather than ourselves for fruitful ministry. No one drives a speedboat; we’re all in the same rowboat being towed by a vastly bigger ship, whose Captain provides the direction, the power, and all the necessities for the journey. As for the “delays” caused by loving children or inconvenient people, or serving in mundane ways that bring us no glory—those are not nuisances but the core of the itinerary.

We mothers will invest in many people and endeavors, now and throughout our lifetimes, each of us in different ways; we do what we need to do. That freedom is a precious gift. But let’s not guilt missionaries away from being mothers. Let’s support mothers in attending to our high calling, rejoicing that God has entrusted us with something so precious as the shaping of eternal lives. Our children are a weighty gift to the world.

If our goal is glorifying and pleasing God in whatever ways He desires, then motherhood is not a deterrent but a means to fruitful ministry, because serving the “least of these” with love is serving Jesus.

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About Kathleen Shumate

Kathleen is a daughter of God in awe of how He brought her from death to life, happy wife to Jonathan, and grateful mother to six children. Kathleen earned her B.A. in psychology at Rice University and her M.A. in counseling at Covenant Seminary, and she is passionate about fostering healing for women who are wounded and the flourishing of families. You can read more from her at kathleenshumate.weebly.com/writing.

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