That One Safe Friend

by Craig Thompson on September 18, 2015

337964609_40bf770760_oDo you have that one safe friend?

When I went overseas, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I needed one.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of friends, good friends, but I didn’t have one particular person who was committed to the role of being that one safe friend. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that all missionaries—and other cross-cultural workers—need someone whom they trust to be devoted to them because of who they are, not because of what they do, someone who will reach out to them consistently, someone who will encourage them, comfort them, laugh with them, and weep with them.

It’s not that there won’t be several people who could do this for you, but without someone specific to take on that responsibility, you may find yourself with no one. When you have your home church, your sending agency, your family, your coworkers, and your supporters behind you, it’s easy for each individual to think that you’re more than taken care of. At a Parents of Missionaries gathering I recently attended, Dr. Dorris Schulz, director for missionary care for Missions Resource Network, said that if she’s ever drowning, she hopes there’s only one person around. That’s because people in a crowd too often do nothing, assuming that someone else will step in.

Being that one safe friend doesn’t take an exotic skill set. It’s not someone who has all the answers. And it doesn’t need to be someone with experience living abroad. But it does need to be someone who is a good listener, someone who is caring and empathetic, someone who understands you and understands the core challenges of life, regardless of the setting. It’s not an exotic skill set, but neither is it common to everyone.

You’ll need to be proactive in asking someone to be that friend. Don’t assume that people will come knocking, maybe because they doubt your need or their ability. So if you’re looking, what should you look for? What should you expect from that friend? Here are some suggestions:

That one safe friend will be safe. (Obvious, huh?) You’ll be able to tell your friend the unvarnished truth, not just a newsletter report. Your friend will not share with others your private conversations without your permission, unless there are special circumstances, such as there is danger of you harming yourself or others, or if there is a legal requirement of disclosure, or if you continue in unrepentant sin that calls for church discipline. Choose someone whom you know is good at keeping confidences. People who like to share others’ secrets with you are likely to share your secrets, too.

As part of that safety, that friend will not be in your ministry line of authority or will not report to someone in that line of authority. That way, you’ll be able to share your needs, frustrations, weaknesses, and shortcomings without fear of losing your position or financial support. It’s not that you can’t trust those above you, it’s just that they have other allegiances and responsibilities, and rightly so.

That friend will contact you regularly. Once a week? Twice a month? Once a month? How often will be up to you, but it needs to be consistent. That way you won’t skip a chat because you feel fine, because you feel terrible, or because you don’t want to seem too needy. It’s not easy to ask for help, and a regular schedule means that you won’t need to pursue your friend over and over again.

That friend will ask questions, lots of questions, starting with “How are you?” and going much further and deeper. The questions will be based on a firm understanding of who you are. They will remember past struggles and joys and will anticipate lows and highs in the future. Of course your relationship will be two way, and you’ll invest in your friend’s life as well. That’s what friendship is. But this friend will understand his or her position in your life and won’t regret the investment when it might seem one-sided. It’s similar to financial supporters who give their funds without expecting monthly checks of an equal amount back from you.

That friend will listen to your voice and will speak to you. That might be by phone call, via video chat, or face to face. Email is a good way to communicate information but often falls short when it comes to expressing emotions. When you say, “I’m OK,” by listening to your voice, your friend can say, “You don’t sound OK.”

That friend will pray for you. Your friend will know your heart, your soul, the truth. You need your friend to carry you to God in prayer, voicing the kind of concerns that you pray for on your own. Philip Yancey, in Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? notes that in the biblical stories of healing by Jesus, all but seven were brought to him by others.

That friend will resign this role if it’s no longer working and will understand if you want to make a change, as hard as that may be. This particular relationship doesn’t need to be for life, nor should it be allowed just to fizzle out. Instead, it should be evaluated periodically to make sure it is still beneficial. In some ways, it’s like missionaries trying to work themselves out of a job. Maybe your friend far away will hand off the responsibility to someone you see face-to-face on the field. Another missionary? A national friend?

And as you come into contact with other cross-cultural workers, close by or far away, maybe you can become that one safe friend for them. And if you take on that role, let your friend know that you’re paying it forward. Let your friend know that’s how important it is to you.

[Photo by Magnus Wrenninge, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • I’m so happy you’ve written this article. My husband and I have definitely experienced a need for the kind of friends you’re describing here. In our experience, it seems people often do assume we’re well-supported and taken care of. We’ve been hurt several times when we’ve reached out for some more regular care and support, only for it to fizzle out after a couple of weeks. We know people at home have many immediate (as in, right in front of them) concerns, but this has been painful for us. Would you recommend setting up this kind of relationship/agreement before ever leaving for the field? Do you think that a counselor might also fill this role? (PS We love Missions Resource Network!)

    • Sorry you’ve experienced hurt in the past. Having this kind of relationship can work without formalizing it, but making it formal can help head off some of the pain you’ve described. I think it would be great to set this up before leaving. That way you could ask face to face and you could start before your departure. On the question of having a professional counselor in that role . . . it would depend on what kind of a relationship you want to have – and what kind of counselor you’d choose. Some would want to avoid a counselor-client relationship. It’s important that you present your expectations and find someone, counselor or not, who will work within that framework. Maybe a particular counselor would be a great fit for you. I hope you both find someone. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  • Maggi

    Brilliant post! For both missionaries and their (safe) friends!

    • Thanks for the kind words. As I said, it took me a while to figure this out.

  • Kathy Vaughan

    I can attest to the benefit of having that one safe friend. I have been in cross-cultural missions ministry since 2010, and it is only since returning to the field last December that I have had this kind of relationship. Gail, one of my two prayer team leaders in America, calls me every Wednesday night. Sometimes Gay, the other leader, joins us, and sometimes it’s just the two of us.

    How I look forward to every call, knowing that whether I’m having a “Bad Uganda Day” or rejoicing in all I see our amazing God doing, Gail will listen with understanding, share Godly wisdom, celebrate with me and encourage me. She is not afraid to say whatever she thinks God is prompting her to say, so If she questions a direction I am heading or decisions I need to make, I listen very carefully, because I trust her wisdom and her realtionship with God. When I share stories of the people I am working with, they become her friends, whom she cares about, prays for and asks about. She takes all I have shared and filters it and then very appropriately shares prayer requests with others. She is in her 70’s, with health challenges and family responsibilities, but she has never missed a Wednesday night. I know that she loves me, and she loves Jesus, and I trust her with what’s in my heart.

    When I think of some of my struggles in the past, I wonder how much easier they might have been if I had been sharing with Gail and having her bear my burdens with me. I didn’t even know how much I needed her, but having Gail loving me and praying for me has been a most incredible blessing and encouragement in my ministry. I would encourage everyone to look for that one person who can be that kind of friend to them.

    • Wow. What a great firs-hand affirmation, Kathy. And what a great friend Gail is. I hope that others can learn from you and not have to struggle alone in order to find out how much they need this kind of friend.

  • brooke

    Wow, I wish I had known this so many years ago. I agree with you 100%. Sadly I have had all my friends move away and take leadership roles, which means they cannot be that safe friend. Others have not taken the effort to keep in touch. Only a few years ago communication was super difficult. Most friends found that taking time to write was too much and we faded away.
    Today modern technology has reached the ends of the world! We see each other on facebook, but that isn’t the same. But my friends are still far away and I don’t know if anyone will be wiling to take such a hard job.

    • Craig Thompson

      I agree that Facebook isn’t the same. I do hope you can find someone to fill this role. I think that understanding that this is a hard job (or at least something that takes commitment and effort) is a good start. That way you can explain it well to someone, and look for that person who will truly be on board. You can start with a friend who can understand the need, or you can start with someone who understands the need who can become your friend. They’re out there.

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