To the “Non-Missionary” Living Overseas

by Marilyn on June 8, 2016


You are the one who is not a missionary. You are the Christian whose husband is with the foreign service or military. You are the Christian whose wife is a physician in a well-known hospital far away from your passport country. You are the business or military or foreign service family who moves too many times to count.

And you come to this space for respite and encouragement; to learn and to grow. But sometimes, you wish the conversation was more geared toward you.

You don’t know the missionary vocabulary. You don’t raise support. You have many missionary friends, but there are times when the conversation becomes unrelatable. Loneliness and sometimes even inferiority cloud your vision. You may have even felt veiled criticism when it comes to your house and your possessions. You can’t necessarily talk about how your spouse was “called” to what they do, because, was it a “calling?” It made so much sense. You watched doors swing wide open when he passed the foreign service exam. You watched government beauracracy work with extraordinary efficiency as paper work was completed. You have watched miracles as your kids have been moved from the proverbial pillar to post, and yet they are still okay with this journey that you are on.

So, no – you haven’t heard a “call,” but that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen miracles. God has not orchestrated the details of your life any less than the one who bears the title “missionary.”

You are the Christian who wants to be a part of this conversation, but sometimes feels alien.

You are welcome here! We need your voices, we need your perspective.

For years, my husband and I tried to join a mission organization. We knocked on so many doors that our fists were raw with frustration. For sure, he had a great job and we loved where we lived, we loved what we were doing. We loved that God had brought a group of people into our lives that were not Christians, people who we cherished, and they cherished us. People with whom we could share our faith journey and the grace we had tasted– but it didn’t feel good enough. We felt like we needed that stamp of approval from the mission community. The stamp never came.

Instead, God did something so much better. He changed us. He opened our eyes wide to the world around us and showed us that we were in exactly the right place for such a time as this. We relaxed and settled into the life that he had given us, instead of trying to be something and someone that we couldn’t be.

So if that is you today — know how much this community needs your perspective. You are an influencer in your own right, within the context where God has placed you. You are the ones who open your beautiful homes wide and allow others to come and rest. You are the ones who feed people blueberry muffins when they haven’t seen a blueberry for a long time. You are the one who walks among non-Christians daily, and you have so much to teach us by your life.

Don’t let the vocabulary frustrate you – you may not be raising missionary kids, but you are for sure raising third culture kids, and the denominator is the same. Continue learning, growing, and giving to the community around you. Continue praying for the people who God has put in your foreign service or military or business or education path.

There is no limit to the ways God can use people who call themselves by His name. He doesn’t care if the field is engineering or education; diplomacy or relief work. He is still the one who shapes our lives and gives us grace to live where he has placed us.

So know this today: You are welcome. You are needed. You are living out a life overseas and that’s what this is about.

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Amy

    Thanks for your article. I experienced a bit of what you wrote about when I went from being a missionary in one country to being the wife of a national in another. So many would ask me if I were a missionary and couldn’t figure out what box to put me in. I wasn’t part of the missionary community and also not a real part of the national community, but God was and is faithful through it all. I wouldn’t change a thing about my time overseas (11-1/2 years). I actually still miss it.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you for sharing. I’ve known others in similar positions and it has been difficult for them as well. I think once I finally relaxed, without expectation of belonging I began to rest and enjoy what my life was, not what I thought it should be.

  • Paul Nikkel

    As a “non-missionary” living overseas and a diligent reader of the posts on this site, I was initially encouraged by the start of this article. But then you ventured down the path of “calling”. I’m not sure why you think missionaries know or understand their call, but non-missionaries “can’t necessarily talk about how your spouse was “called” to what they do”. Just because I am not in full-time vocational mission work does not mean that I do not feel a calling to what I do. Your calling to be a missionary is no better or no worse than my calling to be a Project Manager. God calls everyone to something – it’s not what we are called to that is so important, but rather how we respond to the call.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Paul- thanks for the comment and for engaging. I really apologize because I didn’t mean for it to come off that way. My experience has been that the terminology of calling is more prevalent in Missions conversations and that can be difficult on those who haven’t or don’t use that term. Personally, I believe that each of us are “called” to God himself, beyond that it depends on gifts, strengths, and opportunities .

      • shalom

        This is why Jesus told us in Matthew 23 not to call each other by titles. We are all brethren. Once titles and positions enter, it becomes the world. We all function in our callings; those callings are to love others and serve others. We are all important to God and each other. I have found as an expat that most expats I am around treat me as a second class citizen in comparison to the locals. They are missionaries to the locals, but never to other expats. I have found that missionaries can be the rudest people around at times. Fellowshipping with them is hard because they are in this arrogant “missionary” frame of mind instead of a servant, humble frame of mind where a person is a person no matter where you are.

        • Jennifer

          That is so very right. I have lived through some deep hurt because of this same thing happening to me. It took me a long time simply to see it for what it was and to accept this was in reality what was happening. That for me has been the first step towards healing in that area.

          • shalom

            Lately I have been going through some really tough lessons from God. A pastor here from America (I’m in China) would not allow me to attend his church because he thought I was a spy (really, lol). I tried to convince him I wasn’t online, but he wouldn’t believe me. Finally I gave up trying to convince him with proof of who I was. A few weeks later he said I could come to his church but by that time I didn’t want to go because I figured he can’t hear from God about people and is way too double minded and suspicious for me. I needed a place of fellowship not a place where I must prove I am not a spy (wasn’t my american passsport proof enough?). He replied saying “Your loss if you don’t come and you’re too messed up for us anyway. We can’t help you.”

            This was quite a shock to me. Messed up? He never met me; he only spoke to me online. I have never had a pastor talk to me like that before. I have to say God probably delivered me from something there by allowing this to happen. Churches can be more damaging than the world at times. Thus the vital need for all of us to be led by the Spirit and to walk in love. This pastor was cruel, and it really shocked me.

            Living abroad is hard. The missioniaries don’t want to minister to you because you are not their evangelistic targets. They don’t want to love you because you are a foreigner, not a target to love bomb. The problem is no one is being led by the Spirit and walking in love. The discouragement at times is very real and very hard to deal with. But Jesus is still Lord. He’s here with me even though I am a “spy” and am “too messed up?” for an American pastor here to love. The devil is ridiculous because this is all the devil’s antics!

  • Stella Kriener

    Missionary or “Kingdom Worker” just the same its just the “religious” community that doesn’t really acknowledges it or the kingdom worker not knowing their “calling” in the Kingdom! All areas making an impact and influence on the world around them for His Kingdom! I have been a part of both and it is all how we look at it and how those around us acknowledge our placement in His Kingdom, your important in whichever role you are in: Military, Business, Education, Religion, etc…

    • Marilyn Gardner

      All areas making an impact and influence….yes. This.

  • Stephanie Clark

    Thank you for this article! As one who was a missionary for 10years with my husband and now, through a turn of unexpected events, with the foreign service and anticipating our “first” international move with the FS, I resonate with this article but in a different way! I hope to ‘bridge the gap’ between the missionary community and the embassy/Fs/ngo/etc world as I can speak and understand both worlds. Both worlds are beautiful and bring something important to the community they are in. I know the Lord is directing our steps in this job as much as in our previous missionary life. Our “calling” as Christians is simply to follow the path He has put before us in faith and reliance on Him.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this – yes! Bridging the gap so that all know they have a place. Thank you for this.

    • K Faber

      Stephanie, Congratulations! My husband has been with the FS for 6 years and we are on our 4th post. This is our mission. We entered very intentionally! You can find me on the Trailing Houses FB page! Message me, I would love to be an encouragement and answer any questions you may have.

  • Kathy

    The “system” is so broken. .. .if we belong to Jesus, we are all missionaries. period. We bring the gospel, i.e., JESUS to people wherever God puts us, no matter how we are paid or what our work is. We are ALL CALLED and it’s too bad the religious system has duped people into this unfortunate and unbiblical dualism of thinking that some are professional Christians and some are not, and some callings secular and some sacred. All of it so off-base, leading to false boxes. …

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Kathy. I agree. It is broken and I have fought the duality for a long, long time. So this article is not solution based. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can change this. Because I’m not a missionary, and I believe missionaries are one of the keys to changing this. Any thoughts?

  • Paula

    Thank you for this article. I’ve spend most of my adult life as an expat raising third culture kids and raising bi-lingual, bi-cultural children. My husband and I are not missionaries nor do we work for any government agency. He is German and I am American. We met in Japan when I was an English teacher and he worked for a German automotive company in logistics where the nature of his job has us moving from country to country. We now live in Germany. As a Christian, I often feel silenced by the agnostic attitude of many Europeans. Many Christian on paper but not in belief or practice. Germany in particular I find very challenging because many younger people dispute the church. I often feel like I’m hiding my Christianity in the closet. Fortunately, I’ve been slowly but surely meeting some Christians but it is just a handful of believers. It’s tough but maybe God did put me here to open my door–as I will tonight for my birthday celebration-to the non believers to open their hearts just a little bit. It’s also testing my courage.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I feel the loneliness and have had a small taste of that. Thank you for keeping on, for opening your home and having courage.

    • Mandy

      Hi Paula. My husband is a German and we have a pre-teen year daughter. We recently moved to Germany and we are still working through all of the transition difficulties. My daughter is in the local school and we are finding it extremely challenging. She is still trying to learn the German language (which is extremely difficult) and must also take a French and Math test with the other kids this year to continue on in the school. And I am desperately trying to learn the language myself. I have always been able to learn quickly but this language has presented a HUGE challenge for me. Most days I feel anything but smart.

      I find it difficult to make friends here; let alone other Christian friends. It is encouraging for me to know that someone else is also going on a similar journey. I also am searching for what my purpose will be in this country. Seeing the German culture, there is definitely a lot of opportunity to be a change agent here. I am hoping that once we get through the integration of my daughter into the school system here, potentially I can help other families in a similar situation to ours. The transition is so difficult on the children and we struggled to find help in our area. I do find that faith is not so openly discussed here as it is in the U.S. I am used to bible studies and small groups. Those things seem to be non-existent in our area. Also potentially another area for helping others further their faith…but I suppose I need to speak German first 🙂 For the moment, I’m trying to bring my own faith into conversations with those who are in my circle of influence here…however small. I’ve always been one to influence people better on an individual basis, and slowly over time, even when I was in the U.S.

      I just found this blog today and it is so helpful to me. I spend a lot of time alone as my daughter is at school and my husband is at work. I wonder, ‘Am I doing enough here? Is my daughter going to make it here?? How do I know what success looks like based on how long we’ve been here???’ I just have nothing to compare our journey to. It leaves me a little bit in the dark. I wasn’t prepared for how difficult and challenging all of this would be for me in my spirit. It is almost like a fight every day to maintain the happiness and energy required for this big task. I wasn’t prepared for how much I would miss my friends and familiar things from back home. My daughter, on the other hand, is handling it quite well.

      My biggest prayers involve being strong and brave every day as I work to get all of this working in the right way and find my purpose and place here. And to find others I can talk to so I don’t feel so alone in my experiences. It helps so much to know you are not the only one going through something. Thank you for posting and I hope you had a great birthday.

  • Patricia

    Hi Marilyn
    Thank you for writing this. I have at times related but have also been fortunate to find good solid bible studies in each place we’ve lived. I’ve enjoyed the friendship and fellowship of women from around he world whose husbands like mine are employed outside of “Christian” work. My husband works for an NGO doing poverty reduction work… We love somewhere between the business people and the missionaries- more like state department without commissary priveledges… Not all the “perks” of business but certainly more than missionaries…. Not “called” into ministry but “called” to be the hands and feet of Christ in government. I think those of us not in ministry and those in ministry do well to remember like you said, we each have a call- some to ministry and some to marketplace but wherever God has called us- we can make an impact if we love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves…

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Your final sentence says it all. That’s it! And I too got involved in amazing Bible studies.

  • K Faber

    Thank you Marilyn! This is me exactly. SD wife with a passion for expat women. I don’t fit the missionary mold at home and I don’t fit the SD mold overseas. I’m an oddity with my identity in Christ. I enjoy this blog for the encouragement, the common understanding and honesty in the joys and struggles. Thank you for including “us” too.

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