Digging in the Dirt, a new book from Jonathan Trotter, is now available!

Hello, all!

I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.

Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.

It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.

I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.

I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!

all for ONE,

Jonathan Trotter


From the back cover:

Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.

We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?

In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.

With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.

To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.

Come, dig in the dirt.

From the preface:

Hello and Welcome!

I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.

Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.

These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.

Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.

Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter


Check it out on Amazon here!

*Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas

It’s okay to be happy this Advent

I listened to the audio version of The Preacher’s Wife by Kate Bowler. While the book focuses on America and the “Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities,” I was struck by the pendulum swings of what worked in one era, sounded tone deaf in another.

In acknowledgement of our own pendulum swings, I find that currently most online spaces for cross-cultural workers emphasize the hard parts of being a cross-cultural worker. Which, I know, is in response to those hard parts not being given any space. This swing was a needed course correction. But as with many a course correction, the hyper focus on the hard parts of life on the field may not leave enough space for another story to coexist.

As I thought about my post this month, the book of Psalms came to mind. I love the richness of life represented by the different types of psalms and the variety of lengths.

So, in the spirit of Psalm 117, the shortest psalm, I remind us of this truth: life on the field can be confusing, disappointing, and hard. 

It is also true that on the field is interesting, exciting, and easy.

Part of happiness is comes from building pauses to that give space to notice. Here are a few options for cross-cultural workers to pause in Advent this year.

You do not have to hide your happiness. It is okay to be happy on the field.

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Discerning God’s Call (unpacking the spiritual factors that affect the decision to leave the field)

by Andrea Sears

The mission field is a place of tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. We learn to depend on the Lord so much more when we have our normal comforts and culture stripped away. We see God doing amazing things in the lives of others, even miracles, that strengthen our faith. We see Him working in our own lives to make Himself more real than ever to us.

The mission field can also be a place of tremendous spiritual challenge. Traumatic things happen, leaving us wondering about God’s goodness and presence with us. We often see pain and suffering on a new scale that gives us doubts about God’s sovereign plan. Unusual isolation, stressors, and temptations may present themselves, and a lack of accountability can lead to moral failure. Satan desires to take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy not only our work and our families, but even our faith itself.

In a 2017 survey on missionary attrition, we measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be spiritual factors. The table summarizes the results for each question by providing:

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field.
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor that said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect.
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision.

The spiritual factors that reached significant levels of strength of influence were issues of call: (1) feeling called back home, (2) feeling unsure about the continued call, (3) feeling no longer called to that location, and (4) working oneself out of a job (another way of feeling that the call has ended).

These are all healthy reasons for transition. There are seasons in life, and God often makes it clear to His cross-cultural workers when it is time to move on to the next thing. This can be because of a new sense of call to something back home or other factors (such as family, health, or team struggles).

God sometimes uses these very circumstances to convince us that it is time to go. We must all pay attention to the seasons of our cross-cultural work and where we can be most strategically effective at different times.

It is also noteworthy that nearly one-half of missionaries felt at some time:

  • a disconnection in their relationship with the Lord (47%),
  • unable to connect with a local church (47%),
  • that spiritual leaders and sending churches back home had forgotten about them (46%), and/or
  • overwhelmed by spiritual oppression (41%).

These results should disabuse us of the notion of the super-spiritual Christian missionary who never has hard moments in their spiritual life because of their dedicated service to the Lord. Even (and especially) those who have sacrificed much to carry out the Great Commission can have dry periods or dark nights of the soul, often indeed brought on by the situations they face overseas.

Yet there is often a church and missions culture that discourages missionaries from sharing these experiences with others. It makes people uncomfortable if missionaries come down off the pedestal and share their struggles. This dynamic layers isolation onto the spiritual struggles themselves, exacerbating the vulnerability even further.

Missionaries are often confronted with harsh circumstances, spiritual attack, ambiguity in discerning their call, and doubts about their own competency and/or God’s plans in the place where they serve. Some will even reach the point of questioning their own faith.

To a degree, the spiritual health of a missionary is their responsibility. They are accountable for their devotional and prayer life, congregating habits, and practice of spiritual disciplines. However, these things are not simple formulas that automatically produce intimacy with God and spiritual invulnerability.

There are also things beyond the missionary’s control, including the inscrutable ways of God Himself, invisible powers and principalities that seek to destroy our soul, and interactions between circumstances and body/mind that affect our spiritual condition. We cannot dismiss spiritual distress with a simple “Well, he/she is obviously just not walking closely enough with the Lord.”

Finally, more than 1 in 3 missionaries (38%) no longer felt sure that their methods of sharing the gospel were effective. For those who experienced this, it was a factor in their departure about half (52%) of the time. Eighty-eight survey participants shared why they questioned the effectiveness of the methods, and most concerns fell into three categories: (1) the style of evangelization used (often mass evangelization without follow-up for discipleship), (2) the lack of cultural contextualization in the message and tools used to present the Gospel, and (3) the proper role of foreign missionaries in balance with local leadership.

There were also secondary concerns regarding Christian witness being undermined by poor testimony and methods being driven by the desires of foreign donors rather than what was actually needed locally.

In light of these results, here are some questions to consider:

  • Would your sending churches be shocked to see these statistics?
  • If so, what can we do to help sending churches de-lionize their missionaries and understand them as sinners vulnerable to spiritual discouragement and questions just like everyone else?
  • What can we do to modernize our missions methods and contextualize the Gospel better for the cultures we serve?
  • How do the roles of foreign missionaries need to change as the Gospel takes root in a culture or community?
  • How can we better guide our donors to understand the best use of funds, instead of letting their desires drive our methods?

These are not easy questions with simple answers, but they are important ones that global workers will continue to face as we try to stay relevant in our execution of the Great Commission.


Andrea Sears and her husband, Seth, spent 13 years working in the largest immigrant squatter settlement in Central America (in Costa Rica) and founded the Christian community development ministry giveDIGNITY. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Johnson University. She currently lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, directs the ministry’s local team from afar, and enjoys living near family and being a new grandmother.

The Emotional Progression of a Home Assignment

The last four weeks leading up to our first home assignment were chaotic. It was our first return to our passport country after three years. Our to-do list was 38 items strong, some items as simple as “pick up extra cat food” and some as complex as “find a car.” By the time we had said all of the final goodbyes and boarded our first flight, the relief was palpable. We were finally on our way, and what was done was done. (And perhaps more importantly, what wasn’t done wasn’t.)

Our first day outside of our ministry location was blissful. I distinctly remember feeling as free as bird – and being slightly disturbed for feeling so very free. What exactly were those weights lifted that resulted in such a weightless feeling? At the end of our first week, I had identified three key cultural stress areas that had clearly been affecting me more than I realized, and the idea of entering back into those specific difficulties was more than I could bear. And so began the tumultuous emotional journey of our first home assignment.

Emotional resolution #1: I don’t think we can ever return.

Over the next couple of months, my husband and I talked extensively through these cultural stress areas. We also debriefed with our member care friend and with other close friends around us. Questions of calling began to arise. Were we serving overseas because we thought it was the most meaningful way we could serve God? Were we basically deceiving ourselves with a works-based mentality of earning favor with God? And, wow, if any of this was deeply true, should we even be doing this kind of work?

Emotional resolution #2: I don’t know if I want to be a mission worker anymore.

The ambiguity of our future increased because our return was uncertain for reasons outside of our control. And that caused us to question even more. Maybe we were not supposed to be living in that ministry area. Maybe we were not supposed to be involved in mission work anymore. We considered career changes, country changes, all of the changes. Maybe we should not be in ministry, maybe we are not qualified for ministry.

I began to tire of the traveling life of home assignment and of the lack of personal space for our family. I missed our friends and coworkers in our ministry area. All of the questioning and traveling and evaluating and discerning took a heavy emotional toll. And all of this transpired in the middle of seeking to honestly share about our life and work in our ministry area at churches, with partners and friends. The desire for my own bed and my own kitchen and my own routine was deep and strong.

My emotional resolution #3: I’m ready to go home…wherever that is.

We continued sorting through questions of calling. What did we even believe about God’s call on our lives? We talked more about God’s sovereignty and our own selfishness in making decisions and how God works in spite of all that. We talked through what we felt we were gifted at and what we liked to do. We sorted through the many needs that faced us and tried to discern where best to focus our time and energy. We began to feel renewed and rested, spiritually and emotionally, and refreshed in our roles as parents, as spouses, as mission workers. We began to regain the smallest sense of passion for the work we had been doing.

Emotional resolution #4: I think maybe God has called us to this ministry area.

Where God leads, he also provides sustaining grace. Had I not experienced so very much of God’s good grace over the last three years? Had he not sustained our family so well despite stresses and hardships? Our understanding of God’s calling matured, and our desire to serve him in ministry was refreshed, not from a place of owing God or working for him, but rather from a place of surrender of our lives, of committing to be part of the bigger kingdom work. All work is God’s work, and our role is to be faithful with the work he has given, where he has given it to us.

Emotional resolution #5: I am ready and willing, Father; use me as you see fit.

With some level of excitement, we anticipated our return, less than a month away now. The ambiguity of our return remained, but we felt confident God would bring us back to this work.

As God would have it, we received visas and the green light to go ahead back to our ministry area in March 2020. We arrived three days before our country shut its borders, with Covid enveloping the world.


Our family has just returned to our ministry area after our second home assignment. We have now lived and worked in South Africa for over seven years, and there’s a sense of rootedness that comes with time and investment. Even still, I am grateful to have realized that there will always be an emotional progression on a home assignment. We will always need to do deep emotional work while away from our overseas home.

And while this second home assignment did not look exactly the same as our first home assignment, the stages were remarkably similar and had a sense of familiarity about them. Oh, I’ve been here before, my heart could say. In hope, I could look forward to God bringing my heart back around to willing service and obedience. And with gratitude, I can say that he did.

Announcing Our First Ever Christmas Contest!

Announcing our first ever A Life Overseas Christmas contest!

If you have a poignant holiday memory from your time abroad, or if you have a reflection on the meaning of Christmas in light of the Great Commission, we want to read your stories!

We’ll accept fresh essays, along with essays previously published in personal newsletters or personal blogs (but not collective or organizational blogs). If security is a concern, we’re happy to publish your piece under a pen name.

Submissions are due to Elizabeth Trotter at emarietrotter@gmail.com by Tuesday, December 5th. We will choose two winners and notify them by December 9th. Then we’ll publish their essays on A Life Overseas in the two weeks before Christmas.

Many thanks to ALO writer Abigail Follows for inspiring this contest.

A Major Breakthrough in My Witnessing Journey

I once shared the gospel with a group of burly Arab camel tour guides whose camel bit me on the leg. (It’s okay. You can laugh.)

I also shared with my next-door neighbor over bitter mint tea and semolina cake.

But I’ve been finding it increasingly challenging to share with certain people over the years, and that bothers me. I’ve been asking the Lord to reveal my heart to me. Why is this so hard? 

Of course, it’s partially hard because, in the countries where I’ve served as a missionary, people could face serious consequences for following Jesus. But I have sensed there is something else going on. 

Finally, I think I know what it is:

I have believed that in order to share my faith with someone, I have to be either a stranger or a best friend. And while most of the world is a stranger to me, there are many people in that awkward area between acquaintance and best friend. That gray area is where my trouble lies.

But it is also the place of the most potential.


My family has a VHS tape of me receiving gifts on my seventh birthday. Everyone is chuckling in the background as I screech with equal enthusiasm over the Barbie dolls and the new socks. But I remember being very concerned that each individual person felt that their gift was loved.

I still kinda feel that way, except it’s not about Barbies and socks anymore. Now it’s about friendship. How can I make sure everyone feels equally loved and cherished and special? 

The truth is, I can’t, because I’m not infinite.

I have a best friend I only get to talk to every few months. Maybe you have one, too. Life gets busy, but you always know you can pick up where you left off. And each time, it feels like just yesterday since you got together.

But for many of the women I’ve been privileged to know in other countries, people who talk every few months are hardly friends. This is a cultural expectation that has been difficult for me to manage. 

I have friends on the field who wonder why, when we talk like best friends about the deepest issues of our hearts, I am not in their kitchen every other afternoon, not sending WhatsApp messages every morning with identical inquiries about family and health.

Not only do I feel sad to disappoint people, I also really, really don’t want someone to feel like I’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on them. Like I only come over every few weeks, peddle some religion, and leave, without really seeing and appreciating them.

So I visit as much as I can, waiting for the time when I’ve built up this relationship enough to have the right to share Jesus. When I’ve finally “earned the right to be heard.” I’m ever waiting to become BFFs, while simultaneously feeling exhausted because I know I’m unable to meet the requirements.

This has always been an issue, but it’s only affected my gospel sharing in the last two years. Why is that?

A little over two years ago, a close friend of mine met a nice lady at a park. The lady told my friend, “I’d really love to mentor you. We could get together for coffee once a week, and I could help you work through what’s most important to you.” Although this is unusual for an American conversation, my friend is gifted in building community and investing in other humans, so she assumed she had met a kindred spirit. She jumped at this opportunity.

After two meetings, she got a pitch for an investment scheme. When she declined, the “mentorship” ended.

I think my friend’s experience may have traumatized me more than her. It rattles around my mind some nights. I never want someone I’m sharing the gospel with to feel like they’ve just spent time with a used car salesman or a multi-level marketer or anything else that doesn’t feel real. 

Maybe that’s a good thing. But in my quest to be genuine, I have slipped into black-and-white thinking: I must either be a stranger or a best friend to have the right to share my faith.

But what if I’m overly focused on relationship building? What if, sometimes, it’s enough to build rapport?

Rapport or Relationship?

“Rapport is defined as a friendly, harmonious relationship. There’s mutual agreement, understanding, and empathy that makes the communication flow well. Once you have built good rapport, there is an implicit assumption of positive intent between both people that makes your interactions easier.” So says Betterup.

In my observation, rapport is built through things like sincerely listening, showing genuine empathy, and cultivating a positive, adaptable attitude.

Thinking about rapport makes me wonder if I’m doing things backward. What if I’m trying to develop relationships with people and rapport with Jesus? Is it possible that I’m spending all this time trying to juggle relationships I don’t have time to nurture while I maintain a cordial acquaintance with Christ?

And what would happen if I switched that around? What if I focused on building my relationship with Jesus and my rapport with people?

Jesus, when He chose to be temporarily limited during His time on this earth, had a very close mentoring relationship with three people (Peter, James, and John) who went with him almost everywhere. Then He had 12 people he mentored on a daily basis. There were 70 others He worked with for a season. And then there were the crowds which He taught and healed. 

But the one He stayed up all night to talk to was His Father. And the whole point of His ministry, among the three, the 12, the 70, and the crowds, was to make His Father known.

I may not have what it takes to be everyone’s best friend or to rescue the world from loneliness. But I know Someone infinite, someone who does have what it takes. He is a far better friend than I. Like springs of living water, He is never exhausted. 

And I know how to introduce friends who haven’t met each other yet.


A version of this article first appeared on Whatsoever Thoughts.

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

How many years abroad is safe for kids?

“How many years abroad is safe for kids?”

This is a question we have been asked many times at TCK Training. I have also heard similar questions from missionary organizations – at what point do families need transition prep and repatriation support? How many years overseas is safe? At what point does it become dangerous?

I only lived outside my passport country for two years as a teenager. Speaking from personal experience, I had a rocky entry to life there and a rocky re-entry to my passport country. But I can’t speak for everyone. So when TCK Training did our survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile TCKs, one of the questions we asked was “How many years did you live outside your passport country?” And now we have some answers.

Our latest white paper was just published: Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods: Providing Individualized Support to Increase Positive Outcomes for Higher Risk Families (released October 26). It contains ten ‘mini-papers’ looking at different factors in the lives of TCKs and how they impacted Adverse Childhood Experiences. The first factor we looked at was length of time lived abroad. 

As we analyzed the data, something quickly became clear. Those who spent the least time outside their passport countries had the highest ACE scores. That is to say, living a shorter period of time abroad was associated with higher levels of abuse and neglect.

  • 19% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years were physically abused at home, compared to 12% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 13% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported physical neglect, compared to only 6% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 45% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported emotional neglect, compared to 30% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 44% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported that an adult in their childhood home experienced mental illness, compared to 28% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years.
  • 21% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years had a high-risk ACE score, compared to only 7.5% of missionary kids who lived abroad 16-18 years. 

What does this mean?

These numbers demonstrate correlation, not causation. We cannot look at this and say that staying overseas a long time causes healthy families. But we can say that a higher percentage of families who lived overseas a long time were healthier. In the rest of this post we will look at three potential factors related to this, as well as what we can do about it.

Transition is hard

Every location move is a big transition and a disruption to both family life and peer relationships. We previously noted a correlation between high mobility and high-risk ACE scores (see our paper Caution and Hope for more on this). Those who spend a short time overseas are likely to have made two international moves in a short period of time – a high level of transition and disruption. These ‘short term’ families are therefore in more need of transition and repatriation support, not less!

Expat life brings out the hard stuff

Good expat preparation tells individuals and couples to prepare for the hardest parts of their personal lives to go into overdrive due to the stress of transition and intercultural living. Some families discover that the stress of this life is not good for them and choose to return to their passport countries. TCKs who lived their entire lives outside their passport countries are more likely to belong to healthy families, as these families are more likely to choose to stay abroad. 

In order to stay healthy, parents need mental health support. The level of mental illness seen in families who spend shorter times abroad show that this is a big problem in need of addressing.

We can’t blame it on external trauma

Another reason that families may not spend their children’s whole childhood abroad is if a traumatic event takes place. Yet TCKs who lived abroad 13-18 years were more likely to report experiencing or being impacted by a violent event than those who spent 0-6 years abroad. 

Our hypothesis here is that when families have strong communities in which they are supported, giving them personal support to parent well and family support through difficult situations, they are healthier overall. This is better for the family long term than going through an additional transition (with accompanying dislocation and disruption) to receive care elsewhere.

What does ‘safe’ look like? 

This data shatters the myth that there is a ‘safe’ number of years for a family to live abroad. A shorter time abroad may mean a child is less likely to have deep identity and belonging struggles, but that is not true for all TCKs. A shorter time abroad definitely does not mean a family will not struggle with culture shock and reverse culture shock. All families making an international move should receive transition training and repatriation support, no matter how long or short their time abroad. 

If ‘safe’ is not about time, what is it about? I contend that ‘safe’ is all about family health. If parents are emotionally healthy, including mental health supports that enable them to keep their stress levels manageable, they can parent well and be emotionally available to their children. Healthy families have strong parent-child connectedness, so that children feel their parents’ love. This is a key factor in providing safety to children as they transition and grow.

Instead of asking “How many years abroad is safe for kids?” let us start asking “How do we make our homes, families, and communities safe for kids?” We can protect missionary kids by providing emotional safety for them. We can protect missionary kids by caring well for their parents, including mental health support and parenting education. We can protect missionary kids by creating supportive communities that include them and their families. There’s no ‘safe’ number of years abroad for every family, but together we can work to provide every family with the level of care they need to thrive on the field.


For more information:

TCK Training’s research. This includes free access to all three white papers, along with blog posts about specific groups, such as missionary kids. 

Free PCEs miniseries. PCEs are Positive Childhood Experiences. This miniseries offers information on providing emotional safety and protection to children as they grow up abroad.

Self-Guided Transitions Course, with videos, exercises, and more. This course is designed to support families (and inform caregivers) through all stages and types of transitions.

Photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

5 Ways to Accept Impermanence and Create Roots Anyway

The one-year lease just came up on our house here in Southeast Asia. We love this house. My anxiety set in: Will we get to rent another year? Will the rent go up? How long can this place be “home?”

The cross-cultural life is full of impermanence. I avoid buying my kids big stuffed animals because I know they won’t fit in the suitcases when we leave. I avoid buying too many sets of clothes because a week’s worth is all that will fit in a suitcase anyway. I avoid buying furniture besides the bare minimum or much of any household or seasonal decorations because this house/place/location isn’t forever. We were reluctant to get a pet for the same reasons – though in the end we did. 

I know someday we’ll be moving on. This isn’t our passport country. Maybe we won’t get our visas next year. Maybe the government will be unfriendly to foreigners. Maybe a crisis will bring us back to America, or maybe we’ll move because of our kids’ educational or emotional needs. Maybe we’ll get sick and need better medical care, or maybe our funding just won’t come in. Saying “maybe” in this impermanent life is both second nature and a constant opportunity to worry.

Permanence feels like security, and in Western culture, security is something that we crave, idealize, sacrifice to, and worship. In my book about American idols, security is seated near the top. Security in our house, our job, our relationships, our finances, our safety makes us feel in control. (Incidentally, I believe control is the American idol at the very top.)

I serve in a Buddhist context. One of the most important ideas in Buddhism is the idea of impermanence. Buddhists believe we can avoid suffering by being unattached to life. Unattached to physical things, but also unattached from relationships, family, and love. The goal is to empty yourself of desire until you can reach enlightenment. You can follow in the way of Buddha and leave your family, become a monk, unattached and unsecure, relying on your daily ration of rice given each morning by the generous neighbors surrounding the pagoda in your community. Impermanence is a central tenet of Buddhism. 

We aren’t Buddhists. We follow Jesus Christ. But on some points, Buddhism and Christianity can have some common ground. Minimalism is good for the Christian. We see Jesus choose that path and encourage His followers to walk in His steps. It is good to live a simple life that is not focused on the accumulation of things to fill the emptiness in our lives. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” 

One of the central claims of Jesus is that “to save your life, you must lose it.” As believers, we hope and believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Just as He rose again, we will rise again to a permanent, eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” we sing together with vigor. But our daily lives often don’t reflect this impermanent reality. 

For Christians, minimalism and impermanence help us to more readily follow Jesus and focus on our eternal life after death. But what about feeling planted and grounded in a community and a culture? What about creating healthy spaces for our TCKs to grow and develop? What about our Christian ideals to encourage the connections to community, love, and family? 

How can we develop healthy family patterns and routines that give us stability and ground our kids in an ever-changing impermanent environment filled with instability, loss, and a constant supply of “maybes”? 

Here are five practices our family has found to be helpful. 

Accept that change is a part of normal. 

Impermanence is part of life, whether living overseas or in your passport country. Our friends who have never lived cross-culturally can and do understand unexpected change that leads to loss. We may have experienced different types of losses, but we have a lot in common, too. Security in permanence is an illusion, no matter where we live.

Practice gratitude.

Gratitude is consistently linked to greater happiness and more positive emotions in modern psychology. We are commanded to show gratitude to God, but it should also be a natural overflow of our Christian life. Start a gratitude practice of actually writing down what you are thankful for each day, especially when you are in a season of transition or when you are struggling to accept the changes in life. 

Develop family rituals and routines that you can take with you wherever you go. 

Get creative and be simple. Start routines that can easily transfer with you regardless of location or special supplies. Maybe you can do your daily Bible story/snack time every afternoon. Or you can say the Lord’s Prayer together every night before bed. Make holiday traditions transferable, too. We “trick or treat” to each door in our house on Halloween and hand out candy, and we hang up a paper and cardboard Season’s Tree in our dining room to decorate for each season. 

Do what works for your family, but do something! Find simple and sustainable traditions and routines that can ground your family and create continuity between locations. Seek out education, help, and resources for your TCKs. The time, money, and energy are worth the investment for their future. Help them process and mourn their grief when things change.

I’ve developed a free processing tool that goes along with my new children’s book, When We Called Myanmar Home. There are also many other activities and processing tools available from varied sources. Ask your community or organization for recommendations and help. 

Don’t isolate yourself from love and connection, even when those friendships or family members may not be here forever.

Turn to others for comfort and support. Share and mourn the impermanent losses together with others who can listen and understand. Talk about your desire for security, home, and physical objects with others. Keep your heart soft. Stay connected with key relationships in your life, and keep investing in new relationships. 

Accept impermanence as a promise of God, rather than a threat to your security. 

Remind yourself again that everyone’s lives are impermanent and sometimes unpredictable. Security and control are Western cultural idols, and God won’t share His glory. He will knock the idols down on their faces. 

God promises both “peace that passes understanding” and that “in this world you will have troubles, but I have overcome the world.” Each day has enough worry of its own, and Jesus has come to “give us life to the full.” 

Our circumstances, location, and relationships may change, but God’s promises are true and lasting. “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20). 

If you, like me, struggle at times to feel secure in the promises of God to be your security in an ever-changing world, start a “Promises of God” journal, writing down His promises to you as you read them in Scripture or as He speaks to your heart in prayer. Read through the journal when you are struggling to see God’s promises fulfilled in your current circumstance. Lament to God and share your feelings with Him. He will be faithful to you. 

We can be healthy, and we can have healthy families even as we live and serve in a world of impermanence and uncertainty. Colossians 2:6-7 tells us, “Just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him.” We can be rooted in Him wherever we go. 

God created this world to be impermanent, but our eternal life on the new heaven and new earth will last forever. He is “the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end . . . the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” We can be rooted in our relationships, in our routines and traditions, in our gratitude, in the promises of God, and in Christ himself, the one who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” 

If I Weren’t a Missionary

If I weren’t a missionary, my life would be so much easier.
I’d find just one place to call home, which would be far superior.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t feel the pressure of so many eyes on me,
But maybe that’s what I needed to finally allow You to set me free.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t have to learn a whole new way to speak,
But maybe I also wouldn’t have learned what God says about the meek.

If I weren’t a missionary, I might feel more free to speak whatever is on my mind.
But I certainly wouldn’t have learned to listen, and I’d probably still be walking around blind.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t feel so naked and stripped of all I once was and knew,
But I might not have uncovered all the lies I once believed to be true.

If I weren’t a missionary, I might still have a social life filled to the brim,
But would I have ever learned to find my identity in Him?

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone,
But maybe I’d still be marching around with a heart of stone.

If I weren’t a missionary, I’d probably still be eating every meal with a fork and knife.
But would I have learned to hunger so much for the bread of life?

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t always feel so inadequate and weak,
But perhaps I would never have realized how often you were inviting me to seek.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t feel so much like I’m on the outside looking in,
But I also wouldn’t have realized how quickly people I barely know can become kin.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t have to worry so much about money,
But would I have realized that His promises are sweeter than honey?

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I’d feel like I actually had a place to call home,
But perhaps then I’d never truly know the pain of those who have to roam.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe tears wouldn’t stream so often down my face,
But would I still know the real goodness of His grace?

If I weren’t a missionary, there might be a million struggles I never had to face,
But would I truly know the comforting warmth of His embrace?

If I weren’t a missionary,
I sometimes wonder what my life would be.

I like to let myself think that all of this is unique to being overseas.
But the truth is, it’s for all who answer the call to “Follow me.”

The call to missions isn’t just for a select few who get on planes and trains,
It’s for all those who bow down before His Name.

The ways He works to bring glory to His name may be different from place to place,
But the end goal is for people of every nation and race to seek His face.

When things are hard out here, I find myself looking around for somewhere else to be,
But every time God reaches down and speaks right back to me.

More of you and less of me, whether here or there, that’s how I want it to be,
Even if I had never become a missionary.


Saints Amongst Us


Tomorrow is All Saints Day. I love All Saints Day for the way it anchors me in the past and points to the future. Hebrews 11 and 12 is one of the best known remembrances for the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. 

While I know that not all who serve on the field come from a rich faith heritage, when people start to share their story there is often at least someone in their family’s past who wasn’t a stranger to Truth.

Who are some of the saints in your family? Whose faithful shoulders are you standing on?

In my family it is my Grandma Young. Even as I type this memories of her come racing back though she has been gone from this world for more than 30 years. A strong memory that captures my grandma’s two great loves of Jesus and her family involves a weekend that our parents left my sisters and me at our grandparents.  

Grandma faithfully played the piano at her church.  We were too young to sit in church alone while she played, requiring our grandpa to attend with us. Grandma wore hearing aids to help her hear, but for some reason on that day the three of us belted out the hymns so loudly she probably didn’t need them! Grandpa was a sport to stand there, towering over the three of us when he probably wanted to shrink away from the smiling stares.

I wasn’t aware of Grandpa’s strong discomfort of everyone looking at us at the time. What I remember is watching my grandma play with gusto and joy as she beamed at the three of us joining her in singing to God. I have no doubt that I was in China as a result of her prayers and faithful life.

As the generational mantle is now being passed on in our family and I see the potential in my nieces, I wonder the ways in which they will join the cloud of witnesses. But on this day, instead of looking to the future, join with the author of Hebrews and as we fix our eyes on Jesus, be reminded of the ways he has worked in your life and family.

Who are the saints in your family?