5 Ways to Cope When Your Incarnational Ministry Becomes Remote

Over a decade ago we joined an organization whose primary goal was Bible translation and church planting with a focus on incarnational ministry. 

We did national language in a large city for three years before God nudged us to step out in faith and make a big move to a more rural area where we could live among the people group we had been led to serve in Bible translation. 

This move was fraught with challenges and change. No one within our organization had ever moved out to the rural areas of our country before. We’d be the first to attempt it. Could we do it?

We had to figure out a visa situation (and once we did, we had to leave the country every 70 days to renew it). We had to find housing. We had to travel with our three very young children (ages 4, 2, and baby at the time). We knew absolutely no one in the area to help us. I was also pregnant with baby number four. It was… a lot. 

But God. We felt a call to go, and we went. It was difficult. And God showed up through each difficulty. My husband met just the right people who helped set up a perfect visa situation for us. We made some connections. We thought the city was livable and doable. Even my little four-year-old’s prayers were answered for a “sparkly house,” which we had initially told her might not happen because houses in our country of service were never “sparkly.” 

After a month of trial and difficulty, we had a visa, a house, a few connections, and hope that God had called us to serve incarnationally in this place we could grow to love. We felt hope and peace. 

God grew our community and ministry. Our home became the center of our lives and our incarnational ministry. We had no privacy; but we did have friends, neighbors, and national co-laborers who saw us living out our Christian faith day in and day out. 

We loved our simple, yet hard life. We ate fresh food from the market, which I had to buy daily. We struggled with lack of consistent electricity and mosquito-borne illnesses. We struggled with isolation, loneliness, and a lack of Christian community.

Yet we felt called to this life of incarnational ministry, and the sacrifices seemed worth it. We felt God was with us, was for us, and had planned this life for us. 

Then covid hit. We decided to stay in our home in our country of service, come what may. Isolation became even more of a reality. Opportunities for incarnational ministry waned. Ministry goals were put on hold.

We started becoming disconnected even from our national co-laborers who were either home in their villages or confined to work from their homes. It was a very difficult time for our family and the life of our ministry. We couldn’t wait for the covid restrictions to end. 

And then, an even greater disaster struck: a military coup. The instability and violence that followed prompted our organization to ask us to leave. We left our home in 24 hours with two suitcases for our entire family, which had grown to eight. 

We had lived in our rural area for five years. We had no time to say proper goodbyes or give any of us proper closure. We had no choice and no warning. Our incarnational ministry in the land and country we loved was over. 

That was in 2021. We’ve recently commemorated the third year anniversary of the military coup that changed our lives forever. We haven’t stopped our work; the ministry has continued in our absence. But it isn’t the same. 

Despite our organization’s focus on incarnational ministry, despite our ministry plans and long-term goals, despite what we wish would have happened, we haven’t been able to go back and live among the people we desire to serve. 

And we aren’t alone. We’ve met so many people over the last three years in our same situation and predicament. Covid. Visa issues. Political instability. War. Evacuation. Loss.

Whatever has caused your ministry disruption over the last few years, I pray that these five reminders will help you adjust your expectations and continue to move forward, even though things have not turned out how you envisioned. 

1. Grieve what you’ve lost.
Take time to lament to God why you’re mad, frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, or heartbroken that what you wanted didn’t happen. Write a poem. Journal. Pray with a friend. Confess your feelings in a small group. Get counseling. Write a list of all the things you no longer have. Then, loop through that grieving process again (and again) until you feel you have unstacked all those hard emotions and shared them with God and with good listeners. 

2. Accept the new reality.
This step was perhaps the hardest for me. It is hard to let go of one dream to live in a new reality you weren’t planning on. But it is necessary to both grieve what you’ve lost and then move forward in accepting the new reality and making the most of it. Things aren’t what you planned or what you wanted, but can you accept that your life isn’t over and that God can still use you in a new way during a new season? 

3. Make prayer your key strategy.
Make your dependence on God the forefront of your ministry and personal goals. God knows the situation that led to your ministry changing, and he knows you intimately. He cares about the people you serve and the work you are doing. Petition God in prayer to lead you, your team, and your ministry.

Remember that all your work depends on the grace of God, and all your “success” depends on God calling people to himself. God’s Holy Spirit could only come after Jesus ascended to heaven. God’s Spirit will continue to work even after you’ve had to leave.

4. Enlist help for #3.
As you make prayer your ministry strategy, share your detailed needs with your family, churches, and supporters. We’ve found it helpful to get supporters to commit to pray one day each month for you and your ministry and coworkers rather than just include prayer requests in newsletters (although that is good too).

You can ask people to “adopt” a day between 1 and 31 and ask them to pray and send a brief message on that day each month. It adds daily prayer support to your ministry and adds accountability. We’ve also created monthly prayer guides focusing on a specific aspect of ministry, shared prayer requests in a closed social media group, sent out emails and newsletters, and shared specific personal prayer needs with specific people.

5. Keep hope that God will turn evil into good for His Kingdom.
It’s easy to give up and become cynical about visa problems, government politics, war, and conflict. It’s easy to abandon the goals for your work and ministry as impossible because of a situation that is out of your control. Resist that temptation. Hold on to hope that God has always used evil for His good and for the expansion of His Kingdom. 

Your role and work may have changed, your location may have changed, your ministry may look different than you wanted it to, but God is still working. He is still with you and your national coworkers. He still loves you, and He still loves the people you serve. 

So hold onto hope. Keep praying, and keep working. Remember that God’s Spirit makes up for our lack. Trust that God’s Word will go where we cannot. And keep believing that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

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Julie Jean Francis

Julie Jean Francis has lived as an alien and stranger in Southeast Asia since 2012. With her husband, she serves among a large, unreached people group. Together they raise their (many) Third Culture Kids. Julie is the author of Bowing Low: Rejecting the Idols Around Us to Worship the Living God and its companion Bible study. When We Called Myanmar Home is her first picture book especially for TCKs and those who love them. You can find her online, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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