In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries

Imagine what it would look like if western churches hired their staff with the same priorities that they choose overseas missionaries to financially support.

First of all, a Children’s Pastor would definitely be out.  Not strategic enough; he’s only supporting the children of believers.  Youth Pastor?  Also out, unless he targets neighborhood kids.

How about a Music Pastor?  Or Pastoral Counselor?  Nope.  Those are just support roles.  Not enough front-line ministry.

Administrative Pastor?  Receptionist?  Good heavens.  We could never dream of paying someone for those kind of inconsequential jobs.

How about a Preaching Pastor?  Well…..that’s if-y, but he probably doesn’t make the cut either.  After all, he’s only feeding the Body.  Most of the time, he’s not actually reaching the lost.

So that pretty much leaves only the positions of Community Outreach Pastor or Evangelist.  Yet how many churches even have those paid positions?

I’m not suggesting that churches go about firing two-thirds of their staff.  I just want to talk about a double-standard I often see.

Let me introduce you to the class system among missionaries. 

Who is on the A-List?  Well, that would be the Church Planters.  Among unreached people groups gives you A+ status.  Pastoral Trainers and Bible Translators might be able to squeak by with an A.

The B-List?  Doctors and other health workers, community development and poverty alleviation workers, ESL teachers.

The C-List?  Administrators, missionary member care, MK teachers, or anyone else considered “support.”

Whatever tends to be the current trend in “justice ministry” also often ends up on the A-List.  These days, that’s fighting human trafficking.  It used to be orphan ministry, but that’s pretty much been relegated to B-status now.  It’s cool, but not that cool.

Granted, this class system doesn’t usually originate with the missionaries themselves, but it’s come out of the culture of missions in their home countries.  How many missionaries have sat before missions committees back home who examined if they fit into their “grid” of priorities?  And often that grid looks exactly like the hierarchy I just outlined.

My husband and I worked for eight years in TCK ministry at a missionary school.  When trying to raise support, we called and sent information packets to over 200 churches in California.  We heard back from two.  Churches told us, over and over again, Sorry, but that ministry doesn’t fit into our strategy.  

That all changed when we transitioned to theological training of East African pastors.  Finally, we had churches calling us.  It was nice.  But frankly, kind of frustrating.  We didn’t change ministries so that we would become more popular with churches.  We switched because that’s where God was leading us.  But the truth is, we don’t consider theological training to be any more strategic, or any more exciting, than what we were doing at that MK school. 

Unfortunately, the missionaries themselves are often acutely aware of this hierarchy, and it makes many feel like they are second-class.  Over and over again, I hear things like this from missionaries:

Yes, I love my job as an MK teacher and I know it’s really important, but I fill my newsletters with pictures of the slum I visit once a week.  After all, that’s what my supporters are interested in.

Yeah, I’m a missionary, but not a ‘real’ missionary.  I live in a city and spend a lot of my time at a computer.

My visiting short-term team was supposed to help me out with my ministry to TCK’s, but they only want to spend their time with orphans.  

Why do these missionaries feel this way?  Maybe because when Christians stand up and say, I’m called to missionary care!  I’m called to teach MK’s!  I’m called to missions administration!, the churches say, Well, sorry, you don’t fit in our strategy.  We’d rather get behind the exciting church planters and the pastoral trainers and the child-trafficking rescuers.  Except, we expect them to do it without all the other people they need to be successful.

And so what happens?  The talented church planter gets bogged down by administrative tasks.  The mom who is gifted and called to women’s ministry has no choice but to homeschool.  The child-trafficking rescuer has a nervous breakdown because he has no one to help him work through the trauma of what he is facing.  Missionaries are particularly prone to burn-out.  Could this be partially because they are trying to do too many jobs themselves? 

I’m all about strategy in missions, and it’s important for churches to be careful in their vetting process of potential missionaries.  But can we expand our idea of what strategy means?  Missionaries, as an extension of the Church, must function as the Body of Christ.  Could the Western Church function by only hiring evangelists?  I realize that mission work can have different goals than churches back at home: Missionaries are working ourselves out of a job; they are doing everything they can to replace themselves with national believers.  But to get there, they need the Body of Christ. 

We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.  (Romans 12)

The legs can’t do anything without the arms and fingers and neck.  So go out today and find your nearest missionary accountant or counselor or MK teacher.  Join their support team.  Encourage them in their pursuit of their calling.  Affirm their value to your church or your team.  And remind them they are never second-class.

 

Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions

When we’re on furlough and giving presentations about our ministry as missionaries, we always end with, “Does anyone have any questions?”

A hand goes up.  And the question is inevitable.

“How can we pray for you?”  Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes someone will ask to know more about our ministry.  Or a person we are investing in.  Or maybe, “What has God been teaching you?”

The questions, almost always, are spiritual. 

This is not a bad thing.  Of course, we’re thrilled people want to pray for us.  We are excited if they are excited about our ministry.  But do you know what we long to be asked?

The non-spiritual questions.

Sure, our ministry is extremely important to us.  But that’s only part of the picture of our lives overseas.  We moved to the other side of the world.  We landed in a country that most people only see on the news.  We had to learn new ways of shopping, cooking, eating, sleeping, educating, traveling, parenting, and talking.  It was not easy.  In fact, it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

We are different people now. And it is bursting out of us.  We might look the same on the outside, but we are totally different on the inside.  And you know what?  We long to talk about it with you.  We desperately want you to be interested in all of our other life, not just the spiritual parts. 

My husband and I have been missionaries for 13 years now.  And I must admit:  The people back home who ask us the non-spiritual questions are few and far between.  In fact, they are so rare that they stand out in my memory by name.

I’m not sure why there are so few people who ask the non-spiritual questions.  I think that sometimes, folks just don’t know where to start.  Or maybe they think that they already should know all those things and they don’t want to look stupid.  Or maybe they just assume that we don’t really want to talk about such mundane things.  (After all, we’re super spiritual…right?)

So let me just re-iterate:  Please, ask us the non-spiritual questions.  We missionaries would love to answer them.

Not sure where to start?

That’s easy.  Start with what you are interested in.

Are you into technology? Then ask about the part that technology plays in your missionary’s country.  Ask about internet speed.  Ask about cell phones.  Ask how technology is shaping the culture.

Are you into fashion?  Then ask about styles and fabric and cultural modesty standards in your missionary’s country.  Ask how your missionary manages to blend her own sense of fashion into her new culture.

Are you a foodie?  Then ask about grocery shopping and cooking.  Ask about whole food options, if you are into that.  Ask about the struggles your missionary has faced in adapting to a new diet.

Are you a mom?  Then ask your (mom) missionary about what it’s like to raise kids overseas.  Ask about what her kids have struggled with and how this new life has changed them.

Are you fascinated by politics?  Then ask about the government of your missionary’s country.  Ask how America’s politics (or your home country) has affected your missionary’s country.

I think you get the idea.  How about health care?  Transportation?  Housing?  Architecture?  Language?  The sky is the limit.  You will learn something new, and you will make your missionary friend’s day just by being interested.

Now, it is true that not all these questions will be appropriate during a group presentation.  But when you are one-on-one with your friend, or you have her family over for dinner, or when you are responding by email to their newsletters, please, ask the non-spiritual questions!

And if you know your particular missionary really well?  Then don’t be afraid to go deeper.  All missionaries need someone in their lives who is asking them about their marriage, their emotional state, the needs of their kids, and their walk with God.  Just keep in mind:  Don’t ask the deep questions if you are not ready to be a safe place.  Don’t ask these questions unless you are prepared to be entirely confidential.  Most people don’t have their job on the line if they confess to marriage problems or depression—but missionaries often do.  This makes them terrified to share openly about the hard issues.  Be a safe place—and work together with your friend if you think someone else needs to be brought into the conversation.

So yes—if it’s the right time and place and you are the right person—then go deep.  But asking about the everyday stuff can be just as important.  Being interested in your friend’s life overseas is one of the absolute best ways of showing your love.

You know who are our favorite groups to talk to back home?  Children.  They have no inhibitions!  We get asked:  “Do you ride elephants?  Do you eat bugs?”  We absolutely love it.  Sometimes we wonder, Do the adults think these things too, but are too afraid to ask?  If that’s the case, then today I give you full permission:  Ask about elephants and bugs.  You will make your missionary friend’s day.

Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You

Dear Supporter,

I wrote you a newsletter today.  I told you about the success in our ministry, about the lives being touched and the happy stories.  Everyone was smiling in all the pictures.  But there is so much more I wish I could tell you.

I wish I could tell you that lots of times I feel like a total failure.  I’ve asked you to pray for the Big Event, or the Camp Sign-Ups, or the Grand Opening.  You might not realize that afterwards, I don’t always tell you how it went.  That’s because sometimes, despite weeks of hard work and lots of prayer, the event is a total flop.  Five people show up.  Or no one.  And I can’t bring myself to tell you.

Then there’s the time when I realize that I’ve hurt a national friend.  Or a missionary colleague and I are having a huge conflict.   Or I’ve made a major cultural mistake.  Or I’m just not learning this language.  Or everything blows up in my face.  There are many, many times when I wonder why I’m here, or if I really am the right person for this job.  But I’m afraid to tell you, because then I think you will wonder why I’m here or if I am the right person for this job.

I wish I could tell you about my personal struggles.  Sometimes I feel like you make me out to be more spiritual than I am, but I wish you knew that becoming a missionary didn’t turn me into a saint.  In fact, sometimes I think it brings out the worst in me.  I wish I could tell you about the immobilizing depression or the fights with my spouse.  I wish I could tell you that my anxiety was so bad that I needed to travel to another country to see a professional counselor.  I wish I could tell you about that time my friend was robbed at gunpoint in his home, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward.

I wish you knew that I hate it here sometimes, and there’s nothing more I want than to go home.  But I know I need to stay, so I don’t tell you because I’ve heard the stories of friends forced to go home because they confided in the wrong person.   I don’t tell you because I can’t imagine you would want to support such a flawed person.

I wish I could tell you about the perks.  We live in an exotic place, so sometimes that means that we take our kids snorkeling the way you would take your kids to the park.  Sometimes it means that our conferences or layovers take us to exciting places like Thailand or Johannesburg or Dubai.  Sometimes it means that lobster is cheap or the historic castle is just a day-trip away.

But I am afraid to tell you about these experiences, because I’m afraid you think missionaries are supposed to suffer.  After all, we often live in poor countries and we always subsist on your financial sacrifice.  I’m worried you will think we are being extravagant.  And I’ve heard stories of missionaries who have lost support because of their vacations.  I fear your judgment.

I wish I could tell you that I long for more connection with you.  The first couple years were great because we got lots of care packages and Christmas letters and everyone asked us how it was going.  But time goes on and people move on and we realize that we’re really not that exciting anymore.  It’s hard to come home and feel like we have to be pushy for opportunities to share.  It’s hard to feel like people are intimidated to talk to us because we are so different now.  Our newsletter program tells us that only 60% of our list open our email updates, which isn’t that surprising since we only get a handful of responses.

Part of that is okay because we don’t need care packages as much anymore, and you’ve made new friends and we have too.  But I wish you knew how much it means to me when you remember to ask about a detail I wrote about, or when you continue to send me your Christmas letter.  When we are together, it makes my day when you ask about my life in my other country—when you really look me in the eyes and want to know how it’s going.  Listening is the best gift you can give me.  And the scariest part of feeling disconnected is wondering if people are still praying for us.  So when you tell me that you are still praying for me, that makes all the difference.

I wish I could find a way to express how much you mean to me.  Despite how hard this life can be, I have the tremendous joy of doing God’s work in the place I am called.  And there is no way I could do it without your sacrifice.  I hope you know how important that is to me.  How important you are to me.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Your Missionary

How Do I Make Goals for 2017 When I Know I Can’t Meet Them?

Missionaries are experts in high expectations. 

I mean, who else has a job like this?  Most of us went through a stringent interview process just to get here.  Pages of applications, hours of interviews, weeks of training, our references were asked for more references.  We are held up as examples of godliness.  We have high expectations of the kind of people we will be.

And then, once we are accepted, our pictures are placed in the foyers of churches and on family refrigerators all over the country.  We are paraded around like celebrities.  Not only are we expected to write strategic plans every year and submit them to our supervisors and our supporting churches, but then we are required to write monthly reports to hundreds of stakeholders.  If it feels like they have really high expectations for how we will perform, well, our own expectations are probably even higher.   After all, if we are going to sacrifice so much, if we are going to ask others to sacrifice so much on behalf of us, then we better see results.

Based on our yearly goals (or you could call them glorified New Year’s Resolutions), and the amount of accountability we receive, missionaries should be the world’s most productive and healthy people.  And really, the world should be saved by now.  Right?

On one hand, I’m thankful for this aspect of missionary life.  I am a goal-oriented person, and I like the accountability.  I think it’s a great thing to think long-term about how we are going to accomplish what God is calling us to do.

On the other hand, we just never reach those expectations, do we?  We move overseas, and it brings out the worst in us.  As a spouse.  As a parent.  As a friend.  As a minister to others.  And as for our ministry?  What we felt called to do?  What we felt called to be?  Well, that just never goes as we planned.  And sometimes it’s even a total disaster.

So how do we find that balance?  How do we set goals for ourselves, for our ministry, when we have experienced disappointment and failure?  When we’ve been betrayed by too many friends?  How do we temper the anxiety of not being able to reach the expectations of those who are holding us up?

After 15 years as a missionary, it’s true that my early idealism was smashed a long time ago.  You know those times of wonderful rejoicing, when all is going the way it should?  Well, it just takes one stumble, one new piece of information, and suddenly it all falls apart.  What seems like a happy ending can still turn tragic in the end. 

Does this make me cynical?  It can, sometimes. But I’ve also been around long enough now to learn that sometimes the worst things—when I feel like all is lost—well, sometimes in the end they weren’t such a big deal after all.  Or even if they were, God can beautifully redeem them.

I have learned to just trust.  John Piper writes, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”  So yes, we do need to plan, we do need to dream big, we do need to work hard towards God-centered goals.  But in the end, we must remember that this is God’s work, and He will do as He pleases.

I love these words by Andree Seu Peterson:  “Only God sees around corners, and therefore it is very wise to not try to figure out our own way to happiness and safety by relying on our own understanding and worldly wiles. The wise person will trust in God’s ways and stick to them, knowing that life can get messy in the middle, because the person who makes God his trust, the story will turn out well in the end, in the very, very end.”

Maybe you’re looking at 2017 with dread.  To you, I say:  Be faithful.  Keep getting up in the morning.  Keep doing what God has called you to.  Keep walking out your front door, even if it’s terrifying.  Keep showing up, because that’s often the most important part.  Or maybe you’re looking at 2017 with great anticipation.  To you, I say:  Be humble.  Be excited, but hold it all loosely, knowing that things aren’t always as they seem.

And in all of it, trust the God who sees around the corner.  We might try to write our story, or at least figure out the ending, but He is the one who already knows it.  And He knows how He wants to get us there.  Set your goals, keep your eyes on Him, and find joy in the journey.  In the very, very end, we know the story will turn out well.

Don’t Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions

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My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 

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Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.

I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.

Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Which is why my first few Christmases as an adult in Tanzania were hard.  I missed my family.  And I missed the smell of wood fires in the air, wearing hats and scarves, and Christmas carols by candlelight.  I mourned over what my children were lacking.   But then I remembered that first Christmas in Liberia, and how I really didn’t care about the absence of icicle lights or pumpkin pie.  I remembered other childhood Christmases in Africa, like when our neighbors from Arizona taught us the Mexican tradition of luminarias—paper bag lanterns that lined the road on Christmas eve.  Or how our British friends introduced us to Christmas crackers, or the time a German guest stuck sparklers in the turkey.  I remembered being thrilled with the goofy, cheaply made presents found at the open-air market.  Or that year in Ethiopia when the Christmas tree was just a green-painted broomstick with branches stuck in it.

Just as TCKs dread the question, “Where are you from?” as a child I also dreaded the question, “What are your family’s Christmas traditions?”  Because growing up, we didn’t have traditions.  Every year was different because we absorbed the traditions of the people around us.  We had a tree, we had each other, and we had joy.  That was enough.

I’ve learned to relax about trying to create traditions or give my children a magical Christmas.  I’ve learned to be happy with our green, warm Christmases in Tanzania, even if it means I need to delete the “winter” songs out of my holiday playlist in order to be content.  My kids don’t need Hershey’s kisses, black-and-gold velvet dresses, or Toys R Us catalogs to be happy.  It’s often refreshing to be away from the commercialism and the psychotic busyness of the States at this time of year.  In fact, sometimes the untraditional, lonely, sparse aspects of an overseas Christmas help us to identify with the Incarnation just a little bit better.

And as for our traditions in Tanzania, they have sprung up naturally, with little effort on my part.  We close the windows and splurge on air conditioning in the living room for two weeks in December.  We have a water balloon fight.  I love to bake, so we make gingerbread houses from scratch.  But even these traditions I hold loosely, knowing that every year will vary by country or climate or what’s available at the grocery store. 

If you are one of those amazing moms who manages to build traditions that transcend country and climate, go for it.  Share your ideas with us.  But if you can’t, or won’t, or the mere thought of it stresses you out, then take a lesson from my childhood and don’t worry about it so much.  If you have a tree—even if it’s two feet tall or made from a broomstick–if you are together, and if you have joy, that’s all you really need.

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When You Want a Different Life

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I live in a tropical paradise.  The glorious Indian Ocean is my backdrop—I can see it between the trees at my house, when I run errands around town, and when I watch my daughter’s soccer games.  For fun we take a little boat to an uninhabited island and snorkel over colorful coral.  The weather is always warm; even in “winter” it rarely goes below 70 degrees at night.  We can drive just a few hours to see all the famous animals of Africa.  I am surrounded by people who are friendly and generous, eager to help and appreciative of any attempt to speak in Swahili.  I can walk down the road to produce stands heaped with fresh pineapples, avocados, mangos, bananas.  I live in a 3 bedroom house with a yard big enough for a soccer field for less than what we paid for our tiny, one-bedroom apartment in California.  I have a house helper who comes four mornings a week and does my cleaning and laundry.

My children attend a top-quality school, an incredible place that is the best of many worlds.  Their teachers are kind and wise Christians, and their classmates come from a wide range of nationalities and religions.  Their curriculum includes art, music, computers, Swahili, and swimming.  My husband and I work in pastoral training and have the privilege of seeing lightbulbs go off for church leaders as they grasp God’s sovereignty or grace for the first time.  We get to do something significant for eternity, and we get to have fun while we do it.

Sound great?  Envious?  Wish you had my life?

It’s all true.  But this is also true:

I live in a developing country.  Infrastructure is poor in this city of five million.  That translates into snarled traffic where many drive dangerously, little law enforcement, garbage piled next to the streets, and no public parks.  Customer service is not a cultural norm.  There are often a lot of bugs.  And rats.  And snakes.  Electricity and water supply are unpredictable.  There are three seasons:  hot, hotter, and rainy (which is still hot).  The humidity is suffocating for most of the year.

Crime is high.  Our car has been broken into twice.  I can easily list off two dozen good friends who have experienced violent home invasions.  One was slashed in the head with a machete.  One was stabbed.  Another was shot at.  We sleep behind alarms, padlocks, and iron bars.

As we’ve struggled to get our ministry off the ground, we have often felt like failures.  We often feel like we are in over our heads.  In twelve years, there have been times when everything we’ve worked for has blown up in our face.  Language learning is incredibly exhausting and often discouraging.  The missionary community is a constantly revolving door, and every year we lose good friends and have to start over again with relationships.  My parents visit once a year, but it will have been three years by the time we are able to see all of our other family members.  As the years go on, we feel the pain of lost memories with our family more acutely.

Maybe my life doesn’t seem so great after all.

Two perspectives.  Two ways of seeing the same life.  My goal in these descriptions is not to invoke envy or pity but simply perspective.  I’ve found that when things are going well in my life, I focus on all the good stuff.  When life stinks, all I see is the bad.  Yet both perspectives are equally true at all times.  It’s just a matter of what I choose to focus on. 

These ebbs and flows are a part of life, and sometimes our perspective will change even throughout the day—especially when adjusting to a new place.  But what we do often forget is that we have a choiceMaybe we can’t always control our mood, but we can control what we think about.  What we focus on.  What we choose to see around us.  I can guarantee that if I choose to focus on the negative things around me, then everything else rotten will be highlighted.  If I look for the positive, more good things will come into focus.  And here’s the Truth:  There’s always something positive.  Always something to be thankful for.  Always.

Instead of allowing my mood to dictate my perspective, my desire is to train my perspective to dictate my mood.  If Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom, languishing in a Nazi concentration camp, could learn to thank God for the fleas because they kept the guards away from their Bible study, then I too can learn to focus on what is positive.  The God who commanded us to give thanks in all circumstances will also give us the perspective carry it out.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil. 4:8)

When we want a different life, maybe we just need a different perspective.

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*baby sea turtle photos by Gil Medina

How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

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In our twelve years as missionaries, we’ve seen some doozies of short-term teams.  The first team we witnessed up close (which was a large group of fully-grown adults) thought it would be funny to see how many days each of them could go without showering.  Of course, they had a perfectly good shower available to them, but they had some sort of a bet going (or something).  We did not find it funny.  Nor did our local friends.

We saw other short-term team members who openly criticized the missionary who was hosting them–because apparently living here for three weeks made them experts.  Another church insisted on sending their missionary a gigantic team of about twenty people.  The missionary had no idea what to do them all, so they ended up painting walls.  In a city where there’s 40% unemployment.

Eventually we started hosting our own short-term teams.  Though they weren’t without bumps, thankfully we never experienced any total disasters.  We learned a lot along the way, and got better at it as time went on.  There’s been a lot written that’s been directed at the short-term participants.  But since this is the time of year when churches might be contacting you about hosting a summer team, I want to focus on you:  The Host Missionary.

How can you ensure that your visiting team will be the best-ever?  Here’s what I’ve learned.

 

  1. “Exposure” is a perfectly good purpose for a team, so let’s not pretend it has to be more. 

There are basically two types of short-term teams.  A skilled team is a group of people with a specialized skill who come to fill a specific need, like medical, dental, specialized construction, or technology.  The other kind (which tends to be the majority of short-term teams) is an unskilled team.  I’m talking about a group of people with willing hearts, curious minds, and a hard-working attitude who want exposure to missions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that these kind of teams have no skills to offer—because of course they do, and their enthusiasm and critical mass might be just what you need for your ministry project.  But the primary purpose for this kind of team is exposure, and it’s really important that you get that clear in your mind and in their minds. 

I think that a lot of the pitfalls of short-term missions can be prevented when we all recognize the elephant in the room and name the true purpose of most teams.  There is nothing wrong with a group of people going overseas to learn about culture and missions.  In fact, it can be incredibly beneficial.  But from the beginning, you need to make sure your team knows its purpose.  If you ask for a building team, is your real purpose because you need the funding?  Then be honest about your motives, and make sure you are careful not to steal the dignity and independence of your community.  Do you ask for a team because you really just want to build a greater connection with your sending church?  That can be a great reason too, but don’t pretend that their assigned “project” is more needed than it actually is.  If we want to fight the mentality of I’m going to save the world in three weeks! and encourage a mindset of learning, then it’s important that we’re straightforward about our motivations.

And if a church wants to send a team, but you really don’t have meaningful work for them to do, don’t just create a job could cause more harm than good to your ministry.  Instead, graciously invite the team to come and learn.  Use your local friends to help the team go through a typical “Day in the Life” of your country.  Set up interviews for the team with other missionaries.  Take them to visit various ministries.  Have them experience local places of worship.  Ask them to take notes and participate in discussions.  And even if you do have a specific task you need them to accomplish, make sure they know from the beginning that learning is going to be a big part of the purpose of their trip.

 

  1. How much you communicate ahead of time will directly correspond to the level of success of the team.

There needs to be one leader on your side and one leader on their side, and before the trip, all communication needs to flow through only these two people to the rest of the people involved.  If you are co-hosting the team with another missionary, pick one to do the communication.  If the team has co-leaders, you need to know which one is really in charge.  We learned this the hard way, so trust me on this.  You will avoid a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings this way.

The more you communicate ahead of time, the better the trip will go.  Get detailed.  Write a purpose statement for the trip about what you want to gain and what you want the team to gain, and a concise, daily schedule.  Require the team to read cultural or historical information about your country or people group.  Tell them exactly how you want them to prepare.  (I highly recommend requiring Cross-Cultural Servanthood for all team members.)  Tell them exactly what you want them to bring (or leave behind).  Anticipate questions before they arise.  Answer emails quickly.

 

  1. Their best learning will come from you personally.

The worst thing you can do with a short-term team is to drop them off at their “ministry” and leave them for the day.  Not only will the results be unpredictable, but the team will significantly lose out on their main source of learning:  YOU. 

If a team is going to learn what missions really looks like, they need to be around you and your community as much as possible.  You are the host.  Helping the team to be a success will take more time than you can imagine.  You need to integrate them into your entire schedule for the duration of the time they are in your country.   This means that you avoid housing the team in a hotel or church building.  Instead, arrange for them to stay with you in your home or the homes of national friends, even if it means they sleep on the floor.  Sure, that might mean that they see your messes and they might even witness you snap at your spouse.  But they’ll also see how your routines flow with the culture, how you interact with local people, and that hey—even missionaries watch TV sometimes.  Maybe falling off their pedestals is exactly what they need to see you do. 

This doesn’t mean that every time you are with them is a lecture on the benefits of oral storytelling in a non-literate culture.  It means that you see the entire trip as an opportunity to infuse the messy beauty of missions into those who are sharing your life for this short time. 

 

  1. Know your limits and stick to them.

If your car only has room for four extra people, then it’s okay to say that you only want four people.  If you don’t have the energy for high schoolers, then insist on college students.  If you only have two weeks in your schedule available for this trip, then stick to those dates.  It’s really important that you are calling the shots on these things.  Sometimes church leaders at home are so focused on what this trip is going to mean for their people, and you might start feeling pressured to let just one more student join in, or that really mature 15-year-old, or to add just a few more days to the trip.  Of course, if it’s realistic to flex on these things, then do so.  But remember that at the end of the day, you know what is best—for your family, for your ministry, for your energy level.  Push aside those people-pleasing tendencies and shoot straight with the team leader. 

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to be controlling.  (Yep, I said that out loud.)

For years, we hosted short-term teams to run our summer youth camps.  The first summer, we handed the team a blank slate:  Here you go….do what you want…just make this a really great camp!   That was dumb.  We found ourselves constantly putting out fires.  Oh, you can’t sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” since most of these campers are not Christians.  Oops, you can’t play games that allow boys and girls to touch each other….that doesn’t work in this culture.   But these mistakes weren’t the team’s fault!  They were completely new to this country and we hadn’t given them the guidelines to know what was appropriate.

As the years went on, we continued to tighten the reins a little more each year.  We asked the teams to send us the song and game list in advance for our approval.  We chose the camp theme and did the teaching time ourselves.  Of course, we still really needed the teams in significant ways—there was no way we could have run these camps on our own.  But we found that they felt more successful—and we had a much happier experience—by tightly controlling what they did.

This goes against our instincts, since everything in missions right now is about not controlling, and instead releasing people to do the work themselves.  But that doesn’t apply to bright-eyed Americans who have never stepped foot on the continent before.  If you’ve only got a team for a few weeks, then yes, you need to control everything about what they do, say, eat, and sleep.  Want to avoid some of those short-term team nightmares you hear about?  Then be controlling.  And make sure they know ahead of time that’s what they should expect.

This means you might need to say things like this:

No, we don’t want you to bring your digital devices to the village, and only one person will be the designated photographer.

Yes, girls do need to wear long skirts, and here’s a picture of what I mean when I say “long skirt.” Let me explain to you why this is important.

You know, it’s really not actually funny that you’re making a game out of not showering.  Let me point the way to the bathroom. 

 

  1. But also be full of grace.

Yes, stick to your limits.  Yes, be the one in control.  But be nice about it.  Keep your expectations in check.  Remember the mistakes you made when you went on these kind of trips, or when you first arrived in your country.  Hopefully you will have agreed to this trip prayerfully and carefully, so if things go wrong, you can trust that God is in control.  And since your life is the primary way that this team is going to learn anything on this trip, then let them go back home saying, The grace of God was with them. 

 

If you have hosted a short-term team, what have you learned?  If you have participated on a short-term team, what is your advice for the hosts?

 

When It All Blows Up In Your Face

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Sixteen years ago, my husband and I were all of 24 years old when we arrived in Tanzania for our first term.  We had only been married nine months, and we were passionate and dedicated, but incredibly naïve.  We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.

We were working in youth ministry in a local church plant, and my husband was coaching sports as a way to get to know young people.  One young man came into our lives with a real interest in the gospel.  He was earnest and really seemed sincere, and it wasn’t long before he made a profession of faith.  Since he was from a religion that is usually opposed to Christianity, we were thrilled.

Over the next year and a half, this young man dominated our time and our prayer updates.  He was in our home almost every day.

Then, six weeks before we left the country, we found out he had been regularly stealing money from us.

We returned to the States utterly shattered.  For many other reasons, it had been an extremely difficult two years.  This young man had been a bright spot, and when that blew up, we were completely demoralized and totally disillusioned.

By the grace of God, a couple years later we were back in Tanzania, older, wiser, and a lot more wary.  Yet even the loss of our naiveté didn’t really prepare us for everything we would see and experience over the next ten years.  Like the ugly split of the indigenous church we attended.  Or the married missionary of multiple children who ran off with a woman from the village where he was church planting.  Or that time when the national leader who was raised up by missionaries ended up being a narcissist who abused his team.  And the worst?  A local pastor—discipled, installed, and supported by missionaries for over ten years—was discovered to have an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter.

Boom.  And just like that, everything worked for, everything believed in, goes up in flames.

Though we weren’t intimately involved in any of those situations, we were close enough to feel the shockwaves.  And they shook us to our core.

Disbelief.  Despair.  Disillusionment.  We can handle the loneliness, the inconveniences, and the bugs that come with missionary life, but not this.  Not this.  Many missionaries would say that they would rather be persecuted or deported than have their ministry blow up.  How could this have happened?  Where we did go wrong?  Why are we even here?  What are we possibly going to tell our supporters?

Of course, these kind of life-altering situations happen also in our home countries.  But I think that for missionaries it is especially devastating.  I’ve given up everything for this ministry, and there are hundreds sacrificing so that I can be here, we think.  And this is all I have to show for it?  Blown up bits of carnage?  And then there’s that sinking feeling that maybe we should have known better.  That maybe it’s our fault.

So what do we do?  How do we possibly recover?  Move on?  Start over?

We start by humbling ourselves.  Even if we had no responsibility for what happened, we must do the hard work of searching our souls.  Why am I so devastated?  Only because of the sin, or because this event toppled my idols of reputation and success?  Could my own sin have blinded me to the warning signals I was trying to ignore?  Is this public sin bringing conviction on my own private sin? 

We do the messy work of cleaning up.  This is not the time to gloss over sin or shove it under the rug, despite the temptation to do so.  That doesn’t mean that we must share every sordid detail with the world, but ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.  Go through due process.  Ask hard questions.  Find out who all was affected.  Examine the width and breadth of the shockwaves, and get help for those who need it.  Take personal responsibility when necessary.

We ask for help when we need it.  Out of fear for our reputations, let us not neglect to ask for help.  This is the time to call upon pastors and trusted friends.  Missionary counselors are there, ready and waiting, for times like these.  Let us not foolishly assume that we can handle it on our own.

Most importantly, we do not lose hope.  The great king Solomon was born to the adulterous David and Bathsheba.  Samson was a moral disaster, yet God used him to avenge Israel’s enemies.  Peter denied Christ three times, but went on to be a leader of the Church.  God does not measure success and failure the way we do.  He sees men’s hearts; He knows the beginning and the end, and He can use even the most horrific situation for His good.

In Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes, “If we are going to learn to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us.”

Remember that young man who stole from us?  After we left Tanzania in shreds, we lost contact.  It was the age before social media, and we heard through the grapevine that he had emigrated out of the country.  The betrayal so devastated us that for years we rarely talked about it—even between ourselves.  But time and God’s grace heals all wounds.  We forgave him and moved on.

Then, just a few months ago, out of the blue, he contacted us.  He was visiting Tanzania and wanted to see us.  Of course, we were happy to agree.  We spent a few hours together, reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other’s lives.  After all, we had a lot of great memories together.

Just before we said good-bye, he got quiet and emotional.  Very simply, he apologized for what he had done to us fourteen years previously.

It was a holy moment.

We’re still not sure what God is doing in this man’s life, but we do know for sure that He is not done.  We serve a God of grace and redemption.  We cannot possibly imagine what He has in store.

The Balancing Act of MK Education

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I can still picture them:  Miss Eager, Mrs. Sacra, Miss Davis, and many more.  They gave up a good salary and a steady career to teach missionary kids in an unstable African country.  And I was in their classrooms.

It was the investment of teachers like these who inspired me to pursue education as a career, specifically MK education.  And that’s exactly the path God has taken me.

My 7th grade class at ELWA Academy in Liberia, 1988 (I am front right)
My 7th grade class at ELWA Academy in Liberia, 1988 (I am front right in pink)

As a child living overseas, I experienced both MK school and boarding school.  As an adult, I’ve been involved in MK/TCK education for 12 years.  I’m passionate about MK education, and over the years have spoken to many missionaries about schooling decisions for their children.  Here is what I’ve learned.

 

First, what are the choices?  Some parents have many to choose from, others have only one.  Each has their own advantages and disadvantages to overseas life.

Homeschool:  Maybe you are called to it, no matter where you are living.  Or maybe it’s really the only option available to you.

Pros:  Homeschooling gives you complete control of your kids’ education, and gives the family a lot of flexibility.  It can make travel and transition easier, and it can be a great way to get the kids into the community and include them in your ministry.

Cons:  Homeschooling overseas tends to be more isolating than in your passport country, where there are lots of groups to join.  It also can be challenging for the homeschooling parent to get into the language and culture; and it limits external ministry options for that parent.

 

Missionary school (or Christian international school):  MK schools are not available for many missionaries, but it’s great when they are, because they are specially created to meet the needs of your kids.

Pros:  MK schools can be a great “bridge between worlds” for your kids, especially if the school includes local children.  Usually, MK schools provide good academic and social preparation for returning to your passport country and a safe, nurturing environment that doesn’t require a lot of cultural transition for your kids.

Cons:  Sometimes MK schools create a missionary “bubble” that keeps the children (or even the family) separated from the local culture and language.

 

Boarding school:  Even though boarding school sometimes gets a bad reputation, many wonderful boarding schools exist, and there are good reasons why it is the best option for some families.  I’ve known many families who said they would never send their kids to boarding school, but relented in the end because they could clearly see it was the best option for their kids.  And their kids thrived.

Pros:  For families in cultural settings where kids don’t get to experience any of western life, or if the culture doesn’t allow them to make peer friendships, boarding schools are a wonderful blessing.

Cons:  Pretty obvious:  Being apart stinks.  But often it’s worse for the parents than the kids.

 

Local school:  This is a diverse category!  There are local government schools or private schools, both in English or the local language.  These type of schools have a huge range in cost, resources, academic options, language, discipline style and social dynamics.

Pros:  Local schools can be an amazing way for a family to get into a community.  They are also one of the easiest ways for kids to learn another language and make local friends.

Cons:  These schools are often very different than western schools in culture, language, and teaching/discipline styles.  They can put kids on a huge learning curve, and parents will need to work closely with their children to know how far to push them and how much to support them.  Many times, parents will need to supplement their kids’ academics to make sure they will be ready to eventually assimilate into their home culture.

 

Some considerations when choosing:

  1. Know yourself and know your kids. 

You know yourself and your kids better than anyone else.  Regarding yourself, you need to ask:  Given my ministry calling, language learning requirements, and my own wiring, how much time and energy can I devote to my kids’ education?  Unless your kids are at an effective MK school or boarding school, you will likely need to be highly engaged with your kids’ learning.  More parents can effectively homeschool or supplement their kids’ education than they might realize, but it is important to consider how your kids’ schooling will balance with your ministry.

Regarding your kids, you need to ask:  How adaptable are my children?  Would they be able to handle school “cold turkey” in a new language?  How far can I push my kids in a hard situation without breaking their spirits?  How many transitions have they already gone through?   How will this type of education affect my child’s ability to make friends?

You might not always have the right answers, and even the right answers might change from year to year or kid to kid.  Every year and each child is different, and it is totally okay for each child to do school a different way.

As a side note, let’s remember that this is true for every family, so let’s make sure to support other family’s educational choices, even if they are different from our own.

 

  1. Remember that you are always your child’s most important teacher.

You, Mom and Dad, are the most important teachers in your children’s lives, whether or not you homeschool them.  Keep this in mind when considering their education.  Does your child’s school ignore the history of your passport country?  Then make the effort to teach it to them yourself during the summer months.  Is your child going to school in a different language?  Then you need to supplement their education with your own English lessons.  Is your child being indoctrinated by a secular worldview?  Then make sure you are actively and intentionally training them in a biblical one.  Don’t just sit by and fret about the gaps in your child’s education.  These days, there are a plethora of resources available to parents; take advantage of them.

 

  1. Don’t worry so much.

I attended seven schools growing up.  So much change was hard at times, but each school played a part in making me who I am today, and I’m thankful for those experiences.  A missionary friend told me how both her girls were held back a grade due to so many transitions, but eventually both graduated from college with honors.  As a teacher who is now raising her own kids, I am far more concerned about my kids’ social and spiritual progress than I am about their academic grades.  I know that the academics will come; the other stuff is a lot more important.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry at all.  Your kids’ education is a big deal, and you need to take it seriously.  But if they lose three months of school because of a move, or the homeschooling shipment doesn’t make it on time, or your kids’ MK school has a substandard substitute for six months, don’t panic.  In the older grades, it does get more complicated, but especially when they are young, your kids will recover.  As long as your kids are at least average learners, they will catch up.  It will be okay.

There is an exception:  If your child has a diagnosed learning disability, or if you have any suspicion he or she might have one, then you must take it very seriously.  Some learning disabilities absolutely require early intervention to have the best results.  So find a specialist to Skype with, and don’t put off getting help quickly.

 

  1. There’s never going to be a perfect situation, so trusting God is important.

Perhaps the best question to ask yourself is:  How can I best balance the needs of my children with the ministry God has called us to?  At times, you might feel like that balance is like standing precariously on the top of a sharpened pencil.

No matter what educational road you go down, there are going to be bumps.  There are going to be things your kids miss out on, there are going to be many transitions, and you will probably make the wrong decision sometimes.  Thankfully, God is holding our children, He knows what is best for them; and He can redeem even the hard circumstances of our kids’ lives.

 

This is a big issue; really too much for one blog post!  So let’s get the conversation started.  This is a great place to ask questions or share your advice.  What works for your family?  How about we hear from some MK’s themselves?  And if we broaden this discussion to non-missionary TCK’s, we can bring in other types of schooling as well.  How can you add to the discussion?  Lots of people want to hear! 

Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?

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Esta was my best kept secret for a long time.

Esta comes to my house four days a week.  She washes my dishes, does my laundry (even ironing!), cleans my floors and scrubs fingerprints off the walls.  She cuts up fruit and cleans the windows and makes tortillas.  And even though all my friends in Tanzania know about Esta (because they have their own house helpers), I didn’t want anyone in the States to know about her.

I had other secrets too, like the air conditioner in my bedroom, the generator in my garage, and the times we go snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

I figured that if my American friends and supporters knew about these things, they would think I am spoiled.  That my life is way too easy and if they had to be honest, I might just be a little (dare they say it?) lazy.  Maybe the rich wives of Beverly Hills can get away with that lifestyle, but perish the thought that a missionary hire someone to do her dishes.

After all, everyone knows that missionaries are supposed to suffer.

After all, aren’t you counting the cost?  Taking up your cross?  Denying yourself?  Abandoning it all for the sake of the call?  Aren’t you leaving behind family, friends, and Starbucks to fulfill the Great Commission?  After all, isn’t that why you are put on that pedestal and your picture plastered on everyone’s refrigerator?  So that you can emulate the pinnacle of joyful suffering?

When you’re standing there on the center of that church stage, surrounded by hundreds of people praying for you, plane tickets in hand, earthly possessions packed into bags exactly 49.9 pounds each, you feel ready to suffer.  Yes!  I am ready to abandon it all!

And then you arrive in your long-awaited country and you realize that in order to host the youth group, you’re going to need a big living room.  And in order to get the translation work done, you need electricity, which means you need a generator.  And in order to learn the language, you’ll need to hire someone to wash your dishes and help with childcare.

Suddenly, you find yourself living in a bigger house than you lived in your home country, but you are ashamed to put pictures of it on Facebook.  You don’t want to admit to your supporters that you spent $1000 on a generator, and heaven forbid people find out that you aren’t doing your own ironing.

You even find there’s a bit of competition among missionaries themselves.  A couple of friends and I had a good-natured conversation on which of us deserved the “real missionary” award.  I live in an African country, but I’m a city dweller.  “You live in the village with no running water and a pit toilet,” I told one friend.  She responded, “Well, how about Michelle?  She did her cooking outside on charcoal for two years.”  Apparently, if you suffer more, you are a better missionary.  Or more godly.  Probably both.

But does this attitude really come from Scripture?  Yes, Jesus speaks out against hoarding up wealth and loving money more than Him.  We are called to deny our desires for the sake of the gospel.  But it shouldn’t be about choosing to suffer for suffering’s sake, as if suffering equals more godliness.  It’s about choosing to be intentional, and embracing both the suffering and the privileges that come along with it. 

If God has called you to work among the upper-class in India, then you’ll need to live like them, in a modern apartment.  If God has called you to work among the coastal tribes of Tanzania, then you’ll need to live like them, in a simple cinder-block house with a pit toilet.  Each life has its set of challenges.  Each life has its set of blessings. 

When comforts or luxuries come along with God’s calling, should we feel guilty?  Or instead, should we see it as an opportunity for stewardship?  Since I have Esta working for me full-time, it doesn’t mean that I sit around watching television while she cleans my floors.  It means that I have extra time for ministry.  It means that I am happy to open my home for youth group, overnight guests, or large dinner parties, because I know that I have someone who will help me with the work.  Since I do have an air conditioner in my bedroom, it means I am getting much better sleep than those around me.  How am I going to steward that privilege? 

God doesn’t judge our godliness based on our degree of suffering; He looks at our hearts.  Have we made comfort, or even suffering, into an idol?  Are we insisting on a way of life that helps us, or hinders us, from connecting with the local culture?  Or are we being intentional with the lifestyle we have chosen?  Are we using the gifts God has given us to indulge in our comfort or to increase our fruitfulness?  These are the heart questions that are far more important than the outside appearance of suffering. 

We often quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but fail to remember the context of that verse.  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  And what’s the secret?  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

As missionaries, we are usually prepared for being in need and living in want.  We know Christ will strengthen us in times of homesickness, scary diseases, and no indoor plumbing.  But we can also learn to be content when we get to vacation at the historical castle, our ironed laundry is hanging neatly in our closets, and the generator is purring.  Let’s not idolize comfort or be needless martyrs

If your motives are right, then go ahead and buy that air conditioner.  Use it to the glory of God.

5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)

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The Newbie. In August of 2001, that was me. Standing in the dirty house that was going to be my home, totally overwhelmed by the barrage to my senses–smoke in the air, humidity on my skin, roosters crowing. What on earth was I going to cook? How was I supposed to get anywhere? And what the heck was I supposed to do with the trash?  The first meal I attempted was baked potatoes (and only baked potatoes), and I cried in front of my husband because I couldn’t figure out my Celsius oven.

I needed people, someone who could walk me step by step through my life.  I was thrust onto a new team, and into a larger missionary community.  I knew nothing about these people, and yet I needed them desperately.  How should I navigate those relationships?

I’ve lived 11 years in Tanzania since then, and turnover is so high that missionary years are kind of like dog years. Multiply by 7.  Somehow, living here 11 years makes me a veteran.  I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons in those years, including how to use a Celsius oven.  But maybe some of the most important lessons have been in relationships with other missionaries.

At orientation, our mission told us that the number one reason people leave the field is because of relational problems with team members.  Let’s work together to reduce that, starting with these tips to Newbies, from an Oldie.

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1. Hold back the criticism, and look for ways to learn.

When you first arrive, you will notice about 12 things that your missionary team is doing wrong.  Keep your mouth shut.  Instead, ask lots of questions.  After six months, that list will go down to 6 things.  Continue to keep your mouth shut, and ask more questions.  After a year, it will dwindle to 3 things.  At that point, you can humbly, carefully, start bringing up your ideas.

Don’t give up or give in if change doesn’t happen as quickly as you like.  The longer you stay, the more impact you will have on your team, and the more credible your voice will become.  As much as Oldies might grunt and groan about Newbie ideas, we really do need your fresh perspective and new vision.

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2. Lower your expectations of how Oldies should welcome and guide you.

I had been on several short-term missions trips before arriving in Tanzania. I think one of the dangers of STMs is that when you do arrive long-term, you expect to be treated the same way: The red carpet thrown out, someone who holds your hand everywhere you go, all your meals bought and prepared for you.  But when you arrive in a country to live, it won’t look quite like that.  If you don’t get the welcome you expect, if there’s not a parade for you at the airport or your house isn’t ready, it’s easy to think that the Oldies don’t really want you there.  But that’s not true!  Remember that missionaries are almost always overworked and distracted.  Plus, a lot of Oldies have just forgotten what it feels like to be a Newbie.  If you feel thrown in the deep end, well, you probably are.  You will have to learn to fend for yourself quickly and it will definitely be overwhelming.  Try to prepare your heart and mind for this ahead of time.

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3. You may need to take the initiative in asking Oldies for help.

Even though Oldies might not be able to walk you through every step of the way, there are plenty of us out there who are eager to help.  We can be a listening ear; we can commiserate by telling you horror stories of our own adjustment; we can tell you the best place to buy pita bread or how to find a refrigerator mechanic.  Most Oldies are happy to answer your questions–but they probably won’t come to you; you’ve got to go to them.  There’s a lot of Newbies out there, and it can be hard for us to know how to meet all those needs. You will have to take more initiative in relationships than you realized.  That doesn’t mean Oldies aren’t glad to have you around. We couldn’t do this work without you, and many of us are happy to help out if you ask.

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4. Remember that missionary communities are eccentric.

If you spent your whole life in one church, you may not have ever interacted with people who are theologically different than you.  Welcome to the mission field!  You may find missionaries in your community—even your own team–who are all over the theological spectrum. You’ll find that missionaries tend to be strong-willed, Type-A kind of people. (I’ve found that missionaries tend to be a disproportionate number of former Student Body Presidents and Valedictorians.) Put all these people together, stir the pot with some extreme heat or extreme cold and some cultural barriers, and you’ve got yourself a very interesting stew.

Be prepared to have your theological assumptions stretched.  Be prepared to be surprised how love for the Gospel and lost people can transcend denominations and petty differences.  Listen well and forgive abundantly.  Steadfastly determine that there will be very few hills you will allow yourself to die on.  Since it’s likely you are one of those Type-A people yourself, this may be tough.  Choose humility.

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5. Be patient with Oldies who seem relationally distant.

If we hold our emotions away from you, if we seem distant and hard to befriend, please don’t take it personally. Know that it has a lot to do with getting our hearts broken too many times to count.   I remember as a Newbie, I was eager to dive into relationships with everyone in our missionary community.  We had everyone over for dinner.  We wanted to get to know everyone…and we did!  Then….people started leaving.  And leaving.  And leaving.   People’s terms ended, emergencies happened, health concerns came up.  We stayed, but everyone we loved kept leaving.  Choosing an overseas life means choosing a life of saying good-bye.

After a while, it just gets hard to initiate relationships with all the Newbies.  If we hold ourselves aloof from you, it’s because of the callouses that have grown on our hearts from so many wonderful friends leaving us.  We might not even consciously realize that we are holding ourselves back from you.  This doesn’t mean we don’t want to be friends with you.  It does mean that it may take more time for Oldies to open up.  Please don’t give up on us.  We need your optimism and energy as much as you need our experience and advice.

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Store up your emotions and experiences being a Newbie.  As you become more comfortable, as the years slip by and you become an Oldie yourself, you don’t want to forget what it felt like to just step off the plane and wonder how on earth you bake potatoes in a Celsius oven.

 

Photo credit

 

amhAmy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001.  Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality.  She and her husband worked many years with TCK’s and now are involved with pastoral training.  They also adopted three amazing Tanzanian kids along the way.  Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.

Longing for a Better Country

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It was May of 1989.  I was 12 years old, and my family was getting ready to leave the country where I had spent most of my childhood.

We were leaving Liberia to go back to California for a year-long home assignment.  We packed up our house and put all our personal belongings into the spare room.  Another family would stay there for the year we were gone.  The plan was that we would return in the summer of 1990, and would stay in Liberia for my four years of high school.

But during that year we were gone, a civil war broke out in Liberia.  It got worse.  And then it got catastrophic.
And finally it got so bad that all the missionaries were evacuated.  The compound where I grew up was bombed.  Many Liberian friends were killed.  We never returned.

We lost everything.  Everything we owned was in Liberia, and it was all looted.  I lost my dog, my bedroom, my sixth grade journal, the painting my grandmother made me when I was born, and my childhood treasures.  More significantly, I lost my home country, my identity, my innocence.

I never got to say good-bye, either to the country or the people I loved.  Liberia haunts my dreams; it remains an unfinished part of my life to this day.

I grieved deeply for Liberia at age 13.  But we were forced to move on—and quickly.  We were reassigned to Ethiopia; I was off to boarding school—all in a period of a few months.  I grew up; I went to college, and shortly after I was married, God brought my husband and me to Tanzania, east Africa.  I was thrilled!  Back home in Africa, at last.  I figured all of the holes left in my heart from Liberia had been filled.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2013, at age 36 and after 10 years of life in Tanzania, that I realized that the ache of Liberia had never left me.  We were leaving Tanzania to go back to California for a year-long home assignment.  I was packing up our house and putting all our personal belongings into a spare room.  Another family would stay in our house for the year we were gone.

As much as I was excited to visit California again, anxiety swelled within me.  The feelings were too eerily familiar to what I experienced as a child–packing up, leaving everything behind, assuming I would return.  I found myself worrying that the same thing would happen again….that I would lose everything.

It was a mostly irrational fear.  Tanzania is a far more stable country than Liberia was in 1989.  But after losing Liberia, and then being evacuated from Ethiopia in 1991, I realize that you never really know what’s going to happen in Africa.  I was forced to come face to face with the loss I had experienced so long ago.

We went on that home assignment, and we did return to Tanzania last year.  In many ways, it was a healing experience for me, to return.  But if there is one thing this life has taught me, it’s that I must hold loosely to everything.  Everything.  I can’t put down roots anywhere; I will never find stability.   Even if I spend my whole life here, I will never be allowed citizenship of this country.  I will never be allowed to own property here; I will never grow old in one house.  I may someday have to evacuate with the clothes on my back.  Or, I could just get robbed blind.

I’m reminded that I can’t love this life so tightly.  This life is not all there is, and it’s definitely not worth fretting over.  After all, can I ever ensure the protection of my earthly treasures?  Even if I was to live my entire life in one house in America, would I be guaranteed stability and safety?  It’s just an illusion, and my transient life as a foreigner helps me to remember that reality.

Liberia, Ethiopia, or Tanzania are not my home, but America isn’t either.  I will always be a foreigner, until that Day when heaven meets earth and all is made new.   So I set my sights on things above, and relax my grip on my possessions, my country, my identity.  They were never mine to begin with.  The whole reason I am living in Africa is because I want to store up treasure in heaven.  May I never try too hard to cling to the things of this earth as well.

 

 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

 

amhAmy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001.  Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality.  She and her husband worked many years with TCKs and now are involved with pastoral training.  They also adopted three amazing Tanzanian kids along the way.  Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.