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

The Hidden Super-Stars of Missions

 

I coach new missionaries as they prepare to go overseas. I’ve found I can often predict how quickly they’ll be able to raise support based on one crucial factor: whether they have an advocate who will come alongside them.

What do I mean by an advocate? Let me explain.

Raising support has got to be one of the most daunting experiences in any missionary’s life. So God’s called me to India, but I need you to fork over some cash so I can do it. Sound good? Awesome. What can I put you down for?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come out exactly like that, but it’s what missionaries dread. Raising financial partners has extraordinary joys, but it also comes with dark lows. It’s incredibly intimidating. Dozens – maybe hundreds – of friends ghosting their calls, emails that don’t get replies, events where no one shows up. It can be one of the most demoralizing experiences in a person’s life.

Who can turn that whole experience around? An advocate. 

A missionary advocate is someone who enthusiastically comes alongside a missionary and says, “Let’s get that support raised!” 

The Springs in Missouri is a church that has sent out several homegrown missionaries in the past two decades. All those missionaries pointed to Ken and Tracy Coleman as vital in making that happen, so I decided I needed to talk to these super-star advocates.

Tracy told me, “When missionaries are raising support, we invite a big group to our house. We let the missionary tell their story. Then we share what donating to missions has done for us personally. We explain how God has blessed us to be part of what God is doing overseas.”

She added, “We challenge people, ‘This is what God is calling The Springs to. This missionary is a tool for that to happen. How can we get them to the mission field? How can we support them in other ways?”

Friends, this is a missionary’s dream scenario. It helps the missionary to know he’s not alone. It helps create true partnerships in missions. And it takes away all the stress of asking for funding. 

When a church is too busy or distracted to pay attention to an upcoming missionary, an advocate steps in and rattles some chains. When a missionary is overwhelmed by planning a large dinner, an advocate rallies the troops to make it happen. And when the missionary is depressed and despairing that she’s reached the end of her contacts and has no idea how she’ll raise the final 30%, that advocate is her cheerleader, praying for her and brainstorming fresh ideas.

Maybe this advocate isn’t just one person but a group of people – like a home group or Bible study group. Even better!

And once that missionary has deployed overseas (or in stateside service), that advocate keeps in touch with him. She’s the one who makes sure the rest of the church knows when there’s something big to pray for. When the missionary comes home on furlough, the advocate is the one who organizes housing and a car for the missionary to use. She prompts the missions committee to buy a few gift cards. She communicates with church leaders to find opportunities for the missionary to speak. 

I cannot overstate the power of a missionary advocate.

Maybe you have a burning passion to see the gospel go to the nations, but God has called you to stay in your home country. Besides praying and giving, what can you do? Perhaps God is calling you to be an advocate for your missionary. 

Culture shock is hard no matter what. Dear newbie, be gentle with yourself.

by Katherine Seat

Dear Friend,

I’m so excited to hear you are getting ready to leave your passport country and move to my host country. It’s great to hear about all the preparation you’ve been doing over the past few years to get to this point. Now you’re at the point where you actually have to think about what to pack!

You asked what apps were good for language learning. Sounds like you are eager to get a taste of the local language even before your formal classes start. From the way you asked, it seemed like you assumed I would know. It took me a while to realise my answer:  I used cassette tapes when I was at your stage.

My first year in our host country was difficult. Transport and medical care were constant challenges.  I spent a good portion of my first year sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi trying to direct the driver. After all those bumpy roads my back needed physiotherapy.  The drivers didn’t read maps, and the map only covered a tiny part of the city anyway. So it was up to me, my sense of direction and my brand new language skills. I was often lost and wishing public bathrooms were a thing.

But now that tuk-tuks are easier to find, I haven’t been on a motorbike taxi for years.  With internet on our phones we can see the whole city map — game changer! Combine that with ride hailing apps, and you might not need to spend so much time taking scenic routes. My back is happy there are so many smooth, sealed roads these days. So you probably won’t have the same transport troubles as I had.

Options for medical care stressed me out. I was told there was one clinic I could go to, but one doctor’s appointment cost about the same as a month’s rent. Other clinics cost only $2.50 per visit, but I was told they were only for locals. Not only had I moved to a place with more diseases and traffic accidents, but there was also reduced access to good medical care.

Things changed quickly. In my third year a new hospital opened. It was cheaper than the other good option, and better than the cheap options. Hurrah! Finally, good affordable medical care. But now more than a decade on, I consider that hospital too expensive to go to. These days I overhear expats discussing which doctor they see. I even know of several foreigners who have given birth in-country. So you probably won’t have the same fears about not being able to see a doctor as I did.

Discovering all my first-year stresses don’t exist anymore, I feel jealous. Perhaps your first year will be a walk in the park compared to mine. In fact, you can literally go for a walk in a park right near your house. One of the things I missed that first year (and in the years since) was being able to go for a walk anywhere, let alone a nice, green park with smooth paths.

However, I know changing countries remains a huge adjustment despite some practical things appearing easier. You are already hitting a few of the top stressors just by relocating. Plus, you are in a different family and work situation to me, so you will have added challenges I won’t even be aware of. And despite some of the changes making things easier, other changes make things harder.

I had thought that after all my hard work making it through that first year, I would have some advice to share. I’m frustrated to realize that I don’t have any practical tips for you, but there is something I wish I had known at the time. Well, I did know it, but I didn’t get just how true it is:

Culture shock is really hard, so go easy on yourself.

Yep, that’s all. It’s hard, go easy.

Maybe you are already well-versed in this. I know I thought I was. I remember telling myself it’s unrealistic to get those 10 things on my to-do list done. It might have seemed doable in my passport country, but now I’ll be happy if I just get one of the 10 done.  Culture shock is just so exhausting, and you don’t know how things work in your host country or what to expect.

Although I told myself that at the time, I’m only just starting to realise now, all these years later, that what I was up against was even harder than I had thought. Why did I even have a to-do list?

And while you are being kind to yourself, be kind to those of us who have been here longer.

You might hear us say “You can’t get fresh milk in-country” when clearly you can.  Or “Don’t go out after 9 pm” but then find you are expected to be at a weekly work meeting that goes past 10 pm.

We’ve spent so much time and energy learning to live here that we feel we have expertise to offer, but we don’t know everything anymore as things keeps changing.

Some of my hard won skills are now obsolete. I felt I had conquered so much, but some of those achievements aren’t useful anymore.

So be kind to yourself. It’s harder than you think: you are going through culture shock.

Thanks for your graciousness towards me, and be kind to those who have been here longer than you. We might be going through culture shock upon culture shock.

And let me know if you want to borrow the language learning cassette tapes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. Read Katherine’s other posts at Linktree and connect with her on Instagram.

5 Lies Global Workers Believe

Uprooting your life and transplanting to an entirely new setting is simultaneously exciting and disorienting. Perhaps one of the most annoying questions well-meaning friends and family members ask is, “What are your expectations for your life there?” We all have expectations, but some of them are so intrinsic that we don’t even know to extract them for a thorough examination. 

Most of us do not head overseas with the expectation that we will start believing lies about ourselves. On the contrary, many of us go through such extensive field preparation that we are more self-aware than we’ve ever been. Even so, in the absence of relational transparency and honest self-reflection, we are prone to believing destructive lies about ourselves. Here are five of the most common lies I’ve seen workers believe.

 

1. Living on the field will make me a better Christian/human!

Before actually moving to the field, I pictured myself praying a lot more and being so filled with Holy Spirit power that I would eloquently bestow wisdom upon each person I encountered (perfectly conjugated, of course). In reality, I was regularly uttering profanities under my breath while hoping that God would smite all the reckless drivers.

Most of us have some delusions about how much better our future selves will be, especially when we picture our lives in a new place with new surroundings. We fail to account for the toll that emotional strain, illness, and interpersonal conflict (among other things) will have on our daily lives and the very real fact that some of our same old habits will follow us no matter where we live. 

2. I should be further along than this by now.

Whether it’s the comparison game or falling back into old bad habits, we can easily believe the lie that we should have outgrown this ugly thing by now. We should have matured past this struggle or thought pattern, but here we are again. The danger of this lie is the shame and hiding that tend to accompany it. Realizing that you are back in the same ugly place that you were a few years ago or struggling with the same sin that you thought you had overcome before you came to the field can bring such grief that the tendency is to just bury it. Rather than holding it out with open hands before a friend who cares, we want to keep it quiet enough that we can just talk to God and get rid of it on our own.

Believing the lie that we should not be struggling with the same junk again makes us lose sight of the fact that God the Father delights in us. We devalue ourselves because of our shortcomings, and then we project our own disappointment onto the God who already knows our proclivities and still chose to subject himself to undeserved shame, torture, and death for us.

3. I must justify leisure activity.

“I used points for the trip!” I can’t tell you how many times I have personally justified purchases with the fact that they were paid for by points or airline miles. For the sake of not looking indulgent or excessive, we will quickly volunteer information about how travel, services, or expensive items were procured. Michéle Phoenix summarized this beautifully in her article about guiltitude. Some of us buy into this lie because we have read or heard stories of missionaries who nearly starved to death or lived in such humble circumstances that indulgences such as a pedicure, vacation, or trip to Starbucks were unthinkable.

Add that to the fact that some pastors and church leadership believe cross-cultural workers should enjoy subsisting on scraps, and we’ve created a perfect storm. Not only have we personally ingested an unrealistic standard of living, but some of our church leadership back home have also placed this expectation on us. Our member care personnel and counselors tell us the importance of breaks and rest, reminding us to partake in activities we enjoy and take time for ourselves. But to avoid judgment from churches back home, many of us explain that our leisure activity was paid for by something or someone that has a net-zero impact on our budget. This can lead us to believe that we don’t really deserve to rest or take a break.

4. My worth is measured by my language ability.

Language ability is often the key instrument used to judge a cross-cultural worker’s worthiness to stay on the field. Spoken word is the most common means by which the beauty and truth of Jesus are shared, so language should certainly be a priority. However, it is entirely possible to become proficient in language but have minimal bonding with the people who speak it. Language ability does not guarantee that you will be an effective communicator of truth or even a person who is embraced or accepted by the local people. 

In our drive to attain high levels of language proficiency, we can neglect equally important aspects of our lives such as time with family or friends, leisure activities, or even the needs of people around us. Defining our worth by our language ability also fails to recognize that within the expat Christian community, there exists a myriad of different giftings. While some will be crushing it at language, others are connecting through unseen service to the body of Christ. New parents may be quietly praying over the nation as they bounce a crying baby night after night, and others may take on administrative roles to keep the unseen moving parts functioning.

Parents, and mothers in particular, can feel an extreme amount of guilt over their language ability. Being expected to learn a language while keeping tiny humans alive and often simultaneously giving them an education, in addition to forging deep friendships with both teammates and locals, while filling a ministry role? It’s both unreasonable and a potent prescription for burnout. 

5. I am failing at everything. 

Seeing little or no “fruit,” experiencing conflict with co-workers, and family strife are all issues that merit a big red “guaranteed” stamp on our job descriptions. Unfortunately, difficulties on the field can compound and leave even the most optimistic worker feeling like their efforts have amounted to nothing. Part of the complexity of living overseas is that we are often expected to excel at many things. Our language should be impeccable, our families should be thriving, our evangelistic efforts should be fruitful, our team relationships should be life-giving, our professional skills should be valuable, and our spiritual lives should be a well-watered garden bursting with flowers and butterflies. The truth is that we are often experiencing serious disappointment in many areas of our lives at any given time. We can convince ourselves that our value lies in our success and that we are therefore failures. 

//

There is no algorithm for untangling the web of deceit we can find ourselves in, but we can rest in the reality that God is truth. Embracing the truth means believing that God cares for us as much as he cares for the nations to which he called us. This truth can feel lopsided and selfish, but grace is always unmerited by us. 

As you review the past year and create goals for 2023, may you take comfort in the God who delights in you not based on your achievements, success, shortcomings, or failings. May you remember that your value to the Father was birthed in undiminished, ever-pursuing love that is present even in the darkest nights. You are beloved because you are his.


 

A Pocket Guide for Talking to Missionaries: Dozens of Missionaries Open Up About Questions They Love and Questions They Don’t

“Soooo…..how’s Mongolia?”

Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia. 

Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.

Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling. 

But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”

My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.

We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions? 

We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.

The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)

Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.

Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there. 

Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home. 

Instead ask questions that reconnect.

“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.” 

“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”

“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”  

“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?” 

“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?” 

Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post. 

Don’t ask how their vacation is going.

Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.

Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.

This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.

Instead ask what this time looks like for them.

“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”

“Will you be able to take a vacation?” 

“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?” 

“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?) 

Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.

The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions

Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.

Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”

Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome! 

Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.

Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”

Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”

Jean: “What breaks your heart?”

Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?” 

Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences.  I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other. 

Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.

Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.  

Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.

Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”

Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]

Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.

Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.

Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.

Matyas:  I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews. 

Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”

A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?” 

Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.

Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.

Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.) 

When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class

Don’t get too personal.  

Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway. 

Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.

Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)? 

Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).

Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions

Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends

Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Don’t ask for numbers.

Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”

Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.

Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”

Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.

Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?” 

Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.

Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?

Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.

Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.

Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that?  These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.

Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for. 

So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.  

Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them. 

Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.

Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!

Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end. 

Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.”  (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)

We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!

Trusting God With What You Leave Behind

A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.

Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California. 

Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids. 

Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.

So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again? 

In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.

When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). 

It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?

This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?

We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him? 

As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do. 

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, 

If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.

When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind. 

Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind. 

Where Are the Men?

 

“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree.  It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.” 

Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.

That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**

There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field. 

While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry. 

 

Why Are There So Few Men?
So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:

1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country. 

2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.  

3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church. 

4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives

5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.

 

Feeling the Strain
The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.

My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse. 

In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own. 

Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way?  Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal? 

 

How Can Churches Help?
Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:

1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.

2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!

3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.  

As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.

While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.  

These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them. 

 

*Name changed 

**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers. 

Take a Look Ahead (or Behind) through the Lens of Expectations

I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.

We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.

When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.

Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.

Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.

I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.

For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.

They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.

They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.

And the cycle continues.

So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.

What are my expectations?

  1. When will I depart?
  2. What training or orientation will I go through?
  3. What kind of visa will I need?
  4. What will I need to do to get and keep a visa?
  5. What will my official role be in the country?
  6. What will the minimum financial support necessary be for me?
  7. What will my financial support level be?
  8. How long will it take to raise support?
  9. How consistent will my financial support be?
  10. What kind of response will I get from supporters for one-time or special financial requests?
  11. What financial responsibility will I have to my sending agency?
  12. How will I handle previously acquired debt?
  13. What salary (or personal-discretion funds) will I have?
  14. How much control will I have over ministry funds?
  15. What will the cost of living be?
  16. How favorable (or unfavorable) will the exchange rate be?
  17. In what kind of setting will I live (rural, urban, etc.)?
  18. What specific country, area, or city will I live in?
  19. What will be the location of my work?
  20. Will the location of my work change?
  21. What kind of housing will I have?
  22. How close will I live to my teammates?
  23. How often will I move?
  24. Will I have a housekeeper or other domestic helper?
  25. Will team members provide babysitting or other childcare?
  26. How will my home be used for ministry?
  27. What will I use for transportation?
  28. What will my standard of living be?
  29. How much will my education, preparation, training, and past experiences prepare me?
  30. How easily will I embrace the culture?
  31. How much will I fit in to the culture?
  32. How will the local people receive me?
  33. How much will culture shock/stress affect me?
  34. How long will culture shock/stress last?
  35. How easy will it be to get items I’m used to in my home culture?
  36. How will I celebrate holidays?
  37. How will I acclimate to the weather?
  38. How will I adjust to the food?
  39. What will my diet look like?
  40. What kind of food will I eat at home?
  41. How often will I eat out?
  42. How long will it take to develop relationships with local people?
  43. How close will my friendships be with nationals?
  44. Will I have a best friend, and if so, who will it be?
  45. What will my work responsibilities be?
  46. What people group will I work with?
  47. How will I partner with other teams, agencies, or workers from other denominations?
  48. How will I partner with local churches/believers?
  49. What will a new church plant look like?
  50. What role will I and my family play in a church plant?
  51. What methods will I use for outreach?
  52. What kind of work will I do?
  53. What physical needs will I work to alleviate?
  54. What will be my balance between meeting physical and spiritual needs?
  55. How will I integrate aspects of the host culture in presenting the gospel and in developing church practices?
  56. What will my typical day look like?
  57. What will my typical week look like?
  58. How long will it take to complete the projects I have planned?
  59. How will government restrictions affect my work?
  60. What will my supporters, my church, and my sending agency want me to accomplish?
  61. What will be the results of my work?
  62. How fruitful will my work be?
  63. When and to whom will I hand off my work?
  64. How will I define success?
  65. Where will I do language learning?
  66. What method will I use for language learning?
  67. How long will it take to learn the language?
  68. How many languages will I need to learn?
  69. What level of fluency will I achieve?
  70. How difficult will it be for me to learn the language?
  71. What language will I use for my work?
  72. What language will my personal worship be in?
  73. If single, will I date and pursue marriage?
  74. If I have children, how will living overseas affect them?
  75. How will my children’s faith develop?
  76. What involvement will my children have in the ministry?
  77. What kinds of relationships will my children develop?
  78. How will my children be educated?
  79. What relationship/interaction will my children have with my home culture?
  80. What will my children do after graduating from high school?
  81. How will I help my children make the transition to college if they attend?
  82. How large will my family be?
  83. How big will our team be?
  84. How will we go about adding new team members?
  85. What individual roles will different teammates have?
  86. How dependent will team members be on each other?
  87. Will the roles of married and single team members differ, and if so, how?
  88. Will male/female roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  89. Will husband and wife roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  90. How will team decisions be made?
  91. How will we handle team conflict?
  92. Who will oversee my work?
  93. What input will I have in agency decisions?
  94. What kind of personal boundaries/privacy will I be able to maintain?
  95. How much personal autonomy will I have?
  96. How, and how often, will I communicate with supporters?
  97. How openly will I be able to communicate with my supporters?
  98. How many will read my newsletters, prayer emails, etc.?
  99. What kind of prayer support will I have?
  100. How much communication will I get from supporters?
  101. How involved will my home church be?
  102. How often will representatives from my church and agency visit?
  103. What will happen during church/agency visits?
  104. How often will I host short-term teams?
  105. What will short-term-team trips look like (housing, projects, logistics, etc.)?
  106. What steps will I follow to make personal/family decisions?
  107. Will I be able to express any political views?
  108. How will I balance ministry/family/personal time?
  109. How many vacation days will I have?
  110. What will I do when I need to take a break, to rest, or to get away?
  111. What hobbies and personal interests will I engage in?
  112. What opportunities will I have for continuing education?
  113. Will I be able to pursue professional development?
  114. Will there be opportunities for professional advancement?
  115. How will I determine God’s will?
  116. How will God communicate with me?
  117. How often will I experience miracles?
  118. How will I practice my personal spiritual disciplines?
  119. What will my prayer life be like?
  120. How, and with whom, will I have weekly worship?
  121. How will my faith change?
  122. What will spiritual warfare look like?
  123. What risks will I face?
  124. How safe will I be?
  125. What will I, my family, and my team do if threatened with physical persecution or violence?
  126. What sacrifices will I need to make?
  127. What will be my capacity to handle change?
  128. What will be my biggest challenge?
  129. How resilient will I be?
  130. How will my and my family’s health be?
  131. What will local medical care be like?
  132. Will I travel outside the country for health needs?
  133. What member care will I receive?
  134. What self care will I practice?
  135. What will I do if I experience symptoms of depression or other mental illness?
  136. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about my experiencing mental illness?
  137. Who will I be able to share with with complete openness and honesty?
  138. How will I deal with disappointment and failure?
  139. What will I do if I feel overwhelmed?
  140. How will any previous trauma affect my life abroad?
  141. How would I address moral failings in my life?
  142. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about any moral failings in my life?
  143. What temptations will I face?
  144. How will I handle temptations?
  145. What kind of personal accountability will I have?
  146. What rules/practices will I have concerning alcohol and tobacco?
  147. What rules/practices will I have concerning the internet?
  148. How will my family at home respond to my being away overseas?
  149. How will my relationships with family back home be affected?
  150. How often will family from home visit?
  151. What events will happen with my family members back home while I’m away?
  152. Will I be able to travel back home for family events there, such as births, illnesses, funerals, emergencies?
  153. When and for how long will I have home service?
  154. How will reverse culture shock affect me (and my family)?
  155. What kind of send-offs and greetings will I get when traveling?
  156. What opportunities will I have to speak at supporting churches?
  157. How long will I stay abroad?
  158. What would cause me to leave the field?
  159. How will the decision be made for me to leave the field?
  160. What kind of work will I do if I leave the field?
  161. How will I fit in with my home church when I return?
  162. How long will my teammates stay?
  163. How will I prepare for retirement?
  164. How will I change while living overseas?
  165. How will things back home change while I’m away?
  166. What legacy will I leave behind?

[photo: “Mr. W. MacDougall chief Air Observer & Miss J. Grahame spotting,” from State Library of Victoria, used under a Creative Commons license]

It’s the Week Before You Move Overseas. What Are You Feeling?

It’s the week before you move overseas. What are you feeling?

Everything. You are feeling everything. 

Excitement: This is finally happening!

Fear: What was I thinking? I can’t do this!

Guilt: Every time my mom looks at me, she starts crying. How can I do this to her?

Focused: If I put more books in my carry-on, I can squeeze in an extra five pounds of chocolate chips. Let’s do this.

Worried: What if I oversleep and am late to the airport? What if I lose my passport? What if my bags are too heavy at the airport and they make me rearrange everything? What if I throw up? I really might throw up.

Stressed: Fourteen friends stopped by today to say goodbye, but all I can think about is that I need to buy my daughter one more pair of sandals in the next size. Oh, and this suitcase is hovering at 52 pounds. Something’s got to come out, and it might send me over the edge. 

Peaceful: I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I’m fulfilling my calling!

Sad: Every time I look at my mom, I start crying. How can I say goodbye for two years?

Grumpy: My children keep asking for lunch. Don’t they know I have to find room for these chocolate chips? 

Exhausted: I woke up at 5 this morning with a racing heart. After I fell asleep at midnight with a racing heart. 

Overwhelmed: That’s an understatement.

When that country was but a dream in your head, when you went through the application process, raised support, even applied for a visa – it all was hypothetical. But when it gets down to those final weeks and days, this is when it really gets real.

You sell your house and move in with your parents. You put your life’s memories out on the lawn, and you watch strangers carry away your furniture and your wedding presents. You hand over your house key, your work key, your car key, until all you have left is an empty, lonely key ring. You read the church bulletin and realize that you won’t be participating in that upcoming women’s retreat, that prayer meeting, that picnic. Life will go on without you, and suddenly, you feel as empty and lonely as your key ring. 

Pieces of your life crumble away around you as you squish the remnants into four 50-pound suitcases. It feels as if your life has become very small, and the foundation is gone, and you might as well be flying into outer space. 

The reality of leaving the people you love becomes tangible. Whether your family is supportive or not, you’re absorbing their grief. If you have young kids, they may be throwing fits or bedwetting or stuttering or acting more whiny than usual. But your mind isn’t stuffed full of just emotions, but also details. You can’t sit and process your feelings because you’ve got to think about visas, packing, tickets, covid tests. If the intensity feels extreme, it’s because it is. 

Don’t be surprised if you fall apart, finding yourself weeping under the covers. Don’t be surprised if you just go numb, completely overwhelmed to the point of being unable to feel anything. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself overly angry, overly anxious, overly nauseous. 

Having been there many times myself, this is what I want you to remember:

Don’t be surprised. The intensity of the emotions you are experiencing is normal, and will likely continue to intensify until you get on that plane. But it will have an end. Hang in there. It will have an end. 

Breathe. Make lists. Ask for help. 

Ask someone else to occupy your kids, preferably away from the house. The last thing your kids need is to be in the middle of the packing chaos and emotionally charged air. Get someone to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone will be much happier. 

Prioritize who you spend time with. Rank your friends. (See #6 of Jerry Jones’ tips. Actually, all of his tips are great.)

Give yourself grace. Give your kids grace. Give your mom grace. There’s no easy way through this; you just have to plow forward. It doesn’t get easier the second time, either, or any time after that. The only thing that gets easier is that you will know what to expect, and you will know it’s temporary. 

Breathe. God led you this far; He’s going to see you through. 

*Feelings chart by Rebekah Ballagh.

I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.

~~~~~~~~

Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

Hope for Those in a New Place: The Power of Muscle Memory

I recently moved to a new country. New house, new city, new grocery store, new car, new neighborhood. Just about every single thing in my life was new.

Entering a grocery store almost brought about a panic attack. I started at the jars of mayonnaise, paralyzed by indecision. Which one tastes best? Which one is healthiest or cheapest? What if I make the wrong choice? And then repeat that by 25 as I walked down the aisles, my head spinning, my list clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn’t know where the olives were. I didn’t recognize much of what was on the shelves. I stressed over how much chicken was supposed to cost. Once I was ready to check-out, another wave of tension flooded me as I had to remind myself of the procedure for buying my groceries. 

Then there was driving. My new country drives on the opposite side of the road as my previous country. That meant that every time I got to the car, I had to focus on which side of the car I needed to enter. If I happened to be absent-minded, I would get in, close the door, and attempt to put my key into the glove compartment. Once I did manage to successfully turn on the car, it took all my concentration to make sure I was driving on the correct side of the road. I repeatedly reminded myself of the traffic laws of my new country, knowing that my instincts would be to follow the rules of the former.

And of course, there’s not only the newness of living in a new house, but all new furnishings too. Are the light switches on the outside of the door or the inside? Where is that can opener? How do I get that new fry pan on the new stove to cook bacon without burning it? How do I get rid of these confounded ants? 

That much newness, all at once, was incredibly disorienting. It made me feel out of place and out of sorts. And I found myself having thoughts suspiciously similar to what I remember about middle school: I feel so stupid. Everyone knows what they are doing except me. They really must be wondering what is wrong with me. 

It was exhausting. All that concentration, all day long, from remembering the route to the store to picking up mail to cleaning the floors, had my brain on overdrive. A big part of me wanted to run back to my previous country, where everything felt familiar and routine and comfortable.

So it was during those first few months that I needed to remind myself, over and over, of the power of muscle memory. 

Muscle memory is defined as: “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” Muscle memory, is, perhaps, one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It means that we can talk to our kids while driving the car, or get brilliant ideas while taking a shower. Our brain can relax in our day-to-day routines, giving us the mental space we need for learning new skills or concentrating on solving a difficult problem. 

This explains why when we move to a new country, our lack of muscle memory makes it easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted. It makes sense why we might even hate our new life, and deeply crave running back to what feels comfortable and familiar. 

It’s at this point that we must remember why muscle memory is important. Life will not always be this hard, this tiring, this formidable. It will not always feel so strange. Muscle memory assures us that if we do the same thing enough times, it will eventually feel normal and easy. It will. Trust that it will. 

A year after our move, I can walk through my house in the dark and not bump into things. I don’t have to use Google maps for every place I go. The grocery store is boring, and I automatically pick up the same type of mayonnaise. When I drive the kids to school, I know the spot where the lane ends and I have to move over, and I do it without thinking. I’m not used to every part of my new life yet, but on the whole, it’s become a whole lot easier. 

Here’s the surprise twist: My new county is the United States of America. We relocated back after 16 years in East Africa. I found that re-adapting to life here was just as challenging as moving overseas. 

So for those of you in a new place, let me encourage you: Your brain will not always feel this tired. You won’t always have this maniacal part of you that wants to run away and jump on the closest airplane to take you home. 

What is the secret? Just keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing the same things, over and over again, and wait patiently for muscle memory to kick in. Push through this weary season, because it will get better. It will. I promise. 

Should You Be a Missionary . . . Again?

by Abigail Follows

“I never want to be a missionary again! Amen.” I closed my prayer journal and smiled with satisfaction. It felt good to be honest with God.

Don’t get me wrong. I had beautiful memories from the seven years my family and I spent as missionaries in the mountains of India. Camping in the Himalayas with shepherds. Surviving the births of my two kids in rural hospitals—the second time by a miracle. Watching a woman forgive for the first time in her life. It was a beautiful experience, worth every sacrifice we made to be there.

It was just that I didn’t think I had it in me to do it all again. To squeeze my thoughts into yet another worldview. To spend years learning yet another language. To love an Entire People Group on behalf of Christ—again. I was tired and out of energy. I was spent.

“You have my permission to change my heart,” I said aloud, thinking this time God would let me off the hook.

Yet just one year after we left India, we re-launched to a closed-access country in north Africa. Why do I always forget how good God is at changing hearts?

What about you? Are you a returned missionary? Do you wonder whether God is calling you back into the field? Here are some practical steps you can take to evaluate your calling and readiness to go for God—again.

 

Take your time
If you’ve just returned from mission service, consider taking a break. Get some perspective on your first call. Give yourself time to process.

Just two days after our return from India, a fellow missionary asked us to consider joining his family in Africa. However, our sending organization advised us to wait at least a year before deciding. They gave us work at the home office, and we spent several months just living a quiet, low-key life. Waiting gave us time to rest and recuperate from a very intense mission experience.

My husband, Joshua, is the kind of person who is always ready to go, like, yesterday. I, on the other hand, need to filter minor decisions through a complex network of questions about the meaning of life and the potential for unintentional death… so it can take me a while to be ready for new things.

But my husband was patient. He let me bring up the topic when I was ready, kept a good sense of humor about it, and prayed for me. So if you’re married, be patient with yourselves and with each other.

 

Set a Date and Tell God
Setting a date takes the pressure off you and puts things back in God’s hands. Whether He answers by a dream, impression, open doors, or something else, He will make things clear!

After a good break, Joshua and I chose a “Decision Day” and told God He’d have to do any heart-changing by that deadline.

And He did. For us, He sent a life-changing dream, plus the heart re-filling that we both needed. In just a few months, Africa became a real possibility. We began to discuss the idea in earnest.

 

Get Away
As your Decision Day approaches, take yourself (or yourselves, if you are married) somewhere quiet. Give yourself some peaceful, uninterrupted time to talk and pray. If you can, take several days. If not, schedule time to talk and pray over the course of several evenings.

A few months before our Decision Day we attended our organization’s orientation week. There we met a handful of fresh, pre-launch missionaries. They had so many questions for us. I had thought our experience would make us too tired to keep giving. What if it actually made us more mature, informed missionaries? 

We decided to fast and pray. During the fast, it dawned on us that there were almost a thousand theology students at our nearby seminary, ready to do God’s work in North America. There were five people at orientation ready to do ministry in the 10/40 window.

But were we still called?

 

Look for the Arrows
Celebrate your story, the story God has been writing all your life. What are all the little arrows in the road God has used to guide you? Do you believe He called you to be a missionary the first time? Has He released you from that calling? Has your calling shifted? Or is He still calling you to be a missionary?

After praying about it, Joshua and I agreed that we were released from our call to India, but not released from our call to reach the unreached.

But were we ready?

 

Evaluate Readiness
Take stock of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual situation of each member of your family. Is there anything anyone still needs? If trauma or conflict was a factor in your departure from your first call, have you sought effective Christian counseling? Does anyone in the family still carry bitterness in need of some sweet, soothing forgiveness? Is everyone healthy, both spiritually and physically?

Our reason for leaving India verged into the trauma side of things. Because of that, it was super important to us to evaluate whether we had sufficiently addressed the needs of each member of our family. It felt like a miracle to look back and see just how much healing God had done in such a short amount of time. 

 

Seek Counsel
Here’s where I tell you to do as I say, not as I do. Don’t be afraid to seek counsel from Godly people in your life!

I wish Joshua and I would have asked for more prayer support during this time. I also wish we would have given our (very Godly) parents more of an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. Although they gave us their blessing, I think including them in our process would have made it easier for them to be at peace about our taking a second call.

 

Make a decision
When the day comes, it should be clear whether you should go, stay, or postpone the decision. Celebrate that clarity with a prayer of thanksgiving. And, if you need to take care of some things before you’re ready to make a decision, set a new Decision Day date to work towards.

Our decision was simple–we gathered the kids, knelt together, and thanked God for His calling. Then we pledged ourselves to go again, by His strength.

 

If now is not the time…
Hudson Taylor, 
the example of self-sacrifice and incarnational Christian service, took a five-year break from China because of health concerns. Those five years in English must have felt. Like. So. Long. Like forever.

But when Taylor re-launched to China in 1866, he brought with him the first missionaries of China Inland Missions.

If you have to wait, wait with patience and faith. If the answer is no, and God has released you from your overseas calling, know that He will use you wherever He has put you. Be content to be a part of His plans. They’re awesome plans, no matter where they take place.

 

If God is calling you to go again…
Go with God, my friend! And watch for another article with tips for adjusting to a second host country.

Dig deeper into the discernment process with these questions: Missionaries20ConversationStarters.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at abigailfollows.com.