Failed Missionaries and “But God…”

When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. We continued living as expatriates in Egypt, just as we had in Islamabad, connecting with the international church and the broader international community. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally using my nursing background in maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

An Honest Analysis

When we look back at our time in Pakistan, at our “missionary failure” we can now see it for what it is. There were valid hurts. We hadn’t been placed in the right jobs, instead we worked in areas that didn’t fit our skill sets. We hadn’t been given a proper orientation or mentorship. But, we had also acted out of immaturity. We had rushed into the position, knowing it wasn’t a good fit, because we wanted to get overseas so badly. We weren’t willing to go and ask for help, instead it reached a point of crisis, and we felt there was no choice but to leave the mission.

Missions is Messy, People are Messy. 

Missions is messy, because people are messy. Missions is messy, because the Church is messy. Missions has wounded people and failed people, because institutions and people have the power to walk outside of God’s love and care for the world, imposing their own rules instead. Missions and those in missions leadership should always be in a process of “quality improvement” – asking what is going well and what needs improvement, not defining success by western measures and adherence to western cultural values. Missions should continually look at history and historical inequalities and wrongs perpetrated by the church, asking forgiveness and seeking restoration, no matter how long it takes. Worldwide, missions institutions should see themselves as imperfect servants who seek cultural humility and care about the least of these, not gate keepers to a Christianity based on western cultural values. Yet, God still loves this imperfect, flawed, institution and he still uses it for his glory. That is not to say we should not continually look at the need for change and improvement, because that is necessary, but it is to say – it will never be a perfect institution because imperfect humans, who struggle with pride and insensitivity, ethnocentrism and misplaced ideals are at its core.

BUT God….

If I can go back to my own missions story for a moment – for all the mistakes of the institution, and for all our own immaturity, there were so many “But God” moments, where the plot changed because God is still God, and he is not defined or confined by human or institutional failure. Throughout Scripture, we see God intervene – sometimes in dramatic ways, but normally through quiet faithfulness. It does not give license for us to wound people, either through our own actions or the actions of our institutions, but it does offer immense hope when we are wounded; it does show that God will rescue, restore, and make new. “But God” does not excuse sin, but it also doesn’t call for dismissing an entire world-wide movement. My friend Sophie wrote this a few years ago, and when I think of my response to being a failed missionary, I think of her words.

The most powerful testimonies are the But God moments in our lives and so often we wish them away…..He takes up what humanity have screwed well and truly up and he rescues us, restores us, makes us new again.”

“He takes ashes and gives you a crown of beauty, he takes mourning and gives you oil of joy, unlimited and in abundance, he takes a spirit of despair and he gives you praise to wear instead.  It’s not just that the Great Exchange is your life for his, although that in itself is mind-blowing, but he totally transforms your life afterwards as well.- Sophie Blanc

As for this community, and the organizations we represent – we are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that, but we make mistakes. We are a people who constantly need to critique what we are doing, and then walk in faith, trusting the outcome to God. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.

For more reading and articles from our ALOS Writer’s Team:

To the ones who think they’ve failed
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling

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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture.

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