It was a Sunday morning just like all the others. She smiled and greeted people like she’s done every week for the last six months. Yet, something was noticeably off.
“Are you okay?” someone asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine!” she said, slightly looking away.
“No, but really, is everything alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, totally fine,” was her determined answer.
The service was over. She waved goodbye to the families going home for lunch and closed the door behind them. Then she slowly walked back into the sanctuary. A loud silence filled the room as she looked at the empty stage. Leaning against the wall, she slid down until her knees were at her eye level. Her vision became more and more blurry until tears finally streamed down her cheeks, clearing all the lumps in her throat created by the dutiful “I’m fines.”
The reason she never told anyone what was wrong was that she believed that as a missionary she needed to be helpful, not needy. She should never display pain but rather keep it to herself and God. After all, isn’t He supposed to meet all her needs? She cried it off and determined to get busier to cope with the pain and remain strong.
Fast forward 18 months, and there she sat in the airport waiting for her one-way flight in hopes of finding answers to the debilitating depression that disqualified her from any kind of world-saving venture.
Now, fast forward six more years, and she is sitting in front of you through the words you are reading on your screen. That crying single missionary girl living in the church building was me, and here I am to share with you things I wish I knew before becoming a single missionary.
1. You Don’t Have To Do It Alone.
One big mistake I made was believing that the best way to integrate into the culture was to keep all friendships local. I thought that if you cut all communication with the outside world and immerse yourself into the life around you, you will inevitably find friends and a great community ready to embrace you as a family member. In fact, this was something we learned at the mission school in Bible college.
Was this advice wrong? Not necessarily. I am sure there are situations when the best way to integrate is to give your whole heart to the local people, but for that to happen, you need to have a community that is ready to take you in on that level. I find, however, that most of the time immersion happens gradually. It is rare for a community to embrace you the moment you step foot onto the church ground.
So my best advice is to make sure you have a support group that you can regularly check in with, chat about your experiences, and share your heart vulnerably. Then, as you grow into the local culture, you might find such friends and mentors on-site. It is better to avoid putting the responsibility of caring for your soul on the local people who don’t even know you yet!
2. Make Your Needs Known.
Apart from letting God know about your need for fellowship, you can and should let the local church know that you are thrilled to spend time with them and be invited to their homes, especially if they don’t initiate those things themselves. In my first half a year on the mission field, I was invited only two or three times to visit someone’s home. It was stinging to think of families being together for Sunday lunch as I ate my reheated frozen pizza alone in the church’s kitchen week after week after week. The people might not realize how much you need them, so ask!
3. Create Time and Space for Rest.
As a single missionary, you might often hear something like, “You have so much time to serve God! We have to take days off to care for the kids.” These kinds of statements made me feel that taking days off wouldn’t be justified for me, even though this was not the intended meaning behind them. Single or not, you need to take one or two days off a week when you can truly rest.
I made the mistake of living in the church building for the first year and a half on the mission field. It was cheap, and sometimes the members would visit the church for various reasons, which made me feel less alone. I was afraid to move out into my own space and be even lonelier. That was a big mistake.
To rest, you need a restful space. At the very least you need a bed, a well-heated (or well-cooled) room, hot water in the shower, and your own shelf to store things that nobody will go through whenever they feel like it. The church lacked those things, which slowly chipped away at my mental health. Not only that, but I also had to combine my living, working, and church spaces all in one. It was very hard to rest in such circumstances.
4. Watch For The Warning Signs.
Depression doesn’t break into our lives rapidly. Rather, it makes its way in so slowly that it almost goes unnoticed until you see it take residence in your soul. However, there are signs you can watch for.
Some of those include loss of motivation, a strong pull to indulge in addictive activities (overeating, spending hours playing computer games, binge-watching shows, endlessly scrolling through social media, etc.), losing a sense of joy and fulfillment in your relationship with the Lord, and uncontrollable outbursts of emotions.
When you notice that something is not right, do not ignore it. Share it with a trusted person and come up with a plan for how you are going to tend to those needs. Some things that tend to help me are journaling about my thoughts and feelings, taking an extra day or two off, taking a trip to visit another church or a friend to change the environment, and finding ways to take my mind off the serious matters (learning a new skill, finding a hobby, reading a book, taking a walk, going out to eat, etc.). Don’t feel ashamed about needing breaks; small symptoms can snowball quickly!
The four tips listed above are just a few practical actions to help you survive as a single missionary. It goes without saying that as we try to tend to our needs, we need to keep our eyes on the Lord who is the ultimate source of our fulfillment, rest, and joy. Yet, as you pray and seek His guidance, see what practical things He might be encouraging you to do in your situation.
Depending on where you are in the world, your strategies might look different. If there are any other fellow missionaries with you, maybe they can help in finding ways to recharge in that particular culture and environment. Remember, being a missionary is rarely a sprint. Rather, it is a marathon that requires you to go slowly and to maintain what the Lord has given you so that you can continue to serve wherever He has called you.
Natasha Lévai is currently a stay-at-home mom in Eastern Hungary where she started her missionary journey back in 2015. Now she and her husband care for orphan children at the local orphanage where they have been serving for the last few years. Her husband Krisztian works in IT, and Natasha loves sharing her cooking creations on her blog. To read more of her story, tap here.