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!

Paul and the Corbels of Member Care

There’s something in architecture called a corbel. Even if you’ve never heard the name before, you’re probably familiar with what it is. A corbel is a bracket, sometimes ornamental, that projects out from a wall, providing support to a structure above. It allows that structure to extend out to where it couldn’t on its own.

Cross-cultural workers are the kinds of people who want to reach out far from home, who dream of going where no one has gone before. They’re often pioneering spirits who’d even go it alone, if that’s what it took—empowered only by their calling and their grit, gristle, and God-given abilities. That’s how the Apostle Paul did it, right? If I were more like Paul, I’d rely on God more and on people less . . . right?

Yes, at times, Paul stressed his independence. In his letter to the Galatian churches, he affirmed that his role as an apostle came directly from Jesus, not from his association with the other apostles:

But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.

But Paul wasn’t a loner. He took partners with him on his missionary trips, and he also recognized the need for flesh-and-blood corbels to hold him up as he reached out, bearing the gospel. He valued the encouragement and comfort of others. He understood the importance of member care (pastoral care, nurture and development, tender care, that one safe friend).

When Paul finally met with the apostles in Jerusalem, Barnabas helped him by being his advocate, vouching for his dedication to Jesus. Later, Barnabas sought out Paul for his help in working with the church in Antioch, and the two were sent out by the church on Paul’s first missionary journey. It was during his trips and while he was a prisoner that Paul wrote his New Testament letters, often mentioning those who served to encourage him.

Near the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote about “the household of Stephanus” (or Stephanas), who “devoted themselves to ministry for the saints,” and added,

I was glad about the arrival of Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus because they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. So then, recognize people like this.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told about how he even turned away from a God-sent opening for ministry because he needed to hear from Titus:

Now when I arrived in Troas to proclaim the gospel of Christ, even though the Lord had opened a door of opportunity for me, I had no relief in my spirit, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and set out for Macedonia.

Then, in Macedonia,

our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way—struggles from the outside, fears from within, But God, who encourages the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced more than ever.

While under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote to Philemon, “I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” He went on to address the subject of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away, had come to Paul, and had become a Christian. Paul was sending him back to Philemon, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, even though Paul wrote, “I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.” Paul also looked forward to spending time with Philemon in the future, telling him to “prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you.”

Still a prisoner, Paul wrote to the Colossians and the Philippians. He told those in Colossae that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (called Justus) were the only Jewish Christians still working with him, saying “they have been a comfort to me.” And to the Christians in Philippi, he told of his plans to send to them Epaphroditus, whom he described as

my brother, coworker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to me in my need. Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me.

Later, imprisoned in a Roman dungeon, Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, saying, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy,” and then,

May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus.

Alone, except for Luke, Paul told Timothy, “Make every effort to come to me soon,” requesting that he also bring Mark, because “he is a great help to me in ministry.” Paul even mentioned some items that he wanted (a care package?), asking Timothy to bring along a cloak that Paul had left in Troas, as well as his scrolls.

Even Paul needed member care, not just for the sake of his work, but also for his personal well-being. Or maybe we should say, given the hardships that he faced, especially Paul needed member care. He needed it, and he appreciated it. And if Paul needed it, so do today’s cross-cultural workers, every one.

A version of the post originally appeared in ClearingCustoms.net.

(The Scriptures quoted are from the NET Bible® http://netbible.com copyright ©1996, 2019 used with permission from Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved)

[photo: “Corbels,” by Peter Grima, used under a Creative Commons license]

Beating the Drum for Missionary Care: An Interview with Neal Pirolo

In her post “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” Katie Rowe looks at the findings of a recent survey of missionaries, showing that respondents rated “lack of missionary care” as one of the most common reasons for leaving the field. One of those who commented on the post was Neal Pirolo, author of Serving as Senders—Today: How to Care for Your Missionaries as They Prepare to Go, Are on the Field and Return Home, and The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. The current edition of Serving as Senders—Today is a revision of the original, first published in 1991. Since then, it has been translated into 20 languages and has nearly a half million copies in print.

In reference to missionary/member care, Neal wrote, “I have been ‘beating this drum’ since 1976!” I contacted Neal to get his long-term perspective, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions (and along the way, with his wife’s help, remembered that the year was actually 1978).

Why was 1978 a starting point for you to begin your drumbeat for missionary care? 

Oftentimes, telling a story communicates better than “just the facts.” Let me tell a story:

I went to Brazil to administer the five schools Wycliffe/SIL was using at the time for missionary children. My wife was given the responsibility of overseeing the Group House in Cuiaba. We had a choice: move our family of six in with all the singles or move from house to house every three months as translators went to their villages and back. We moved in. We looked in the refrigerator. Every item had someone’s initials on it. We looked at each other. “This will not work,” our eyes said to each other. But how do you change a group of people so entrenched?

On the second evening, we were all in the kitchen trying to quickly clean up and get to a meeting. Someone pulled hard on the fridge door. It came off its hinge! It fell forward, dumping all the contents on the floor. After the clean-up, my wife said, “We will be doing things differently now.” We became a family.

To make a long story short, in those two and a half years, we lost all sense of personal ownership. Everything became ours. Even our bedroom became the crying room for several single women who were being teased beyond reason about getting married.

Well, in 1978, we came home. At the office, a working partner was using a new Bic extra-fine felt-tipped pen. (They had not been around when we went to Brazil.) I admired it. He let me try it. It made such a smooth and clear script. I liked it. The next day he brought one and gave it to me. He gave it to me! It was mine. I owned it! Every so often, I would stop writing and just look at that 79-cent Bic pen and realize that I owned it. It was mine! His first look at me was quizzical. Then he smiled an understanding smile. And we went back to work.

There is a chapter in The Reentry Team titled “Silly Little Things.” Silly little thing after silly little thing can create an apprehension in returning missionaries making them wonder “what next?” Bit by bit the reservoir of resistance to the uncertainty of these silly little things can become “the final straw.” Only those trained in missionary care will see the need to help them process even those silly little things.

After returning from ministry in Brazil. I was given the position of director of the San Diego School of Evangelism and missions pastor of the sponsoring church. SDSE was a ministry school with a very strong emphasis on cross-cultural outreach (missions). Even as the students made their application to the school, I encouraged them to develop a team of ten people who would be supportive of them, for they were entering this school with a life of ministry before them. Then, to those who wanted to minister cross-culturally, we gave further training in living and ministering in a second culture, with the support team becoming more fully developed around the areas of care Paul commended the Christians of Philippi for providing for him.

You’ve had 40-plus years of watching the missionary landscape and listening to missionary stories. From what you have seen and heard, how have the member-care needs of missionaries changed—and how have they stayed the same?

Missionary care is multi-leveled and diverse. In its fullest sense, it brings to play four levels of involvement: church care, partnership care, agency care, and crisis care. Each level is good at certain aspects of need and not so good at other aspects. But it is interesting that as the first three function at their strength, the fourth level is less needed. It is diverse in that each member of the family, as a unique individual, has different needs, and different needs at different times. It is quite intense. Thus, there’s the need for a cooperation between all parties, including the missionary, in providing missionary care.

The need for missionary care has not changed through the years. The enemy who raised havoc in Paul’s day is the same enemy who is waging war with the saints today. Through world travel and communication networks people may be more aware of the needs of missionaries. However, Paul, the Apostle, in writing a letter to the Philippian Christians, acknowledged their care for him in six areas: encouragement, prayer, logistics, communication, finance, and reentry. He opens the letter by calling them “partners in the Gospel”! And every missionary today needs “partners in the Gospel” to provide care in those six areas.

What has changed is a greater awareness of that personal/relational/partnership level. It is a group of people who have come together as a team and have taken “ownership” of the specific work of a specific missionary. With this level of commitment, they are more likely to see the mission through to its completion. They are as concerned as the missionary is about the outcome of their efforts. They see the missionary as their “field representative,” but they, in their respective roles, are equally vital to the end goal.

The prayer coordinator of one partnership team saw a photo of a young lady with her head on the shoulder of a missionary she and her team had sent out. When she saw it, she said, “I want to know if this young lady is distracting Byron from the work that we sent him to do!” That’s ownership. That’s commitment. That’s missionary care.

Partnering in that way takes trust. What can missionaries and senders do to develop that kind of relationship?

Here is the first part of Byron’s story:

Byron had just come back from a short-term ministry trip to China, and he believed God wanted him to return long term. Very quickly, because he had been active in his home church, the leadership confirmed his call. The missions pastor brought him that news with a copy of Serving as Senders—Today. “Byron,” Dan said, “read this book and begin developing your partnership team.” Byron’s reply? “I’m not gonna read dat book! I’ve got the Bible and that’s all I need!” Gently, but firmly Dan responded: “Byron, we can’t keep you from going to China, but if you want us to send you, you will read this book and develop your partnership team.” He began reading. One by one, he sought out and gained a commitment from a core leadership team. He began having meetings on the last Sunday of each month. No pressure. No commitment. But at each meeting, as Byron shared his enthusiasm and God-directed commitment to this ministry, more and more people prayed and decided it was something they wanted to be a part of. Byron was allowing them to “own” this ministry. As each made a commitment to provide care in one or another of the six areas, they related with the core leadership for that area. These commitments were not on a “management team” level. These people had prayed about their decision. A trust in the Lord and in each other was being developed. In nine months, Byron was ready to be sent by his home church. Though 14 years have passed, and many changes have taken place in his ministry (he did marry that young lady), many on that original team are still partnering with him.

Byron’s is a success story of beginning—and continuing—cross-cultural ministry with a partnership team. There are some missionaries, though, who’ve been on the field for several years and who find themselves, for whatever reason, without such support. Maybe they’re feeling distant from the people “back home.” What advice would you give them for taking steps to fill this need?

Craig, you are making this so easy for me! Another story:

Maria was sent out (more like . . . said “good-bye” to) by her church. They and she knew nothing about partnership teams. She struggled. (That’s an understatement!) She was observing another missionary family who was doing so well. One day, they invited her to a Bible study. Their missions pastor had prepared a study—just for them. He had flown to their city only for this reason: to share the Word with them and encourage them.

Maria was aghast! “How? Why? What?” she wondered. She drew up energy to ask them. In the conversation, she discovered how they had developed a partnership team. Their finances were in order; hers were almost nonexistent. They had an active prayer team; she doubted anyone remembered where she was. Their missions pastor had made a special trip to encourage them; she didn’t know if her church still had a missions pastor.

She came home. Yes, there was a missions pastor, but he was busy with 35 missionaries out around the world. Her name was on the list, but she had never received anything from the church, except one time: They had sent her a USA bank check. It had been returned for additional postage and sent again. In her country, she could not cash it.

Well, another one of the pastors heard her story and decided to do something. He arranged for her to share at all of the home fellowships to educate them about partnership teams. Then he sent a copy of Serving as Senders—Today to each of the 35 missionaries, with a note: “Read this book. If you would like me to help you develop a partnership team, pray, then send me the names of two or three you believe could become the core leader of your team.” For those who responded (When I heard this story, I couldn’t believe that some did not respond!), he went to the people named and asked them to prayerfully consider taking on this responsibility. From there, the core leader wrote to the missionary, obtained the names of their friends, and asked permission to write to them. A team was developed.

This way is a bit more difficult than if the missionary develops the team before going. For Maria, it worked by her taking the drastic step of coming home and God leading her to a pastor who would “carry the ball.” It would be even more difficult if there were no one in leadership to assist the missionary or for the missionary to manage it from the field. However, all missionaries have someone who has shown interest in their ministry who could help facilitate it from their home country. I cannot over emphasize, from my experience with missionaries who have a developed partnership team and those who don’t, it is clear: Whatever it takes, it is worth your effort to develop this level of missionary care.

This is not to negate the need for the other three levels of missionary care. There are functions that the agency can do well that the other three cannot, likewise, for those at the church and crisis levels of care. When each level functions well at what they are best equipped to do, a missionary is well cared for, to the glory of God!

Neal serves as founding director of Emmaus Road International, which provides many member-care resources through its websiteThey include Byron’s complete story, “I’m Not Gonna Read Dat Book!” and the audio of a talk Neal has given entitled, “Partners in the Gospel,” both at ERI’s Free Media Library.

You can purchase Serving as Senders—Today from ERI, with discounts for bulk orders. And to those missionaries now on the field wanting to set up a partnership team, Neal extends this offer: If you email him the names of two or three people you have prayed about who might be willing to take on the leadership of a team, he will send them a copy of Serving as Senders—Today, with a letter encouraging them to “step up to the plate” and assist you in developing your team. You can reach Neal at Neal_Pirolo@eri.org.

[photo: “Drum,” by André Prata, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door

When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, and unclipped or ingrown toenails. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’d like to keep your running shoes on. Debriefing is just another mile marker in your race from agency to church to summer camp to appointment. You’re on a tight schedule, and while you’re tired and thirsty, the most you can do is grab a paper cup of water as you run by. Even when you stand still, you’re jogging in place.

Or maybe you don’t want to take off your work boots. You come to debriefing only reluctantly. This is your spouse’s idea or your team suggested it or maybe your agency told you you had to come. So you make phone calls during the breaks and answer emails until late at night. Mental multitasking keeps your thoughts half a world away.

Or maybe it’s your dress shoes that you don’t want to take off. You’re ready for the debriefing questions the same way you’d be ready for a job interview or performance evaluation. It’s like when your boss asks you “What’s your greatest weakness?” The trick is to come up with something that sounds honest but doesn’t reveal too much, maybe even sneaking in a strength, all the while avoiding the too obvious “I struggle with being a perfectionist” or “Sometimes I just care too much.” When you’re asked how you are, you say “fine” and tell how well your ministry is going.

That’s not the way debriefing should be. Effective debriefing requires barefoot honesty and vulnerability. But I do need to add here that that’s not solely on you (no pun intended). You need to be in the right environment, the right culture, to bare your feet. Not everyone can offer that.

You probably don’t share everything with your agency, church, supporters, or family, because they’re, well, your agency, church, supporters, or family. And that’s what makes the debriefings offered by independent member-care individuals and organizations so valuable. Yes, debriefing can cost money and time that you could spend elsewhere, but it also has so much to give in return.

It has experienced facilitators who know the right questions to ask and who know how to listen, even to words unsaid. They see beyond your status as a missionary, knowing how much your vocation impacts you, yet knowing that there is much more to your identity. They won’t decide your future but can help you figure out the path ahead. They are safe. They are encouraging. They won’t report to others what you tell them but, if needed, can guide you to those who can give you more care.

And if you join with a group of other missionaries for debriefing, you get the extra blessing of forming a community that speaks the same language (and I’m not talking about English here), that can relax around each other, that can laugh at shared jokes and cry over shared losses, that can find comfort in each other’s quiet presence.

No one can demand your trust, but your trust can be earned. No one can make you take off your shoes, but when the ground below you becomes holy, removing your shoes becomes a natural response. And it will invite those around you to a deeper level of honesty.

When you travel abroad, pick up on the cues where you are and follow their shoe-wearing customs. When you fly, you should strongly consider leaving your shoes on (seriously, here’s another article on that topic). When you go to debriefing—and I encourage you to do so—I hope you’ll be able to leave your shoes, and socks, at the door. It’s one of those cultural things.

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Language of Transition

The vocabulary of those of us who are a part of A Life Overseas includes many words that focus on movement.

Journey. Pilgrimage. Moving. Leaving. Re-Entry. Arriving. Transition.

All of these come with stories – funny ones, poignant ones, and hard ones. Beyond the stories are adults and kids who are part of communities and families that are in constant change.

On Monday, writer Kay Bruner offered wise advice and concrete exercises to help anxious children deal with transition. Today I continue the theme in talking about developing a “language of transition”.

It was over a year ago that Elizabeth Trotter wrote this in one of her posts:

“I do want to make sure we have a language for transition and crossing cultures and homesickness and living in a state of between-ness. I did not have that growing up and have found the TCK vocabulary helpful as an adult.” Elizabeth Trotter 

I thought a lot about this as I read it

Like Elizabeth, I did not grow up with a language of transition. My husband, who, much like Elizabeth, grew up as a military kid, did not have a language of transition either. Whether you buy into the term third culture kid or not, whether you use the term cross-cultural kid or not, it strikes me that having a language of transition is critically important.

Though I’m still in process when it comes to a language of transition, I want to use this space to write about what I think it means.

The language of transition means know the importance of goodbyes. We honor the goodbyes. That may look different for every member of the family, and that’s where it gets tricky. Honoring the goodbyes means we won’t make our kids get rid of all their treasures. Yes, I get the problem of space. But that stuffed lamb means more to your little girl than you can possibly understand during the chaos of moving. The doll house? Do NOT give it away! I repeat: Do Not! Honoring the goodbyes means making space for different members of your family to grieve their “lasts.” Their last trip to that favorite restaurant; the last trip to school, to church, to the playground. Honoring the goodbyes means making sure that final meal is with people you love deeply.

The language of transition means knowing the word “Saudade.” That 12th Century word from Portugal, thought up by the diaspora who longed for the soil of Portugal, but had no vocabulary, no language of transition to express it.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

These are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade. It also means we know how to “kill the saudade;” how to find ways to contain the longing so it doesn’t destroy us. Finding the restaurants or the people who know the world that we came from, getting together for an evening of food and talk. Killing the saudade is a sweet and necessary activity in transition.

The language of transition includes building a RAFT. Knowing the importance of reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. This was an acronym developed by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock in a chapter of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among World. The entire chapter is devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. It is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. You can read a summary of what it means to build a RAFT here.

The language of transition means having a vocabulary for cross-cultural adjustment. For a child, much of the art of crossing cultures is learned from the parents. So if the parents are struggling and resisting the host culture, the kids will pick that up and internalize it. The language of transition means that as adults we will educate ourselves on culture shock and cultural adjustment and work to pass that on to our kids. It’s a verb, not a noun. It takes action on our part. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines from a poem come to mind as I write this:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

While that may seem like a harsh ending to a life, the meaning could not be clearer. Cross-cultural adjustment is imperative and having words and understanding of it is part of the language of transition. I would also add that cultural humility is a necessary ingredient to the work of cross-cultural adjustment.

Finally, the language of transition means  learning to understand the idea of living between worlds.Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”* Learning to be comfortable in the space between is part of the language of transition.

Like learning any language, the language of transition is not mastered overnight. Rather, it takes time, effort, laughter, and tears. We make mistakes, we get up, and we move on. But developing a vocabulary of transition is an important step along the way.

*From Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

This blog was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries

In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me introduce you to the class system among missionaries. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider

My day job here in Cambodia is serving as a pastoral counselor. In a typical week, I meet with clients from Asia, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and occasionally Africa. And whether these clients are missionaries, NGO workers, or international business people, they’re all trying to figure out how to live well here. In Cambodia.

I was recently asked to share at an international church on the topic of Living Well abroad. I gave it all I had and presented my compiled thoughts and hopes. This article is an extension of that presentation.

It’s not short and it’s not fancy. But it is pretty much all I’ve got. 

My hope is that this article might serve as a resource, a touch point, for you and your team/org/ministry/family/whatever. If you’d rather listen to the podcast of this material, you’ll find some links at the very end. All right, here goes!

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How long were you in your host country before you cried really hard? You know, one of those famous UGLY cries that no one sees but certainly exists? Was it sometime in your first year? Month? Week?

For me, it took about 27 hours.

Our theme verse for those early days was 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it.”

But we did.

For as Paul Hiebert writes in his seminal work, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, “Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

Theory can only get you so far. At some point, you have to get your feet wet and Nike the thing. That’s what this article’s about. It’s an attempt to give some practical, hands-on, nitty-gritty, [insert random epic language here], rubber-meets-the-road, advice.

Much of this comes from my own experience of transitioning a family of six from the suburbs of mid-west America to the concrete vistas of Phnom Penh. The rest comes from observing lives and stories in that enigmatic place we call “the counseling room.”

The four specific areas we’ll consider include Living Well Abroad…

  1. Theologically
  2. Spiritually
  3. Relationally
  4. Psychologically

 

1. Living Well Abroad: Theologically
How we think about God matters. Of course it does. You already know that. But we sometimes forget that our theology also plays a vital role in how well we fare on the field.

First, we must remember that productivity does NOT equal fruitfulness. Indeed, our aim is not even to be fruitful, but to stay attached to the Vine from which all fruit comes. Our aim is to know him and his heart, to “remain in him.” Staying attached to the Source, hearing his heartbeat, is the only way we will be able to do “the will of him who sent us.”

There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all. Let me repeat: There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all.

He does not expect you to kill yourself in his service. Now, you might die in his service, of course, but it should not be because you’re a workaholic.

If you want to thrive abroad, you can’t try to meet your deep insecurities through making someone (a missions boss, a sending church, God) happy. No amount of productivity will heal the wounds in your soul.

In fact, trying to meet your own deep emotional or psychological needs through missions will tear you up. And it won’t be good for those close to you either.

Resources:
Margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please stop running
The Idolatry of Missions

 

1.a. Simple prayers are your friend. 
For me, after we’d gone through a really rough patch (misdiagnosed typhoid fever, culture stripping, bad news from home, etc.), I clung to one simple cry-prayer: “I will worship the Lord my God; I will serve only him.” It’s a declaration from Jesus at the peak of his temptation. It’s what Jesus fell back on at the very end. So I did too. And honestly, for a while, it was the only prayer I prayed.

That being said, in Matthew 4, when Jesus made that declaration, Satan left him and angels came and ministered to him. I’m not a businessman, but that seems like a pretty good trade.

Speaking of Satan…

 

1.b. Your theology of Satan matters. A lot. 
Don’t give Satan more credit than he’s due. Don’t blame him for everything.

Why not? Well, it’ll keep you from taking responsibility for your own stuff, and it’ll keep you from doing the hard interpersonal and INNER personal work that you need to do.

Here’s my general rule: don’t blame Satan for things that are reasonably foreseeable.

If it was reasonably foreseeable that eating that street food would give you giardia, don’t blame the devil when you get sick and can’t leave the bathroom! I’ll be really sorry you’re sick, but you don’t need to bring the devil into it to garner my compassion and prayers.

If you ignore Sabbath and run yourself ragged, don’t blame Satan when you feel depressed and burned out. Don’t blame the natural result of your workaholism on “the darkness.” [Note: I am NOT saying that depression and burnout always result from a missionary’s failure to Rest. But if a person has been burning the candle at both ends and then starts to feel the flame, it’s not fair to blame the devil.]

Proverbs 7:6-9 provides a noteworthy example of reasonable foreseeability:

“While I was at the window of my house, looking through the curtain, I saw some naive young men, and one in particular who lacked common sense. He was crossing the street near the house of an immoral woman, strolling down the path by her house. It was at twilight, in the evening, as deep darkness fell.”

The wisdom literature doesn’t blame some massive evil scheme for this guy’s sin. Its lesson for us? Do the hard work of not being naive. Do the hard work of getting some common sense. And don’t open your computer at night or visit the red light district when you’re lonely and it’s dark.

Resources:
Before You Cry “Demon!”

 

1.c. You need a robust theology of Heaven. 
You want to live and thrive abroad long-term? You’re going to have to have a pretty good grasp of Heaven. I’m not talking about end-times theology, I’m talking about the reality of eternity, for the saved and the lost.

Resources:
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn
When you just want to go home
The Gift of Grief

 

 

2. Living Well Abroad: Spiritually
There are two powerful words we need to understand deeply. Those words are “Yes” and “No,” and they are sacred words indeed.

Initially, when you move abroad, you don’t know anyone and you’re probably in language school, so you can say yes to everyone and pretty much everything. But watch out, because your ratio of yeses to nos will have to change. If you want to stay healthy, you will have to start saying no to more and more things. And if you don’t make that transition well, if you don’t learn to say no, you will end up saying yes to all the wrong things.

Recently, I heard a preacher boldly state: “Satan is always trying to get your yes.” Indeed, from the beginning, the Liar has been getting people to say yes to stuff that will make them say No to the Father. And it continues.

Balancing our yeses and nos can get tricky, triggering our Fear of Missing Out or our fear of being completely overwhelmed, which is why I love that Justin Rizzo, a musician at the International House of Prayer, sings about “the beautiful line to walk between faith and wisdom.”

Learning when to say yes and when to say no requires both faith and wisdom. After all, it is possible to say yes to too much because of our “faith,” and it is possible to say no to too much because of our “wisdom.”

Again, this is precisely why we need to spend time connected to the Vine. We must remind ourselves often of this truth: The most fruitful thing I can do today is connect with the heart of Jesus.

May God give us the grace to serve with both faith and wisdom. Not as opposite ideas, fighting for domination, but as buffers and guardrails, keeping us from veering too far to one side. Or the other.

 

3. Living Well Abroad: Relationally
Life abroad can be bone-jarringly lonely, so connecting with friends is vitally important. Those friendships might surprise you; they might be with expats and nationals and folks you first found strange. But whatever the case, deep connection with other human beings IRL (in real life) is crucial to whether or not you “live well” abroad.

Resources:
Velvet Ashes (this links to their articles tagged “friendship”)
10 Ways to Nurture Healthy Friendships

 

3.a Marriage
I’ve been living with my best friend for nearly 17 years. And frankly, we’d like to stay friends. If you’re married, I’d like for you to stay friends with your spouse too. Here are some ideas that have helped us…

– Google “First date questions” and screen capture the results. Next time you’re out on a date or alone together, whip out your phone and get to know each other again.

– Be a tourist for a night. Pretend you don’t speak the language and go where the tourists go. (I realize this might not apply to everyone, but I know it’ll apply to some.)

– If you have kids, try to get away for 24 hours. Because even 24 hours away can feel like forever. And when you’re away, don’t talk about work or the kids. (And if you don’t have anything to talk about besides work and the kids, take that as a sign that you need to get away more often!)

– Read a book about marriage. I’m continually amazed at how little effort we put into the one relationship that we want to be the deepest and longest and best.

– If a book is too much, check out The Gottman Institute on Facebook. Follow them and read an occasional article. 

Dudes, remember this: your wife lives here too. If you’re doing great but she’s really struggling, you gotta push pause and figure it out. Are you both thriving?

And when it comes to arguing, remember the age-old adage our marriage therapist said over and over and over: “If one person wins, the couple loses.”  : ) 

Resources:
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife
Marriage is the Beautiful Hard
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy

 

3.b. Parenthood
We moved to Asia when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three. And the loss of how I used to parent nearly killed me. Really. Most Saturdays, I’d get depressed and overwhelmed by all the good we had left behind. Here’s a snapshot of what helped me…

Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already, so ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

Remember, use other parents and their ideas, but don’t judge yourself by other parents and their ideas. Some ideas will work for others that will not work for you. Figure out what’ll work for your family. Then do those things.

Be Crazy.The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. We have a badminton court on our roof and a ping pong table in our garage. And we use our moto as a jet ski during rainy season. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed.

Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it.

Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question destroys kids.

 

Resources:
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

 

4. Living Well Abroad: Psychologically
At various points in our overseas journey, Elizabeth and I have needed debriefing, coaching, and counseling. In fact, so many of the good things in our life and ministry have been directly influenced by specific psychological help.

One area that’s so simple (and important) to talk about is meta-emotions. Simply put, meta-emotions are what you feel about feelings.

Don’t freak out on me just yet. I know this sounds like a Pixar movie.

But honestly, a healthy question that we need to ask much more often is this: How do I feel about what I’m feeling?

For example, if you feel angry at your host country and then feel GUILTY for feeling angry, your feelings of guilt will actually block you from dealing with the root of your anger. Does your anger make you feel like a bad person? A bad Christian? Like you’re a failure because you don’t even like the people you came to serve?

You see, how you feel about your feelings will make a huge difference with how you handle them. Do you keep talking to God about your feelings? If you’re ashamed of your feelings or believe that you shouldn’t have them, chances are your praying will cease forthwith. And that’s not cool.

An illuminating question in all of this is, “How were emotions handled in my family of origin? Did I grow up in an emotion coaching home, where emotions were safe and expression was easy? Was I taught how to feel and name and share my feelings?”

If so, that’s awesome. It’s also pretty rare.

Did you grow up in an emotion dismissing home? Were emotions anything but safe? Did you hear, “Don’t be sad/angry/whatever”?

In your family, did emotions hurt people? If so, I’m sorry. The first step is to acknowledge that this is the case, and maybe see a counselor.

Why does this matter? Because meta-emotions will massively impact what you do with your feelings, and what you do with your feelings will massively impact how you do with life abroad. 

 

Resources:
Meta-Emotion: How you feel about feelings
A Life Overseas Resource Page
Here’s an 11 minute video outlining a tool I use with about 90% of my pastoral counseling clients:

 

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This material was originally presented at an international church here in Phnom Penh. If you’d like to see the handouts and/or listen to the audio of that presentation, click here. The message is also available as a podcast. Just search iTunes for “trotters41” or click here.

It’s Not All About War: Balancing our Kingdom Rhetoric

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How we motivate people to care about cross-cultural missions matters.

Should we try to motivate people to care about cross-cultural missions? Should we try to motivate people to do cross-cultural missions? Yeah, I think so.

But when our talk of Kingdom and Mission skews too much to an emphasis on war and doing battle, people pay the price and we all suffer in the long run.

I’ve done it before, and I was wrong.

It’s a classic motivation strategy, really. Focus on the danger and the risk. And the glory. Highlight the adventure and the cost. Appeal to our desire to make a big splash in a book-worthy, mic-dropping, eternity-altering manner.

If you can make sure the danger seems enormous and foreign and somewhere exotic, even better. If you can talk with passion about the millions who will die without Christ UNLESS PEOPLE GO, good on you. The Gospel calls us to go and sacrifice and burn and bleed for the eternal destiny of souls.

But when we over-emphasize some of those intense facets of radical obedience and overlook the more mundane ones (like “a long obedience in the same direction,” faithful plodding, and deep friendships that span years), we set people up to fail and burn out. We set them up for idolatry. When the magnificent doesn’t happen when they thought it would, or when they realize that “failure” is a word they’re beginning to apply to themselves, the results can be destroying.

 

Scorched Earth or Green Grass?
Jesus didn’t talk WAR very much, actually. Some, but not a lot. A military commander would have talked like that, for sure, but a military commander he explicitly was NOT. That’s what people wanted him to be, but he just wasn’t. At least not the type of Commander they imagined.

People wanted EPIC. (People always want epic.) They wanted a strong fighter and warrior. They wanted munitions, and he didn’t provide them. Or, at least, he didn’t take aim at the folks his listeners wanted destroyed (Rome).

People always want epic. They want to see POWER and a flood of victory and they use big and overwhelming words that sweep us away with their immensity and majesty.

But the Scriptures also talk about green grass and a Shepherd.

They speak of the Father’s house, of peace, safety, and comfort.

They speak of calm and Shalom.

 

Mobilization vs. Member Care
I see this illustrated in the differences between Mobilizers and Member Care folk. Is a healthy tension between the two necessary? I think perhaps.

One wants to send everyone, packing luggage in coffins if need be, for the glory of the Cross. These people love John Piper and David Platt and stats about how many people die every minute. Paul is their patron saint.

The other wants to keep people healthy and whole, preferring writers like Ruth Van Reken and Pete Scazzero. They probably spend an inordinate amount of time in the Psalms.

One is all about sacrifice. The other is all about Shalom.

One says, “Go and die for the King!” The other says, “Come and find rest for your soul.”

One’s like the battle-hardened soldier who runs headlong into the fight. The other is like the medic who’s trying to keep people healthy, and then when that doesn’t work, cleans up, bandages up, and packs up the results.

Both are emphatically for Jesus.

 

We Need Both
As a young man, I jumped into the battle-talk-save-the-world camp. It motivated me. Nate Saint the martyr was my hero, and John Piper was my soundtrack.

Now, I am much more medic than fighter, and I sometimes feel the tension.

The truth is, we need both. We need to be overwhelmed by God’s intense love for the nations and the certain truth that God desires ALL people to know him and love him, and that he calls his Church to participate in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

We need to remember that the Bible supports both the Mobilizer and the Medic, the call to arms and the call to His arms, and we need to make sure that our churches and organizations do too.

 

This is Our God
May we remember the fire in his eyes and the tenderness of his touch. May we remember that he spoke hard truth harshly, sometimes, and he spoke comforting truth softly, sometimes.

May we remember that we are in a battle and that we have an enemy. And may we remember that we are in a royal procession, en route to the greatest victory celebration the cosmos has ever seen.

May we remember that our Warrior is gentle, refusing to break the bruised reed or snuff the smoldering wick, and yet he remains capable of destroying the armies of darkness and death itself.

May we remember the full character of our God.
The Lord of Hosts is his name.
The Lord strong in battle.
The King of Glory.

May we remember the full character of our God.
The wounded Healer.
The Great Physician.
The Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

May the magnificent love of our Jealous God propel us to obedient service, far and wide. And may the intimate love of our Father God sustain us once we get there.

 

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How do you balance these things? Have you seen churches and ministries balance this well?

Have you seen them balance these things poorly?

 

Further Reading:

The Idolatry of Missions

To the ones who think they’ve failed

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

Why Are We Here?

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Standing Up Crooked Together

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Standing Up Crooked

There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where my family and I attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.

This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.

Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be: sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.

I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.

Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.

Can you identify with this tree?

Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?

While I admire this tree, I also feel a tinge of sorrow for it, because even surrounded by fellow pines, it seems alone. Most pines stand up straight and tall. That’s part of their pineness. This tree is no less a pine, but I wonder if it feels that way sometimes.

That’s not how it has to be.

Standing Up Together

In another part of the world, there’s a strange cluster of trees, not far from the town of Gryfino, in Poland. These more than one-hundred pines are much like the one in Colorado. They are all bent in the same way, in the same direction. The grove is called Krzywy Las, or the Crooked Forest.

Theories abound as to what happened to the trees. Some think it was caused by heavy snow or unrelenting wind. Some say it’s the result of tanks flattening young trees during the German invasion before World War II. Still others believe (and this seems to be the most accepted explanation) that the trees were intentionally bent by people, wanting to used the curved wood for building ships or for making furniture. The trees were then left untended, they say, due to the war.

I’m glad that the trees have each other. C. S. Lewis famously writes in The Four Loves that Friendship happens when one person says to another, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” This Friendship is defined by Lewis as a kind of love. It is more than simply Companionship. He says,

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).

In the forest, companions occupy the same plot of ground, but friends share their wounds, their vulnerabilities, their breaks, and their bruises. They peel back the bark to show the twisted wood beneath. They give up their striving for long, uninterrupted lines. “What? You too?” must always come in response to someone else’s revelation. How many Friendships have been avoided because no one was willing to be the first to speak?

Lewis goes on to warn that a danger of Friendships is that they can become clubs that exclude others, leading to “a wholesale indifference or deafness” to those outside. Even in sharing one’s woundedness, there is the temptation to leave out others whose hurts don’t reach the level of ours.

The club of those hurt on the mission field should not be a club that extols suffering. Rather, it should be one that extols honesty. Anyone can join. All it takes is a willingness to speak what is all-too-often hidden. It is the kind of honesty that so many have prayed for.

Have you ever been the answer to someone else’s prayer?

I hope you can find friendship and community among the crooked trees of the forest, whether it be at a debriefing, during a retreat, over a cup of coffee, via email or phone conversations, in the pages of a book . . . or possibly through a blog.*

All are welcome in the Crooked Forest. If you’re not yet able to stand, then come and sit in the shade. If you can’t even raise your head, then come and lie down and be watched over. If you can stand but your past keeps you from standing up straight, then come and let’s stand up crooked together.

(C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Geoffrey Bles, 1960)

[photo of the Crooked Forest outside Gryfino, Poland: “Krzywy Las w Nowym Czarnowie,” by Artur Strzelczyk, used under a Creative Commons license]

*I hope A Life Oversees can provide this kind of place for you, but there are other great online communities for missionaries, as well. In fact, I’m not the only one who’s expressed this idea in this way. After I wrote this post, I was over at Velvet Ashes (a site for women overseas that many of you are familiar with) and saw that Amy Young, also a contributor to this blog, curates a weekly blog party called The Grove. In her introduction, she uses a collection of trees to represent a missionary community (thus the title), and she even alludes to Lewis’s ““What? You, too?” I really didn’t read Amy’s post until after I wrote this one. (Honest!) Anyway, I wanted to protest my innocence and also give a shout out to The Grove. My ideas may not always be unique, but I’m in good company.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts, Right? Here’s a Resource to Help Us Live That Way

Inside Job
Stephen W. Smith wrote Inside Job for leaders, leaders who find themselves trying to “climb the slippery, treacherous slope of success,” often falling with a crash and landing in a heap below.

Stephen was once among them. When he began life after graduate school, he says, “I developed an addiction to work that was applauded by every organization I worked for in my career. I was hooked—as every addiction hooks a person.” For Stephen, that work included his service on the mission field.

The solution, he writes, is to redefine success and to prioritize the care of one’s soul, what he calls “the work within the work.” Using the “Great Eight Virtues” listed in 2 Peter 1 as his foundation, in Inside Job Stephen presents the need for emotional and spiritual transformation and fleshes out what must be done to bring it about—”a process of learning, adjusting, repenting and starting anew with courageous convictions.”

The work within the work includes finding rhythm (not balance) in life, saying “no” in light of our limitations, recognizing the need for Sabbath rest, and understanding and managing transitions.

For many of us, this will require a nearly 180-degree turnaround, as we currently function as if the outside work is of ultimate importance. Get that right and the inside will naturally follow. Things in the soul not going well? Work harder for ministry success and everything else will fall into place.

Of course, Stephen knows that missionaries are among the leaders needing inner work. He and his wife, Gwen (an adult TCK for whom Ethiopia was for a time home), previously served as church planters in Europe, and Stephen has pastored a church in the Netherlands. When I asked Stephen about the dangers to the missionary soul, he said that they “are as huge as to anyone else: ego, not knowing how to do conflict—the number-one reason missionaries come home—and past unresolved issues in life that keep trapping and tripping missionaries.”

Stephen writes about a cross-cultural worker who came to him. He had been serving for many years and was suffering from compassion fatigue. “I’m here but I feel like I’m in a coma,” he said. “I’m numb. I fee indifferent to everyone and everything—including God. I don’t even want to care anymore. I don’t have care in me. It’s gone!”

In his role as cofounder (along with Gwen) and president of Potter’s Inn, a ministry dedicated to spiritual formation and soul care, Stephen ministered to this man. Under Stephen’s guidance, the cross-cultural leader allowed “time, a place apart and solitude to do what no other power on earth can do.” Stephen calls this slow process a “trickle charge.” He talks more about trickle charging when he takes up the subject of a rhythm of rest, urging leaders to create times for resting on a weekly, monthly, yearly, and sabbatical time frame.

When it comes to transitions, Stephen understands that they take time, as well. My family and I met Stephen and Gwen a few weeks after we had returned to the States following 10 years living overseas. One of the points they stressed to us in our debriefing was the need to understand that adjusting to our new lives and surroundings could not be rushed.

In his book, Stephen mentions missionaries as an example of people who must navigate a myriad of transitions—between homes, houses, cultures, languages, jobs, schools, friends, and the list goes on. All of this too often happens, he writes, without needed help:

Rare is the church or sending organization that helps a missionary family in transition. Expectations are established that the work is what counts. This has led to devastating statistics in mission organizations forced to look at their retention rates for missionaries who simply are not prepared for the long, hard and challenging transition to life in a new culture, or the transition that takes place when the missionary comes back home. Few missionaries are allowed to process what happened inside them as they did their outside work. Churches and agencies are eager to hear reports of growth, but what about the internal chaos happening in the life of the one who was sent?

Understanding the reality of this chaos was another theme that the Smith’s presented to us. This chaos in the missionary soul often happens as missionaries take great pains to look on the outside as if all is well.

Dealing with that chaos and the other inner challenges of the missionary life takes work, work by the missionary, by the church, by the sending agency, by member-care workers, by family members, and by friends. It’s the inside work that makes the outside work possible. It’s the inside work that allows us to step away from the “treacherous slope of success.” It’s the inside work that can help us after we’ve fallen, to get up and walk a better path.

(Stephen W. Smith, Inside Job: Doing the Work within the Work, IVP, 2015)

Resources For Men Serving Cross-Culturally

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I received the following email from a man I’d met at MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal. Brian, his wife, and I were in the same debriefing group.

I was recently talking to a former missionary friend of mine who was going through some tough times in his re-entry to the States despite the fact that he has landed in a great job and community.  His talk about loneliness stuck out to me and got me thinking a little bit.  Do you know of a ministry like yours that focuses on mentoring, coming alongside and creating community for men throughout their missionary journey?  Any links, suggestions or resources you could pass on would be great.

The “like yours” is referring to Velvet Ashes. I know, and love, that men read the articles written for Velvet Ashes. But since the target audience is women, I also know men aren’t going to feel free to comment and engage in the same way.

This was my response:

You have tapped on something I think is lacking in the mission community — good support for men. So, sadly, no, I don’t know of much. Has he heard of the website Rocky Reentry? Not just for women. Or contacting Barnabas?

AND if it’s any consolation, I’d say that I’m similar to your friend. Good job, good community, but at times lonely. Last spring I started meeting with a spiritual director and that’s been a game changer. I didn’t need counseling, but I did need someone to help me sort out what’s going on in my soul :). So, that might be a suggestion that helps.

*****

My response has stuck with me in the weeks he emailed because it feels, well, so inadequate. I’m thrilled to see all that it blossoming on the web for cross-cultural workers. This summer I was a guest lecture for a class on missions and member care and I shared with them “10 Websites you need to know if you’re interested in Missions and Member Care.” A list I compiled trying to highlight the variety of online resources that exist now and was glad I had. In the classroom students had stacks of books around them. I’m all for books, but my hope was to show the more human, relatable side the internet can provide. Here it is:

  1. Thrive
  2.  A Life Overseas
  3. Taking Route
  4. Velvet Ashes 
  5. Paracletos 
  6. Rocky Re-Entry 
  7. Tending Scattered Wool
  8. Kids Without Borders 
  9. Raising TCKs 
  10. Market to Meal 

What stood out to me then, and I saw reflected in my response to my friend, is how very female heavy these resources are. Oddly, when so much of the world seems to have started out male dominated and has needed to create a space for women to be heard, we seem to be the opposite.

Two things I’d like to say:

  1. You have to start somewhere. I’m not sad or happy it started with women, I’m neutral. What would make me sad, is if it stays female dominated.
  2. As a woman, there could be FAR more resources out there for men than I realize.

Can you help me (us really)? In the comments can you list other resources? Let’s continue to curate lists of resources so that as people ask us if we know of any, we have them to offer. And if the Holy Spirit is stirring in you to start something or get involved somewhere … Go For It!!

Thanks for any resources!

That One Safe Friend

337964609_40bf770760_oDo you have that one safe friend?

When I went overseas, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I needed one.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of friends, good friends, but I didn’t have one particular person who was committed to the role of being that one safe friend. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that all missionaries—and other cross-cultural workers—need someone whom they trust to be devoted to them because of who they are, not because of what they do, someone who will reach out to them consistently, someone who will encourage them, comfort them, laugh with them, and weep with them.

It’s not that there won’t be several people who could do this for you, but without someone specific to take on that responsibility, you may find yourself with no one. When you have your home church, your sending agency, your family, your coworkers, and your supporters behind you, it’s easy for each individual to think that you’re more than taken care of. At a Parents of Missionaries gathering I recently attended, Dr. Dorris Schulz, director for missionary care for Missions Resource Network, said that if she’s ever drowning, she hopes there’s only one person around. That’s because people in a crowd too often do nothing, assuming that someone else will step in.

Being that one safe friend doesn’t take an exotic skill set. It’s not someone who has all the answers. And it doesn’t need to be someone with experience living abroad. But it does need to be someone who is a good listener, someone who is caring and empathetic, someone who understands you and understands the core challenges of life, regardless of the setting. It’s not an exotic skill set, but neither is it common to everyone.

You’ll need to be proactive in asking someone to be that friend. Don’t assume that people will come knocking, maybe because they doubt your need or their ability. So if you’re looking, what should you look for? What should you expect from that friend? Here are some suggestions:

That one safe friend will be safe. (Obvious, huh?) You’ll be able to tell your friend the unvarnished truth, not just a newsletter report. Your friend will not share with others your private conversations without your permission, unless there are special circumstances, such as there is danger of you harming yourself or others, or if there is a legal requirement of disclosure, or if you continue in unrepentant sin that calls for church discipline. Choose someone whom you know is good at keeping confidences. People who like to share others’ secrets with you are likely to share your secrets, too.

As part of that safety, that friend will not be in your ministry line of authority or will not report to someone in that line of authority. That way, you’ll be able to share your needs, frustrations, weaknesses, and shortcomings without fear of losing your position or financial support. It’s not that you can’t trust those above you, it’s just that they have other allegiances and responsibilities, and rightly so.

That friend will contact you regularly. Once a week? Twice a month? Once a month? How often will be up to you, but it needs to be consistent. That way you won’t skip a chat because you feel fine, because you feel terrible, or because you don’t want to seem too needy. It’s not easy to ask for help, and a regular schedule means that you won’t need to pursue your friend over and over again.

That friend will ask questions, lots of questions, starting with “How are you?” and going much further and deeper. The questions will be based on a firm understanding of who you are. They will remember past struggles and joys and will anticipate lows and highs in the future. Of course your relationship will be two way, and you’ll invest in your friend’s life as well. That’s what friendship is. But this friend will understand his or her position in your life and won’t regret the investment when it might seem one-sided. It’s similar to financial supporters who give their funds without expecting monthly checks of an equal amount back from you.

That friend will listen to your voice and will speak to you. That might be by phone call, via video chat, or face to face. Email is a good way to communicate information but often falls short when it comes to expressing emotions. When you say, “I’m OK,” by listening to your voice, your friend can say, “You don’t sound OK.”

That friend will pray for you. Your friend will know your heart, your soul, the truth. You need your friend to carry you to God in prayer, voicing the kind of concerns that you pray for on your own. Philip Yancey, in Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? notes that in the biblical stories of healing by Jesus, all but seven were brought to him by others.

That friend will resign this role if it’s no longer working and will understand if you want to make a change, as hard as that may be. This particular relationship doesn’t need to be for life, nor should it be allowed just to fizzle out. Instead, it should be evaluated periodically to make sure it is still beneficial. In some ways, it’s like missionaries trying to work themselves out of a job. Maybe your friend far away will hand off the responsibility to someone you see face-to-face on the field. Another missionary? A national friend?

And as you come into contact with other cross-cultural workers, close by or far away, maybe you can become that one safe friend for them. And if you take on that role, let your friend know that you’re paying it forward. Let your friend know that’s how important it is to you.

[Photo by Magnus Wrenninge, used under a Creative Commons license]