6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need

by Michèle Phoenix

As I travel to speak and consult with missionary families around the world, the word “permission” regularly comes up. In a subculture saturated with expectations and obligations, it seems to have a restorative power.

Missionaries’ Kids, too, live under burdensome expectations and would benefit as much as their parents from clearly articulated permissions. I believe the following are crucial to raising a generation of MKs unhobbled by the unreasonable demands of a world that may not fully understand what it is to be young and vulnerable, living cross-culturally in the fishbowl of ministry.


1. Permission To Be Kids

It’s no secret that missionaries’ children, much like pastors’ kids, feel held to higher standards than their peers. With friends and strangers watching their every move, there is unrelenting pressure to behave well. Be good. Be polite. Be friendly. Have a positive attitude and never—ever—complain.

The broad expectation that they be better behaved, smarter, and more mature than other children their age—or at least that they convincingly project these traits—can become a debilitating pressure.

And if there’s one thing MKs do well, it’s try to live up to unrealistic expectations.

When I was visiting with a missionary family a few weeks ago, I asked an 11-year old boy why his family had moved to Romania. He told me that he was there to “introduce people to Jesus.” Perhaps the most meaningful words I heard on that three-week trip were his mother’s when she said, “No, honey, mom and dad are here to introduce people to Jesus. Your job is to be a kid.”

What a simply-worded, freedom-giving statement! Her son, a relatively new MK, heard from his mother’s mouth that it’s okay for him to just.be.young. So he can talk back or stomp his foot or hate zucchini or complain or lie and expect consequences—but without the disproportionate shame too often levied on MKs who are just being kids in the world of ministry.


2. Permission To Fail

Children will fail. They’ll do stupid things, they’ll forget instructions, and they’ll disobey rules. It goes without saying that MK or non-MK, they need to know that mistakes and bad behavior are not unforgivable flaws.

In the ministry world, though, failure can take on more ominous overtones.

  • “We need to set an example for the unbelievers watching us.”
  • “God wants us to be a light in the darkness.”
  • “You represent God in your middle school.”

The exhortations seem benign, but they add a deeper condemnation to inevitable stumbles.

Demanding unreasonable exceptionality of MKs because their family represents God sets them up for the worst kind of failure: one in which their imperfection hurts their family’s work and tarnishes God’s image.

So it isn’t just a bad grade. It isn’t just getting cut from the soccer team. It isn’t just posting something inappropriate on Facebook. It isn’t just stealing change off the teacher’s desk or telling a lie about a friend.

It brings shame on themselves, on their families, and on God.

If we’re not careful with our words, we heap a spiritual burden on six-year-olds whose lives are already complicated by cross-cultural living, frequent transitions, and successive losses. The liberating balm of “permission to fail” for young people who are often overly self-blaming cannot be overstated.


3. Permission To Grieve

The heaviest burden many MKs bear is the number of goodbyes they have to say in their early years. The mission field is a transient place where someone is always leaving. The repeated departures create an expectation of loss that colors both their entry into new relationships and the nature of the friendships they form.

The world’s unspoken expectation of courage and resilience in the face of so much loss puts pressure on grieving MKs to get over it fast, to find comfort in an unflagging faith, and to forge ahead without handicap. Little emphasis is put on the grieving process, and little space is given to allow it to evolve.

Adding to the issue is the unwillingness of many adults in ministry to model healthy grieving for the younger generation. If MKs don’t see the grown-ups around them honestly demonstrating the journey from loss to healing, they won’t know that they’re allowed to walk it too.

Until missionary parents and the missionary community as a whole give permission to missionaries’ children to express and work through their grief—as ugly as it may get—we will continue to see hearts hardened toward God (on whom many blame their losses) and adult MKs still crippled by their losses in later seasons of their lives.


4. Permission To Dissent

MKs know they’re a package deal. God called their parents. He funded their ministry. They made it overseas and are doing good work. How dare they question a Calling? How dare they resist another move or resent another change of schools?

Of all the MKs I’ve worked with in more than twenty years, those who have felt no permission to voice a disagreement or question their parents’ choices are the ones whose resentment has been most bitter.

How easy it is for adults with a clear vision and driving passion to carve a path toward the Calling they perceive.

And how destructive it can be when the children in their care don’t feel the same impulse, but measure the Call in toxic increments of change.

Before announcing a new direction or an imminent uprooting, parents of MKs might consider gently introducing the topic—then entering into ongoing conversation and collective seeking. With compassion and attention. With hearts trained on their children while their spirits are tuned to God.

With permission to dissent—to express opinions that are contrary to their parents’—children will feel freedom to voice honest feelings, allowing the family to proceed perhaps more slowly, but with each member engaged in discerning what God is asking of them. The MKs will feel seen and known, and communication and empathy between family members will deepen.


5. Permission To Doubt

Not all MKs are saved. Not all MKs believe that God is real. Not all MKs view their parents’ faith in a positive light.

I didn’t encounter Jesus—truly encounter Jesus—until I’d been a missionary for a couple of years. Yet presumptions about the faith of MKs abound both in their sending churches and among their family members.

Of course she’s saved. Of course he’s on fire for God! They’re MKs!

So the young person whose life is steeped in Christianity feels guilty for doubting. Guilty for the shreds of unbelief that daren’t be expressed lest they bring shame (that word again) on the family and their work.

I’ve seen MKs trying to process their lack of faith being tisk’ed into silence. Or voicing their doubts and being preached into submission. Or hinting at uncertainty and being reproached into repentance.

Faith is not an inherited conviction. God is not a transferable commodity. Yet the pressure on MKs to not only believe, but be exemplary in their faith is rampant. What unfair pressure on souls whose perception of God has been complicated by a ministry-saturated worldview.

Permission to doubt is more than mere processing-space. It’s the gift of honest grappling toward eternal outcomes.

Parents need to extend it. Ministry communities need to extend it. Churches need to extend it. Adults and peers need to celebrate it as part of God’s working in the MK’s life.

Permission to doubt is crucial to an authentic faith.


6. Permission To Redefine Significance

The message comes from within and without the missionary community: “The best, most significant, and God-pleasing life you can live is one devoted to his service.”

But it’s a lie.

The best, most significant, and God-pleasing life is one in which relationship with him is central. Not work for him or sacrifice to him. Relationship with him.

In the missionary world, we too narrowly define significance as working for God. Well-intentioned believers reemphasize the message: “Your parents are doing the most important work.” Churches further accentuate it by highlighting missionary families and rewarding their effort with attention, prestige, and donations.

So the MK who wants to become a dancer feels like a sell-out. She’s seen the need, after all, and all she wants to do is dance? Shameful. All he wants to be is an electrician? Sad. All she sees herself doing is teaching? So unworthy of the MK-upbringing that shaped her—unless she teaches overseas.

I’ve known guilt-ridden adult MKs who can’t reconcile the career they love with the definition of significance that distorts their perspective—successful businessmen providing for the dozens of families they employ who feel they’ve missed the boat. Artists revealing God’s creativity and beauty to a cynical world who feel disloyal to the Call that galvanized their parents. Stay-at-home dads modeling God’s heart to their children who fear their lives are not significant enough.

Significance is not what we do. It’s who we are because of our relationship with Christ.

It’s the light we shine by our mere presence wherever we toil—not the task we do there. It’s the expression of God’s spirit in us that requires no words. It’s a dancer’s sublimation of the horrors of this world. The craftsman’s honesty and the excellence of his work. The teacher’s heart as she nourishes young souls.

There is deep significance in choosing to exercise the talents God has given us and in radiating him in the process. Too often, permission to find one’s intimate significance, then pursue and excel at it is poorly stated or withheld by well-intentioned missionary parents.


The Gift of Permission

Because so many of the expectations delineated above are unspoken, their antidote will have to be clearly articulated and frequently repeated. My encouragement to missionary parents desiring to remove the pressure from their still-developing children is fourfold. From their earliest age onward:

  • Foster open communication with your kids.
  • Use simple, unambiguous words to free them from unreasonable expectations.
  • Embody grace and mercy.
  • Model in your adulthood what you preach into their childhood.

Dare to open conversations that may take years to finish. It’s a healthy place to start for both the missionary and the MK.


Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

When Your Parents Wish You Weren’t Far Away: An Interview with Diane Stortz

Diane Stortz knows firsthand what it’s like to have children serving overseas, to want them to follow God’s calling, but also to want them close by. In 2008, she, along with Cheryl Savageau, wrote Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally (InterVarsity Press). Since joining the ranks of parents of missionaries (POMs), she has ministered to and heard from hundreds of parents walking the same path.

Tell us a little about your personal story as a parent of a missionary.

My husband and I never expected to be parents of a missionary, and becoming POMs was hard. Our daughter and son-in-law married while still in college. She was training as a vocalist, and he planned to be a youth minister. But they spent their first anniversary as missionary interns in Bosnia. Over the next two years, they made the decision to serve as missionaries after graduation. Our heads and hearts were reeling! We really hadn’t been prepared to “lose” our daughter to marriage so soon . . . and now we felt we were losing her all over again.

Making it feel worse, our church was their sending organization, they would be joining a team already in place, and our congregation was excited and thrilled. We heard “You must be so proud” a lot. Yes, we were proud and very supportive, but we were also hurting.

Book person that I am, I went looking for something to read to help me adjust, and found nothing. About the same time, Cheryl Savageau (counseling director at our church) and Judy Johnson (missions minister) were talking about ways to help us and the other POMs in the congregation (all of us were struggling). That’s how our ministry to POMs eventually was born. Cheryl and I wrote a book and, for about ten years, we led groups and workshops for POMs and for college students and missions recruits too.

You say you felt proud and supportive . . . but you were hurting, too. What other emotions do you see wrestling inside parents’ hearts?

Fear is often the only emotion that parents voice, and in some parts of the world that fear is justified. Many POMs, especially fathers, admit to worrying about the safety and well-being of their children and grandchildren. In our case, our daughter and son-in-law were interested in a place where there was recent war and lots of unrest, and I can still remember my husband telling our preacher one Sunday morning, “Not her, not there, not now!” (He eventually came around and even spoke at their commissioning service.)

But mostly, POMs grieve what they are losing—their expectations. Instead of the normal future they envisioned with their children and grandchildren, now their loved ones will be missing from holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, births, baptisms, vacations, ordinary outings, church services. Grandchildren will grow up in another culture, speaking another language.

Parents also have difficult life stages of their own to navigate—health changes, retirement, death of a spouse, perhaps divorce, caring for their own aging parents—that often occur at the same time they become POMs.

And going just a bit deeper, parents also grieve emotional distance from their children. In the decade of their twenties, young adults are establishing themselves apart from their parents. If the parent-child relationship has been strained already, which it often is during the teen and college years, now the gulf is widened. Throw in thousands of miles, a new language, and cultural differences, and the distance can feel insurmountable.

And being honest and open about these emotions certainly isn’t easy. In Parents of Missionaries you write that disenfranchised grief “results when we deny or condemn our feelings or believe God doesn’t care about our pain. It also occurs when others criticize our feelings or consider us too strong to need support.” How does this play out in the church?

My co-author, Cheryl, a licensed clinical counselor, introduced me to the concept of disenfranchised grief, which she describes in that quote. It plays a big part of the POM experience for many, sadly, even within the church, where we are supposed to “bear one another’s burdens,” not make them worse.

Many POMs don’t even recognize they are grieving, or they don’t want to admit it. Somehow they’ve gotten the idea that their sadness is sinful—if they had more faith, they’d be joyful all the time about becoming POMs, right? They are being selfish and God is surely unhappy with them, right?

Sending agencies/churches can get caught up with the mission and make little room for negative emotions, intentionally or unintentionally. Recruits and missionaries who don’t recognize how their choices are impacting their parents can become angry about what they perceive as their parents’ lack of support.

If POMs do try talking about the pain they’re feeling—to their missionary, to a pastor, to a friend or a Bible study leader—sometimes all they hear is advice to pray more and have more faith. But what they actually need is to have their true feelings—good, bad, and ugly—heard and understood so they can start to heal.

So there are really three realms within the church where POM grief needs to be recognized and dealt with. One is the POMs themselves, one is others who can understand (or at least are willing to try), and one is the recruits or missionaries.

What advice do you have for parents looking for someone who will hear and understand them?

It’s so important that POMs find connection and support, and it is largely up to them to find it. A friend who doesn’t really understand but wants to try is good. A group of other POMs is priceless—as long as honesty is encouraged and accepted. It’s important not to let a group be preempted by someone who wants to superspiritualize things and deny any negative emotions.

Cheryl located POMs in our area by contacting area churches. For several years, she and I ran a group that met monthly for dinner and conversation. Each meeting had a theme, such as dealing with grief, long-distance grandparenting, handling the holidays, using technology, relationships with adult children.

Some sending organizations now offer parent days and other ways for parents to connect. On Facebook now there is a wonderful group page, Parents of Missionaries. Some of the POMs in that group meet each summer for a retreat in the US (open to any POMs). The book Cheryl and I wrote together continues to be a resource many POMs find helpful.

POMs need to look at their situation as an opportunity for growth—personal growth as they deal with difficult emotions and reach out for help, growth in their relationship with God and dependence on him, and growth (and healing if necessary) in their relationships with their young adult and adult children who are missionaries or recruits.

That brings us to communication with the third “realm”—the children of POMs. Could you speak directly to those serving abroad—and those preparing to go—and let them know a parent’s hopes for bridging the emotional and physical space between them?

I think what most parents want to say, if they haven’t already, is something like this: “I love you and I miss you and my grandchildren terribly. I’m proud of the way you are serving the Lord, but I’m afraid of losing my relationship with you. What can we do to keep that from happening?”

POMs can and do learn to proactively keep connection strong from their end. But the goal is to be one team. When the emotional connection is strong in both directions, the physical separation is so much easier for everyone to bear.

During your preparation time, don’t leave your parents out. They may not know much about missions, support raising, language school, sending organizations, or international travel, but they want to be informed. They want to ask questions, but they also don’t want to interfere. If they don’t ask, offer them the information anyway, and do your best to keep them up to date once you’re on the field.

When departure approaches, your parents want and need time with you and their grandchildren, but they may not feel free to voice this because your calendar is already so full. (The same dynamic can occur during furlough too.) Let your parents know you want time with them too and prioritize some time together.

The best advice is to say good-bye well—spend time together, make some memories, resolve any conflicts. And if you’re on the field and that didn’t happen before you left, open your heart’s door to your parents and let them know you’d like a better relationship now: “We love you, we miss you, and we wish we were closer too. So let’s make a plan to be more connected now and in the future.”

Diane has also authored A Woman’s Guide to Reading the Bible in a Year and several children’s books, including I Am: 40 Reasons to Trust God and Words to Dream On: Bedtime Bible Stories and Prayers. She is online at dianestortz.com.

[photo: “Atardecer en el Palmar” by Carlos Calamar, used under a Creative Commons license]