by Katie Von Rueden
Before my husband and I arrived in West Africa to minister in remote village among a minority people group, it was pretty clear (to us) what we were going to do. We were to be literacy specialists, as our heartfelt prayers had prepared us for, and our degrees had trained us to carry out. Our ministry description was to engage with the people and culture, learn the language, publish stories, teach people to read, then train up teachers and storywriters to make the ministry reproducible.
And give or take the expected adjustments, surprises, and stresses of our first couple years on the field, by God’s grace we were more or less on our way to fulfilling those ministry tasks. And then we returned to the field after a home assignment, and several things came with the start of another term: a new baby in tow, stepping into branch leadership, and the necessity of shifting the central focus of our family’s ministry in our project from literacy to helping facilitate the Bible translation in process for our people group.
I can’t speak for my husband and the process he went through shifting from pre-field expectations and post-field reality that came to be within a few short years of our arrival in West Africa. It was an entirely different kind of adjustment. But I’ll attempt to describe that shift for me when I became a missionary mom.
It was if suddenly, though I continued to write updates for our supporters back home, I was relegated to the role of a spectator to our ministry. Available time to work on literacy initiatives, like creating and editing materials, was pushed into the small margin of my son’s afternoon naps, if it happened at all. In the context of our rural village life in a taxing, tropical environment, I felt like I had just enough physical and emotional energy to manage our home and care for my infant (and serve as the front-lines journalist of my husband’s ongoing adventure, of course).
In my head, I knew what I was doing was important … for my son, for my family, for our ministry. But in my heart, as I dug into the daily grind made up of the million wonderful, but mundane, moments of parenting, I felt the grief of an identity I felt I had lost, and guilt that I wasn’t fulfilling my ministry role as a literacy specialist.
I didn’t realize how much this seeming sidelining of responsibilities bothered me, though, until a young couple arrived on a vision trip to our field, and the woman, on observing my morning routine with our then one-year-old, asked me: “So, what do you do besides take care of Tristan?”
Uh… well, I wash and wring out loads of cloth diapers, make baby food, cook all our meals from scratch, and tend to the spontaneous visits, requests, and needs of our village neighbors Every. Single. Day. But I wasn’t quick-witted enough to fill her in on All. The. Things that encompassed that “singular task” of “taking care of my child.” (By the way, we all still have to live in the places we relocate to, and that in itself is a lot of work above and beyond the neat and tidy ministry we sign up for in this business.) Because I knew her underlying question was actually what did I do as a field worker?, I managed some reply about the literacy projects I worked on in my spare time. (Yeah right.) But that’s not the response she needed to hear that day from me.
What I should have told her, had I grasped it then myself, is that the discipleship and education of my children and the care of my family is the crux of what I do on the field. Family is ministry. Making my family my ministry actually plays a critical role in the Bible translation happening in our home office every day.
Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” For men means for other people, but I think it also means for you, yourself, and your ambitions. Work heartily for God’s glory, not to please others, or your own ambitions, or what you think God wants of you, or what others want of you.
When I took the time to examine my heart, I realized that the only one who had a problem with my “shifted identity” as a field worker was me. But through God’s grace, and my husband’s occasional, heartfelt notes of encouragement, I realized that I wasn’t a sidelined field worker not doing her job. The assigned task of literacy in its fullest capacity was yes, temporarily shelved. But my worth is not found in what my ministry description says I do, but who I am as a child of God.
But at the risk of sounding contradictory, I need to say there is a tension between following a calling and living under grace, free from unfair expectations. In following the path that God has called us to in life and ministry, we can fall into two ditches. There is the ditch of tenacity, of singular focus to a calling. This could be the call to translation, or literacy, or technical or administrative support, or healthcare. While this Apostle Paul-like commitment to a calling is good, a singular focus to a ministry may cause us to miss opportunities to be present for our family, our colleagues, our neighbors. Our ministry job descriptions are not finite: our life’s calling is to bring God glory, and clearly, there’s more than one way to do so.
However, we must be careful not to fall into the other ditch of capriciousness, or being too flexible in our service to God and what He has called us to. Being the all-around helpful, dependable man or woman is good, and it is God-honoring, but we must be careful not to stumble into the path of least resistance and lose trajectory in what God is asking us to do with our time and skills.
Here’s how these “ditches” translate for me: In this season as a missionary mom of young children, had I fallen into the ditch of tenacity to serving as a literacy specialist, I would be setting myself up for incredible frustration and missing doing my job as mom well. But I still risk falling into the ditch of capriciousness. I’ll admit, oftentimes it’s hard not to use my children as an excuse for not doing something hard or uncomfortable that I sense God is asking me to do. As I’ve attempted to tread the course between those two ditches, embracing my role as a missionary mom of littles, it has opened doors to different ministries for this season, such as building into the lives of village kids that flood our yard each day unannounced.
God isn’t into job titles. He’s not waiting for me to show up at my desk to edit a literacy tool.
He’s waiting for me, for you, to show up.
To do something, even when… especially when… it’s hard. When you feel side-lined and unseen.
To not be so blindsided by a change to what you expected to do when you got to the field, that it renders you useless for a real opportunity in the present reality He’s giving you—whether for the short or long-term.
To be focused, but flexible.
Your worth is not in what your ministry description says you do, but in the God you serve.
Katie makes her home in a rural, West African village with her husband and two children. They serve with a Bible translation organization in literacy and scripture engagement, making the Word accessible in the heart language of minority people groups. As a teenager, Katie dreamed of teaching English at an international school in China. Her university degree and cross-cultural experiences were propelling her in that direction, when she met her husband and God rewrote her story (or invited her into a new chapter). Making Africa her heart’s home over the years has been a journey of surrender and of discovering joy and God’s calling in unexpected places.