Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us

 

My wife and I wrote this “open letter” nearly 19 years ago, in honor of our parents and the parents of other cross-cultural workers. We originally published it in our newsletter after my father died (and I later posted it on my blog). Nineteen years is a long time, so I thought about updating it, but I’ve decided to leave it as it is, with one exception. Apropos of this time of year, I’ve added the line “Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.” I hope this resonates with you and yours.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family. (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us. We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you. You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo by Brant Copen]

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.

~~~~~~~~

Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

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]