My husband and I both have college degrees and 4.0 GPA’s (okay, not exactly, he once got an A-, and I once got a B). We like to think we’re pretty talented and could do anything in the world we wanted to do. But instead of staying in the States and raking in tons of money, we decided to move to South Africa so I could work for a community development organization…for free. And we did this because we think that’s what Jesus calls us to– not the American Dream, but the excitement of laying down our stuff and living for Him.
It sounds very noble and sacrificial when we tell our story this way. It’s a story people attribute to us, even when we don’t explicitly tell it that way. This sacrifice story is one I’m hearing a lot from missionaries and people involved in community development work.
Our sacrifice story would go at the bottom of the totem pole, because we were young and just starting out–and quite frankly the job market was terrible anyway, so hey, why not just go to South Africa? Probably at the top of the sacrifice-story totem pole is Jim Elliot, but somewhere close behind is the sacrifice story of a middle-aged couple who quit their jobs as president of a successful company, sell their house, and go start a ministry for sex-trafficking victims in South Sudan.
Oh, and there’s also this version where we say: “This is so not about me, this is all about Jesus” and then proceed to tell it as a story where we sacrifice everything for Jesus.
I’m realizing there’s a real problem if we tell our story this way–to ourselves, or to other people. When we’re used to seeing ourselves as people who have sacrificed, it’s very, very easy to slide into an entitlement attitude. Not about material things (heavens, no!), but about decision-making things. About having control. About holding the reins. And the bigger the sacrifice we’ve made, the more entitled we feel to call the shots when it comes to the way we do ministry.
Not that we’d ever say these thoughts out-loud, but…
“The organization wants me to do accounting for them. Even though I have some experience in that, it is not my gifting– I’m an evangelist. I gave up everything to come preach, and now you’re telling me you want me in a back office crunching numbers?”
“Look, some of my local partners have expressed some discomfort at the way I’m always posting photos of sick HIV patients on Facebook, but that’s what speaks to people back home. People back home need to see the reality over here, and all I care about is getting more people engaged with this work. That’s what I’m all about. Heck, I sold everything and moved half-way across the world for this–of course my intentions in sharing these photos are pure, you can’t question that!”
“A child came to me and is asking for money for food. The local pastor told me that he doesn’t give out food to street children because it encourages them to stay on the streets, but he’s trapped in self-centered thinking. People here don’t have enough compassion for the poor. I sacrificed everything to come over here–the reason I’m here is to help people understand compassion–people here just aren’t caring.”
“They want me to learn the local language, but I’m going to be working with English-speaking university students. I’m already 55, I don’t have time for this. I care about these students–you can’t doubt that, I mean, I came all the way here–but I can’t waste time learning a language I’m never going to use.”
The fact that we’ve sacrificed can be used as a shield in any conflict. We can gain the moral high ground and claim impeachable motives– after all, we came all the way here. We’ve sacrificed. We elevate ourselves above the need to be taught, to be corrected, and to learn from people around us who have been living, and caring, and working here for much longer than we have. It’s always uncomfortable to be confronted about the way we’re doing some aspect of our ministry, but let’s not let the sacrifice-story put us in an untouchable category.
How can we re-frame the stories that we tell about ourselves and to ourselves about what we’ve done? Can we actually see ourselves as privileged to be here, as willing learners (and not just say that’s what we are)?
Stephanie Ebert is a TCK from South Africa and America. Married to a Minnesotan, she and her husband David have spent the past three years working in South Africa for the non-profit iThemba Projects. Right now they are experiencing the cultural shock of moving to a small Texas town for David to complete his masters degree. Steph continues to work for iThemba Projects online. She blogs about social justice, missions, race, and finding hope at bridginghope.wordpress.com