You’ve been back in this country for a little less than three months and you’re just wrapping up another talk at one of your sponsoring churches. People walk up to you after the service and shake your hand to welcome you back. “You must be so happy to be home!” they proclaim with earnest and hope-filled eyes as they insert words into your mouth before you can even open it in protest.
Wait, protest? Protest and say what? How do you say all that you need to say while standing awkwardly up against the wall in the narthex five minutes following the service? No, that’s not going to happen. The truth is that deep down, you know that now is not the time for such conversation, and so you force the edges of your mouth upwards and nod in agreement as they continue to rain down accolades on you for a “job well done” and tell you how relieved and proud you must feel now that it’s over.
But what if it doesn’t feel like a job well done? What if you never got to see much of what you expected and hoped and prayed to see? What if you came back a little sooner than you were planning? What if the PowerPoint slides full of pictures from your last seven years don’t tell the whole story? What if instead of relief there is pain, and instead of pride there is shame? What if instead of joy there is anger, and instead of lightness in your heart there is a heaviness that is just too hard to explain?
I’ve been back in my passport country for six months now and this is my story, and unfortunately, I know that I’m not alone. Missionaries come back for many reasons other than a “successful mission completed,” and all too often, those stories never see the light of day in the wider church community. There is fear of being looked at like a failure, fear of not being tough enough, holy enough, dedicated enough. There is a fear of being misunderstood or labeled as “not a team player” or overly dramatic or charismatic or alarmist. There is guilt about those left behind and all the work that was unfinished. Also, there are just some things that can’t be talked about very easily in front of a crowded congregation, so they never get talked about at all.
And because they are never talked about, the church at large keeps on moving forward, thinking that their returned missionaries are ok, even when they aren’t. But we as a church can’t be ok with this. If we are going to put so much time and effort into sending missionaries well, we need to do the same when it comes to receiving them well when they come back.
And so, for all the missionaries who are afraid or unable to speak up, I’m laying it all out for anyone who wants to hear because I know all too well how easy it is to keep quiet even when your insides are screaming out, looking for a soft place to land.
If you’re a sending church, here’s just a sampling of some of the things your returned missionary might be dealing with that they probably aren’t exactly comfortable sharing from a pulpit:
- Doubt. While there is definitely more openness in our Christian culture these days for people to express and explore their doubts related to faith and God, I’m not sure the same can be said for those in full-time ministries such as pastors and missionaries. How would it look when your missionary comes home and writes a blog or does a sermon on all the ways they doubt God and the way He is working in their ministry? How are donors going to respond to that?
- Culture. While they may fill their newsletters and PowerPoints up with pictures of colorful dresses, tropical fruits, and exotic-looking cities and creatures that make the culture look beautiful and inviting, there are probably aspects of the culture that wear on them more than they say. Perhaps the way women or children are treated day in and day out has worn down your missionary’s spirits. Perhaps a lack of privacy or a culture of secrecy and corruption has exhausted them to their core. Culture shock isn’t just for the first couple of months or years; it can grate on you 5, 10, 15 years into your life abroad and cause continual cycles of shock and pain, which can add up significantly over time.
- Trauma. For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.
- Physical Sickness. When you become a missionary and you say yes to living abroad, you know that there will be many sacrifices, your health being one of them. Unfortunately, sometimes injuries, illness, or even just general climates abroad can do irreparable damage to your body, and you are left with the choice of using unreliable health care abroad, which could lead to more serious or more permanent damage, or returning back to your passport country for higher-quality treatment. Some sicknesses can’t be easily seen just by looking at a person in a church service, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.
- Spiritual Abuse. Spiritual abuse can take on many forms, but it often looks like someone in authority using scripture or beliefs to embarrass or humiliate, pressure, or obligate, coerce or control the behavior or words of someone else. This spiritual abuse can come from teammates, board members, sending churches, or even partnering churches on the ground, and oftentimes when victims try to speak up or question what is going on, they are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or made to think that they are actually the ones with the spiritual problem, not the abuser. I’ve heard this story of spiritual abuse on the mission field far too often, and I hope it’s something more people start asking about, writing about, and calling out because missionaries can’t end this culture of abuse on their own.
- Loneliness. Guess what? You can still experience loneliness even when you are married, even when you have a whole flock of kids around you. Why? Because we were made for relationships beyond just our spouses and our families. Loneliness is associated with increased chances of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. But can missionaries really tell their congregation they came home because they were lonely? What if that loneliness continues or gets worse even after you are back as no one can quite understand what you’ve experienced?
- Marriage Stress. This is one you’ll probably never hear a missionary admit to in their blogs or from the pulpit, but it’s one that I can almost guarantee you that your missionary couple is undergoing if they’ve been living abroad for anything more than a month. Moving abroad is hard for individuals, but for married couples, it sometimes also means adjusting to a whole new dynamic, particularly if one spouse who used to be working is now staying at home full time or if the cultural gender role expectations of your host country are the complete opposite of what you’ve been practicing.
- Children’s Health. You might hear missionaries talk about how their children’s health has been affected by the move abroad as they ask for prayers in their monthly updates. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about them than it is about yourself and your own struggles. However, if the reason a family moved home was for a child’s physical or mental well-being, you might not hear that mentioned at all because parents might not want that child to feel a burden of guilt or shame for being one of the reasons their parents left the mission field earlier than planned.
- Hidden Sin. Missionaries struggle with sin, just like everyone else. And while they may have been good at keeping that sin hidden from their spouse or their mission board for a very long time, the mission field has a way of bringing those things to light. A missionary and his/her family might make the decision to leave the field in order to seek help and healing for that sin, or a missionary might be asked to go home by their board without having a say in the matter.
- Finances. Finances, or lack thereof, are another big reason missionaries come back home, though they might not ever talk about it because of the level of shame they could be experiencing from it. Why didn’t the church give more? Why didn’t God provide for us when he provided for those other workers? Were we not worth it? Was the mission not valuable enough? Did we mishear our calling? Did we disappoint God? Sometimes God uses a lack of finances to bring people home, not because the mission and the missionaries weren’t effective, but because He has His own other reasons for wanting them home. Still, finances can be hard to talk about.
- False Accusations. Depending on the country your missionary lived in, they might have been dealing with some false accusations from the community that in the end became too much to handle. Foreigners can be an easy target for communities to blame when something goes wrong, and their lives may easily become at risk. Also, in very corrupt societies, foreigners are seen as a great source from which to try and extract extra funds. The relentless requests for bribes, threats of going to jail, or unwarranted searches can really wear an individual down.
- Spiritual Warfare. While spiritual warfare is something that some church denominations may be comfortable talking about in the pews on Sunday, for many churches in the West this is just one of those weird things that the Bible talks about, but that we don’t really understand or want to discuss. Many areas where missionaries serve are full of overt spiritual warfare, demonic worship, and wickedness beyond what many of us can fathom, and this can take a toll on the soul that is hard to articulate or share with friends, let alone strangers. Missionaries know that God is protecting them and providing for them in these situations, though sometimes coming home is still where God is leading them. But will others really understand?
- Teammate Conflict. Like it or not, this is one of the most common reasons missionaries come home, but you probably won’t ever hear them talk about it. To leave a mission field early because of personal conflict or differences with teammates, may seem trivial to some, but when you are continually in an environment where you feel unheard, disrespected, undervalued, silenced, or diminished this is not only damaging and degrading to you as an individual, it can also be confusing and disorienting to the community seeing this play out. Some missionaries are sent by and return to churches or organizations that still have people on the ground there, so how do you open up about that with your congregation? How do you mention or get help without going into details about those people or making it sound like you are just being petty or immature?
- Burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Missionary fields are environments of prolonged stress. Sometimes burnout looks like a mental breakdown, sometimes it looks like anxiety, sometimes it looks like depression, and sometimes it looks like an internal hollowness that cannot be measured. Whatever it looks like, sometimes your missionary might not even be able to realize it or acknowledge it until they are on the other end of it. And even if they do recognize it, they probably aren’t speaking about it to the congregation on Sunday morning.
Are these all the untold stories of our returned missionaries? Definitely not. But hopefully, this list can get the church started thinking about how we can better receive and support missionaries once their time abroad has come to a close, no matter the reason they find themselves back on this side of the world. Just because a missionary leaves the field doesn’t mean they leave their struggles and pains there. Some of these hidden pains and stories know no borders. As senders, it is our responsibility to care for our missionaries long after they come back from the field, to listen closely to the stories that they choose to share, and to pray for ways to support them even in the stories that they choose to keep close to their hearts for now.