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]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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