Thursday, July 10, 2014

10 THINGS MISSIONARIES WON'T TELL YOU (From our perspective)

This blog post is going to be a little bit different, because it is actually written for other missionaries. However, those of you who love and support missionaries might also like to listen in and get the inside scoop. There’s an article that we’ve seen passed around for a few days on Facebook called “10 Things Missionaries Won’t Tell You.” When we read it, we found that the ideas were definitely common among missionaries like ourselves, and yet, we didn't agree with the tone of the article. The author sounded really jaded, perhaps at the height of culture-shock or burnout. The article was probably very therapeutic for many missionaries to read, because it normalizes a lot of feelings. Yet, we fear that if a missionary maintains this mindset, he or she won't last long. Here are a few ways we've found to reframe these ideas.


What the original article said:Newsletters, blog posts, website updates – all the “experts” tell me that I need to be sending you fresh content on a regular basis so you won’t forget about me. But here’s the thing…writing is hard, especially for those who aren’t natural writers. You know what else is hard? HTML, CSS, PHP, and a bunch of other tech-geek stuff that you have to learn about just to make a decent-looking website or email. I really want to tell you what’s going on, but it’s hard to turn out gripping narratives while I have a sick child asleep in my lap. And if I have to look up how to code a “mailto” link one more time, I’m going to scream!”

From our perspective: Newsletters are hard, even for those of us who like to write. However, it can be helpful to think of them as "the job," i.e. what pays the bills. Everything else is "the ministry.” (This is not entirely exclusive however, because ministry can also happen through newsletters.) Spending time writing a newsletter every month is just part of the job. Plus writing a newsletter is an opportunity to slow down, reflect on life, and document your life here. Have I complained when I have writers’ block or when something isn’t working right in the e-newsletter program I am using? Yes. Absolutely. However, I also realize that someday my children and grandchildren are going to treasure these newsletters, and many people do faithfully read them and pray for us. It’s worth a few hours of inconvenience a month.


What the original article said: I’m glad that you liked my Facebook status. I really am. The thing is, when I say we need $1,200 by the end of the week to pay the school fees for orphaned children, I’m talking about actual dollars and actual need. Contrary to the rumors, Bill Gates doesn’t donate a dollar for every Like. That part is up to you. So, the next time you Like my status, consider sending a few bucks my way too.


For our perspective: We know Facebook doesn't pay the bills. It’s really not designed to. However, it helps keep people connected and excited about the work, and excited people pay the bills. Facebook is a prime example of group-think. As another missionary quoted, “Every man’s challenge is no man’s challenge.” If you really want to raise funds, you have to connect with people individually, not through an impersonal social media blast. Besides, Facebook can serve other great purposes. For example, it's a great opportunity for emotional support and to support and encourage others.


What the original article said: “Lest you think #2 sounded a little whiny and money-hungry, you should know that I truly despise asking for money. I always have. And now I have to ask for it almost all the time. Even when I’m not asking for it, I’m thinking about asking for it. There are never enough funds to do all the good I’m trying to do, and I live with a nagging feeling that the one person I don’t ask is the one who would have written the big check. So, when I ask for money, know that I do so with fear and trembling.”

From our perspective: One thing I’ve discovered in all my years of fundraising is that people in the U.S. WANT to give to meaningful causes. In fact, being a part of something bigger than themselves that leaves a legacy HELPS them. It’s a win-win situation for all involved. No, not everyone you come in contact with will think your cause is a priority and not everyone who does value it will be financially able to support you in that way. However, you are not doing them a disservice by inviting them to partner with you in a cause that is meaningful.  And if you don't feel your cause is meaningful, then there are some other issues that need to be addressed.


What the original article said: “Things are pretty bad here. If I told you what’s really going on, you would either come rescue me, or think I was exaggerating. If you heard some of the things I’ve said out loud, you might question my salvation. If you knew some of the thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head, you might question my sanity. Sometimes good days are hard to come by, but I don’t dare tell you the worst. If I did, you would probably tell me to throw in the towel.

From our perspective: Sure, no one likes to hear that you spent the afternoon crying your eyes out in frustration, and every missionary gets to that point. Don’t believe me? Click here. And you can't be completely transparent with everyone. However, you should be completely transparent with a few people, and at least somewhat transparent with all the people who are part of your prayer team. We personally try to share our struggles, but we also try to maintain a grateful heart and share our thanksgivings as well. And if you are having more hard days than good days, it might be time to talk to a counselor through Skype or other means. There is no shame in this, because living in another culture is HARD, and talking it out is way better than becoming bitter and burned out.


What the original article said: “After 2 or 3 years of hard work, most people feel like they deserve a little break. Take the family to the beach. Visit a theme park, a national park, or Park City. I would love a vacation, but honestly, I feel guilty “pampering” myself, rather than putting all my time and resources into the ministry. On top of that, I know some people will judge me if my vacation is “too nice.” If I scrape and save pennies for 5 years so I can spend a week on an exotic island, you’ll never hear about it, because I can’t handle the snarky, “It must be nice” comments (the ones you’ll say to my face), or, “My donations paid for your vacation” (which you’ll think, but not say out loud – at least not to me). So, I keep some great stuff to myself for fear of being judged.”

From our perspective: Take the vacation!! It is so very important to take breaks. Working in another culture and language is stressful, and many, many missionaries experience burn-out if they are not proactive about getting rest and rejuvenation. We understand the concern, and we too wonder, “Does our vacation sound too extravagant? Will we lose donors over this?” However, we’ve found that if we explain why this vacation is important to us and the ways we have tried to be financially responsible in planning the vacation, most people are incredibly supportive.


What the original article said: “Bless your heart. You think you’re doing me a favor. Thirty people show up at my door and expect me to provide transportation, food, lodging, sight-seeing, and a list of service projects a mile long. You’re here to “help.” The thing is, the other 51 weeks out of the year, we manage to do what needs to be done here just fine. That is, except for the time we spend working on the logistics for your team. You come over and want to help build a fence, when I can hire local workers to build a fence for a tiny fraction of what you spent to come here. I appreciate your desire to help, and I even love having visitors, but consider the size and expectations of your group before you plan your trip. A team of 3 or 4 highly skilled people is much more valuable to our ministry than a gaggle of mission tourists.

From our perspective: For sure there are horror stories. We’ve heard many of them from fellow missionaries. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. A lot of it depends on the make-up of the team and how much preparation they’ve had. Try to stay active in the preparation beforehand, helping the team set their expectations, giving them resources, and letting them know what to bring and what not to bring. In the preparations, make sure that the team is working with local leaders on projects that local leaders feel are a priority. Then be available for mentoring while the team is there. They may not look like the people that you normally share God’s love with, but it’s quite possible that they need your love and care as much as, or more than, your normal crew. Keeping the groups smaller can also be really helpful, and make sure that they understand that the primary reason they are there is building relationships, not building a fence. Even with all your planning and effort, sometimes things won't go the way you hoped. At that point you just have to bless it and release it. Try to learn from the past and keep an open mind and heart for the next team. Short term mission teams are a fantastic opportunity for developing partnerships, as every single person that comes to visit will (potentially) return to their home country as an ambassador for your ministry. It’s also possible that in hosting these teams, you are helping to raise up future long-term missionaries.


What the original article said: “Please understand, I now have two homes. When I’m at one, I’m away from the other, and there is a lot of emotion involved in that. On top of that, my life is absolutely crazy when I go “home.” I have to see relatives and friends, visit with partner churches, and take care of any number of issues that have arisen with my health, my electronic devices, and my government paperwork. Whether it’s a few weeks or a few months, I spend my time living out of suitcases and hustling from one appointment to the next. Is it good to be home? Sure. But when I get on that plane to go to my other home, I breathe a sigh of relief that life is almost back to ‘normal.’”

From our perspective: Very true. Furloughs are exhausting. And yet, they are also deeply refreshing. They give you an opportunity to catch up on other parts of your life and make memories with family and friends. They also give you the opportunity to miss things about your life in your host country. Furloughs can be so good for restoring perspective.


What the original article said: Let’s face it, I’m no saint. I’m not any more spiritual than you are. I don’t start my day with three hours of devotional reading and prayer. I typically just get up and get to work. And there is a lot of work to be done. In fact, there is so much need here that it’s really easy to become so focused on doing things for God that I lose sight of God himself. In pursuing my calling, I’ve somehow forgotten about the caller. My spiritual life is almost nonexistent, other than the occasional desperate cry of ‘Why God?’”

From our perspective: For sure we are not more spiritual than our friends who are not cross-cultural missionaries. That being said, we’ve discovered that we do need to be more intentional about being spiritually-fed here than we did in the U.S. If we aren’t spiritually fed, we will fall apart. Personal story: Sometimes it sneaks up on you. I realized I hadn’t gotten enough spiritual nourishment when we missed our opportunity to go to an English-speaking worship service in Dar Es Salaam. We had the right time, but the wrong place. When I found out our mistake, I completely broke down in tears and it took a while to pull myself back together. It’s like dehydration. By the time you realize you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. So, yes, intentionality. Since it is still hard for us to be spiritually-fed through Swahili worship services, we supplement with sermon podcasts, evening devotions, and most recently an English-speaking bible study. Do what works for your family and time frame, but do SOMETHING to regularly connect with your Maker.


What the original article said: There are good people here, there really are. But I have seen the worst of humanity in my work here – much of it from people I worked with and trusted. Other missionaries and pastors can be the worst. Just when you think you know someone, they stab you in the back, the front, and both sides. I’ve gotten to where I simply don’t trust anyone. My guard is up, and it’s not coming down. I refuse to get burned again. If that means I have to do everything myself, then so be it.

From our perspective: Have we had people take our words and actions out of context? For sure. Have people lied to us? Yes. However, that happens everywhere. It really sounds like this particular author has some trust issues to work out. Vulnerability is hard, but is also the source of all that is meaningful in life. Here’s a really great talk on the subject: “The Power of Vulnerability” or you can read Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly.”


What the original article said: “Having neglected my relationship with God, and given up on people entirely, I’m left with just me. I hate it. I want to quit. I have dreams about what my life would be like if I went back to my old home town, to my old church, and my old friends. I could get a normal job earning a salary – with healthcare and paid vacation. I could shop and eat at normal places. Most of all, I could have normal relationships. But here? I’m all alone. I don’t know if there’s anyone like me here, and I know no one back home understands. I want to feel wanted, invited, and loved. I want someone to pour into me the way I’m pouring into others.”

From our perspective: This is especially true in the first year. Building relationships is hard whenever you move, but it is especially hard when you are moving to a new culture and doing it in a new language. Every missionary has moments when they want to quit. Be gentle with yourself. Reach out to start building relationships in your community as soon as possible, but also reach out to other missionaries who “get it.” This might mean driving somewhere to visit or finding a missionary community online. We highly recommend as a place to get started. It has helped normalize many of our feelings. 

This post is simply our gut-response put out there to hopefully encourage and help a few fellow missionaries. Perhaps as we continue to think about these topics, other ideas will come to us. We would love to hear from other missionaries as well. What has worked well for you? How do you work through the raw emotions found in the original article? 


  1. Thank you for the re-post! I suspect a terrible tumor of misguided loyalty in the original post and appreciate your gentle reframing. Any of us whose professional life and spiritual health are so closely intertwined can easily fall into the trap of forgetting our real call is from God and guided by His Spirit to "be Christ in our world." Of course we owe a certain commitment and accountability to the church body or support group under whose umbrella we are sent. But they, too, are servants of Christ. Yes, we all have moments when we feel overwhelmed and explore the possibility of "quitting" or "moving on." That affliction sneaks up on us regardless of vocation because we are called to be disciples and servants of a loving, grace-full God in this "dog eat dog" world. And I do not deny that your challenges are more persistent and personal because of the radical differences of your daily life from our civilized and "modern" norm. Yet we all need to humble ourselves before the Lord, admit to Him our failure to follow the Leader, and pour out to Him the wretched results of going our own way. We call this confession. It is also honesty, true transparency. Good News! We are forgiven. We are loved unconditionally. We are fueled by grace to follow obediently in the daily dance of harmony and joy that culminates in peaceful rest. God bless you, weary gentle-people!

    1. Thank you for your loving, thoughtful response Grams. As I reread the original 10 points, it's easy to see how they can be applicable to anyone...not hearing about the worst days, feeling guilty about taking a vacation, God getting put in the backseat, feeling lonely... all parts of the human condition. And vulnerability, especially with God, is so important. If you are looking for a new book, you might also really enjoy Brene Brown's "Daring Greatly." It's not specifically about God, but it's not hard to start making the connections.