As a kid, missionaries were my heroes. They were the ones who were really serious about following Jesus. I loved hearing all the amazing stories, but didn’t realize that they were just a small piece of missionary life. I had no idea how uncomfortable, frustrating and difficult it can be to live overseas.
Chances are that you’re reading this because you support, pray for, or care about a missionary working in another part of the world. They probably share email updates or Facebook posts talking about what God is doing through their ministry. But they may or may not tell you that they feel like a failure for not being better at language learning. Or that they are desperately homesick and are counting the days until they can leave. Or that they live in fear that their kids will get sick and die because the doctors are poorly trained and the hospitals are ill-equipped.
There are some common challenges that most missionaries encounter, no matter where they live or what their ministry is. I want to give you an honest glimpse into their world so you can pray with understanding and care well for the missionaries you support.
Loss – When you move overseas, your relationships with the people closest to you change, sometimes irreversibly. You miss out on weddings, funerals and all the little day to day things that keep you connected. You have to re-learn everything you thought you knew – how to speak, drive, shop, stand in line, get to know someone, give a gift, negotiate conflict. You’re constantly confronted with your incompetence and inability. Depending on your gender, marital status or job title, you may find that your new culture disrespects or even devalues you.
Loneliness – When you’re just starting out as a missionary, no one really knows or understands you except your spouse and kids. If you’re single, you’re literally on your own, without anyone to help you make decisions, celebrate your successful shopping trip or share your sadness about the friends you’ve left behind. There’s so much in your heart that you want to communicate, but all you’re able to say is, “Wow, that’s a big goat!” You clearly don’t belong. People back home are busy. Their lives move on without you and it’s difficult to stay in touch. You put the time and effort into making friends in your missionary community and then a year or two later you have to say goodbye to them and start all over again.
Money – When you’re hanging out with the business people or embassy crowd, you’re the “poor missionary.” But when you’re interacting with your national colleagues or friends, you’re the “rich foreigner.” The needs around you are endless and you wrestle with how to help. Sometimes you don’t want to go out because you just can’t handle another request for money. When you return home, you have to navigate the expectations, assumptions and judgments of your supporters. You feel the need to justify your use of their money and feel guilty for spending any of it on anything that’s not ministry related or strictly “necessary.”
Family Dynamics – There is so much need that you struggle to say “no” or to take a day to rest, which causes your family to suffer. Someone in your family (perhaps a child or even a spouse) may be incredibly unhappy and wanting to leave the field. You may struggle to find good education options for your kids. And no matter how much you love your adopted country, part of your heart remains with your family back home. You try to figure out how to care for your aging parents or your adult children. You negotiate the grandparents’ longing to have their grandkids nearby. You feel deep grief over family members who are unsupportive or even openly hostile toward the calling God has given you.
Spiritual Health – Depending on your ministry context, you may find that you are constantly pouring out spiritually and that there is no one to pour back into you. You may not have access to good Biblical teaching in your own language. You are likely to experience overt spiritual oppression and opposition. You feel pressure to be a good role model for your national colleagues and your supporters, but you may feel dry and empty in your walk with God.
It’s been said that when you live overseas, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. You get to see God at work in amazing, faith-building ways and sometimes you even get to be part of it! But the cumulative effect of these challenges is often overwhelming. This makes your prayers, encouragement and help crucial!
Here are a few practical ways that you can care for the missionaries in your life:
Stay in touch – Let them know that they aren’t forgotten. Read their updates and respond, even if it’s just a quick message. Tell them that you’re praying, or even take the time to write out your prayer so they can “listen in.” Ask if you can find a time to Skype or WhatsApp. Send a note or a care package for birthdays or for Christmas. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening back home.
Be a safe place – Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. Make time to listen. Be prepared for them to share hard things as well as positive things. Make sure they know that your financial support isn’t contingent on them having a picture-perfect family or ministry.
Meet their needs – Give toward their ministry. Ask what their practical needs are on the field and also when they return home and then see what you or your church can do to help. Consider the needs of every member of the family.
God is active all around the world, bringing His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. May we be faithful partners with Him in whatever role He calls us to play!
Laura Pearce grew up in Papua New Guinea as a missionary kid and has spent the last three years living and working in Rwanda. She partners with New Creation Ministries, which trains Christian leaders so that they will have the knowledge, character and skills to better do the work of God.