What to Expect When You’re Ex-pat-ing

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expectations overseas

One year after my family arrived in Uganda, I sat in a gentle sunrise on our porch, overlooking a corner of our neighborhood–and evaluating my expectations overseas.

The same cookfires exhaled ribbons of smoke to the sky. The same lorries trundled down the street. Passersby trudged by in the same hole-y clothes and well-worn shower shoes.

It felt representative of the mild futility I felt. I’d come here to glorify God, yes. But “making a difference” had wooed me, too.

I’d missed the birth of my niece, the death of my grandfather, Christmas with my family. But I’d also made dear friends, and had my world turned around in the face of poverty.

I’d become far more adept in speaking phrases of Luganda, mentally exchanging dollars for shillings, understanding culture, how to handle a routine traffic stop, how long a fresh pineapple is good for, and what to do if a motorcycle hits your car and demands you pay him for the damage.

But what, and who, was really different because I was there?

What did you expect?

I thought of this when homeschooling pals of mine loved their kids reading missionary biographies (which still have their place!).

I admit to wondering, Does your life read more like a biography than mine does? Personally, I am spending way more time stirring beans and dodging potholes the size of a microwave than I do wiping clammy brows and preaching to the lost. And a missionary biography is outright discouraging right now.

I felt…not enough.

When Not Enough Makes You Come Back

Quoted on A Life Overseas and her own blog, missions researcher Andrea Sears points out that a significant gap between our expectations overseas and reality actually brings a number of global workers back from the field.

Translation: Healthy expectations overseas could mean you get to stay there.

A Life Overseas describes her study of missionaries who’ve returned and found four areas of unmet expectations overseas that influenced them to come back. (Remember: returning is not a sign of failure!)

(We’ll link here to some Go. Serve. Love posts that can help you start on the right foot.)

team members, reported by 65%
job responsibilities, 64%,
community, 61%
family life, 56%

Real-life missions is simply not the church Google Slides presentation we hope for. Nor can we run Google Analytics on our success metrics.

And so much of our time overseas is…survival.

Whether you live in Beijing or Bakersfield, making disciples has more in common with planting and fertilizing a mango tree than microwaving Bagel Bites. It. Is. Sloooooooow.

So even making a difference feels slow and ineffective.

That person you’ve been studying the Bible with and training into leadership becomes pregnant before marriage. Your office’s accountant walks away with loads of stolen cash. And people continue to choose cycles of dysfunction or poverty rather than the life and hope that feels so obvious to you.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. – 1 Corinthians 3:6-7

..But Expectations overseas Aren’t Just “Out There”

Expectations are within us–about us–too. About who we think we will be overseas, and what our lives and relationship with God will look like.

Craig Thompson quotes a survey of 323 missionary women, who reported their own floundering expectations of themselves:

“The 10 [categories] with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

“75.4% Am fruitful
70.4% Am a prayer warrior
67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
65.8% Continually trust God for everything
57.5% Have a daily quiet time
56.5% Have a successful quiet time
56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
50.9% Embrace my new host culture”

(In those numbers, do I hear a pressure toward super-Christianity?)

Expectations overseas: What Happens When Nothing Happens?

Personally, I resonate with the “miraculous stories” to tell how God is using me. I taught Muslims the Bible for three years, but was mostly “planting”–not a lot of clear harvesting to be had.

Aside from my mundane, even my ministry efforts–my missionary-biography moments–felt lackluster in their results.

Once, I’d arranged for the entire refugee center to view the JESUS film in their languages. We arranged for interpreters to answer questions after. I emailed supporters for prayer and prayed my flip-flops off.

And a teacher at the center insisted the testing time before the film last longer–so students were leaving in droves during the movie to go back to their jobs, or were simply exhausted from a long day.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9

What about when the moments that could be big…aren’t?

My expectations reveal my own bias, that some work for God, namely conversion, is more valuable than others. As if one could take place without the other:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

I also had to wrestle with my expectations overseas of how God would show up overseas. I needed to ask him questions about what happened when his character and choices to move didn’t match what I saw as success or fruitfulness.

As Elisabeth Elliot pointed out, even our expectations can become a graven image.

SO What are you expecting?

So it’s worth evaluating what you think “overseas” will look like.

Since a good chunk of unmet expectations overseas revolves around team relationships and job responsibilities, attempt to find clarity and ask good questions about the personalities and job descriptions of your team. You might begin with the questions in Choosing an Emotionally Healthy Missions Organization.

Then, consider journaling prayerfully–and with gut-level honesty–about these questions, and/or discussing them with a trusted friend or your spouse.

  • What do I truly hope will be the outcome(s) of my time (and sacrifice) overseas?
  • What do I hold to be true about God, my identity, and the value of my work if none of those outcomes becomes reality?
  • In my mind, what does a “successful” global worker look like ? What kind of global worker will I be, in God’s eyes and my own, if I do not meet that mental image?
  • How much of my success lies in my hands?
  • How much time, effort, and heartache do I expect it will take to become this kind of global worker? What sacrifices might I need to make? What risks am I not willing to take? (Before you write that one off…would, say, your marriage or the spiritual health of a child be good reasons to return?)
  • What did “success” look like in the life of Christ? (What about faithfulness?)
  • How connected do I expect to be to nationals and expatriates?
  • What do I expect in the day-to-day of my job? Does this match the vision of my agency or office?
  • What are my historic strengths and weaknesses in interpersonal relationships? In resolving conflict? What training can I find on resolving interpersonal conflict, so it doesn’t take me off the field?
  • Do my expectations of our lifestyle and commitments overseas match my spouse’s? What areas of our marriage and family are most vulnerable in the pressure cooker of overseas? What counseling and resources do we need to pursue beforehand? Do we need to wait until our relationships or children are in a different place?

Spoiler: Results are Not Your Goal

…nor are they yours to produce or give.

God brought the words of Thomas Merton to me in that first year overseas:

Do not depend on hope of results. When…doing…essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite …

The big results are not in your hands or mine.

…All the good that you will do will not come from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.

Like this post? You might like

10 Realities a Missionary Probably Won’t Tell You

My Story: The 90% You’d Rather Not Hear About

God’s “No”: When He Closes a Door Overseas


Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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