Fun fact about Joe: He and his wife totally pull off the missionary thing amidst a family of 13. They’ve served in Bolivia since 2007.
First, the Disclaimers.
I’m going out on a limb here, so I’ll put some disclaimers up in advance.
1. I love being a missionary.
This post points out bad aspects you’ll not hear us normally say. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy or unfulfilled.
2. I’m speaking of feelings and perceptions.
I know what the Bible says and can give a counterpoint to each of these. For example, when I share how we feel about shortchanging my children, I know that there are 100 positive things that people can point out to me.
I’m sharing my heart, how I feel. I don’t need anyone to send me a Bible lesson, in case you’re feeling the itch!
I’m going for what a missionary won’t tell you in their newsletter or at church missions conference. Here’s a little of the dark side of missions.
What A Missionary Won’t Tell You
1. You’re never one of them.
A missionary will talk about the joy of cross cultural missions and going into all the world.
What they won’t tell you: It isn’t fun most of the time.
I was first exposed to this while on a short term trip to Ghana. I was invited to a missionary going-away party. A nurse from Canada was returning to her home country after serving on the mission field for (get this) 40 years. She had come to Ghana as a 20 year old and was now going ‘home’.
During the conversation I asked her why she was saying she was going home. If you have lived for all of your adult life, slightly over 40 years, in Ghana and only visited Canada every four years…then isn’t Ghana your home?
She told me no matter how incorporated you are into the culture, no matter how good your ministry, no matter how accepted that you are by the people…you’re not one of ‘them’.
Close, but no cigar
At the time this post was first published, I’d been in Bolivia for 8 years. I am fluent in Spanish and have a great ministry here. I love what I do.
But I am not at home. I am not a Bolivian.
I do not share their cultural history or family ties. When I go to someone’s home to celebrate a birthday or wedding, I am the white guy. I am the stranger. I am the foreigner.
When they begin to laugh about family memories or tell stories about relatives, I just smile at the right time. I do not belong. When I go to ‘La Cancha’ our market place, children stare at me. I had a man visiting us from the States tell me when we were there, “This is weird, we are the only white people in sight.’
It gets old being a stranger, never being in the group. It isn’t fun to always be noticed.
2. It’s lonely. your friends and family from the States have in many ways forgotten you.
You won’t ever see this in a mission letter. We will tell stories of fun things and great times. We will be upbeat and happy and post photos of our family Christmas party.
You won’t have us posting videos of us crying or hear us complain about missing friends, but we do. And the harsh thing? They don’t actually miss us.
When we were planning on going to the mission field, we interviewed 10 different missionary families. We talked to people who were single, married, married with kids, and older missionaries. I asked them a question: “What is the hardest part of being a missionary?”
Their answers, all 10 at separately, replied, “Loneliness.
“After the first year people totally forget about you. Even your best friend now won’t continue communicating with you.”
Harder than we thought
We decided to fight against this.
Using Facebook and social media, along with monthly communications and blogs, we knew we would stay in touch with our friends.
What surprised us: How quickly they didn’t want to stay in touch with us.
Oh, we understand that their lives are busy and we’ve moved! But understanding why doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
This rides shotgun with point #1–not being part of the culture. We don’t feel like we have a home. But we do feel like those from our previous home have forgotten us.
3. We are normal Christians.
People think missionaries are super-Christians. We’re one step up from being a pastor.
And if you’re a missionary pastor?! Even the Apostle Paul envies your uber-spirituality.
You won’t be reading in a missionary letter, “This week I did not spend hardly any time in the Word, got mad at my wife, yelled at my kids, and got insanely jealous after seeing photos on Facebook.”
But it is the truth. We are normal people seeking to honor Christ even though we are weak and fragile vessels.
We sin, repent, repeat.
4. We never have enough money, but feel guilty asking for it.
Missionaries ask for money. We have to. We put it in terms like, “opportunity to support’, or ‘be part of the blessing’, or ‘looking for monthly partners’.
What we want to say is, “We are dying here! Please help us! We need money!!”
That’s a no-no. We have to appear above money. Money should seem like something we could probably use, but no big deal. We’re walking by faith and trusting God to provide… That’s what we’re expected to display.
You see, we don’t want it to seem like all we want from our supporters is money. It isn’t.
But in all honesty, we do need money. We need it for our family and for our ministry.
We just hate asking for it, and you hate hearing it. So, we keep quiet or couch our needs in spiritual terms (while meanwhile, we really struggle with being judgmental over money).
5. We feel like our children are getting shortchanged by our choiceS.
You will see cool pictures in my newsletters of my children helping do outreach, being in the jungle, washing orphans, or having a monkey on their shoulder. It all looks so cool.
But the truth is, we feel like our kids are suffering because of us.
This is compounded by Facebook. Just this week I have seen photos of kids playing football, music lessons, dance, debate, camps, concerts, movies, lock-ins, and taking classes at the community college while in high school.
My kids do nothing like that. I know I can post all the cool things that my kids do, but I simply cannot compete with the options that you have. I find myself fighting jealousy, envy, and covetousness.
6. I took a great vacation but I cannot tell anyone.
One of the neat things about social media is how we can share our lives with others. Pastors can go on cruises. Friends can go to some wonderful island. Family can travel Europe.
They can all brag about their time and post photos on Facebook and social media sharing their joy.
We can save up money. Live on a budget. Spend less than we make. The, after five years of frugality take a much needed vacation.
What do we hear? “I should be a missionary, then I could take cool vacations.” Or, “Is that where my donations go?”
7. We hate being judged by a standard our judges do not follow.
When we meet with mission committees, churches, sending groups and donors they always ask us very specific questions. I have no problem with that.
What drives me bonkers? When someone not doing what I am very much doing judges me because they don’t think that I am doing enough of what they are not doing.
Advice for the Big Game
It is honestly difficult to listen to armchair quarterbacks who have never suited up critique the game I’m participating in.
Sometimes, for example, people who are doing nothing to help the poor criticize us for how we help the poor. They tell us what we should do, what we should not do, how and when and to whom we should do it. Supporters tell us of the latest book that they have read and/or the latest sermon that they heard.
They do nothing themselves, but they know exactly what we should do and if we don’t do it their way, then the threat of cutting support is dangling over our head.
If someone who is actually doing the ministry has advice, input or corrections then it is infinitely easier to accept.
It’s when we are told what to do by someone not doing anything that we have to constantly check our hearts and put a guard on our lips.
8. Saying good-bye stinks…and it is not the same in the States.
Our lives become one of a constant good-bye. We are saying good-bye to fellow missionaries leaving for the States. We have to say good-bye to our children.
Denise and I have four kids living in the USA while we remain in Bolivia. When we visit for furlough and see grandpa and grandma, we have to say good-bye again to go back to the field.
I was invited to speak at a mission conference in the States. The church was a little over an hour from where my 24-year-old son lives, so he drove down to see me.
After I preached, I went to my mission table in the hall and was chatting with people, passing out prayer cards, shaking hands, etc. My son and his girlfriend came to say hi, and after a few minutes my son hugged me. “Love you, Dad. See you in….what…two years or three?”
I started crying and people graciously walked away from my table. We both knew I was not going to see him again for at least two years.
“I hate this!”
My wife recently took my 19-year-old to start college in the States. She called me from her hotel room weeping and said, “It doesn’t get easier. I hate this! I hate this!”
Friends will say with totally good intentions, “I understand. My son left for college this week, too!”
Their son or daughter may be able to snag a $100 ticket and bop in for a three day weekend, break, or holiday. At the most, they’re a quick flight or short drive away.
We live on another continent. When we say goodbye, it isn’t “See you on break”. It is “See you for a few days in three years.”
My son Jacob called after moving to the States. After talking I let him know that he needed to go to the hospital because I thought that he had appendicitis. It was, and he called to let us know they would perform emergency surgery.
It took my wife three days to get there.
She could not hop on a plane and be there any more than when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I knew that when the phone call came telling his children to come say their good-byes, I wouldn’t be able to be there. I knew I would miss his last words, not be able to minister to my family, and probably not be able to attend the funeral.
It isn’t the same thing as living in the States. It isn’t.
I would say that out of all the negatives to living on the mission field, this is the worst: Saying good-bye.
9. Going to the States is hard.
You would think that returning home on furlough is wonderful. Every missionary looks forward to it. It’s the focus of the year.
That is partly true. However, there are two things a missionary will not tell you.
Logistically it is difficult. Most missionaries don’t have a place to live, a car to drive or a plate to eat off of. All those things we need in everyday life, from pillow cases to car seats, we do not have. We have to find short term solutions and we hate borrowing stuff.
We also don’t really want to live in a basement. My family enjoys our own privacy and family time.
And…the money thing
We also want to visit and spend time with our donors and churches, but making that happen is so hard when we have donors in 12 different states.
It isn’t feasible to spend $1,200 to visit a church that gives you $25/month. But you want to and think that you should.
The second thing that you probably don’t know? It’s hard emotionally.
Why? Because we discover that we’ve changed.
The Land of Blue
I tell the story like this: A man from the land of Blue became a missionary to the people of Yellow. He struggled because he was a Blue man among Yellow people. However, after a while he began to truly understand their culture and become partly assimilated.
One day he looked in the mirror and saw that he was no longer Blue, he was now Green. It made being in the land of Yellow easier. Then, after many years, he returns to the land of Blue. To his dismay, no one there in his homeland of Blue wants to be with him. He was a Green person in the land of Blue.
After being on the mission field you are a different person. People perceive you differently.
Even people who were friends are no longer friends. They have grown without you. They have had different experiences without you. You are no longer ‘one of them’.
When you return, people want to shake your hand and say that they missed you, but they don’t want to be with you. They are also worried that you are going to ask them for money.
We actually asked a person out for dinner, a person who had been a friend before going to the mission field. Their response was, ‘We don’t have any money to give you.” (Yes. They really said that.)
10. I constantly feel like I have to prove myself to supporters.
Like it or not, I now feel like I have to justify that giving us money is good. I have to prove myself and my ministry over and over again.
My newsletters are not to let people know what we are doing; they are far more. They are items that I am entering into evidence as proof they’re are making a good investment.
And if a period of time goes by where we don’t really have anything big to report? We feel like a failure and live in the fear of supporters giving money to someone who deserves it.
Often we don’t feel like we are on the same team as our supporters. We feel like they’re our boss and it is time for the annual performance evaluation.
And this year someone has to be let go.
We are tempted to pad our resume and make it look better than it is. Instead of saying that we go to church, we say, “We are actively engaged in a local congregation”.
We don’t say that we buy our fruit from the same seller every week. Instead, “We are building intentional relationships with those in the marketplace.”
We may lead a Bible study but call it “engaging in a mentoring relationship with young married couples.”
So we say things that make us sound better, holier, busier than we are. We can’t say that we are living in the culture and doing what we can to promote Christ but it is difficult and we really don’t have much fruit to show this year.