10 Realities a Missionary Probably Won’t Tell You

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missionary realities overseas global work hard truth
Go. Serve. Love is psyched about featuring this post from missionary Joe Holman; it originally posted on his blog and is gratefully used with permission.
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.”

 

missionary realities overseas global work hard truth

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.

 

missionary realities overseas global work hard truth
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.

 

It stinks.

 

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.

missionary realities overseas global work hard truth

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.

Newsletter Translation

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.

 

 

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38 thoughts on “10 Realities a Missionary Probably Won’t Tell You

  1. Emilio Dendaluce says:

    Ummm…. and I thought it was just me! 😉 Thank you!

    Gracias compañero y que Dios nos dé la fé, las fuerzas y las ganas para seguir sirviéndole a Él… a pesar de todo.
    (Thank you mate and may God give us faith, strength and will power to keep serving Him ….despite everything)

    Cheers,
    Emilio

    • Nancy Gann says:

      I was raised in a wonderful missionary family. I am now a senior citizen, I have had a normal Christian American adulthood, however, all the points in this article have continued to influence my entire life. Thank you for verbalizing our feelings.

      • Karen Moya says:

        I had no idea I’ve only done short term Missions the longest 2 m 20 or so Medical trips.To tell you the truth I’ve always been jealous of missionaries because I wanted to be one.I care for a Disabled Brother.We support 3 missionaries.Thanks for your openness and shere honesty

        • Go. Serve. Love says:

          Karen, so grateful for the care of your brother and the faithfulness to the life to which God’s called you. Thank you, too, for your empathy for those who serve overseas! May God give you what you need for each day!

    • Jenna says:

      Wow. The loneliness and goodbyes really are the hardest part. I loved the analogy of the blue and yellow cultures as well. Thank you for your raw vulnerability in posting the hard things that most of us are too nervous to even express! Reading this helped me not feel so awful about thinking some of these things as a missionary. God so honours your courage to share this.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Okay my initial thought after reading that is, “wow that sure is dismal, who wants to mess with being a missionary? Or raising support? Maybe the faith based support is the way to go?” Of course the work of global outreach workers is a matter of life and death for those they go to minister to so reality is they have counted the cost and said “yes” both to God and to the circumstances of life overseas – the good, the bad, the losses and the rewards.

    Really it is all super helpful and good information to be aware of especially for those of us who desire to send missionaries well and care for them well. I appreciate the disclaimer at the top knowing that there are counter points to each of these and yet these thoughts and feelings are REAL.

  3. Go. Serve. Love says:

    Totally agree, Rebecca. Some of these are hard realities that can be demotivating.

    The verse that comes to mind is Luke 14:28: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

    Sounds like you have a similar mindset: This is real, but the rewards are so surpassing.

    • Dale Ressler says:

      I lived in Tanzania for 8 years and have now volunteered 31 years to support the work of the people I learned to know and love. Maybe a new approach is needed. Not me vs you or we vs them but us. Build relationships and friendships and that white is not always right.

      • Go. Serve. Love says:

        Dale, thanks so much for sharing your experience and insights here. If we understand you correctly, yes! We definitely endorse a more unified approach with nationals and eliminating “white savior” or “West to the rest” ideals. Pray with us that God would continue to align the missional heart of the Church more and more to his own.

        • Joe Guarino says:

          I’ve always love tweaking my Christian friends (and others) when I remind them that, b/c Jesus was born and raised in the Middle East, He probably looked more like Saddam Hussein than any blue-eyed actor who played Jesus in a film.

    • Rena Metzger says:

      Well said what we do feel especially about family. No one understands unless you also are another missionary. I even had a “friend” tell me “you’ve been gone 12 years…(even though we had come back 4 times for a few months) so I can’t be your friend anymore.

      • Go. Serve. Love says:

        Rena, this sounds like a heartbreaking experience. Thanks for sharing your resonance with this post–and may God continue to give you wisdom on navigating the complex relationships of missionary life.

  4. Joshua Badal says:

    Thanks for sharing. I leave for the field to just begin my service as a long-termer in about a month and a half. But already, with my past short term experiences, I can really identify with some of these things. Thanks for being vulnerable. What do you do to confront these feelings?

  5. Go. Serve. Love says:

    Joshua, this is a good question–and one that’s hard to address briefly or without being trite. We can offer a few thoughts, but would love other commenters to weigh in.

    Finding a small group of people–or perhaps one other understanding person–is critical. It’s a relationship where your vulnerability is welcomed, as well as pointed toward God’s compassion, his utter love and acceptance beyond what you do (or your label as missionary), and basically speaks the Gospel to you over and over (i.e. your works are not what make you worthy).

    Even on your own, that nearness to the Gospel is imperative. It keeps our hearts soft, and helps us forgive when others continue to cause pain in these areas, too.

    Cynicism and isolation in the Body of Christ as you experience these things are real. When you return on home assignment and are confronted by some of these realities, make sure you take quality time with those few people who really get your reality, who tangibly show you God’s nurture and long to listen and help you process. Ask them to pepper you with questions about your reality.

    Commenters, what else would you add?

  6. Christopher Trueworthy says:

    WOW I and my wife can relate to all of this. After being on the field for 8 years, and a year before that raising support. It’s been heart wrenching, but very rewarding at the same time. Thanks for being brave and honest to share, what we have not dared to share. We pray the Lords richest blessings upon you.

  7. Go. Serve. Love says:

    Christopher, thanks for the vulnerability of sharing your experience–and certainly for your courage in persevering through so many of these realities. Praying right now for your ministry!

  8. Liz says:

    Wow this is so accurate. As green people, my biggest fear is my kids missing out. In my heart I know that having the American Dream is over-rated, but it’s so hard to hear so much criticism and not wonder..

    • Go. Serve. Love says:

      Liz, thanks for your vulnerability here. As missionaries ourselves here at Go. Serve. Love, we resonate with your fears–fears where the stakes feel high. Praying right now that God continues to grant you discernment and steadfastness to know his best as you raise the next generation of those who love and share Christ.

  9. Stephanie says:

    As a missionary, I have never read an article that resonates more than this one. Thank you for putting into works the feelings worker around the world are experiencing.

    • Go. Serve. Love says:

      Stephanie, thanks for warm words that help us to know we’re connecting with the hearts and experiences of missionaries. Praying right now that God would continue to reach you in painful places.

  10. Dave Hanson says:

    How true. I only go on short term missions trips and experience some of what you do. I pray for missionaries as it is a calling but a very difficult calling to be faithful to.
    God Bless

    • Go. Serve. Love says:

      Thanks for pointing this out, Ross. Definitely the case. I believe this author is just relaying his own experience, but Go. Serve. Love (and no doubt the author) unquestionably agrees with you!

  11. Rich and Pat says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your heart! We are not missionaries but our son and his wife are so we know a bit about what you have experienced. Our hearts go out to you. It’s a wake up reminder to be ever aware of the difficulties our dear missionaries go thru. May the Lord use these comments to awaken all of us here in the U.S. to pray diligently and fervently for them. We need to be reminded too “ not to be weary in well doing…for we shall reap if we faint not” that is a reminder for US who are on the home front!
    It’s my prayer that our faithful , gracious and loving Father will give sweet , peace, joy and strength as you labor, and remind us to lovingly and faithfully pray for you all.

    • Joe Guarino says:

      We, too, are not missionaries but our second son has been one in the Philippines for five years now.

      One of my favorite verses is Rom. 10:9 – If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Continue reading, however, to vv. 14-15 – How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” So, to all you missionaries, we are grateful for your beautiful feet!

  12. Mary Beth says:

    I remember as a young MK, crying one night as we stayed over with a missionary family that lived and ministered near a tourist city in the mountains that even had a US air base! I was struck by the many things they enjoyed. My mother was by my side, crying also, as she saw me missing out. Several years later, my parents took over a ministry in that mountain city, for a year. It allowed us to play with other American children and enjoy the many advantages of that city. I believe that my parents did that, for their children.

  13. Trey says:

    We were completely unprepared for our first home assignment. We were invited to a party about 3 days after we returned to the states. We were so excited because all of our friends would be there. About 30 minutes into the party, my wife and I, found ourselves in the corner alone watching our friends laugh and have fun together. It was painfully obvious that they had moved on without us and probably only invited us to be polite.

    • Go. Serve. Love says:

      Trey, this sounds incredibly painful–and obviously not an anomaly. Thanks for sharing this–and I hope God continues to create healing over experiences like this, which affect so many of us.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Tears are falling as I read this because finally someone understands!! Once someone pressed a twenty into my hand and said “this isn’t to go running around having fun, this is to spread the love of Jesus”. Yeah, we spend allot of time running around but don’t worry it wasn’t any fun.
    I’m currently returning to the blue people and “home” after six years of missions and after being betrayed and rejected by the yellow people whom i loved and served. Now I’m trying to explain that it’s not my fault my ministry failed and my ministry leaders abruptly sent me home. My old friends are married, have children and stuff like furniture and live totally different lives than me. I still struggle with resentment of people who didn’t support me or openly opposed me and I’m hiding behind the Corona virus thing so I don’t have to face them at church every week.
    I’m praying for your finances and that you would be able to go home more often to be with your family more. I’m sorry this is hard.

    • Go. Serve. Love says:

      My heart goes out to you in what sounds like a clearly wounding and very painful, alienating experience! I do hope your sending organization jumpstarts some healing and hope with debriefing…if not, do consider pursuing some through organizations like LinkCare (LinkCare.org). Praying for you right now as you try to navigate a complex future, beginning to build relationships and find joy again. I’m so very sorry this has been your experience! May God reiterate his faithful, overwhelming love and care for you.

  15. Lloyd A. Cooke says:

    I am one of those non-American missionaries. But I teach Missions at Jamaican Bible Colleges and Seminaries, seeking to raise up more Caribbean Cross-cultural missionaries. This is excellent material to recommend that prospective missionaries read, before they leave for the field. I will use it for that purpose.
    Ps. I have written a book telling the story of Jamaican/Caribbean missionary sending activity, and another which tells the story of a Jamaican family of missionaries which had five cousins on foreign fields simultaneously in the early to mid 20th century (” The Story of Jamaican Missions”. ARAWAK Publications. 2013. Available on Amazon; and “A Goodly Heritage” Xulon Press. 2017)

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