I am going out on a limb here, so I have to put some disclaimers up in advance.
Disclaimer number one … I LOVE BEING A MISSIONARY!!! This blog is pointing out the bad aspects that you will not hear us normally say. It does not mean that I am unhappy or unfulfilled.
Disclaimer number two … I am 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 things positive that people can point out to me. I am sharing our heart; how we feel. I don’t need anyone to send me a Bible lesson.
A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog with the title above. It was pretty good, and got me to thinking. So, no copying, but there is some overlap. Here is what your missionaries will not tell you in their newsletters or at your church mission conference. Here is a little of the dark side of missions.
- Sometimes, most of the time, living in another culture is hard.
Your missionary will talk about the joy of cross cultural missions and going into all the world. What they won’t tell you is that 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 … get this … for 40 years. She had come to Ghana as a 20-year-old and was now going “home.” During the conversation I asked her how come she was saying that 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 that 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 are not one of “them.”
I have now been in Bolivia for eight years. I am fluent 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. It is hard to not be in the group. It isn’t fun to always be noticed.
- It is lonely and your friends and family from the States have 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 is that they do not 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 answer ‒ all ten of them at separate occasions without any knowledge of what others had said ‒ was, “Loneliness. After the first year people totally forget about you. Even your best friend now will not continue communicating with you.”
We decided to fight against this and using Facebook and social media, along with monthly communications and blogs, we knew that we would stay in touch with our friends. What surprised us was how quickly they did not want to stay in touch with us. Oh, we understand that their lives are busy and we have moved. The truth is that understanding why something happens does not mean that it doesn’t hurt. This goes along with the first thing … 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.
- We are normal people.
People think that missionaries are some super-Christian. We are one step up from being a pastor, and if you are a missionary pastor then even the Apostle Paul envies your spirituality. You won’t be reading in a missionary letter, “This week I hardly spent any time in the Word, got mad at my wife, yelled at my children and was jealous after seeing photos on Facebook.” We won’t report that, but it is the truth. We are normal people seeking to honor Christ even though we are weak and fragile vessels. We sin, repent, sin, repent, and then repeat. We are like you.
- 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!!”
We can’t do that. We have to appear above money. We need to make it seem like money is something that we could probably use, but no big deal. We are walking by faith and trusting God to provide … that is what we need to display. You see, we don’t want it to seem like all we want from you is your 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.
Another part of this is that we really struggle with being judgmental over money. This just happened this week. I posted a need for our ministry. We would like to purchase some additional dental equipment to help with our evangelistic dental ministry. We need $700. At the same time, a friend of ours in the States who sings occasionally at coffee houses posted that he wanted to raise $4,000 to make a CD. We had $210 donated. He received $4,300. Really?? I am not saying that he should not do this nor that it was wrong for him to raise money for it, but really? He got $4,300 to experiment with a CD and we could not raise $700 to help the poor hear about Jesus through dental missions. Really??
- We feel like our children are getting shortchanged by our choice.
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 college classes at the community college while in high school. My kids do nothing like that. I know that 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, envying and coveting.
- 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. Then, 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?”
Real example. My father passed away and after the initial burial and settling of the estate, I found myself with $19,000 of unplanned income. We prayed about it, and decided to tell the kids that grandpa wanted to bless them. So, with MY INHERITANCE, while we were in the States on a planned furlough, we rented a home outside of Disneyworld and after vacationing there took the whole family on a cruise. We received several snide comments and one donor quit giving to our ministry.
My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this year. We did something really fun to celebrate. Here is what we did. We told our kids, “This is on the ‘down-low.’ Do not say anything about it to your friends and do not put anything on Facebook. We don’t want anyone judging us.”
How stinky is that? You can share your joy; we feel like we have to hide ours or people will think and/or say that we are somehow taking advantage of our donors. We would love to post photos of our fun and have you just say something nice … but we can’t.
- We hate being judged by a standard that our judges do not follow.
Every missionary that reads this will scream “Amen!” 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 is when someone NOT doing what I AM DOING judges me because they don’t think that I am doing enough of what they are not doing.
The best example of this is when you meet with a missions committee and they ask us about our evangelism. I share how, this year alone, we have shared the gospel with over 2,000 people (true story) outside of the church walls and have baptized 35 adults. The committee talks a little and then says something like, “We are concerned about the follow-up of the converts and why so few have been baptized. We would also like to hear more about your evangelistic endeavors. What do you do and how do you do it?” Then, after sharing what you do and how you do it, they have critical comments and corrections about methodology.
The problem is this. The church that this mission committee is a part of hasn’t baptized 35 adults in the last 10 years and does not have a single planned evangelistic event on their church calendar. I often want to say, “We have baptized 35 adults and shared Christ with over 2,000 people … what have you done?” or, “That is a great idea on evangelism, help me put some flesh on it. How did you guys implement this in your church?” or, “What do you do for follow-up after your community evangelistic event?” I can’t, but I really want to. It is honestly difficult to listen to armchair quarterbacks who have never suited up critique the game that I am participating in.
Another example of this is how 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. They 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 is 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.
- Saying good-bye stinks … and it is not the same in the States.
This happens to missionaries our age. 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 now 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 and said, “Love you, Dad; see you in … what … two years or three?”
I started crying and people graciously walked away from my table. I realized that I was not going to see him again for at least two years. This week, three days ago, my wife 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!”
Now here is where the second part of my point comes in to play. Friends will say, with totally good intentions, “I understand; my son left for college this week also.”
It is not the same thing! Your son/daughter can come home for the holidays and on school breaks. They may be able to snag a $100 ticket and bop in for a three-day weekend. At the most they are a quick flight or short drive away. We live on another stinking 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 moved to the States and was living on his own. He had not been there long and called us and after talking I let him know that he needed to go to the hospital because I thought that he had appendicitis. At the hospital he let us know that it was, and they were doing an emergency surgery.
It took my wife three days to get there. She could not hop on a plane and be there before he left the hospital. My dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I knew that when the phone call came telling his children to come say their good-byes, that I would not be able to be there. I knew that I would miss his last words, not be able to minister to my family and probably not be able to attend the funeral. It is not 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 one … saying good-bye.
- Going to the States is hard.
You would think that returning home on furlough is wonderful. Every missionary looks forward to it. It is the focus of the year that it is going to happen.
That is partly true. However there are two things that your missionary will not tell you. One you probably already know. 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 that 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 do not want to live in your basement. We want to be a family with our own privacy and family time.
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 in Arkansas that gives you $25/month. But you want to and think that you should. The logistics make home assignment difficult.
The second thing that you probably do not know is that it is hard emotionally. Why? Because we discover that we have changed and that you no longer really want to be around us. I wrote about this one time. Let me summarize that blog here. 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 because, well, because 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.” They REALLY said that!
After being in my home church, where I had been a pastor and was now feeling ostracized, I shared my feelings with a staff member of the church. He told me that he knew why people avoided us. I asked him what it was. He said, “You intimidate people. Not by what you say, or what you do, but by who you are. We look at you and your choice and we feel guilty for being materialist. It is easier to avoid you than it is to repent of our love of money.”
I don’t know if that is the reason or not, but missionaries feel unwanted. We may think that you appreciate us, and we really are grateful for your financial support, but we feel like you don’t want to be our friend.
- I constantly feel like I have to prove myself to you.
You, whether an individual or a church, give us money. You support our ministry. Like it or not, I now feel like I have to justify to you that giving us money is good. I have to prove myself and my ministry over and over again. My newsletters are not to let you know what we are doing … they are far more than that. They are items that I am entering into evidence as proof that you 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 you giving your money to someone who deserves it.
Often we don’t feel like we are on the same team as you. We feel like you are 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, no, “We are building intentional relationships with those in the marketplace.” We may lead a Bible study but we call it, “Engaging in a mentoring relationship with young married couples.” Look at what I just told you. I buy fruit each week, go to church and lead a Bible study. That does not sound worth supporting, does it? I mean, you do that. But if I am building intentional relationships while mentoring young married couples as I am actively engaged in a local congregation … then maybe you will think better of me.
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 you this year. That is because of #4 and #7 above. We need money and you are judging our worth … and your evaluation will determine our money. This may not be true, but it is how we feel. We feel like we have to constantly show you that giving to our ministry is a great idea and you should keep it up. It produces a lot of pressure and emotional stress.
So, there you have it. Ten things that your missionary will not tell you. They may not be pretty, but maybe hearing them can help you relate better to your missionary. Comments are welcome, especially from fellow missionaries.