10 Things Missionaries Wished Their Churches Knew
“Without adequate member care strategies there is little hope for the ongoing maintenance of the frontier missionary movement. More than that, these missionaries require special attention so that in the context of sacrifice and isolation, they can still reach the people they are called to.” -Kelly O’Donnell
Today more and more missionaries and non profit workers on social justice missions are moving overseas to work on issues of orphan care, sex trafficking, drilling wells, and creating peace in conflict zones. We’re in the age of the International Justice Mission and the A21 campaign. We’re in a time where youth are moving to difficult locations to provide practical aid, not just Bible studies.
The modern day missionaries are not just discipling, they’re running non profits, and creating social enterprises, they’re rescuing girls from sex trafficking and building schools.
They’re taking on more than the missionaries of old have ever taken on before. They’re being Jesus in a way that is unique and needed and they’re taking on heavier burdens that technology has granted them from administrative and website tasks, to social media campaigns, to trying to start an income generation project with fierce market competition, to raising funds in an environment that is filled with “do good” projects to choose from. Many take on these great endeavors alone, struggling to find committed people to gather around them.
I’ve heard some leaders in churches say that most missionaries are just depressed, broken people who are socially awkward, and struggling in their faith. This makes me angry because that isn’t the true representation of the heroes I’ve met on the field.
My other response is: If that’s so, what do you think made them that way?
The reality is, many churches and organizations send missionaries out and then forget about them. Most do not provide ongoing, monthly member care that is adequate to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those going out.
We send people out to the front lines and then are disappointed when they get wounded, as if that wasn’t a natural consequence of war.
Missions is God’s heartbeat. We can’t have church without going out there and loving people.
Every church should have a growing missions department and member care team, otherwise, we’re missing a huge piece of God’s heart.
He longs for the lost, for the hurting, for his beautiful treasures. He’s there with them. We will miss really knowing Him if we never get His heart for the ones the world doesn’t see as valuable.
Here are 10 things missionaries wished their churches and supporters knew:
1. We don’t really have time to answer emails
We mean well, we really do. But often times the internet goes out, we’re in a different time zone, or we’re trying to work on a newsletter, or a woman comes into our office needing safety from her abusive husband. With about 1,000 things on our to do list, and many interruptions, the burden of trying to answer questions, is sometimes just too exhausting. Our life isn’t as exotic as you think. Most of us don’t hold babies all day. We don’t have AC and we have that rooster constantly crowing in our window. Try to cut us some slack and realize that most of us are perfectionists and we’re harder on ourselves than you could ever be. We feel guilty about most things, all the time.
2. We can’t be your babysitter
We need people. But we need people who can commit to staying for a while, who are flexible, and understand what it means to serve, who can be self motivated and directed. We don’t need short term people who are basically getting others to pay for their vacation. We don’t want to worry about you running off to marry a local, or falling and getting killed in a boda boda accident, or contracting dysentery from eating the street meat. It would help if our supporters and churches could manage the screening process for volunteers so we only get high quality, trained volunteers who have a servant heart. These are people who’d be willing to do anything, who don’t balk at danger or difficulty and aren’t squeamish. People who are emotionally stable and solid. People who are mature enough to know what they don’t know.
3. Ask us what we actually need
One thing we probably don’t need is unsolicited advice or people to build our buildings for us. So before coming to visit, ask us what we truly need. We might not need or want a short term team. We need monthly support and income we can count on. We need encouragement and practical help. Maybe we need admin support or someone to file our taxes. Maybe we need you to send out thank you’s for donation letters, or build us a website or screen a potential volunteer. We might need you to carry over vitamins or comfort foods in your suitcase. Maybe we need you to host a fundraiser, or donate your building as office space. Instead of asking “What do the children need?” Ask, “What do you need?” And trust me that I know my people and my country, the customs, the solutions, and the politics better than you do. Don’t be here for five minutes and give me your simple solution for solving poverty.
4. Furlough isn’t really furlough
Most of us come home on a whirlwind trip of speaking engagements because it’s our only time to connect face to face with our supporters so we can keep doing the work we do. Sadly, what this translates to is lots of time road tripping in the car, or flights, or bouncing around from church to church shaking hands with 50 people at a time and answering lots of questions. Face it, we’re exhausted and probably jet lagged to boot. So our “rest time” ends up being more work than our regular life overseas. We go back into a difficult environment, often more tired than when we left. What we really need are people who will write the checks whether or not we can come see them. We need you to let us borrow your car. Put us up in a hotel. Lend us your vacation home for retreat. Give us some space and privacy to rest. We’re a bit shell shocked and might need to decompress for a while. Be thoughtful and think about what you would want if you’d just flown half way across the world.
5. We need you to really buy in
This means we need a dedicated member care team. The leader of this member care team should have done extensive missions or non profit work overseas, they should have a concept of what missionaries face in their day to day world. We need you to get a heart and passion for what we do and then spread that message to others. Maybe only a few of you from your church come visit so you don’t overwhelm us. Maybe you spend that time pouring into us, praying and prophesying over us, rather than us developing some “program” to keep you happy and prove our work to you.
6. I’m trying to trust you
Our trust has been broken many times. I’ve had supporters send me emails asking “How could you let that child die?” when a baby didn’t survive malnutrition or AIDS. I’ve had people second guess my decisions. I’ve been stolen from by pastors, I’ve had volunteers commit and then back out, board members quit, donors fall off, I’ve had people try to take over my organization, I’ve been betrayed by those who were closest to me, I’ve been harassed and almost been kicked out of the country by a corrupt government. I’ve been judged and picked apart, and misunderstood. So when you say you want to help me, understand my hesitation, my need to test to prove you are safe. Understand that relationships have to be built and you need to earn the right to speak into my life before telling me what you think.
7. You probably don’t really understand our world
Death is a part of life in our world. There are always children we can’t help. People who fall outside of our mission. Not enough resources to meet more needs. Suffering that you can’t always change. To live in the day in day out poverty of the developing world, the injustice of corruption and violence, the ugliness of slavery, can be demoralizing. I’m probably hard on myself, so be kind and unwavering in your support of me. Don’t drop me the minute I’m in trouble and need help. Understand that I might be stressed or struggling with illness or adrenal fatigue or compassion fatigue. Or maybe I’m just plain worn out. Give me the benefit of the doubt.
I may just understand something about Father God’s beautiful heart for the suffering.
I may just have insight from watching the way hungry people will worship even though they don’t have food. I may have touched the garment of God’s glory when I held a crying girl in my arms or saw life come back into the eyes of a child soldier.
When you sit with the broken, and still see their faith, their resiliency, their hope, you see the face of God.
To live so close to God’s goodness might make other things feel trivial to me.
8. We need pampering and normalcy
We’re not super Christians. We want the same things you do: a perfectly cooked steak, a day relaxing on the beach, a nice glass of wine, a night out with our spouse, a babysitter for our children, a private room to spend the night. Peace and quiet. Hallelujah. We don’t have money and we don’t mind sleeping on your couches, but sometimes a hotel would be nice just so we don’t have to “perform” for anybody. We need a girls night, or a movie night, we need a shopping trip to Forever 21 so we can buy clothes that aren’t stretched or have holes in them. We need some support money to be spent on a break. (Gasp!) Yes, we need to not feel guilty about taking a vacation and we need to not feel your judgment when we post our pictures at a safari lodge. We work real jobs like 50-60 hours a week people. Breaks make us better at our job and avoid things like compassion fatigue and burnout. We need honor, but we also need life to be normal for a bit. Support us even if we’re too exhausted to come speak at your church.
9. We need ongoing counseling and mentoring
The reality is, I probably can’t say this because I’m too afraid of what you might think, or that you might judge me for having needs or think there’s something wrong with me and pull your support. I’m so afraid to say that I’m in trouble, that I need help. I’m afraid you’ll point the finger and say “I told you that you couldn’t keep this up.” But the truth is, I need monthly, sometimes weekly counseling and mentoring by someone who is trained and has been in my shoes before.
I need to process all the repressed grief, all the tiny ways I feel like a failure every day, all the ways I wish I could do more, all the questions I grapple with about God’s goodness in the face of suffering. I need someone who understands.
10. I’m not wasting all your money
I know, it’s been months since I sent out a newsletter, but I’m accountable. I’m helping people. I’m doing the work of loving people. This stuff takes time. These are people’s lives and while you might get some really awesome stories, you might get some hard ones too because people make their own choices. I can’t snap my fingers and make everything alright. And guess what, that thing called language school is actually important. Don’t forget it’s hard to live in a country not your own and learn culture and custom. Try and give me the benefit of the doubt.
So, hopefully you can find someone in your church to send this to without pissing them off. At least it’ll start a conversation.
What are some things you wished your church and supporters knew?
**I now provide Skype coaching and pastoral counseling services to missionaries because it was something I so wished I had in my time serving overseas. Contact email@example.com today to schedule a Skype coaching session.