10 Things Missionaries Wished Their Churches Knew

February 11, 2016

what missionaries wish 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 saritahartz@gmail.com today to schedule a Skype coaching session.

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  • This is great – so well-written and pretty spot-on! Now what does it say that I’m nervous to share this…. :-/ ahh the irony :) #missionarylife
    Thanks for being bold and putting all these words to ‘paper’!

    • Thanks Amanda! I know it’s so scary to actually share it. But it’s good practice to let our needs be known and our boundaries maintained, to let people see what “real life” is. Sending you courage! :)

  • Another excellent article, Sarita! Your time spent overseas has transformed you into that perfect missionary member care person that we all wished we had. I’m excited to connect more. Blessings! PS: permission to repost this article on davidjoannes.com ?

    • Thanks David, that’s a wonderful compliment! Sure, I don’t mind you reposting at all :)

  • Kathryn Taylor

    Yikes. Wonderfully true.

  • #4 and #8 are big ones for me. We have a problem on both sides of the ocean with furlough, people saying, “Oh, that’s so nice that you get such a long vacation!” Then we try to explain to them that it’s not a vacation. Furlough is tough especially with younger children.

    • I can imagine Caleb! What usually helps make furlough easier on your children?

      • We try to plan something fun for them whenever we do long distance travel. Especially after a # of busy meetings we try to take them with us for a day or two where we can just be together as a family and not have to answer all the questions about being missionaries.

      • May I just say that as a mother of four, the fact that you validated his feelings and asked for his input made me want you as a counselor 😉?

        • Ha ha thanks Jennifer! Let me know if you ever need counseling! :)

  • Matthew Wright

    Thanks for saying the things so many of us think but are afraid to say out loud (except among the very closest of friends!). We, too, are involved in missionary care, and it is refreshing to hear other voices saying some of the same things – albeit more eloquently. May your words find their targets, and may hearts be changed!

    • Thanks Matthew! I’d love to hear some of the ways you get churches to engage in missionary care! :)

  • Joseph Zanetti

    I know I am about to step on a few toes here, but below are a few quotes from this article:

    “Instead of asking “What do the children need?” Ask, “What do you need?” 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 need pampering and normalcy”

    “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.”

    “I need monthly, sometimes weekly counseling and mentoring by someone who is trained and has been in my shoes before.”

    Ok, that was more than a few quotes, but wow! Are we talking about missionaries in this article or glorified tourists?

    If a missionary in the field has all the wants and needs mentioned above, then maybe it wasn’t God who called them to be missionaries in the first place. And if worrying about compassion fatigue and burnout is an issue, then maybe the missionary lacks the Faith required to answer God’s call.

    There are too many missionaries in the field who seem to have a problem letting go of their western lifestyles when serving in developing nations and their failure to do this becomes a stumbling block in reaching the poor with the message of Jesus Christ. I mean think about it, how can someone who is living the lifestyle of the top 10% in a given country reach those who live in the bottom percentile? Shouldn’t all missionaries follow the example of Paul? After all, “To reach the weak he became weak”. Does Jesus expect his servants to focus so much on their “wants”? It certainly wasn’t a concern in the early Church (see the book of Acts).

    “As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” (Luke 9:57-59)

    I am not saying a missionary has to live in poverty when serving in developing countries, but they should at the very least deny themselves of their “wants” in order to reach the poorest of the poor. Do you think a person that a missionary is trying to serve living in the slums or on the street will feel a connection to Christ if they see that missionary regularly eating at expensive restaurants and drinking their coffee at Starbucks? Or if that missionary lives a significant distance away from the people they are there to serve? Lives in a larger than average home and driving away in a late model car or SUV at the end of the day to get there? Wears branded clothing and top dollar shoes? These are just a few examples, but I could go on and on.

    If a missionary can’t live on the same level as the average person in the country they are serving, then maybe they should pray about what it is God really wants from them. Maybe it is not to be a missionary in some far away exotic place after all. Maybe it is in their own backyard instead.

    So back to this statement: “Instead of asking ‘What do the children need?’ Ask, ‘What do I need?’

    My response to that missionary…. It’s not about you!

    “If any man will come after Me,
    let him deny himself, and take up his cross,
    and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life
    shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life
    for My sake shall find it.” — Jesus

    • Lore

      Please, don’t become a missionary if you judge other missionaries by Paul. What Jesus told the missionaries when he sent them out made it clear, they should be welcomed and cared for…the places where that wasn’t true, Jesus told them to shake off the dust and go where they’d be received with hospitality.

    • Em

      Question: Have you ever been a missionary?
      I have to admit that I do sometimes struggle with judgement when I see missionaries importing even their shampoo and potato chips from America. But, that was not really the point of this article. As a child, my parents were missionaries who did not receive any sort of support, and we did not take vacations. What happened in the end? My parents had to spend so much time working to earn income to raise us that we ended up giving up the missions field after about 15 years or so. I do not think that God did not call them. He definitely did. But the every day monetary needs (think about it, you at least have to pay for your visa, and your rent, plus food) basically left them with extremely little time to minister or help out. Even though a lot of countries are poor, they can be very expensive to live in because of inflation, low wages and corruption. Because we had spent so many years away from the States (me and my siblings were all born overseas), we basically ended up as expats who happened to be Christians, but who did not live a typical expat lifestyle. We never had enough money, as my parents went overseas as qualified missionaries, but not qualified for vocations. Us kids were left out on a lark because education was non-existent where we were (unless you had an expensive expat life). In short, lack of support and understanding from our home church led my family into a rut we could never get out of. On the other side of missionaries who did not receive adequate support or understanding, there was a different but darker picture. Most of the missionaries we knew who lost support but stayed ended their marriages in divorce. The father always having an affair with a local, and getting some advantages from being married to a local. They continued their ministries to some degree, but with less reverence to Christian doctrinal teachings. Essentially forming an occult. The picture of an unsupported missionary is always going to be dark in my opinion. You should not judge.

      • Joseph Zanetti

        I really try to avoid being labeled a missionary, but yes, I am currently serving an unreached people group on the southernmost island of the Philippines, Mindanao. I am not doubting that God sent your parents into the field, but sometimes I think people do not hear God when he tells them that the work he sent them to do is finished. It is obvious that many missionaries stay in the field long after God is through using them. Some by choice, but sadly for others, because they have no other options.

        You brought up another issue that I feel is important. The children of missionaries, and your personal experience as being a child of missionaries is probably typical. I know missionary families here that have four, five, and even six children! Some have been here for over a decade and either had no children when they first arrived in the field, or only one or two at the time of their arrival. While having children is a personal choice, in my opinion they have painted themselves into a corner. They may be receiving enough support today, but what happens if, or when, that support is reduced, or God forbid gone completely? Many of these missionaries went into the field right out of unaccredited Bible colleges and have no job skills or previous work experience. How will they support themselves and their children five years from now if the support they receive is not adequate to remain in the field? More importantly, how will they be able to return to their home countries, and once there without any skills, where will they find employment with a high enough salary to support a family of 6+? Their answer of course is that God will always provide, and that they rely on their faith, but God also gave them knowledge and wisdom which they seem to have temporarily set aside.

        I have pity on the children in these families because the writing is on the wall that they have a long and difficult road ahead. It’s sad.

        The gospel has reached most areas that missionaries are in today, and most are also working within the Christian community rather than with non-Christians. This is yet another subject that requires a lot of study. In my opinion indigenous missionaries can do a far better job at reaching their people than us westerners ever can and for much less in the way of financial support. For example; although I live as simple as possible and my budget for my housing, transportation and person consumption is minimal ($250 monthly on average), it still far exceeds that of the average Filipino which is less than $150 a month. So in my case there could be two indigenous missionaries funded for what it cost me to be in the country. Now just imagine how many more indigenous missionaries could be supported by the funds that some of these large missionary families receive each month!

        Anyway, the scriptures tell us that we are not to judge those outside the Church, God will of course deal with them, but we are to judge those who claim to be a part of the Church and avoid them if necessary (1 Corinthians 5:12). I feel my comments were accurate and fair and I expect it will offend a few missionaries out there, but maybe it will cause a few of them to reevaluate their current situation and verify whether or not it is God who is keeping them in the field and not themselves.

        You opened your comment to me asking if I have ever been a missionary, maybe anti-missionary would be a better title? Lol…

        • Henry Armstrong

          Some interesting comments, JZ. Thank you for stepping on toes. I trust that you are trying to do it gracefully. :) I’m glad that you have learned to love to eat balut. Many expats are probably still wondering if God really called them to the Philippines because they still prefer steak. :) I feel that your most valuable comment was “I expect it will offend a few missionaries out there, but maybe it will cause a few of them to reevaluate their current situation and verify whether or not it is God who is keeping them in the field and not themselves.” We really do need to reevaluate. But it is a very difficult thing. The more you really get into a culture the harder it is to leave. The more you work with people, the more you love them. It is a very difficult and complicated thing to live between two (or sometimes more) worlds. When I am in the jungle I miss Honey Nut Cheerios; when I am in Canada I miss tempuyak (fermented durian). Somehow, when in Canada I don’t miss eating dog. :)

    • Joseph I do not think that missionaries who care for themselves or struggle with burnout lack faith. I think that’s ludicrous. Jesus went away from the crowds into the mountains many, many times. He didn’t need to over perform because He knew who He was and His identity was in His Father so He felt completely accepted. Many missionaries struggle with that. I lived for 6 years in a war torn region and I can tell you many missionaries feel this way but don’t feel the comfortability to share. If we can’t talk about these authentic issues then we can’t solve them. But shaming won’t get you anywhere.

  • Ivanna

    I stumbled across your blog a few days ago and I’m so glad to hear from someone that gets my life! The one thing I’d love to know more about: how to balance “work” and rest while on furlough so that you aren’t burning the candle at both ends!

    • Yes Ivanna, I definitely do have many articles addressing that as it’s one of my passions. I also have a self care plan for global workers which you can receive simply by subscribing to my blog -check out some of my articles on burnout :)

  • Nicholas T.

    I am not sure what my hope is in commenting here, Sarita. As someone who served on the field for 9 years, I am a little taken back by the tone in which I read your list of 10 things – i could have read it wrong (it is my first time reading the blog). I would have said very few of these to a church, and if I did, I wouldn’t have communicated it like it is here. It feels condescending. What follows is a defense of what appears you are in conflict with – church expectations and decisions you have made about your life. I would love for a response – it could help me understand better as a new reader.

    Here goes:
    I feel like there is a disconnect at one point – you say that churches send people out and then forget about them. Then you say that the people they sent are too busy to respond to emails from the churches. It has also been months without a newsletter. What kind of communication expectation should a church have of its missionaries?

    Also, when you develop partnerships with people and congregations, you are responsible for connecting with them, which often does mean that when you are near them, you visit them. If you sense that churches are forcing you to appear before them, drop them. You have the power to choose who you get to partner with. If you have set a guideline for how you will responsibly connect with your partners during your furlough, it is up to you to follow that. The missionary creates their planner, and in it rest should be planned, intentional, and have accountability. If you are missing the rest, I think it is unfair to blame other supporters/a partnering church. No rest is a result of one’s own decision making.

    This seems true for your money as well. In #8 you say “we don’t have money…” Fundraising isn’t the most pleasant for some, but why no money? That feels like a result from personal decisions and how one goes about partner development and vision casting. If you need that hotel, why not build that into the budget?

    We can skype if that would help humanize this conversation.

    • Henry Armstrong

      As someone who has worked cross-culturally for more than 3 decades and has been in the trenches, has trained missionaries and is involved in member care, I read a tone of frustration. The very same things that Sarita mentions here are what I have felt from time to time. I am sure many of us could arrange our time and our budgets better than we do, but in this intense spiritual battle, with often unrealistic expectations put on our agendas, (by ourselves, our superiors on the field, our superiors back at the home office, our national friends, and yes, our supporters… oh, and by those who think that being a missionary is a walk in the park), with stress levels as much as 3 times higher (or more) than what is considered “at risk” for the normal N. American, and a whole lot of other things happening (when one is in a foreign culture)…what do you expect? I could go on and on with this, but then again I didn’t schedule in time to write on people’s blogs because I come from an era where there was no social media to take up my precious time. Such is missionary life. Misunderstood if you don’t; misunderstood if you do. (please excuse the rant… we all need to let off some steam sometimes :) )

    • Hi Nicholas, in this article I was trying to convey many of the frustrations I hear daily in my calls with my clients who work on the field but feel mostly abandoned, unseen, or unheard by sending organizations and churches, so this was mostly a reflection of the frustrations they feel but can’t often utter. Yes, there are plenty of things missionaries can do to be good stewards, but that wasn’t the focus of this article. This was to help the church better understand the uniquely difficult positions missionaries are in. I hope that helps :)

  • Semone Seavers

    Sarita, I want to say thank you for your post! I think it was incredibly honest, vulnerable, and well written. Maybe it’s just the season that I’m in, but I have felt so many of the things that you have shared and my husband and I are beginning to step into a season where I know even more of those things you shared will be a reality for us as well. I’ve read several of your posts and been blessed and incredibly thankful for the encouragement, wisdom, and life experience you are offereing. Thanks for being real because the Lord has used your post to encourage and bless me during a really hard time. May the Lord bless your ministry and work! It’s valuable and don’t ever think differently.

    • Thanks so much Semone! I appreciate you saying that 😉

  • Veritas

    Yes. Just, yes. Until someone has been long-term in missions I don’t think that they can understand.
    Ministry comes out of YOU as a missionary. It is like a pregnant mother. She can not give the child what she herself does not have. If she starves, the child starves, if she is stressed the child is stressed. It we are going to be effective long term missionaries with HEALTHY ministries, we have to make sure that we ourselves are first healthy. I have been in missions for 12 years and believe me, those who don’t have a true heart to serve never last more than 3 years. If you know a long-term missionary, then YES to everything this article says. All of the comments otherwise just make me angry. Do missionaries often get frustrated with their “stateside” churches? Yes! It too often feels like you are in the middle of a battle that no one else realizes is going on. And when you have the chance to share, people want to know what you have DONE. Not about how you are. I have watched so many missionaries leave with PTSD. They spent their lives fighting for others, but who was fighting with/for them?

    • Sarita Hartz

      Thanks so much for your thoughts Veritas. Yes, we all need a lot more understanding and empathy.

    • So true, Veritas thanks so much for commenting. PTSD is a real issue amongst missionaries- I’ve written an article about that actually.