Are You a Resilient Missionary?

December 07, 2017

What is a resilient missionary

My first year on the mission field I experienced spiritual abuse, discouragement from others, debilitating sickness, isolation, culture shock, lies, theft, betrayal, setbacks, harassment, vicarious trauma, depression, and fatigue. As a single woman then, I went through most of this alone.

And yet, somewhere within myself, I found the courage to continue on in my purpose for another 6 years, work through a period of burnout, and then through my own journey of healing, became a celebrant helping others heal. This was partially due to just plain stubbornness, but also due to something I didn’t have a word for yet.


We can all agree that the unique challenges of living on the mission field or running a ministry test your limits.

Everything from high expectations of self, to constant stress, feelings of failure, secondary trauma, past/childhood trauma, and unmet expectations from others that you’re some sort of missionary hero, combine to form a deadly cocktail.

Most missionaries begin with a strong passion for helping others and yet we often lose sight of the fact that God cares about our hearts and healing more than He cares about “our mission.” 

And yet, I think the danger is to see resilience as white knuckling it through every trauma or challenge, but I don’t think that’s what resiliency truly is.

So how do you know if you are a resilient missionary?

In the missions/expat and member care world, we often hear this term thrown around a lot, hailed as the golden virtue desired by most missions organizations in their candidacy recruitment.

Resiliency in missions is considered the highest indicator of “success” and sustainability on the field.

Many organizations have become obsessed with making it a requirement due to high attrition rates, and yet we haven’t taught people what it is or how to build it. We send people out underprepared and wonder why they come back limping.

If we ever want to revolutionize the paradigm of missions then we must tackle this incredibly important issue.

In order to answer this important question, I sat down to interview my friend Geoff Whiteman, a couples counselor who is currently conducting research on resiliency in missionaries. Realizing the need for more research surrounding how a missionary can become more resilient, Geoff set out to find those answers. It’s an incredible and singular work in the field. (You can help be a part of answering this question by taking his survey here.)

Geoff shared,

“I think our image of what makes up a resilient missionary, is flawed. We see them as ‘God’s Navy Seals,’ unbreakable, the tough as nails, persevering at all costs, type. But that’s not what I’ve seen.

The adversity we face in service to God really does break us. That’s the unavoidable reality.

We need to learn from missionaries who’ve been resilient and hear their stories. That’s why I began this research in the first place because I want to hear from people like you who became overcomers.”

Resiliency doesn’t mean you’re aren’t broken. Brokenness is inevitable in your calling to love others because love requires we mourn with those who mourn.

In our society that seeks to avoid pain at all cost, we think broken = bad. But what if that wasn’t true?

What if suffering and brokenness was a gateway ushering us into a whole heart?

Resiliency isn’t about protecting ourselves from suffering and adversity, it’s about not being ashamed of our limits or brokenness when we are inevitably damaged in the high call of service to others. 

For Geoff,

“There is something unique about someone who willingly puts themselves in the way of hardship for the sake of others. What’s compelling is how these people who hit tragic times, keep going and come out better and more beautifully shaped on the other side.

“When I imagine the resilient missionary, I think of the Japanese art of kintsukuroi.  Through it, a clay vessel that has been broken is repaired with gold.  Kintsukuroi is more than art, it’s a philosophy that sees brokenness not as something that needs to be discarded but rather part of a treasured history to be honored.

For many of us, we start out in ministry in our own strength as God’s servants. Through the adversity we face, we are broken—even shattered.  But God’s love, often expressed through caring relationships with others, reshapes and even transforms us— it is the gold that fills our cracks. We come to see ourselves not as God’s servants, but as God’s sons and daughters.  We come to minister not out of our own strength but out of our participation in God’s mission.”

The gold in us is forged in the broken places, in the cracks. That tells the true story of who we are and what we’ve overcome.

Brokenness is not to be discarded but a treasured history to be honored.

Resilient people see suffering as a pathway to something greater. They see difficulties as stepping stones to transformation.

They have the learned ability to bounce back after being bent, stretched or compressed. They have the ability to readily recover from illness, depression, or pain. They have the capacity to be robust under stress.

It is an internal attitude and belief more than an external measurement. Because outwardly just “sticking it out” can be fueled by stubbornness and undealt with pain.

Resiliency often wrongfully is confused with the length of time served.

It’s a pervasive lie that if you experience burnout or have compassion fatigue or secondary trauma that means you’re not resilient.

The idea if you stay somewhere long enough even if it’s unhealthy for you, means you’re resilient is a lie too. You can stick it out on the field and be unhealthy, cynical, and unhealed simply because you’re just stubborn enough to remain.

Instead, resiliency should be measured by the inner character of someone who is finding meaning in their suffering and is moving through healing.

My own definition of resilience is the process of building the inner strength and fortitude to face adversity and create a buoy around you that allows you to have joy in the face of pain.

Missions is full of pain. Crap is going to hit you. You’ll be submerged in the tidal wave, feeling as though you are drowning, but you have something around you and inside you to help you breach the surface again.

What if we discovered the hope in our brokenness, that surrendering to this process truly creates beautiful restoration where the parts once broken, are put back together and become the best pieces of us, the places where we can fully embrace a hurting world.

We can all use a little more resiliency during the Holiday season, so make time to take care of yourself and be gentle with yourself.

Are you a resilient missionary? Tell us how you’ve become one!


**We want to hear from you! Tell us what makes you a resilient missionary by taking this quick 10 min survey and SHARE this post with your friends! Geoff has over 750 responses. Help him reach 1,000 people before Christmas! Geoff will then begin interviews with the best suited candidates. Stay tuned for a blog series on how you can become a more resilient missionary!

***Geoff Whiteman is passionate about helping Gospel Workers be united in marriage and resilient in ministry.  Raised as a missionary kid, Geoff together with his wife Kriss have been supporting missionaries since 2007. Geoff is currently researching how missionaries become resilient for his ThM from Asbury Seminary. Geoff fully acknowledges these are his initial thoughts going into the project and is looking forward to sharing the final research results.

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