Are You Ready to be a Missionary?

September 10, 2015

how to prepare yourself for missionsI’m the kind of girl who likes to be prepared for everything. Before I leave for a trip, I print out a detailed spreadsheet of my packing list so nothing is forgotten. (Except for my pillow, which usually is)

On the flip side, I love adventure. But I like to plan for adventure. There’s nothing more adventurous than giving your life away to missions, but just like every big road trip or endeavor into the unknown, we have to ask ourselves, “Are we prepared?”

“Are you ready to be a missionary?”

Honestly, it’s hard to find information out there to know if you are prepared to go. You burn with a desire to serve, to help, but you’re not sure how to do it right. With so many young people flocking to the mission field on social justice enterprises, it’s an important question to ask ourselves.

Nearly ten years ago when I first stepped foot on African soil with my gigantic backpack and even larger can of bug repellent, I was no where near prepared for what awaited me there. Even after all this time, after burning out and recovering, I still don’t have it all figured out. But here are 10 ways to prepare you as a missionary:

1. Deal with your stuff

Christine Caine who runs the A21 campaign, which I deeply respect, spoke at my church recently (I know, I’m lucky!) and one of the most important things she said is that if we want to go out into the world to help, we have to deal with the frogs in our own life first. Frogs are the things that keep us from being fully free. The things that get triggered that make us respond in anger. The ways we still hold onto rejection and resentment. The areas we are still not healed.

Now, this is a message I’ve been preaching for a while now, borne out of personal experience.

I still believe the most important thing you can do today to prepare yourself for long term missions or ministry is to get healed from your pain and deal with your junk.

That might mean seeing a professional counselor, or getting inner healing like Theophostic, Sozo, or HeartSync, and asking a mentor into your life to help you grow. I also have a list of resources here. I know you’re itching to go, but take stock of who you are on the inside first.

But the best way you can help anyone is to be healed yourself so you don’t project your problems onto others.

“The degree to which you embrace the pain, is the degree to which you will recover.” Christine Caine-

2. Look at your motivations

Are you called or wounded?

Seems like a weird question. But many people who are drawn to helping professions do so out of unresolved pain from childhood, family, or elsewhere.

Many do it out of a martyr or savior complex thinking that if they can “save the world,” then they can prove their worth and value to people, or gain control over past experiences.

What if that deep desire to help is actually a desire to escape your current life? In my book I’m writing, I talk about some of my misguided intentions in getting into missions. Thankfully, God worked it out because He is good, but what if I could have avoided a lot of pain?

Is your compassion flowing from a deep seeded love for the people God has given you? Is your passion something you can see throughout your whole life, something deep God has placed in your personality or is it a phase? What if no one ever knew you were there, or gave you praise for going, would you still go? Better yet, ask some folks who know you well if they think you’re reasons for going are pure or are you motivated by seeking affirmation?

3. Go through training

Missions is like any other job–you need training and job experience to be equipped to be good at it. I’ve listed plenty of programs here that offer training, but make sure you pick something that is going to practically equip you for the day to day arduous tasks of living overseas. Where do you begin? What do you do when a child dies? How do you have healthy relationships? How to poop in a pit latrine, etc. (that last one is a freebie)

The missions field ended up being my training ground, but if I’d known what I know now, I would have done it differently and tried to get some more real missions training experience as well as continued to put things in my toolkit that I was interested in.

How will you know if you can last five years if you haven’t spent five weeks or five months in the place you desire to serve?

Spend time in that culture, see if you can live there long term and be a part of it. Maybe go to a semi-developed country before you go directly to the bush bush. Baby steps over big leaps.

Your longevity will be correlated to how relationally connected you are to the people you are serving.

4. Have a skill or partner with someone who does

Modern day missions is less about touting a Bible around and more about being Jesus to people through socially just acts, and seeing the person holistically healed up and whole. I wasn’t just a missionary, I was a non profit director, which comes with it’s own set of problems. But that’s what’s happening in our ministry world. We’re starting sex trafficking shelters, and orphanages, running employment businesses, and building schools in war zones, and we’re doing it all with little other than our on-the-ground-know-how and elbow grease.

It’s amazing the things we can do when we put our minds to it.

But better yet, it’s beautiful when we don’t have to do everything alone but we find ways to partner with those who are specialized in an area where we have need.

If you have girls that need counseling find a trained trauma counselor to train your staff. If you need a business program to get women out of prostitution, find a business guy who knows economics. Be specialized and focused on what you are good at and partner with others to fill in your gaps. Or even better, go back to school and bring a specialized skill to offer.

5. Build a community of safe people

I know sometimes it’s hard to find a church or sending organization who will believe in your vision or passion and send you. I went through that myself. And yet, I wish that I’d had the community I have now because I think I could have gone a lot farther. I cannot stress enough the importance of having safe people on the other end who are rooting for you and looking out for your soul.

They’re watching for warning signs that your’e getting tired or bitter, they’re looking out for your heart as it gets bruised.

They are cradling your disappointments and connecting you with people who can help you on your mission. These people are central to your success and you have to find them and choose them well.

They need to be people who aren’t controlling, but have the trust to call you on your stuff. They need to be full of grace and encouragement and also full of prophetic gifting and truth. They need to be people of wisdom. They need to be a person you can be your whole self around and be accepted, someone you can fully open up to authentically and share your darkest fears and frailties and know they won’t shame you.

Find a sending organization, church, or build a community of individuals who will commit themselves to your well being and growth. This will be probably be different than your board who will be primarily committed to your mission.

6. Supernatural lifestyle

I honestly don’t know how anyone does missions without a supernatural lifestyle and by that I mean one that is filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. If you think you can go out there and do it alone, it’s going to be really rough! The disciples needed to receive the Holy Spirit and authority before they were sent out because without that they could do nothing. If you want to see transformation in people’s lives you are going to need to walk in overflowing love, prophetic gifts, miracles, words of knowledge, a presence of peace, and be led by a truly intimate relationship with Jesus and Holy Spirit. If you’ve craved more of God’s presence, but don’t know how to get it, I recommend Bethel’s supernatural school of ministry.

7. Have a Game Plan for Health

Medical issues are one of the top reasons missionaries leave the field and it’s no wonder why. As a missionary many face lack of proper nutrition in the developing world, diseases, exhaustion, stress, isolation, major life events, and disappointment.

Holmes and Rahe have discovered that if your stress levels reach a 300, within 2 years you are most likely to be hospitalized. Missionaries on average have stress levels double that with stress levels hitting 600 for a typical missionary. All that to say, you need to have a plan for self care in place of how you will take care of yourself from exercising to eating, seeds for planting, to vitamins and supplements, to building in time for self care and real rest. These should be non negotiable no matter how many needs come your way.

8. Prepare yourself for vicarious trauma/compassion fatigue

There are so many beautiful moments of love on the mission field. Ones where you connect so fully with another human being, ones where you are able to offer that shoulder to cry on, or that ride to the hospital, or that food for the hungry person, or that wedding gown from your closet.

There are also days that will leave you shattered on the concrete pouring out tears. It is so beautiful, and so hard, and so worth it.

I wouldn’t change any of the years I spent in Africa, and I still long to go back. But the reality is, missions is hard and it will take more from you than you think you are able to give. Knowing the signs of compassion fatigue and doing a self test when you see warning signs are so important to your health and survival and to those around you. Learning boundaries and how to surrender and let go will help you immensely. Even Jesus took time to get away from people when he went away to the mountains. You’re no good to anyone dead.

9. Know who you are and be that person

Central to your success will be how solid your identity is. Do you know the core of who you are and like it? Do you accept yourself or are you trying to be someone else? Is your identity founded upon God’s goodness. Know what your passion is, what brings you joy, what people like about being around you. And know your limitations. Ultimately, who you are is amazing and unique. You are the only you, so be that person. Figure out your unique gift, the core of who you are and offer that. You don’t need to be Heidi Baker, or Amy Carmichael, or even Christine Caine. You just need to be you, willing and ready for God to use you and ready to get back up when you get knocked down.

10. Learn practical admin skills

Learning fundraising tools and how to operate technology systems that will give you leverage, will greatly lessen your workload. Invest some time in learning how to use Quickbooks for accounting,Wordpress for blogging/website, Salesforce for donor database management and tax deductible receipts, Mailchimp for newsletters, and social media for updates. Invest in some photography and videography equipment and apps that will help you communicate your message in effective ways. When you don’t have volunteers you need computers to do the work for you!

Missions will be the hardest, most rewarding thing you’ve ever done.

So, Go! The world needs you. You have something to offer than no one else does. But go with wisdom, go with experience, go healed up, whole, and full, to give it all away.

Further reading:
Beyond the Mission
Expectations and Burnout
Toxic Charity
When Helping Hurts
Trauma in Missionary Life
Keep Your Love On
Compassion Fatigue Workbook

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  • Samuel

    So many missionaries should read this. I wish I read it years ago. It would be a great discussion for the forum on

    • That would be great Samuel! We should talk! I’m creating some curriculum now for missionaries and sending orgs. Definitely email me:

  • Jon s.

    Wow great job! and comprehensive article.. SO many people jump into missions underprepared for the culture shock. Love your recommendation of trying out baby steps and going to a semi developed country first. Getting familiar with the language (even just phrases) really helps people feel like I am not so much of an outsider. Even though I am a Spanish native, learning a few of Quechan phrases and words really helped me connect in Ecuador. They said that most missionaries cannot even talk with them…

    • Hi Jon, yes that’s so true. I think it takes a long time to get accustomed to the cultural differences, but baby steps help :)