5 Critical Times

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June 2021 | Volume 16 | Issue 6 | by Ellen Livingood

5 Critical Times

When your missionary needs your church’s care

Missionaries who serve over a period of years go through various stages of ministry—from preparing to leave for their first term of service to adjusting to retirement. Each phase has unique challenges that call for sensitive responses from their supporting churches, especially their sending congregation.

Global workers are not superhuman. No matter how well prepared they are or how long they have served overseas, all will struggle to different degrees with serious challenges. These may be cultural, physical, or emotional. Many are spiritual battles because workers are engaging on the front lines with an enemy determined to prevent any successful invasion of his territory.

No global worker should face these difficulties alone. While their mission agency may provide various types of support and care, they still need their churches back home to “hold the ropes” for them in ways no one else can. The better you understand what they are facing, the more sensitively you will be able to walk alongside them and provide the loving care and support they need and deserve.

Over time, every worker will face the stresses of these five ministry phases:
• Field-Preparation Time
• The First Year of Service
• Periods of Discouragement or Crisis
• Home Assignment
• Seasons of Major Transition

Let’s hear how global workers in each of these phases describe some of their challenges, then learn practical ways churches have helped. All of these stories are compilations of feedback we have heard from global workers over many years of interactions.

1. FIELD PREPARATION TIME

Global workers’ realities

“Being appointed to cross-cultural service was a spiritual high that was followed by difficult months of raising support and preparing for departure. I struggled with feeling inadequate when speaking in front of groups of people, particularly those I didn’t know well.”

“Raising support was at times uncomfortable and was made more difficult when some of our family and friends were embarrassed because they felt we were ‘begging’ for money.”

“Receiving ‘no’ answers from those whom we thought would want to join our support team was disheartening.”

“I struggled with being really lonely at times, especially when a full-time preparation schedule required that I resign my job, miss various social events, and be away from friends and church family for deputation travel.”

“Honestly, sometimes I even really wondered if I was called to go into missions or had the qualifications. It was hard!”

 

A few ways churches have helped

  1. Early support commitment. “Soon after I was appointed, my church made what was for them a very generous commitment to my support. Their step of faith was a tangible indication of their endorsement that encouraged me and gave me credibility in the eyes of other potential donors.”
  2. Advocacy team development. “Our church worked with us to develop a proactive advocate team as soon as we were appointed. They provided initial training and followed up regularly with the advocate team leader to make sure our relationship was serving both the church and our family.”
  3. Practical help. “Our church assisted in practical ways: for example, they advertised our need for part-time/flexible employment; they provided childcare on a regular basis to free up blocks of time to concentrate on pre-field work. Someone mowed our lawn while we were traveling; they paid for several training courses that our agency wanted us to take.”
  4. Pastoral care. “My pastor called me every couple of weeks just to chat for a few minutes, offer encouragement, and pray with me. That meant so much!”
  5. More ideas. Many additional ways to serve appointees are provided in Catalyst’s package of resources called Sending New Missionaries.

2. FIRST YEAR OF SERVICE

Global workers’ realities

“Even though I had been on short-term trips to my field prior to moving there, I wasn’t prepared for the difficult adjustments. It was hard to go to church and not understand enough of the language to participate in worship or get to know people after the service.”

“Language learning was exhausting and much of the time I felt stupid because I could communicate only at a toddler level.”

“Every task, from buying bread to riding the bus to paying the electric bill, was so difficult because we didn’t know the local systems. Sometimes all we wanted was the comfort of Facetiming family and friends yet we knew we had to try to stumble through conversations with neighbors so that we could build relationships with them.”

“I had been so excited about becoming part of this awesome team of workers, but I soon discovered that there were a lot of disagreements at team meetings, and I wasn’t always included in their plans because my lack of fluency limited what I could contribute.”

“Some days I just hated this country and all I wanted to do was go home!”

 

A few ways churches have helped

  1. Realistic expectations. “Our church missions leaders made it clear that they expected us to have struggles with language and cultural adjustment, homesickness, and dealing with the difference between our expectations and the reality we would find on the field. They assured us regularly that it was okay to admit our struggles and conflicts. Individually and as groups, they prayed with us online. They frequently reaffirmed that they saw our job at this stage as culture and language learning, not extensive spiritual ministry. That helped us adjust our expectations of ourselves and to not feel guilty because we couldn’t be ‘productive’ in ministry during those first months.”
  2. Church-agency collaboration. “The missions leaders of my sending church let me know that they were regularly connecting with my field supervisor to see how they could work together to support me. This open communication between agency, church and me made me feel well cared for.”
  3. Field visits. “My church sent a pastor and another caregiver to visit me during my first year. They didn’t come to see the ministry; they just wanted to experience my daily life in order to have a better idea of the challenges I face. They spent a lot of time just listening and encouraging me. I felt very loved!”
  4. Frequent advocacy team connections. “Our advocate team has been in contact with us at least once a month, usually by video. They work hard to help us feel well connected to our sending body. Whenever we have a need, they eagerly seek ways that they might be able to help.”

3. PERIODS OF DISCOURAGEMENT OR CRISIS

Global workers’ realities

“I feel like such a failure! When I went to the field, I had big dreams of how God would use me to reach this people group and start a church movement. Today as I look around, I feel like I have so little to show for all of my work.”

“So often we have hope that a national is moving toward faith in Jesus and suddenly they drop all contact with us, and we must begin all over again to look for people with spiritual interest.”

“Most of the people on my team when we arrived here have left the country, and we are feeling lonely.”
“The recent political coup has destabilized our city, and we expats could be told to leave the country within 48 hours. Living under this constant threat is very hard.”

“We are so worried about our kids who are showing signs of severe stress. Our son is really struggling in school and may need educational services which aren’t even available here.”

“Honestly, it seems like I am often taking two steps forward and three steps back.”

 

A few ways churches have helped

  1. Safe listeners. “If my church doesn’t hear from me very regularly, they don’t just assume I am busy. They check in to see if I am discouraged or if something else is going on. They are always such good listeners and encouragers! I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit discouragement, but my church constantly creates an environment in which I feel safe to be vulnerable and share honestly.”
  2. Crisis contingency plans. “Before we went to the field, our church missions leaders made sure our agency had contingency plans in the event of of a crisis. It’s reassuring to know we all are in agreement on this plan should it need to quickly be implemented.”
  3. In-depth crisis care. “When I faced a very serious in-country crisis, my church leaders immediately called my field supervisor as well as my agency leaders in my sending country to determine how they should respond. They flew a professional counselor out to spend time assessing the situation and providing support, then paid for me to leave the area for debriefing in a safe location. When I needed further counsel back in my sending country, they paid for me to spend several weeks getting the help I needed.”
  4. Missionary Retreat. “Once when we were spiritually and emotionally exhausted, our church underwrote the cost for us to participate in a missionary renewal retreat in a nearby country. We were so refreshed by those days and so appreciative that our church cared so much!”

4. HOME ASSIGNMENT

Global workers’ realities

“I both anticipated and dreaded returning to my sending country. It was wonderful to see family and friends again. I was able to enjoy some special family vacation time. But various aspects were so hard. I was looking forward to being in my own culture where I could easily fit in—but I soon realized that I had changed, my home culture had changed, and my friends and family had changed. This ‘reverse culture shock’ was unsettling.”

“Our kids did not enjoy visiting churches and homes of people who were strangers to them. And it was hard to not be in our own home with our own family schedule.”

“I struggled with how to report about my ministry because my fruitfulness seemed very limited next to what I think those supporting me expected. And since I wasn’t sure what my ministry would look like when I went back, it was painful to not have an exciting future to describe to others and look forward to myself.”

“I am so thankful for the friends who wanted to hear all about my ministry and truly refreshed my spirit. But often across home assignment, I wondered how many people really cared about what I was doing.”

 

A few ways churches have helped

  1. Professional debrief. “Well before we flew to our sending country for home assignment, our church emailed that they would underwrite a week of field worker debrief so that we could make arrangements and plan it into our schedule. What a wonderful way to bless us and let us know that our spiritual, physical, mental, and family health are a priority for them!”
  2. Church debrief. “The missions leadership team at my church spent several hours asking me significant questions about my past term and future plans. My advocate team went even deeper into questions about how I was processing some of the painful experiences I had gone through recently on the field. No one avoided the hard questions, but they also let me know that they are on my team!”
  3. Vehicle and housing. “Procuring a dependable vehicle and a place to live are stressful aspects of coming home. Our sending church underwrote the cost of a short-term lease on an apartment so that we were able to be close to them. Our advocate team recruited a Christian mechanic to help us find a good second-hand vehicle, provided car seats for the kids, and took care of selling the vehicle after we returned to the field. The mechanic checked the car several times while we were using it to make sure it was ready for long road trips. What a gift!”
  4. Serving MKs. “Our church cared for our children so sensitively when we came home. They asked what would make them feel most comfortable and didn’t put them in the spotlight when they preferred to just blend in with the other kids. They paid for a wonderful week at summer camp and connected us to a high-school guidance counselor who helped us navigate the college search and application process for our oldest.”

5. MAJOR TRANSITIONS

Global workers’ realities

“When our son was a teenager, we faced the very painful decision of whether to support his request to attend a boarding school for missionary children in another country.”

“My father was diagnosed with cancer, and I felt so guilty because I wasn’t able to be there to help him as well as support my siblings who were carrying the majority of the responsibility.”

“We were devastated to find out that our agency decided to end work in the country where we had served for more than 20 years. We struggled with whether we were to walk away from what God had begun there, change agencies and return, or try to relocate our family to a different field.”

“We were left pretty much on our own to wrestle through huge questions about retirement: When was the right time? Would our modest retirement income be enough? In what area should we live when we came back to our sending country? Would our church have a place in ministry where we could serve, using what God had taught us over our lifetime?”

 

A few ways churches have helped

  1. MK school. “As we struggled with whether to approve our teenager’s request to attend an MK board school, our church provided an educational consultant as well as a personal counselor. Both spent hours with us on Zoom processing the options and how to prepare for this major transition. In the first couple of months after we left them at boarding school for the first time, our advocate team checked in extra frequently, crying along with us over the sacrifice this required.”
  2. Retirement planning. “Almost a decade before I thought I would retire, my church connected me to a financial planner who provided wonderful help in thinking through the choices that I would need to make in order to adequately prepare for retirement.”
  3. Elderly parents. “My church understood the stress of trying to deal with a parent’s serious illness long distance and paid for a trip home to help transition them to a care facility.”
  4. Change of ministry/field/agency. “When we began to see that God might be leading us into a new type of ministry in a new location and perhaps with a different agency, we turned to our sending church for advice because they know us so well and were so invested. They walked us through some very tough decisions, at times telling us things that we didn’t want to hear. In the end, we were so grateful that they were proactive. As a result, we feel closer than ever to our sending congregation.”

LISTEN, DON’T ASSUME

In conclusion, there is one overarching requirement if your church wants to care well for your global workers throughout various phases of cross-cultural service: Listen a lot!

It’s easy to think you know your workers well and understand their challenges. However, assumptions can blind churches to the deep stresses created by workers’ daily circumstances and intense spiritual battles. Taking time to listen is both crucial to understanding and is itself one of the most powerful ways to serve them. Will you be a church that listens and cares well as your global worker serves through these five phases of ministry?