September 2019 | Volume 14 | Issue 9 | by Ellen Livingood
Parents of Missionaries
Serve missionaries by caring for their parents
What do almost all missionaries have in common? They have said goodbye to a mom and/or dad, leaving the most precious members of their extended family thousands of miles away in order to obey the call of God to serve in missions.
Another experience common to many overseas workers is that their sending church or the church their parents attend (which often is a different congregation) is totally oblivious to the pain of separation that both the missionary and their parents suffer as a result of their obeying the call to go. Of course, churches can’t take the place of a far-away son, daughter, or grandchildren, but a sensitive congregation can be of great service by acknowledging the cost and easing some of the burden.
Who are Parents of Missionaries (POMs)?
- Some are parents who dedicated their children to God’s service before they were even born, are delighted by their decision to become missionaries, and love to visit them in a remote tribal village.
- Some are not believers and fiercely oppose their children’s missions career.
- Some are moms and dads who struggle with why God took their grandchildren to the other side of the globe while their friends get to celebrate every birthday and attend every Little League game.
- Some are widows who feel almost as much grief and abandonment at saying goodbye to a daughter moving overseas as they did when they buried their husbands.
- Some are dads who affirm their daughters’ decisions to become missionaries but spend sleepless nights worrying about their safety.
- Some are parents glued to the TV and internet news when political unrest rocks the country where their children live and serve, yet carry the burden alone because none of their friends seem to know or care what’s going on in this remote nation.
- Some are elderly moms and dads who refuse to tell their missionary children about their cancer diagnosis because they don’t want to worry them.
Do these varied “snapshots” help you understand the differences and challenges faced by parents of missionaries? No one size fits all, but all parents of missionaries have some common pain and sense of loss. If your congregation includes parents of missionaries, what can you do to minister to them?
The first step in ministering to parents of missionaries is to find out who they are. If you have sent out missionaries who grew up in your church, you know their parents. But other POMs may attend your church without your being aware they have missionary children. Their loneliness is compounded by the fact that no one in their congregation is aware of their sacrifice. A simple announcement in the church bulletin can help you discover POMs you hadn’t previously identified.
One mom of a missionary put it succinctly in an online post: I’ve needed someone or something to validate my feelings of grief as I struggle to joyfully accept my cross-cultural missionary daughter’s calling. It’s not that I lack faith. I want her to be where God is calling her to serve and I, by no means, want to do anything that would interfere with that. BUT, it hurts!
Josh Beck, outreach team lead at College Heights Church in Joplin, MO, emphasizes that they draw the parents into the sending process early in the dialog about the possibility of missions. Even if the parents are not part of their church, Josh makes it a priority to reach out and communicate with the parents. He notes that POMs often want to connect to their son or daughter’s pastor, and appreciate pastoral attention and care. As he listens to and encourages them, he often shares resources like the books, Long Distance Grandma or Serving as Senders.
LISTEN TO THEM
Even the most godly, committed parents are going to struggle with the pain of physical and emotional separation from their children and grandchildren. The first plea from parents of missionaries is to not expect them to always live on a spiritual high where the joy of seeing their children serving God erases this pain. It doesn’t. Acknowledge that saying goodbye for months or years at a time is always hard. It never gets easier.
The biggest thing is rejecting the idea that there’s something wrong with POMs for grieving.
Diane Stortz (coauthor with Cheryl Savageau of the book, Parents of Missionaries) wrote recently, “The biggest thing is rejecting the idea that there’s something wrong with POMs for grieving. Faith-filled, dedicated, supportive POMs grieve and must adjust to a BIG new normal. It’s critical for POMs to have others acknowledge that.
“As our kids got closer to departure, I received comfort from people who were sensitive to our feelings,” Diane continues. “The shepherding group said some less-than-helpful things to me, but they were clearly trying to be empathetic and that meant a lot.
“For a while, my Bible study group tiptoed around talking about my daughter,” she adds. “But they opened up when I told them, ‘It’s okay; it helps to talk about her!’ A friend of our daughter came to me during an event close to sendoff and said, ‘I want you to know that your daughter’s friends are grieving too. We’re really going to miss her.’ She wasn’t trying to minimize my feelings, just let me know that I wasn’t alone.”
At the same time, it is important not to turn a missionary parent into a martyr. Constantly assuming a “I’m sure you are miserable” attitude doesn’t help and isn’t generally true. Sensitively blend sympathy and encouragement.
INCLUDE THEM IN SENDING EVENTS
POMs appreciate being invited to their children’s commissioning services, but several POMs noted that at times the congregation’s excitement about sending out new workers left them feeling more alone in their pain. Recognize them in the service, inviting them to participate if appropriate. But don’t pressure them to speak. Include prayer for the parents as you commit the new workers to their missionary task.
Janice Pope of Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, MD, shared: “The parents of one couple we sent out lived in two different cities in another state. The wife’s parents were more than a little skeptical about their children’s open-ended commitment to serve overseas. The key to their growing level of comfort and confidence in that decision was to be included in events surrounding the missionaries’ launch. It helped them to not only catch the vision for the spread of the gospel to the world, but also to see how their kids were loved and supported by our congregation.
“The parents have been invited into everything we do when they children return on home assignment,” Janice continues. “When we have a welcome-back party, baby showers, or a luncheon for them, the parents are invited. This has allowed the parents to watch and experience the loving support of our church.”
INVITE THEM TO SHARE ABOUT THEIR CHILDREN
Like any parents, POMs love to talk about their kids and grandkids. Yet many times, even if the missionary son or daughter is sent out by their parents’ church, it is the pastor or missions team who update the congregation or other groups in the church. Several POMs mentioned how much they enjoyed sharing a report about their children, yet many are seldom invited to do so. It is likely that no one in the church is as well informed about what is going on as the POM. Following a POM’s visit to the field or some type of special event or need, the parent may be able to provide an inside viewpoint of the situation that would assist the missions team to better understand their workers. Many would love to be invited to share with a class or even the entire congregation. In some cases, POMs can succumb to the natural temptation of a parent to share too much or too long, so some guidance about content and length of their presentation may be appropriate.
Adult Sunday school classes and small groups can be a great place to minister to POMs. Alert the group’s leaders to the fact that someone in their group is a POM; you may also want to share with them this article or the Parents of Missionaries book as a way to sensitize them to the opportunities to minister to the POM in their midst.
CONNECT POMS TO ONE ANOTHER
Cherrydale Church in suburban Washington, DC, has decided to have a Parents of Missionaries Brunch this year during their missions conference. At the brunch, the church will give each parent a copy of the Parents of Missionaries book, and suggest that the POMs encourage and mentor one another by sharing answers to these questions:
- What steps do you take to encourage your child in their missions service?
- What helps you cope with the sense of loss that is common for POMs? Have you found ways to have joy in this sacrifice for the advance of the gospel?
POMs whose children have been overseas for a number of years can offer helpful advice and encouragement to those whose children are just embarking on a missions assignment.
Many smaller churches may only have one or two POMs in their congregation, so it is helpful for larger congregations to create a POM group that is open to any POM in the geographic area. Kim Scott, coordinator for global partner care at Calvary Church, Lancaster, PA, recently launched a regional POM group. They began with a potluck picnic where Kim expressed thanks for their contribution to global ministry and shared how much their sacrifice/loss is valued. The participants decided to continue meeting quarterly and agreed to invite other POMs they knew in the area. POMs from other churches expressed gratitude for being included in this group launched by Calvary.
REMEMBER SPECIAL DAYS
College Heights Church in Joplin, MO, sends card or gifts to their POMs on special occasions like birthdays or major holidays. These may be times when the pain of separation is most acute. If the POM struggles with technology, help them connect on special days with their missionary family via a Skype call or FaceTime.
PRAY FOR THEM
As you pray for your missionaries, pray for their parents too. Pray for their emotional and spiritual strength as they deal with the separation from their children. Pray for their protection and health. Pray that your missionaries’ siblings will step up to help fill the gap created by their physical absence (and remember that siblings are also struggling with their own loss in the separation). Sadly, a significant number of missionaries are forced to leave the field at the stage where their work is most valuable in order to meet the needs of their parents back home.
The Austin (TX) Stone church is beginning a group for POMs. They suggest recruiting a prayer team who will intercede consistently for missionaries’ parents. A text, email, or card confirming that they have been prayed for can be sent to the POM for encouragement.
BE AWARE OF THEIR NEEDS AND SERVE THEM WHERE YOU CAN
No one can take the place of a son or daughter who is living on the other side of the globe, but churches can proactively relate to POMs and meet needs wherever possible, stepping up to be “surrogate children,” especially when POMs are elderly. Perhaps members of your church can fix a leaky faucet, mow the grass, or provide rides to doctor’s appointments. It is also an encouragement to your field missionaries if you provide an update about the wellbeing of parents, especially those who are in their senior years. Be the eyes and ears of your workers as you sensitively try to assess how there are doing.
ENCOURAGE AND SUPPORT VISITS
Where appropriate, encourage POMs to visit their children on the field. If they are not familiar with overseas travel, your church can help to make arrangements or even include them on a trip you are making. If there is financial need, underwriting such a trip can be a huge encouragement to both the missionary and their parents.
If your missionary’s parent suffers a sudden crisis, make sure that your worker has the funds needed to make an emergency trip home to care for mom or dad. You may also need to provide a car or other help during this period of time. Sensitively seek ways to support the entire family.
How Mission Agencies Can Help
Do you want to do a better job of ministering to the parents of your missionaries? Here are a few suggestions:
- In pre-field training, encourage your appointees to openly discuss with their parents and other family members the pain of the pending separation as well as expectations regarding how connections will be maintained while they are on the field. Emphasize the importance of acknowledging what POMs and siblings may be feeling as everyone says goodbye. Emphasize the need to work at staying connected without sliding into unhealthy dependency.With the permission of your appointee, make a personal contact with parents around the time of appointment. Assure them of your care for their son/daughter/grandchildren and acknowledge that they are being asked to make a sacrifice. Invite them to ask questions and to stay in touch, if that would be helpful.
- Sensitize sending churches to the needs of their missionaries’ parents. Encourage sending churches to implement some of the ideas in this Postings article and read Parents of Missionaries.
- Host a conference or retreat specifically for the parents of your missionaries. Recruit POMs with more experience to share testimonies of how God has ministered to them in times of loneliness or grieving. Provide ideas for keeping in touch with children and grandchildren on the other side of the globe.
- Ask your team leaders to personally visit the parents of the members of their team whenever possible. Encourage them to express appreciation for their sacrifice and describe the invaluable contribution their children are making to the ministry and their team. Show pictures and tell stories.
- Consider setting up a website specifically for POMs. Encourage them to share suggestions for other POMs, ask questions, and post photos.
- When crises arise on the field, remember the emotional toll on the parents of the missionaries involved. A personal phone call at such a time is especially meaningful.
Beside their excellent book, Parents of Missionaries, Diane Stortz and Cheryl Savageau have put together “Tip Sheets for Parents of Missionaries” that includes sections on how to start a local POM group, how to grandparent across the miles, ideas for getting through the holidays, suggestions for churches, and more.