A Missionary’s Most Difficult Task: Leaving Children Behind
I’ll never forget the day my friend Karl called to tell me he was leaving Mongolia, never to return. We were planning to work on a ministry project together. Then, it seemed out of the blue, he decided to leave. When I asked him why, he said, “We really miss our kids.” Karl had a thriving ministry, spoke the language well, and understood the culture. But being separated from his grown children was too much to take so he decided it was best to leave his ministry and return to the States. Karl was trying to balance his choices between his ministry and his kids, and the kids won. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but his choice ended up closing down his ministry.
Every parent faces the prospect of losing their children as they grow into adulthood. But most parents are comforted by the fact that if there is a problem they can drive down the road, or to the next state, or catch a quick flight to be with his or her child. Just a century ago this was not possible. When parents released their children they knew that they might not see them for many years, and in some cases with children going abroad, they might not see them ever again.
Thankfully the modern world has made that situation (for most westerners) null and void. But there is a group that suffers this kind of separation anxiety more than the average westerner—missionaries.
I’ve lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for nearly nine years. My daughters grew up here. I decided early on that when it would come time to release my children I would focus on my ministry. I would let my work distract my grief. That didn’t work out so well.
I knew that I would have a struggle with releasing my kids, so deciding in advance, I thought, would help ease the pain. But as I delivered my oldest daughter to the airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia the weight of what I was doing hit me hard. I held it together until I returned home without her—and wailed like an old woman.
I have three daughters. One is in Arizona attending college. We get to see her about once a year. I miss her, but I don’t feel it often because we get to see her from time to time.
My youngest daughter is still with us. She has less than a year then she will also leave for the States. We’ve become very close, very close. I’m dreading departure day.
My second daughter is married and living in Okinawa, Japan with her husband, a military policeman with the Air Force. My second daughter and I were close when she was growing up. Life, as it’s worked out so far, has not let me go see her yet, or for her to come see me. It’s been nearly three years since I’ve seen her. I miss her terribly.
Over my years of missionary service I’ve watched as parents let their kids go. Sometimes they return home with them to help them get settled. Some parents do as I did with my first daughter and wave goodbye as the plane takes off, knowing that they’ve got someone to help their child when he or she arrives. Some missionaries let their kids go early by sending them to boarding school. Thus, when it comes time to release them into adulthood they find the experience less painful.
There’s no one-way of doing it right when it comes to releasing your kids. Life’s situations require different approaches. However, I’ve learned through my experience thus far that there are five things missionary parents need to know in advance of releasing their children. After all, releasing our kids is a bit different from releasing them if we lived in the same country. In most cases we are sending our kids away halfway around the world. If something goes wrong we may jump the next flight home—but depending upon which country you live in it could take days to get a flight (and considerable expense).
Here are four things I’ve learned from watching others and my own experiences. If you are a missionary, or considering releasing your children to live in another country, these five points may help you prepare for the experience.
· Decide in advance not to sacrifice your ministry
Your ministry is a calling just as parenthood is a calling. Just because our kids leave the nest doesn’t mean we should abandon it either. Does that sound heartless? If you lived in America and were releasing your kids to school in another state would you quit your job and follow your child? Of course not. Why is it that we missionaries sometime entertain leaving our host country when our kids go off to school or to whatever life has for them?
Separation anxiety is a powerful thing. Some missionaries find it more difficult to let their kids go than to continue living in a foreign culture and the many stresses that brings. My friend Karl decided to discontinue his ministry while it was thriving. He could have had many years of fruitful ministry, but the separation was too much for him to bear.
Plan in advance on how you will release your children. Prepare yourself well in advance. It may be that releasing your children is the natural time to consider leaving your ministry either by furlough or permanently. If you plan in advance what you will do your ministry can thrive through others you can train up to replace you. But waiting until the experience actually happens can present choices that are more difficult to make than they might be otherwise.
· Decide in advance not to sacrifice your kids
One of my daughters had a serious health issue after she left Mongolia. I had already been suffering with feelings of abandonment. My separation anxiety told me the lie that I had abandoned my daughter to the world, all alone. However, I hadn’t fully considered, in advance, what I would do or how far I would have to go to help my kids after they were gone. As parents there are times when we know our kids must endure their trials without us. And there are times when their need for us must take precedence. Decide in advance what kinds of experiences require you to drop everything and be with them. Discuss it with your kids before they leave. It will give them assurance that you are not abandoning them, but also reaffirm that there are some things they must learn alone—just between them and Christ.
· Don’t be afraid for them, instead, pray for them
When your kids are 8,000 miles away it’s hard not to worry about them. This is especially true with third culture kids. Third culture kids are those who grow up in a foreign country then return to their home country feeling more akin to their host culture than their home culture. What kinds of decisions will our kids make? What happens if they have an accident? What if there are medical problems? Worry is a natural part of separation anxiety, but we don’t need to worry.
When we began releasing our kids to the States we wanted the benefit of putting them someplace where we had friends or family that could help them from time to time. Doing so helped ease some of our fears. But the most effective thing we can do to ease our worries is to pray. Praying for them will help them, but most importantly it will also ease our worries.
And what should you pray for? Most importantly, pray for their character, their spiritual growth. This is my chief prayer for my kids. Schools, jobs, and careers may change. Our kids may choose to live somewhere else than where we send them. Friends will come and friends will go. All is transient. But if we focus on their maturity then they will be able to handle anything that comes their way. Even if they fail, they will still learn from the experience and move forward. I believe there is no more important prayer to pray for our kids than to pray daily for their spiritual maturity and trust in Christ. We should do like Job, who offered sacrifices for his children even long after they had grown up (Job 1:5).
· Support them, even when they blow it
From time to time my kids have made some not-so-good decisions. That’s okay. When I was their age I made far bigger mistakes. Whatever you do, don’t do the “I told you so,” thing with your kids. It’s one thing to show disapproval when your kids are living at home. But it’s another thing when they are separated from you by thousands of miles. Your kids will, at times, feel more alone than you do. So, even when they make bad decisions try to find a way to give them moral support. Even if sin is involved, yes, you must address the issue of sin, but we do so, so that we can find ways of supporting them, not breaking them down or punishing them. When your adult child blows it and senses disapproval from you, you can bet he or she will feel even more alone. Avoid that. Remember Colossians 3:21 applies even after your kids leave home: “Do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.”
· You’re going to miss them, it will hurt—deal with it
When my oldest daughter left home I didn’t want to be comforted. I wanted to sit alone and experience the grief. It was important to me that I deal with my grief then and there because I knew I would have to deal with it again later. You cannot avoid the grief of separation, but you can manage it. After a time you will get over it, just like most other hurts. Deal with your separation anxiety up front. For me it was helpful to sit alone and think and pray through the issues I faced from being separated from my daughter. But for others it can be more important to talk about it with friends, especially friends who have already gone through the experience you are going through. Allow their shared pain and experience to minister to you (II Corinthians 1:4).
When it comes time to release your children to their own lives you will have some separation anxiety. It’s normal. We all experience it. But the experience doesn’t have to cripple our ministry or drive us from our host country. Instead, we should see this as a path of new opportunities in both our relationship with our kids, our spouse, and for ministry. God can give us fulfillment in all these things.
My kids are doing great. My oldest, unlike her old man, is a straight A college student. My second has grabbed hold of life with her husband and is making many mature decisions. My youngest is getting ready to leave and is making plans for her future. They’ve all experienced some difficult challenges in the process, but they are maturing well. What more could I ask for? As III John 1:4 says, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children walking in the truth.”