Pastor, I know you’ve got a lot on your plate and the last thing you need is more stuff to deal with. But you ought to know about a few needs that your missionary has. And not just you, but your staff and congregation as well.
I’ve been fortunate to serve Christ in two countries for a total of 11 years. There were times when I wished my home church knew about some issues I was facing, but felt like they might not understand what I was going through, or perhaps think badly about it, so I kept my mouth shut. That got me thinking about other missionaries, wondering if they had the same thoughts I did. So I surveyed a number of missionaries currently serving overseas to ask them what was the one thing they wanted you, their pastor, to know. From their answers I’ve come up with five things that the average missionary wants you to know.
Now, I want to warn you, you might not like some of what you will read. In fact, you might be a little offended. But please don’t be. You see, your missionary has a unique point of view and set of experiences that the vast majority of pastors and congregants never get to have. In addition to spiritual warfare, they face unique pressures of culture, loneliness, and anxiety for a host of reasons. So when they come home for a furlough or time of rest they want to escape their host culture for a while and enjoy their home culture. But guess what?
1.) Home no longer feels like home.
This is probably the most important issue you should recognize when your missionary comes home on furlough. He may feel a bit like an outsider. If your missionary has been serving overseas for many years their home country may no longer feel like home—at least, not for a while. It means that coming home may present a new series of stresses upon the missionary that you might not expect. Can you imagine what its like to go home but never feel like you’re home? Not all, but many missionaries experience this and it can bring a level of discomfort when spending time with old friends, or new friends, or when speaking to groups within your church. The career missionary often feels a sense of not belonging. In fact, while the missionary may often feel this way, his children feel it in an even deeper way. Third culture kids grow up on foreign soil. They grow up with the sense that their home country isn’t necessarily their own, and neither is their host country.
One time a friend complained to me that one of my daughters talked about Mongolia a little too much for her peer’s comfort. My response? Of course she did. She grew up in Mongolia. Most of her memories are from there. Once she moved to the States she was trying to adjust to, what was for her, a new culture, by relating it to the culture she grew up in. It’s hard, and it stayed hard for a long time. Eventually things changed and she successfully adapted. But to this day she still feels that Mongolia is her true home.
2.) Sympathize with your missionary, but admit you may not understand him.
It’s not possible for a missionary to spend an extended time overseas, say, more than 10 or 15 years, and not be changed by the experience. He has spent so much time relating to people outside his home culture that his own thoughts and practices may have undergone some transformation. Again, this may not be true of everyone, but it will certainly be true of some. That’s when your missionary needs a listening ear, and for you to sympathize, but your missionary isn’t expecting you to understand his experiences in the way he does. So, sympathize and try your best to understand, but if you don’t fully understand him, that’s okay. He’s not expecting you to fully understand anyway. But a listening ear goes a long way. Remember, he’s not the same person you sent out; but God is working in him and through him in ways you might not grasp without experiencing the same things yourself.
3.) Contrary to popular belief, a missionary’s furlough time is often stressful rather than restful.
Think about what your missionary has to do when he returns for a home assignment: speak in churches and Bible studies, try to meet new people to enable him to raise additional support, set aside time for family and friends not seen for a long time, process his foreign experiences and decompress, adjust to life in America, buy a car, find a place to live, travel to other states for speaking and partner development. It’s true that furlough is not supposed to be a vacation, but your missionary needs processing time, time to decompress and learn from his experiences so that when he returns he’s better equipped and rejuvenated.
In 2008 I had to take a medical leave from Mongolia. I was gone for 8 months. But I was fortunate. My home church not only provided a place to stay and even a car we could use, but they didn’t put a lot of demands on my time. They gave me space and time for me to get my head on straight. Had that not happened I would not have been prepared for the nightmare that awaited me upon my return to ministry for the next 18 months. Not all missionaries have home churches or home assignments that are that freeing or understanding. Ask yourself, ask your missionary, what does your missionary need to help him make his furlough all it should be?
4.) Your missionaries are career professionals, just like you are.
I’m sure if you ask your missionary what ministering in their host country is like, or ask them about cultural practices and difficulties that you’ll be able to identify with them because you’ve experienced many of the same things in America. Actually, scratch that. Chances are, the experiences you and your staff have are not like your missionary’s experiences. I remember sharing with a friend about the Mongolian penchant for lying. It’s almost an art form. I remember being told, “Well, Americans lie too.” Yes, Americans do lie. But deception and personal manipulation are not as tightly wound into American culture as it can be with many Mongolians. There are many historical and cultural reasons why this is so. Having lived most of my life in America and after spending 10 years in Mongolia I can tell you the two are not the same. And how you deal with culturally ingrained deception cross-culturally is not the same either.
One missionary put it to me this way, “Please don’t make comparisons of working cross-culturally being the same in the U.S. as it is in [our host country]. A missions trip to New Orleans or New York City is not cross cultural missions. When apples to apples comparisons are made it feels demeaning to those of us who have lived in another culture.”
Remember that your missionary is in one sense a full-time student of another culture. He not only studies and evaluates it, he interacts with it both personally and professionally. He knows what he’s doing. His training, experience, and working with other missionaries and Christians in his host culture make him a professional at what he does. So, make your missionary feel respected for his work. As a pastor, how many times have you had a congregant try and “correct” your sermon or theology? You know how that makes you feel. So too, occasionally there are some who try and advise the missionary on what he does. The missionary politely listens, smiles, nods affirmingly, then walks away feeling like he’s been dressed down by someone who doesn’t really understand what they’re talking about. But he’s a professional. Sure, he makes mistakes. But just like you, he knows what he’s doing.
5.) Sending a short-term team to your missionary’s field can be helpful, but it can also be demanding and even distracting.
Here’s one missionaries don’t like to talk about openly. The missionary’s challenge is to not only serve the host culture he is in, but also to serve his home church when that church wants to send a short-term team to help. Short-term teams can be a true help and open up new doors of opportunity for the missionary to minister after the team has gone. But sometimes some team members need to be babied or hand-held; and that can be a problem. Members of the short-term team won’t understand the culture they are trying to reach. When they share their faith and talk about Jesus it’s easy for them to make cultural mistakes or think they’re reaching someone but fail to recognize that the people they are talking to think differently than they do. Allow me to again use Mongolia as an example.
When a short-term person shares Christ with a countryside Mongolian he does what most westerners do—he starts with Jesus. The problem is that many countryside Mongols interpret what you say about Jesus through their pre-existing worldview of Buddhism or Shamanism. That means they think of Jesus as another Buddha, or as a spirit to be appeased. Once he gets that in his head it’s hard to get him to think of Jesus biblically because he has no understanding of Jesus from a biblical framework. He can only relate Jesus to what he already knows. Sadly, the short-term person doesn’t always have the tools to recognize this difficulty and on they go talking about Jesus from their view without understanding that the hearer is thinking of something completely different, and even foreign to the Gospel.
Your missionary, on the other hand, knows that he can’t always start with Jesus, that he has to start with something else, like Genesis, and carefully unpack the Bible’s story over time to give his Mongolian friend a proper context to understand and interpret who Jesus really is. Most of the time a short-termer can’t do that. He doesn’t have the training, experience, or cultural awareness like the missionary does, who spends years trying to reach his host culture.
This doesn’t mean you should not send short-term teams. But it does mean that your missionary on the field will need to, for a lack of a better term, hand-hold his visitors through the process, which can be a challenge. Sometimes he will feel like he needs to do clean-up after such an encounter. This can make the missionary’s task more difficult. Don’t get me wrong, short-term teams can accomplish a lot for the Gospel, but follow your missionary’s lead when you’re determining who to send, and what kind of projects your team will do when they get to their host country. You want your teams to not only have a positive and vision-inducing experience, but you want them to add effectiveness to your missionary’s projects and outreach.
There you go. Five things your missionary wants you to know. There are many other things he wants you to know as well. But these are five big ones. As you think through your church’s missions strategy, call upon your missionary to advise and consult. You will find that he not only knows how to reach his target country, he may also be able to help you understand certain things that can make your church’s mission vision more realistic and effective for Christ.