by Ken Holderman, Jr
Before you bum out, consider these helpful ways to lighten your load.
Clint Eastwood is not the ideal missionary model, but his great popularity in North America does give us a reading on the pervasiveness of individualism in our society. He is the perfect lone hero against all odds. The problem is that many missionaries, sometimes against their will, are cast in his role. Unfortunately, few of us have a screenwriter as good as his, and too often our new missionary recruits get killed off (figuratively speaking) within the first couple of scenes.
Missionaries find themselves alone on the field for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are the pioneers, the groundbreakers. Even in organizations where standard policy discourages lone representation, it can and does happen that the first missionary, or missionary family, will enter the new field alone, with additional personnel sent six months or a year later. Or, they may be the last mission representative on a field where all else has been turned over to the national church. The time may be brief, holding on while other families take home leave, or the struggle may continue for years as the home office hunts for the right person to join a difficult or demanding field. Whatever the case, the missionary who finds himself or herself alone on the field can easily acquire the "Elijah syndrome." "Oh, Lord, all have turned away, and only I remain faithful,"
Many missions agencies have difficulty filling many opportunities. The long-range plan may call for four families on a given field, but only one family is available. Visa problems, illness, and other unexpected changes can suddenly leave only one family still working in a field that once boasted of a large team. Missionaries usually become Clint Eastwoods through no fault of their own.
In our own case, we were recruited for long-term service in Venezuela to take the place of a lone interim missionary family. They were covering the field for the original pioneers who had left unexpectedly for health reasons. Three days after we arrived that interim family started a two-week vacation; we were forced to begin one of many periods of aloneness on the field. Eventually, a second family arrived, but they were at language school an hour and a half away, and for all practical purposes we were still alone.
"Alone on the field" might be a misleading term. Caracas, Venezuela, is not the Mongolian desert and we were not the only evangelical missionaries in the country or in the city. But in spite of the number of missionaries in the city, and even though we met some of them from time to time, there is an aloneness in the work that is not truly shared or dissipated until you work together in the same structure and with the same specific goals.
More independent churches in the States are sending out their own missionaries. They are more likely to send out a single family, usually because of the initiative of the family itself, rather than send out a team of workers that can support each other.
The single missionary family seldom has the emotional support or the prayer coverage from home that a team has. Each additional family brings added interest and added support to a field and its workers. My family and friends hear about and become concerned over anything that occurs in Venezuela because I have made it real for them. When we added a second family to the team, their family and friends and church connections doubled our contacts and support (apart from financial considerations) from home. More people now care about what happens here.
Bikers, cross-country skiers, and Canadian geese all benefit from a practice that is not available to the lone missionary. They trade off, taking turns blocking the wind, cutting the path. The one in the lead always has the toughest job, so by trading off, all face the wind, but all get the break. No one faces it alone. The missionary family without a team to support it on the field is always breaking new paths. There is no one else with whom to trade, no one else to share the load. This extra stress places the lone missionary high on the list of those most likely to leave the mission field prematurely.
To be fair, though, there are some benefits to being the only one in a particular area. The single missionary or solitary mission family, does not have the luxury of leaning on a mission team for strength and support. They are forced, to the benefit of all, to bond with the local people. The need for intimacy and the desire to have close friends cause real Christian witness, not a canned sales pitch to strangers. Becoming one with the people is much more difficult to achieve when missionary teams become larger and team relationships become more important.
The lone missionary who is able to make wise decisions and live a positive testimony can do a great service to the growth of the kingdom. He or she does not need to worry about missionary team relations. His or her budget is not divided among competing mission projects. With the increased responsibility comes increased freedom.
We are now in our eighth year in Venezuela, with nearly half our time spent as the only family from our mission on this field. From our experience I would like to suggest several specific things that the lone missionary and his family can do to make their circumstances more bearable and to cut down on the burnout or drop-out rate.
1. Let God be God. God does not require of one person the work of five. We may see much that needs to be done, but that does not mean that God expects us to fill every need. He alone can fill every need. Neither does he need us to do his planning for him. Our primary responsibility as missionaries is to follow his steps and listen to his voice. If he calls us to do 10 things, then we had better be doing 10 things, but not 12 or 15. In Scripture, God reminds us that only obedience to him counts for anything. Not even our missionary sacrifices are worth a whit if they are taken on outside of obedience to God. We dare not run ahead of God or try to add to his work as though we were equals sharing the load.
2. Rest. Common sense tells us that from time to time we need to rest. Unfortunately, many missionaries are highly task-oriented and their work ethic tries to smother out the messages that our common sense sends to us. We have such good excuses. "They need me at that meeting." "The Bible commands us to visit the sick." And perhaps the worst of all, "If I don’t do it, it won’t get done."
We need rest. Our bodies refuse to function well without it. We are made in the image of God, who set the pattern for one day of rest in seven. Those of us who are pastors dare not con ourselves by claiming Sunday as our "day of rest." If your experience is anything like mine, Sunday is probably one of the least restful days of your week.
When you are the only one on the field, your rest is doubly important. One frantic year of constant work followed by burn-out or brown-out is much less valuable to God than five or 10 more years of work mixed with appropriate rest and renewal. Perhaps the needs are great, but no amount of self-destruction will benefit the long range work of the kingdom. You may miss a meeting occasionally. You may have to say No to certain demands.
3. Remember the folks back home. Anyone who has been overseas for more than a year has realized that it is virtually impossible to maintain emotional health on the field solely on the support that comes from home. Psychologists tell us that every normal person needs around 15 to 20 friends or in order to maintain health. When that number drops then even normal emotional health becomes neurotic. Whether foreign or national, we all need others for our mental and emotional well-being.
Our spiritual health, however, is not so directly tied to physical proximity. Although it may be harder to be a Christian alone, that can be counterbalanced by prayer and this is where the folks back home come into the picture. We are all creatures of stimulus. Seeing a commercial on television doesn’t always make us buy the product, but watching the same commercial 20 times in a week makes us much more likely to remember that brand name when we get to the store. The same thing happens with prayer support. Most mission agencies send out prayer requests, and some faithful prayer warriors remember even the least known missionary off in a far corner of the world. By and large, however, the baby who cries gets fed. If we want the home folks to remember us more than occasionally in prayer, we need to remember them more than occasionally with our letters.
If your mission provides a prayer letter service, you are blessed, and you had better use it to its fullest. If not, there are still many ways to stay in touch without spending weeks writing letters to all your friends and supporters. After several tries with writing and rewriting the same news to a number of different people, we finally decided on a compromise between the form letter and the personal note. General news goes in a form letter; the difference comes in the personal, handwritten note at the bottom. It can be only a sentence or a paragraph, but the readers can tell that you thought specifically of them when you added that note. This has saved us a lot of time, and increased the mail we get from home. Reminding your friends at home that you are still alive will help them remember to pray that you stay that way.
4. Nonwork related friends. As strange as it may sound, we missionaries need nonwork related friends. Back home we probably had friends at work, friends at church, and friends in the neighborhood. The typical missionary job description tends to throw everyone into the same basket and call all of it "work." The friends at church are your parishioners. The neighbors are all potential converts. Soon all of life becomes "work." I have found it helpful to cultivate a nonwork, nonchurch friendship with a family in the building where we live. They have shown a strong disinterest in being evangelized, but somehow continue to be interested in us. Our relationship forces me out of my "pastor/missionary" role, and we have a great time talking Venezuelan politics, or computer software, or Spanish literature. It not only gives me a much needed break from the pressures of my job, but it also provides a continual reminder of what life is like outside the church walls, in the world where people need to hear the Good News in a way they can understand.
5. Short-term help. In recent years mission organizations have begun to offer short-term service opportunities to young people to whet their interest for longer term service. These summer programs provide a cross-cultural experience for high school and college students. You may think that the last thing an overworked, solitary mission family needs is a gang of teenagers to babysit. Fortunately, many missions have realized that as well, and now many groups are given an orientation to international service which may even include a brief period of language study. We have worked with four such groups, and in spite of the additional preparation before and during their visit, they have been invaluable for recharging our motivational batteries.
Short-termers generally come with a high degree of interest in the local work. They are generous with "warm fuzzies," compliments on your language skills, your understanding of the host culture, and appreciation for your help with their team. They listen and care about your work and the things you are struggling with. It’s hard to remember how far you’ve come until you see it again through the eyes of a newcomer. The short-term team does fabulous public relations. They go home telling everyone about the mission work, the difficulties, and the needs on your field.
6. Communicate with your home organization. Most of all, if you find yourself alone on the field, be sure to keep good communication lines open with your home office. They may be just as overworked as you, but they would not be in this business if they didn’t care about what was happening to you. We were allowed a rather expensive trip to another region for a retreat once because the home office cared about providing the missing interaction and fellowship that we did not get on the field.
The lone missionary or missionary family is not extinct, but perhaps has been too long in hiding. Being alone can be a challenge instead of merely a cross to bear. Being alone can be a blessing, if the Lord has put you there. But being alone does not have to be permanent. My prayer is that soon there will no longer be anyplace in the world where the Christian missionary cannot find brothers and sisters and fellow co-workers to lighten the load, and share the burden for the lost.
Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.