Quandaries Our Missionaries Face

by Allan G. Hedberg and Dean Johnson

A ministry may be placed at risk because of a
missionary’s self-defeating behavior and attitudes.
Seven quandaries individuals face and how to help.


Photo courtesy SIM


The decision to become a missionary comes about in various ways and at various stages in life. Eve’s 

career decision to become a missionary in Central America, where she had family roots, was made early in life. She never wavered. Like many young adults, she had the opportunity for a different career track. Yet she stuck with her decision, even during times of confusion, self-doubt, circumstantial uncertainty, and several traumatic life-changing experiences.

Once Eve’s career missionary decision was confirmed by her church and her education was completed, she moved to her field assignment in Central America. The team of missionaries with whom she served was supportive and encouraging. She had been worried about this element as she had heard many stories of conflict and bitterness between missionaries serving on the same team together. She was cautioned about the self-defeating and overwhelming effects of such conflict. Being a single woman and living in a foreign country was stressful enough. She did not need any more conflict in her life as she was not comfortable with or skilled in conflict resolution. Her family relationships did not generally include conflict, so she did not have to deal with discord in her younger years and primary relationships.

Eve served well for twenty years as a career missionary in Central America under her denominational mission board. She always enjoyed the support and guidance from her mission board supervisor and her field teammates. Her ministry with children and mothers was effective. The local church grew and had an outreach in the local area under her leadership.

Suddenly, everything changed. Eve’s ministry was halted. Defeat was her prevailing feeling and experience. She could not believe it. She was in the middle of conflict, one of her greatest fears—and the very thing she had been warned about long ago. What happened? 

Without advance notice, her denominational mission board decided to downsize without consulting the field missionaries. This set off a chain of events of unexpected changes. Eve was assigned a new supervisor who was authoritarian, lived some three thousand miles from her, and was involved in a very different type of ministry. They had never even met before the imposed change. 

In his authoritarian method of leadership, he redefined her ministry and priorities. He told her to turn over the ministry to the local church, even though they were unprepared to suddenly assume this responsibility. He cut her ministry funds, reassigned several other missionaries from her team, and left her, a single woman, to serve without other supportive women and families. 

Overwhelming fear set in. She felt abandoned and unappreciated. Her history of compassion and care for her as a missionary was gone. Her ministry was decimated. The local Christians felt betrayed and many left the little fledging church she helped start.

Within months, Eve began to experience chronic illness and the wave of depression set in.  Unfortunately, no one was immediately available to help and support her during this time of crisis. She requested time off to come home and reassess her future and ministry. Within eight months after coming home, Eve was diagnosed with cancer and required immediate surgery. She felt it was likely that the onset of her cancer was stress-related. Psychological counseling was provided, along with needed medical care. Putting Eve back together again was no easy task. Thankfully, the treating doctors and the U.S. mission board worked together to bring about restoration. The mission board no doubt felt badly for the way Eve was treated before coming home.

Recovery was gradual, but positive. A new ministry focus was designed. With mixed emotions, she went back, but only after a new supervisor was assigned to her and the mission board accepted her new plan for ministry. This process took eighteen months—eighteen months of non-productive ministry that could have been avoided with better advance planning and communication. Her prior ministry was depleted, and she had to face the situation of going back and starting all over again.

Unfortunately, the situational circumstances of Eve are not uncommon. Mission boards often lack the training in people-sensitive decision-making and the skills to make constructive changes and modify a well-developed pattern of ministry. The way it was done with Eve was most defeating and disruptive. A ministry and a life could have been refocused and strengthened rather than defeated and decimated. 

A Survey of Missionaries’ Quandaries
A survey on the quandaries of missionaries was undertaken in 2003 and 2004. The survey included a number of missionaries, a pastor who provided missionaries pastoral care on the field, and a member of a church mission committee. Each was asked to share the hurts, feelings of frustration, fears, and discouragements which missionaries had shared with them.

Listed below are seven of the most common quandaries missionaries experienced. All were significant hindrances to their ministry, and adversely affected the relationships with other missionaries, the national population, their sending churches, and their mission boards. Also noted are the various actions undertaken to intervene and help resolve the identified problem and thus restore the missionaries to full and effective ministry. 

What have I done; what have I gotten into? Aimee was a bewildered and perplexed missionary in Eastern Europe. Bewilderment set in during her second year of ministry. Her pre-missionary training did not include the formation of a clear ministry strategy. She was told it would unfold as she got into her assignment and that God would lead her and her ministry team.   

Once on the field, the ministry focus assigned to her seemed huge and impossible. She was in need of perspective and direction. She developed sleeping problems and only ate one meal a day. She fought the urge to isolate and sleep all day. Aimee cried out for someone to come beside her with compassion and reassurance. She needed help in putting her ministry and her life’s circumstances in perspective. She knew her purpose for being a missionary, but did not know how to create a strategy to accomplish her ultimate objectives. Anger began to set in over her mission agency’s lack of guidance. She felt totally discouraged and on the brink of defeat, quitting, and going home.  

Fortunately, collegial support and compassionate care became available to Aimee from an older and mature missionary serving under a different missionary agency in the same area. While hesitant at first, she agreed to the offer of mentoring. This colleague met with Aimee twice weekly for six months. With months of reassurance, guidance, and a renewed focus, a specifically-defined task and strategy was developed and agreed upon. 

Aimee began to carry out the new approach with caution, as well as with hope. Albeit tough and often discouraging at times, she gradually experienced accomplishment. The joy of success and ministry achievement provided additional motivation for Aimee to move forward in her newly-framed ministry. In time, God blessed her ministry with new believers coming to faith. The local church grew in size and outreach over the next three years.

I really don’t belong here; why did I come? Jon felt lonely and abandoned even though he was serving in India with a relatively large team of missionaries reaching a major city population. Fear of closeness reared its ugly head when he arrived in India for his first missionary term. Although he was a member of a team of missionaries from his denomination, he could not trust when his team members wanted to accept and include him. Fortunately, the team had a history of working closely together. They persistently sought to make Jon feel welcome. But after five years he still could not handle the dreadful feelings of loneliness. 

Unknown to his team, Jon had a long history of loneliness as a child and into his teen years. He recalled having feelings of abandonment and neglect. His parents divorced when he was six and they lived for their own desires and survival. Very little attention was paid to him during his earlier years. They gave him only the necessary ingredients of family life, going from home to home on alternating weeks. He was reared with the unmet need for affirmation, encouragement, closeness, and belonging, especially from his father and his father’s extended family. Throughout his adult years it was difficult for Jon to accept offered friendship and closeness from others. He remained single. 

One day, Jon’s teammates called a meeting to discuss how to help him. Jon broke down and shared his story of being abandoned as a child and his chronic fear of being abandoned again by them. Jon required a high level of assurance from his colleagues. He needed to know that they wanted him and that he was vital to the overall success of the team’s ministry. 

It was agreed that Jon should always work with a partner or team member. The team held regular meetings to reassure Jon. These meetings were also a way to determine if the plan was working and if Jon was starting to feel more confident. A year later, Jon felt accepted as a true team member, which caused his ministry to flourish.

I am tired and stressed out. Ted and Linnea were overwhelmed and fatigued missionaries after serving four terms in the back country of Papua New Guinea. Life was hard and highly stressful due to the constant threat of violent attacks and death. They both felt their life unravel before them as they daily served their identified people group. Little support was available from other missionaries due to Ted and Linnea’s remoteness in the back country. They knew they needed rest, stress management, and periodic respite. 

As Ted and Linnea became more desperate for relief, they took a week of vacation in the nearest large city. They were able to access a computer café and sent out an email message to their family, U.S. supporters, and other missionaries. To their surprise, they received encouraging and timely responses from several people over the next few days. Among other means of encouragement, they received helpful stress management strategies. These included systematic relaxation techniques, confident and assertive prayer, assertive interpersonal communication skills, seeking out social support, keeping a daily journal of significant low-stress experiences and events, writing letters to friends, sleeping eight hours nightly, and engaging in a personal exercise program.  

Ted and Linnea began to implement many of the suggestions. They also began taking periodic breaks from the intense pressure of the daily grind of ministry. They asked their friends and supporters to intercede for them in prayer. They committed to go to the nearby large city more frequently and engage in email communications with those who were supportive. They also committed themselves to build up their emotional and physical reserves with exercise and sleep so they could handle challenging ministry situations. In time, Ted and Linnea were refreshed and busy in ministry, but with periodic time off and time for themselves. They finally came to understand that they were of no benefit to anyone if they allowed themselves to burn out.

I am afraid and often feel panicky. Terra felt chronically frightened and anxious. These feelings heightened as she arrived in Central Africa to undertake her ministry assignment. The first week of her missionary service did not allay her feelings of fright. She always knew that serving as a missionary would require strong support and guidance. She knew that she needed to make an intentional decision to trust the Lord and those serving with her in the Christian school in Rwanda. Terra vividly recalled her long history of living in fear of the unknown, having a multitude of phobias as a child, and periodically experiencing panic attacks as an adult. She was afraid of the dark, the unknown, crowds of people, and all kinds of crawling creatures. Africa seemed like no place for this fearful missionary. Yet, she felt called to serve in Rwanda.   

One day, while experiencing a panic attack, she called a nurse assigned to her mission agency. The nurse began to talk her through the panic episode using the acronym, FEAR. The nurse instructed her to do the following:

• FACE her fear object, person, or situation, and deal with it forthrightly  

• EXPECT things to change—although this may take a while and require persistent strategic planning 

• Speak ASSERTIVELY, letting others know her wishes, desires, thoughts, feelings, and hurts

• RELAX all her bodily muscles systematically and regularly 

Terra was encouraged to devote ten minutes daily to experience total physical relaxation by    using a simple series of sequential steps. Fear, Terra came to realize, is facing the future with a lack of confidence. In due time, her fears and feelings of panic were conquered and she came to realize that there is no need to let fear conquer her and/or her ministry. 

I feel so hurt and can’t get over it. For ten years, Twila had been a deeply-committed missionary to the Indonesian people. During the latter part of her second term, she experienced a deep wound and hurt from a new missionary couple who had come to serve with her from her mission board. She was unable to let the hurt go and felt much bitterness toward them. 

The hurt triggered an old memory from her childhood years and the associated visceral feeling. She was surprised that the recall of her abuse from a school teacher could be as clear and acute as it was when it happened. Since her childhood years she has had trouble trusting adults in authority. Building close relationships with adults was difficult as well.

Twila found it difficult to work with the new couple. She even found herself turning against them. Tensions increased and her passion for the ministry weakened. She became passive-aggressive in her reaction patterns toward the couple. She also found it difficult to talk about the incident with them or anyone, as she as did not want to relive the original incident. Confronting a past painful experience causes the memory of prior hurts to be relived. Old pain can be felt as deeply as when it was originally experienced.

Emotional “first aid” was offered by two senior missionaries on the field. They created a loving and safe environment in which Twila could begin the healing process. One missionary assumed the role of the “listening ear.” This allowed Twila to begin to talk of her hurt from past and current trauma with needed support and affirmation. Listening to Twila’s side of the story, accepting her for who she was, helping her understand the current event from another’s viewpoint, and loving her unconditionally paid dividends and set the healing process in place.  Twila was soon able to resume her work and positively minister with the other couple.

I feel very alone and distant from God. Jack felt burned out and disconnected with his missionary colleagues and those to whom he was called to minister. As he felt disconnected with the people, he felt likewise disconnected with God. To Jack, he was burned out with people and with God. He often said to himself, “God had left him to rot and die in this God-forsaken country.” 

He often cried himself to sleep. He would sit and stare into space. He became agitated with his colleagues and saw no progress in his ministry or the ministry of others. He became critical and sullen. Needed affirmations from all sources in his life were not forthcoming, but others would tell him he was burned out. Some would tell him he was depressed and had a feeling of futility in the face of the enormous task he was trying to undertake. Unfortunately, Jack received no positive suggestions.

On one desperate morning after no sleep, Jack called his family, who put him in touch with a professional counselor. Jack was quickly reassured that we usually do not burnout with God, but rather, we burnout in our ministry assignment when we feel a sense of defeat from a lack of progress. Jack admitted to a history of depression, although he and the family had called it fatigue and extreme tiredness. The counselor told Jack that it was his depression that needed to be addressed. A weekly series of international phone counseling sessions were scheduled.

In these calls, Jack discussed his sense of futility and his unrealistic expectations were modified. The source of his chronic depression was addressed in one lengthy phone call. Jack was led in an exercise on how to seek out and establish ongoing support from fellow missionaries. He was also taught to give support to others and thereby gain personal support himself. 

Jack was urged to reduce the number of tasks so that success could be more readily realized and engage in rewarding himself and praising himself for accomplishments, even small ones. Finally, Jack was urged to exercise daily, sleep seven to eight hours a night, and daily do something he enjoyed. He was also guided in seeing how he had been blessed through his endeavors and how to give God the glory. Ten phone calls were conducted over three months to turn his depression around. The suggestions and his follow-through helped Jack become a productive missionary again.

I don’t feel well and miss my family and friends. Sally became homesick and lonely within weeks of arriving on the mission field in El Salvador. She had been reared by missionary parents who doted on her from childhood. Thus, she was made to feel special by both parents and grandparents. When this special attention was no longer the case as an adult and from those she served with in ministry, she soon became homesick. She missed the special attention, enablement, and overprotection to which she had become accustomed.   

When Sally’s team leader learned of her situation, he took action. The elements of reality therapy were employed. The leader called the entire team of missionaries together within a few days. It was important to help Sally face the fact that she was as important as anyone else on the team. Sally was helped to recognize and accept her importance to the other individuals and to the ministry team collectively. While it was important to provide some extra attention, it was also important to monitor her closely for any form of self-defeating or self-destructive behavior. 

All of the missionaries referred to the “ministry team” as family. The team soon began to engage in a series of team-building and bonding activities. They hiked and biked together and regular game nights were arranged. Sally was assigned to a major ministry project in which she had to work together with five others missionaries over three weeks. It was not long before Sally began to feel at home and was among friends and colleagues. 

Without a doubt, missionaries experience the same quandaries as anyone else. Many missionaries go into ministry with unresolved problems and issues. Unfortunately, a ministry may be placed at risk and may destruct because of a missionary’s self-defeating behavior and attitudes, especially when the missionary feels guilty for having a particular quandary.

Constructively facing a missionary’s problem requires the concerted efforts of many. Generally, this involves the mission board, sending church, missionary’s family, friends, and supporters, as well as the team of missionaries with whom he or she is serving. The impaired missionary is simply unable to resolve the problem alone. Professional intervention may be needed.      

Our goal must be to quickly restore a missionary to effective service and ministry. For professional help and restoration, consider a referral to Link Care Center (www.linkcare.org).

Self-Improvement Exercises

Missionaries need to learn a host of exercises before going to the mission field. These skills can help them deal with conflict, personality types, changes, and deep and persistent feelings of hurt and stress. Below are skills that every missionary needs to learn and acquire:

1.  Assertive communication—learn to express desires and preferences; set limits

2. Muscular relaxation—learn to let go of muscle tension; breathe deeply and slowly

3. Stress control—learn to balance tasks, people, expectations, goals, and demands

4. Trauma management—learn to talk about it, forgive, recover, and find its meaning

5. Social support—learn to find and make friends; be a friend to others and keep engaged 

6. Problem solving—learn to face problems; seek a strategy for solutions to the problems

7. Journal events and experiences—learn to record daily emotions, thoughts, and events

8. Graduated exercises of accomplishment—learn to succeed in tasks of scaled difficulty 

9. Walk and exercise—walk and jog to build stamina while focusing on  good thoughts

10. Sleep managementsleep six to eight hours a night; nap one  hour daily 

11. Personal problem solving—learn to solve problems in the following sequence of steps:

• Select a problem to solve

• Write a contract for desired change

• Ask a “buddy” to meet with you, support you, and hold you accountable for the next three months. Organize the weekly meeting, as follows:

*  Plan a weekly goal and objective

*  Decide weekly on what and what not to do to reach the selected goal

*  Select and practice daily the relevant self-improvement skills noted above

*  Chart daily on a graph your progress and change of behavior

*  Connect with a trusted pastor, therapist, or friend for guidance and affirmation 


Allan G. Hedberg, PhD, has been a Fresno (California) psychologist since 1974. His doctorate was earned at Queen’s University in Ontario. He has a general practice of counseling, has authored nearly two hundred articles and books, and speaks frequently. Allan is also an active member of The Bridge Evangelical Free Church and its mission committee. 

Following thirty-four years in local pastorates in the U.S. and Canada, Dean Johnson and his wife ministered for thirteen years as a pastoral couple to missionaries with the American and Canadian Evangelical Free Church Mission. Dean concluded his vocational ministry as director of missionary care with the Canadian Evangelical Free Church Mission.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 186-194. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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