by Nanette Swick
Ten principles that may be of help to others facing missionary challenges in Spain.
Spain is notorious for a high attrition rate among missionaries. At the 1998 annual conference of the Association of Foreign Missions, one session focused on the topic of survival. Six missionaries between the ages of 49 and 65 summarized their experiences and the factors that enabled them to survive years of living, ministering, and raising families in Spain. They shared 10 principles that may be of help to others facing similar challenges.
1. We must have knowledge of God’s love and his care and control over every detail of life. This knowledge will be put to the test as never before. Cross-cultural adaptation is a baptism by fire, especially in nonreceptive environments. Language learning is humbling, reducing your ability to communicate to that of a pre-toddler. In fact, your own toddler will reach what has been called among missionaries “the golden shores of fluency” in a fraction of the time it takes you—with a flawless accent and the maddening habit of correcting you and laughing at your accent. Total vulnerability to harsh criticism and painful personal attacks from other missionaries and nationals looms larger than you ever thought possible. Just when you, your supporting churches, and sending agency believe you are prepared—you’ve been tested and interviewed until they know more about you than your mother does—culture shock pushes personal problems and inadequacies to the surface—ones that you were never aware of before (and neither was your spouse). In the midst of all this—with new foods, a different water supply, and changing schedules— health problems also begin to surface with alarming frequency and startling variety among your family members. If you believed in the love and sovereignty of God before, now you must cast yourself upon it as upon a life raft in desperate dependency.
2. We must walk by faith and not by sight. This becomes much more than another verse to quote. It is a lifeline to cling to during the darkest days when the temptation to give up can be overwhelming.
3. We must have a definite call to cross-cultural service. A commitment to cross-cultural service is a determination to dig in your heels no matter how tough it gets, based on the conviction that you are in the exact place God wants you, ministerially as well as geographically.
Jerry and his family were in Spain for 12 years, pastored a church in the States for four and a half years, and have been back in Spain for more than 10 years. For most of us who have persevered in Spain, adjusting to life in America and then readjusting to Spanish culture and language is a daunting prospect. Without the security of God’s leading, it would have been impossible for Jerry, too.
4. We must know that establishing a family in another culture is an enormous expense and effort, not a test drive around the block. If God chooses to lead a missionary family in another direction or to a different ministry, he will make that change clear. Until he does . . .
5. We must have the conviction to persevere in adversity. Churches and mission agencies are continually searching for ways to more adequately prepare candidates for service in order to avoid high attrition rates. Of course, no preparation will be completely sufficient for what a missionary faces, usually and especially during the first term of service. But it is curious that biblically grounded Christians are often surprised by the intensity of missionary trials. See 1 Peter 4:12-13 and 2:20-21.
6. We must expect our partaking in Christ’s suffering to be normal. The American church could help by not holding us up as heroes who don’t deserve to suffer, super-spiritual humans for whom God must relieve all pain and problems so we can work unhindered. The missionary who survives learns precisely the opposite. Only through adversity can we become the servants God wants us to be. How can we develop the mind of Christ without partaking in his sufferings?
7. We must stand on a foundation of prayer support to survive and serve. The absence of this means certain defeat. Les and Sharon have raised four children in their 25 years in Spain. They have experienced health problems, depression, painful and frustrating ministry experiences, and difficult decisions regarding their children’s well-being. It is indeed a blessed assurance to know that we can communicate our need to certain pivotal pray-ers, and, within hours, hundreds of our brothers and sisters will be holding us up before God’s throne. This is an inexpressibly valuable encouragement in times of urgent necessity, as well as in our day-to-day plodding.
8. We must establish clear, basic goals. We may discover that our gifts and abilities lie in other areas than we previously thought. We need to use what God has given us to the best of our ability. Otherwise, in the name of servanthood, we can scurry about doing what everyone else thinks we should, only to look back years later and wonder how we could have frittered away vast amounts of time, energy, and money doing things someone else could have done. Or we will not even survive that long due to an intolerably low level of satisfaction with our ministry and an increasingly high level of restlessness.
9. We must develop relational
bonds. Forming bonds of collaboration with churches and local Christian workers is not as easy as it sounds. Cultural differences must be worked through. As foreign missionaries in Spain, our presence and motives are questioned continually. We must work to earn and maintain respect and credibility with Spanish churches, organizations, and individuals.
John and Linda originally came to Spain intending to work in Barcelona. The Spanish Christians, however, urged them to go to the Basque region where the spiritual need was even greater. While under no formal obligation to submit themselves to this directive, they decided it would be best to respect the opinion of the church and move to the Basque country. They have now been in Spain for 28 years, ministering in camp administration and church planting in a difficult region and language.
Developing friendships with locals and other missionaries is also vital. We must consciously resist the tendency to isolate ourselves. Isolation will stunt your language and cultural growth, alienate your family, and promote an “us versus them” mentality. Without close friends among your coworkers, local and expatriate, you begin to think of everyone around you as a ministry objective, an obligation, a job to be attended to.
Susan attests to the indispensability of her co-workers’ support. She and her husband had just gone through a time of personal and ministerial upheaval, changing mission agencies and relocating to a different city in Spain with their three children. Her husband’s diagnosis of cancer was a blow that she says she survived because their new agency and team on the field surrounded them with loving support. She was widowed shortly thereafter yet is still actively serving in Spain 11 years later.
10. We must have a strong, personal walk with God. Prayer, dependence on God’s Word, openness to the Holy Spirit’s teaching and guidance, and worship were vital for each missionary on the panel. In missions, as in all walks of Christian life, the basics are what see us through and make us grow. There are no golden keys, no brilliant new methodologies—just bedrock trust in God’s love and clean, close relationships with him and his people.
Nanette Swick and her husband Dennis serve with United World Mission. They have served the Mostoles Church in Madrid since 1992.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 32-37. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.