by B. Van Ochs
“Expectations, expectations, expectations,” we tell our short-, medium- and long-term missionary candidates. Realistic expectations facilitate smoother transitions and generally make for happier missionary life.
"Expectations, expectations, expectations," we tell our short-, medium- and long-term missionary candidates. Realistic expectations facilitate smoother transitions and generally make for happier missionary life. If missionaries can anticipate complex cross-cultural scenarios, they can more easily respond rather than react to the challenges they face. This may increase their field longevity.
In my last musing (EMQ, October 2001, “Ten Challenges That May Make Going Home Look Attractive”), I considered some of the unique, frustrating and often-overlooked-in-pre-field-orientation challenges that cause people to think about getting on the next plane. But those were difficulties faced on the field.
What about on the home front? Do discouraging and demoralizing comments or realities make missionaries feel like not returning to the field? Ask anyone who’s been told that his (loaned) car was “too nice for a missionary,” and see what he says. For reasons perhaps dating back to the mendicant Franciscans, a multitude of antiquated stereotypes and expectations linger, ready to nag the unsuspecting. We do candidates a favor when we educate congregations to throw away used tea bags and instead airship fresh coffee beans from www.starbucks.com. We do candidates a bigger service when we help them develop realistic expectations and prepare them with constructive responses to potential stereotyped realities.
Fortunately, many churches are savvy enough to dismiss stereotypes, but it only takes a few stray comments to deflate a missionary. Just ask my wife, who was once told, “missionaries don’t need nice towels.” She only thinks about that from time to time, like when she does laundry. Thus, we present ten “home-front” hazards that can make staying home look attractive.
1. FREE "CONSTRUCTIVE" ADVICE
Remember the “Kick me please!” signs from fifth grade? There’s an equivalent in missions. It’s an invisible sign on missionaries that reads, “Offer advice please.” For whatever reason, people feel free to offer missionaries unsolicited opinions in a way they wouldn’t to their closest friends. Anything is fair game—how to dress, how to educate children, how many children to have, what to own, what type of medical care to have, where to vacation, whether to marry, or about lifestyle choices in general.
We know missionaries who were told that, “their clothes were too nice for missionaries,” and others who were told theirs were too “fuddy-duddy.” Or that they should, “be more like those other missionaries.” While in the US for meetings, I ended up needing emergency surgery. A well-intentioned person, whom I hardly knew, told me that I should have flown back to Central Asia and had the surgery there so I could better identify with the people.
Many missionaries already feel the need to legitimate themselves to others who may feel the responsibility to question lifestyle choices. How should a missionary respond when people question her dedication because she wanted to have children in a hospital in the US? Or when she is told that it is “out of God’s will” to remain in the US to get married? Should she smile and politely listen when confronted with unsolicited advice? Should she challenge the stereotype? How can she do so without appearing self-serving? If you think I’m exaggerating the issue, ask around.
Warn your candidates that their lives are about to become public property, and they’ll be living in the clergy fish bowl. Help them think through appropriate and constructive ways to respond when they hear, “I thought that missionaries ______” (fill in the blank, it will happen)!
2. YOU SHOULD BE POOR—It’s a Sign of Trusting God to Provide
Remember the Franciscans? Their desire to follow Christ’s command to “Carry no purse, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way” (Luke 10:3) as literally as possible helped create the expectation that being a missionary means taking a vow of poverty. If a missionary feels led to take such a vow, God bless him. But what about those who don’t? It doesn’t matter, because a vow of poverty is pretty much assumed, and in some cases is lauded as a sign of spiritual maturity and trust in God.
Some agencies give salary “supplements” to allow a missionary to maintain a standard of living (buying power) comparable to that of a family in the US. This is misleading because it does not give an equivalent saving power. One could maintain a comparable standard of living on the field, but have little left for savings, purchasing a home, children’s college education, or retirement. Before leaving for the field, my wife and I had a combined salary that allowed us to invest at least $2,500 a month. Our current salary (note again, one salary versus two, which cost-of-living differentials do not assess) qualifies us for low-income discounts on electricity and other services while in the States.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that missionaries should have six-figure salaries. I am suggesting that mission boards should offer their personnel an annual salary increase, and then give missionaries the choice to accept or refuse it, depending on their own circumstances and convictions.
Also, why not let missionaries consult or take side jobs to earn extra money if it doesn’t interfere with their ministry? The Franciscans were poor, but the Benedictines were good at creating profitable side businesses. The Benedictine monk Bernardo Vincelli helped the order make a handsome profit with his famous Renaissance elixir, now known as Benedictine. The liqueur, bottled profitably for the church for many years, still bears the initials D.O.M, for Deo optimo maximo (“Praise God, most good most great”).
People don’t go into missions for the money; your candidates have already figured that out. But advise them that with the role comes a stereotype that they should be poor.
3. YOU SHOULD BE GRATEFUL
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the missionary in Africa who was protected by nineteen flaming angels, which coincides with the exact number of men who were praying at that exact moment somewhere in America. And perhaps you’ve heard it so many times with so many variations (changing locations, varying numbers of angels) that you’ve wondered if it was true. Have you heard about missionaries receiving used tea bags and wondered if it were true? Our executive director served in Spain with missionaries who actually did. The people who sent them probably expected the recipients to be grateful. “We don’t want it, give it to the missionaries.”
Most missionaries I know are grateful. When people take the time to write thoughtful cards, we’re grateful. When we know that our national friends have such little to eat, and we can afford fruit, we’re grateful. When someone who has been out of work for seven months sends a gift, we’re grateful.
But the point is we are grateful because we choose to be. Not because someone tells us to be. Every now and again we encounter the attitude that missionaries should be grateful: here is an old dress, you should be grateful. Here’s an old car, you should be grateful. Again, most missionaries will be grateful. It just grates on you when people say or imply that you should be.
A friend on a missions committee related the story of a woman in the congregation donating an old coat to the mission’s closet. Our friend asked the woman if she would consider giving the coat to her daughter, and she answered, “No, it’s out of style.” So Bennie asked, “Well, why would you give it to a missionary?” The unspoken answer was, “Because they should be grateful to have it.” Bennie told her to go buy a new coat and donate it, which she did.
Advise your missionaries of the stereotype. Prepare them with good, appropriate responses.
4. DISINTERESTED PEOPLE
One of the big disappointments for missionaries is that people aren’t as up on our ministry as we’d like them to be. There’s no blame in that statement. Life moves on and people are busy, so when we return, we encounter superficial questions such as, “How’s Russia?” (“Fine. How’s America?”) Or, “What do people eat there?” (“A subsistence diet. What are people eating in America these days?”)
Not only has life moved on, but congregations change. We can’t expect folks to be experts on where we live and what we do. But we can supply them, prior to furlough, with good questions; from the innocent, “Now tell me again exactly where you are serving?” to, “What was the most encouraging thing that happened in ministry this past year?” to, “What is your vision for ministry, what strategy have you developed to accomplish it, and how will you know when you have?” Arm the congregation with questions.
If you are briefing missionaries, save them the disappointment and prepare them for this reality. If you are debriefing, help them learn a one sentence, one minute and ten-minute answer to the walking-by-you-in-the-foyer question, “How’s Mali?” One friend’s intriguing answer to, “How’s India?” is, “In many ways, like living in the days of Christ.” It often engenders further conversation.
5. FURLOUGH IS A VERB
Ever said, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation?” Ask a missionary if he returns from “home ministry assignment” refreshed. (Many resist calling the time a furlough anymore.) This is an occupational reality. For a variety of reasons, some good some bad, many missionaries do not find furlough restful. Life on the field is one continuous transition, and furlough is the same.
On the one hand, we want to visit family, friends and supporters. On the other hand, it may be difficult to accomplish all of that. Often missionaries are to blame, wanting to do too much in too little time, or feeling obliged to contact too many people.
Mission committees can proactively help people by setting expectations and requiring a furlough plan before the missionary leaves the field. Also, they can help by organizing large functions to which missionaries can invite many people at once, allowing them to tell their story fewer times. Life on the road, lived out of a suitcase, is far from restful, particularly as furloughs become shorter. Fewer missionaries are following the traditional model of four years out and one year back.
6. YOU SHOULD BE LIKE OTHER MISSIONARIES
Parents are known to ask, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” The missions variation is, “Why can’t you minister like so-and-so?” Something in human nature seems to draw people to one-size-fits-all ministry strategies. If a group has had success with, say, chronological Bible teaching, it’s easy to export that as the norm of how all ministry should be done. A colleague was told that it was “sinful” to show the Jesus film to a group until they had gone through at least a year of chronological teaching. Another missionary had enjoyed success with “storyboarding” and was convinced that all who were not using it were missing the strategic mark. One missions committee wanted to know why the missionaries weren’t prayer walking. Or, why the missionaries weren’t organizing a national conference.
Other ministry may be okay, but if you really want to glorify God, you do it by “X”! X usually corresponds to the experience, talents, abilities or passions of the promoter.
Praise God for insights and principles that are transcultural, and for the ability to learn from others’ experience. Praise him that we have the flexibility to determine how he would have us best reach particular contexts. Missionaries may listen patiently and filter information, screening good ideas and, where appropriate, offering thanks for information. They may also remind the well-intentioned that duplicating ministries takes place in the States as well, where people copy other “successful” models, irrespective of context or giftedness. Their results also confirm that God is multi-faceted and works as he wishes in different contexts to glorify himself.
7. THE NEED TO JUSTIFY SUCCESS in Terms of Conversions
Missionaries should be able to articulate their ministry purpose (why they are there), vision (what they want to accomplish), strategy (how they intend to accomplish it) and goals (steps to measure progress in accomplishing the strategy). Accountability to purpose-driven ministry is a must, and many of us have met folks who have been on the field far too long without articulating any of the above. There should be no compromising here.
If you agree with that, and many do, how do you communicate it in a way that gives God the glory? Or that recognizes the contribution of others? It isn’t always easy. Our agency likes to minister “facilitatively,” working behind the scenes to envision and train nationals to help them see a movement of new churches starting new churches. How can we convey that in a way that quantifies our participation or contribution? Our team, working with like-minded nationals, helped fifteen churches set a goal of starting two thousand new churches in ten years. And after two years, they are on their way, with 1,970 left to reach the goal. How many churches did our team start? None.
The point is that it is difficult to quantify ministry. Especially when the traditional yardstick question for measuring “success” is, “How many people have you led to Christ?” Well, personally none, but I’ve helped others do it. Does that count? The goal of the Great Commission is not conversion anyway, but discipleship. I’ve never seen an evaluation form asking how many people the missionary has discipled.
Help your missionaries be strategic. And, help them articulate their successes. Consider writing, or encourage them to have a national write, a newsletter for them, telling the stories that they can’t because it would appear aggrandizing.
8. REAL MISSIONARIES SHOULD ROUGH IT
A unique challenge for missionaries is choosing a standard of living that both corresponds to the local culture and maintains a level of “creature comforts” that will keep them there for the long haul. This tension also provides an easy target for criticism because, let’s all say it together, missionaries should be poor.
Are there those who live extravagantly in comparison to nationals? Yes. And in such a way that it hinders ministry? Yes. But where do we draw the lines? And who gets to decide? This difficult issue can produce enormous guilt. Symptoms of the stereotype include missionaries who feel the need to apologize for or justify amenities, or who are compelled to write newsletter stories of life’s hardships (cold temperatures, hot temperatures, poor plumbing, no electricity, no running water).
This stereotype becomes a challenge when people on the home front are shocked at things that are nice. One of our teams in Asia received American visitors. One team member has a Western-style toilet, while another has a hole in the floor. The visitors chided the former, telling the family that if they wanted to identify with the culture and live as real missionaries, they should live as the latter.
Warn your folks that this issue is thorny and educate the congregation to be sensitive.
9. MISSIONARY ON A PEDISTAL
A strange counterpoint to much of what is written above is the tendency to sanctify missionaries as “super spiritual” people who hover around in perfect holiness. While some feel free to criticize missionaries, others elevate them to a special status. The inherent danger of the super-spiritual classification is that it perpetuates the stereotypical inability of missionaries to be real people.
Recently, we participated on a missionary panel, where people in the congregation could ask questions. One missionary was asked, “What’s the hardest thing for you, living overseas?” He answered that it was being distant from his elderly parents, and as a result he returned home once a year, in order to spend time with them. Afterwards people expressed disappointment. Missionaries, they indicated, are not supposed to count the cost and should forget about things like aging parents. Missionaries are ordinary people and should be treated as such.
10. FREE CONSTRUCTIVE ADVICE
My father knows that his age causes him to forget whether he’s already told a story or not, so he covers himself by saying, “I may have said this already, but it bears repeating.” I know that I’ve mentioned how important it is to educate candidates that their lives are about to become public property in a way that engenders lots of free advice, but it bears repeating.
When interviewing missionaries about their experience of difficulties on the home front, their consistent answer was the amount of counsel they receive on personal issues—how to spend money, how to raise children, how to dress and how not to dress, what to drive, what to buy, whom to marry and so forth. This is an appeal to inform candidates of this reality, and educate congregations of its effects.
Jesus commanded his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. Did he say that missionaries alone were to do so in second-hand clothes?
My boss used to warn us not to fight battles we knew that we wouldn’t win. We aren’t going to completely alter stereotypes of what it means to be a missionary. But we can challenge and change them. Churches can do this better than missionaries, because when we missionaries do it, it sounds self-serving and whiny—like this intentionally overstated article. We can acquaint our candidates with the realities, and help them form healthy expectations and responses.
B. Van Ochs (a psedonym) and his wife, when not enjoying the high-life in the United States, serve with United World Mission in Central Asia.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 158-164. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.