by James Lo
When I asked missionary colleagues, “What would cause a missionary to be tempted not to be totally honest and transparent?”, two main answers surfaced.
One of my former students, a missionary, sent me this e-mail. I could feel her frustration as I read each word she had typed in the middle of a sleepless night.
I don’t even know where to begin…I guess I’ve been trying to deny or hide how I’ve really been feeling about being here…I know I’ve e-mailed about loneliness, frustration with language learning and missing my family, but I’ve been afraid to admit to myself how I really feel about living in a foreign country. I’ve also been afraid to tell you because I don’t want to disappoint you… I’m really not sure if I can do this missionary stuff for the rest of my life…or even another term…I’m not even sure how I can make it through this year.
I pretend to be fine, like I’m adjusting to life, because I think everyone expects me to. Sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to be this super-missionary… immune to my real feelings and having the time of my life here!
Since becoming a missionary I feel as though I have to lie about my feelings and what I am doing.
I asked some missionary colleagues, “Would you lie?” All of them answered “no,” although a majority said that they have been tempted to. I then asked, “What would cause a missionary to be tempted not to be totally honest and transparent?”
Two main answers surfaced: (1) the pressure of living up to an idealistic missionary image and; (2) ministry expectations.
1. The missionary image. Some Christians in America have the perception that missionaries are “super-Christians” without the problems of normal Christians or even stateside Christian workers. One church member put it this way, “On a ladder of spirituality, missionaries are at the top, then full-time pastors and then all other Christians.”
Missionaries and mission boards may have unintentionally helped foster this image. A missionary friend told me that he wrote a prayer letter describing his culture shock. At the end of the letter he asked for prayer. Within days of his letter being sent out, he received word from the home office:
It is not wise for you to tell your supporters about your frustrations. Being too honest may be detrimental. People may stop supporting you. Next time, please show discretion when you write your supporters.
Another missionary asked people to pray for him and the national church because of a conflict between them. A well-meaning mission executive wrote him, “Your supporters don’t want to hear about your conflicts. It shatters their image of what a missionary should be. It makes you too human.”
At a session where furloughing missionaries were taught how to do audio-visual presentations, the instructor said, “People in churches do not want to hear about your aches and pains, nor about your failures, fights and frustrations. They want to hear about the positive things that happen on the field.”
When one of the missionaries questioned him, this instructor said, “Congregations tend to give to missionaries who can share positive accounts of what God is doing on the field. They want to support successful missionaries.”
2. Ministry expectations. Some missionaries have been tempted to question whether they can be totally honest due to their supporters’ ministry expectations. When a short-term missions team to Thailand returned to the States, it reported that more than 125 Thais had become Christians. A mission-minded church heard this report and wrote to the long-term missionaries who had been ministering in Thailand for many years:
We do not understand. As we read your yearly reports, we notice that the number of Thais becoming converts under your ministry is very low. Your report shows that in three years you have seen only twenty-four Thais become Christians. This does not make sense to us when we just heard from a short-term missions team that they were instrumental in seeing 125 people become Christians in a span of two weeks. Unless you become more productive, we may have to stop supporting you financially and shift our funds to more productive missionaries.
A large church in the US was helping support a missionary couple being sent to work in a certain country. Without conferring with the couple, the church’s mission committee set goals for their pioneer work. In the first year the missionary couple was to plant three congregations; by the third year, ten churches; and by the fourth year, fifteen churches. The couple questioned the plan’s feasibility: “Why, we don’t even know the language. We are hoping to spend the first term learning how to communicate.” However, when they approached the chairperson of the mission committee, they were told, “Either produce or lose our support.”
Another missionary said:
We get pressure from some of our supporters to report success stories with numbers. Often we feel this pressure coming from larger churches. It is almost as if they are thinking, “Since we are so productive, we expect our missionaries to be productive also.” However, there are times when the numbers just aren’t there. During these times I have been tempted to make up numbers just to ensure I obtain funds to support the ministry I am involved in.
I propose the following suggestions to help those who have been tempted to lie due to erroneous perceptions of a missionary’s role and ministry expectations from back “home.”
1. A realistic view of a missionary. Before I became a missionary in the early 1980s, I had an idealistic image of missionaries. They were great prayer warriors, effective evangelists and successful church planters. Because of their intimate relationship with God, they could call down heavenly fires that caused the heathen to take notice and want to become Christians. Missionaries could do no wrong; they were perfect Christians.
Therefore, when I became a missionary, I felt that I had to maintain a super-missionary image. I thought, “If I mess up as a missionary, I will be messing it up for the missionaries of the past, present and future.”
However, attempting to live the image of the perfect missionary is destined to be a relatively short endeavor. Soon after I arrived on the field, I began going through emotions that definitely did not fit with this ideal. Culture shock was sapping my energies and passions. My conflicts with a fellow missionary revealed me to be an unloving work colleague. Disagreements with some national church leaders made me question my call and commitment to God.
In the midst of these tensions I still wanted my supporters at home to think that I had it all together. I struggled for months with wanting to be viewed as the ideal missionary, while faced with the reality that I wasn’t. Finally, I realized that my struggle was really one of pride. I liked being perceived as the super- missionary.
In my first few years as a missionary, I learned that missionaries need a realistic view of themselves. We aren’t perfect. We will have times of conflict, disagreement with others and frustration. When we deal honestly with ourselves we become able to deal with real issues.
2. A realistic view of supporters. When I was a young boy I habitually made generalizations. For example, when I transferred to Mount Vernon Primary School I was uncomfortable being Chinese in a predominantly white school. I regularly said, “Nobody likes me at school. They all make fun of me for being Chinese.”
My mother replied, “Jim, there may be some people who make fun of you. And some who may not like you. But it’s hard for me to believe that everyone at school does not like you and makes fun of you.” The more I thought about my mother’s words, the more I realized that she was right.
Missionaries sometimes do the same and make sweeping generalizations about supporters. One person or a handful of supporters who may persist in upholding an idealistic image of missionaries does not mean that every supporter desires or expects the same.
While on deputation, I went to speak at a church intending to share only the positives on my field even though I was greatly burdened about some negative things happening there. As I got up to speak, something inside of me nudged me to be honest with the congregation. I said, “Will you please allow me to share from my heart? I am hurting. I will not mention names or even be too detailed about the situation that has burdened me for many months. However, things have not been easy for me as a missionary. I have had many a sleepless night.” And as I said those last words I broke down in a flood of tears.
By the end of the service I felt foolish for being so transparent and showing my tears. Embarrassed, I wanted to quietly pack my display and inconspicuously leave the church. But as I entered the foyer a group of men and women came rushing toward me. “Jim, thank you for being so open,” one said.
“Rev. Lo, it was so helpful for us to see the human side of a missionary. It helps me to know how to better pray for you,” another said.
“Thank you for letting down your guard…thank you for being real to us,” yet another said.
3. Realistic reporting and education. When I first began doing home ministries, I just wanted to report on the successes. My reports were full of numbers of people who became Christians and were baptized. At the end of one service the pastor said, “Wow, the Lord is really working over there. It’s almost as if all you have to do as a missionary is stand out on a street corner and people will flock to you in droves. Things are much harder here in America.”
As the pastor shared his thoughts, my mind flashed back to my years of ministry in Africa. It wasn’t all as easy as I made it out to be. Realistically, I had enjoyed good times with good results. However, I had also had difficult times. Not everybody I witnessed to responded favorably. Though some Africans did want to become Christians, many others made an initial decision, only to turn their backs on it after a few short weeks. In addition, we had to discipline some of the church leaders.
Realistic reporting is needed when missionaries speak in churches. Unrealistic reporting may set up other missionaries to feel that they need to exaggerate their own stories to give the impression that they are working hard and pulling their weight.
Educating the home church on the missionary’s role and task is also a must. For example, missionaries should not have to inflate numbers to compete with those reported by some short-term missions teams. Instead, they can use this opportunity to explain the different roles of short-term and career missionaries.
One missionary said:
Years ago when my supporting churches asked me, “Why is it that short-term missionaries seem to get quicker results than career missionaries?” I became upset. Perhaps I was a bit jealous that their numbers outshone mine. To be honest, I was tempted to pump up my numbers so that I would also look good in the church’s eyes.
Then it occurred to me that I didn’t have to compete with short-termers. Yes, they may have been instrumental in leading many to the Christian faith, but my role was to disciple and mentor new converts so that their faith would become strong. I was also involved in leadership development—training nationals to do the ministry.
So when churches compare my ministry with short-term missionaries, I seek to educate them in the whole process of evangelism—that while seeing initial decisions is important, so is the ministry of nurturing. James Kennedy observed that it takes five percent effort to lead a person to Christ and ninety-five percent effort to get them strong and ministering in the church.
THE ROOT ISSUES
Besides training ourselves to hold more realistic views, we must also address the deeper spiritual issues. What makes us think we have to portray a certain image or accomplish unrealistic ministry goals (as if we could do it in our own power anyway)? Is it not pride? Rather, we should depend on God and focus on being obedient and faithful to his call on our lives.
Why would career missionaries think they must justify their value when they are compared to short-term missions teams? Is it not a spirit of competition? Instead, missionaries should remember that they are part of Christ’s body and concentrate on using the spiritual gifts God has given them to further his kingdom.
Why would missionaries worry about losing the support of individuals or churches? Is it not lack of trust? Rather, missionaries should remember that where God calls, he supplies the means.
When we are tempted to lie, we need to ask ourselves what is driving us to make things look better than they really are. We serve a God who is more than able to equip us to carry out his call and renew our minds so that we can see ourselves and our situation realistically. As he carries out his work in us, we can respond honestly to those he has provided to care about us.
Jim Lo is an associate professor of intercultural studies and the coordinator of Intercultural Programming at Indiana Wesleyan University.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 362-366. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.