NOTE: This is part ONE of a two-part series examining the opportunities and realities of the supporting spouse role in overseas organizations.
“And what do you do in Indonesia?”
My husband and I had just finished speaking at a luncheon about our ministry with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Indonesia, when a woman asked me this.
I’d been warned about this question—and the difficulty in answering it as someone in my support role—by another MAF wife.
I was a new mom at the time of that stateside visit—ten years ago—and I didn’t mind the question that day. I assumed the questioner was kindly trying to include me in the conversation. Plus, I needed some good adult conversation that didn’t focus on baby feedings and spit-up.
“Oh,” I answered. “I helped neighborhood kids with their English? I mean…kinda. I’m not a teacher or anything. We mostly played games. I also volunteered a bit at a monthly Indonesian neighborhood clinic…I mean, I didn’t do anything medically. I weighed kids on this cloth sling scale thing that hung from a tree? And perhaps not very well…I think they were scared of the tall white lady. But I’m thankful for women who welcomed me there. Oh, and I really like being a friend to my Indonesian friends, I guess?”
I soon realized that my answers were starting to sound like questions, too. I also realized that the person listening might think that I do all this every single day. In reality, I’d done a little bit of this and a little bit of that over a several-year period as I was learning about my new home.
I figured my husband, Brad, had it easier. His answer could be one word. Pilot. Or a sentence. “I fly small airplanes into and out of Borneo to support remote indigenous villages with medevacs, medicines, supplies, transportation.” Or a picture. Airplane flying blue skies over beautiful jungle.
OK, in reality, almost nothing about Brad’s job is easy.
The Support Spouse Role
I think back to how my mom would answer that question when I was a kid and my dad was in the Army. Did she call herself Army wife? Support spouse? Volunteer family logistics coordinator for our zillionth move?
MAF currently calls the supporting spouse, “nontech spouse.” Many other organizations, especially those that require a high level of mobility or overseas work, recognize similar supporting roles: missionary wives, military wives, expat wives, embassy spouses.
In some expat circles, this role is termed the cringe-worthy name of “trailing spouse.”
“You can feel like an afterthought in the whole process,” wrote Carole Hallett Mobbs, on the Website Expat Child, which offers advice on how to make the transition overseas better for families.
But ministry jobs are often different than other expat jobs. The position is often seen as a calling, and one that involves the whole family. Mission agencies usually interview, accept and train both the husband and wife, placing the entire family on correspondence for potential donors and designing support systems and policies for the entire family.
Some mission organizations require their supporting spouses to take an active job or role in the ministry. But MAF has a long-held value of recognizing the commitment involved in caring for children overseas, and giving women the freedom to stay at home with them. This can be particularly helpful since MAF works in settings where homemaking and educating kids require more of a load on the family than it would require stateside.
That freedom was one of the reasons we chose MAF. But when Brad and I first moved to Indonesia, we didn’t have any kids yet. And when I started trying to actually navigate life overseas, I realized I had plenty of questions.
Now that we’re here and the boxes are unpacked, what comes next for me? Am I also an MAF employee since I’m on the ministry card we gave to financial donors? What I am capable/trained/allowed to do here, with work permit limitations? How do I get further training for this unique cross-cultural situation? Do I have a supervisor/mentor/boss? What is expected of me by my teammates?
Since I grew up as a military kid, navigating the ambiguity of turning new places into homes and making strangers into dear friends, I sometimes leaned into the questions with creativity. I can’t legally get a job? So, I could spend my day writing a book? Or making friends in this friendly, fascinating little-known Borneo tribe? Or helping at an orphanage?
On the best days, the questions gave space for relationships, freedom, growth and adventure.
Questions of concern and loss and contribution
But then there were the harder questions. Poverty, especially when you don’t grow up surrounded by its challenges, has a way of making you question things. What are the deeper reasons for why my neighbor is poor, year after year? Should I give her money? Would something else help better? How do I cultivate friendship well with her with our economic and cultural dynamics?
The other nontech spouses on my MAF team were trying to find their own way, too. Many were new moms who had additional questions (on top of the ones about roles and poverty) which were immediate and about survival. How do I make baby food from scratch? Does my feverish baby have malaria or dengue fever?
Throughout the 13 years I’ve lived in Indonesia, I’ve heard others express loss—of a defined job or role, old identities, direction. In the beginning, she may have some clear tasks of settling in and transitioning her family. But then what? If she thinks there’s nothing else for her to do, she can feel like she’s missing something. If there are too many needs around her with no clear avenue for helping, she can wonder how she’ll ever get to the end of them. Or what if she’s completely content to settle into life with her kids at home? Does the organization, their financial supporters, and God see that as enough?
Partnering with the support staff: Start with the questions
As an organization, MAF has entered into the questions alongside its nontech spouses. How do we provide a pathway for involvement in the ministry for these support spouses? How do we invite them into conversations about vision? How do we welcome their gifts? How do we help them develop in their various roles as parents, teammates, partners in ministry? How do we best support the spouses who don’t want an official role beyond caring for their families or who prefer to find opportunities outside of MAF?
Where there are questions, there are opportunities for really good conversations. Here are some questions we’ve learned to ask along the way.
What are the HURDLES to a more flourishing partnership with our support spouses?
MAF is a mainly technical organization. Many of its conversations involve the airplane. The main people involved in those discussions are the employed technicians. Also, the leaders are often selected from this pool of technical staff. It takes intentionality to include support spouses in ministry planning, vision casting, strategic planning and policy discussions regarding family needs and team dynamics.
Another “hurdle” for many organizations could be that many support spouses provide a necessary role in stabilizing homes in these cross cultural situations. The locations in developing countries where MAF works require a heavier load for support spouses since parents sometimes need to homeschool their kids and make much of their food from scratch with limited electricity. Some support spouses who wish to contribute to ministry or community may find it difficult to find the time. Could we find avenues for them to share their concerns about their family’s needs or struggles? Could we find ways to lessen their burdens, or better equip them with resources or mentoring to carry their burdens in this challenging cross cultural environment? Are we doing a good job of validating all the various ways spouses are already contributing to the care of families, and stability of ministry?
How are we flexible to the various SEASONS of the majority-female support spouses?
A one-size-fits-all role for all of an organization’s supporting spouses may not be enough. It’s common with support spouses to need to factor their roles as parents into their ability to get involved. Moms of young children may not need opportunities to get involved, but may just need support and validation for the demanding job of caring for their family in a challenging foreign environment. They may also need a way to voice their concerns in an appropriate way (other than simply telling their husbands). Others with young children may be looking for an occasional outlet for their other gifts. Parents with school-age children may be ready to get involved in a flexible way that takes into account kids’ school schedules.
Support spouses have various energy levels. They have various educational backgrounds and skill levels. They are moving into and out of various seasons with their children. How do we create pathways for involvement and development at regular intervals so they don’t feel indefinitely sidelined?
How can we invite their VOICES into our organizations?
Support spouses make great advocates for each other, their third-culture kids, their own husbands, and the marginalized women in our local communities. Ministry organizations need their input, ideas, concerns and talents so that we don’t get out of balance in our service. They are half our teams, with connections to half our communities.
These suggestions are just a start. But hopefully, they will encourage overseas organizations to start thinking about their support spouses in new ways.
Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an American writer, wife to a relief pilot, member of a cross-cultural team, and mama to three kids—while living in beautiful, friendly Indonesia. But she’s most at home in her quest to find stories of courage, hope, and redemption in the world around her.
Rebecca Hopkins contributed this article as a guest author for Missio Nexus.