Moving abroad. Embarking on adventures. Embracing your passions. Learning new languages. Meeting new people. Seeing new sights. That’s a missionary life for you…well, at least a partial glimpse.
While the call of God may guide you to move to the nations of the earth as a missionary, and glorious things might happen, it’s not all glamorous. Sometimes, when all we’ve seen is a missionary’s highlight reel and have only experienced our own short-term missions successes, we can over-glorify the missionary life.
Particularly in a time where social media shows small pockets of insight and we see the smiling faces of nationals, water wells, mass crusades, and orphanages being built, it’s easy to deduce that is what life is like everyday for missionaries. While there are definite breakthroughs and incredible adventures to be had in missions, it is certainly not without its challenges. The reality is that there are physical illnesses, loneliness, financial woes, delays, linguistic challenges, cross-cultural pressures, donor misunderstandings, miscommunications, and local partnership expectations just to name a few. This speaks nothing to the spiritual warfare, instability, and spontaneity of missions nor of the unfortunate turn of events when you unexpectedly have to leave a field.
Missions is a calling, and God’s grace is fully available to a missionary in the same way it is to any other calling. Yet, there are struggles missionaries encounter that are different than what they’d experience from the comfort of their own culture, and there are some practical ways that you can be supportive to those with this calling and assignment.
1. Offer your friendship.
Every missionary faces loneliness at some point in their journey; they tend to feel completely disconnected to the culture they came from, and not fully connected to the culture they are in. They’re usually around new faces and places and miss the stability of consistent relationships.
If you are friends with a missionary, be a faithful friend. Out of sight doesn’t have to be out of mind, especially with the means of technology today. I know it’s easier to send a text or comment on a social media post, but receiving a call from a familiar voice and offering a conversation in their own language is very refreshing for them. Schedule Skype or FaceTime dates, remember their birthdays and anniversaries, and know that you can always send electronic gift cards like iTunes. The internet might not always be reliable, but your efforts will be deeply appreciated.
If you don’t have personal friends who are missionaries, you can find some through your local church and contact them (or befriend me! ;) ). Send them encouraging notes, check in on them consistently, and build a relationship. When people who I barely know reach out to me, it greatly encourages me as I know they were really intentional to do so. You never know what kind of day, week, or season a missionary might be having. Offering a listening ear and an encouraging word is greatly needed and offers a source of stability to an otherwise unstable schedule.
Find out how you can be intentional with the means of what you have. If you can send supplies overseas, then do so. If you can offer temporary housing, a car, or a home-cooked meal when they’re home, do it. One friendship in our lives stemmed from them first offering their office for us to work in, back when we were first married. While we never needed this offer, it made us realize this individual and their family cared about us, and a meaningful friendship evolved.
Simply offering your friendship is important and appreciated, but also remember the missionary kids. Parents want their kids to feel loved and appreciated and to have consistent, caring people in their lives so that they grow up loving ministry and not resenting their calling.
Some of our most faithful friends don’t necessarily support us financially. Some of our faithful financial supporters don’t necessarily support us relationally. Both are important and when they’re combined, it’s a beautiful thing. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Give financially.
Missions work takes finances. I know we all know this, but it’s something that is often misunderstood. Just because a missionary might be working among or helping a less fortunate population doesn’t mean that they aren’t in need of continual funding.
For instance, when my husband, Stephen pastored an international church in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, his simple apartment cost $2,000 a month. The cost of electricity was way more than we pay in the U.S., even though it is unreliable.
In the West, it’s easy to think that countries that aren’t first world must cost less to live in, but that often is the farthest thing from the truth. Items like rice and fruit could be cheap, but meat and gasoline/diesel could be outrageous by comparison. Cars could have 100% import tax, which means you pay double. Land and electricity are often on a much more expensive scale, particularly in urban centers; therefore, random and inconsistent financial giving presents challenges.
Before you commit to give to missions through your local church or to a specific family or organization, pray about it and hear what God is speaking, not just what you want to give out of an emotional response. If you hear from the Lord on what to give and who to give to, you’ll have a stronger conviction to stick with your commitment. A missionary is counting on what you pledged to give in order to start and complete a project, and to afford to live where they live.
It’s also OK to give to missionaries for their recreation and hobbies. The stress one faces living as a missionary is often different than what they’d face back home, and they need some down time in order for their work to continue, so it’s not finances spent in vain.
We have a couple who gives to us in our personal account every month for us to spend on date nights or however we choose. It’s helped us in times when we’ve wanted to do something fun as a couple and couldn’t have afforded to do so otherwise. Missionaries can enjoy a coffee, gym membership, pedicure, and vacation as easily as anyone else can, and they often feel guilty for doing so. You can usually treat them through tax-deductible giving if that’s important to you.
If you have to drop your financial support for any reason, just communicate with the missionaries and let them know. An advanced warning helps when you’re giving monthly or have pledged to a project you can’t follow through on it. We had a close pastor friend drop our financial support, but he took Stephen out to breakfast to inform him. This removed any potential awkwardness in communication, and it kept the door open for continued relational and prayer support.
3. Pray for them.
This is vital. The battles any of us face as believers when we are commissioned by God and are on assignment from Him, require His protection, power, and provision.
As missionaries, we can’t afford to do what we do without the empowerment of His spirit and the guidance of His leadership. Missionaries need the prayers of those in the body of Christ to help them.
There are countless stories I could personally tell of nationals and people from back home praying for Stephen and I in moments where they were prompted by the Lord that have been instrumental in breakthrough. I faced such sickness a few years ago that I honestly know prayer is what carried me through.
If you feel like a missionary family is struggling, don’t give up on them! Pray them through to the place of breakthrough.
Everyone can pray. Even if all you have is a name or a prayer card of a missionary, you don’t have to know someone well to pray for them. Be faithful to pray for them. Not only will it serve as a catalyst for things to happen over their lives, but it’ll tangibly connect you to partnering with what God is doing through their work. Get a heart for their country and begin to ask God what He is speaking over that missionary family and their calling. It’s exciting to stand with God’s heart for the nations and the people that carry that heart.
4. Seek to understand them.
Missionaries experience different things than you might in your day-to-day tasks. A traffic jam for you could mean an hour, but to those of us in Africa, it could mean 6-9 hours. And any other various task that takes you minutes could take days overseas. You often can’t just “run to the store really quick” or buy a fast-food meal – it’s often cooking a meal from scratch after washing your food carefully, after buying just the right amount in case your electricity doesn’t work to cook or keep food in the refrigerator.
Stephen was once removed from a country due to political unrest and national church complexities. He felt lost and confused as he was shuffled to another country and culture. Pastors and friends who reached out to him and sought to understand his situation helped him through such a trying time.
Additionally, when we recently had to leave Madagascar due to health challenges, I’ve had to continue international work based in the U.S.. People who have continued to support us and help us in the ways I mentioned above have been invaluable. However, those who know us and ask questions like “how’s Africa?” or simply “when are you going back to Africa?” are trying to be sweet, but they’re not necessarily understanding that we don’t live there currently and we wish we could, but it’s all just a complex situation.
Know that there are many variables that cause changes in missions and they are often beyond an individual missionary’s control. They can’t always offer an explanation that’ll make sense immediately.
A missionary friend recently shared with me her struggles to write a newsletter about a building project they’ve been in the process of for a long time. The problem isn’t even with the funding side, but the construction process in this particular country. Often the delays we face overseas don’t make sense to the culture we came from, but being given grace and having people stand with you in spite of delays is incredible.
When you begin to step out and are consistent with your friendship, finances, and prayers, you’ll begin to see you really are partnering with them and are a part of their breakthroughs and successes. This will make their “highlight reel” much more exciting as you’ll know more of the struggles and victories that it took to accomplish that mandate.
Featured image by @lindseynicoleperes