I believe if a missionary family is happy and healthy, they will be more sustainable in the long-term. I also believe that the key to happy and healthy missionaries is preparation. One of the things I’ve learned these past two years is that there is a lot of heartache among cross-cultural workers. After a while, I noticed that often, people’s heartache had common characteristics, and could have been addressed before arriving on the field.
I’m sharing practical steps you can take before you leave your home country. These steps will make your on-field life more smooth, more stable, and more productive. I’m incredibly grateful to our sending church and sending agency, who helped us take these steps prior to arriving in Cambodia. We simply followed their instructions. At the time, we didn’t realize the immense wisdom of their requirements, or how much our years of preparation would help us in settling happily in Cambodia. We could not have transitioned well without their guidance.
You should be aware that none of this preparation will prevent difficult things from happening to you on the field. Dealing with the following issues simply eases the strain of regular life, as the pain they cause is largely preventable. In no particular order, those issues are:
1) Being underfunded
2) One spouse doesn’t feel called into missions
3) Marriage/personal problems
4) Pornography/sexual sin
5) Team stress
6) Not getting enough pre-field training
NOT HAVING ENOUGH FINANCIAL SUPPORT
Financial troubles are stressful in America, but they become even more stressful in a cross-cultural setting. When all of life is consumed in getting the best price at the market or saving just a little more money, you have no time margin. Your mind never rests.
Please don’t try to move overseas without sufficient funding, assuming you will be able to pinch pennies once you get there. Missionaries are known to lose financial support over the years — which means it’s difficult to prevent underfunding completely. However, it also means that starting underfunded will only lead to more underfunding. It is for this reason that Team Expansion won’t even clear you to move overseas until you’ve raised 100% of your proposed budget.
We modeled our budget off the budget of a missionary who was already in this field, but we also added some financial margin (about 10%). Although our overall projected budget was accurate, we had to seriously shift items once we got here. Some bills were much lower than expected, while others were much higher. And we are so thankful we planned some financial margin so that when we got ripped off in the beginning (which will inevitably happen before you know the language well and intuitively know what a fair price is), we weren’t worried.
ONE SPOUSE DOESN’T FEEL CALLED INTO MISSIONS (A “TRAILING SPOUSE”)
I can really relate to this one because I was a trailing spouse for a while. Being a missionary has been my husband’s dream since he was 10 years old. I think I knew this on a sub-conscious level when we got married, but I was so blissfully in love that any missionary living seemed very far away. When he “suddenly” wanted to apply with Team Expansion about five years ago, I was shocked. Most of my concerns were about safety and health, as I’m a recovering germophobe/hypochondriac.
We pursued the application process in spite of my reservations. At times I was less supportive, and at times I was more supportive. I thought I could survive missionary life by imitating the way Sarah followed God’s leading through her husband Abraham. In the end, though, when it came to setting a departure date, I just couldn’t leave home. I needed to hear directly from God myself.
I was able to hear my own “call” only after we set aside special time to hear from God individually. During this time we didn’t talk about the subject as a couple, but I did listen to a veteran missionary’s story about fear and faith on the mission field. Then my husband and I went to our elders for advice. It was after this time of individual thinking and praying that I was able to drop the “trailing spouse” label.
I have my own call now, so I don’t have doubts about why I’m here, nor do I want to move back to America. I’ve made Cambodia my home, and I’ve made peace with missionary life. But I’ve seen other women who are still trailing spouses. Their husbands’ desires to be here and do mission work are stronger than theirs, and they are unhappy. They constantly want to go home. Please, trailing spouses, take time to verify your call to missions BEFORE leaving home. Taking the time to do that now will be worth it later on.
[A more complete version of this story was published in Team Expansion’s 2013 TELL magazine. Click here to read it.]
NOT HAVING MARITAL INTIMACY
My husband has always been my best friend, and he remained my best friend even as I started forming close girl friendships here. Because of my relationship with my husband, I am not emotionally dependent on anyone back home (although I still keep in very close contact with my best girl friend in America). My husband and I communicate easily and well, but if you have difficulty communicating, be aware that your difficulties will be magnified on the field.
Our elders required that we attend a week-long intensive counseling session. I initially resisted this, as I did not think we had any glaring problems. We’d been happy for 10 years! Why did we need counseling?? Once we were in the counselor’s office, though, we quickly realized we needed to deal with some areas in our life that we had not yet dealt with. (These issues were separate from the trailing spouse issue, which had been resolved by that time.) The experience was a major breakthrough for us and has helped us to be more understanding and supportive of each other.
If you are planning on long-term overseas missions, make your relationship with your spouse your strongest earthly relationship. A happy marriage makes those unavoidable annoyances of daily life much less noticeable. To that end, I highly recommend counseling.
(As a side note, you really do need a good friend on the field, whether you are married or not. Pray for one before you get there, and trust God to provide one. He will!)
PORNOGRAPHY/ SEXUAL SIN
Unaddressed sin problems are going to show up on the mission field. There are a lot of unique stressors to living cross-culturally, and that stress can be a trigger for issues like pornography, which absolutely destroys intimacy, trust, and happiness (yes, even among missionaries).
And I hate to be the one to tell you the ugly truth, but in Southeast Asia, porn problems can easily slip into prostitution problems.
So please, if you have a pornography problem or some other serious struggle, either address it before you go to the field, or just don’t go. Seek counseling and find freedom first, because that deep, dark, buried secret will bubble to the surface a lot when you live within the stress of a new culture. (By the way: Although my husband did not have a pornography problem either before or after coming to Cambodia, I do know Team Expansion’s policy is to address porn problems through addiction counseling, before they will clear you to leave.)
POOR TEAM DYNAMICS
I love the vision that is born when people collaborate on a team. As wonderful as working on a team can be, teams also provide an opportunity for conflict and interpersonal stress. Conversely, sometimes missionaries have no team, either because they arrived without a team, or their team broke apart at some point. Neither a stressful team nor lack of a team is ideal.
In addition to taking conflict-resolution training (which is part of the training I discuss in the next point), you need to accept that your team situation may change over the years. Teams lose members, and they gain members. For varying reasons, you might need to choose teammates again after you get to the field, and you need to know that is ok. Your commitment to serving God needs to be deeper than your commitment to your team.
NOT GETTING ENOUGH PRE-FIELD TRAINING
Sometimes people simply don’t get enough training. Team Expansion’s required training is very thorough, and each step along the way we learned something more about cross-cultural work or about ourselves. The two most life-changing trainings we took were Mission Training International’s pre-field course and the Kairos worldview course. I consider Mission Training International (MTI) to be essential preparation for cross-cultural service, and it should be attended in addition to any Bible school or seminary training you may already have.
Before becoming missionaries-in-training, we had been involved in paid or volunteer ministry for several years. That ministry experience has been very helpful to us in setting boundaries between family time and ministry time (something that especially affects a wife’s happiness). It’s also easy for missionaries to become frustrated with nationals who change slowly or not at all, but I remember times in the States when we worked with people stuck in harmful behavior patterns who weren’t showing evidence of positive change. So we’ve concluded that some of the stresses of missionary life are just ministry stresses, located in another country. It would be useful to get some ministry experience before leaving.
CONCLUSION: PRACTICAL STEPS TO TAKE
1) Build margin into your budget, and raise it fully.
2) Ensure both partners have a strong missionary call.
3) Make your marriage your strongest relationship; possibly seek counseling.
4) Tackle big problems like pornography before leaving.
5) Be prepared for the possibility of team issues.
6) Get ministry experience in addition to specific pre-field missions training.
Elizabeth & Jonathan presented this information in November, 2013 at the International Conference on Missions. This audio file includes that presentation followed by about thirty minutes of Q&A. Click the link below to launch your media player or right-click and “save as” OR click the play button and launch the WordPress Media Player.
Six Essential Steps (with Q&A) (mp3, 52mb)