Missionaries often are asked: “How can I pray for you?” and most likely, we will answer: “Pray for our financial support, our witness, and our families.” These are good things to pray for, but there are some things we are ashamed of admitting and that don’t make the prayer request list.
A missionary is not someone special, more gifted, or more holy than anyone else. In fact, many of us missionaries joke that God needed to take us to the mission field to teach us the hard lessons we could not to learn because of our own stubbornness and zealousness. Among missionary leaders, there is a saying that leading missionaries is like “herding cats” because of our independent streak. Missionaries can exude strength and courage, but as the years progress, I have noticed certain patterns of struggle that are unique to missionaries (and I’d venture to say much of this applies to those who are in full-time ministry, pastors, or church-planters). We need you pray for us in the following areas.
The Professional Christian Syndrome
The first and biggest area of struggle for us is the coalescence of job and Christian life. My sister once said to me: “It must be difficult to be a professional Christian.” At first, I was set aback, but as I mulled over that expression, I realized it is at the core of some of our unique identity issues. On the upside, when our job is full-time ministry, we feel like we are “all in” for Christ. Our kingdom focus is clear. All of life visibly serves the same purpose, namely to be a part of expanding God’s kingdom and this broken world. Family, ministry, and personal life are one and the same and serve the same ultimate purpose. Our children see us living a life of full devotion which affects all aspects of life. Even our rest and our hobbies are opportunities to be evangelistic. Our hospitality is missional.
To be sure, there is beauty in having an integrated Christian life. But there are also struggles that come along with it. Because we are professional Christians, we believe we are never off the hook. We are always being watched by the unbelieving world, the unseen world, our supporters and churches, our children, and God himself. How do we deal with the fact that we are weak, struggling and broken believers? The state of our hearts does not always match our calling. This can lead to formalism in our work or using people to fulfill our own mission to make us look good.
We are greatly tempted to find our identity in the work we do for God’s kingdom instead of from the King himself. Our personal struggles often go unseen, even unconfessed because we are always “on.” Establishing boundaries between ministry and family life, work and down time is truly challenging. The workaholics might even deceive themselves into thinking that they are just “on fire for the Lord” or “pouring themselves out like a drink offering.” After all, the Apostle Paul never took a vacation! We envy people who are not in full-time ministry because we feel like they, at least, get a break from you-know-who: God himself and what feels like his heavy call on our lives. We envy people who have a 9-to-5 job who can clock out and truly rest at home. We envy those of you who do not have to “put on a show” of being a godly, dedicated worker in God’s kingdom.
It is possible for us to fall in love with our work, or our ministry while failing to be in love with our Savior. Our love for him may have run dry a long time ago, but you would never know based on our newsletters. In a similar way to pastors and their struggle with loving the study of God’s word more than God himself, missionaries can love their missionary lifestyle, or their outreach focus more than the Pursuer of their own souls. We can get so wrapped up in what we are doing for God that we forget what he has done for us. We envy those of you whose work performance is not tied to spiritual results: conversions, growth in numbers or in depth of faith. We long to see the fruit of our labors, and yet that elusive fruit might never be seen on this side of glory. That’s a real bummer for those of us who like productivity, results, and the sense of a job well done. So please pray that we’d be honest with ourselves and recognize when we’ve associated our calling with our personal status before God. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us. That we can rest in Him alone. That our worth as missionaries is not measured in number of converts or churches planted but by the precious blood of Jesus Christ by which we were bought.
There’s No Place Like Home
A second struggle for missionaries is that no one place, no one church, is ever really home. On the upside we learn about the church at large and come to love the idea of church with a capital C. We learn how to yearn for heaven, we learn to see the kingdom of God wherever God is at work, in dark places and unexpected situations. But we are never in one place long enough to have deep, established roots and the accountability of a local body over the course of years. As soon as we get to that place, we are called to move on because our job of planting is done. Pray for our children who never experience church as a long-term, localized, particular body of people who know, love, and care for them.
On the upside, we form team bonds with other missionary colleagues some of you would envy. But we envy those of you who have lived in one place, who have one church and one school, preferably a Christian one that creates a stable environment of growth for your children. We realize our children experience the world in a very different way, unsheltered, exposed. You might say this is an advantage. But we also see the pitfalls. We are convinced our children struggle with belonging and identity more than yours. We believe your children might even have better prerequisites for being converted, invested in by other believers and be able see Christianity as normal because they have Christian friends. I was raised a missionary kid. You might not believe me when I say, “I never had a Christian friend.” It is true. I should be my own proof in the pudding, but I, as many other missionary parents, struggle to believer our kids will be ok, even without a solid Christian education, a great youth group and church that will reach out to them.
We envy your sense of home, with all that that entails. Your sense of belonging, your nice big house (if you have one), the apparent stability of your life and the lives of your children. The struggle for Home is real. Pray we would truly find home in God alone and be able to experience the Church as the Body of Christ in a deep, sustaining way, even if it is only temporary and be reminded that we are not alone!
Fighting for Peace
The third big struggle is longing for peace, the sort that would be defined as not being under constant attack. Being on the front lines of the battle makes us alert, forces us to our knees, helps us become more watchful, and makes us guardians in prayer. We come to understand that no ministry success is possible unless first wrought in the heavenlies. However, we envy those of you who are not walking around with a target on your back. We might falsely think that life back home (wherever that is anymore!) would be easier. We experience enemy fire as severe and unfair: Unusual diseases and afflictions, demonic activity, strange entanglements in conflicts that leave us walking around in the sort of fog only God’s Spirit can dissipate. We suffer attacks in mind and body in a very real way. Our children seem to struggle more and that gets to us most of all. We envy your children for having an easy, protected, innocent life.
We also suffer from a strange sort of martyr complex we need to be shaken out of. Because we genuinely experience strange things sometimes, we get weary, bogged down, and tend to interpret too much into our suffering. We need your comfort, understanding and reminders that all Christians are in enemy territory. We are not attacked because we are special, but because the message is real, powerful, and we have a common enemy of our souls. Pray for protection from the enemy’s attack and a steadfastness and belief in God’s goodness, even when attacks do come. Remind us we do not stand alone, that you are pulling up the rear in prayer when we press forward on the frontlines.
So, when your missionaries come into town, know that their struggles are real. They are broken sinners in need of the message they are bringing to others. They need encouragement. Call a special prayer meeting to pray for them in person, lay hands on them, and give them a Kleenex. Create an environment in which your missionaries can put down their weapons, take off their masks, cry gut-wrenching cries or sob their way through your worship service without being looked at as odd. Be a place of healing for them, not a place that requires more of them because they are your “investment.” We are in it together. We need each other to keep our eyes on the finish line and to cross that line together as the Body of Christ.
About the Author:
Eowyn was raised as an MK in France, studied German at Wellesley College, then received a Masters in Theology from Westminster Seminary in California where she met her husband, David. They married in 1997 and moved to Eastern Berlin as church-planting missionaries in 2001 where she was challenged to find creative ways to reach out to post-communist atheists. She currently enjoys the open doors she has ministering to refugees. Eowyn and David have 5 children.