You will not read these things in the support letters you receive from missionary friends or see them in their social media updates.
I thought I’d write a bit of a follow-up to my review of Runaway Radical. Aside from sharing my gripes about the book, I mentioned that I was glad it had been written nonetheless because it may help shed some light on some issues with fund-raising and missionary life that people might not think about or know takes place on the field.
I want to take those thoughts a few steps further in today’s post.
I’ve seen a few blog posts show up in my news feed in recent weeks that my missionary friends have re-shared. These articles usually follow a template of “things we wish we could tell you, but we don’t.” I think the first one I saw recently was from A Life Overseas, and then a few days ago someone tagged me in one that appeared on ChurchLeaders.com.
It’s not my intention to write a Debbie Downer type of post informing you of all sorts of problems I may have had, but I do want to underscore what my friend David Lyons once said at a mission conference:
The problem with all the good stories of the mission field is that you only hear the good stories and never hear the bad ones.
So let me share just a few points from both articles along with thoughts of mine, and you can click the links out to read the rest of each article for more examples of things your missionary is probably afraid of telling you.
I wish I could tell you about my personal struggles
Sometimes I feel like you make me out to be more spiritual than I am, but I wish you knew that becoming a missionary didn’t turn me into a saint. In fact, sometimes I think it brings out the worst in me. I wish I could tell you about the immobilizing depression or the fights with my spouse. I wish I could tell you that my anxiety was so bad that I needed to travel to another country to see a professional counselor. I wish I could tell you about that time my friend was robbed at gunpoint in his home, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward.
I wish you knew that I hate it here sometimes, and there’s nothing more I want than to go home. But I know I need to stay, so I don’t tell you because I’ve heard the stories of friends forced to go home because they confided in the wrong person. I don’t tell you because I can’t imagine you would want to support such a flawed person.1
Just this week I got to talk to one of our supporters, and I told him “I’m Skyping with you because you’re an encourager and faith-filled person and I need that now”. Fortunately for me, these were not empty words and I finished that conversation super pumped up despite having had the opportunity to share some struggles, disappointing news, and problems my wife and I find ourselves in (details I won’t share in this post, obviously). I once underscored the importance and necessity for missionaries to have people they can share their person struggles with so they don’t accidentally get put on a pedestal and can feel even more isolated.
Returning “home” is hard
“Logistically it is difficult. Most missionaries don’t have a place to live, a car to drive or a plate to eat off of. All those things that we need in everyday life, from pillow cases to car seats, we do not have. We have to find short term solutions and we HATE borrowing stuff. We also do not want to live in your basement. We want to be a family with our own privacy and family time.
We also want to visit and spend time with our donors and churches, but making that happen is so hard when we have donors in 12 different states. It isn’t cost feasible to spend $1,200 to visit a church in Arkansas that gives you $25/month. But you want to and think that you should. The logistics make home assignment difficult.”2
Granted in my case my home country is Canada and not the USA. However, we have a few supporters in the United States who give to our American organization. But if we were to go to the USA, we would need for my wife to be invited or sponsored since she’s Peruvian and requires a visa even just to visit the USA. There’s lots of other logistical issues to work out, not to mention extra finances set aside from our normal monthly personal and ministry expenses.
We constantly feel like we have to prove ourselves to you
“You, whether an individual or a church, give us money. You support our ministry. Like it or not, I now feel like I have to justify to you that giving us money is good. I have to prove myself and my ministry over and over again. My newsletters are not to let you know what we are doing…they are far more than that. They are items that I am entering into evidence as proof that you are making a good investment. And…if a period of time goes by where we don’t really have anything BIG to report…we feel like a failure and live in the fear of you giving your money to someone who deserves it.
Often we don’t feel like we are on the same team as you. We feel like you are our boss and it is time for the annual performance evaluation…and this year someone has to be let go. We are tempted to pad our resume and make it look better than it is. Instead of saying that we go to church, we say, “We are actively engaged in a local congregation.” We don’t say that we buy our fruit from the same seller every week, no, “we are building intentional relationships with those in the marketplace.” We may lead a Bible study, but we call it, “engaging in a mentoring relationship with young married couples.” Look at what I just told you. I buy fruit each week, go to church and lead a Bible study. That does not sound worth supporting does it? I mean, you do that. But if I am building intentional relationships while mentoring young married couples as I am actively engaged in a local congregation…then maybe you will think better of me.”3
I probably relate to this the most or towards the top of the list, except for the fact I’ve probably fallen in a ditch on the other side of the road: sharing too little of what we do to overcompensate for this. If you read a post of mine about not doing our good works to be seen by Facebook, then you’ll remember I’ve shared about being careful to do some of our good deeds for photo ops to be commented on and liked. In a sense, this has sort of bit me in the butt as a few people on my recent short trip to Canada politely expressed they didn’t know exactly what I did in Peru because they’d seen me post little about our ministry or mission on social media.
As a result, I will be changing the lack of frequent updates and being more intentional about that, don’t worry.
Reverse Culture Shock is definitely a thing
My parents flew my wife, daughter and myself to Canada for 4 weeks at Christmas 2015. The last time I had been back to Canada was in the summer of 2012 when Lili and I were merely dating and I was introducing her to the family. I had never been gone from Canada for more than a year at a time, but with having gotten married and then the next year having had Jemina, a lot of our budget went towards other expenses and people came to visit us as opposed to us visiting them.
On that first trip back in over 3 years, there were things that hit me like a ton of bricks that I didn’t expect and don’t know how to explain, but other missionaries reading this will nod their head in agreement as they understand.
I remember going to Wal-Mart and feeling like it was more upper scale than the stores we frequent in Peru, even though culturally I know people generally think Wal-Mart is a lower class (there are memes about the people of Wal-Mart, after all). Anyway, I loved that I could get T-shirts for $5 that are of better quality than more expensive I’ve found in Peru. But at our Wal-Mart Superstore in Peterborough, I remember getting to the cereal aisle, and then again when I went to the chips and snack aisle that I somehow just…couldn’t cope.
I have no idea how to explain it other than the paralysis of choice.
I have always known there was more choice of things at grocery stores in my home country, and I often miss Salt & Vinegar potato chips or Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. But it was like I had no idea how to handle all the choice, and then psychologically I was feeling quite silly that this was somehow an issue to me, and that compounded it and made me feel much sillier. I have no idea if even trying to write this experience makes any sense or communicates what it felt like, but for a few minutes I had to just walk around and “get over it”. I had never experienced something like that before in my culture, and it felt weird to be uncertain how to handle something that used to be normal and I had never given a second thought to.
We Are Afraid of Letting You Know if We Get Blessed
I could share myriad examples of personal stories where people got offended with me or my family, like the time years ago I spent money I received *for my birthday* on an iPod and someone assumed I was blowing support money on myself. But I think the worst type of examples of this I’ve seen are what happened to a missionary couple I know who came off the field and transitioned to the USA. They had recently had a miscarriage months before they were scheduled to return, and several people in their lives purchased a cruise for them to go on first thing when they returned, as part of a way of blessing them and allowing them to decompress. Shortly afterward, someone bought them a brand new car. A nice one too, not a hand me down car that someone was going to get rid of but thought those poor missionaries could use it.
They waited a while before posting about it on Facebook. They wanted to share God’s faithfulness and blessing in their lives, but because the lion’s share of their sustenance was support, they expressed in their update that they were worried they would be judged and misunderstood by people who maybe couldn’t afford a nice car like theirs. It broke my heart to read because even though nobody has blessed me with a car, I’ve been super blessed in other ways and my wife and I kept the news to ourselves out of the same fear of having people assume we don’t need financial support if they mistakenly believe we’re well off. Even if they don’t have all the details.
I could go on and on, but instead I encourage you to read the original articles I am reacting to.
Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.