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10 Heartaches of Being a Missionary

being a missionary

We recently posted the article, “10 Heartaches of Being a Pastor,” on Facebook and were struck by how much it resonated with people. One of our readers suggested we do a similar post for missionaries.

“Missionaries could never write such an article ourselves,” he said, “because we would fear that our senders might see it and be offended. I am even reluctant to write my struggles in a comment, but since you asked, I will take the risk.” Then he shared some of his thoughts on what such a post could include.

We decided to take him up on his suggestion. As Joe Holman emphasized in his post, “Ten Things That Your Missionary Will Not Tell You,” the point of this article is not to ignore the many positive aspects of being a missionary, nor does it negate the steadfast churches and pastors who support their missionaries well. Rather, the point of this post is to acknowledge some of the pain missionaries deal with that many of us are oblivious to and to encourage us all to better love the missionaries in our lives.

10 Heartaches of Being a Missionary

1. Many churches don’t understand the Great Commission.

Our Facebook friend said that many Christians don’t understand the role the Great Commission plays in their lives, a point supported by research from Barna. There are a number of consequences when believers misunderstand the Great Commission. One is that people think evangelism is optional for them, or they believe they are obeying the Great Commission simply by supporting missionaries. So missionaries have to spend a lot of time educating U.S. Christians on what the Great Commission is. This is something, the user said, that pastors could help with.

2. Christians often don’t see missionaries as “real” people.

The Facebook user said that because most Christians are not living out the Great Commission, they feel uncomfortable around people who are. They keep their distance from missionaries, whom they see as the “holy homeless.” Holman makes a similar point, saying that people often see missionaries as “super Christians.” But, he writes, missionaries do the things that all broken people do. They neglect their devotions, struggle with envy, and yell at their family members. He says, “We are normal people seeking to honor Christ even though we are weak and fragile vessels. We sin, repent, sin, repent, and then repeat. We are like you.”

3. Some churches have hypocritical expectations.

A heartache related to the above points is that some churches judge missionaries by standards the churches themselves are not following. Holman describes being in front of a missions committee that was not satisfied with the numbers of people he was evangelizing and baptizing, even though the committee’s own church had hardly baptized or evangelized anyone in years. Holman says, “It is honestly difficult to listen to armchair quarterbacks who have never suited up critique the game that I am participating in.”

4. It’s hard living in another culture and it’s hard returning to the U.S.

Anyone who has spent time in a foreign country knows how vulnerable that can feel, even if you’re simply a tourist. Imagine spending years trying to adapt to an entirely new language and set of customs. We know missionaries who have described the experience as constantly feeling like children. And no matter how much time you spend in a foreign culture, you will always in some sense be an outsider. One woman who had been a missionary for 40 years told Holman, “No matter how incorporated you are into the culture, no matter how good your ministry, no matter how accepted that you are by the people…you are not one of ‘them.’”

At the same time, it’s hard to return to the U.S. because if you spend enough time in a foreign country, it changes you. On top of that, when you’ve been living in a different place for a long time, you don’t have a house or a car any more. Your friends have changed while you were gone. You’re dependent on other people’s time, space, and resources. So going home is hard logistically and it’s hard emotionally.

5. Missionaries always need more money, hate asking for it, and will be judged by others for how they use it.

Have you ever had to raise support or known anyone who has? Most people hate asking other people for money, but missionaries have to do that all the time–and they have to do it without seeming desperate. On top of that, people judge them for what they spend money on even if the missionaries are making valid decisions. Holman says that when his father passed away, his family decided to use some of their inheritance to take a vacation. When people saw missionaries taking a vacation, one donor actually stopped supporting them.

6. Missionaries can be a low priority to churches.

Our Facebook friend said that another result of churches not understanding the Great Commission is that missions is generally a low priority to churches. And when missionaries are a low priority, they don’t receive the care they need, whether that is financial, spiritual, or emotional. He said, “As a result many missionaries have experienced Uriah the Hittite feelings of abandonment by their sending churches/senders.” And being on the receiving end of this flakiness makes it harder to trust in God’s faithfulness.  

7. Missionaries could very likely deal with trauma while on the mission field.

Speaking of needing emotional support, how often do we remember that missionaries might need support for their mental health? In this post, a missionary who works with orphans describes how devastating it has been for him to see multiple children die. The resulting trauma has been something he has had to learn to work through with the help of God and trusted friends.

8. Missionaries are broken-hearted by the complacency they see in the American church.

And yet this same missionary’s experience with suffering has highlighted to him the need to follow God wholeheartedly. He sees Christians in the U.S. living a comfortable sort of Christianity that does not require the sacrifices we see from believers in the New Testament, sacrifices such as torture and imprisonment. It is discouraging for him to be exhausting himself serving in a foreign country while churches in the U.S. are more concerned with their buildings and budgets than they are with taking the risks required to follow Jesus.