For Missionary Couples
By Beth Reese, 2002
“Family life education would seem to be a wise long-term investment for mission boards to make in their families. Finding the balance between fulfilling God’s mandate to train one’s children and to preach the gospel is not easy, especially when faced with a foreign culture and seemingly endless demands on time and energy…. Missionary families must realize that, while their work is a God-given priority, the family is also a responsibility from God” (Wrobbel, EMQ 26, 1990).
“When a couple makes the decision to pursue cross-cultural ministry, every member of the family is affected, usually for a lifetime” (Wright and Nelson, in Bowers, Raising Resilient MKs, 1998).
Marriages are from God so they can be truly magnificent. The job of missionary is also God given. Most occupations do not involve both husband and wife, but this is not true with missions. Both tend to be involved in a missionary career. Both partners need to be on the field because he/she feels the commitment. Beth Reese conducted a survey of 137 missionaries in the churches of Christ. This can be found on-line soon on the www.intermissionministry.org site (The Strength of Missionary Families: A descriptive study of missionaries among churches of Christ, 2002). In this survey, only one wife said she was not a missionary. This wife worked fulltime at an international school.
Dr. Nick Stinnett, internationally recognized family researcher, began in 1974 with a small team to pursue the characteristics of successful families. Studying 14,000 families in fifty states and 24 countries, his team has determined six characteristics that are present in all strong families (Fantastic Families: 6 proven steps to building a strong family by Dr. Nick and Nancy Stinnett and Joe and Alice Beam, 1999). These characteristics are commitment, appreciation and affection, positive communication, time together, spiritual well-being, and the ability to cope with stress and crises. This lesson will examine the subject of missionary marriages using the Stinnett/Beam framework.
“A strong commitment to the Lord and to the Great Commission obscures husbands’ responsibilities to their wives and to their children.” This is considered a compulsive behavior comparable to a workaholic behavior using the same escape mechanism. The missionary “assumes that the wife and mother will be responsible for family development. He has more important areas of responsibility. Whether he does it consciously or not, he leaves the family, becomes a phantom father, and the family suffers the consequences, all in the name of serving the Lord” (Sensenig, EMQ 18, 1982).
1. The marriage covenant is a commitment made to each other before God and family.
2. The job of being a missionary is a very important one, but the marriage commitment must be recognized as more important. It will need to be in place regardless of what job the participants hold.
3. There should never be any doubt with each other that both spouses are committed to the marriage.
4. The missionary job can be very demanding and stress inducing. The couple needs to work on being content with the abilities God has given them. With maturity, they can realize that they cannot do everything. It may be that better methods can be found, more manpower can be utilized or some jobs can be eliminated.
5. Intimacy is part of the commitment. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain because of living conditions or culture. When both are committed to the relationship it is easier to work on a plan.
Realize you are not alone in this problem.
Think about our ancestors in one room log cabins, people in many cultures in grass houses, etc. Learn to take walks or drives together for long talks.
Put the children to bed so you have some time alone.
Take time together when the children are in school.
You may even have to plan “intimate dates” during the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping.
6. When children come along, needs of the spouse still need to be met. Children demand time and attention. Often the spouse will not be so demanding, but that does not mean he/she can then be neglected.
7. Avoid situations that undermine commitment. Stay away from places that could offer temptations, including Internet sites. Avoid entertainment that teaches immorality, selfishness, or worldliness.
8. Beauty wanes with age. As you mature, learn the real meaning of love. Develop your commitment to one another by learning to appreciate character on a deeper level.
9. Turn adversities and difficulties into bonding experiences.
10. If the missionary couple is working with a mission team, safeguards need to be put in place to guard reputations when opposite gender team members are together.
Affection and Appreciation
“Marital stress is also created by local rules. In some Asian countries, touching each other in public is taboo. Any display of affection, even at home if the servant is present, is considered socially unacceptable. Husband and wife may not be able to walk side by side, and to make it worse for the wife, the husband has to go first. Missionary couples may therefore feel deprived of the oil of daily affection” (Foyle, EMQ 23, 1987).
1. Tell your spouse you love him/her every day. Demonstrate this love with touching, hugs, or kisses.
2. Be creative in ways to show appreciation and affection. Often local culture will put limitations on demonstrations of affection.
Develop special signals that only you recognize that say, “I love you.”
Gather wildflowers to give your spouse if there is no way to buy flowers.
Create acceptable environments to act as you normally would. (Train locals that are often in your home that it is acceptable to show appreciation in certain ways. One Ghanaian church elder told the missionaries that sometimes things were not done in a culture just because they had never been trained to do so. He said the missionaries needed to train the local Christians how to be kind and loving in the family.
Take advantage of expressions that they do have. When sitting in opposite sections for worship, you can still speak to each other with loving expressions. Slip notes in the other’s Bible to be found during service.
Pack special lunches for those days when the spouse will be out all day.
3. Remember to express the things that you are thinking and feeling. Quite often a spouse will appreciate many things but will fail to tell the other.
4. Choose to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. Proverbs overlooking faults is a good thing.
5. Dress in ways that please your spouse. Often we adjust to the local way of dressing without giving much thought to what our spouse may appreciate. There can probably be a balance.
6. Compliment your spouse to other people.
7. Acknowledge your spouse’s feelings. Allow them to express their feelings and emotions without being critical of them.
8. Remember anniversaries and birthdays. You may be the only one to honor your spouse on those days.
9. Develop meaningful rituals that show appreciation
10. Show your spouse you love them by taking care of yourself. Don’t take chances. Keep yourself healthy.
11. As missionaries and foreigners, you will be treated to varying levels of criticism, scrutiny, and ridicule. Make sure that, at home, you help each other to be built up with well-deserved compliments and praise.
“The model of healthy family relationships can communicate Biblical principles, even when language barriers prevent verbal communication” (Bowers, Raising Resilient MKs, 1998).
Sensenig says that an emotional divorce occurs when the husband puts his ministry commitments above his marriage and the family. Communication breaks down and the husband escapes to the more rewarding environment of his ministry where he is needed and appreciated (Sensenig, EMQ 18, 1982).
1. According to the survey, the main problem in the missionary family seems to be communication. Often a missionary may spend many hours of the day ‘communicating’ outside the home, so they want to rest when they are at home.
2. It is common for a family member to assume that their own family will understand them, especially since they may have a lot of difficulty communicating with others in another culture.
3. Family rules sometimes change overseas because the environment is different.
4. Family discussions need to be had to establish and reinforce rules.
5. Parents need to discuss changes in their roles as parents caused by work needs.
6. Families need to spend time talking and praying together. This is especially true for the married couple.
7. Talk to your spouse everyday about the things going on in your life and work.
8. If one spouse travels a lot, work out ways to share your lives when you get back together.
9. Take advantage of email, cell phones, and journals to communicate when apart.
10. Remember that parenting is a joint affair. Both parents should be involved in the goals and challenges of parenting, even if one parent spends more time with the children.
11. Sometimes it is good to take some time apart from others and interruptions just so that you have time to talk in depth on some subjects.
12. Allow your spouse time to say what he/she wants to express. This is especially good for the talkative partner to remember.
13. The more expressive partner can develop skills to help the other spouse to communicate more fully what he/she thinks and feels. This can be done by asking questions, allowing time for responses, following through on indications of thoughts, etc.
14. Communication involves talking, listening, and understanding.
15. Communicate openly and honestly and constructively. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
16. Allow your partner the privilege of “venting” about things that frustrate them in the new culture. That spouse should try to express their frustrations in “I messages” but even if the aggrieved spouse does not say it right, be patient and serve as a sounding board.
17. Develop skills in conflict resolution.
1. Set a time and place for discussion.
2. Define the problem or issue of disagreement. (Select ONE important issue you would like to resolve.)
3. How do you each contribute to the problem? (Without blaming each other, list the things you each do that had NOT helped to resolve the problem.)
4. List past attempts to resolve the issue that were not successful.
5. Brainstorm. List all possible solutions. (Pool your new ideas and try to attain ten possible solutions to the problem. Do not judge or criticize any of the suggestions at this point.)
6. Discuss and evaluate these possible solutions. (Be as objective as you can. Talk about how useful and appropriate each suggestion might be for resolving your disagreement.)
7. Agree on one solution to try.
8. Agree how each individual will work toward this solution.
9. Set-up another meeting. Discuss your progress.
10. Reward each other as you each contribute toward the solution.
A new convert said that one of the reasons that he was attracted to Christianity was seeing the way the missionary spent time with his family. The husband “did not leave his family and its development to chance” (Sensenig, EMQ 18, 1982).
“Families usually find that when they go overseas they spend more time together on a regular basis. . . . This can be a great boon because the family can attend to the subtle emotional needs of its members. . . . Comfortable time together also allows for good communication and many opportunities to respond to each others needs” (Gilpin, Family Preparation for Living Overseas. 1985).
1. Time together is important. Set aside a day a week for the family. This is so important for the missionary couple that some mission committees even insist on it.
2. Family time is important. It should be scheduled and kept. Learn to set boundaries. It may be necessary to let the local people know when you schedule family time and teach them to respect it.
3. Take vacations together as a family. This allows you to be out of the spotlight for a short time. Vacations do not have to be expensive. The time spent together is much more important than being entertained.
4. Share at least one meal together each day as a family. This will be difficult, but with determination it can happen most of the time.
5. Plan your days or weeks so that there is time for intimacy.
6. A balance of time together and individualism is important. All combinations of one-on-one family relationships need to be fostered.
7. Enjoy activities together with clubs and other school and social events.
8. Read books together in the evening after the children are in bed.
9. Remember that the best gift we can give is a piece of ourselves.
A study on the spirituality of missionaries found that “the more satisfied a missionary was with his or her spiritual life, the more likely he or she was to be satisfied with family life, and vice versa” (Andrews, Journal of Psychology and Theology 27,1999).
1. Both the husband and the wife need to have a deep faith in the Lord
2. Since the missionary couple will be in young, developing congregations, one of their main tasks will be to help each other grow spiritually.
3. When one spouse thinks the other needs to ‘change for the better’, learn when and how to discuss the change needed.
4. Sometimes the wife may feel that she is stagnating, especially if she is with small children every day. The husband should make a plan to take the children some to allow the wife to do something she wants to do. He especially needs to take the children so she can have some time alone with the Lord.
5. The wife needs to be included in spiritual discussions. She is not usually on the field as a silent partner. Discussions also help to stimulate her and keep her active spiritually, even when she is in the years of caring for little children.
6. If you suffer from a lack of local resources, remember that many church services are on-line. If downloading is a problem, get your home congregation to send you their services on CD from time to time.
7. Help each other to critique the local culture from a Biblical perspective instead of a critical one.
8. Families have to make rules for living in the culture. Ensure that your standards are biblical and not just because everybody else is doing it.
9. Think about the long-term significance of choices that involve cultural values. The couple has to set the tone for the entire family.
a. Education: What social agenda and view of life is being taught? E.g. definitions of the family, of normative sexual experience, of the ultimate source of life.
b. Fine arts: What values are exemplified in dress, in movements, in depictions?
c. Sports: What attitudes are coaches and teammates encouraging?
d. Entertainment: What messages are carried by TV, games, movies, shows, songs, instrumental beats?
e. Friends: What are the priorities and values of the peer group?
10. As a missionary, try not to let your work replace your own Christianity. Since you are ‘being a spiritual person’ all day, it is sometimes easy to forget that you need to be praying and communing with God.
11. Expose yourself to good Christian examples of faith as often as is possible. Read good books.
12. Home is where we have family, friends, and familiar culture and language.
13. Be sure to have some family traditions and rituals.
14. Establish family holidays and traditions.
15. Keep laughter in the family but never let it be to embarrass or cut one another down.
16. Sing, discuss, and pray as you go about activities.
17. Home is where faith – or lack of it – is most evident.
18. Be a model of Christianity for those around you. Model making wise decisions and dependence on the Lord. Be a walk about – talk about model (Faulkner, Raising Faithful Kids in a Fast-Paced World, 1995).
19. Treat any household help with kindness and gentleness.
20. Have a strong value system in place that clearly impacts decisions and rules. An effective value system has five characteristics (according to Faulkner, 20-22):
a. Blesses society in general (society).
b. Deals honestly with sin or wrongdoings (ethics).
c. Lasts eternally (time and the future).
d. Gives meaning and purpose to life (value of life).
e. Answers the big questions of aging and death (death and dying).
21. In most cases, couples on a mission team need to not take sides when you see another team couple having a problem. Let each family take care of their own situations.
22. Practice personal accountability.
Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis
“Because people are different and the places they go are different, there could never be an exhaustive list. The main concept to remember is that any stress can be handled and any crisis can be overcome. It will likely take time, learning new coping skills and developing a greater trust in God, but it can be done” (Reese, The Strength of Missionary Families, 2002).
1. Difficulties will come as part of the nature of life in a fallen world.
2. The couple needs to work on a family platform (core values). When there are good values at the core it is easier for the family to put other things into perspective.
3. There is not as much community help available (child care, schools, Sunday school, activities, even places to go) in some cultures. The missionary family has to often learn to be self-sufficient. Extended family is not usually available.
4. Because the overseas family has to be self-sufficient, the missionary couple needs to learn how to accept and ask for help.
5. Remember that everything takes longer in another culture. This includes shopping, housework, travel and even visiting with Christians.
6. Culture shock sometimes displays itself in anger and frustration. Often this stress is shown in the treatment of family members.
7. Everyone is watching you as a missionary couple. Learn not to let the fact that your life is on view be a frustration. Develop maturity in your Christian life that allows people to see the real you.
8. Stressors can include moving, sickness or injury, trouble in school, lost job, depression, births, deaths, estrangement, separation or divorce, imprisonment, retirement, heavy debt, or any major life change. (The Holmes-Rahe Scale even lists Christmas.) Special stressors for missionaries include: Weak dollar, loss of support, no grandparents or babysitters, team relationships, cramped housing, living in a fishbowl, buying foods that are not common to you, living in another language, having to do many jobs….
9. Learn how to relieve stress before an explosion occurs.
10. Look for the stress inducers. Get rid of them if possible or get them under control.
11. Keep things in perspective.
12. The school situation can sometimes be a problem. Families have to make choices about public school, private school, home school, or boarding school. Then they have to deal with the consequences of that decision.
13. Learn to laugh or use humor to relieve tension.
A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones (Pr 17:22).
14. Open the lines of communication. Most things are not as bad as we can imagine them to be.
15. Find a confidante that is willing to listen to you and help you keep your perspective on life.
16. Be adaptable and flexible.
17. Remember that above all, God is there to help us and carry us through our struggle.
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13).
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us (Eph 3:20).
18. Here is a plan for coping:
a. Pray. Learn to turn things over to God. Let Him take care of the problem. Most of the things we worry about never happen.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
b. Mediate. Turn your mind to positive things. Count your many blessings.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:8-9).
c. “Come away for a while.” Step back, think, and re-group. Rest occasionally.
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, He said to them, “Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mk 6:31).
By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Gen 2:2-3).
d. Look at the big picture. Keep your eyes on the goal.
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:1-2).
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).
e. Then break the big picture up into manageable portions for getting the job done.
“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Mt 6:34).
f. Look for the blessings.
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else… (Phil 1:12-13).
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim 4:7-8).
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ…(Phil 3:8).
g. Be pro-active in working on solutions. Families shoulder the burden together. Then they are willing to seek help from others.
Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ…. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load (Gal 6:2,4-5).
Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Psalm 127:1
The following is an exert from The Strength of Missionary Families: A descriptive study of missionaries among churches of Christ, by Joy Beth Reese, 2002.
At the end of the Family Strengths Inventory designed by Dr. Stinnett and his teams, there were four open-ended questions prepared by the missionary families’ researcher. One hundred thirty-three (97%) missionaries shared from their hearts about their families and their mission works with only four who did not respond to this section. There were similar thoughts put in many different ways. An attempt has been made to put these together into some kind of result format. It must be pointed out that respondents were free to write anything they wanted to share. Just because someone wrote one particular answer did not mean that missionary might not wholeheartedly agree with an answer suggested by another missionary. Answers were not exclusive of other possibilies but suggestive of what first came to mind.
“I believe we have a strong family because. . . .”
At least 54 respondents said they have a strong family because the family is committed to serving the Lord. God is first in their lives, and they believe their families reflect that sentiment. One missionary puts it simply, “God is our life.” Another couple explained the strong family by saying that they each try to be dedicated to God and His Word. “Since we’re both trying to be what God wants us to be, our marriage is healthy and our family is happy.”
Thirty-five respondents said they are committed to their families while another 18 said they have a strong family because they love one another. Twelve stated that they put their family in a priority rating second only to God. One MK said of her family “We have been through a lot together, things that nobody else will ever understand. We have inside jokes, traditions, and experiences that make our family of 5 an independent and exclusive group.” Another MK said, “We’re not perfect: We all love each other and want what’s best for each other. We let God lead our family as the head and He shows us the way . . . one step at a time.” Nineteen missionaries found it important that they share family backgrounds and values with their spouse.
At least nine families believed that each family member feels God had called them to work in the mission field, and 21 families said that they all worked together in the task. One missionary family shared,
Our mission experience was such a ‘family work.’ In many ways we seemed closer as a family on the field than since returning to the US and having a ‘real’ job. I believe that as long as the mission work and hospitality is a family involvement, that missions will be positive for a family.
The following answers reflect specific influences that some missionary families felt had an impact on their families: worship, either publicly or privately, (10); having fun together (13); enduring difficulties and working on problems (16); communicating as a family (13); keeping a balance in their lives (2); and having support from the extended family (4). One family says, “We have endured hard times together and have worked together to overcome obstacles to meet the challenges life has brought our way.”
“I see the following reasons why we are stronger because of our mission experiences....”
The largest number, 44, said in some way that they are stronger because they have grown in their world view and understanding of the “bigger picture” because of their overseas experiences. One MK reflected, “We accept differences in people more readily and easily. Tend not to hold prejudices toward others.” A long term missionary who has now returned said, “Our family has a world view. We are confident individuals who are able to relate to peoples of the world as we travel abroad or host in U.S. We have a heart for missions.”
Thirty-one families believed they are stronger and closer because, in their circumstances on the field, they had to draw closer as a family in order to survive. As one missionary said, “We depend on each other because there are not many other people around for us to lean on.” Twenty-six said that they spend much more time together as a family. One missionary said, “We have been forced to rely very heavily on each other as our only source of encouragement many times. It has brought us very close together.” Another had this to say,
We are ‘home’ to each other. Our ‘homes’ change so often. We are never in the same place, or speaking the same language, or eating the same food or with the same church or set of friends for more than a few years at a time, but we are always together as a family no matter where we are. Essentially, wherever our family is, is where our home is.
Twenty-six said that the work and the challenges it brings are shared by the couple, and where applicable, by the children. They all can relate to the difficulties and problems as well as the joys involved. One father said, “Everything that ever happened on the field we did as a family, good or bad.”
Twenty-seven families stated that God is the head of their team and their family. Because of their trust in God, they developed more faith in His help and guidance. One missionary described it this way,
We’ve had to face serious problems – deadly diseases, poisonous snakes, long-term illnesses, accusations of being CIA spies, nearby wars (though, thank the Lord we were never in one!), difficult living conditions, frustrations of all sorts, loneliness, etc. BUT God always was with us through the hard times and provided for us in miraculous ways, at times. Seeing God so actively involved in our lives and the lives of new Christians and new churches increased our faith and dependence on God.
Developing a greater desire and commitment to teach the lost was mentioned by 14 families. Seven respondents gave one of their sources of strength as being the world-wide family of God and the individual brothers and sisters who come to their aid. One missionary who travels extensively said, “The Lord gave us brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. . . . We have friends and brothers and sisters all over the world.” Seven families also listed the positive role-models in parents and other missionaries.
Thirty missionaries felt they had more control over their time and family because of the lack of distraction from culture or society (little or no television, few real peers). They can avoid the negative aspects, such as materialism, if they so desire. One missionary stated it this way, “Because we were around so few Americans, we were all more free from peer pressure. It was a special blessing for the kids to be able to form their personalities without having to be shaped by the world.” Three went so far as to say that their children reared overseas are much more spiritual than the ones reared after returning to the US. An MK gave this perspective on the family,
I don’t think I realized how truly special my family was until I came to. . . [college]. I had always known that my family was different (I don’t think I’ll ever fit in on this earth), but I always thought the difference came because of our faith. In coming to . . . [college], I was expecting to find lots of people very similar to my family. But I’m still very surprised at the stories I hear about the families represented here. God has blessed our family richly. And I honestly believe that we are all so close because of our experiences together in missions.
“I believe the following aspects of living on the field have been a detriment to our family . . . .”
At least 32 respondents said that they can think of no significant detriments to living on the mission field. Many missionaries just stated, “There were none” or “I can’t think of any.” One missionary of long experience said, “I would say the very opposite.” Another missionary said, “Living on the field was overwhelmingly positive for our family.” Twenty-eight stated that it was difficult to be so far away from grandparents and extended family. One long-term missionary said, “We are not as close to our extended family as we would have been, simply because we missed so very many important events: births, weddings, illnesses, and funerals . . . even vacations.” Ten families said that there were periods of time when one of the immediate family members was away (sometimes the father, sometimes the high-school or college student). One missionary to an under-developed country shared the following, “It was necessary for our children to be sent away from home to boarding schools for their high school education, and to be sent to a ‘foreign’ country (USA) for college. This was difficult for us all.” Nine respondents felt that the demands on their time are great and often distracted from the needs of the family. As a side issue, six missionary families who have returned to the United States believed that their family is not nearly as close in the States as it was on the mission field.
Re-entry, the term used for moving back to the home culture, is reported to be a problem for 18 of the families that responded. Eleven of these families said that it was hard for the children to re-enter the US culture and society. One missionary had this to say,
It was difficult returning to the US. The mind set is so different here. We still struggle to keep our priorities in order (God and family) in spite of all that the US culture tries to do to divide family. The church here is probably one of the most divisive elements. The youth are totally segregated from the church family. Our children have expressed concern and dislike of this segregation and still sit with us as a family at church and choose family activities over youth group activities.
Seven missionaries admitted that re-entry was hard on the adults as well. As one father stated, “The loss of a definable ‘mission’ was strongly felt by me.”
One of the most varied groups of statements revolved around issues concerning third culture kids. More than just “missing grandparents and extended family,” nine said that the children feel no real connection to their parent’s past or their extended family. Here it is in the words of one MK who spent his first 18 years overseas,
The only detriment I felt, being a missionary kid, and having been on the mission field is that I have no real connection to my parents’ past. To me [country name] was home, but their home was in America. I also felt little connection to other relatives in America.
Four families believed that the very secular society of their particular mission field made it difficult for the spiritual growth of the children. In these urban secular fields, prostitutes had even been a suspected problem for one MK. Another four did not feel that there were very many opportunities for their children in the local congregation. Four said that frequent moves, new friends, and schools may be harder on the children than it seems. While three just refer to general issues, two mentioned that the children created their own culture with the parts they like from each. One mentioned a certain amount of dysfunction in growing up too fast, another was negatively influenced by the extra attention, and another did not build close relationships with people.
Culture shock is mentioned by three of the missionary families. Two cited a lack of privacy and time to be alone as a problem. Two more mentioned difficulties involved in getting along with other missionaries. Two believed that it is a problem for missionary families to not let others help them with their difficulties. One described a real problem because there was little accountability for the missionary. The wife said, “He was gone so much.” Sadly, in this case the “husband had affairs, left the family and wife.” After returning to the States, two found that they had missed out on higher education opportunities and their credentials were now outdated.
Four families stated that distance and time affected their emotional support from the church family. Two believed that they suffered a lack of being fed since they were the strongest Christians in the area. Two said that they were definitely affected by inadequate financial support. One mentioned that the health of their infant daughter was affected by being on the field.
“I would like to tell families that are planning to move to a mission field. . . .”
Comments under this question seemed almost as varied as the number of respondents. Twenty-one missionaries, however, stated that it is very important to be committed to the work, both as a couple and as individuals. They believed that the missionary should really love the people they are trying to reach and that the goal should be to convert them to the Lord and not change them into North Americans. Six believed that the family should take advantage of living in a foreign country and enjoy the culture and the sights when there is some free time. Five said that this includes learning the language and four reminded others to also teach the language to the children. Three urged other missionaries not to be afraid to make deep friendships within their adopted culture.
Some other work related advice was given. Seven suggested that the missionary should be seeking and saving the lost before going to a mission field. As one missionary said, “Those who want to do missions must begin doing the things they expect to do on the field – now. Wherever you are if you aren’t doing something for God, you won’t do it for God overseas either.” Six said that a couple should definitely go with a team, but one added that the team should not be too enmeshed with each other. Six gave flexibility and adaptability as important traits to demonstrate. One missionary cautioned others to plan to work themselves out of a job.
In preparation, several missionaries stated that they assumed there would be training in missions, but 15 specifically said that the family needs to learn about adjustments that will have to be made and make preparations to learn to deal with those adjustments. Five others suggested pre-field assessments and training in missions, relationships, parenting, and financial matters. Three encouraged making sure of financial support before leaving while two mentioned other practical matters such as insurance and a will. One missionary shared her struggles, “Not enough financial support –not having a furlough in 8 years was really damaging.” Two encouraged looking ahead to re-entry and plans for the future.
In different ways, 23 mentioned keeping priorities in order. Six of these stated that the priority should be God, marriage, children, and then the vocation or mission work. Seventeen of these missionaries stated that family must be the first priority. As one missionary father of long experience said,
Make family a top priority, even higher than your work goals. If you don’t succeed as a family, your testimony falls out the window. If the stresses of being on the mission field are too much for your marriage and your family values to prevail, then leave. Family comes first after your own individual relationship with God. Honor one another and make sure your children see you model a prayerful, trusting relationship with a real and powerful, loving God. If they know from young what you are about and what God’s purpose is about, you will be their heroes, and they will automatically join you in living out God’s plan right along with you. Teach your children actively at home through Bible study and prayer time appropriate to their age level, and make sure they have opportunities for spiritual growth and interaction with peers who will be an encouragement to them in their walk with God rather than letting them feel cut off from the world of opportunities of involvement and support of a Christian peer group that are available to our young people today. If it isn’t available to them at a critical time in their development, then go to where it is. They are too important for you to risk losing them to the world because you thought staying in some remote part of the world to teach “strange” people was more of a priority than your own children. God is powerful, and He will raise up someone else to complete the work He has begun in you if your family needs you to return to the US or move on to another area of service more conducive to success in your family situation.
Fifteen others advised the missionary to take time for his family. Eight more mentioned that the missionary should take regular days off as well as vacations. Six expressed a similar sentiment in saying that the missionary must have a balance in his life between work and fun, family and ministry, and spouse and children. One missionary put it this way, “Your family is your first ministry. If you go to the field and start 10 churches of 100 people and yet your marriage falls apart and your kids’ lives are a mess, you have failed in your ministry.”
In other family related matters, 12 were adamant about families getting help with current problems before going to a mission field. All were very strong in saying that the mission field does not fix problems like this but usually make them worse. One missionary said,
Work to have a strong, caring family before you make plans to go on the field. Everything becomes more stressful on the field and you need a good base from which to work. On the field do not neglect to nurture your family because of the demands of the work.
Eleven said that the family should take time to communicate within the family. Eleven more encouraged others to be sure to include the whole family in the mission work. One missionary family still on the field shared this, The evangelistic community of our church family provides a great atmosphere for our children to learn and grow. It thrills us to see our children excited when someone we have been studying with becomes a Christian. In our family, our God is a part of all of our lives, not just on Sundays.
Five suggested that it is important to keep in touch with those back home. Two encouraged other families to keep traditions alive for the family. Three said that parents should let children lead a normal life in the host culture. Two encouraged parents to try to understand children in light of their third culture setting. Three others talked about the need for a team to minister to families on the field either in parenting or marriage seminars. One distraught parent had this to say, “No knowledge of the teenage mind! You can read all the books you want to but a real help would have been a team that ministered to families on the field to help avoid or be prepared for the teen years.”
Spiritual advice included the seven who admonished missionaries to be dedicated to the Lord. Eight encouraged the missionary to let God work through him or her. Nine said that the missionary should pray without ceasing. Four encouraged reading the Bible for strength, comfort and wisdom. Six reminded the missionary not to expect everything to be easy just because he or she is trying to do God’s will. One missionary family still on the field stated, “We have been through many attacks from Satan these last 4½ years on the field and our family has grown stronger, even through major crisis.” One recently returned missionary said, “Pray without ceasing and keep your spiritual eyes open in order to see and appreciate God.”
Fourteen respondents encouraged other families that it would be a great blessing for the family to be involved in missions on the field. Ten more concluded that the missionary and his family would be blessed. One missionary said, “Go – Go – Go. . . . Allow God to work through you to do His will. You will be blessed beyond words.” Another missionary penned these words,
That God will bless them richly. He is faithful and keeps all of His promises. Keep your eyes focused on Him and on why He has brought you to this place to teach the good news and you will not be discouraged. What could be more rewarding than helping to bring the lost to the Savior?
Another missionary gave the following summarized advice,
I was an MK and now my children are. I felt (and still do) that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Be sure of your calling, prepare in every way possible and “GO.” But remember you have NO message if your family and marriage isn’t strong.
One missionary of over 28 years experience concluded, “Just do it. There are no perfect missionary families. Just families who let God override personal desires.”