10 Years and 10 Things I’ve Learned About Being a Long-Term Missionary
In October of 2006 I left North America and set out on a journey which I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined. On this journey I wound up planted in a city called Battambang, married to a Khmer girl, have had 2 children with one more on the way, and started a unique ministry for street children. Now over 10 years later I’m sitting here reflecting on everything I’ve learned and observed in the last decade about being a truly long-term missionary. It’s not all happy thoughts and salvations though, and for anyone who wants to really commit their lives to working abroad as missionaries should seriously take some time to think about the consequences of sticking around beyond a couple years.
I’m going to start by telling you the negatives and some of the less pleasant things about being a truly long-term missionary.
It does get old.
Do you have missionary friends who post beautiful pictures on Facebook about how beautiful the exotic landscape is around their work or house? It usually includes lush green rice fields with palm trees in the background with a caption like, “Never gets old” or “what a beautiful country!” Most missionaries hang around for a year, maybe two or three, and then go back to where ever they came from. In the grand scheme of things, a few years is not a long time and it’s easy to remain in wonder of things you see during that time. But get past those first few years and your perspective starts to change.
After 10 years, the country I live in is still beautiful and I’m happy to see it, but I’ve been looking at it for 10 years. It’s not exotic to me anymore, it’s just normal. And there are only so times I can stop and take the same photo and just be blown away by it. I grew up in Colorado, by the mountains, which I love and think are beautiful, but after living there for 15 years even the mountains were just normal to me. Sometimes you have to get away from it all just to be reminded of how great it is.
Eventually, the things that are exotic and different become routine and normal. A coconut or mango tree is as exotic to me now as a maple tree is to a Canadian or an orange tree to a person from Florida. Our appreciation for things changes in that we learn to take comfort in seeing palm trees and rice paddies, but they are no longer things that just blow us away.
Sometimes I look out on the world around me and think that it would be nice to go see some place new for a change. So, when we go away for long trips to raise support we are happy to see the flat plains of the Midwest or the Rocky Mountains and then we learn to appreciate the normalcy when we come back to mango trees, coconuts, and lily ponds. Sometimes we also learn to enjoy the wonder and awe through visitors and other new missionaries and revel in the fact that we’re the seasoned vets who’ve already seen it and done it all.
It gets lonely.
I have quite a few local Khmer friends and there are always other foreigners around who are my friends, but the longer you stay in the mission field the fewer people there are who truly know what you are going through. Most missionaries are only temporary residents and after only a year or two the vast majority will have moved on to another field or gone back to where they call home. Each year after that more and more steadily pick up and leave. So, the pool of people who know what it’s like having been in that place for 8, 10, 15 years or more keeps getting smaller and smaller.
The newer missionaries and expats are great in their own right, but there are just some things that they don’t get and it will be a long while still before they get it, assuming they stick around long enough. We older missionaries can’t explain everything, there are just some things you have to live through to understand. So even when surrounded by other foreigners a person can feel extremely lonely because no one around you understands how it feels to be so deep in the culture yet not quite a true part of it, or what the emotional waves are that you had to go through in year 8 or 9 as you realized you don’t totally belong to where you came from either.
And while local people are amazing and can make great friends, there will always be a cultural divide. They can’t always understand what you’re going through either.
So, while some missionaries may appear to become less social, really, we’re just investing our energy in relationships with the few people who really know what it’s like to live in the mission field for so long. Those are the people who we need to lean on the most to keep going sometimes.
The reasons why many people won’t go to the mission field, become the reasons you’re afraid to leave it.
Most people are fearful of leaving for the mission field abroad because they are attached to their families and relationships and their homes. However, the longer you stay in the mission field the more attached you are to people around you and it does become home. That can be both good and extremely difficult at times.
One of the most difficult things about this is that you realize you don’t belong to the country you grew up in or are a citizen of anymore. My friends and family all have been living their lives back where I came from without me. They’ve built new friendships and relationships. The culture has changed and shifted while I’ve been away.
If I were to move back to the US I’d have to pack up my home, sell my house and car and most of my belongings, leave behind a decade worth of friendships and relationships, and move my family to a country and culture that will be as alien to me now as Cambodia was when I first came here. That’s a pretty terrifying thought.
And realizing that you’re not truly part of the culture you came from anymore is a tough thought to process. It can be downright depressing sometimes. And so often I am afraid of going back to the US.
You can become cynical and jaded.
For the first several years of living on the mission field most people have on the proverbial “rose colored glasses.” This doesn’t end just when you pull out of the worst of culture shock. New missionaries have a unique zeal (which we older missionaries do sometimes get jealous of by the way) where they feel like everything is going to be great and God is only going to do amazing things. Sometimes I do wish I still had that same excitement and optimism.
But after several years your struggles add up. While we do get to see a lot of the success of ministry, we also have to confront the failures. And those failures accumulate over time and can weigh heavily on your heart. People who you thought you led to the Lord or who appeared once to be fervent believers walk away from their faith. You realize that a lot of what is being done on the mission field isn’t as effective as you thought it was. What may have looked like a success early on turns out to be a failure 5 years down the road, well after most people have left.
Sometimes watching these failures causes you to become critical of other ministries and people who don’t know all that you know. Sometimes you may be critical because you will see people being taken advantage of and refusing to acknowledge it. You can become cynical because you see people diving into new ministries and know that they may actually be doing more harm than good to a community and they just simply can’t see it because they lack the experience or cultural knowledge. Sometimes you can become angry because you will feel like people aren’t listening to your experience and plowing ahead anyways on what you know is a dangerous path.
Worse still, sometimes you may hope for people fail. I know I am guilty of this and have witnessed it in others. It isn’t because we hate people or want bad things for their ministries, but because we can see the problems and dangers in certain approaches, things we may have already been through and newer missionaries don’t always listen when we try to tell them about it. Sometimes you hope they quickly get a dose of reality so they learn to do it right and make a real lasting impact on those they serve.
This can be especially true when you become close with communities and care about vulnerable people. When you work with vulnerable people groups you are confronted with the worst of humanity at times as we see children who are sold into trafficking, boys who succumb to drugs and die as teenagers, and families that abuse their children. When you invest so much energy in caring for broken people you can become extremely critical of anyone who wants to work with that same group.
It’s easy to think that you will never become such a curmudgeon, but it happens over a long period of time. Slowly the hurt of watching people reject Christ or of watching people you care about be hurt can harden your heart. It takes a lot of prayer and introspection sometimes to learn to push the cynicism back and trust in God.
You will wrestle with your faith. For some odd reason people tend to think of overseas missionaries as the elite special forces of the church. In the minds of the average church goer we are supposed to have unwavering faith and be capable of doing things which no ordinary Christian could ever do.But the truth is that we are sinful beings who are vulnerable to the same doubts and questions as anyone else. The only real difference is that we like being in other cultures and eating strange and unusual food (usually). People often applaud me for what I do and I have to inform them it is just because that’s what God made me for. God help me if He ever calls me to be a junior high teacher! I applaud junior high teachers because if I had to teach 8th grade every day I’d go completely mad, they most certainly do a job that I think I could never do in my lifetime.The point is though that we are not these amazing pillars of faith or the penultimate champions of the cross that Christians in the west want to portray us as. We just happen to be blessed with different skill sets. We are still humans and we are often are confronted with the worst humanity has to offer, who question God’s plan, and we must wrestle with why a loving God would allow such horrible things in the world.There have indeed been times that I’ve wrestled with what God asks me to do. There are times when I’ve been angry at God and have sincerely considered walking away from Him. There are times when in the back of my mind I think that perhaps I should just be agnostic or that the Bible must be wrong. You will have doubts and real struggles, in fact, the Bible tells us that by choosing to serve God will be tested, tempted, persecuted, and pushed to our limits.
I often need to seek out a pastor or someone else I trust and talk to them and pray with them and hope that God gives me some sort of clarity. Thus far God keeps bringing me back into His arms and pushing me on, but it is an ongoing struggle and it will be for as long as you choose to be a missionary.
There are certainly some harsh realities to deal with when you are a long-term missionary. At times, you truly are being put through the crucible and being tested, but rest assured that you are being refined by God for something greater. Life on the mission field most certainly is not all struggles, failures, and a life ridden with depressing attitudes. No, there are some very serious advantages to living abroad for a long time and enough good things happening to make up for the tough parts and the times you are brought down.
You learn to pace yourself.
The vast majority of the time, God plays the long game and you need to be able to pace yourself. Newer missionaries are in such a rush to save people that they don’t see the dangers that may come up. As they say, “don’t run, walk.” If you run towards a precipice you won’t see it until it’s too late.
We learn to be patient and trust that God has something good in mind if we just plug it out or we learn to be patient and appreciate that sometimes it’s about quality and not quantity. Always running and pushing can lead to you stretching and over-extending, sometimes you become discouraged by a lack of numbers, and eventually by stressing out and overthinking everything you may actually burn out. Missions is hard work and exhausting. If most people kept at it the way most missionaries do in the first year or two they’d likely be literally dead by year 6. As they say, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
And while sometimes the spiritual and emotional highs might not be what they once were, the lows won’t be as low as they could be and over time you learn to deal with them. Failures and lows unfortunately will still pile up and cause you stress, they will take a toll on your body, mind, and spirit, but as you learn to pace yourself you learn not just to cope, but how to recover and accept the things you can’t change. You will learn when to take a break and seek the Lord and eventually you will bounce back and recover. Which means that you will be able to keep at it longer still.
You get better at your job.
Experience matters and being immersed in a culture for so long means that you get to know that culture, really really well. You will learn about little nuances and facial expressions and quirks that will fly by most foreigners but can mean the difference between approval and total rejection from locals in communities and governments.
You learn how people react to different approaches and you do get to genuinely see what will work best for different situations. What works in North America often might just be considered idiotic by locals and the longer you’re in a country the better you get at learning what works and what doesn’t.
You learn how to talk to people and what will catch their attention. Spending so much time in a community enables you to earn the trust of local people. In fact, so many homeless people in Battambang know me now that I can go into just about any squatters’ camp in the city and feel completely safe and without worry that people will scam or steal from me. Usually the drugged up and often drunk young men are the ones to protect my car or motorcycle from curious children or anyone who might grab whatever isn’t nailed down. That they trust me and care for me means that I and Crossing Cambodia have a unique platform on which to speak into their lives and hearts about the gospel.
And you realize that you’re only going to keep getting better at what you do because you’re going to continue becoming more and more intimate with the culture you’ve come to. Because of ethnicity there will always be people who are strangers to me that will always perceive me as a foreigner, but to the people you serve and the people who count, they accept you as someone who belongs there.
And most importantly, while the failures add up and drain you, over time the successes will add up too. As we get better at our jobs the impact of those successes will steadily outweigh the impact of the failures.
You get to be involved in projects that go deeper than just teaching English. Teaching English is a very valuable ministry and I applaud everyone who has the patience to do it. However, it’s definitely not my cup of tea and the fact of the matter is, just about everyone does it. Unless you really really love doing it, this is the reason why we usually delegate the job to newbies and people who are usually only sticking around for a year. It is one of the easiest ways to quickly build a relationship and affect change in someone’s life, but often it is only an introduction and the first step in the direction of the Gospel.
However, when you stick around longer than a few years you get to find your passion and engage in projects that will have deep impact not just on individuals, but within whole communities. Even if that means coordinating an English program you get to see how it affects the larger community around you and you get to seek out ways to help people go deeper in this new faith they may be discovering.When you know you’ll be around for a while you can really invest yourself into projects that may take a while longer than just a few months to a year and establish the foundations of ministry that will continue to affect people beyond the years you may invest into it.
You might get to see the fruits of your labor.
Especially when working with children, it can take years and years before you get to see the results of what you’re doing. If you meet a child when he or she is 4 and leave when she is 6 there is no realistic way to know if your efforts had a genuine impact on them into their teens and adulthood.
Now after 6 years of working with street kids I can see how some of them have grown and how the opportunities afforded them through our programs have meant the difference between being healthy and in school verses becoming drug addicts at a young age. It can mean the difference between life and death even and I get to see that!
And on the same page, we get to have deeper relationships with the people we serve. Yes, they may never fully understand us and we’ll never fully understand them either, but in acknowledging that we get to share with them in some of their best times and be with them in their worst times. We learn to build off our differences and learn to work together in the most effective ways to share the gospel.
Through all that we get to see people not just become Christian, but begin to live out their faith. We get to see families affected by the ministry which helps their children and start to ask questions about this faith which moves us to serve others. Most people will only get to see a child or an individual who raises their hand one day when you ask who wants to know Jesus, but when you stick around long-term and invest in people you get to see when a few of those children actually follow through on it and get to watch as faith takes root and prepares to yield a harvest even greater than that which was sown!
You learn to put more and more trust in God.
Finally, the longer you’re on the mission field the more you realize how little control you have over things. We realize that true commitments to the Lord have very little to do with us and more to do with God working through many various ways. We learn to be patient as God puts together the pieces of ministry which we need and we learn that when the funding doesn’t materialize for our project ideas that maybe that is God’s way of saying to wait or take a different approach.
And while we will indeed struggle with God’s plan, our personal lives, and even with our faith we learn that life on the mission field is just about trusting God to work through us as imperfect beings. Like any person who is committed to faith in Christ we learn to root ourselves in scripture and seek fellowship with one another in the Lord to uplift and enable us to keep on going. We learn to recognize how little we actually know about His incredible plans and that our efforts are just a part of what He is doing. We learn to take comfort in stepping out on faith and trusting God as we aim to change the world.
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