One More Piece of Advice for First Year Missionaries

by Laura on April 20, 2012

When I wrote about the top five mistakes I made during my first year overseas, I loved checking my inbox for the several days following the post. I loved hearing from missionaries all over the world, some of whom have logged decades overseas, some who are leaving next month, and most of whom said that missions had turned out harder than they expected.

Honestly, the comment thread on that post has become a treasure trove of advice.

But, as I was talking to a new friend {you know who you are- wink, wink} about the possibility of her family moving overseas, I noticed another piece of advice that was first out of the gate which is my mouth, admittedly a gate which stays open too often.

I advised her to leave home with a {shorter} term goal of time spent on the field, already set and communicated to supporters. Now most missions organizations will require this, so for many this is a no-brainer. But, for those of us who are independent, the idea of committing to a one year, two year, or three year term doesn’t rank high on our decision-list {moving a family overseas, you’re already making a million of those, anyway.}

I didn’t expect that defining a goal would be as important as I think it probably is. Because when you shove off the shore into the great unknown with the general assumption that you will be there long-term, whatever that really means, you could be poising yourself to feel like an epic failure if you don’t make it as a career missionary.

However, if you leave with a goal of staying overseas for two years, say, and then having the full intent of being open to more, it helps your heart when things get hard in your new country. Because you can do anything for one year or two. And when things get awful and disappointing, this knowledge that you are walking towards a goal is helpful. But when you accidentally commit and communicate that you will be living the missionary life indefinitely, then you’ll feel like an epic-loser when you pack up bags and head back home after two years– even if two years was all that was needed to accomplish what you felt called to do in the first place. And no one wants to leave the mission field in defeat. {But many do. There’ s a post on that coming soon.}

[Obviously, this advice only works on the assumption that you didn’t feel strongly from God that you were to commit to a particular span of time overseas. Of course, in that case, you should obey that is the only pearl of wisdom I’ll give.]

Now, I assume that many will strongly disagree with me on this particular piece of advice. They will say that the only way to survive the challenges of the mission field is to enter it with a long-term commitment. They will say that if you go with a short term mindset, you’ll not invest enough time in the language or in relationships because you will always be eyeing your exit strategy from the time the plane touches down. And there is definitely some truth to that.

And I get this. But, but. I think for independents and for parents with kids, especially, it is particularly important  to set a shorter term goal than you might assume you need from your homeland. While you might end up on the field for decades, maybe sometimes it’s better to start small. The idea that this new expat life does not have to be the one you signed up for forever might just be the encouragement you need to make it through those first culture-shocked months.


What do you think?  Is it suicidal for a missionary to set a short-term goal for themselves? Or is it just smart?

  • Katrina

    I am ecstatic to have recently found your blog. ( By way of Amy Sullivan and Teacher’s Lounge.) I plan to read a lot of your posts as I’m thinking of beginning a series on a similar topic, highlighting our experiences as missionaries for 2 years. Actually, it was 20 months.  Truthfully, I think there is value in your suggestion, but fundamentally the feeling of “failure” has more to do with what you expect of yourself than what parents or supporters expect of you. My husband and I made and initial two year commitment, telling everyone “we’ll see how it goes.” BUT, in my heart, I felt we’d be lifers. I’d grown up in missions and felt called to it as a little girl.  I had no doubts.  It would be hard, but we’d be great; I just knew it.  So even though we fulfilled our commitment and came home only a titch early to have a baby, I FELT like a failure because it didn’t turn out as I thought it would.  We JUST did that short term and that was all.  I don’t think it is suicidal to make a shorter goal, but I don’t know if it really “matters.”  All that to say, I think that a lot more can and should be done to give newbies realistic expectation, without say, totally disenchanting them. :) I’ll have to keep thinking on this . . .

    • lauraparkerblog

      Katrina– glad you found me! I love, love, love Amy S!

      I loved that you wrote this: “All that to say, I think that a lot more can and should be done to give newbies realistic expectation, without say, totally disenchanting them” I totally agree!

      Would love to read more of your story on your blog when you have it up!

  • Korrin

    For us it was a protection for our hearts and for the hearts of our families to say we were leaving for two years. Any longer would have broken our parents hearts! Like you said, you can do anything for a year or two. After that, God will do what he needs to do with all of us and our hearts and have time to do it!

    • lauraparkerblog

      I like that– ” a protection for our hearts and family” I can really see the importance of that for sure , ESP initially.

  • Adam

    Not that I completely agree with what I’m about to say but i hope you will get my point, would you give the same advice to a couple about marriage? Probably not. The folks you plan to minister with and to are not dumb and mght not make the effort to open up to you, they will wait you out. Also if you have a short term mentality you won’t work through the hard stuff as readily and it will be real easy to leave when the going gets tough. Trust me my, wife and I have seen it way too often in our 17 years of remote mission work.

    • Lana

       That’s true, Adam. If you have a plan B, you will take it. But sometimes its better to come out and see if this is your plan A and what God wants of you. I knew I wanted to live in Asia, but I didn’t pick Thailand until I saw it. Anyway, I don’t think there’s a hard fast rule for this one and sad missions organizations often put people in a box and tell them their hard fast rule.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Adam, I think it is awesome that you have served overseas for 17 years in a remote setting. That is amazing on so many levels, and I have no doubt we could learn lots from you. Definitely.

      I will say though, that to compare missions to a marriage is a pretty big stretch, dontcha think? {I know you said you didnt buy into this idea completely, too.} In marriage, you commit to a person, not a job or a location or a situation. In following Christ, you commit to following Jesus, but I think the HOW you do that is totally secondary. And while there may be some people who feel called as strongly to missions as a lifetime thing, I think we need to be really careful not to elevate the how we serve too high. Oftentimes, we meet missionaries who leave the field and feel like “failures” when they leave before their said committed time. Oftentimes, they are trying to stick to some commitment their missions board/themselves have made prematurely perhaps.

      Thoughts, everyone?

      I do think you have wisdom in the realities, esp. as you have served for 17 years overseas, in the mentality of “short term-ers” vs “long term-ers” and the potential damage the slew of short term workers can have on a culture/place. Hmmm . . . great discussion, point! Thanks for stopping in and giving it.

  • @ngie

    I received similar advice from our pastor’s wife during our first year on the field when she came down to Bolivia to visit us. She asked point blank, “So how long do you plan on staying in Bolivia?” I answered, “Probably around 7 years.” She came back with something along the lines of, “Well, maybe you will stay that long, maybe not. Either way is fine. I think sometimes people try to push all the responsibility over on God when God will be happy with us whatever we choose to do. It’s not always a matter of right or wrong. Sometimes He waits on us to pick what we want to do.” I like that. I like the idea of an adventurous God willing to walk alongside with His children as they explore life in this big world. 

    • lauraparkerblog

      I could read what you write for hours and hours. Such wisdom in that pastor’s wife, for sure!

      • Angielwashington

        All hail the glories of the blogosphere 😉 

  • Lana

    I came out to Thailand the first time three years ago. I was told by the short term director that when I got home and if I was still homesick for Thailand after six months and dying to come back then I should prayerfully take action to come back.

    So, for me, I am definitely glad I came out to Thailand for a few months first. Then went back. Then felt the ache. And then knew what I wanted. Because that’s what got me through the transition — the knowing this was what I wanted. But it didn’t take two years on the field to know I wanted to live here, either.  In fact, that’s the reason I didn’t come back with a missions organization. They wanted me to do a 2 year commit that involved 5 months of language study; the rest internship and theeeeeeeen, you could apply for the long term deal, and more language study. I said, “not wasting my time. I want to do two years of language study first. Then we can talk about work.” And I told them that.

    Best decision I ever made. And I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life.

    P.S. Going to be Lana on here as I don’t like my name being googled and my posts coming up. This is (Mar) lana.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Sounds good- i like hearing stories of how ppl got to the field! :)

      Sent from my iPad

    • lauraparkerblog

      Oh and gotcha about the name. I get that. :)

  • Jim and Heather F

    We had just finished our first school term here (5 months in) and we were gathered with all the Kenya missionaries of our organization.  A “lifer” (who was probably only 10 years my senior) was asking about us, and how we were doing.  I explained we committed to two years, and if we chose to stay longer, we would go home briefly to visit family and then return.  She quickly told me that there is documented research that if families spend their first four years exclusively on the mission field, they are more likely to remain missionaries.  I was so discouraged!  I felt like the goal in her mind (and I don’t think it is uncommon) was lifelong missionaries at any cost, and I just about cried at the thought of not being back “home” for 4 years!  Shouldn’t we strive to have HEALTHY workers for the kingdom, physically and emotionally, at all costs?  I completely support “trying it out.”  We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t been able to state “two years” to ourselves.  It is also amazing (and encouraging) the number of 15-20+ year staff here who started out with a two year commitment.  You really don’t know how it’s going to be until you try.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Hey Guys! Loved reading this story, b/c I think it highlights the expectations lots of people have of missionaries–

      “I felt like the goal in her mind (and I don’t think it is uncommon) was lifelong missionaries at any cost, and I just about cried at the thought of not being back “home” for 4 years! Shouldn’t we strive to have HEALTHY workers for the kingdom, physically and emotionally, at all costs? ”

      This was a really insightful, true experience, I think for many overseas. And I think it leaves people oftentimes feeling trapped and somehow, wrongly, equating their years on the mission field as more important than listening to God, caring for their families, even being a –gasp!- short termer.

      And I wonder about the four year thing. I could imagine that statistic is true. After four years, I guess most of the missionaries’ relationships back home have dissolved and they don’t maybe fit in very well back in their home country. I guess for some this might be a good thing, but for others, not so good.

  • Aimee

    I totally agree with you.  I left home on a one year commitment and I’m still here almost 7 years later.  Even though I was hoping to stay longer than a year, I couldn’t take the pressure of knowing I had to stay if I found I really didn’t like my job description here.  If we are truly committed to following God’s call, he can direct regardless of what initial commitment was made.  And I agree that it allows those who God calls home after a few years the feeling of successfully finishing their part in God’s work at that location.  Perhaps God needs them elsewhere.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Aimee, I see lots of wisdom here, for sure. And you are right, God’s voice/leading should trump any “commitment”/ideal, anyway. I think the biggest danger is when people stay on the field for the wrong reasons– simply because they have bought into this idea that they are failures if they don’t stay ____ years.

  • richelle

    can i say both?

    because it depends on the person or family involved (i’m one of those special educators who believes with all her heart that no two individuals’ experiences will be so much alike that we can say definitively one way or the other THIS is what you should always do). yeah, God is into absolutes – but i’ll stay out of the business of trying to establish or define them myself. i’ll just let Him do that. there ain’t a “thou shall…” or “thou shall not…” in this realm, at least not one i’ve been able to find – although i’ve seen people try and manipulate words to say there is one “hand to the plow… no looking back sort of thing.”

    we came out as lifers planning on a 4 year initial term – the Lord took us back to the States for 6 months home assignment after about 30 months – our colleagues were pretty sure they’d be leaving permanently after their next furlough – and we were scheduled for our first furlough when they returned from theirs. my husband asked them honestly… should we go home for 6 months now or wait… our colleague said go now – since we have one particular inherited ministry on our field that needs missionary oversight and that means someone must be here. we found out after purchasing our tickets that we’d be having a baby while home and since current expats in the country did not recommend in country births, we clearly saw God’s hand. our colleagues didn’t return – and had we waited, we would have been pushed into a 5-6 year term…

    but we had lifers derogatorily call us “one term wonders” even tho’ we were committed to coming back. i, myself, had an incredibly difficult first two years. after our furlough, after our daughter was born, my husband returned immediately (she was 10 days old when he left) to learn and take over the leadership role he has since carried most of our time here. i followed with the rest of the kids a little over 2 months later – and people said that even though my husband was here, they didn’t believe i’d be back… until they actually saw me here. that sarcastic term “one term wonder” hurt my husband. it made/makes me mad.

    We are commanded to follow Jesus, minister to people and to “go” – whether we are: here, there or elsewhere.  missos can “go” overseas… and yet never “go” into those worlds. we can also go back to the states or wherever, and still never “go” into our world or engage it in any meaningful way.

    now, it looks like our world may be changing and God may be directing us elsewhere. that isn’t/wasn’t our plan b/c we love our life and ministries here, love raising our family here, are finally seeing some progress… even when it is hard. but our committment is to following the Savior, to serving Him and glorifying His name – not setting and keeping to our own agenda.

    either way, you make those plans as best you can: according to the best counsel, prayerful searching, knowledge of yourself and your families, health concerns and extended family issues, etc. then you hold those plans, lifted high as a sacrifice in open hands with the only expectation being that God is free to take your offering and do with it as He pleases, and that He may do so without consulting you first… 

    for me, the harder question: “will i still choose to be content?”

    • lauraparkerblog

      I literally had tears in my eyes as I read this comment. And I am not typically a crier, really. I loved the realities you told of the hurtful terms missionaries throw at each other about not “staying for the long haul.” Like there is some merit badge that unless you stick it out for the whole of your life, you are not a “real missionary.” Ugh. Ugly and hurtful.
      I love, too, what you said about the bigger issue being a heart one– to choose contentment, no matter where God leads. This was just what I needed to hear today. Truly. Thanks, Richelle.

      Praying for you as you sense and follow God’s new leading . . . .

  • Ashley L

    When my husband and I felt called overseas, we felt that God was saying to us that it was a “long-term” call, but the ironic thing was that we ourselves had no idea (and still don’t) what that exactly meant! I believe that God sometimes reveals the details of His perfect plan in advance, but so often we are just called to abide in Him and to follow, and He shows us the next step, whether it be staying or going, when it is to our benefit and His glory. When we were asked how long we planned to be overseas when raising our initial support, we said, “Well, we feel that God is calling us long-term, so we plan to be overseas between 5 and 30 years, give or take a few years.” =)

    • lauraparkerblog

      Ashley, love this:

      “I believe that God sometimes reveals the details of His perfect plan in advance, but so often we are just called to abide in Him and to follow, and He shows us the next step, whether it be staying or going, ”

      Yes– so often its just a step by step by step process, isn’t it?

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