The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made During My First Year on the Mission Field

by Laura on April 11, 2012

Just last year, I was a culture-shocked newbie stumbling through my first months living overseas. {You can read from the First Year Missionary section of the blog here.} And we came as independents {we still are}, brought three small children with us, and probably arrived before we had technically raised enough money to sustainably stay. You could say we’ve done a lot wrong in regards to our transition into full-time missions.

But you could say we’ve gotten a lot wrong about a lot of things.

Regardless, here are a few pieces of advice I wish I had been given {and then been humble enough to listen to} during our first year overseas:

1. Learn the Language, First and Only. When we got here in April of 2010, we hit the ground in a full-out sprint. We gave ourselves very little time to adjust or get culturally-acclimated. Instead, we dove into ministry in a panicked frenzy. And while much may have been accomplished at the girls home we worked for, our long-term ministry and effectiveness have suffered because it has taken us so. much. longer to learn to communicate.  We’ve had individual tutors, we’ve done 6-week long classes for tourists, we’ve promised {and then re-promised} to do Rosetta Stone daily, we’ve made flashcards and more flashcards. And we still only have a workably-mild grasp of the language. I assumed we would be fluent by now, honestly, and it frustrates me that I still have to pre-plan my Asian phone calls.

Learning the language while you are in the thick of ministry is like trying to get your Masters when you have small children and a full-time job. You can still do it, but it is much harder and much slower and much more frustrating. Trust me, the three months or six months {or more?} you devote to simply learning the language and adjusting to your new culture will pay off dividends in your long-term effectiveness. 

2. Sandwich Vacation. I wish our family would have taken a vacation between when we left the States and when we showed up in Asia. The stress and emotional weight of the goodbyes at the airport are brutal, for you and for the kids. And the stress and emotional weight of diving in to your new culture are equally as brutal. I wish we would have given ourselves a breather between the two– a few days at some nice hotel or some beach somewhere to process the leaving, to rest from the moving process, to collect ourselves.  I think for the kids that would have made the “adventure” of moving overseas more enjoyable, right from the start. {I think it would probably be an equally great idea as a family transitions from living overseas back to home, too, for the same reasons.}

3. Do Not Dive In. Really, Stay on the Dock for a While. The tendency for go-getters is to go-get-some-ministry-on — especially if your term overseas is two years or less. Your plane lands, and the Great Clock of your missionary life seems to start its countdown.  And so you give yourself a week to get settled, and then you attack whatever ministry it was you came to do. I get this tendency. I’ve lived this tendency. However, I wish I wouldn’t have. Because it takes more time than you think to find housing and food and the closest place to buy lightbulbs. It takes time to begin to learn the culture, to figure out your role in ministry, and to look realistically at the effectiveness of your/your organization’s work. People that jump in too quickly tend to either A) Burn Out or B) Make a Mess of Things. It’s better to avoid both of those, I am thinking.

4. Beware of Going Solo. We did not come with a missions organization. We did not come with a team. We lived out in a rural area, where we didn’t know the language, at all. {Because, obviously, I hadn’t listened to the advice of other missionaries to learn it first.} The kids didn’t have a school to make friends at, and on so many levels we felt very alone. And while I’m not a big fan of some of the hoops missionaries have to jump through because of missions organizations and while I understand the risk of your team “not working out,” I do know that community is essential. Anywhere. 

5. Expect Disappointment. From yourself. From your marriage. From the ministry you came to serve. From the culture. From your finances. From the nationals and other missionaries. From your walk with God. From your kids. And while I am typically a sunshine-daily optimist, I know I would have done better during our first year if I had lower expectations. When you are gearing up to go, you can feel a bit like you are attending a perpetual pep-rally of sorts. And in some ways, you need this inspiration to just get on that plane.

However, when you expect to walk into your new very-foreign land with the guts of Hudson Taylor, making converts like Billy Graham, while toting kids around as well-behaved as the Duggars, well, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Grace, grace, and more grace. I guess that’s advice that translates anywhere.

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Allright, let’s play a game. Pretend you have the ear of a new missionary, heading to the field. Assuming they want advice, what would you tell them to do or not do? Is my advice off?

Not a missionary?  No worries, you can play, too. Assume you are giving advice to someone in their first year of ministry, parenthood, whatever season you’ve just walked through. What would you tell someone just starting out?

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Related. Wondering if Missions is Screwing Up My Kids | First Year Missionary {On My Awfulness} |  8 Reasons Not to be a Missionary  | Culture Shock

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