At our recent 3W Staff Meeting in Rome, we asked veteran 3W missionaries what they wish they had known before going on to the mission-field. Here are their responses.
1) "I had known how much stress would be involved."
On the Holmes-Rahe scale, a stress score above 200 can result in incredibly negative health effects, especially over the long run. The average missionary scores 800 their first year and 600 every year after. "My body will never be the same," said one 3W missionary.
2) "I had known how many transitions would be involved."
"These are not even about cross-cultural issues," said a 3W missionary. The changing dynamic with your spouse, working together all the time, leaving a normal job and going to an unusual job, leaving family, helping children transition, perpetual fundraising etc.
3) "I had known how important it is to have friendships outside of your church."
We come to serve people in a particular ministry setting and culture, and we feel obligated to completely let our life center around them. But sometimes the differences and demands can be too much. Not having any relationships outside of the people that you serve can be exhausting--particularly when you are always in a different language and culture.
4) "I had not felt so much guilt about vacations and money."
As people that have to raise all of their support for ministry, many missionaries feel that they must live cheaply and never splurge on themselves or even take vacations. Most avoid both for years and years. Ultimately, this is unhealthy. It is neither psychologically or physically healthy to not take breaks or occasionally splurge on a special treat--but many missionaries don't out of guilt. While missionaries have budgets that help with ministry expenses, their actual take-home pay and personally expendable income is often very, very low.
5) "I had spent 6 months just focusing on my children."
Moving your children overseas is a big deal and often traumatic for the whole family--particularly the kids. New missionaries feel the need to produce immediate results, but this can come at the expense of truly settling the family and creating a feeling of "home."
6) "We had focused on our marriage."
Once you are on the mission-field, it feels like ministry must always come first. It is easy for a couple to not take the time to get used to the unusual job, the cultural stress, and living and working together constantly. Supporting churches make constant demands, national leaders and local churches make constant demands, and it is easy to never take a sabbath or even week-ends off.
7) "I had realized that it's a very hard job for introverts."
the public speaking, the need to embarrass yourself learning a language, the constant fundraising, and the need to meet people of other cultures and get to know them all come easier to extroverts. Yet many times, one or two members of the family are natural introverts.
8) "I had known that there would not be much affirmation."
Isolation, loneliness, families back home that can't understand your life, and people on your mission-field who have no idea what it would be like to leave their home country and move far away often cannot offer much affirmation. Sometimes churches are not interested in your stories, may not know who you are, or do not want to hear you speak.
9) "That I had realized I need to be careful who I aligned myself with."
It is common that the first leaders that you raise up will leave you or betray you. Relationships can easily become broken and many times the "first-fruits" don't pan out at all, which can be demoralizing. The local culture may be as dysfunctional as the worst places we know of back home--and that can come as a shock.
10) "That we had created a few traditions."
It may be a weekly movie night, or always ordering pizza on Fridays, or some other ritual--but the life of the missionary can be so chaotic and irregular that the lack of routine and constants can be stressful. Finding ways to be grounded and rooted is important.
11) "That we had realized it shouldn't be a male-dominated job."
The role of the missionary-wife is often ignored, down-played, marginalized, or viewed as insignificant. But the missionary-wife is usually someone dealing with all the background things so that the missionary-husband can be out front doing ministry. Just getting groceries in some countries can be a whole day's exhausting endeavor. Raising the children and helping them to adjust, dealing with homework (and teachers) in a second language, managing the complex finances, hosting people constantly, cooking meals that are more complicated to make than back home, are just some of the things that a missionary-wife does that never get seen or written about. Of course, most wives also have to do public speaking, working in the ministry, fundraising, and probably have their own ministries apart from their husbands--but they get far less recognition. Often, people think they do nothing.
12) "I had made sure to laugh more."
Aside from the constant high stress levels, it is easy to believe that being a missionary should always be about martyrdom, self-sacrifice, and seriousness. It is easy to see one's jovial spirit disappear on the mission-field. Depression is EXTREMELY common amongst missionaries. It is rare to find a missionary that has not experienced considerable depression. Neither are mission organizations or teams constructed to really provide fun or laughter. Instead, any get-togethers must be frugal, serious, spiritual, and business-oriented. Having fun produces too much guilt and may be misunderstood by the church back home which only views our lives as exotic and a constant adventure.
At 3W, we definitely try to learn from our mistakes. Having a team that looks out for each other is one of the first steps of correction. We try to have fun, encourage mental-health, and give each other outlets to vent, process, and definitely laugh. We all love our jobs and wouldn't give up our experiences for anything. But it is extremely rare for people to see the sacrifices missionaries make and the toll it takes on their bodies, hearts, and minds. Thank you for supporting 3W.