The life of a missionary can seem very exotic and exciting. It often is; but it is also one of the most stressful jobs in the world. What could possibly be stressful? Try this: Constant fundraising pressure, low salaries, never being able to just live in your own language, being on the road constantly, dealing with cultural differences, watching your children have challenges in foreign school systems, separation from family and loved ones, living or traveling in high-risk locations where danger is always present, the pressure to prove you are worth the money to your donors, constant high-intensity people interaction (across cultures no less), and relentless Spiritual Warfare. These are just some of the examples that make being a missionary, a very hard job. High rates of depression, spiritual dryness, marriage problems, and dropping out of missionary service can be attributed to these factors. It is far different than visiting a country for a few days, weeks, months, or even a couple of years. It alters your life permanently and changes you and your kids forever.
But there are 6 particularly difficult things about the job that require a maximum paradigm shift for new missionaries; especially couples. Being able to make the adjustments to these six different ways of living can mean the difference between staying on the field and leaving prematurely and burnt-out--even horribly wounded.
1) No routine is the new routine
We often get asked, "What does your typical day look like?" That question is usually as impossible to answer as "Where are you from?" Nothing is less routine than the life of a missionary. We could be doing ministry one day, traveling to mission-fields the next, catching up on budgets and paperwork another day, and communicating with donors on yet another day. We could be hosting a group for a week or two on end, or stuck at the offices of foreign governments trying to get our paperwork straightened out. Then there's the constant need to update through newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype so that donors feel like they know what you are doing. Once every few years, we have to completely upend our life and spend 6 months or a year on the road visiting a different church in North America every 4 days or so. It never stops. Life is never routine on the mission-field for most missionaries. Your life of predictable, comforting routines is over.
How to survive #1: We have to give up hopes of normalcy. For most of us, it will never happen. Life is always chaotic and unpredictable. The highs will be high, the lows will be very low. And it will always be like that. So, a life of mini-routines has to be established. It could mean always trying to have dinner as a family (when at home), or taking a predictable family vacation together at a set-time every year. Exercise, quiet time, and meditation/prayer will be vital to keeping sane. But overall, the expectation for the normal life has to be dropped.
2) It’s not a job for individuals; it’s a family job.
For some people, it's important that they are viewed as an individual that is a successful professional in their own right. But being a married missionary means that my job and "my career" becomes "our job" and "our career." The amount of things that have to be done are too much for one person, and your life and work are interwoven and overlaps in hundreds of ways. One of you may have to always do the newsletter and social media, while the other plans the logistics of a work-camp. Then you both have to host the work-camp and that could involve or displace your children! The couple will always be linked to each other and viewed as "one unit." We even call missionaries, "units," because you are never really hired as an individual. You are always a couple, indeed a whole family (if kids are involved) that will be doing the job together.
How to survive #2: Understand that this is not the job for you if you need space from your spouse and want to be a professional in your own right. Unless, you have very separate jobs, which is very rare, your life will have to be integrated with that of your spouse. Make sure that specific job duties are clear and play to each others' strengths. Learn to communicate extremely well as a couple and make sure that you find ways to give each other space, even if that space is severely limited.
3) Your communication as a couple will grow or decline exponentially on the mission-field.
Being a missionary can be very hard on marriages. The success of the missionary couple will often come down to how well the two communicate with each other. Everything has to be processed: the ministry, the fundraising, the managing of finances, communication with the home office and supervisors, how to raise the kids internationally, and many other things will test a couple's ability to make decisions and plans together. The pressure of this will either give you a very close marriage based on excellent communication or will break down the couple's friendship and communication. You will get much better or much worse at communicating as a couple.
How to survive #3: Work on your communication skills and develop your emotional-intelligence (E.Q.). Personality assessments can be extremely helpful in understanding the many subtle differences that you and your spouse may have. And make sure to pray together and for each other.
4) It’s always a sacrifice: You lose a lot!
Yes, you do get to have some pretty exciting experiences and have a front-row seat to what God is doing in the world. But as a missionary, you lose a lot. Salaries are low, your family will be far away and may be very bitter that you are choosing to raise the grandkids overseas. You may never fully fit-in to your home culture again (if you are long-term), and your children will not have the same affinity for your home country as you do if they genuinely grow up on the mission-field. Neither is it a glorified job, or even one that people will understand very well. Your physical health may take a real hit from the constant high-level of stress. And your health may never be normal again.
How to survive #4: Remember the quote from Jim Elliot, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose." We don't do the job for glory, safety, or comfort. We do it because we have a call to serve God; and there is a high cost to that call. Being a servant is not glorious or showy. And Nobody should expect it to be easy. You truly lay down your life.
5) Whatever your weaknesses are; the mission-field exposes them quickly.
Are you a worrier, over-confident, temperamental, prone to anxiety, sensitive to temptation, have anger-management issues, dependent on security, co-dependent on someone, afraid of suffering and sickness, lazy about spiritual disciplines, in a shaky marriage? Whatever your weaknesses are, it will be quickly exposed on the mission-field and Satan, plus the stress of the job, will continually poke your sensitive spots. You will need to go through a massive process of refinement, or you will succumb to your weaknesses over time.
How to survive #5: Make sure that you are a self-aware person. Honestly, identify your strengths, weaknesses, and ask others to help you to honestly see yourself. Take personality assessments, and reflect on the things that have tripped you up in life. Counseling can be very helpful. Pray that God will reveal to you areas where you need guidance.
6) The nebulousness of the job
How do you measure success on the mission-field? Usually people want baptisms, converts, or exciting projects like feeding the poor or helping orphans ("more photos please!") But many of us do not have jobs that can be so easily quantifiable. Furthermore, some of us are called to sow, others to water, others to reap the harvest. God decides that; we don't. For many people, the nebulousness of the job becomes a very stressful part of the life. "Am I really making a difference?" "Have I achieved enough?" "Was today productive?" "What if my ministry doesn't last or the new Christians don't make it?" "What did I do today that shows I am making a difference?" "What about all the things I do that don't make it in the newsletter?" "Will anybody know or care?" Especially for those coming from corporate jobs where targets and goals are so easily measurable or jobs where tasks are clear and routine, the missionary life can be a killer.
How to survive #6: For most missionaries, the job is always out of our control and tasks and success can be very random. "Success" is truly hard to measure and it's all God's work anyway. It is not a job for people that need that kind of constant affirmation and public validation. One has to take the job in faith that God is using your sacrifice to make a difference in the Kingdom. And the question becomes, "Do you have a call?" Not a mystical, spiritual voice from God appearing, but rather, is something in you making you feel like this job is something you must do. That you won't feel released by walking away from it? The answer needs to be "yes," or you are in real trouble.
Before you dive into missionary life, think about these 6 paradigm shifts that will require difficult adjustments. If you are already on the mission-field, hopefully this essay will help make sense of why it can feel so challenging and how to respond. Most of us would not give up our experiences as missionaries for the world (literally). But, it truly is a call and a sacrifice. Be wise, alert, and humble and you can not just survive, but thrive.