5 Habits to Practice Before You Become a Missionary
What habits can you be developing now to make your missionary career more effective and healthy?
Missionaries aren’t perfect or superhumans, but by implementing new habits and strengthening others, you’ll find your transition into missions to be just a bit smoother.
Sheri Studebaker — a U.S.-based project manager and missions coach who’s been working with Wycliffe for just under a year — and Nancy Burmeister — who’s served for over 49 years in West Africa and the U.S. in both translation and finance — share how God has been growing them in these habits over their lives and careers with Wycliffe.
Whether you’re living in the U.S. or abroad, working in translation, education, finance or something else, here are five habits to help you thrive wherever God might call you.
The ability to be flexible and cope, especially in times of uncertainty and change, is absolutely critical to a missionary’s health and effectiveness.
When civil unrest broke out in Côte d'Ivoire, Nancy and her husband had to quickly leave the country and move to Mali, where Nancy was asked to take on a critical role in finance. “It was a bit traumatic for me because we had just left our possessions and routine, I’d never had a job with so much responsibility, and I hadn't been trained in finance,” Nancy said. “But you have to be willing to step in where the need is! No matter where you go … there are almost always locations and jobs that suddenly … [and] desperately need help, and it’s good to be flexible enough to be able to move around and try something new.”
No matter where you live, flexibility allows you to follow God’s leading and serve others well. In Sheri’s first year, she’s been able to fill several critical needs and has now settled in a position where she can use her gifts and thrive. “The needs are great and the resources are few,” she observed.
Sometimes big shifts can come from the outside. When Nancy and her husband began work, no one used computers. Now Nancy spends most of her day on one! “Even though that big change is over, we don’t know what lies ahead,” she observed. “People starting today might be going through another massive change that we will see 50 years from now!”
Whether living overseas or in their home country, missionaries need to take responsibility for their own spiritual health. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming “missionary activities,” including Bible translation, automatically result in a thriving personal relationship with God. But missionaries need to tend their spiritual health as much as anyone else. With limited access to resources in a familiar language and culture, sometimes missionaries have to get creative.
Even as a Bible translator, Nancy saw the need for intentional spiritual care: “It is really important not to be so caught up in your job that you can’t stop and reflect, to feed yourself and to stay connected not only with Bible reading but [by] sharing life with other people.” Nancy was able to do this by becoming part of women’s Bible study while she was in Mali.
Sheri has been working intentionally to keep her relationship with the Lord growing. “I’ve been really focusing on [deepening] my relationship with the Lord this past year [using] prayer journaling,” she said. “It’s been a good discipline of listening: writing [my prayers] down and going back later and reminding myself of the things the Lord has said to me.”
Team members serve all over the world with Wycliffe. This leads to a convergence of different cross-cultural values and perspectives. Without humility, a missionary can struggle to find unity and understanding with team members from different backgrounds.
“There is a culture in every place,” Sheri observed. “So as a newcomer, some things can seem really odd to me. I worked for many years in county government, so I'm having to make the adjustment from a government environment to a Christian, non-profit environment. It really is an exercise in humility to recognize that something that doesn't make sense to me in my government mindset may make perfect sense here at Wycliffe. I have to take a step back and be open to learning a different approach.”
Sheri continued: “You need to recognize that everyone has their own perspective and their own strengths and gifts that they bring to the table. You need to respect and honor what everyone has to contribute.”
Nancy agreed: “Don’t assume that because … you’re a Westerner, you necessarily know a lot more than the people around you! You have to start with the openness and ability to meet people where they are.”
Nancy recalled a time when a local language speaker didn’t show up for their language learning session. “We were so confused!” she said. “It turned out his aunt was sick in a remote village and he had gone to see her. We kept wondering why he didn’t at least tell us and take off of work! But in their culture, family always comes first and they assumed we’d understand.”
In order to thrive on the mission field, missionaries must be interdependent, collaborative and team players. Going at it alone can be destructive.
Nancy said: “We’re all on the same team, whether you are working in a kitchen or out in [the field] doing Bible translation. We’re all working for the same goals. ... There is no one who is insignificant.”
As a result Nancy feels Wycliffe provides freedom to seek help or admit when you’re wrong. “People want you to succeed, and they will help you. When I was [just starting in] finance … I could say I didn't understand something and [people] would help me.”
The need to rely on one another and work together is at the heart of Sheri's work as a recruiter. “It takes all kinds of people to make Bible translation happen,” she said. “I get to talk with people from all different walks of life about… how God is calling them, what roles we have, what passions and skills they have and how they might connect those [to the work of Bible translation].”
Many people who become missionaries do so because of a sense of urgency and passion for the nations. But if that enthusiasm isn’t tempered with healthy boundaries and self-care, missionaries can easily become less effective or burn out entirely.
In her previous career, Sheri was a self-proclaimed workaholic. “My life was at work most of the time,” she admitted. “When I ... came [to Wycliffe], I was very intentional about not doing that again. ... I had made a commitment to myself to rest and make extra space for things outside of work.”
She encourages anyone thinking about being a missionary to develop good habits of self-care early on: “It’s like when on an airplane you are supposed to put on your own mask before you help the person next to you. If you wear yourself down by not caring for yourself, eventually you’ll burn out.”
Nancy agreed. “You really have to know yourself and what you can tolerate,” she said. “There are usually places you can [retreat] to even on the mission field. Our branch used to have spiritual retreats ... to help people get away and rest.”
Whether you’re brand new to missions or a veteran, these five habits are vital to being healthy, whole and effective as you serve.