During our first 12 years with Wycliffe, my husband and I served in family ministry, walking with missionary kids and their parents through transitions and crises. Missionary life can be incredibly difficult at times — whether you’re based in the U.S. or overseas — and during that season we learned a great deal about what helps and what doesn’t. All of the experience we gained while helping others became personal in 2016, when our own unexpected crisis brought us back to the U.S. from our overseas assignment much earlier than we’d planned.
We were a mess when we landed — exhausted, grieving, angry, afraid and confused — but we were immediately surrounded by a strong network of family, friends, partners and Wycliffe colleagues. On our first Sunday back, the pastors and elders at our home church took time between services to pray and cry with us. Some of our partners completely furnished our house. Family and friends made it possible for my husband and me to get away, as a couple, for a few days. And our Wycliffe administrators made sure we had the time, resources and counseling we needed for recovery. This care made the difference between continuing on as Wycliffe missionaries and leaving ministry altogether.
Your missionary may never have a crisis that means leaving their assignment, but they'll certainly experience hard times. The strain of frequent goodbyes, homesickness, stubborn obstacles, a lack of progress, challenging relationships or culture shock may lead to discouragement or even burnout. When your missionary is struggling, your response could make a world of difference. Whether your missionary experiences a sudden, devastating trauma or a slow erosion of energy and wellbeing, you can care for them in three simple ways: by offering grace, space and a gentle place.
Becoming a missionary doesn’t guarantee you a smooth spiritual ride. If anything, it does the opposite, forcing you to uncover areas of personal idolatry, highlighting false beliefs and inviting attacks from our enemy. Missionaries are regular people who wrestle with sin, shame and brokenness like every member of the body of Christ. Hard times can bring that sediment in our hearts to the surface. The result is often ugly.
You can offer grace to your missionary by reserving judgement when their ministry updates are less than glowing, their kids are dealing with behavioral issues or they admit that they’re struggling in some way. Remember that they’re not just missionaries: they’re sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents and friends — and your brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the middle of a difficult season, especially a deep crisis, your missionary may not communicate as much as they usually do. They may be fighting just to stay afloat, which reduces their capacity to send regular updates, speak at churches or answer emails.
If you haven’t heard from your missionary in a while, reach out to let them know that you’re praying for them, but also offer them the space to respond as slowly as they need to — or not at all for a period of time. They’ll be grateful for your prayers and concern, and they’ll appreciate your understanding that life may be too overwhelming for them to reply right now.
Offering a Gentle Place
It’s likely that your missionary sometimes feels weighed down by the expectations of those they serve, as well as colleagues, churches and partners — and by their own list of “I shoulds”:
“I should be handling this situation better.”
“I should be more available to people.”
“I should be getting more work done.”
“I should be spending more time in prayer and reading Scripture.”
“I should be stronger, more capable, more patient and healthier.”
In the midst of hard times, the “shoulds” can echo like harsh voices, flinging accusations and shame. You can invite your missionary out of the echo chamber of “shoulds” by offering them a gentle place where they have permission to just be. Let them know that they’re welcome to tell the real stories, but recognize that they may not want (or be able) to share much. Whether you know details or not, you can pray that God brings the rest and healing they need.
If they’re overseas, you could send a care package or give them your airline miles so they can go somewhere to take a break. If they’re in the U.S., drop off a meal or order take-out and have it delivered. If you have access to a vacation home, you could offer for your missionary to use it for a week or two. Cheer them on as they seek whatever care they need for recovery and help offset the cost by providing gift certificates for groceries, clothing, household items or school supplies.
Anything that reminds your missionary that you genuinely care for them as people will be an enormous encouragement.
Making a Difference
My family is grateful we had friends and partners like you, who welcomed us and helped set us back on our feet with compassionate offers of grace, space and gentle places!
Today we’re fully restored, stronger and healthier than ever, and serving in roles our season of suffering uniquely equipped us for. Your care could make the same difference in the life of your missionary, enabling them to move beyond hard times with a healed and renewed vision for the work God has called them to do.