Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Missionaries Aren't Telling You (and What Needs to Change About That)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3  

About a month ago, I was staring at the computer screen for 15 minutes.

Finally I looked up at Gil, frustrated.  "I got nothing," I told him.

Our monthly prayer update was way over-due.  But I had been putting it off because I had no great stories, no answers to prayer, nothing that seemed worth sharing.

Finally I asked Gil, "Should I just write about our discouragement?"

He paused for a moment.  "Yes."

Could I have drummed up a great little vignette about one of our students?  Probably.  Those kind of stories are always there.  It would have been true, but it would have felt fake.  The reality is that the overwhelming picture of our ministry right now is discouragement.  Things are not going as well as we had hoped.  Our plan isn't working very well.  On top of that, there's been a lot of sickness and injuries or just plain distractions that have been pulling our team down.

There's probably a dozen reasons why it's not going well.  And we've got a dozen ideas to change it.  We are not giving up; we've still got a lot of grit and oceans of grace.

But it was scary to send that email.  In the past months, I have felt the weight of our donors' disappointment bearing me down, whispering words of criticism and failure.

Surprisingly, so far it's only been my imagination.  The email I wrote broke all our records for the number of readers, and we probably received more responses from that one message than ever before.  Responses of love, prayers, Scripture, and encouragement poured into our inbox.   Not one word of criticism.

It makes me wish I had done it before.  This isn't the first time we've felt ground into the dust, even after those first two difficult years.  Maybe I didn't need to feel so scared after all.

However, I know that the anxiety is still there, and won't ever leave completely.  It is a constant battle to release it to God's control.  After all, one discouraging email is one thing....what if there are six?  Or ten?  Will people still support us?  How long will they put up with so little fruit?

And again, there is a need for delicate balance.  Even with the public lives that we lead, missionaries still are entitled to some privacy--just like anyone else.  It's one thing to be vulnerable about ministry, but are missionaries required to share with the world that they are falling apart?  If I was to go back 14 years to do it over again, would I have shared with our entire email list that I needed counseling?  Probably not.  But I would have shared it with some.  I would have looked for those people who I knew I could trust, and poured out my heart to them.  I think it would have made a big difference.

So here's my advice for the missionaries:

1.  Sometimes we bemoan the fact that people treat us like superstars.  We want to be seen as ordinary; we don't want people to be intimidated by us.  But what if some of that is our fault?  What if we've ensured that people only see the successful, happy, brave side of us and never let them peek at  the blubbering mess on the floor?  Is it fear that keeps us from being vulnerable?  Or pride?  Our supporters don't need to see everything, but they do need to see more than just the good stuff.

2.  Find the people who have your back.  Look hard for those safe people that you can be real with.  Trying to do this hard life on your own is just not going to work.

3.  Whose ministry is this anyway?  Are we walking in faith?  Are we actively seeking God?  Are we sure of our calling?  Then who do we have to fear?  Who are we seeking to please?  Does God's work, His timing, His will need defending?  This is what I preach to myself every day.  This is not my ministry.  And if He needs less of me in order to make more of Him, then so be it.  

To be alive is to be broken.  And to be broken is to stand in need of grace.  Honesty keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are saved sinners.  There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel)

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