Settling in

Many people planning a missionary career change their minds after the first two or three years. Those are the hardest years because there is so much adaptation. It becomes easier to go back home.

But after the hard work of learning the culture and getting comfortable with it has happened, then it’s easier to stay. If a career missionary lasts 4 years, then they’ll stay many years.

But after enough years go by, the missionary can become more comfortable in his place of ministry than back home in his own country. At that point it can become easier to stay in one’s place of ministry and harder to move back home. At this point, the missionary may stay even though their health is failing or faithful local people are capable of carrying on the ministry. The issue ceases to be following God, but rather living in a place where one feels comfortable.

I’ve heard missionaries say this directly and shockingly: “I like it here”, “This feels like home” but not “I feel like God wants me here.”

Missionaries are made to leave

Missionaries are made to come and go, or at least they should be. Jesus had about three years of ministry and then he left. The Apostle Paul went from town to town. There’s a bifurcation in modern Western missions between missions lasting two weeks and those lasting 20 years or longer. I worked with situations where a Western missionary has worked in the same language for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Sometimes my American friends express admiration for missionaries who spend many decades in the same place, but I’m pretty sure that is not always a good thing.

A missionary’s role should change as he or she trains local people with whom they are in ministry and they take on more responsibility. We see this in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. After announcing the Good News and seeing some converts, he named and mentored leaders for the new Christians before going on to the next place. He then kept in contact, prayed for those he left and visited them when that was possible. Leaving did not break his relationships. Another aspect of Paul leaving well was that he incorporated some of the new believers from the place he was leaving in his mission to the next place. He also brought all of them into praying for it.

We shouldn’t follow Paul’s example slavishly, but we ignore it at our peril. Depending on the type of ministry (translation develops slowly), a missionary might stay in one place for a long time. But even a long stay should be preparing for a good departure. Bible translation not infrequently takes place where there are low levels of education, making it difficult to train local people in all the complexities of translation. But difficult does not always mean impossible, especially when the time frame is 20, 30 or even 40 years.

A while back, a missionary told me that another missionary should be allowed to stay where they were because that had become home. Being in a place that feels like home is a good thing, but it is not a valid missionary goal. In fact, it sounds like a way to justify staying long after one’s missionary goals have been accomplished. Missionaries who stay in one place for a long time may do so because they like it, they are comfortable, or because they get respect. Recent research found that 96% of missionaries reported that they were functioning well in the society where they are conducting missionary work. Moving would disrupt that. A few times in my career, missionaries faced with a potential change of location have said to me that they want to stay put because “God has called me here”. In every case,  that “here” was a situation that they found personally fulfilling.

Dayle and I with Abidjan staff a few days before our departure. They gave us traditional Yacouba outfits.

I recently took an interim assignment in Côte d’Ivoire. I was given a very specific six-month mandate – take care of current matters and work with a national committee to recruit an Ivorian director. When those things were done, Dayle and I returned to our assignments in Ghana. We had an advantage. Our assignment specifically demanded a transition. We had no choice. Perhaps all missionary assignments should be like that.

Real faith

Sometimes, people put us missionaries on a pedestal, or make us out to be heroes. But from where I sit, believers I meet in the US, stand taller in the faith than I do

One man I met told me of a missions trip he made to a part of the world I can’t mention. I was awed at the things he did. After he returned to the US, he and his wife discussed adopting yet another child out of a difficult situation. They had not yet decided, when out of the blue, someone offered them a free bed. They saw God’s hand in that and moved forward with the adoption.

A woman told me of her husband losing appendages in a work accident. It so happened that there was in the emergency room that day a visiting surgeon specializing in reattaching and repairing that appendage. A few weeks later, the business closed. Other employees were out of work, but Workman’s Compensation had her husband in a retraining program from which he emerged with a new career. She was beaming with joy and praising God for his provision – involving a terrible accident. A few questions revealed that she and her husband took a faith approach the accident well before they knew how it would work out.

These are not the only such cases I encountered in the last few months in the USA. On Sunday mornings, some faith heroes are serving in far-flung places, but a good number are sitting in pews.

Missionaries are special

A while ago, I came across a very provocative article entitled “My Son’s Disability Doesn’t Make Me a ‘Special Kind of Person’“. Here’s an extract

Boys in Chad

Boys in Chad

In 2012, when my son was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine — I joined the ranks of millions of people worldwide who love someone with a disability. I’ve learned a lot in the year since: how to find the best wheelchair-accessible parks, how to schedule multiple therapists, how to be a mom. But more than that, I learned that I am “a special kind of person.” At least, that’s what people told me. Why? Because it takes a special kind of person to raise a child like my son.

Girl carrying her baby sister

Girl carrying her baby sister

I’ll be honest and say that at first, I really liked being a special kind of person. Who wouldn’t? It was nice. It meant I was doing something good, something important and noble. I am, after all, raising a child who has a disability.

But after a few months, it didn’t sit so well anymore. Being called a “special kind of person” began to make me uncomfortable. And then I saw a photo on Facebook that made me realize why. It was a picture of a teenage girl dressed for prom and standing beside her date — a boy with Down syndrome. The picture was charming, but it was the comments that got to me:
“Honorable move, looks like she made his day!”
“Someone at my school did the same this year. It made me proud of her because she’s absolutely beautiful and could’ve had anyone she wanted.”
“That is very sweet of her…”

In prayer meeting with colleagues

In prayer meeting with colleagues

Turns out, she was a special kind of person, just like me. But it felt hurtful somehow. I started wondering, “How would I feel if the boy in this photo was my son?” Sixteen years from now, when my son goes to prom, will people applaud his date? Will they see her as a martyr? As a saint?

Just what are we saying about people with disabilities when we glorify those who love and care for them?

When I speak about Bible translation in churches in the US, it is not unusual to have someone say to Dayle and I something to the effect that we are special people. It might simply be, “I could not do what you do” or “I admire you for doing such difficult work”. I try to give those comments gracious responses, but they have always bothered me.

The forest in northeastern Congo

The forest in northeastern Congo

Seeing Bible translators or missionaries as “special people” because of the place they work, or the people they serve may imply something negative about that place or those people. Believe me, we enjoy the places we have served and the people with whom we have the privilege to work. Yes, there are negatives here, as there are in my wonderful home town in the USA.

But we do not have to work up some special grit or determination which merits special mention or admiration. Quite the contrary.

The author ends her article like this.

So call me hardworking or call me a wonderful mother. But if you call me a special kind of person, I’ll probably nod and smile, because I know a secret: If you knew my son, you’d love him, too. So, I guess you’re a special kind of person — just like me.

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

Worshiping with Ghanaian believers

It’s true. If you saw the amazing places we have seen, if you knew the people we work with, if you saw their joy at receiving God’s word in their language, if you could join in their enthusiastic worship, if you witnessed their deep character and joy in struggles; if you saw their everyday joys and pains, then you would love them too and want to be with them. That makes you just as special as we are.

Hover over a photo to see the caption, or click on any photo to start a slide show.

Of heads and eyes

Our son Mark started suffering with migraine headaches in his teen years. I have them too, but Mark’s were much worse. He would end up in the hospital in Nairobi, where were living at the time. He would have debilitating pain and stroke-like symptoms such has one side of his body going numb. One of Mark’s migraines was a major family event that took at least a day out of our lives and caused us lots of emotional anguish.

Through a Wycliffe colleague, we had come into contact with an African evangelist named Dennis. At the time he had no formal Bible or theological training, but he showed a gift for evangelism and ministry to the poor. A few days after Mark had been to the emergency room with one of his worst migraines, Dennis called the house to chat. Among other things he asked how we were doing. Dayle told him that she was discouraged about the headaches. Dennis asked if he could come pray for Mark. Of course, Dayle was happy to say yes. She set a date and time which worked for Dennis and Mark’s school schedule.

Even before the day came for Dennis to visit, he phoned to ask how Mark was doing. Dayle told him he had not had another migraine yet. Dennis told Dayle Mark was healed. But he looked forward to meeting with him and told Dayle that he would have no more migraines. Dayle told me when I came home. I was skeptical. I would wait and see.

That was April 2003. Shortly afterward the doctor suggested a change of medication. The newest and best drug was not working so he suggested a drug which had been around for so long that Dayle’s mother told us that she had taken it in her teens. Also, we were able to discover more triggers. Cured meats turned out to be one of the main culprits. So no pepperoni pizza for Mark.

Mark never again had a debilitating migraine while we were in Africa. In fact, it was not until 2010 that he had another severe migraine. Whether it was Dennis’ prayers, the new drug or identifying the triggers I don’t know. In any case I see God in all three. It also does not bother me that Dennis prediction lacked some accuracy. Contrary to what he said, Mark did have more migraines. But, from the day that Dennis prayed for Mark, his migraines ceased to be a major events in our lives and within a few months they ceased to be a cause of major concern. In my book, that qualifies as healing.

Years earlier in Burkina Faso, we were introduced to a young man named Adama, from that country, who had come to the Lord out of drugs. He was a very calm and enjoyable person, but he had used drugs and they had left him with a moderate mental impairment before he came to the Lord and quit using. He could not do complicated tasks and he worked very slowly. We hired him occasionally to do yard work. He did good work, but he could only do in one day what most people could do an hour or 2.

Our oldest son, Matthew, was about five years old. He was having a series of eye infections since he was one month old. Allergies coupled with the dry and dusty environment were making his eyes vulnerable. One day Adama came by and asked if there was anything he could pray for. Dayle said that Matthew had started another eye infection. Adama asked Matthew if he could pray for him. When Matthew said, “yes,” Adama stood behind him, put his hands over Matthew’s eyes and prayed for him. Matthew never had another eye infection.

In addition to giving glory to God, these stories point out something profoundly important for missionaries – the people they go to minister to can also minister effectively to them and it can be mutual spiritual enrichment and encouragement. It’s reciprocal.