What is hard about life as a missionary?

“It depends on the country and the person.”

It varies from field to field, and also from person to person. I personally live in Europe, so some of the hardest things for me have been emotional rather than physical. I miss my family. I miss Chicago pizza!

However, I think the hardest thing for me on the field is coping bi-culturally. I feel that I do fine here, but going back, or dealing with people from home is really strange. I’ve changed. I’ve become a different person over here in Europe, because I have to.

But the people back home have never seen that side of me and so that’s difficult. I have to straddle two cultures that have such different worldviews about war and peace, government, taxes, family, and religion.

For some the difficulty may lie instead in physical matters, like living in some parts of Africa. Others may wrestle with their co-workers.

Answer from Jamie in Spain.

“Adapting to another world.”

Most missionaries would tell you that all the changes are hard: new country, new language, new food, new culture, new “norms” and values. Of all the things I’ve found the hardest and seen more people struggle with is adaptation to a whole new “world” (all at once).

If you go into your overseas assignment with the attitude of “this is my home now … I need to learn how to live here,” you’ll do well. Resist the urge to compare everything with the way you prefer to do things or the way things are in your home country. To borrow a well-known line: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

If you’ll choose to become part of the lives of those you’re ministering to and learn to accept differences, you’ll have a better chance of being effective than if you hold on yourself and your way of doing things. 

Remember Paul’s words and become all things to all men. By surrendering your culture and comfort, and learning to assimilate to your new “home” culture, you’ll find it easier to adapt.

Answer from Beth, who has served for six years in Africa.

“Showing tolerance to other missionaries.”

The hardest thing about living on the mission field is probably getting along with the other missionaries. At times you may be stuck with these people 24/7. Sometimes there are great people that you can get along with easily, but almost invariably there are also people that, to you, may seem almost impossible.

You may find out that some people are cheap, selfish, and have a very different outlook on life that you do. One of them may beat you up or attack you … I’m not kidding. You may not “fit in” with the group but unfortunately you have no other place to go. 

God can use that to get you even more involved with the nationals and sharing the gospel with them! 

Ultimately you may realize that the tolerance that was so hard for you to offer others was also given to you by them, as well. Because, you see, you’re not such a saint yourself.

Answer from R., who has been a missionary for two years.

“Being forgotten by people at home.”

When I left for the field, I predicted we would be forgotten within six months. I was wrong. It was two months! Except for an occasional email directed to the entire church, we received an email here and there. Birthdays and anniversaries were forgotten.

Even though we sent updates via email every month, very few people responded to them.

But perhaps God knew that I was a “people person” and required a feeling of loyalty and support. Perhaps by not getting it, he taught me to depend only on him. It worked! We have a great ministry. If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it!

Answer from Jack, who has served in the Philippines for thirty-seven years.

“Here’s a list of some of the hardships of being a missionary.”

Editor’s note: Don’t be discouraged by the many potential challenges… nobody has to face them all!

  • Leaving friends and relatives. Missing birthdays, weddings, and funerals, as well as family reunions.
  • Personal family or marital problems exacerbated by the unique stresses and strains of living in a foreign culture. 
  • Culture shock: learning to fit into a new culture and different ways of doing things we are familiar with, food, traditions, customs, habits, transportation, etc. Enduring the humiliation of fumbling with an unfamiliar language, sounding like a moron, etc.
  • Loneliness, especially for singles.
  • The environment: often excessive heat without air conditioning, filth, noise, lack of efficiency, things that don’t work, people who don’t show up when they say they will, long lines, etc.
  • Dealing with bureaucracy. (“Come back tomorrow; you need another document”).
  • False expectations about the ministry. Not seeing expected fruit, having little positive to report to people who are sacrificing to provide support.
  • Poverty. How can I possibly respond to all who ask me for help? The pain of seeing people without the necessary means of support, medical treatment, schooling for their children, etc.
  • Conflict with colleagues, especially fellow missionaries; conflict with national leaders.
  • The frustration of being assigned a job I wouldn’t have chosen and am not trained to do.
  • The struggle to keep a quiet time with so many pressures.
  • Children’s schooling: national schools (which may inadequately prepare them for college, international schools (which are expensive), homeschool (when we are too busy as it is), send them to a boarding school, etc.
  • Finances: the challenge of raising funds; churches who drop our support.
  • Security: thieves on the street, robbers who break in, threats on the lives of our children, etc.
  • Serving in hostile or war zones. 
  • Working with nationals. The difficulty of knowing when to give over authority; how long to stay, when to leave. Conflicts, especially over buildings, property, vehicles, etc.

Answer from Jack Voelkel, former missionary-in-residence with the Urbana Student Mission Convention; originally published on the Urbana website. Previously, Jack served thirty years with Latin America Mission in Peru and Colombia.

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