A couple I knew from California left with their infant daughter to work in Japan as missionaries with an established ministry in Okinawa. They went through the normal difficulties of adjustment, but they were doing pretty well. However, this man had a rare blood condition which could kill him if not managed correctly. The hospital in Okinawa treated it for a while, but the hospital eventually ran out of medication and refused to treat his condition unless the family paid something like $9000 for the meds.
They had to move to a larger city with better hospitals, so they went to Ibaraki prefecture, on the northern outskirts of Tokyo. An aunt worked there as a missionary. There, they had virtually no fellowship, little money, and an unclear vision about what they were supposed to be doing. During this time, the wife had an asthma attack that nearly took her life, and after months of prayer, they packed up their bags and left Japan for good.
This is a true story. I tell it for two reasons. First, anyone going to be a missionary should understand the level of difficulty and spiritual warfare they will encounter. Changing a nation requires an attitude to face life-threatening situations, even in a safe and wealthy country like Japan. Without that attitude, your circumstances will dictate your effectiveness and longevity on the field.
Choosing your Situation
But the point I want to dwell on is the importance of choosing a wise situation when you go to the field. When you choose to go somewhere as a missionary, you don’t just choose a country. You also choose a mission agency and a local team. I’ve watched friends land in awful situations and burn out in great part due to their agency and local team. In short, my advice to everyone going to the mission field is this: “Don’t go somewhere dumb.”
Sounds easy, right? I wish it were. Have you ever moved to a separate state within your own country? Do you remember how hard it is establishing new routines and relationships? Magnify that by 100 to understand what your move to a new country will look like. Not only are you moving across a national border, you will likely also move to a place where you do not understand the language and customs.
My friends’ situation in Okinawa was actually a good one! They had fellowship, people to learn Japanese with, and useful work to do. Unfortunately, they could not stay in that situation due to the husband’s medical condition. That forced them into the bad situation in Ibaraki.
In an ideal world, before going, they should have checked to ensure that his blood condition would have been able to be cared for in Okinawa. The hospital would have told them no, and they would have moved somewhere else in Japan. In an ideal world, they should have scouted out the situation in Ibaraki and realized beforehand to avoid it.
However, the world is not ideal, and that’s one of those hard lessons you learn when it comes to missionary placement. Maybe the base in Okinawa told them that the hospital could treat his condition (which it could… temporarily). Then, under the pressure of needing to move somewhere that could treat his condition, maybe the Ibaraki was the only option. Decisions that seem simple within your own country, like moving to a place with better hospitals, quickly become muddled and confusing when you can’t even call the hospital directly.
I want to pause and remind anyone preparing to go to the field that God isn’t interested in putting you in a comfortable situation. Becoming a missionary means like taking up your cross and dying. He wants you to encounter trials on the mission field, because God disciplines those He loves. And He wants you to overcome those trials to know greater power and joy in Him.
However, there’s trying situations and toxic situations. A trying situation grows you through suffering. A toxic situation overwhelms you to the point of burnout.
- You will never find a perfect situation.
- Good situations are rare.
- You can salvage a bad situation.
- Run from toxic situations.
The Most Important Factor
The most important factor towards your success as a missionary is your own, personal walk with God and your spouse’s walk (if you’re married). That lifeline to heaven can get you through even the worst trials, and your placement can’t fix it if it’s bad.
However, your placement does dictate the #2 factor in missions. I can’t stress how important this factor is. It will determine, more than you realize, whether you fall or fly. All the mission textbooks agree that the hardest part about being a missionary is when this factor goes bad.
I speak, of course, of team. What caused my friends to burn out? It wasn’t an asthma attack. It was being emotionally and spiritually depleted when that attack came. In a situation with a supportive team, that crisis wouldn’t have sent them back to America. Generally speaking, a healthy team separates a trying situation from a toxic one.
A key factor in choosing your first team is this: avoid isolation. I’m writing mainly here of your first assignment. When you first arrive on the mission field, it’s like being beaned with paintballs from a dozen different directions: new culture, inability to communicate, the difficulty of ministry, a whole new pace of life, spiritual warfare, and so forth. In this barrage, it’s best to have people nearby to support you. You don’t want to go through this all on your own. Worse, you don’t want to go through this with a team that makes the experience harder.
One problem I’ve watched a few people step into (and stepped into myself) is working with a missionary or couple trying to start a new work in a new place by themselves. Here’s some problems in a situation like this where it’s just you and them:
- They will have too much of a place in your life. They will play the role of your supervisor, mentor, accountability partner, fellow worker, and caregiver (remember, when you don’t speak the language; you’re the equivalent of a three year old). It’s difficult to have a healthy relationship when you are so fundamentally dependent on one person.
- When conflict arises, and it will (ask anyone who’s been a missionary longer than a year), you will have no one to go to but that person or couple. In Philippians, Paul instructs the church to help Eudia and Syntyche agree (Phil. 4:2). In general, in conflict, the two disagreeing parties should first speak to one another. But when things get bad, often the difference between friendship and enmity is that third party to help you work things out.
- Someone in that kind of an isolated situation is generally overworked. This prevents healthy fellowship and mentoring. They also can drag you too far from language study if they dump the work on you.
At some point, there may come a time where you feel called to strike out with a small team like this. We call that pioneering ministry, and pioneering is always hard. Strike out when God calls you to, but I suggest waiting until you’ve adjusted a bit to the country.
A local church
Sometimes, you get the opportunity to work directly under a national church or pastor. A situation like this can be good or bad. Sometimes, the language barrier and cultural factors will demolish you. Sometimes, the pastor sees you as free labor and will overwork and undervalue you.
However, I know people who have had amazing experiences working with local churches. They’ve avoided the foreigner bubble (a real danger missionary teams) and greatly accellerated their language learning. They lived more like locals, rather than outsiders. When things go well working with a national church, it’s about the best way you can start off a missionary career. Just know who you’re getting involved with. And don’t pick a church that only wants you to teach English.
I’m going to end there for this post. Next time, I’ll write a bit more about landing in a bad situation, but I’ll finish up on a positive note with one huge way to make a good decision with your placement.
Anyone have placement horror stories? Better yet, any stories about great teams? Those are WAY better. Or any questions?
This post revised March 7, 2014.
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