Being a missionary isn't easy or glamorous. It's a lot of hard work—often in challenging circumstances. That doesn't mean it isn't rewarding, meaningful, or occasionally fun. But there are difficulties and challenges many people don't know missionaries go through.
Here are four things that missionaries wish that churches understood about their work and calling.
1. They often feel like they have to manage our perceptions
Nobody intends to place missionaries on a pedestal, but it happens. The fact that most people can't imagine being called to share the gospel in a foreign culture coupled with a lot of the ways missionaries are portrayed in literature and movies gives the impression that somehow missionaries are more righteous or holy than they actually are.
They struggle in the very same ways everyone else does. In fact, sometimes the situations they're in compound those struggles. Missionaries struggle with depression, frustration, loneliness, and pettiness. But they don't always feel like they can be open about it.
Missionaries who have to raise their own funds are often afraid that being honest about their struggles will cause people at home to lose confidence in them, and it will translate to fewer donations.
2. Thoughtful gifts, cards, and letters mean everything
When missionaries head off to their new ministry, they're often not entirely prepared for how isolated they feel from everyone back home. There's definitely a feeling of being out of sight and out of mind, and that can amplify frustrations with their calling and make them more homesick.
Thankfully, many missionaries can keep better connected through social media, but that doesn't take the place of physical notes and care packages. These gifts let them know that they're remembered and loved. A missionary may not be able to respond with a heartfelt thank you, but making them feel remembered is essential.
Note: before sending a care package, it's wise to find out what they truly need and if there are any restrictions on what you can send them.
3. Being home isn't always restful
Sometimes coming home for furlough requires more from missionaries than staying where they are—especially if they're returning as a family. If they're raising support, they'll have to travel from church to church and talk to a lot of different people. It can be exhausting.
What missionaries need more than anything are people who can make sacrifices without anticipating a lot in return. This means opening your home without expecting a lot of late-night conversations or family meals. Some missionaries have so many supporters they can't dedicate an entire evening being with one family. So, it could mean watching their kids or letting them borrow your car without spending time with them. Their short time at home includes a lot of responsibilities while taking care of their family. Having other expectations heaped on top only makes being home more difficult—and it can make them less rested when they head back into the mission field.
4. Missionary Sundays can be hard on them, too
Not every missionary organization runs the same way. Sometimes missionaries have to make the rounds and raise support among churches. Sometimes the denomination supports the missionaries—but the missionaries visit various churches to keep them abreast of what's happening and encourage continued giving toward missions.
Some people are really excited about missionary visits and can't wait for those services, luncheons, or special evenings. And others feel like those Sundays are incredibly dull and wince whenever they see them on the church calendar. Missionaries get it. Their feelings run the gamut, too. Pastors aren't always keen to let just anyone behind the pulpit, so missionaries know they must strive to convince the pastor they are not going to say something crazy.
It's not that they don't love visiting churches and sharing what the Lord is doing in their ministry. But sometimes they feel that a lot is riding on their performance. They have to be just as engaging and entertaining as a regular service, and they have to prove that the investment you're making into their ministry is paying huge dividends. They have to try to create an emotional connection to the people they're serving and send you home feeling like you got something out of the service. Often they are expected to do all this in three minutes from the pulpit.
This is a lot easier for some than others. People with strong teaching and preaching gifts will feel a lot more confident on stage sharing where their ministry is at. Others who serve in less public ways will struggle with public speaking. On top of that, the spouses and children in missionary families can be extremely uncomfortable being put on display.
Try not to judge their time with you with the same measurement you'd use on a standard service. Open your heart to what God is doing around the world and how these servants are sacrificing to partner with God in fulfilling the Great Commission.
A challenging but fulfilling calling
Like any calling, following God's call to serve other cultures can be challenging. It's not necessarily more difficult than other callings, but it can be hard in ways that people typically don't understand.
Understanding some of the specific challenges missionaries experience helps us serve and pray for them in concrete ways. If you're supporting mission work in the world, thank you. God's work is happening across the globe because of the prayers and support of people like you.
If you would like to give to a Cru missionary, explore your options here.