“I sacrificed more by leaving the mission field.” When my friend recently made this statement, I not only knew she was right; I recognized how few people realized the cost missionaries pay when returning to their home country. Far fewer churches and mission organizations talk about it.
First of all, what does she mean? How can people say they sacrificed more by leaving the mission field than by going in the first place? After all, missionaries give up job with more lucrative salaries and benefits. They leave loved ones and miss out of holidays, major family events, and the like. Of course, they will face various minor or major hardships once they arrive in their place of service.
Even if someone disputes the word “more,” the costs are comparative. In reality, the costs of leaving the field are merely delayed costs of going in the first place.
The Costs of “Returning Home”
Working cross-culturally can change people. For short termers (2-3 years or less), the effects will vary depending on the person. However, long-term missionaries can no longer see the world as they did before being immersed in another place.
The experience fundamentally shifts basic assumptions, habits, and even values. Second-culture adults often share certain characteristics as TCKs (“third culture kids”). In particular, they increasingly feel culturally homeless. They neither belong in their passport country nor their places of service. In addition, don’t forget the emotional investment missionaries must make in order to keep them in a foreign context for so long. They love local friends and are committed to their ministry.
Still, when I speak of sacrifices, I’m not simply speaking of the emotional toil of transition and adjustment. Consider some of the practical consequences of long-term service.
Missionaries do not make a lot of money. That’s no secret. The vast majority of missionaries must do some sort of fund raising on a perpetual basis. As a result, they often have very little in their savings.
What little they might have tucked away will probably be spent during the transition back to their passport country. Shipping their belongings is expensive; yet, the alternative is only marginally better. Families often must start over from scratch. They need to purchase tables, chairs, appliances, vehicles, along with countless other items.
The more children they have, the less likely they are to have any substantial sum set aside for college. In some cases, I’ve heard missionaries lament that they have no home state in which their kid could have “in-state residency.”
Once you land, you need a home. You can’t live with relatives for long. Apartments are not a good long-term option financially. However, people need credit in order to purchase a house. Missionaries often have little credit history. They might have some revolving credit, but they would not have bought many cars or homes via credit.
Since they are transplanting their families across the world, they might not yet have a new job. Their previous employment (i.e., as missionaries) will not inspire confidence in banks to lend money. Their assets typically are limited.
Long-term missionaries routinely struggle to find jobs.
Sure, they might speak another language and are comfortable working with diverse populations; however, large employers rarely care whether you can use a tribal dialect. And even if you can speak French or Mandarin, you still need other skills that make you attractive to employers.
What about working in the local church? First, not all missionaries have the theological training that would qualify them for many pastoral positions. Second, although there is overlap between missions and pastoral ministry, significant differences remain.
Third, the number of “missions pastor” positions is limited. Those churches that do have such a position tend to be larger churches (and disproportionately located in the American South). For several reasons, long-terms missionaries are not always good fits for those positions. Moreover, many churches want their missions pastors to do local ministry and, ironically, minimize the scope of cross-cultural work.
(Even if someone has an upper-level degree, social changes, especially in America, can be it difficult for persons to find jobs in certain fields.)
Naturally, some people had careers before serving as missionaries. After a decade or more in another culture and vocation, they will lack the experience needed to be hired in their field. In other cases, missionaries will find that their credentials or licenses have expired due to not renewing them or not receiving continuing education.
I know for a fact that many missionaries feel the pressure to stay on the mission field longer than they’d prefer. Why? Simply because they know they have nothing to go to. Either because of age or the factors above, they know they’ll be unemployed indefinitely.
“Out of sight, out of mind.” That’s the unfortunate reality that long-term missionaries face. Many friends and family intend well. They love us. Still, their attention will shift to people they see more often. Emails are exchanged with less and less frequency. Missionaries eventually lose contact with numerous friends. While Facebook and Instagram can keep us up to date with some parts of others’ lives, they don’t make up for presence. They are not personal means of maintaining close friendships.
Consequently, one’s social network decreases. The number of meaningful relationships decreases such that missionaries have few people to help them through their difficult transition. Sometimes, a missionary simply needs advice. Google can explain the meaning of “escrow” but it can’t provide nuanced feedback about various life choices. Not surprisingly, many returning missionaries suffer from loneliness. Depression can set in and perpetuate their problems.
Finally, returning missionaries often feel “culturally irrelevant.” They are coming back to a country quite different than the one they left. In a place like America, social changes happen at a rapid pace.
Since the early 2000s, gay marriage has become legal in all states. Smartphones and social media dominate every aspect of life. Terrorism, mass shootings, political polarization, and #MeToo are just few things that have transformed the social environment in America.
Returning missionaries quickly find that they, in some ways, remain “second-culture” adults, at least for a while. They are at a disadvantage in discerning cultural rules and forming new friendships. The anxiety and stress are wearisome.