Today’s guest post comes from Carrie Vaughn. See her bio below.
Dear Missions Agencies–
This week, I heard news of yet another missionary who died after having to leave the field. I regularly hear from missionary friends who are facing all sorts of physical and emotional struggles. The number of these conversations has increased remarkably over the past year.
Missionaries are not robots. They are not machines that receive the Great Commission as data input in order to spit out converts as proof they are working correctly.
They are humans and humans need provisions. When a sudden move happens, they need time to grieve their lost homes and shattered lives. While you look at their city as a large population of unconverted people, that missionary sees the young mom living next door. They see a street vendor working hard to get their kids into a good middle school. They have tea with the grandpa struggling with diabetes.
Missionary Grief and Stress
So when this home gets pulled from them, for whatever reason, it leaves pockmarks on their hearts. While you see them “moving onto another assignment,” they see love and relationships being forcibly ripped from their souls. Knee deep in their grief, you are asking them to decide to buy plane tickets to a new country, a new culture, a new language, a new home. While you throw Bible verses at them about reaching all the nations, they are still grieving.
Missionaries often feel guilty about needing time to grieve. Organizations hold them hostage in their grief by telling them that this is God’s will and call to move to a different place. There’s no luxury to process grief when you are told to be excited about the next new mission field that God has given you. So, we short-circuit our grief because it feels selfish and unfaithful. The truly faithful would pick up their cross and joyfully step into the new role. I mean, Jim Elliot died. My loss isn’t half that bad! And so, we zip tie that grief shut and hope nothing causes it to rip open, ever.
They are not immune to trauma. Over the last year, I’ve known many people in the missions community who are sick or have died. They were healthy a few years ago. But the stress of missions takes an enormous toll on the body. Missions agencies don’t want to talk about it, because healing is slow and messy. It might require someone to take time off to get counseling or see a litany of doctors. There are souls to save, and there’s no time for appointments with specialists.
This theological race we’ve entered has told us the faster we throw the gospel at a people group, the faster Jesus comes back. This is making people sick and it’s killing our missionaries. This must stop. If a missionary needs 6 months to see doctors and get counseling, we need to grant them that time. God isn’t twiddling his thumbs, waiting for them to get back to work.
Have we really elevated our importance in the kingdom to a place that God’s pace is dependent on how hard our missionaries are working?!
The need for missions agencies to be gluttonous consumers of fast and big results is starving the souls of our missionaries. We need this to stop now before we have an entire generation of missionaries sent to an early grave.
Five Suggestions for Action
We need counseling for missionaries that is not tied to their employment. While member care is great, often the member care personnel are not certified counselors. And, like it or not, the missionary knows that ultimately their employment is at stake when divulging emotional issues to an agency appointed member care person.
2. Time Away from the Field
There needs to be a 2/3’s rule when missionaries are on stateside assignment. 1/3 of their time can be spent fundraising, speaking, and mobilization. The other 2/3’s is rest. It’s seeing doctors and taking naps. We often felt more exhausted by our time in America than when overseas. Stateside time is not restful as it exists right now. During that time, emails shouldn’t get answered and no work should be done for the organization.
There needs to be more awareness of grief and its impact on the physical body. To borrow from the title of a significant book, “the body keeps score.” If a family experiences grief from a sudden move, a teammate leaving, a death in their passport country, etc., there needs to be a process where that missionary can talk to someone for a short time at least.
Many more meetings can and should be done remotely. The amount of travel that missionaries do for meetings can be trimmed. While some meetings need to be done in person, many of them can happen online. Many missionary kids have parents that travel more often than a CEO in America.
Emphasize community and team in each city. Prioritize it with actions, policies, and funding. Whether a fellow missionary or a local, the missionary needs to know that it’s ok to take time to enjoy fellowship. It’s often explicitly taught that spending time in fellowship should be avoided, other than for weekly church gatherings.
Our missionaries need friends in their physical vicinity, friends who will notice when the missionary is losing weight or getting sick more often. They need friends who will raise a red flag on behalf of that missionary who might not see what’s happening.
Carrie and her family lived in East Asia for most of her adulthood and now resides in the States. She is the author of Redefining Home: Squatty Potties, Split Pants, and Other Things that Divide My World and co-hosts the podcast Women with Questions.