There are lots of reasons why missionaries go home. Team conflict. Marital conflict. Conflict with leadership. Wrong expectations. Lack of success in ministry. Lack of financial support. Children’s education. Career change. Continuing education. Health problems. Infidelity. Apostasy. War. Visa revoked. The list could go on.
But one of the reasons that I rarely hear is a lack of friends. Of course, it would be difficult for anyone to really admit that a lack of genuine, deep, friendships on the mission field is the reason they are going home. It just sounds wimpy to say, “I am going home because I am lonely and don’t have any friends.” That’s the kind of thing that you would expect a seven year old to say when leaving the playground, but not a mature adult who has committed their life to serving the Lord overseas. That notwithstanding, I am convinced that a lack of friends, or at least the lack of one or two close friends, is a significant reason why many missionaries don’t make it on the mission field long-term. It is never the only reason, but when all those other reasons to give up are crashing over our heads like so many waves, close friends can help us swim against the current instead of sinking in rocky waters.
While most people know that it is harder to go it alone, isolation is a unavoidable fact-of-life for many missionaries. Whether they are in a big city or a small village, missionaries often feel like they on they are completely on their own, cut off from those who can understand and sympathize with them. And this can be particularly acute for new missionaries. Those who have been on the field for a long-time have (hopefully) learned the local language well and come to feel more-or-less at home in their host culture. They have come to terms with the things that shock the newly arrived, and their language ability is sufficiently developed to have meaningful relationships with local people. And that familiarity and those relationships bring joy.
But new missionaries don’t have that advantage. They may have gotten to the point where they can order food and chat about the weather with ease, but they still don’t feel comfortable in their adopted tongue. Talking in the local language is still hard work and they still can’t express what is going on deep inside of them to those around them. They have gotten over culture shock but they continue to encounter things that confuse and frustrate them. “Why does everybody do THAT?!” they think to themselves. “And WHY is it that I have been here THIS long and I STILL can’t say what I want to say?!” When new missionaries experience this, it can really help to have a friend who is in the same boat to share with, and to relax with. Mutual encouragement can go along way to surviving and thriving on the mission field.
But it is not just new missionaries that need friends. Veteran missionaries and local Christian workers need good friends as well. When I worked in Central Thailand, I had the opportunity to attend some weekend camps for full-time Thai Christian workers. When these men (and a few women) came together, they smiled wide, laughed, ate, and thoroughly enjoyed being together. I don’t think it really mattered to them who the speaker was for the weekend or what the content of the sessions were. They were just glad to be together. I too have been to missionary conferences where the speaker was just okay, but the fellowship was great. It was time with the other missionaries that I was looking forward too, not so much the speaker or workshops. Why is that?
For anyone in full-time ministry, it tends to be the case that unless you are at a large church (which most missionaries and pastors in the world are not), you are carrying the load of leading your church or ministry with little to no help. Sometimes you have a teammate. Sometimes you don’t. As churches grow, there are lay leaders, and sometimes co-workers. And that is awesome. But many times, especially in a new church plant or new ministry start-up, you may feel like you are the only one who really cares whether this thing succeeds or fails. And as you work diligently to get things off the ground, it can feel like others are standing around looking at you quizzically with raised eyebrows, as if to say, “What IS he doing?! And why?” The role of missionary or pastor is not well understood in many places. Even in the West, it is common for people to think that the pastor only works one day per week, for an hour on Sunday morning. The priorities, issues, values, and time commitments of the missionary are different than the vast majority of those around him. The things he cares about are not even on the radar screen of others. It is easy for feelings of loneliness and isolation to spring up. And if there is any conflict or opposition, especially from from Christians, bitterness can easily take root as well.
And when difficult times come, who is there to help you? Mission leadership may or may not be helpful, or even available. Your mission organization may have great member care folks who step in to help you out. But maybe they don’t. Maybe your organization has lousy member care. Or maybe you don’t have an organization. You could Facebook or Skype with folks back home, and they can listen sympathetically, but they probably don’t know your local context well enough to understand your situation very well. Even worse, they may be so sympathetic that they affirm your grumbling about “those people” rather than calling you to account and helping you to see things in proper perspective. And when loneliness, frustration, and stress from culture / language / ministry or other factors builds up, a one-way ticket home starts to look very attractive.
So what can we do to prevent that homeward trip and keep missionaries on the field long-term? First, I’ll tell you want NOT to do. Don’t whine about how your mission organization has poor member care or doesn’t have enough fellowship. Instead of waiting around for some organizational change or new infrastructure to be put in place, be pro-active and reach out to another missionary or two who you think you might get on with well and strike up a friendship. Go out for coffee. Have a meal. Talk about ministry. About family. About something deep and about nothing at all. “That sounds great,” you may say, “but there is nobody in my area.” That may be true, especially if you are in a remote village. But even then, in many remote areas mobile phones are not uncommon. Get on the phone and call a friend. Don’t post all your frustrations on Facebook and wait around for a drip-feed of sympathy and encouragement to come as people “Like” your comment. Just call somebody. It will be much more personal, deep, satisfying, and life-giving than any social media site or email. I’m not against digital media, but I am finding them to be far inferior to in-person or on-the-phone communication.
During my previous term of service I found myself becoming frustrated and bitter in a less than ideal ministry situation, but I had a missionary friend three hours away who would just randomly call me to ask about this or that. We had struck up a friendship when he was attending language school about half an hour up the road from the church where I was working. He had attended there and helped with out with a kids club while he was in language school. Even after he moved to Bangkok, we stayed in touch and got into the habit of just calling each other whenever we felt like it to ask about this or that ministry thing, or to ask how the other one was getting on. I really enjoyed those conversations (and still do) and always put down the phone with the feeling that I wasn’t alone and that there was someone else who “got it.” Now that our family lives in Bangkok, I see him in person more often but in this huge city we are still an hour away from each other. And unfortunately he is about to go on home assignment for six months, so the whole time zone issue means talking on the phone will become much less convenient for a time. But he’ll be back. And he is not my only friend.
Whatever we do as missionaries, we need to get friends for ourselves. With long distances and busy schedules it won’t be easy, but we need to do it for the sake of our own survival. A few close friendships with other missionaries can bring life-giving joy to ourselves that will help us get through the rough times, and not only survive on the mission field but also thrive. Do it for yourself. Do it for your friend. Do it for your family. Do it for your ministry. Do it for the church. Do it for the glory of God and the renown of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Go make a friend today and stay on the field long-term to make an impact for the kingdom of God.