Nineteen eighty four – John Smith, a fictitious missionary to Zaire, receives a letter from his brother with news that their mother has suddenly died. That was three weeks ago – the length of time it took the letter to arrive. The burial and funeral had already taken place. John’s family knew he couldn’t come to the funeral. His grief, though intense, is remote and unshared by anyone near him expect his wife. John, who’s dedicated and focused on his ministry, realizes he won’t be able to mourn until his furlough – in two years. No one expects otherwise of him.
But when John goes home two years later, his family and friends have all moved past his mother’s death. He grieves afresh, but once again he’s isolated. If only he’d been able to communicate more often with his family. If only plane tickets had been cheaper. If only things had been different.
Fast forward to 2004 – the next generation. Roberta Sanchez, a fictitious missionary to Senegal, receives an e-mail followed by a phone call from her sister that her mother has been rushed to the emergency room. Things don’t look good. Can she come back? She hops on the Internet and books a flight. She’s on a plane within 48 hours. She gets to the hospital and says goodbye to her mother. Mom dies the next day. Roberta is with her family for the funeral. In the following weeks she helps sort through her mother’s things and get her father through this difficult time.
Roberta returns to the field two weeks later. She’s overwhelmed with all that’s piled up in her absence. Her e-mail inbox is at 300. She has a conference to attend in two days and many friends and colleagues dropped by to see her while she was gone and would like her to call or visit. ‘ She’s still getting e-mails and occasional phone calls from family and friends back home. If only she could stop the flow of e-mail. If only she weren’t so easy to reach. If so, things would be a lot simpler.
Modem missionaries deal with the stress of having their feet planted in both worlds: the field where they serve and their home country. They face both the expectations of national colleagues and team members and those of their family members, home church and friends. The pressures of living in a country with different cultural norms and rules collides with the barrage of communication that modern technology blesses and curses us with.
Before the era of e-mail, cheap phone calls and affordable plane tickets, missionaries often felt distant from family and friends back home. They weren’t expected to be involved since they were overseas and inaccessible. Today many missionaries are burdened by issues related to aging
parents, children in college, home church conflicts and family members who are ill or struggling with divorce, depression or substance abuse.
During my past four years, my teammates and I have traveled back to our home countries and dealt with countless phone calls and e-mails related to family emergencies. A sister was dying of cancer, a mother moved from independent to assisted living, a home church had a severe conflict, and one of us had a bout with ovarian cancer.
Missionaries most commonly react to issues back home with a pervasive sense of responsibility and guilt. We want to help, yet each trip home, phone call or e-mail means a bit less field involvement. But how do you balance field life with commitments back home? And how do you do so without false guilt or an inflated sense of responsibility? I have often had to choose between field responsibilities and a once-in-a-lifetime event – my brother’s graduation, my niece’s confirmation or a close friend’s wedding. In each case, I chose my missions obligations, but I paid the price of missing those special events. Was I right?
I don’t have easy answers. Each missionary needs to examine his or her priorities before the Lord. In this age of advanced technology, demands and expectations will continue to flow from many more sources. Missionaries’ priorities may not match their agency’s values and financial policies – for example how often agencies will pay for a trip back home. Those who travel home more often may also have to deal with national colleagues or teammates from a developing country who struggle to understand their travel expenses.
Missionaries, field teams and their organizational leadership must frankly discuss priorities and reach a mutual understanding of prioritizing family and ministry needs. Missionaries should also talk about these issues with their home churches and relatives, and even their spouses. In the age of accessibility, people’s expectations will likely result in someone’s disappointment. Each missionary must decide before God whose needs to address. Then he or she can walk in the freedom of trusting that God will take care of those who have been disappointed.
May we serve with integrity, not guilt. Grant us grace for ourselves and each other. Lord, give us the wisdom and courage to sacrifice and suffer for your sake alone, and to embrace and enjoy all your gifts.
By Karen Carr
This article was first published in the July 23, 2004, Vol. 39, No. 12 issue of World Pulse.