The Care and Keeping of Your Missionary
On one of my last visits to our local bookstore, I couldn't help but notice an overwhelming pile of self-help books teaching you how to do anything from make a vegetarian hamburger to keep your goldfish alive. I don't know if it's a series or what, but there was a vast collection of books entitled The Care and Keeping of... [puppies, exotic fish, carnivorous plants, you fill-in-the-blank].
Recently, I was back in the States on home assignment, and I was struck by how many people were genuinely interested in providing on-going support and caring for me on the mission field but had no practical idea how to go about it. So, for all you wonderful people who have a heart for missions and missionaries but don't know how to help, this post is for you.
So what does your favorite missionary actually need? The answers may surprise you.
1) Permission to be real.
It's easy to forget in the midst of exotic photos, crazy God Stories, and funny cultural anecdotes that your missionary is a real person, just like you. Missionaries often get put on a pedestal and saddled with an image of a glamorous life being a "super-Christian," when that's the furthest thing from the truth. In between all the great stories, there's a lot of laundry, frustrations, burnt meals, discouraging conversations and real life.
Your missionary needs permission to talk about the hard days and the defeats, as well as the victories. For most missionaries, every day is a battle just to keep the lights on and ministries running. They carry a lot already. They don't need the weight of expectations to be super-spiritual, as well.
2) You to be real.
I can't tell you how many times I've asked friends or supporters about their lives, only to be brushed off with, "Oh, not much. Busy. So, tell me about that trip you took to..." You may feel like your mundane, everyday life pales in comparison to your missionary's exotic adventures. Don't let that stop you from sharing a funny story about your child or sending pictures of your 30th birthday party. Being a part of the everyday things in your life is probably what your missionary misses the most.
Even the smallest details can be a "taste of home" for someone desperately missing life back home. If your missionary sends you a newsletter, take a couple minutes to write back with some stories from your own life. Make it personal and real. Your missionary will thank you for it.
3) On-going communication.
Knowing that people back home love them and are praying for them is so important for missionaries who are often serving cross-culturally in environments where they will never quite fit in and others always want something from them. But they won't know unless you tell them.
With the advances in technology, staying in touch has never been easier. Even people in the Sahara Desert or Himalayan Mountains have cell phones. Find out from your missionary the best way to communicate (email, Facebook, WhatsApp, carrier pigeon) and make it a part of your routine.
Also, never underestimate the power of a handwritten card or letter. I'm blessed to have several friends back home with whom I exchange letters on a regular basis. I love that I can tuck notes in my suitcase and re-read words of encouragement whenever I'm traveling or away from internet access. Several times, my mom has gone around church and collected brief notes of encouragement from people who know me. For me, it was better than Christmas.
Keep in mind that, if your missionary lives in a remote location or works in a sensitive country, you might have to be careful what you say. When in doubt, ask.
4) Care packages.
It may be an old-fashioned idea, but it's stuck around for a reason. Sometimes, everyday items like spice mixes or lotions can be impossible to find in a missionary's host country. Packages are great anytime but are especially appreciated for holidays, birthdays, or other occasions when your missionary would normally be celebrating with family and friends.
Shipping can be expensive, so it might be helpful to collaborate with several friends or a Bible study group to share costs. If you're not sure what to include, ask your missionary or one of their family members or close friends. Each person has unique needs depending on their mission field and type of ministry. For example, I spend nearly half my year in airports, so Amazon or iTunes gift cards are great to keep me entertained on long-haul flights!
Note: Some countries have exorbitant customs fees or rules. Find out ahead of time, so your missionary doesn't end up having to "ransom" your package for far more than the value of the contents!
5) Permission to say 'no'
This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, but I'll restrain myself. For your missionary, the workload never stops. There is always one more need to meet. Another good deed to do. Another person asking for help. They will never be "finished." And a side effect of living off donated funds is feeling like they have to make someone else's investment worthwhile.
We serve an infinite God, but we still live in fragile human bodies. I remember very vividly a conversation I had with a close friend and financial supporter a few months into my first term as an overseas missionary. I'd been telling her what I was working on, the projects coming up, everything I needed to do--and she interrupted me mid-spiel to say, "Katie, just say 'No.'"
I've had many occasions since then to take her excellent advice. Sometimes, the godly answer to even good opportunities is "No." Or "Not yet." Examine your own heart and make sure you care more about your missionary and their health and well-being than you do about "results."
There's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to meeting the needs of your missionary and ensuring they are cared for and able to minister on the field for as long as God has for them. The best person to tell you what your missionary needs is (drumroll) your missionary. But if you take the time to listen--really listen--you will foster a relationship that will be a blessing both to yourself and to your brother or sister serving far from home.