5 Things Every Missionary Wants You to Know About Culture Shock

CultureShock

Something unique happens when you come off of the mission field for awhile. My husband and I are three months into our sabbatical, and a lot of our conversations lately have been about cultural differences. They pop up in the most unusual ways and at unexpected times. We chuckle at the way things are done in the USA versus Canada. Sometimes we inadvertently resist it, sometimes we willingly embrace it. Either way, we’ve found ourselves in that push and pull of international living.

In all of my articles, I am a firm believer of writing with grace and of not being self serving. I have a passionate desire to strengthen ministry families and to build up ministries through sharing transparently. This article is no exception. So in light of our recent cultural musings, here are five things to consider in regards to missionaries and culture shock, an area that is often neglected in churches because it is not well understood…because what missionaries actually go through is often not well understood:

1. Sometimes missionaries don’t know who they are. 

I probably could have used a stronger word than “sometimes.” A loss of identity is just par for the course in the life of a missionary. And, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. No matter what our occupation may be, we must find our identity in Christ. Life on earth is somewhat unstable and unpredictable, especially for those who choose to live internationally. But on the human level, a loss of identity can be a bit disconcerting.

Recently I attended a gathering where multiple ladies asked me ‘Who are you?” and “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?” They are the sweetest ladies ever, and I’m blessed to call them my new friends…I just didn’t know where to start with my answers because those questions are so complicated. “Well, my husband grew up here and we’re originally from the USA, but we’re dual citizens now. We’ve been in ministry in Canada for about 10 years, but we’re back here on sabbatical for a year{ish} and we don’t have a clue what our future is.” By then they’d surely be tired.

Who am I? Maybe I’ll just start with “I’m Leah.” And maybe we’ll stop there, too. Because I have this typical missionary feeling that I know myself…but I don’t know myself here.

I’ve heard many seasoned missionaries express that, after a life of moving around to various points on the map, they “didn’t know who they were anymore.” My husband and I are well acquainted with that feeling.

Culture shock is like watching a movie going on around you, but not knowing what role you have in it.

We know ourselves, but we don’t know ourselves here. And the older we get, the more we are learning to just embrace it as part of ministry life.

2. Missionaries don’t know where home is.

When we left the USA in 2005, home was definitely the States- the south, to be exact. But we stayed in Canada so long that the USA wasn’t home anymore. We had our children in Canada, and then that was definitely home, because it was all they knew. It was the place where we rooted our family. Actually, having field-born children helped us immensely with adjusting to the huge culture changes.

We thought it would be easy to come back to NC for this sabbatical. After all, it’s home, right? Not really….not anymore.

Reverse culture shock can be just as daunting as original culture shock.

Not having a place to “land” and to call home is, I think, part of what makes us as believers groan more and more for the coming of Christ and the blessing of Heaven. The first half of Hebrews 11 has a surprising number of mentions concerning Bible heroes who wandered and moved around often {at God’s command} to “a strange land”…and the thing they all had in common was the realization that the earth was not their home- they were desirous of “a better country.”

So if you get a blank look or a complimentary smile from your visiting missionary after you’ve said, “Welcome home,” it may be because they aren’t quite sure anymore if this is home. Is home (a) where they were born, (b) where they went to the field from, or (c) where they live now? Maybe it’s all of the above. Again, it’s complicated.

3. There is a major difference between living in another country full time and visiting another country on a missions trip.

This is something that isn’t talked about a whole lot, and I’m not going to linger here long. But it needs to be said once in awhile- Going on a missions trip does not automatically make you an expert on that country or that culture. We once had a visiting preacher who assumed he knew more about our culture than the area pastors, claiming he had been coming up there to preach for many years- much longer than the pastors had been there.  He liked to intrude on church matters while he was there, which actually ended up causing quite a bit of damage. He seemed to pride himself on the fact that he was still coming after all of these years, while many of the area pastors had left. Why? The pastors had lived there, and he hadn’t. He really had no concept of the culture because he had only been an honored guest each time he came.

We have had similar experiences with other visitors/mission teams who came up to help us and instantly claimed to know the people and understand them as well as, or better than we did. They stated that our country was exactly like where they came from. They offered advice to my husband and myself about how we should do ministry there. But they didn’t live there, and they had no idea what they were talking about. They were simply visitors. There is a big difference!

When you visit somewhere, you brush with the culture by default. When you live somewhere, you immerse in the culture hopefully by choice, then by default as you become part of it.

When visitors assume cultural experience, it can be very frustrating to missionaries. There are usually good reasons behind their ways and whys of doing ministry. Mission teams should be “at the service” of the missionaries, not the other way around. They should go as servants, not as experts; they should go as encouragers, not as advisors. Living in another country is not always as easy or as fun as it looks during your 10 day stay. Realize that you are looking at the culture from the outside in, while they are looking at it from the inside out.

If you strive to be an active encouragement and support during your visit, you will have brought to your missionaries the best gift they could think of.

4. Missionaries need long term support to navigate the cultural changes they face on the field.

The surprising truth about culture shock is that it takes several years to settle in and to work through. Typically, it’s not a big bang- it’s a trickle down effect. Somewhere in that process, missionaries may end up feeling like they are groping through a fog as they learn a new language, new food, new customs, and most of all- as they learn the thought processes of their people.

Learning people is a language in itself.

Add to that the absence of family and close friends, and the loneliness can build up to an almost unbearable level.

Many churches strongly support missionaries for the first 6 months to a year that they are newly on the field. Then the phone calls stop, the emails don’t come anymore, and the care packages are few. The sad thing about this? Right about when the church thinks their missionaries are doing well, they {the missionaries} are actually just beginning to realize their struggles in the new country. The honeymoon period is over and the novelties have become routine.

From our personal experience with culture shock, I would say that years 2-4 are the years when your missionaries need you the most. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. Even though they are prepared ahead of time by their mission boards, and many of them have gone to Bible college, missionaries always face surprises and unexpected challenges. Nothing can prepare them for living on the field…except for actually living on the field. And it’s not easy.

5. All sending churches are not necessarily {by default} actively involved in caring for their missionaries.

This is another area where we wrongly assume things that are not true. Just because a missionary has a sending church does not mean that that sending church is taking good care of them. You can use your imagination to think of the myriad of things that happen in churches that would affect missionaries- pastoral changes, splits and restoration, a drop in support, a big turnover in membership, etc. All of these things take a toll on the supported missionaries.

Aside from church changes, it is a fact that some churches just do not know how to take care of missionaries. Some missionaries even wish they could switch sending churches in order to have one that actively cares about them. In other words,

Just because a church supports missionaries doesn’t mean that church is missions minded.

Beyond reading a prayer letter (if that) and sending a monthly check, there is often not much interaction with missionaries. I think this is sad, considering the fact that social media has made it easier than ever to communicate with people around the world.

In our case, we went to the field without a sending church simply because the churches that hired my husband were able to support us full time. But after what we went through personally during our first few years, I’m not sure I recommend going without a sending church. We lacked the support that we desperately needed.  Situations like this are in the minority, but I’m sure that there are others out there who just went to the field cold turkey, and now desperately need support from their homeland. Do you know some missionaries like that? They need you.

My challenge to you here is: don’t wait to be a sending church in order to take good care of missionaries. Adopt a family, or several families. Call them. You’d be surprised what might happen. In pastoral ministry, my husband has always made it part of his schedule to call missionaries on their fields and just see how they were doing, to ask what their needs were, and to ask how he could pray for them. He was continually amazed at how many of them, as grown men, would break down and cry on the phone, claiming that “no one has ever done this before” or “you have no idea how much I needed this call.”  

Emails are great, and so are care packages {provided you do it correctly based on the country’s regulations}. But hearing a human voice on the other end of a phone does wonders for missionaries. It closes the gaps between the miles/kilometers and makes them feel known and loved.

Don’t just focus on the ones your own church sent out- reach out to the others that your church supports and to your own friends who are missionaries. You likely don’t know what kind of sending church they have, and it’s not always safe to assume that they are automatically being well taken care of.

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We all love to hear about missionaries preparing and going to the field, don’t we? But the truth is, just as many families going are also coming back due to burnout, health issues, and relationship struggles.  We don’t hear much about that. For the most part, they come off the field and no one really knows what happened. This is sad, because I really believe that some of their struggles on the field would be softened by caring people reaching out consistently. More than ever, we as individuals and churches need to work at understanding our missionaries–  Work at knowing how they think, what they are going through, and how we can be actively involved in their care.

What can YOU do today to encourage a missionary?

XOXO,

A Kindred Spirit

P.S. Is your family personally involved with missionary care? Feel free to share your ideas!

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About Leah {Embracing Grace}

Leah Highfill accepted Christ as her Saviour and became a child of God at the age of 18. Originally from the USA, she and her husband moved to the mission field of Canada in 2005, where she served in full time ministry as a pastor's wife for 10 years. During their tenure there, they became dual citizens. Leah and her family recently returned to NC and are currently enjoying a much needed sabbatical for the year of 2015. She homeschools her children {Small Son is 9 and Tiny Daughter is 7} and teaches private piano lessons on the side. She can be found reading, writing/blogging, playing the piano and violin, or ice skating. A friend to ministry wives everywhere, Leah has a passion to inspire hope and to encourage women in their walk with God. Her first book, Expecting Grace, was published in 2013. Expecting Grace is the story of Leah's experience and survival of a life threatening pregnancy, and of many medical and financial miracles along the way. Her second book is currently in process. Join her grace-filled journey right here at Embracing Grace!

10 thoughts on “5 Things Every Missionary Wants You to Know About Culture Shock

  1. Dear Leah,
    Your comments about missionary work are soooo true!
    My husband and I have had several years in Papua New Guinea (we live in South Australia)
    I could relate so well to lots of things (one being how hard it is to get over to people what it really was like!) (We were in a very remote area, electricity for 3 hours a night etc)
    But…it has made me aware of how I can support missionaries we know!
    Blessings,
    Betty G

  2. Thank you for this article, Leah. Very helpful. You mentioned several times about the missionary being well-taken care of by their sending church. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what that “being well-taken care” of might involve. Thank you for the articles you write and the encouragement you give to those in ministry. It’s wonderful to hear how God is working as you are in a time of “rest.”

    1. In my mind, “well taken care of” means making them feel remembered and loved. Send emails, call, Skype with them {if it’s safe}, know birthdays/anniversaries and send cards {if it is practical}, send care packages, have specific prayer times for specific families, send an extra love offering, collect pennies in children’s ministry to send to missionaries, pay for them to come home for a rest, have an international dinner and highlight missionaries through their specific food/culture, and then encourage people to use that experience to know their missionaries better. You know, just regular/consistent communication works wonders for people when they are thousands of miles away from family and friends.
      Leah {Embracing Grace} recently posted..Ministry Musings: Identity Crisis…Identity ChristMy Profile

  3. Thanks for this great article. My husband & I brought our 4 young children to the mission field (10K miles away) for what we hoped would be a career-length mission commitment. A major source of problems for us was communication styles. It seems that what passed for acceptable on-field communication, & acceptable between-field & “headquarters” communication was more akin to gossip, slander, & libel. Needless to say, we were very discouraged by the time the first 4-yr. term was over. We came home for what was supposed to be a 12-month period of rest, reconnection with family, friends, & churches, etc., & after very odd communiques from “headquarters”, decided after great prayer & much counsel & consideration, resigning from that agency, that work, that country, those people, & what had meant “home” to us (our friends, our pets, our surroundings, familiar places, etc.) in that now-far-away place. It was very difficult coming back “home” to the States. We went thru’ a lot of identity adjustments. We are doing very well now, as are our children. However, we do wish our missions experience had played out differently than it did. We thank God for it, but it was definitely not pleasing to the Lord in many ways. One pastor back in the States ministered to my husband & me by listening, praying for us, sharing a similar horrid experience that affected him & his wife & 4 children (at a church in the States); that man was used powerfully by the Lord to help us heal. He helped remind us who we are in Christ, & that humans can get in the way of what God wants to happen, but that God is still God, & He is still good. (This pastor is with the Lord now; I’m sure he received a “well done” at least on our account.) If anybody reading this knows of an organization or individual that is studying seemingly unhappy endings of missionaries going in to the white fields of harvest, please find a way to contact me. I now know many other ex-Ms who could contribute to the topic.

    1. Identity adjustments….I’m very aware of how difficult those can be! I am sorry that you have been through so many trials on the field. You are right that inter-missionary communication {or lack of} is a big cause of discouragement and coming off the field. My husband and I have also had our fair share of those types of struggles. As with you, we are now in a much better situation and are so thankful to God for sustaining us through the struggles and for bringing us into a more pleasant place for a season. I pray that you and your family will heal and refresh as well!
      Leah {Embracing Grace} recently posted..Ministry Musings: Identity Crisis…Identity ChristMy Profile

  4. As a parent of missionaries, I appreciate your heart. My husband is a pastor and just as there is no way for another pastor to understand what it’s like to pastor YOUR church, missionaries can struggle to connect with other missionaries because each mission field is different culturally, socially and economically. Our job is to pray, love, and encourage and support each other. The first step is awareness! Thanks for sharing!
    Vickie Munton recently posted..When You Spill Hot Coffee All Over Your JoyMy Profile

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