I have moved five times internationally. Three moves were planned and two were sudden. And yes, there’s a huge difference between the types of moves. During one move, I felt like I had stepped out of a black and white indie film into a Disney movie.
Throughout the span of our lives as missionaries, I have experienced euphoric moments feeling I was doing what I was born to do, moments thinking I would fall apart, a deep sense of peace and belonging even while all hell was breaking lose around me in my adopted home country, many unexpected foreign moments in my “home” country, and many times surrendering the fragments of living on three continents to God who alone can make sense of it all and weave together something resilient, whole, and beautiful.
So I have some wisdom to offer those who are navigating international moves or receiving missionaries back from the field. While the logistics are important, I will focus on the big picture. If you’re not a missionary, some principles may apply, but I will focus on what missionaries go through.
My framework: Why are you going? What will you do? With whom will you walk in relationship? Answering these questions will help ground you when your emotions try to take a nosedive or when you are tempted to go off course – or off-piste – as I like to say. It’s a skiing term.
The planned move
If you are making an international move as a missionary, you have most likely walked with God for a while and been fruitful in ministry. Your church or sending organization is behind you. But this is not your reason to go. You must know that God is calling you to go and you must rely on Him every step of the way. This is the only impetus that will sustain you long term when challenges arise. Secondly, if you are going to trail-blaze as a church planter or serve on a team, the primary reason is to make disciples. New churches are the outcome of leading people to faith in Christ.
The call of God to go and make disciples focuses what you do. You may be somewhat fluid in methods as long as the outcome is followers of Jesus. Your “why” also helps you to love and respect people in the new culture. The Gospel trumps culture every time, including your own culture. Let go of finding your identity in your native culture so you can identify with people in the new culture. If you have a family, consider boundaries that need to be in place for family health. Cross-cultural transitions take about a year, so pace yourself. It’s important to invest time in learning a new language, acclimating to the culture, and building relationships.
Build strong, supportive relationships with your team members through doing life together. Pray together, have fun together, dream together, and strategize together. But be close enough to at least one person who really knows you and can ask the hard questions.
People are drawn to love and life. Build a loving family in loving community that serves others and people will want to be around you. Over time, you will get to know and love the people in the country where you serve. I always considered it a privilege to live and minister in Ukraine. My close relationships with Ukrainians are some of my greatest treasures. We laughed together, endured hardship together, lived on mission together, and became family. The cultural differences diminished because of love for one another.
Some missionaries plan ahead to serve overseas for a specific length of time or work themselves out of a job by raising up and empowering indigenous leaders. While that’s good, planned moves off the mission field can be difficult because the ground has shifted where you were. Also, people may not understand how much you have changed. YOU may not even realize it until, like me, people keep asking if you are Ukrainian (fill in the blank with the country where you served) and say your English is very good. Find at least one person who gets you and celebrate that. Usually a seasoned missionary is the best mentor through planned moves off the field – even if the move is temporary. It becomes vital to broaden our sense of mission during different stages in life so we can embrace new roles and hybrid ministry opportunities. I know missionaries who remain overseas into their older years. And by then, they are no longer overseas. They are home.
The unplanned move
The question “why” can reverberate through the heart and mind of a missionary when they have to make an abrupt departure from the mission field. Since sudden moves are often health or crisis related, the “why” is connected to the reason for leaving rather than the reason for arriving in a new place. You need time to get your bearings and work through a new forward-focused vision and plan. The challenge is to find your identity, peace, and security in God when you are in flux.
Sudden moves often require you to go to a place where you don’t have a clearly defined role. You may have a unique set of skills fine-tuned for another place. While you may need a break to grieve the loss and regroup, getting back in the saddle again is healthy. Be patient with the process.
As much as possible, long-term missionaries should build relationships with a home base or sending church so they have a landing pad if the need should arise. If your closest relationships are on the mission field, you will have a harder time adjusting to a transition back to your sending country. Out of necessity, you may find yourself in the position of helping others understand how to help missionaries.
In summation, be governed by love.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)
- Be governed by love as a missionary going overseas. Love your family. Humbly love and serve the people you want to reach. And receive God’s love and grace for yourself as you go through the inevitable trials of transition. If it’s hard to leave, take comfort, it probably means you loved well. And God, who loves you, will see you through. Even though it’s difficult at times, the benefits of the missionary life far outweigh the challenges.
- Be governed by love if you are receiving a missionary back from the field. Love covers a multitude of complex situations and potential misunderstandings. Be governed by love if you are that missionary.
If you can get that close
I’m undone anyway
My cords stretched
Beyond ability to cope
Weave in resilience
So I can cross this bridge
My cross-cultural ability
Fine-tuned to another place
Weave in adaptability
Not fight or flight
Weave it substantial, winsome
Beautiful, with might
I cede, I trust your loving hands
Moreover, I trust your plans