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Dismantling the View of Missionaries as Super-Saints

By Colleen, RMM Director of Human Resources and Calibrate Facilitator

Miraculous healings. Hundreds coming to Jesus at one time. Explosive church growth. These kinds of stories can cause us to put missionaries on a pedestal – a position of super spirituality and near perfection. I felt that pressure as an overseas worker. I lived with the burden of high expectations and often wrestled with knowing how to communicate my own disappointments, struggles, and fears to supporters. I often thought, “If I am honest, will people lose their trust in my ability to live here and do this job? Don’t they only want to hear good news and miraculous accounts?” These doubts were used as accusations from the enemy trying to convince me that I was not worthy of the calling and was not living up to the highest standard.

Enormous courage is required to share vulnerably from a pedestal position that was never desired in the first place. I did not choose to share the gospel in Ecuador or Thailand because I thought I could do it better than anyone else. I recognized my own weaknesses and even pointed them out to God. Yet, I could not deny the call to obey and make disciples of all nations. I know I am not alone in this. In my current position at RMM, I am privileged to care for and support our field workers. I hear their struggles, I see their pain, and I understand the pressure they feel to fully meet all of the needs around them.

“Missionaries are not super-saints. They have made a decision to live and work overseas, but that decision does not change them indelibly.” Missionaries are not super-saints. They have made a decision to live and work overseas, but that decision does not change them indelibly. They have the same challenges and weaknesses on the other side of the ocean as they did while living in the states. They still lose their patience when raising children. They still lose sleep at night worrying about the future. They still have doubts and temptations. They still have dry periods in their relationship with God.

Unfortunately, challenges are compounded in a cross-cultural setting. Multiple adjustments and stressors intensify the daily struggles that we all face. Many field workers spend double or triple the amount of time they normally would running errands, preparing meals, and conducting business in another culture. Financial concerns are heightened as they live by faith on donated funds. There are language and cultural barriers to overcome, and a constant sense of bewilderment in the learning process. Married couples can feel shame or competition as they both tackle the language, and one learns more quickly than the other. Field workers with children need to navigate a different educational system and make difficult decisions for their family needs. Single people face loneliness and extra challenges in being known and understood.

All of these adjustments create stress that can be quite detrimental to physical and emotional health. Psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe developed a social readjustment scale to predict how stress can result in illness. This tool has been revised and utilized in mission training settings to help candidates become more aware of the high levels of stress they will encounter when living overseas. Dodds and Gardner estimate in their book Global Servants Cross-cultural Humanitarian Heroes Volume 2, that an average American lives with 100-200 stress points in a typical year. Those numbers predict a moderate risk of developing a serious physical or psychological illness within two years. The average worker overseas lives with about 600 stress points. Those numbers can increase to 800 or 900 during the first term of service when countless adjustments are being juggled at one time. This obviously raises the risk of burnout or illness unless field workers are resilient, equipped with good coping skills, and have a strong support system.

RMM’s Calibrate training for long-term workers attempts to highlight these realities and gives candidates practical tools for coping in a cross-cultural setting. We focus on the need for good nutrition, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep. We ask workers to maintain healthy rhythms for Sabbath, silent retreats, and vacations to get breaks from the constant stress. We teach them about caring for their souls and intentionally building emotional support structures that will help them maintain a healthy perspective. These are lifestyle choices over which workers do have some level of control. However, it requires discipline to remain consistent.

There are other things about life in a cross-cultural setting that feel much more out of control. The spiritual atmosphere in some regions can be so oppressive that it is almost tangible. That reality combined with the immense needs of the local people can result in a heaviness that is difficult to throw off. Spiritual warfare is real and I intercede often for workers who are being attacked physically, emotionally or spiritually. We all need reminders about the authority and power that God has given us as followers of Jesus. We need to take authority over our minds and challenge discouraging, anxious, and false thoughts with biblical truth.

Our field workers are also ministering in very difficult locations. We send workers to unreached places precisely because the need is so great. Yet that also means they will encounter more resistance and are required to invest patiently without seeing clear results quickly. This can lead to discouragement and doubts about success and purpose. I often remind our workers that success is not measured by the way other people respond to the message. Success in ministry is based on faithfully obeying what God has called us to do. We are not responsible for the results; God does the work of transformation. We cannot carry the burden of false guilt or responsibility for other people’s choices because that often causes frustration and hopelessness.

There are some practical things you can do to help support and encourage our field workers who are living with these realities day in and day out.
  1. Take them off the pedestal. Remember their frailties and adjust your expectations for what you might read in their newsletters. Reassure them that you want to know how they are really doing, not just the positive side of things. Create safe spaces for them to share honestly.

  2. Intercede for them. Pray for spiritual strength and perseverance. Pray for protection from the enemy. Pray God’s promises over them and remind them of the truth in letters and emails. Pray for breakthrough in the spiritual realm as they minister in very dark places.

  3. Welcome them with open arms and with a lot of grace. Home leave can also be a stressful time for field workers. They are living out of suitcases, traveling from place to place, and trying to visit as many people as possible in a short period while dealing with reverse adjustments and new routines. It can be challenging to make small talk with strangers and feel out of place at conference gatherings. Give them hugs and affirm them. Think about what might make them feel more at home. Give them grace for cranky children and fatigue. Avoid assumptions and ask honest questions so that you can care for each individual well.

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:11