Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down

March 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights? That meant that when our family of six moved overseas as missionaries, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.

It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?

There’s also another set of luggage that missionaries tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our our assumptions, our plans . . . our expectations.

A few years ago, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss surveyed 323 female missionaries on how their expectations corresponded to reality on the mission field. The results form the backbone of their excellent book Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. What they found is that our pre-field predictions often don’t measure up to our on-field experiences. (I say “our” because though the book is written for and about women, most of its insights and lessons easily apply to both sexes.)

The authors gave the women a list of 34 expectations, and asked them to rate each one on the degree to which it applied to them. Then the respondents went back and evaluated the list against what actually came to be in their lives as missionaries.

In 14 of the areas, the women reported that their expectations exceeded what they found in real life. The 10 with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

75.4% Am fruitful
70.4% Am a prayer warrior
67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
65.8% Continually trust God for everything
57.5% Have a daily quiet time
56.5% Have a successful quiet time
56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
50.9% Embrace my new host culture

The disconnect between expectations and reality often leads to disappointment and guilt. And as the authors point out, this can lead to burnout. It is difficult to move steadily forward when we are dragged down by the weight of our overpacked luggage.

So how can we pack less? How can we lighten our load? Here are some suggestions.

  •  Read fewer biographies, read more people.
    Stories about missionaries can be very inspirational, but when inspiration is the main goal, they can often leave out the flaws and shortcomings. When we assume that real missionaries are super human, then we are discouraged when we don’t measure up. That’s why we need to have honest conversations to find out the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. But not everyone will give you the unvarnished truth. It usually takes time to earn someone’s trust. And you’ll need to ask questions that get people rethinking their responses, to speak beyond the safe and familiar answers. Try asking a missionary, “What do you wish you’d known before you moved overseas?” “What have you learned?” “What would you tell yourself as a younger missionary candidate if you could?” “What are some of your unmet expectations?” (For other examples, see the questions asked of missionaries in Eenigenburg and Bliss’s survey, printed in the appendix of their book.)
  • And when you read, read between and outside the lines.
    As Eenigenburg and Bliss discuss, too many books on the lives of past missionaries paint a picture of spiritual perfection. One of the best-known missionary legacies is that of William Carey, who is often called “the father of modern missions.” In 1792, a sermon he delivered gave us the words, “Expect great things; attempt great things.” But I doubt that all of his expectations were met in his later life as a missionary in India, during which a five-year-old son died, his wife, Dorothy, went insane and died, and another son, after becoming a missionary himself, suffered tragedy and walk away from God. in Expectations and Burnout, the authors report that James R. Beck, in his book Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey, writes that Carey has often been portrayed as “never discouraged and never complaining.” But Carey wrote in his journal, “I don’t love to be always complaining—yet I always complain.” The context for “Expect great things; attempt great things” is the life and work of Carey, not a Pinterest board or a poster of a snow-capped mountain range. But just as some books—and missionaries—are only completely positive, some are entirely negative. Be cautious in drawing conclusions based on either side. When you hear what sounds like cynicism and despair, be slow to judge. Context is important here, too. Find out the whole story. And don’t say, “That will never happen to me . . . not with my faith, my preparation, and my plans.”
  • Remember that short stories can be good literature, too.
    Before packing your bags, talk to those missionaries who have failed and come home early. I say “failed” only to grab your attention. I don’t really count those missionaries as failures. Instead, I understand that most are people who have struggled with some great disappointments and have made the extremely difficult decision to return. What can they teach you about packing? Know that “ex missionaries” who left under less-than-ideal situations often fade into the woodwork and aren’t often sought out for their expertise. But they just may be the ones with the most to offer.
  • Don’t book a ride on the magic plane.
    A ride on the magic plane is the one in which you fall asleep half way across the ocean and wake up “A Missionary,” with all the super powers that that entails. You may arrive at your destination with increased confidence, but you’ll still be the same person who stepped onto the plane. You’ll still need to deal with the same issues and weaknesses that vexed you back home. In fact, you’ll probably see your struggles increase in the crucible of cross-cultural service. Simply taking on the title missionary doesn’t change who you are the inside, in the same way it didn’t change those missionaries you’ve idolized in the past, or those teammates you’re traveling to join.
  • Pack your own bags
    Here’s another throwback to days gone by. Before 9/11 and TSA protocols, ticket agents would ask, “Did you pack your bags yourself?” That question isn’t asked much anymore, but it’s an important one for missionaries. Yes, getting input from those who have gone before is important, but the luggage holding your expectations needs to be filled by you, not by your sending agency, supporting churches, supervisors, teammates, or even other members of your missionary family. Get clarity on other’s expectations and work out disagreements before disillusionment is allowed to set in. And don’t set yourself up for failure in their eyes by over predicting the positives in order to gain support—or to convince yourself. Sometimes you’ll find that other’s assumptions are unreasonable and need to be corrected. Sometimes you’ll find that you’re trying to please voices that exist nowhere except in your own head.

Before you head to the mission field, prepare thoroughly, and pack carefully. When it comes to packing your expectations, it isn’t just about seeing how much you can get into a suitcase and still get the zipper closed. It’s also about being discerning and knowing what to leave behind.

But you don’t want to go empty-handed, either. Hopes, dreams, and plans are important. Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And if you’ve got room, you might want to take that swimsuit, too. Just in case.

(Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss, Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, William Carey, 2010; “Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things,” Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, D. D. [1761-1834], updated November 22, 2013)

[photo: “Suitcases,” by Tom Godber, used under a Creative Commons license]

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