How about a Families of Missionaries Sunday?

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Last week I shared Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz’s tips on how to start a local Parents of Missionaries group. This week, here’s something else you can do to honor and encourage parents—and other family members—of missionaries whom you know.

Why not set aside a day each year as Families of Missionaries Sunday?

On that day your church could recognize those living Stateside who have sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers who are serving abroad. It would be a time to honor them, show your appreciation for their sacrifices, pray for them, and give legitimacy to the grief and concern that naturally comes with having family members live far away, sometimes in non-secure areas.

Not only would this be a time set aside for FOMs in your congregation, but you could also acknowledge family members of missionaries whom you support, regardless of where those families live. And with only a little tweaking, you could include the families of other cross-cultural workers and those of military personnel serving overseas, too.

So what could you do beyond recognition and prayer? Give them a copy of Savageau and Stortz’s Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally. Give them gift certificates for a nice meal out. Help them put together and ship care packages for their family members abroad. Give grandparents recordable books to send to grandchildren (and cover the shipping, too). Have a card shower for them. (Get the children’s Sunday-school classes involved in this one.) Invite the missionaries to send notes of appreciation that you can present, or have them share by video chat. Sponsor their attendance to a POM retreat, such as the one organized by the Missions Resource Network, or hold your own retreat. Bring in a guest speaker to encourage them and educate others on what they’re experiencing.

The rest is up to your imagination, but I would offer one caveat: Don’t put the family members on stage (or on a pedestal) to share wonderful stories of faith and joy. This is a day to bless them, not the other way around. FOMs already deal with the weight of unrealistic expectations—from others and from themselves— of how they should deal with their emotions. This is not a time to add to that pressure.

And finally, I even have a suggestion for when to have Families of Missionaries Sunday. How about next month? October is Clergy Appreciation Month, and while FOMs aren’t necessarily clergy, that wouldn’t be a bad fit, especially when you understand that honoring their families honors the missionaries, as well . October also presents a great opportunity to rally around FOMs before the arrival of the holidays, a time that can be extremely difficult for them. That’s why Savageau and Stortz include a chapter in their book titled “Happy Holidays? Coping with Holiday Stress.”

Of course, October is just around the corner and maybe you need more time to prepare. Not a problem. The when isn’t so important. The how isn’t so important either. What is important is the who and the why.

(Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

[photo: “Eiffel Thanks,” by Lauren Manning, used under a Creative Commons license]

DIY Groups for Parents of Missionaries: Advice from the Experts

It is easy for Parents of Missionaries to feel isolated. Not only are they separated physically from their children, but they also can feel separated emotionally from those around them. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. One great source of fellowship for them is other Parents of Missionaries.

Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, authors of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, have produced a list of guidelines to help start a POM group. I’m reproducing it here, and the pair are happy for you to do the same. They just ask that you include the copyright line at the end.

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Ten Steps to Starting a Local POM Group

1. Ask God to bless and guide your effort as you set out to build a local group. Talk personally to the POMs you know, even if it’s only a few, about your idea for a new group. Invite them to help you get a group going.

2. Set a specific direction for your group. It’s fine to talk about your missionaries, but the purpose of the group is to provide fellowship, support, and education for POMS themselves.

3. Find a professional Christian counselor who understands both family dynamics and the necessity of acknowledging grief as a key component of adjusting to new situations. If the counselor has any missions background or interest, so much the better. Ask the counselor to read Parents of Missionaries and volunteer to help you begin the group and moderate group meetings, especially in the beginning.

4. Introduce your idea to the local church and missions leaders you know to enlist their support and learn of other POMs in your area who might benefit from joining the group.

5. Contact other churches in your area. Mail or e-mail a letter that introduces your idea to church and missions leaders you don’t know and state that you will make follow-up contact in a week. Make follow-up phone calls to letter recipients, asking if they know of POMs who might benefit from joining the group. Ask for help in making contact with those parents.

6. Choose a date, place, and time for the first meeting six weeks in advance and arrange for a meal (either potluck or catered for an affordable fee per person).

7. Contact all the POMs on your list to introduce yourself and the group idea. Invite them to attend the first meeting and bring either a covered dish or the fee for the meal, depending on your plan.

8. Facilitate the meeting by providing name tags and cheerfully set tables. Plan short opening remarks and serve dinner. Allow approximately 45 minutes to an hour for dinner, dessert, and conversation.

9. After dinner, ask POMs to arrange their chairs in a circle without tables or other barriers in the middle. Let POMs introduce themselves and tell in just a few sentences about their missionary children and grandchildren.

10. Lead a discussion on a topic of interest to POMs. Use chapters in the book Parents of Missionaries as a guide. We especially suggest discussing these topics (one per meeting): dealing with grief, learning to use technology, coping with the holidays, staying connected with grandchildren, building strong relationships with young adult children.

© 2008, 2014 Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz

Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us [Repost]

[In honor of Parents’ Day, July 26, I am reposting an open letter from my wife and me to all parents of missionaries. We wrote it during our time serving in Taiwan.]

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family.  (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us.  We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you.  You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo: “leaving us,” by Petras Gagilas, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Grandma’s Lap Is Far Away

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Diane Stortz knows a thing or two about being separated from family. She’s the co-author of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally.

She also knows a thing or two about children’s books, having written Words to Dream OnThe Sweetest Story Bible, and a couple for Roman Downey’s Little Angels series, among others.

By my reckoning, that means that she knows two things or four about finding books to send to grandchildren overseas.

If you’d like some good advice, go to her blog and read her five points on what to look for when choosing the right storybook for children.

And at Christian Children’s Authors, she puts in a plug for recordable children’s books. Maybe it’s because I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I never knew there was such a thing. What a great idea for staying in touch with faraway granddaughters and grandsons, nieces and nephews.

In this post, Stortz mentions three publishers that produce recordable books: Hallmark, DaySpring, and Publications International. Using that as my starting point, here’s a sampling of what I found (it includes lots of grandmas and lots of bears)—

Conversations to Keep: Grandma and Me
That’s What Grandmas Do
My Grandpa and Me
Guess How Much I Miss You

Guess How Much I Love You
Under the Same Moon
What Aunts Do Best/What Uncles Do Best
I Love You So Much

I Love You Head to Toe
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You
Bright and Beautiful
All Day Long with Jesus

Bedtime Prayers and Promises
Sesame Street, Together at Heart
If . . . 

And here are a couple for sending back the other way—

I Love You Grandma
My Grandma Is Special

Susan Adcox, “Grandparents Expert” at About.com, writes that Hallmark recordable books are “pure magic.” “What child wouldn’t be entranced to open a storybook and hear it read in a grandparent’s voice?” she asks.

She goes on to compliment the recording process, calling it “practically foolproof.”

Parents of Missionaries, Another Group with Hidden Sorrow

POMbookEarly on in their book Parents of Missionaries, Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz address the topic of disenfranchised grief. Not only is unaccepted grief an issue for cross-cultural workers when they return but also for those they leave behind when they go to serve.

The authors write that disenfranchised grief “results when we deny or condemn our feelings or believe God doesn’t care about our pain. It also occurs when others criticize our feelings or consider us too strong to need support.”

Grief for the parents of missionaries (POMs) should not be minimized or ignored, nor should parents feel guilty for this normal emotion. It is very real, as is the loss that is experienced. For some it is a loss of physical or emotional closeness to their children and grandchildren. For some it is a loss of dreams for the family. For some it is a loss of confidence in discerning God’s will.

At times the grief can feel overwhelming. One mother quoted in Parents of Missionaries says, “My prayers turned from asking God to keep you safe and bless you . . . to please take my life away because surely I was not created to live with pain that . . . hurts more than childbirth.”

As I was making my way through Savageau and Stortz’s great book on this often neglected part of the missionary team—parents—I focused on this topic of disenfranchised grief, making note of instances where healthy grieving over the absence of missionary children was stifled. Following are those examples, quoted directly from Parents of Missionaries. Each one is followed by its page number, in part to demonstrate how they show up throughout the work.

I hope this list will be an encouragement to POMs who are grieving, letting them know they are not alone. I hope it will also help us all be better companions in grief to those who are letting their children go without letting go of them. May we not repeat these discouraging words or represent these unhealthy attitudes, to others or to ourselves:

[One mother] experienced profound self-doubt and feared others would take a critical view if they knew of her inner struggle. She believed having an adult child enter missions would not upset a real Christian. (24)

One workshop attendee asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re dead,” while another said, “Having a child enter missions isn’t as bad as having a child outside the faith.” A few missions-minded people have . . . argued that only joy should abound when young people choose a career in missions. (28)

[Some] have honestly asked how POM grief differs from whining. (28)

“We’re not supposed to have needs of our own since we’re in the ministry.” (32)

Men often mask their grief. They typically cope with conscious grief privately, downplay their feelings, intellectualize about loss, and focus on solving loss-related problems. (34)

Our culture’s lack of patience with grief causes many of us to feel ashamed of our feelings and hide our grief. (35)

The assertion that “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) does not qualify as a rationale for running away from our feelings. (80)

“I feel like a whiner and complainer after typing up what I wrote in my journal. Maybe you can use it as a bad example of a missionary mom.” (94)

“I miss [my daughter] more than ever before—and I feel really guilty about it.” (94)

“I know I should be excited and thankful that my daughter and her husband will leave for the mission field in August, but I’m having a hard time with my emotions!” (120)

Other POMs who cry easily are not as willing to be seen as vulnerable. One missionary observed about his mom, “Talk of kids, vacation, future plans, how long before we see you again can make her cry instantly. We pretty much can’t talk to her about anything. That was her request, and my dad’s. I think it’s not healthy, and she agrees.” (130)

We sometimes erroneously assume everyone else feels happy amid the holiday bustle and blame ourselves for feeling down or blame others for stealing our joy. Our culture conditions us to expect happiness during the holidays, making normal life problems (that don’t magically disappear on command) seem particularly hard to accept on festive occasions. (216)

Some POMs hesitate to cast their cares upon God because they feel ashamed of their own emotions. This keeps them from enjoying the relief and freedom He wants to offer. (262)

Of course, Parents of Missionaries isn’t just about grief. In fact, Savageau and Stortz write that the need for parent’s to grieve is “only half the story”:

You need to both grieve and change what you can in your life. Make decisions that move you toward fullness of life even though your missionary lives far away. What does God want to do with the rest of your life? . . . If you’re a POM, please look in the mirror and see yourself through our eyes as someone who has made a blessed sacrifice for the kingdom and someone God wants to use in unforeseen ways in days to come. You struggle because you love. Accept your feelings. Ask for and accept help. . . . And do all you can to help yourself.

So if you are a POM, read the whole book to learn how to better understand your loss and grief, how to seek out and receive help, from God and from others, and how to be the best support and teammate for your family members overseas. There can be joy even in the midst of grieving.

(Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us

Following is an open letter my wife and I wrote to all parents who give so much to their children who are missionaries. We wrote it several years ago, while we were serving in Taiwan.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family.  (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us.  We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you.  You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo: “leaving us,” by Petras Gagilas, used under a Creative Commons license]