Listening to experienced pastors and ministers give advice to young ministers is always an eye-opener. Too bad I seem to hear advice that was sorely needed long after I too learned things the hard way! So here are some thoughts on my missionary career adventures and a few things I wish I could do-over.
Team Do-Over—My wife and I went overseas without a sending agency or team. Our church acted as our sending body and provided receipting, mailed donor thank you letters and in pre-email days, they printed out and sent our newsletters for us. We did form a non-profit ministry and operated under the church’s IRS group exemption so there was regular reporting and accountability. But what we missed was experienced oversight, strategic planning assistance and the on-field support of a team. While we were free to make our own decisions, we lacked the counsel of more experienced workers. Later we began partnering with missionaries from other organizations as a substitute for having our own team. I have worked with existing agencies in staff and leadership roles and recognize the value provided by an experienced and mature home base.
Don’t leave home without one!
Language and Culture Training Do-Over—We were begged out of our planned one year language and cultural training by our visa sponsor after only 4 months. There was an urgent need for a teacher at the Bible school they were launching so we dropped out of language school to fill the need. I began teaching 3 and 4 hours a day in my new language after only basic level training. I also had to write my own courses based on a draft copy of an translated outline or two. Finding appropriate textbooks and material in a new language was a huge challenge especially when I only had two months to get ready to teach.
During my first month of teaching I had a mild heart attack… Really. Fortunately we lived near the national cardiac center. The doctors and staff did a great job minimizing the damage to my heart and getting me back to my classroom. Those first year students still kid me about my language, but we all did survive in the end.
If I could do it over, I would not shortcut language study as it would have been a much better start had I been really fluent.
Finance Do-Over—We went out on a shoestring budget and survived by God’s abundant grace and blessings. This is partly related to not being part of an established agency. Experienced leaders would not have approved of our budget which was just enough to get to the field, and hardly enough to survive. God stepped in and filled in the shortfall more than once. Looking back I smile, but there were hard moments that could have been avoided.
We spent 10+ years in Indonesia without health insurance. During that time I had the mild heart attack. Once again, God did a major move and saved our bacon through a godly businessman and friend. Years later I was plagued with a mysterious condition that was attributed to pancreatic cancer. After multiple tests that were negative for the cancer a missionary doctor told me to go home and get healed. In the end this illness was the reason we left the field.
We also did not have the enough income to save money for our future. So now as I am in my mid-sixties the combination of a very small missionary income for 25 years and no real retirement plan, we face working and another season of restricted budget living.
I would not recommend this type of presumptive action for others but I suspect that you won’t listen just like we did not! Make sure you follow the Lord in all that you do.
Pre-field Training Do-Over—Here is another area where being part of a missionary sending agency would have helped. The amount of research and training in specific skills we would be using on the field was hampered by not having input of field veterans’ practical knowledge. We jumped off the plane and got swept off to catch a train that took us to the city where we would begin language training. We had no idea where we might live or how to get around the city where very few spoke English.
God did provide amazing help through our Indonesian hosts and visa sponsor to make it all happen. But the unknown aspect of it all was a bit tough. Had we not had extensive overseas travel experience from our time with Literacy International and military, I suspect this might have thrown us into overwhelming culture shock. A well planned transition with a mission agency and its on-site leadership would have made our early days much smoother. Had we had a better plan for our ministry after we finished language school we would have spent a bit more time on our teaching and preaching skills. Again, an agency would have helped us discover that weakness and build a better foundation prior to deploying to the field.
My wife and I don’t regret the learning experiences in our early landing, but we would do parts of it over if we could.
Balance Do-Over—One of the big challenges for me was finding it very hard to say no to invitations to speak and minister. It did not take very long to learn that there is always another person in need, another prayer meeting or Bible study to lead, or a small office group of Christians that were eager to hear a foreigner speak. In the end, God had to slow me down a time or two to get my attention. Only when I got slowed down was I able to hear His direction clearly. God had to explain that I did not have to do everything He was doing.
It got to the point that I was so worn out from all the good stuff of ministry that I did not have the energy to spend time with God. I began to dry up spiritually and soon began to walk in the flesh on my own. Finally it dawned on me that I was out of balance. Once again God’s grace provided me with a wife who did not have a problem saying no when it was needed and she took over my scheduling.
Life improved after that and I am still learning the importance of life and spiritual balance. I certainly would have liked a do-over at that time.
Enough rambling for today…
Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. Matthew 13:9 NLT