If this post had a subtitle, it would be this: In which I try hard to support you while not demonizing your organization…and probably fail at both.
I’m walking with several mamas through their first year on the mission field right now. And after seven years (which isn’t all that many, really), I’ve seen lots of first years now. And they’re usually awful. Right about now, I’m probably going to get a call from the recruiting branch of my own organization, letting me know that I’m not doing them any favors here…but have a little faith in me, and let’s talk through this.
What’s so awful about that first year?
Frequent illness. I have a poor immune system due to my endometriosis, but even if you don’t, I’m betting this is part of it. Once during language school, I picked up something that put me flat on my back for days, including high fever and hallucinations. Thankfully, I wasn’t a mama yet, but I had a pretty worried hubby. And when you’re not batting away the malarial mosquitoes, you’re batting away the dengue mosquitoes. And you look away for one minute to find your kid licking the bottom of their shoes or munching on a dead cockroach she found under a bookshelf. (Why, child?!)
Unmet expectations. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Wow, this isn’t at all what I thought we’d be doing here.” And it feels a little like betrayal, right? Because you’ve just stomped all over your home country telling people how great this is going to be and how awesome your organization is, and suddenly, it feels like a bait-and-switch. Sometimes it is: sometimes they’ve deceived you. Most times, it’s not: the situation changed between when you signed up and the 18-24 months it took you to raise your support and get down here. But you’re still not sure if you’re where you wanted to be.
And this is where I pause to tell you how common it is to part ways with your organization in the first year. I’m not advocating it; I’m not judging it. But it’s very common, and one of the reasons is that you’re isolated from unbiased counselors. Your families are always going to say “come home,” because whether you’re 22 or 52, you are their babies and they want you happy, safe, and within arm’s reach. Your pastor may say the same, not wanting to flush the church’s money down the drain. Have you made any friends on the field who aren’t in your organization? Can you pick her brain, just to get an outside opinion? Or a mentor from college or before the field? She may not totally get the context, but give it a try.
Intimidation. Oh, boy. Yes, I’m getting real. (After 9 PM, my guard goes way down. Judge me if you will.) Those mamas who were already there, who seem like they were born for this, those mamas who’ve got bold opinions how How It Ought To Be Done, the ones who speak and worship fluently in the language that feels so heavy in your mouth…Most of them don’t mean to intimidate you. After all this time, it’s just normal life to them, and it’s easy to forget how hard it was at first. But some of them, mamas: some of them want you to suffer. It’s not cruelty: they really believe that you have to suffer because they did. They use phrases like “paying your dues” and “earning your stripes.” If you share your struggles, they may try to tell you that you just need to pray more or rededicate yourself to your Bible. (I will later reveal why this is complete and total malarkey.)
Prayer Letter Pedestals. Your supporters have put you up there on a pedestal–who are you to jump down? How can you tell them how stinking hard this life is? How can you tell them how bad you are at it? And if you do, are they going to pull out the big hook and drag you back home? Despite what I was told by a veteran missionary, I believe most supporters want the truth. But it takes time to learn how to graciously tell about the hardest parts.
Feeling like “I’m not me.” Remember when you could get things done, like, easily? Remember when Plan A or B was usually sufficient? Remember how people used to call you when they needed help, and now you feel like you’re playing “eenie-meenie-miney-mo” deciding which coworker to harass with your dumb questions? The small thought may be popping up in your mind that you’re not “you” anymore. That essentially, at the deepest level, you don’t even recognize yourself. You’re doubting your decisions constantly, because you feel like you’re screwing up daily.
And you know what? All that’s true. And you know what else? You’re in good company.
Paul spent his first year of ministry in Arabia. It took him three years to start teaching people, and even when he did, everyone was super afraid he was going to hold everyone’s coats while people stoned them.
Darlene Deibler Rose, author of Evidence Not Seen, had no easy time of her first year on the field either. She didn’t have her own housing, even as a newlywed, and her husband left for a long stretch to hike into the interior, which “wasn’t safe for women.” (She did get to go with him later.) He came back emaciated and needing constant care, but as soon as he was better, she barely saw him. Her language tutor did not speak English.
Amy Carmichael started out in Japan, but became so ill, she was forced to return home…but she went on to serve in India for many years.
Mary Fulton spent the first two years raising money for a hospital in Kwai Ping, China, only to be attacked by a group incited by Confucian scholars who didn’t believe in cutting the body open. She was never able to return to that place…but she started a new organization because of it.
Read some of the stories of these Christian women of faith, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The first year is the worst…but it gets better. I was outside watering my plants, trying to figure out how to end this post, when it struck me that the first year is a pot of dirt. It doesn’t smell great. It doesn’t look great; in fact, it looks like nothing. But that’s just because there are seeds–very small though they are–and they are germinating. A seed has to die to become a plant, right? That’s the painful part, where it’s so tempting to give up. You’re in the dark, quite literally, begging the seeds of your ministry to come up, to give you something to see for all this work…but seeds grow on their own time table.
Give yourself time to grow. Give yourself time to see your ministry in full bloom. It’s a sight to behold. Don’t give up now. Nothing weird is happening to you–it just seems like it because you don’t know about all the women who’ve come before you, who’ve done just what you’re doing, weaknesses, failings, false starts, detours and all. It’s probably not you. You’re not un-spiritual. You’re just doing a really hard thing, harder than most of your friends and family can imagine.
That being said, it does help to sit with the Master Gardener, as He has a way of reassuring us that seeds do germinate eventually, and He’s pruning where it’s necessary, and He sends his rain at the right time, and that all the crap He’s dumping on you is actually just the fertilizer you need. After all, it’s not really your ministry, right? Let Him do his work…including the work He’s doing to make you His own.