Anybody can smile long enough for an updated newsletter photo
I winced as the lights suddenly cut off.
“Really? Three nights in a row?” I thought to myself as my wife rounded the corner on the verge of tears.
“I can’t do this…I can’t do another night of no sleep!” she moaned. She was sick of the heat and the lack of air circulation every time the power cut out. In that moment, I should have hugged her but I wasn’t in the mood for complaints.
I scornfully shot back, “You are lucky to have running water! Most of the people in El Salvador would love to be in the circumstances that you are complaining about!”
I knew it was wrong but I hoped she would feel guilty enough to just suck it up. As this thought crossed my mind, my daughter’s voice rang out from the bathroom, “The water is out!”
Just like that, I went from being a smug jerk to choking on humble pie.
One of the things that shocked me when we began our ministry to missionaries in El Salvador was the number of missionaries struggling in their marriages. I was even more shocked when my own marriage began to suffer. Within two months, my wife and I went from having 2 to 3 big fights a year to having 2 to 3 fights a day.
Many people put missionaries up on pedestals and assume their marriages are perfect. The reality is that missionaries are just normal people like you and me. They have answered the call to leave everything to serve God. The thing is that they didn’t get to leave behind their selfish desires, annoying habits, and personal struggles. Not only are these issues along for the ride, but they are in a pressure cooker. Cracks become chasms and as people begin to boil over, their spouse is bound to get burned.
What the what????!!! You are telling me missionaries struggle in their marriages?
Nobody talks about how much pressure answering the call to missions puts on a marriage and few people understand the risk of their marriage imploding because they are on the field. We have seen this play out time and time again with deep hurt and severe consequences. If your missionary was brave enough to repost this blog then they are discerning enough to know the risks, and humble enough to understand the need for prayers and support.
What are the factors that cause marriages to fall apart and what can sending churches do about it? I have outlined some contributing factors below and usually several (or all) of these issues collide creating a perfect storm that threatens to undo the marriage.
- Spiritual Warfare
Most Christians pay lip service to the fact that Satan comes against us, but on the mission field it is in your face all day long everyday. Satan has come up with a great plan to destroy a ministry, the employees of the ministry, and the missionary family all with one blow. It is easy. All Satan needs to do is infiltrate and destroy one relationship…the marriage of a missionary couple. If the marriage fails, the family splits. If the family splits, they leave the field. National Christians, supporters, fellow missionaries, and especially their children are left with a shaken faith as they struggle to pick up the pieces.
What can you do?
The marriages of missionaries are in Satan’s crosshairs. As we outline some of these other factors you will see some of his strategies. They are targeted everyday. Pray for your missionaries, and then pray for them some more.
Most of us are guilty of letting a bad day affect how we interact with our spouse. On the mission field everyday is circumstantially a “bad day.” You know how your day goes if your power goes out, or your car won’t start. You know how much it impacts your mood if you spend fruitless hours at the DMV, or if you are getting over a stomach bug and have to plan your day around toilet locations. You know the frustration of planning an event for weeks only to have no one show up. Any of these things alone can ruin your day. For a missionary, experiencing all of these situations over the course of just a few hours can mean it’s just another Wednesday. Add having to do all of these things in your second language while constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you won’t get mugged while driving on sub-standard roads with major traffic, and well, you get the picture. Don’t you think you’d be pretty stressed out and cranky by the end of the day?
What can you do?
Make sure that your missionaries can mitigate as many issues as possible. Make sure they have a car that won’t break down and that they live in a secure home where things function more often than not. Make sure husbands and wives both have cell phones to deal with issues that arise. Give them ample time for language learning on the front end, and provide financial flexibility to fix things when they break. Find out what they need and send it to them if you can.
- Long Hours and Large Workloads
The work is never done for missionaries who are passionate about what they do. Many deal with life or death issues, and all deal with people making choices with eternal implications. Many are burned out and exhausted by the poverty, abuse, and brokenness that they see everyday and they are always on call. Some live on their ministry sites and can’t separate home and work even if they wanted to. Missionaries burn out, give beyond what is healthy and come home with nothing left. Their spouse is neglected and distant especially if they are in a different role such as caring for young kids.
What can you do?
Help your missionaries come up with healthy limits on their involvement and put parameters on the hours they keep. Do not encourage a hero complex or give them the unhealthy view that everything depends on them. Make sure they have time to spend with God themselves, and time to invest in their spouse and kids.
“The grass is always greener” even on the mission field and there is temptation as missionaries interact daily with people of the opposite sex. A man is often idolized by the women he works with or serves, while his wife knows him and all of his shortcomings. She knows things aren’t as great as the newsletters portray. She knows their financial struggles, she knows he’s not perfect and she is often the one personally impacted when he falls short. She knows his actions don’t match his words and even though she loves him he seems to love his ministry far more than he loves her. She starts to think she’s not as lucky as everyone says and those thoughts come out in the form of nagging and criticism. Soon he becomes vulnerable to women who are amazed that he takes the time to talk to them and to serve them and he prefers their company to that of his wife.
Meanwhile, the wife may feel neglected as she struggles to manage the household and kids in a land where simple things are a battle. At the end of the day she goes to bed alone as her husband works late yet again to serve the ministry. He doesn’t know what she is going through, and one day an old friend reaches out through social media and he seems to care for her far more than her husband does. She begins to find value in a relationship outside of her marriage.
What can you do?
These vulnerable situations can begin innocently and grow into something that completely devastates a marriage and ministry. Make sure your missionaries have trusted people in place who will be able to detect when things are off balance. Ask what their boundaries are and hold them accountable to keeping them.
Missionaries feel guilty for taking time out with their spouse. They know their supporters are sacrificing for them to be there and they feel they will be judged for using resources for a date night or vacation. Because of a lack of opportunity to enjoy each other their marriages become stale and business-like as they struggle to survive another day.
What can you do?
You can make sure that the missionaries you support take time to invest in their marriage. They both need permission to take the time and resources needed to make this happen. Send them some extra money with the stipulation that they have to use it in the next month to take a weekend away together. Require them to have regular date nights as a condition of your support. When your team comes to volunteer, offer to watch their kids one night so that they can out together. This allows them to do what they need to keep their marriage healthy without feeling guilty about it.
- Financial Struggles
Men have the need to provide for their family, and women have a need to feel secure. The unrealistic budgets that many missionaries survive on means that neither of these needs are being met. On the mission field it’s not as simple as picking up a side job because of ministry demands and visa restrictions. For women, the pressure may be compounded if she feels her children are unsafe or are receiving a sub-standard education. All of this adds up to huge marital strain.
What can you do?
Make sure your missionaries are supported financially. Put yourself in their place…would you want your wife driving your kids through dangerous areas in an unreliable car? Would you want your kids to fall behind their U.S. peers academically and ruin their chances at college? Missionaries generally will not advocate for themselves, so you need to advocate for them. Understand the true costs and help your missionary to budget for plenty of cushion including things like health insurance and retirement. Keep in mind that life overseas is almost always more expensive than life in the U.S. and their budget should reflect that.
A closer look at financial issues missionaries face
- Missionary Kid Issues
Missionary kids face unique struggles that impact marriages. When your kids are homesick or depressed everyone suffers. Nothing is more troubling for a woman than to hear her kids accuse her of ruining their lives by bringing them to the mission field. Men are frustrated when their children are always the ones acting out. Some kids withdraw and rebel or become suicidal, others are always in trouble. Some families may be homeschooling; others may be battling the local school system trying to find something that works. Everyone is drained as the wife focuses her energy and time on the children, and the husband blames his wife for the kids’ unhappiness and bad behavior leaving her exhausted and unappreciated.
What can you do?
Encourage your missionaries, and make sure the whole family is prepared before they go and supported while they are there. Find out special things to do for the kids, and cut everyone some slack when they are home on furlough. Kids may be jet-lagged, and out of the environment that they are used to. Let missionaries know it’s normal, and that you care about their whole family.
- Too Much Family Time
While some missionaries don’t get enough time with their family, some are in the opposite situation where they do everything together, everyday, all the time. Couples used to having separate jobs and routines clash as they adjust to the constant togetherness. Women lose their independence, especially if the family only budgeted for one car or it’s too dangerous to drive on her own. A man may see his family as a burden, and something keeping him from doing ministry.
We struggled with this ourselves when we arrived on the mission field. El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, and we live an hour from the city. If my wife wanted to do something in town, I had to drive her there and occupy the kids just so she could attend a Bible study or go shopping. One trip could waste half my day and I become frustrated with the inefficiency. Meanwhile all four of us were sleeping in one room. This made intimacy in our marriage a challenge…and not just in the most obvious way! We no longer had our own space to share our joys and struggles with listening ears lying just feet away. When we finally got another car and reconfigured our home it was amazing to see how much healthier our marriage felt.
What can you do?
Think through transportation and housing needs and how they affect the family. Make sure the wife has independence if she desires, and that they have adequate living space for healthy family relationships. Give them permission to wrestle through the changed family dynamics and remind them that it’s normal to struggle when family routines change.
- Destructive Coping Mechanisms
Missionaries are regular people, and sometimes they cope with stress in sinful, destructive ways. The difference for missionaries is that chronic stress, a foreign language, an ever-changing set of rules, and danger and corruption all add up to push them quickly to the breaking point. Some days missionaries are genuinely surprised that they made it through the day without some kind of crisis. They feel stressed and overwhelmed. They often feel like they can’t be honest about how drained they feel, or how traumatized they may be by the brokenness and loss they see around them everyday.
With no good outlet to process and debrief, they may turn to destructive coping mechanisms. Drug use, alcohol abuse, pornography, stress eating, and self-pity are very real on the mission field with constant triggers surrounding the missionary every day. Marriage issues caused by all the above factors may push missionaries farther down this destructive path and drive a greater wedge in their marriage.
What can you do?
Make sure that your missionaries have people they can reach out to without feeling judged. Missionaries may find it hard to seek help for the issues that they face. Many times their close friends and home church are also their financial supporters. They are afraid to share transparently for fear of losing their financial support and finding themselves in a worse situation. It is vital that missionaries are provided with a support team, as well as a mentor or counselor that they can reach out to in times of need.
In closing, keep in mind that missionaries are just normal, flawed people who have answered the call to live in very challenging situations. Think of all your issues and multiple them by 10. Satan wants missionary marriages to fail because he knows the damage he can do. He knows how powerfully a healthy marriage models Christ, and how easily a failed one can turn people from Him. You have the opportunity to make sure that he doesn’t succeed.
Pray for your missionaries, care for them, support them, and love them. You can do some of the practical things mentioned above to make sure the missionaries you are supporting remain strong. If we want to reach the world for Christ, we need to provide those serving on the front lines with a firm foundation. First, their ministry must be rooted in Christ, but we also want to help them build on the foundation of a healthy marriage.
Every time you look at that smiling family on that refrigerator magnet, think about the issues they are facing. Lift their marriage up in prayer, and think about tangible ways that you can cheer them on to success. There is too much at stake, and the mission they have been called to is far too important to fail.