My family in Cote d'Ivoire
My family in Cote d’Ivoire

A while back, my friend Erin suggested I write a post on missionaries.  Who are they? What do they do? Why do they do it? 

For those outside the missionary community, it’s not a very easy concept to understand.

As the daughter of missionaries, I think I’m in a good position to share some insights and hopefully some understanding too.

Having grown up surrounded by ‘uncles and aunts’, I have a deep admiration for missionaries, but find that I can also be very critical of them. What can I say? I’ve known some great ones who set the bar very high. 😉

Of course, this post will feature lots of generalizations and all are from my viewpoint, so not everyone will agree. But here it goes…

Trying to explain a missionary is like trying to explain a doctor.

  • Some are great at what they do. Others aren’t so good. And some are downright bad.
  • Some are very specialized (working in a small village, for example). Others work across regions (or, in my parents’ case, 80+ countries).
  • Some spend their days working among people and others in an office setting.
  • Some are great and passionate and hardworking and humble. Others are tired, selfish, overwhelmed and have forgotten why they started down this path in the first place.

What a missionary actually does from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to sleep at night can be as varied as what a neurosurgeon in NYC does in comparison to a general practitioner in Longview, Texas. It totally depends on the person, their actual job and their context.

So what do missionaries have in common?

Outdated clothes.

Kidding, kidding. I’m kidding. Actually some of the most stylish women I know are missionaries. They’ve found aspects of the Senegalese clothing culture that suit them and have created a personalized hybrid that’s beautiful.

My first taille-basse outfit. Rockin' the wax print and puffy sleeves.
My first taille-basse outfit. Rockin’ the wax print and puffy sleeves.

Missionaries are people who have known the love of God in their lives so powerfully that they want to share it with others. Some missionaries do this by staying in the same place they grew up, but others move across the globe to do so. Those are the ones I’m talking about here.

How does someone become a missionary?

The first step to becoming what is called a ‘career missionary’ is finding out that such a thing exists. The second is feeling like God may be inviting you to go that route… wherever on the globe it might end up! Steps 3 thru 116 in the process are usually finding an mission organization that appeals to you and then a long series of very in-depth questionnaires, interviews, personality tests and even medical tests. If you’re going to be sent overseas to represent God and an organization, that organization wants to be sure they know every.single.thing about you. And that they like it, en plus.

Once a person passes all these very lengthy stages, they may then enter a time of fundraising and enlisting people to pray for them as they go. There’s also usually a pretty intense training period that may include cultural introduction, team-building and learning how to kill and butcher a chicken or use a squatty-potty, depending where in the world you’ll be moving.

Missionary dictionary
MK: Missionary Kid, now more commonly called a TCK
TCK: Third Culture Kid
Stateside or Home Assignment: a period of time in which the missionary goes back to their home country to reconnect with their family, friends and churches… and usually gain 20lbs.
Sending church: a church that endorses the work a missionary is doing and generally supports them financially
Supporters: individuals that endorse the work a missionary is doing and generally support them financially
Prayer supporters: people who pray for missionaries and their work

What is a missionary’s ‘day job’ then?

They may be translating the Bible into another language, working in a health clinic, teaching English, setting up desert irrigation or counseling families in crisis… or even doing accounting and bookkeeping for their organization. Whatever their job is, their purpose is to share the message of God’s love for all people.

What challenges do missionaries face?

Since many rely on financial support from churches or individuals, there’s a constant underlying (or surface!) stress over money. Many missionaries live by faith, which is a difficult but beautiful thing. The next time you find yourself talking to missionary, ask them to tell you about a time God provided for their needs. I have no tips for getting them to stop talking once this topic is introduced. 😉

All parents worry about their kids. In addition to the usual concerns about raising little ones, missionaries also worry that their TCKs (Third Culture Kids: children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture) may grow up speaking their ‘native’ language with a foreign accent, not know how to flush an American-style toilet, or not recognize their grandparents at the airport…

My brother and our pet monkey

Some missionaries feel they can’t take vacations or even go to nice restaurants because everything gets run through the filter of ‘What would our supporters think if they knew we were spending money on this?’ (Here’s my two centimes if you are one of these supporters: Most of these missionaries are very in need of a break and some rest. Encourage them to do so and not feel guilty.)

Culture shock, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, fitting back into your home culture and going through reverse culture shock… these are continual challenges missionaries face.

In their hardest moments, missionaries ask themselves, “Is it worth it?” Was uprooting my family, moving across the globe to a place where I’ll never fully fit in to share a message that doesn’t seem to be getting through really the right decision?

JennStill have questions? Senegal Daily is happy to provide you with a new limited-time feature called ‘Ask a Missionary’!

Write your questions in the comments below and one of my favorite missionaries, Jenn DeAtley is ready to answer them over on her awesome blog.