By Diane Stortz and Cheryl Savageau
When Your Child Becomes a Missionary . . .
Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz have written an important new book to help often overlooked partners in the missionary enterprise. Parents of missionaries may struggle to adjust and sacrifice as much as their sons and daughters who serve overseas. This book looks at the problems—and the possibilities—for these families. It is a practical resource that will encourage parents of missionaries and lend valuable insight to everyone who knows one. (Some material in the articles on these pages is adapted from this book.)
To order Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally (Authentic Publishing, 2008), go to Amazon.com. The paperback (304 pages) retails for $16.99.
Be sure to read the vignettes from and about parents of missionaries at the bottom of this article.
Last year at the National Missionary Convention, before the opening night session began, I wandered up and down the rows of seats, fliers in hand.
“Hi, how are you?” I greeted people. “We’re having a special event tomorrow. Do you know any parents of missionaries?”
“Parents of missionaries,” I repeated. “Do you know any?”
“Parents . . . of missionaries?” Couples and groups of friends looked at each other blankly and then back at me. “No, don’t think we do.” Big smiles. “But we know lots of missionaries!”
Over and over, the conversation repeated itself as I made my way through the crowd.
Then something different happened.
“Hi. I was wondering if you know any parents of missionaries?”
The woman I was speaking to looked startled. “Yes,” she said. “Me.”
“Do you know about our event?” I asked, handing her a flier. “We’re having an Hour of Encouragement tomorrow for parents of missionaries.”
She began to cry.
My encounters that night weren’t unusual. Parents of missionaries (POMs) travel off the awareness radar just about everywhere. And frequently, when POMs realize they’ve found someone who understands their feelings, the tears come.
Discovering the Need
Fall 2001. LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, had one couple from the congregation on the field and two more preparing to go in 2002. All three couples had parents at LifeSpring, and Judy Johnson, missions minister, asked Cheryl Savageau, then director of LifeSpring’s counseling ministry, how to help the parents.
I was one of those parents. I had already searched online—no support there. I saw Cheryl and Judy together in the hall one Sunday morning and said, “Hey, I need help.”
They looked at each other and exclaimed, “We were just talking about what to do!”
Cheryl, a licensed clinical counselor, began a monthly support group for three couples. Looking for material to help her lead our discussions, she discovered a knowledge gap. At the University of Cincinnati, she asked for and received permission to do her doctoral research and dissertation on the stresses faced by parents of missionaries.1
When the support group sessions ended, Cheryl and I contacted area churches and located more POMs and helped them begin meeting several times a year for fellowship and education. In 2003, we created the National Network of Parents of Missionaries Web site and exhibited for the first time at the NMC.
Since then, we’ve met hundreds of POMs, either in person or by e-mail. Not everyone experiences becoming a POM exactly alike, of course. But we’ve discovered that most parents of missionaries face six distinct challenges:
Upended expectations for the future. Birthdays and holidays; births, weddings, and funerals; shopping days and golfing days won’t be shared with their missionary on any regular basis again.
Fear for the missionary’s well-being. Parents must accept that their missionary’s living conditions may include inadequate medical facilities, political unrest, and safety concerns.
Emotional distance compounded by physical distance. Parents often experience some emotional distancing by their children in their 20s. The gap closes as children move closer to 30. But POMs must deal with great physical distance too. They may secretly wonder if the physical miles between them and their missionary will prevent ever enjoying the emotional closeness they desire.
Losing contact with grandchildren. Nearly all the grandparents in Cheryl’s research reported negative feelings about being away from grandchildren. One POM quoted in our book told us, “When I first heard the news that our daughter and her husband and all four of our grandchildren were heading for another continent to be missionaries, the news took my breath away—not in joy, but in panic and sorrow. My only grandchildren!”
Grief. Even the most supportive POMs experience grief over the losses and changes brought about by having a missionary son or daughter. Often, however, POMs don’t recognize they are grieving or can’t admit it to themselves or others—they may be unwilling to appear vulnerable, or they may be afraid something is wrong with their faith.
Complicating midlife challenges. Last, POMs experience all of the above at a time in life when they may also be dealing with other difficult midlife situations—the challenge of an empty-nest marriage, health concerns, caring for their own aging parents, downsizing or a move due to retirement, or even the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce.
Analyzing the Need
Not everyone agrees that POM concerns have merit. “Your missionary children aren’t dead,” one person told us.
“I’d rather deal with the pain of being a POM than the pain of my children not walking with the Lord,” said another.
And one sincere questioner asked, “How is talking about the needs of POMs different from whining?”
Good points. Great question. Here’s how we respond:
First, the apostle Paul wrote that believers should weep with those who weep—no preconditions attached, no comparisons required. Experiencing loss and receiving God’s comfort develops empathy to comfort others—whatever the nature of the loss.
Also, to trust God doesn’t mean we always feel—or may only express—positive emotions. David’s psalms are full of praise, but they reveal distress and weariness too. Paul felt so much pressure as an apostle that he “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
And Christians are to function as a body, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to one another. Sometimes the truth we need to speak is the truth about who we are, what we have experienced, and how we feel.
Most POMs experience both profound joy and grief because their children are missionaries. Both emotions need to be accepted by others. Grief that remains unacknowledged and not accepted by the believing community is disenfranchised grief that is harder to process and heal.
Having a son or daughter who serves the Lord as a missionary in Europe, Africa, or Asia is different than having a son or daughter who works for a large corporation in those places. A son or daughter makes the choice to work for IBM or Procter & Gamble (we realize that God can direct such decisions), but answering a call from God to serve him in missions is something more.
A missionary’s call to go is also a parent’s call to send—to become a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Parents who talk about the pain of separation aren’t whining; they are describing the pain that always comes with sacrifice. Jesus understands this.
It’s exactly because missionaries are serving the Lord that the Lord’s community must look with compassion—not criticism—on the experiences and needs of parents (and siblings) who send their loved ones as missionaries. Providing emotional support to POMs doesn’t encourage them to whine. It doesn’t trivialize the pain of other parents who have suffered other kinds of loss.
As a body, the church sends missionaries. Encouraging POMs is simply one more way for the church to “love one another deeply” (1 Peter 1:22) and “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
Meeting the Need
When POMs are willing to speak truth and others are willing to receive it, everyone wins—POMs, missionaries, and missions, plus churches, mission agencies, and Christian colleges.
Again and again, we’ve encountered mission recruits and missionaries hungry for their parents’ blessing and interest in their preparations or work—and parents who feel hurt or angry because their child left them out of the decision and preparation to enter missions or is too busy to maintain a connection from the field.
We’ve also met parents who have embraced their new role as senders by acknowledging their grief, finding the help and support they need, and learning how to stay connected across miles, time zones, and cultures. Their sons and daughters are missionaries who view their parents as supportive partners in their mission as well as beloved family. Many POMs develop a passion for missions themselves as they cheer their children on from home and visit on the field.
As church members support and encourage POMs, they develop compassion for fellow believers and gain a wider window on the world, and the church benefits. Mission agencies and colleges that prepare students for missions also benefit by addressing POM concerns. When they train missionaries to understand the value God places on family relationships, they help missionaries bless their parents and receive needed blessing and encouragement from their parents in return.
Strong family ties should not keep anyone from following God’s will, but Jesus did not teach us to stop caring about family as we follow him. Jesus provided for his mother from the cross. If God has called our sons and daughters into missions, by all means, we must send them.
But POMs need not feel guilty about missing their children and grandchildren who serve cross-culturally. We don’t stop being family. We can stay connected, and we honor God when we do.
He’s the Father, after all, who stopped at nothing to stay connected to us.
1Read the abstract or download the full text at http://www.ohiolink.edu/etd/view.cgi?ucin1116117271.
Cheryl Savageau has worked as a Christian counselor since 1985 and now lives in Greenville, South Carolina. Diane Stortz, former editorial director at Standard Publishing, is a member of LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Together they founded the National Network of Parents of Missionaries (www.pomnet.org) in 2003.
Vignettes from and about Parents of Missionaries
Just as asking questions communicates your interest, support, and blessing, being present at important events also says you care. So if you can be there, be there! Many churches hold special events featuring the missionaries they are sending to the field. Mission conferences are good places to engage with your child’s vision. POM groups and events allow you to learn from others who have walked this path longer than you.
One very important event is the commissioning service. If you are not asked how you would like to participate, speak up! Tell your missionary if you would like to pray aloud or speak as part of the service or if it would be meaningful to you to be acknowledged as the missionary’s parent.
In the hustle and bustle of planning the service, parents may be overlooked, and everyone can feel bad afterward. So speak up about how you do or don’t want to participate.
This Isn’t Easy
Lynn, Mark, and Kristen watch silently as Heidi and Jared check their bags. Then, “Well, Mom, Dad, I guess this is it.” More hugs, more tears.
“You know we love you,” Mark says. “E-mail or call us as soon as you can.” Heidi and Jared walk close together toward security. Heidi turns once to wave, and then they are gone. Kristen begins to wail, suddenly too overcome with sorrow to be embarrassed. Mark pulls out his handkerchief and hands it to Kristen, and Lynn prays, God, help us, please. This isn’t easy.
It’s tempting to view furlough strictly as a returning, but Alice, a POM, has a different view: “All could define furlough as an uprooting, which may or may not include work, further education, workshops, retreats and conferences, travel, family time, grandparent time, sibling and cousin time, weddings, funerals, and vacation.” Not only are the missionaries uprooted from what is now their home as they return to their passport country, but parents and extended family also can experience an uprooting of sorts as normal routines and living experiences give way to maximize time with the missionary and grandchildren.
Visiting on the Field
Delaina, a missionary, expressed the value of parental visits this way:
“Visits from my mom and aunt and stepdad have been really special. It says that they are supportive of what I’m called to do and that they understand that my life . . . is here, that our relationship is not just a one-way road for me to travel back the thousands of miles it takes to get ‘home’ to see them. It also allows them to see for themselves many of the things I’ve tried to or wanted to explain about my newfound homeland but just couldn’t adequately express. . . . Also, their interaction with my friends and contacts has opened new doors to share the gospel that we might not have seen without their special visits.”
Tested Ways to Connect with Grandkids
• Send a coloring book to your grandchild and ask that some completed pictures be mailed to you. Put them on your fridge, take a picture, and send the photo to your grandchild.
• Jeanne and her husband, Johnny, wrote about the “Grandpa’s Camp” videos they create and send to their grandchildren. Johnny made up an original song that starts every video, and then he introduces the theme, reads a book, shares a snack (sent over with the video), and goes “on location” or gives a demonstration. Subjects so far have included camping, photography (at the Grand Canyon), music (the church orchestra), a sick day, Christmas, Fourth of July, and Bible stories. Sometimes the grandchildren’s cousins are included too!
• Purchase two subscriptions to a favorite children’s or teen magazine . . . one for you and one for your grandchild. If direct international mailing isn’t possible, have both subscriptions sent to your home and send one overseas in a flat-rate international mailing envelope. Write or talk about each issue.
One Last Hug
When all the details of getting ready to leave are wrapped up, when bags are packed and checked and everyone has hugged one final time, when you leave the airport parking garage and begin the drive toward home, it can be reassuring to know that you and your missionary have done everything you could to say good-bye well and experience a sane send-off. The work you have done will allow you to keep your connection strong even as you both minister in different parts of the world.
“My children are doing well. They are happy and beginning to build relationships with the people in their community,” wrote one POM, a father. “Although separation is difficult, I would be somewhat disappointed if they returned home without fulfilling their mission. I am realizing my own mission as a POM. It is important to the kingdom.”