The (Perhaps Surprising) Life of a Local Missionary

I’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned a few times on my internet space here that I was a College Campus Minister for a little while (4 years) at UNC-Chapel Hill. That is actually how I met my husband, he was also on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, but at Wake Forest University (at the time). Once we got married, he moved to Chapel Hill and became the Staff Team Leader for IV here at UNC. This school year will be the start of his 8th year on staff. Although I am no longer technically employed by InterVarsity, I still do staff work alongside Jordan, and we like to view this as our family’s ministry that we do, rather than just what he does. From behind the scenes (and also sometimes on the front lines) there are many ways in which Riley and I are a part of this work too.

In simple terms, a missionary is one who is sent to an area (globally or locally) to spread the good news of Jesus and make disciples there (essentially teaching people how to live and grow in a relationship with Jesus). Many missionaries (including us) must raise all of the funds to do this work, usually through churches and fellow Christians who believe in the work you are doing.

So, we are missionaries that have been sent to the college campus for this purpose. College students are some of the most influential people in the world. They are the world’s (and church’s) future leaders, so we believe that giving them solid, biblical teaching and training is crucial and we feel very honored to devote ourselves to this task.

In our time doing this, we have seen God do really awesome things! We’ve also seen hard days, our ministry shrink, students walk away from the faith, and the campus (or groups on campus) oppose us. We’ve experienced exciting days where we see students come to Christ and impact the campus in really cool ways! We’ve also seen many monotonous, dull, frustrating days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the misconceptions that people (including me, before I became one) have about missionaries, and the things that might surprise people to know about this life.

Here are some of the things that I’d love to share:

1. We are not extraordinary.
We are actually extremely ordinary. We are normal people with normal problems. We don’t have it all together. We aren’t “super spiritual” as if we were created of some sort of different material than everyone else. We sin. We mess up. We get frustrated. We doubt God. We don’t always feel close to God. Like Moses, we tell God that we can’t do what He is calling us to do. Like David, we give into our sinful desires sometimes and can make a royal mess out of things. Like Jonah, we sometimes want to (or do) flee from the people that God is calling us to reach out to. Like the prophets, we often have to bring unpopular messages and are disliked, disapproved of, and ignored. Like Peter, we doubt God. On a bad day, we might even deny Him like Peter did. Like Paul, we are the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). But also like Paul, we have still been called to the work of the gospel as our full time job.

2. It can be a pretty lonely and isolating job.
I think it is really easy (and understandable) for people to think that we must just be surrounded by community. That we must be doing well for ourselves spiritually and have mentors and help, and camaraderie in our staff communities. But this is not always true. Almost every person that I know who is doing or has done missionary work has said that they have really struggled with loneliness. I think part of this is related to point #1 above ^. That people around us or in our churches are hesitant to pursue friendships with us, because they either are intimidated by the wrong assumption that we have it all together spiritually, or they think we won’t be able to relate to their “normal” lives. Additionally, most people don’t really understand what we do, so they don’t ask questions about it. The only thing lonelier than doing missionary work alone is feeling unknown in what you do, as you do it. Leading and counseling the people God has entrusted you with is not the same thing as community. The missionary life involves a lot of pouring out of your life, with not much being poured into your own life.
This is part of why fundraising is actually such a big gift. It’s not just about the money. It invites people to participate in what we are doing and, ideally, care and check in with us. Sensing the emotional commitment and spiritual support of our work from our supporters is just as valuable (if not more so) than the money that makes this whole thing possible. It solidifies the sense that we are not in this alone. We may be on the “front lines” but we have a whole military of people praying and caring and invested in it with us.

3. Our work is for the church.
As missionaries, we are doing the work of the church, for the church, and with the church. We are not individuals going out and doing our own thing. We love the church, we are a part of the church, and we need to be sent from the church. The church is doing this work. Kind of like our family. Yes, Jordan is the one who is spending full days on campus and preaching and teaching the Word of God (and so so so much more than that). But it is our family doing the work together, because we are one unit. Riley and I do what we need to to help Jordan do what he needs to on the campus. In the same way, we are a part of the family of God, the Church. Therefore the church sending us out is the church furthering the Kingdom of God at UNC.

4. We do not have all the answers. And sometimes, we don’t even have good solutions.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked away from a meeting with someone who wanted to talk to me about something, and have seen a look of deep disappointment on their face. I can tell that they were hoping for more from me. They were hoping I held some hidden key that would unlock the mystery of their questions about God or some big realization about what they should do about their hurting roommate or a new dating situation. On the one hand, we have received a lot of training in Scripture and in counseling, and sometimes that means God works through us to offer great wisdom and insight that might really help. But on the other hand, sometimes our most faithful and honest answer is, “I don’t know.” And sometimes we are just as confused as you are.

5. We feel a lot of pressure to perform.
Going along with #4 above ^, because I have had that experience, I often feel a lot of pressure to have the right thing to say and to be able to pour wisdom and insight over you. This means that I struggle with feelings of failure often. It also means that sometimes I speak when I should just be silent, because I am afraid of not being of any help and letting people down.
When you are a missionary, you know that people are constantly watching you. And it feels like there is a lot at stake if you let them down. You don’t want them to walk away from the ministry (or worse, from Jesus!), you don’t want someone to doubt the ministry you’re doing or the organization.

6. A lot of the work we do is not very sexy.
I used to think the work of a missionary was so spiritually glamorous (before I became one)! Of course, I knew it meant you would never be rich and live the American Dream. But surely it meant that you would be constantly seeing God work in incredible ways. People coming to Christ! Freed from addictions! Making new disciples! Bringing water and resources to places in need! Healing! Such happy things.
But the reality is that, while those things do happen, they can be very few and far between.
A lot of the work of the missionary is tilling soil and planting seeds. It is day in and day out building a relationship with someone who is questioning Jesus, but you may never actually see them come to faith. A lot of it is putting out fires. Conflicts among teams you are leading. New campus rules that restrict what you are doing. Someone getting upset with what you said in your last large group talk. A lot of it is answering emails, and responding to phone calls, and filling out forms, and studying what scripture says about different things, and fundraising, and delegating tasks, and ordering t-shirts, and making trips to Costco to make sure you have enough lemonade for the cookout.
I went into Greek ministry (fraternity and sorority students) thinking that I was going to see all these men and women come to faith in Jesus and leading “seeker friendly” outreach bible studies in their fraternities and sororities, resulting in more people coming to faith! Instead, I saw more students walk away than come to faith. I had more students disagree with me than take my words to heart. I had more flopped events than gospel-spreading bible studies in the Greek houses. I had declining numbers, and constant tests of faithfulness and perseverance. I had more hard conversations than inspiring ones.

7. But we don’t usually feel freedom to let people know this ^
As our culture knows, sexy is what sells. So letting it be known how monotonous and un-thrilling this work can be sometimes, is not going to be the way we raise funds for this work. Not that we lie or want to be deceitful in our newsletters or our presentations, but we definitely try hard to pull out the most exciting stories that we can. Because that is what people want to hear and want to fund. They want to hear the story of the young man who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, almost kicked out of school for bad grades who then came to Christ, kicked his addiction, graduated with a 4.0, then went on to get a Masters in Divinity AND in micro finance so he could move to Africa, start a church, train up local pastors, train them in building a sustainable economy, and lead 500 of them to Christ while doing it!!!! Now that is the kind of missionary work people want to hear about! That is what raises money.
No one is catching their breath and wiping away tears when you tell them that you spent an entire semester investing in a relationship with someone who, in the end, decided they wanted nothing to do with you or Jesus.
And this can make our work all the more lonely and isolating.

8. We do not always live in poverty, but are sometimes expected to.
I’ve had people drop off my financial support team because they thought we raised too much money, even though I couldn’t pay all of my bills and had no money to save. I’ve had someone tell me (before I got married) that they think I shouldn’t be able to rent a place with roommates, but should have to live in a room in someone else’s house, because of what I do. When purchasing a clearance item at Target once, I had someone ask me if I knew I was spending “someone else’s money” to buy it, since I was a missionary. Even though our salary is included in what we raise, there is sometimes an expectation that all of our own personal finances should be put back into the ministry as well. I’m not saying that we do not have the responsibility to be wise stewards with the money God entrusts to us (that goes for all Christians), but it is painful to be treated like we shouldn’t be able to provide for ourselves or our family.

9. It is not always fun.
This point is probably not surprising, given what I’ve already said above. I have had people say to me when I still a campus staff, “Wow, you just get to hang out with college students all day?! That sounds like such a fun job!”
Sometimes it was fun. More often than not, it wasn’t. Nor was it simply “hanging out with college students all day.”
There are definitely some incredible perks! I’m not going to lie. It can be really awesome.
But it is also exhausting. And heartbreaking. And hard. And… well, you get it.

I’m sure that is not an exhaustive list, and any of my other missionary friends, please feel free to add more in the comments section!

In summary, missionary work is a huge honor and can be really rewarding. But it is also hard and not always what it appears to be. We are just your average sinners called by a Holy God to do this specific task. It is not more important than other vocations, and we are not more holy for doing it.

If you are a missionary reading this, I hope this encourages you today and you know that you are not alone! If you know someone who is a missionary, I hope this maybe helps give you a clearer glimpse into their world, and I hope that you will encourage them today :).