I’d seen her sitting slightly distant from the rest of the group for four days. It was a conference in Eastern Europe, and I was teaching on the topic of “Loving MKs Well.” The room was filled with missionaries serving in Europe and in hard places in the Middle East. They’d been attentive and engaged, visibly eager to parent their children with wisdom while living in the demanding fishbowl of missions. But this woman—I’ll call her Laurie—had been mostly silent.
At the end of my last session, she came up to me. There were tears in her eyes, the kind that seem to teeter on that narrow ledge between courage and collapse. She waited for my conversation with another attendee to end, then stepped forward.
“When is it okay to take our children off the field and go home?” she said without pausing for the usual hellos.
The story that poured out after I asked her for context was unique to her family, but in so many ways NOT unique in the world of missions, where balancing calling and parenting can be a precarious thing.
Her family lives in a dangerous place—a conflict-ridden country inhospitable to westerners. Her nine-year-old son struggles with homeschool, with the lack of security and loneliness. His social options are limited and his parents have tried to enroll him in various activities to expand his friend base, but he’s felt too different and ostracized to really engage. Too scared too. He cries himself to sleep nearly every night, has frequent headaches and has lost his appetite from the daily stress of just living.
My heart broke for this little boy as I listened to Laurie, whose eyes still glistened with unshed tears. “How long have you lived there?” I asked.
I tried to mask my surprise. My dismay. “And he’s been hurting for…?”
“Ever since we got there.”
Five years. A lifetime for a child that age. I asked a few more questions. Had anything they’d tried helped even a little? Had there been times when he seemed less overwhelmed and sad?
Her answers indicated that nothing had seemed to ease the pain of this little person whose existence had been turned upside down by his parents’ call to missions. I could see the torture of the past five years in this mother’s face—the torture of having said yes to a divine assignment that was dismantling her child.
“Have you considered leaving the field before now?” I prodded.
“Every day. Every day for the past three years…”
I took a moment to utter a silent prayer. (I do a lot of that when these complicated conversations arise.) And then, in response to the question she’d asked at the beginning of our talk, I said, “I think God knows that you want to take your baby home…and I think you need to trust your mother’s heart.”
That’s when her tears began to fall. Courage yielded to collapse. If there hadn’t been a chair next to her, I think she’d have melted onto the floor. But it wasn’t defeat I saw in her face. It was relief—a deep and certain relief that it was time to make the hardest decision of her life.
The hardest decision? Really? For parents who had left the comforts of their home country to move to a place where their faith could be a death sentence?
Yes. Because following a call to Spain or Nepal or South Africa is daunting—but it’s also buoyed by a sense of spiritual purpose, brightened by the prospect of “life well lived,” and praised by believers and churches as a noble and courageous thing.
But leaving the field—leaving a ministry that might have taken years to begin—for the sake of a child… In many circles, it’s seen as capitulating. Letting the needs of a five-year-old eclipse the needs of the lost. Or lack of faith. Not believing fervently enough that saving souls is worth one boy’s suffering. Or spiritual failure. Because if they’d prayed harder or better, their son would have been healed.
Families who leave the field for the sake of troubled children too often are accused in overt and unspoken ways of choosing parenting over calling.
(I’m not sure how or when the two became dissociated in the Christian world.)
That’s why so many families I’ve encountered would rather try to get their daughter through one more day of depression or their son through one more incident of self-harm or their teenager through one more year of exposure to forces that might derail her future than face the condemnation of The Church.
Yet the suffering of some MKs is undeniable. It can be temporary or long-lasting. Mild or acute. It’s too easy for onlookers to make simple judgment calls about impossible choices without a full, compassionate understanding of what the family has endured. Each one is unique. Each has its own history and dynamics. Its wounds are specific and intensely felt—and it is supreme arrogance for any of us on the outside to draw a line that legitimizes some choices and denounces others.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FAMILIES CONSIDERING THE NEXT STEP:
- Pray for clarity—and remember that clarity has spiritual, relational, emotional and rational components, all of which God can use to communicate with us. Listen to your soul, mind, parent-heart and gut.
- Knee-jerk reactions can’t always be trusted, but when that strong desire to make a brave decision for the sake of a child turns into a protracted and insistent nudge, pay attention to what your spirit is telling you.
- Consider where your children rank with regard to “calling.” What has God called you to in the context of family?
- When possible, don’t rush into a decision. (Though sometimes an emergency response is required.) Children can have good weeks and bad weeks. Let enough time pass that you can assess what is superficial and fleeting and what is deep-seated and enduring. Look for patterns and trends, then honestly evaluate whether they’re pointing toward improvement or deterioration. But…
- Don’t fall into the dangerous rut of indefinitely “giving it time.” Laurie and her husband had been giving it time for five years. That means that their son had lived in turmoil for more than half of his life. That’s a lot of pain to carry at such a young age.
- Try to put yourself in the mind of your hurting child. Imagine what it would be like to have his/her personality under the conditions you’re experiencing. It can be hard for grown-ups with a clear calling to view the world and envision the future the way an eight-year-old or a fifteen-year-old do, but try. At some ages, projecting six months ahead is nearly impossible. Being isolated in fifth grade is different than being isolated as a teen. Being treated as an inferior gender as an adolescent girl might have a greater impact than if she were still a child. Remind yourself that “just” feeling an overwhelming sense of being not-right or not-safe can be debilitating for certain personalities at any age.
- Carefully select the people you let into your processing as you evaluate next steps—trusted friends, mentors, leaders, missionaries who have been there before you. Ask honest, vulnerable questions and make sure you don’t listen to their answers through the grid of your desired outcome.
- Exclude unwanted voices from your decision-making process. There may be a cacophony of unsolicited opinions coming your way once word gets out that you’re considering a change. It’s okay to tell them that you’ve surrounded yourself with wise counsel and would rather the input come only from them.
- Avoid making the departure your child’s “fault.” This is particularly crucial if you have other children for whom the move away from your adoptive culture is going to be hard. It’s easy to fall into simple but blame-laying statements like, “We need to go back to Canada because of Amy.” That could set the other children up for resentment. They’re not dumb—they know that Amy is having a hard time. But carefully couching the decision to leave as an act of love will reduce the likelihood of enduring resentment. “We want to help Amy through this, and sometimes helping one person in the family means that everybody gets affected, at least for a while. But this is how people who love each other act—we commit to doing what the hurting person needs.” Something like that…
- Whatever you do, do not let your hurting child see you resisting or resenting the necessity to leave the field. That it’s hard for you goes without saying and is good for all of your children to witness—it gives them permission to grieve too. But if they sense in any way that you are angry at them for making it necessary, that would only add guilt and remorse to the pain they already carry.
- The choices you make for your child will powerfully demonstrate God’s heart for them. Be conscious of how you represent God as you explain your reasoning.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
What if only one of our children is suffering, but the others are doing great?
If just one child is hurting and the others are fine, your decision becomes all the more complicated. Regardless—and if only for a season—it may be wise to implement the strategy of first-responders and commit to caring for the most injured first.
How long should we leave the field for?
This is going to be different for every family and every scenario. I see two basic options:
The first is to leave the field permanently. If it’s better for your family, better for your children, better for your conscience… If everything—prayer, counsel, deliberation—points to an indefinite departure being the right decision, do not let guilt or shame or lack of understanding from others sway you. I believe God will reward you in ways you can’t imagine for doing the right thing for your kids.
The second option is to leave the field for a pre-determined time with a reevaluation to happen once you’ve lived outside the context/pressure of foreign ministry for a while. I’d recommend that the initial time frame should be a minimum of two years. (I know that feels like a long time!) I’ve known too many children who, given only one year to “hurry up and heal,” have spent the time merely dreading the inevitable return to the field. Limited time is not conducive to processing and recovering. Two years or more removes that debilitating urgency.
How do we deal with the disapproval of others?
There are no easy answers. Condemnation—spoken or merely sensed—is hard to deal with. But keep telling yourself this: God loves and knows your children. He will instruct you in what is best for them. Leaving the field is not a lesser response to a family crisis. It might be exactly the right response.
Be firm in declaring your decision. Give only as many explanations as are needed. Ask for prayer, not endorsement.
And remind yourself that God’s approval is the only one you need.
We’ve decided that our child needs us to leave the field, at least for a while. What now?
- When possible (and it may not always be) give your family a little extra time to process the departure before you transition. Fit in a few “lasts,” say meaningful goodbyes to those you’ll leave behind, have thoughtful conversations about your life there and the life ahead. Intentionally address any misgivings and anger related to the move so you can depart as healthily as possible.
- If your family needs a little more processing time in a neutral place as you leave one world and enter another, commit to making it happen. Take a four-day layover on your flight “home” or book a B&B somewhere and tell your friends and relatives you’re going off-grid for a while. Sometimes these lightning-fast shifts from one context to another, particularly when there’s high stress involved, can yield a sort of emotional whiplash that can be debilitating. If you feel the need to be alone just as a family for a few days before entering your new world, feel no guilt carving out the time and finances to do so. (You may find that your ministry partners will be happy to contribute to the cost of this space and respite.)
- Clearly articulate to your ministry partners that your decision is made. If you’re comfortable giving them a glimpse into what elicited your choice, share that, but be firm in stating that this is the right option for your family at this time. Note: Please don’t make your child’s personal, intimate struggles public knowledge except for the few people you really trust!
What if we get home, get help, and nothing seems to improve?
Leaving the mission field may not be an immediate cure. In fact, I’ve known families whose struggles seemed to intensify after their return to their home culture. Remind yourself daily (hourly?) that healing takes time and that the courage it took to make the hard decision to repatriate is a huge testament to how much you love your child. In that sense, the move itself is an act of love that will bear fruit.
And when doubt arises (as it usually does), stand on the certainty that it is God who directed you to the decision you made—then continue to invest in the care all your children need.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH NEED TO KNOW TO BETTER SUPPORT MISSIONARIES WHO MAKE THE CHOICE TO REPATRIATE FOR THEIR KIDS’ SAKE?
- Sometimes callings are for life. Sometimes they’re for seasons. Sometimes they’re misread. Sometimes they’re derailed. And sometimes we’ll just never understand. But God knows.
- God loves the children of missionaries as much as he loves the unreached people they serve.
- God has entrusted parents with considering the well-being and health of their children.
- God’s heart breaks for those who are wounded and left to languish because of ministry-related neglect.
- No one is indispensable to God. He can see his purposes to completion even if we need to leave our foreign ministry.
Leaving the field for the sake of a suffering child can be a brutal choice. I hope I haven’t portrayed the decision-making process in a simplistic way. It is as complex and fraught as any deliberation in which calling and parenting seem to be at odds. There is so much more to be said and discussed.
If you’re a missionary family who has been through something similar, please share your perspective and guidance in the comments below. How was your decision to leave the field helpful for your children? What would you do differently today? What advice would you give to couples deliberating next steps? How can missionary families better balance divine calling and good parenting?
I’d be grateful for your thoughts and wisdom.
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