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Why Most Missionaries Are Liars

The following blog by Mike Pettengill has been reposted with permission. The original can be found on his site here.

No job description I have ever seen for a missionary includes the words “fast and loose with the truth.” It is not my belief missions attracts the kind of people who are predisposed to being insincere. Unfortunately, I have seldom encountered a missionary who will tell the entire truth when asked important personal questions.

The questions which would cause a typical missionary to light up a lie detector include: “How are you doing?” “How is your family?” “How is your marriage?” “How is your spiritual health?” These personal questions are frequently asked by friends, family, and supporting churches. What gives a typical missionary emotional fits is juxtaposing an honest desire to receive help with the concern he or she may be perceived as a ministry failure.

The Truth

The truth is most missionaries are suffering. They just don’t want their supporters to know it. A typical missionary has an unspoken adversarial relationship with their supporters. It has to do with financial support. We missionaries think, at some level, if our supporters discover we are suffering, struggling or having a hard time while on the mission field, we will be viewed as a bad investment and our supporters will go find a better missionary who has his act together.

Two of the most discussed topics in the Bible are sin & money. It should come as no surprise that money is at the core of much of our sin. Many missionaries are willing to suffer in silence for fear someone may discover we are ineffective servants. If the truth of a missionary’s suffering was revealed someone may pull their financial support or a missionary may be called home for a season, or permanently. In a missionary’s mind, what could be more painful than to be revealed as incapable of doing that which God has called and prepared them to do?

To The Missionary

Missions is hard. Humans are weak. God is sufficient. What could be more unnatural than to leave a culture where you know the language, you are succeeding at life and are surrounded by people who support you, to live in a culture where you speak like a child, have no support group and fail daily? Missionaries leave for the mission field with visions of Amy Carmichael, David Brainerd and Jim Elliot in their heads. The reality is many missionaries spend some part of a typical day in emotional and spiritual anguish. Struggle and failure are typical items on a missionary’s “to do” list. Missionaries, you must remember what Hudson Taylor said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies.”

Tell your supporters and friends the truth. Get people to pray for you often. Let those who love you know you are in pain. When missionaries are honest, supporters don’t run from you, they run to you. When you left for the mission field you asked individuals and churches to partner with you in ministry. Give others the opportunity to glorify God by serving you. You may be surprised how your honesty results in a deluge of compassion.

To The Church

You agreed to partner with missionaries. Now do it. This is not simply a financial relationship. John Piper said, “All the money needed to send and support an army of self-sacrificing, joy-spreading ambassadors is already in the church.” It is not about the money. Care for your missionaries at least as well as you care for your stateside congregants. Ask them frequently how they are doing. Assume they are struggling and lying to you. Probe deeper. Ask them hard questions. Remind them frequently you are praying for them. They know you are praying, but they love to be reminded. Remember their family. Don’t forget anniversaries and birthdays. One short e-mail or phone call will provide energy for months. You may not be called to go, but you are certainly called to pray for or support God’s Great Commission. Every Christian is a participant.

Visit your missionaries on the field. Counsel them. Dive into their lives and invest in their spiritual health. Send them personal Christian resources. Conferences, books and CDs aren’t as prevalent outside the U.S. Loving on a missionary isn’t hard, but you’d be shocked at how few churches and supporters do it. Be the one to make a difference.

Focus On The Big Things

I have explained to dozens of churches I would rather see them invest sacrificially in two missionaries than superficially in two dozen missionaries. Instead of giving $100/month to two dozen missionaries and ignoring their personal needs, give $1000/month to two missionaries and pour your time, effort and soul into their personal wellbeing. Invest deeper into fewer missionaries instead of going a mile wide and an inch deep.

Missionaries, quit being so prideful. It is better for you to be spiritually healthy and able to serve for decades, than burning out after a couple of years. Be willing to be vulnerable so you can recover.

Sorry to break the bad news to you. Most of your missionaries are lying to you. As they see it, they are sacrificing their personal wellbeing for the advancement of God’s work. It is this type of self-sacrifice that makes them good missionaries. Let your missionaries know you love them and want to provide a safe place where they can heal their wounds.


Why do you think we struggle being open and vulnerable with one another?


Do you or your Church support a missionary? Why not send them an encouragement this week letting them know you're thinking about them. And perhaps there's something you can do to support them like this on an ongoing basis.


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4 thoughts on “Why Most Missionaries Are Liars

  1. I thoroughly agree with Nadia’s comments. Why should missionaries be expected to open their lives to a greater degree than people back home do. It is more natural to have a few praying friends to share personal stuff with. We were always too busy to do much navel gazing!
    In many places the local church is too weak to build up the missionary spiritually so it is hard if you are giving out all the time. Especially during the time of language learning when it is hard to communicate with anyone.
    I was angered by the title of the article. We don’t call reserved people here ‘liars’!

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Pauline!! I do want to point out that this was for our blog primarily aimed at young adults – hence the provocative title (taken from the original blog post). We’re hoping to get some discussion going, and intriguing and even provocative titles/topics/opinions (as in this case) can help get people thinking – and this one has gotten people talking!

      The point I take away is there are ways of communicating that allow for us to come across as vulnerable. I can remember many times when writing a newsletter sharing a personal reflection or something that was getting me down (and what God was speaking to me in the midsts of it) and always I’d hear back from someone who’d say it was precisely what they needed to hear. There was often a temptation to only put my ‘best face forward’ but it’s infinitely more liberating to be able to be real with friends back home.

      With that said, I agree with Nadia that not all struggles need to be shared with everyone back home. It’s all a case of balance.

  2. Interesting blog and I’m inclined to say I agree because I know I did exactly what was described at times when I was in Uganda last year.
    At one point while I was away I drafted a letter to my supporters describing how some days I came home from work and just cried for hours with an overwhelming feeling of “I can’t do this!” Sometimes it felt like I was praying to a brick wall, like God had completely abandoned me, I felt so entirely alone.
    That letter was saved in the draft box and left there.

    I tried to be honest in news letters about the challenges I experienced and to ask for prayer, however I felt a need to try to keep things balanced and to take care not to give my supporters a negative picture of my experience. While I struggled, it was still an invaluable and over-all positive experience and I didn’t want their perspective of that place/project/people/my work to be marred by what I considered might be an excess sharing of my struggles.

    I think my only disagreement is that I don’t believe that missionaries need to share their struggles with all of their supporters. Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying they should lie or hide that they are having a difficult time, but I also believe in selective personal sharing at a deeper level because despite missionaries accountability to their supporters, I feel that missionaries need some privacy too.
    For me I had a small but core group of people including some family, CMS staff and church friends that I shared my deeper struggles with and who I could ask specifically to pray for me for my struggles. I also relied on some of these people to advise me as to if I ought to share certain struggles more publicly and how to go about doing this in an appropriate manner.

    That was just my experience and I don’t think one way fits everyone but I do agree with the need to be able to share struggles in some way, shape or form. Certainly if I had tried to go it alone without my supporters and without sharing my struggles I wouldn’t have managed.

    1. Wow – thanks for being so open and honest Nadia!! I do have to agree with you. Yes, there is a place for being open and vulnerable, but that should probably look different in a newsletter to everyone you know back home when compared to personal emails or talks with select family and friends. I guess it’s a question of finding balance, and I think the guy’s point is that missionaries have often struggled with this balance.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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