My friend’s house in Uganda blew my mind. I was in the role of missions pastor for my church at the time and was sent to see the work my missionary friend was doing among Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda. My missionary friend and his small family lived and worked in a part of the world that had no phone or electric service. Water wasn’t piped in and sewage wasn’t piped out. This missionary, his wife, and one-year-old daughter were living a life on the frontier. It reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, a TV show watched when I was a kid about the Ingalls family carving out a harsh life in 1870s Minnesota. Frontier missionary life for my friends didn’t wrangle horses, cattle, and bears, the way the Ingalls did. They dealt with baboons, poisonous vipers, and scorpions.
Fixed to the walls around the house they re-built on the foundation of a previous house were 12 volt electrical power point receptacles like you have in your car to plug in your mobile device. While it was sunny (which is often in Northern Uganda), car batteries drew a charge from solar panels to provide power to other devices like laptops and such. My friend’s wife served me coffee from a French press, brewed from gourmet beans freshly ground in an electric grinder. It was the best coffee I had since I left the States.
I asked him questions about the construction of his house and how he got it done. He said, “I did that.”
“Who obtained your NGO (non-governmental organization) status for your projects?” I asked.
“I did,” said my friend.
I spied a Land Rover whose best days happened about 15 years ago parked in the yard. “Who maintains that old beast for you?” I asked.
“That’s on me,” he said.
Me: “Who runs the Bible college?”
Me: “How do you get your clothes washed with no washing machine?”
Him: “My wife washes, and I hang out the laundry.”
Me: “Who fills the water tank for water at the house?”
Him: “Me and some local guys. I’m the only one with a truck,” he said referencing the before mentioned Land Rover.
“This a lot,” I said.
“Yes it is,” he answered. “I think the Lord is calling you to join us,” he said with a fun wink.
Thankfully, my friend was putting together a team – a community, really – to help get everything done. Just living, getting water, preparing food, washing clothes, and taking care of a small family is a full time job. Project operations and administration was another full-time. When I use the words “full-time-job,” I’m not exaggerating about the time that goes into being a missionary in the bush in Africa or in other parts of the developing world. I haven’t mentioned the energy that goes into handling the car when it breaks down or someone getting injured. Cell service is rare and emergency rooms are rarer. The roads are horrendous. Driving on them breaks your car. Everything is more difficult. Every errand takes longer. On one hand, adding members to the team lightens the load. On the other, taking on new people adds to the needs of the community, and depending on the personality, different people contribute to – and take from – at different levels.
No matter where you are in the world, Missionary, living, working, and doing ministry requires more effort and resources than you ever imagined. The effort and resources are never enough, and, in many cases, missionaries find themselves in a constant state of frustration. This is something – no matter how much you prepare – you never fully comprehend until you’ve spent some time on the field.
Wading through frustration
What follows are nine strategies for working through the times of frustration you will face.
Trained or untrained? Immersive cultural training; while training only simulates life on the field, the experience, nonetheless, is valuable, eye-opening, and provides problem solving skills you’ll want to have before you get to the mission field.
Walk away. Take a breather and come back. You can’t believe how differently you’ll see things after you go and make a peanut butter (if they have peanut butter in the country you work) and jelly sandwich and return with a fresh perspective and adjusted attitude.
Realign priorities. Are you doing what absolutely needs to be done? Are you the best person to do it (rather than the only person)? The more complicated (or competitive) our goals are, the more front-loaded with frustration the process will be.
Be realistic. Think through realistic options and set goals you can achieve. Notice the emphasis on realistic. Sometimes we hear people set unrealistic goals and dub them “God-sized” goals. Rely on your own experiences of God showing up to help you achieve your goals rather than an over-emphasis on the narratives others use. Give yourself permission to believe that, sometimes, people exaggerate the stories about their ministry numbers and successes to impress others. Be careful not to fall into that trap.
Surrender early. Is your deadline God’s deadline? After you ask and answer all the obvious questions, you need to filter your problem solving through this question.
Keep it simple. Live like a minimalist. You already because you have to raise your own salary. Make sure you’re not adding things into your life because somebody told you you need something or you’re keeping up with the missionary Joneses in the next town.
Keep a journal. Be fair in your evaluations of your progress. Invite others you trust to participate in taking an inventory of accomplishments and challenges.
Delegate. Not because you’re lazy; you just can’t do it all. God doesn’t expect you to.
Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Paul didn’t advise this because he was religious. This was his exhortation because he was a missionary! He learned overcoming frustration and success in ministry are not the same and that finding your way through is a Spirit-lead effort.
Eventually, my missionary friend built a strong, spiritually mature team. Not only did he figure out, while navigating through times of frustration, how to do the tasks he’s never handled before, he became a wise leader, trainer, and coach of men and women in missions and ministry. Ultimately, the course you’re on comes with frustration built into it by the Providence of God. The above strategies won’t prevent what God intends for you to walk through. They will, however, help you recognize that the Lord is walking through your season of frustration with you and will bring you through the other side a wiser, more mature missionary and authentic Christ follower. The world needs more of these.