What They Don’t Tell You About Being a Missionary

On December 18, 2013 by Bethany

Torbeck 3/13

My Missionary Dream

I remember my 11 year old self, adamantly claiming the future title of “Medical Missionary” at the dinner table, resulting in the teary-eyed admiration of my mother, eye rolls of my brothers and protective-worry-eyebrow-furrow of my father.

I remember my thoughts of what that would look like, traveling all over the world, saving people from various ailments and delivering babies in tents to mothers with whom I couldn’t speak the same language.

It was a fairy-tale, a dream, a beautiful and exotic Disney story I knew would someday be written about me. It would have to be, that had to be the coolest job ever, plus, Jesus would be happy with me. Right? 

But as that dream remained exactly that – a dream, a billowy, slightly transparent, smoke screen that I called a future profession, I never once questioned the how, but focused on the when. Fast forward 6 years and you’ll find a young Bethany, going on her first international mission trip to Belize. Equipped with a handful of ponytail holders, a rainbow of Bermuda shorts and CPR/First Aid training, I was ready for my close-up and for Christ to use me in amazing and HUGE ways.

The reality? My trip was to an English speaking country, where I got stung by a horrific horde of fire ants and all the babies yet to be born, *gasp* stayed within their mothers bellies. Can you believe it? I was no savior. It was the most amazing experience of my life. Probably the one experience that singularly altered my future forever, even if I didn’t know it, even if from my pre-trip expectations, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

My Missionary Reality

Now, although I am young in the world of missions, being involved internationally for 2 years full-time, I still cringe at my earlier self. Loving missions solely as an adventure and beautiful, exotic way of life. I never once internalized or understood truthfully what the heart of missions should be. I never once thought about how to create a healthy ministry, not being a detriment or stumbling block for the local community and economy. But it’s alright, because I learned. I learned through my experience and the training and guidance offered to me by our leaders within PPM. Then I came home and studied and learned more. 

Jamie, over at theveryworstmissionary.com, encourages missionaries to write about how they feel, what their days consist of, the good, glorious, bad, boring and ugly. I started the Liar Liar series, now that Eric and I are full-time, hoping that it would help me be honest. And maybe it has… but when people ask me “What have you learned in the past year?” I don’t dare actually respond honestly, or I’ll talk their ear off for an hour.

So here I am, trying to tackle that very question today. What comes to mind are loads of circumstances and experiences that no one ever told me would happen in the world of being a missionary. It would have been amazing to have real examples from real life, even if they didn’t exactly match my Disney princess smoke-screen dream. Actually it might have been nice to have those examples to even chip away at the billowy, exotic life I maintained that missions would be.

I was never told that these would be the experiences I would have, both beautiful and problematic. I didn’t have someone in missions who could give me a real heads up, who could’ve shared anything to help me in my planning, helped me visualize this ministry for what it really looked like, enabled me to learn these lessons earlier, or to understand the reality better. Both the little things and the BIG things. So can I humbly try to be that voice for you? May I try my best to iron out this beautifully complex and delicate reality for you? So you can see with clarity some of the truths of this ministry? So you can know just why a girl like me would stick with it for so long? I hope I can be that person for you – a guiding hand, a painter of truth in broad strokes.

 CameraZOOM-19700607172424892Things like:

Like how much confusion culture shock can bring in your core and how important it is to have someone to help you through it.

Like the pain of being separated from friends at home and abroad for months at a time.

The odd social quirks you acquire from your mixing of cultures.

The way your accent changes and everyone everywhere thinks you “sound funny.”

The way your paradigm shifts, making your natural way of thinking odd and maybe confusing to others.

The subtle distance that can come with being gone from your family and friends.

The exhaustion of fielding endless questions about your host country’s politics, issues and future.

The potential lack of identity outside of being a missionary.

The spaghetti bowl of opinions and solutions to large-scale issues.

The amount of information to learn about how to do ministry in a positive and healthy way.

The way not many people know what you go through.

The homesickness.

The purpose. 

How your heart will be filled to the brim, overflowing. 

How Christ can grow you more than you ever thought possible.

How you’ll make a ton of new international friends.

How you’ll find new passions on issues within international government, politics and culture.

How you’ll find friends who share those passions.

How you will find purpose in digging through the spaghetti bowl of issues and opinions.

You’ll find an identity in Christ’s calling upon your life.

You be able to physically touch the worldwide Body of Christ everyday. 

How your eyes will be opened.

How you’ll learn to trust deeply that He’ll be with you wherever you go.

But what I learned the most is, missions is hard-work. International, domestic, in your own town, at work, at the coffee shop. No matter what, the mission field is simply a step of faith. It’s taking one foot and placing it in front of the other to step out of your comfort zone and let’s be real, that can be overwhelming and terrifying.


But It’s Worth It.

Worth the dusty feet, ripped skirts and endless phone calls. Worth the never manicured nails.

The receipts and late night finance balancing.

It’s worth the emotional roller-coaster, the hard transitions between cultures, the distance put between you and an old friend.

It’s worth the headaches and sweaty nights and endless negotiations with the car rental place.

It’s worth the tears of all kinds.

It’s worth the sore muscles and sunburns and late night runs to the hospital with a sick team member.

It’s worth it.  Because it’s where you should be. It’s what you should be doing.

It’s missions. It’s our mission. It’s His mission. 

It’s finding the joy in being a physical form of the hands and feet of Christ.

Fulfilling His desires here on this earth.

Bringing help to those in need.

Listening to His voice, hearing Him speak.

Taking care of those marginalized.

Being a defender of the weak.

And all the while, learning more about ourselves and this great world through the process.

Being Thankful

When I think back to the 11 year old, blonde streaked haired, basketball loving girl who had big hopes and dreams, I’m thankful. Thankful for grace. Thankful for the freedom to fail and mess up in Christ and in PPM. Thankful for this unique and beautiful journey Eric and I are walking through together. Thankful that our work is our passion. Thankful that Christ has seen me through the past, taught me what it means to truly love people and that in the thick of it, He was the one who brought me here and carried me through. I’m thankful that we have a network of supporters who love and support us the way you all do.

So if there was one thing that I would say to those who who ask me what I’ve learned?

We are all human. We are all flawed beings in need of a Savior. No matter our lineage, skin color, first language, past mistakes, future failures, where we call home or where we lay our heads at night, people are people and people are hurting. We all desire connection, purpose and to be understood. We are at our very core, in the most complex and in the simplest of ways, the exact same. 

What do I want to tell you that I was never told about mission work?

It’s not a billowy exotic dream. It’s tough at times. It’s not without challenges. But it’s worth it. Because we are all human and we all desire love. And when we take time to cross over borders, experience new cultures and connect our lives, it’s an incredibly beautiful thing.


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