Redefining the Role of U.S. Missionary

Hello all, Paul here.

I wrote this the other day, and wanted to share.

Redefining the Role of U.S. Missionary

It took me over a month “on the field” to realize that I need to redefine my mental categories for what a “good missionary” does, is, and is expected to do. I’ve been thinking of things all the wrong way. In my mind, I’ve been doing normal life things around here despite being on the mission field. We eat meals in community with our housemates and the other interns in the program here, we have weekly personal development sessions. We have helped with landscaping around the church for several weeks. We babysit for local leaders. We have met with district officials. We have contributed book resources and personal insights about passions to the projects that the other interns are working on. We have talked about potential involvement in district events, working with district assembly, etc. We have begun to enter into niche communities within our area, in attending a knitting group and a running club. I’ve been reading a ton, mostly reading books that have contributed in small (perhaps unconscious) ways to me redefining my call. I’ve gotten healthier physically, eating better and running more regularly (which gives me the space to think). We’ve gone to coffee shops, libraries, natural areas, and local restaurants. We attended a local free book giveaway, a music session of old time music, and other events. We’ve shared several Sunday meals with other church members, and have attended services with discussions with elderly church members before and after services. We even have ministry conversations over coffee, over meals, etc. All of these things just felt like normal “doing life” stuff.

At the same time, I felt like I’ve been failing as a missionary. I wasn’t starting a new ministry, I wasn’t reaching out to non-Christians in a meaningful way. I haven’t even begun to do the dream of ministry that I had for this year. I spend a lot of time around the house, talking with people that are in our program or who are already Christians. I barely have a job, working a tentative hour-and-a-half per week teaching Spanish to a school vice principal.

But I realized that a lot of the things that we are doing, if I heard about “real missionaries” overseas doing those things, I would accept them as real mission activity. People go to other countries on Work and Witness trips and do physical labor such as moving dirt in a landscaping project, and I accept it as a legitimate outlet to missions. People integrate into local cultural groups, and I accept it. People meet with local leaders, empowering them to become the best self that they can be, and I accept it. People take part-time jobs just to connect to community members and use them as outreach opportunities. Missionaries help others start programs that go on to have an impact. They spend time developing themselves and refining their calls to get a clearer sense of what action to take. They cook for other people in their host culture. They attend local events and visit sites in order to understand the culture better. They work with leaders to contribute to district events. I accept that “real missionaries” need months, sometimes even years to get plugged into what they really have an impact doing. Sometimes it can be harder to be a missional presence in a “simple” place, like Europe, since the culture has moved past Christianity instead of never hearing about it. Sometimes missionaries work for years to get few “converts”.

What makes me have this distinction about my own actions? What makes me feel that missionaries have to be doing these things with or for foreigners in order to be real missionaries? Didn’t intercultural studies classes and my internship experience with a U.S.-based missionary shape me better than that? Why have I been feeling like a “discount missionary”; like that triple A baseball player who had to stop at that level because he couldn’t cut it in the real arena?

I haven’t been giving myself that same grace I give to overseas workers. I’ve minimized the self-discovery, the learning, the pushing myself through a culture-shock-of-sorts, the contributions I’m able to make. I’ve overlooked essentially what amounts to a multi-week work and witness trip of shoveling dirt every Saturday. I let self-doubt diminish my actions. I listen to the lie that what I’m doing is selfish, isolated, and unimportant. I fear that I’m not living up to the title of missionary.

Yes, I barely have a “real world job”, but I also am a missionary, a husband, an intern, a seminary student, and several other things. As the saying goes, sometimes we have to say no to good things to be able to say yes to great things. I am able to take more random engagements, such as meetings, meals, conversations that contribute to a ministry, landscaping, attending groups, and babysitting that people with “real jobs” often cannot. We’ve interviewed our housemates about themselves. Might some of our personal project be to help equip others in pursuing and achieving their personal projects? This actually connects with the larger call that I, and Elizabeth, feel on our lives: facilitating self-discovery and equipping of others to follow their calls. Maybe discovering our own call in that process is part of that as well.

Regardless, I need to realize that, whether I see myself subjectively as a “real missionary”, I ought to see myself objectively as such. Indeed, I would label many of these actions when done in another context overseas as such.

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