Things I would not say to a new missionary

Things I Would NOT Say to a New Overseas Worker

I already have a list of things I would not say to an overseas mom… Well, I thought of another list for things not to say to a new overseas worker.

Because that’s us. Ok… we started back in 2012… I KNOW.

It takes forever and we’re STILL new.

The newness is a long, long, looooong process and people tend to say things. Completely unknown-to-them hurtful things or hard things. Hurtful because this process makes us slightly raw and hard things because we truly don’t have many answers.

So when the comments and questions come our way, we might smile at you and nod, but inside we are thinking a million other things. We’re trying not to be hurt.

Trying not to get mad or feel bad or let frustration overtake our emotions.

We are going through so many things and sometimes the littlest phrases can stab deeply or annoy greatly or just make us want to shout, “That isn’t how it is!” or “Why do people say that?”

This happened a lot to our faces and now it comes via email or facebook.

Most generally, we know that you just don’t know.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

{And if you’ve said these things, truly, no worries. Lots of people say these things, or things like them, mainly I think because they just don’t know WHAT to say to someone who has drastically changed their life and moved so far away… It’s okay. Really.}

But because my heart is to better connect workers across the world with their support base back home, I thought this post might help.

Even if it is hard to write.

Here are some things I would NOT say to a new overseas worker:

1} “Have a nice trip!” or “I hope you are having a great trip!”

Well… we are not on a trip. Trips have plane tickets to and from one place. Trips are short. Trips have an ending. Trips mean hotels and restaurants and, possibly, another worker planning things for you. This is not a trip. To take a line from Toby Mac’s new CD, “This is not a test. This is the real thing.” Not that overseas trips aren’t real. They are… I’m a firm believer in them! But it is very different from what we are experiencing right now. Living here without a return ticket home does something mentally that I can’t quite explain. It is real. Definitely not a trip.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

2} “So, how does it feel to be fluent in another language?” or “Are you fluent yet?”

Uhm… no. Wow… language learning takes YEARS. and years. and a whole lot of hard, brain-frying work. It is a cultural scramble to detox our English brains and make it think like another person altogether. It is not just memorizing words but learning lessons in grammar and sentence structure and conjugations and meanings and word tenses and nuances and word groupings and on and on and on. Can I order food in French? yes. Can I find the bathroom? yes. Can I get vegetables from my vegetable lady? yes. Can I translate simple English sentences into French? yes. But fluency? that will take years. I have the vocabulary of a 2 year old. And the comprehension of a child not much older. It’s gonna take some time.

See? Twice a week we still take French lessons. With plenty of red pen to go around.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

3} “Do you drive yet?”

Oh dear. Jeremy does and he does it very well. I have yet to begin. The thought of driving here terrifies me. Animals in the road, sand, people everywhere, little kids, trucks, motobikes, pot holes, trash… not yet.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

And when I see that one of my new overseas friends has started driving, my heart cheers! This is a bigger milestone than you could possibly believe… huge. just huge. Like “get balloons, eat cake and have a party” HUGE.

4} “You could always come home! There are unsaved people here too!”

Stop tempting me. Really… the dream of going home hits nearly every day. EVERYTHING is foreign. NOTHING is the same. And home looks REALLY good. And you are correct. There ARE unsaved people at home. But God has us here. Mixing things up in a way that only He can do. So, we can’t come home. God is doing something and we get to be a part of it. Here.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

5} “How is your ministry going?” or “What are you doing?”

We are currently just surviving. Seriously. Oh, ministry happens… on a real life, gut level.  Right now, ministry only happens because God has us walking this path, not because we “do” anything. {Like a pastor calling Jeremy up to the front to pray… and the sudden paralyzing thought of “Pray? In what language?”}  With a heart to work with churches in the area of kids ministry, we have a long term plan to get to know pastors, build relationships, discover real needs and learn how God wants us to be a part of that. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Babies in culture, in language, in how things work here. Babies that are growing rapidly but realistic in the long term investment a job like this requires. And you get to watch us grow up. Right here as we share life #behindtheprayercard with you.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

*And in case you wonder if this long process is worth it… yes. Every day, yes. Local believers are hungry for help, to hear the gospel in their heart language. Village pastors are starving for training, discipleship and relationship. Churches need workers on the ground who understand culture and nuance and real need. It is worth it. Valuable. But time consuming and hard. In talking to a believer yesterday, when those short term trips leave… there MUST be someone here who can follow up. That’s our heart. To be the waterers, the cultivators, the workers who come behind planters and help things grow. And that, my friend, takes time.

6} “You look like you are on vacation!” or “I wish I could live there!” or “It looks like you are always out touring and having fun!”

Hmmm… well, we do live in the tropics. We do love to take pictures. Right now, everything is NEW! We live on the coast of Africa with the Atlantic ocean minutes from our front door. We have palm trees all around us. Yes, our pictures will have vacation-like elements, I’m sure. But, in pictures, you can’t feel the heat or the humidity or the dust. You can’t smell the burn piles or the trash or the animal droppings. You don’t see the fight for clean water every day or the worms in the flour or the gecko poop on our beds. In our vacationy pictures, you don’t see the battle it was just to leave the house that morning because of the locks on our doors, the front gate to our home and so on. You don’t see the language barrier and the cultural confusion and the mental game of living in a far away land. As an overseas worker, we want you to see more than just the struggle. We want to share with you the beauty. I’m glad that’s what you see. But we’re not on vacation.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

7} “I wish people gave money to me like they do to missionaries.”

This is a touchy one. {reread #5} Then, go read this. Talk about money is so personal for most people. For us, it is a common source of public contention. It’s so hard for us, and other new overseas workers, to explain, yet one we will happily discuss. Hard stuff. {and hard to blog about!} I honestly don’t know what to say when I hear the awkward questions. I’ll just throw out here that overseas work is God’s heartbeat. And it costs money.

Sending a family to live long term in another part of the world has a gigantic price tag. A price tag that requires the whole body of Christ to participate. People to go, people to pray, people to give. We all play a part in that. God is SO faithful. He meets our needs and through YOUR giving, allows us to partner with the national church in real, tangible ways. For example, Jeremy was able to attend the funeral of a young national pastor. Because of giving, we were able to bless his widow and help her with upcoming expenses for her young family. Because of Speed the Light, Jeremy is able to go into villages and spend a morning helping pastors. Giving truly does catapult the gospel and the love of Jesus into previously unknown, untouched, unreached places.

In another example, our girls slept on mattresses on the floor for a few months because enduring a second move in just a year was very straining financially. But because a church in Ohio cared about the health of my girls, we were able to purchase bunkbeds. That is the amazingness of the body of Christ.

Life here is hard and expensive and did I mention hard?

We’re able to work and learn to live and begin to thrive with the support of family, friends, churches and even people we have never met. That is the beauty of the body of Christ.

8} What do you miss from home?

Can I say, “EVERYTHING!” Really… when I saw these melted, smashed, tiny York Peppermint Patties show up on the counter of a store in Dakar, I about cried. Because just that silver, blue and red wrapper made me think of home.

Things I Would NOT Say to a NEW Overseas Worker

Things that smell like home or look like home or make us feel like home are precious.

The new overseas worker misses everything which makes it a tough question to answer!

Then, when we DO answer it, the list comes out very odd to those who hear it. “I miss Cheerios and peanut butter. Oh, and drink refills! And unlimited ice. Oh, and we ALL miss fast food. I miss carpet on the floors and snow falling outside. We miss Sonic half-price drinks and Chilis chips and salsa. We miss so many things… we miss family. and people knowing us…” Slowly the list goes from fun things to deeper hurts, deeper longings. To know and be known. That is what we miss.

Watch the first few minutes of this Beverly Hillbillies episode. It’s really how it feels to see things from home!

9} “How long are you going to live here?”

Honestly, this is a tough question. We don’t know. We have just moved across the planet. Anything beyond that is hypothetical and can change each day. We are living day to day, following what God puts in front of us in this moment. Thinking too far ahead is exhausting. We know we’re long term. We know we want to keep building our lives here. But we don’t know anything beyond that. We want to see God accomplish His plan through us in this place. How long that takes? We do not know.

10} “Well, we had to learn it and so do they.”

This comes most often from the NOT newbie overseas workers. Those who have already invested much, learned much and lived much overseas. The ones walking before us. The ones who’ve already been there, done that. And think that the new ones need to be there and do that too as some kind of learning exercise. Or think that us “young ones” like running around doing our own thing and making mistakes.

Well, I have a secret. I don’t want to learn it the hard way! I don’t want to make unnecessary, costly, awful mistakes! I know, I know… there are things that we need to learn naturally as situations happen. But, just making us learn the hard way, when there are answers that could help us… please. help us. Don’t just watch from the sidelines as we struggle through things that you could help with. At least walk with us and help us learn in the midst without waiting until the end and saying, “Yeah, we learned that too…” or “Yeah, when I saw you doing that, I knew it wasn’t going to work.”

We might be new but we want to be good stewards of time, resources and opportunities. Would you help us do that? The learning curve is too high and the time is too short for anything else.

To be perfectly honest, we don’t hear these things too often. But I do hear from other newbies who are hearing these things. I see these comments through blog posts or facebook statuses and so on. So I thought I’d answer some of it here.

I hope it helps you think outside the box of what you could say or ask.

It is complicated.

But necessary to learn and build the best relationships we can between support teams and those living around the world!

What is a question you might have for new overseas workers? What is something you could ask?


  1. The worst is “when are you coming home?” even if they only mean to visit. I wish I could visit my family every year but it’s impossible. And it makes me sad everytime they ask when we will come home. And to add to that…I am home. The States aren’t my home anymore…

  2. 9} “How long are you going to live here?”

    We’ve been on the mission field for 29 years. The older we get, the more we get asked that question; and we still don’t know the answer. God knows….we can rest in that.

    Thank you for your excellent article. I could relate to it. God bless you.

  3. I had a lot of people link to my article about the costs missionaries face. I wanted to let you know I wrote a follow up piece specifically addressing why families face a different cost structure than young singles since there was a lot of critique from this group.

  4. Thanks for sharing. This will help me when interacting with my son, Brian and his wife, Venera who are on staff with YWAM in Perm Russia. New baby girl is due on March 15th. Thank you for your sacrifice and willingness to be used.
    God bless.

    1. I loved reading their letter! Thanks for sharing that! And I found them on facebook. So proud of what they are doing as I’m sure you are too. Thanks for reading and sharing with us!

  5. Jenilee this is lovely and honest and raw. Thanks for writing it.
    I’m a big believer in being honest about the missionary experience. I don’t know, I guess it’s just that maybe someone else can be encouraged by my honesty and by my not pretending everything is hallelujah and sunshine.
    I don’t know if we told you bits of our story or if you knew or not, but our first term was one trauma after another. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m diminishing your struggle. To the contrary, I read your post and I remembered exactly what it feels like. And even 16 years later, the remembering brings tears to my eyes. On top of the usual stuff we had some pretty PTSD-causing stuff happen to us. And I say all this to say the one question I struggled most with in the wake of that crushing first term was “Don’t you just love living in Africa?” Or any of the variations. I felt like I’d go into churches and very enthusiastic and wonderful people wanted to hear all about how wonderful it was. In my traumatized, clinically depressed, culture shocked condition, his was a very complicated question to answer. All I could do was smile and nod, and pray God would forgive me for being such a liar if I just said yes. Because in that moment I hated it. But I still loved the people and I still held on to the call I knew we had.
    God is gracious and he did bring healing through a long series of the right people and the right places in my life at the right time.
    But all that to say thanks for being brave and sharing your struggles. And none of the non-newbie missionaries want you to go through this roller-coaster or survival that is the first term. But there are things we can’t do for you either, except to give you a hug, and pray for you, and say it’s normal, hang in there, give yourself permission to have negative feelings (but don’t give yourself permission to hoard them).
    Let me know if there is anything we can do too. I’m a pretty good listener-especially since I’ve been there too and I have gecko poop in my bed too and some days I don’t want to go anywhere either.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story! I also believe in sharing our story but sometimes it is really hard! lol

      The “Don’t you love living in Africa?” question… I talk about that more in my “things not to say to a missionary mom” because people loved to ask my girls “Are you excited about your trip?” or “Are you excited about Africa?” Totally a normal question!! But for the girls, it was so hard to answer. For them, it meant hotels, stress, missing family, traveling in the car, busy days, moving around all the time… so far in their minds, “Africa” was not fun and we hadn’t even gotten there yet! It will be different for them this time as they will better know how to answer that question. But still, difficult!

      We appreciate you and Phil! Looking forward to getting to know you more. Maybe you can come with Phil when he travels to Senegal!

  6. I’ve heard some of these:
    1. I would call our 3+ years a trip myself, so that one never registers with me.
    2. We went to language school, but there was no chance for any formal education in the remote area where we lived in Congo. (We tried tutors, big fail.) My favorite version of this is “Your kids will just pick up the language naturally.” 5 years later, it hadn’t happened. Now they are studying French with us and Rosetta Stone.
    3. I never drove, just used my bike. Loved it 🙂
    4. We were at a hospital, so there are unsaved and health care needs in the US. Even now, certain family members would like to see us in the US in an underserved setting.
    5. The best part is asking for numbers. The medical statistics are easy, the “spiritual statistics,” not so easy. How can your ministry really be valid if you can’t provide those? (No one has ever said that, but it’s implied sometimes.)
    6. I do have to say that I never heard that one. Living in the Congo, we spent more time convincing people that it really wasn’t as bad as they think. 😉
    7. I didn’t hear this one either, but I can see how it would be frustrating.
    8. I would always say the people & leave it at that. But one of our things we would do sometimes is sit around as a group, and talk about food that we didn’t have there (which was almost everything we were used to.) We called it food p*rn.
    9. This is the one that I thought I could answer easily. We were going to be there long term, indefinitely, at least 15-20 years. Well, now we’re gone. So much for that!
    10. Heard that one, and I’ll leave it at that. But from the veteran missionaries we met, 90% of them were NOT like that. There response was more like, “I’ve been there; I understand; here’s what might help.” That’s who I want to emulate.

    Thanks for the list. That was fun 🙂

    1. Oh I LOVE that you commented with your own list! Too fun!
      2. language in country is hard!
      5. numbers are very hard…
      6. Yes, being in the coastal area of Senegal makes for some beautiful places to visit!
      7. This is rare for us but the discussion of money is not. Part of the job but a very misunderstood part of our job
      10. AGREED! 90% or even 95% want to see us succeed and have been extremely helpful. But the few who do make those comments or act that way can be pretty hurtful… I think, as I said in the post, because we have such raw emotions much of the time… things seems more personal than they should be. And God is working on my heart in that area!

      Thanks for joining in the conversation in such a great way! God Bless!

  7. We’re personally dealing 4,5,7 in our own missionary journey and learning that those around us, even our closest friends just don’t get it and we’re not upset with them, but we do want to educate them. As a new new newbie I appreciate this as a reference and reassurance.

  8. I think it can be hard for friends “back home” to know how to ask helpful questions to the ones abroad. This is helpful… 🙂 Thanks!

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