Six pitfalls to avoid when welcoming missionaries on home service
May 2018

By Josie Oldenburg — Some of us humans (myself included) seem particularly prone to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’ve walked away from a conversation a time or two (or 200) thinking, “Oh, WHY did I SAY that?” Conversations with fellow missionaries can feel particularly perilous — I might not understand their day-to-day culture. I might not even be able to place their country on the map!

They understand. They say or do the wrong things, too, sometimes. But I find it helpful to know ahead of time which pitfalls might lie in the road ahead. So, I asked a few of my most-honest missionary friends to share what irks them during home service and what solutions they’ve tried. I found their responses so helpful — and I hope you will, too!

On questions … 

On the one hand, missionaries answer a lot of surface questions: “I often get tired of answering the same questions about flight routes, weather, food. I know people are just trying to connect, so I answer kindly … but sometimes it gets a little old!”

But missionaries often don’t get a chance to talk about the deeper things: “It used to really bother me that people would not ask much about our lives in Japan. I’ve decided not to wait to be asked. I’ll initiate comments or participate in the conversation by sharing something from my life here. Sometimes it doesn’t go beyond that, but sometimes it does, which is quite gratifying!”

And it can be super uncomfortable to realize that people aren’t so much interested in you as they are in sharing their opinion of the place you’re called to serve: “Sometimes people ask us questions about where we live, but they are really only looking for fuel for their own political agenda. Example: How does your country handle gun control, health care, taxes? Curiosity is one thing, but most then go into a political rant, which I would rather avoid.”

Pitfall avoidance ideas: Go into conversations with missionaries ready to ask about something other than travel, weather and food. (“What are some things you really appreciate about where you live? How do you see God at work where you serve? What do you do for fun there?”) And, in a group conversation, look for ways to invite missionaries into the discussion. For instance, if everyone’s talking about mortgage rates, ask whether most people own homes or rent where they live.

On interacting with missionary kids … 

Imagine if every time you went to church, every person looked like a stranger to you — and yet, they somehow, mysteriously knew your name. Only the most gregarious of souls would enjoy such a situation. “Visiting churches was always ‘interesting’ as the kids felt they were on display. We gave our three — who have a nine-year age range — freedom to choose if they wanted to stay with us, or all go to the same kids class. Sometimes all three went to the pre-school class, or the mid-elementary, or to the teens, and I just told the teacher that this was our best solution to constant change. It took off the stress of being alone.”

But, even though home service might present challenging moments, missionary parents are trying their best to keep things positive for their families — so it doesn’t help when folks say otherwise. “One of the hardest for us is when people greet the kids with, ‘Oh, this must be sooooo exhausting, poor you, always driving around and meeting new people.’ While there is so much true to what they say, it does not help the kids a tiny bit!! They really start to pity themselves!! We have always tried to communicate about the good sides of it all as much as possible, and as of now our kids in general love our time of home service, i.e., visiting all these super friendly people and seeing lots of different places.”

Pitfall avoidance ideas: Stay flexible with missionary families, understanding that the church structure you’re used to might not be a great fit for them. And rather than assuming how their children must feel, ask an open-ended, neutral question like, “What do you think about being here?”

On donations … 

Have you heard about sending used teabags to missionaries? Giving missionaries stuff that really should be headed to the trashcan makes them feel undervalued. There’s that pervading feeling like some people expect you to drive a junky car, wear old clothes and be able to get by on whatever they or other people don’t want anymore. I do think attitudes have shifted a lot in the last 20 years, but once in a while you can still sense it.”

Donations can be tricky! Sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We once received a big bag of beat-up construction vehicle toys, and my boys loved burying them in mud, driving them off high places and otherwise abusing them. But sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s burden. “Our biggest frustration has been when people have donated junk to us. They know we need things to furnish a home while we are here and so they give us stuff they would have just thrown away otherwise. We’ve had to get rid of other people’s trash because they just gave it to the needy missionaries.”

Pitfall avoidance ideas: Think through what you’re planning to donate. Is it woefully out of date? Broken? Probably best to discard of it yourself. Or, when you hand it off, do as the construction-vehicle donor did: Say, “I know these aren’t in the best shape. If you can use them, great, otherwise, feel free to toss them.”

On geographic confusion … 

One of the great things about being a missionary on home service is the chance to share with others about a part of the world that they might never get a chance to visit. Gentle world geography lessons definitely come with the territory, and geographic confusion can make for some funny commentary:

  • “I had people mixing up Spain with Mexico. NO! I did not drive to the US from Spain and no they don’t eat tacos in Spain!”
  • “People always say to us ‘I love Thai food.’ And I’m like, ‘Me too, but what does that have to do with Taiwan?’”

Pitfall avoidance ideas: If you’re not quite sure where your missionary serves and you don’t want them to have to tell you, Google it before you meet! You might even learn some interesting facts about their country that can serve as conversation starters.

On being put on the spot … 

I remember being at a church where someone asked me to say John 3:16 in Russian, with no warning. I totally blanked. I can still feel the discomfort of that moment! And it turns out, I’m not alone:

  • “We don’t like it when people put us on the spot to say something in the foreign language where we serve.”
  • “My kids often got frustrated because adults from our home church kept on asking them, ‘Do you remember what my name is?’ Of course they usually didn’t, so they were always put on the spot.”
  • “I hate when people ask my kids which country they like better.”

Pitfall avoidance ideas: Social anxiety can make anyone forgetful — so missionaries will appreciate people who help them avoid sticky situations. Even if you’ve known the missionary since he was in diapers, he won’t mind if you greet him with, “Hi, I’m Jane. I’ve known your family for years, but I know it can be hard to keep track of everyone. It’s so good to have you here.”

On ‘I could never’ … 

Missionaries hear “I could never” a lot. Take this example from a worker in a snowy part of the world, who hears, “You must really LOVE cold climates! I could never do that!”

She explained: “I don’t like the implication that I chose this place because of its climate and not because it’s where God chose to put me. It gives the impression that no one needs to go anywhere unless they like it. ‘God can’t possibly ask me to go there; I hate being cold!’ Well … no. I am a tropics girl through and through, but that does not mean I get a pass on listening to God’s calling.”

Her co-worker chimed in, We get this all the time, too! I don’t like it because of course they could if God asked them to! They’re putting us on a pedestal when we’re not really doing anything remarkable.”

I absolutely have been tripped up by this pitfall. The last time I said, “I could never live where you live” to a missionary, she had just told a story about running out of the house to find someone to kill the ultra-poisonous snake that was slithering toward her sleeping baby.

Pitfall avoidance ideas: When I think of the snake story, I realize my “I could never” isn’t really accurate. What I mean is something more like, “Thank you for being willing to serve in a place that isn’t always comfortable and even can be dangerous.” You can never go wrong with thank you.

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Josie Oldenburg
Josie and her family served for 12 years in Ukraine before she joined SEND's Communications Team.