When I asked my best friend and colleague, a single missionary named Shantelle, how she made it through pre-field without selling her soul, her answer was “I didn’t. I, for sure, sold it.”
Pre-field ministry, support-raising, partnership development, or what some call “deputation,” is typically the time where a missionary transitions from their past life of working a normal job, having a home, making their own life decisions to planning their move overseas, raising funds to sustain their lives and ministry, recruiting prayer partners, and learning that they are much worse humans than they ever thought possible.
How do we make it through this precarious time without becoming worse than when we started?
I need to back up a bit in order to give you some personal history, followed by my list of all the things not to do—from experience, unfortunately.
In college, my social life went something like this:
Group of friends: “Hey, Steph, you wanna hang out?”
Me: “Cool. Sure, I will be there in a couple hours.”
(Then I run to my rusty Mazda Miata [complete with external CD player plugged in through the tape deck], drive downtown, greet all of my close friends/local homeless people outside of the plasma bank, get my loyalty card stamped because you can only sell plasma twice per week, draw blood, get the cash, and only then commence the excursion with friends.)
What does this have to do with pre-field? I wish that I could say nothing. However, years later, I found myself in the same college town, on pre-field, with three kids in tow, about to enter that same plasma bank.
What happened? We had just quit our jobs, had very little support, and traveled in faith to a church that gave us no love offering or gas money. We had enough money to feed our kids that evening, while we slept hungry and wondered how to get gas money to travel back home. We were obviously too prideful to call any of the generous people in our lives, or our sending church, who would have loved to help us.
We were in this position because Aaron and I were compelled to get through pre-field without going into debt. So, in the sincerest form of stupidity, we cut up all of our credit and debit cards.
Every. Single. One.
This may seem wise—a modern-day George Mueller vibe—but I can assure you that for us, it wasn’t. It was merely idealistic and irresponsible. We did arrive on the field debt free but faced unnecessary stress along the way because of our poor choices.
Pre-field is one of the most humbling times of a missionary’s life. Actually, that’s untrue—it is a series of tiny, baby humiliations that only prepare you for the big grown-up troubles awaiting you during your first year on the field and every year after that.
Here’s a short list of things we would have done differently, which I hope can help you survive support-raising without selling your soul.
1. Don’t cut up credit cards, but also try really hard not to use them.
Cutting up credit cards may leave you debt free, but could cause you to be hungry, give blood, beg for money, or be left stranded on the side of the road with your precious family.
Keep an emergency card and try really hard to never use it. Create a policy before it is used, and don’t break your policy. If you do use your card, try your very best to pay it off every month.
2. Don’t quit your job too early.
When a missionary is commissioned, nothing seems more exciting than getting to the field as quickly as possible. Some people raise their support in just a few months, but most don’t.
Keep your job while you are really low on support, and then don’t touch that support. Allow your support to build up so that, when you do finally have to quit your job, you have some money saved to keep you alive. If you can’t travel and keep your full-time job, then find a flexible part-time job until you are fully funded.
3. If a pastor asks you to sing, but you either hate singing or sound terrible, just say no.
I just hate singing solos, and my dear husband told pastors on several occasions that I would love to sing for their congregation. I forgive him, but feel as though a public rebuke is in order. (Aaron: I can never unhear the dreadful recording that I heard of myself singing during that one Sunday night service in Kentucky. You did that, Aaron. You have to live with yourself.)
4. Don’t make promises just to get support.
The truth is that even the best laid-out plans on pre-field are still just that—plans. You don’t know for sure what you will do, so be careful not to oversell yourself, your methods, or your plans to your supporters. Be open about the fact that you will be learning and growing, and so will your methods and approach to ministry.
We thought that we would be doing orphan care and church planting. It turns out that our American orphan ministry concept was misguided and that there was a different problem that needed addressing: young women. We started Sifa Threads, a training center for marginalized young women, because of community interviews in which we listened to people’s needs and the roots issues we outsiders could only see dimly.
As foreigners, we can’t simply transplant Western ideas and plans into an African community. Even church looks very different from how we thought it would. Rather than meeting in a large building, local gatherings are held under a tree, on a front porch, on the beach, in a boat, outside of shops, in homes, and other places in the community.
5. You don’t have to put your kids in nursery to get support.
It’s perfectly fine, and actually wise, to not put your babies in every nursery or children’s program out there. Don’t give into pressure because you are raising support. If a church won’t support your family because you didn’t put your kids in the nursery, then that’s on them. Don’t be so desperate to please people and raise funds that your children sink in the priorities.
It’s okay for our kids to feel a bit uncomfortable, but it’s not okay to use them as adorable pawns to raise support. On that note, don’t make those babies perform if they don’t want to either. If they don’t like public singing, then don’t push them.
Our 14-year-old daughter Kennedy would add: “I personally loved being on stage. And as a six-year old, I fully enjoyed (maybe even a little too much) wrapping my chubby little fingers around any microphone that I could find. With closed eyes and a dreamy smile, I would belt out Be Thou My Vision, while the only thing actually in my vision was how amazing I must look in front of all these people. Sing again, Daddy? I’d love to! All for the glory of God, after all!”
(She’s a monster just like me!)
6. Don’t be too proud of yourself, but don’t be a victim either.
Please don’t walk around talking about how much you have given up or how hard your new life as a missionary has been. You chose this path, so it’s a bit annoying hear complaints about it. We can be honest about the difficulty while maintaining a thankful heart.
This kind of talk, if not stopped early, is only amplified on the mission field. If you aren’t careful, a lot of your conversations will become one-upping as you compare other missionaries’ suffering with your own. That’s really annoying for everyone involved.
Conversely, don’t be too proud of yourself. While I was on pre-field, a friend, who was a teacher in her mid 30’s, asked me how I felt about leaving for Africa. I still experience a stiff cringe when I think of how I responded: “I’m just sad that I’m in my late 20’s and just now stepping out to do something like this with my life.” Is that not the grossest mixture of pride and disrespect that you have ever heard?
It’s a humbling privilege to be sent from our churches as missionaries. Don’t be a victim, and don’t think for one second that you deserve it. Anything good that you do in missions will be through God’s strength, accomplished all while you are off somewhere falling apart because you miss Chick-Fil-A, blueberries, and feelings of importance.
7. You don’t have to stay in strangers’ homes.
Staying with church members is a great way for churches and missionaries to save money on hotels. However, it can also be very uncomfortable and at times even dangerous for your family.
On one hand, we do have friends who are like our family now because we stayed with them during a missions conference. But we have far more creepy stories of places where we stayed and literally feared for our safety or sanity. I definitely thought that 60 Minutes would do an episode about our family: “Missionary Family of Five Strangely Disappears: Last Seen Eating Casserole with Strangers.”
I’m a pastor’s kid and have been in the church my entire life, so I know that, while the church is beautiful, there are some weirdos out there inside of it. Not every person who signs up to host a missionary is safe. Your first priority is caring for your family, not impressing a pastor or church members. If your family desperately needs downtime or you just don’t feel comfortable staying with strangers (because that’s a very reasonable thing to feel uncomfortable with), then use your voice—and maybe that credit card to stay in a hotel too.
8. You don’t have to be a pushover in order for God to get you to the field.
Again, I’m a pastor’s kid, and there aren’t many “people groups” that I have a bigger heart for than pastors and their families. But there are some jerks out there. You have every right to lovingly stand up for your family when a pastor makes rude comments about your kid’s behavior when they just got out of an 8-hour car ride. You can, like my missionary friend Shantelle, walk up on stage and refuse to sing after a pastor calls you on stage without warning to croon for his congregation. You get to say no. Sure, she didn’t get support that day, but I can assure you that her solo would have gotten her no closer.
You can graciously challenge a pastor when he suspiciously makes fun of your nice vehicle (the vehicle that you practically live in and drag your family all around the country in). It can be improper for church leaders to make jokes about withholding a missionary’s support, and you can address the unkind nature of those comments in a gracious way. They can learn from your loving reproof. You can learn how to speak the truth in love even when it’s uncomfortable (Ephesians 4:15). Again, more training for life on the mission field.
9. Forget the “PR” and just be yourself. It’s not a show.
Many missionaries suddenly get weird on pre-field.
True, we were super weird before, but pre-field did make us worse. We walked a strange tension between trying to be ourselves and figuring out how exactly to promote ourselves in a job that we have never done, in a country where we have never lived.
Do not let fear drive you; walk in the Spirit, where you will find peace (John 14:27). Don’t sell your soul or all your favorite clothes so that you can look a certain way. It’s okay if you don’t fit the missionary mold. When we were on pre-field, a pastor’s wife looked me up and down and said, “Wow, nice heels. You will never make it in Africa.” I wish that I would have spoken the truth in love to her that day and shared how discouraging that was. (By the way, people in Africa wear heels too. Not every woman on this continent is wearing long skirts and sneakers—usually that’s just us missionaries.)
This “not fitting in” thing will prepare you for a lifetime of not fitting in once you arrive on the field. It’s better to let go of people’s expectations of you early on. If you are walking in obedience with your time, your finances, your God-given roles and relationships (see Ephesians 5 and 6), and honoring him with your heart, then you get to walk in beautiful freedom. Don’t get into the bondage of pleasing people just to raise support or to be seen as a good missionary (Galatians 1:10). That cycle, once started, is very hard to break. In a spirit of humility and love, just be yourself.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all missionary. The world is changing. Missions is changing. Support-raising is changing. Maybe you will be self-supported. Maybe you will skip the entire pre-field process by finding work overseas and just live missionally in that manner.
No matter what path you take, remember that you are uniquely gifted and created with a purpose to bring glory to God wherever you find yourself in the world (1 Corinthians 10:31). God used pre-field to humble and grow us in many ways. It still didn’t prepare us for those disastrous first years on the field, but it did help. If nothing else, I haven’t sold my blood one time since living abroad. There’s that, I guess.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 15, 2019.