What It’s Like to Be a Missionary in Limbo

With their ministry future uncertain, a missionary and her family learn to trust in God’s will while waiting.

I’m a missionary and a writer—yet I haven’t been super excited to write an update lately. Why?

Well, who wants to hear from the girl who is still waiting on work permits to continue serving in her adopted country?

Yep—still here in East Africa, but still unsure if she can stay! Still legally limited in her comings and goings, trying to remain obedient in the mundane days, waiting somewhere in the chasm between faith and purchasing a one-way ticket to anywhere but here. It’s not very inspiring, and it certainly doesn’t provide spicy content for missionary newsletters.

I’ve had many conversations with caring friends that have gone something like this:

Caring friend: “Hey, have you guys heard anything about work permits?”

Me: “Nope.” (Cue my awkward attempt to deflect with a lame joke that makes everyone feel uncomfortable, or my attempt to share some spiritual insight while I watch people’s eyes glaze over.)

We have been waiting on answers about work permits (permission to live and serve in the country) for over a year. We have watched most of the expat and missionary community around us leave, and this year will mark the final wave of movers (a.k.a. the “mass exodus”). We have submitted our applications and are still waiting on the answers.

If you were wondering what this missionary waiting period has felt like over the last year, imagine experiencing the film Groundhog Day all day, every day, for an entire year—and add in stereotypical missionary skirts, a few bad haircut decisions just to feel in charge, crying into pillow at night, watching husband cry into his pillow at night, asking too many existential questions (“Who am I?” “What have I become?”), and an occasional lack of motivation for basic hygiene. (Of course, this is hyperbole.)

The Pain and Grace of Waiting

Waiting for so long and not knowing where we will be living in the next couple months has been painful for our family and for those around us. However, it has also taught us so much about the grace that God provides through seasons of waiting—seasons that are completely out of our control.

I have learned a lot more about what it means to pray—to say “Your will be done” and actually believe and mean it. I have learned a lot of things that I needed to learn—things that I couldn’t have learned when I felt in control.

As our family awaits answers about whether we will need to pack up our home or whether we will be able to stay, I find myself in a place of surrender—ish. I say “surrender-ish” because either outcome means I will be tempted to allow new fears to overtake me. Either path will be mean another opportunity to make a commitment and a new surrender to the Lord.

Surrendering in the Choices Ahead

If we are rejected, we are asked to give up our home, ministries, loved ones who have been family over the last nine years—the country where two of our children were born and all five were raised, in which we gave up our lives, our plans, our church and community to God to see ministry dreams and partnerships flourish. It also means giving up our pool. (I threw that one in there for shock factor because I may be the first missionary in the entire world to admit that she has a pool. We do, and it’s amazing! Saying that felt so freeing.)

If we are approved, I give up the tiny dream that I allowed myself to ponder: being reunited with our family, wrapping my arms tightly around my newly widowed grandma—to cook her meals, take her shopping, hold her hand. I give up my momentary dream of calling America “home” again, not living as an outsider, buying a home and building a future, being in the same country as our children when they leave for college, and not having to watch as almost every other foreigner we know and love is forced to leave.

There is also a third option before us that I must surrender to the Lord—the idea of starting over on a new field. When I consider this option, I’m reminded of the screeching of my youngest sister’s violin the year she “learned to play.” I dread the thought of relocating, starting over in a new country, and learning another new culture. I envision making more humiliating language and cultural mistakes (albeit hilarious and good for blogging), working through the disorienting nature of cross-cultural living, and enduring more nights spent wiping away the lonely tears of our tired children while fighting back my own. All of this too would mean a new opportunity for surrender.

Whichever path we take, there is new surrender ahead. Regardless of the outcome, God is in control. No amount of anxiety or fear will change what the Lord has planned because “no plan of his can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

I constantly need to learn the lesson of surrender, but I will say this again, in case anyone out there as forgetful as I am: when we are called to lay down our lives and follow Christ, it isn’t a one-time decision. Surrendering our plans, our lives, our families, our comforts, and our security to him hurts—badly. Yet that hurt—that painful grace—draws us closer to our Father and into true rest (Matthew 11:28-30).

Editor’s Note: In the time since this article was written, the Boons received word that they could remain in-country. Please continue to pray for open doors in ministry for the team.

Stephanie Boon

Stephanie Boon is an ABWE missionary who lives in Tanzania with her husband and their five children.  She co-founded Sifa Collective, which equips women with the hope of the gospel and tools to launch their own local businesses. After earning her M.A. in Counseling and B.S. in Counseling (Theology/Psychology), she worked with colleagues to open a Community Counseling Center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where they provide gospel-centered individual and group counseling, and counseling training for local churches. Read her blog at Things We Didn't Know or support her ministry.