Ten years ago, I wanted to be a missionary in Eastern Europe. Today, I am a missionary in Eastern Europe. It’s been a tough journey to get here and a lot of people who start on this path don’t get this far. The reason that I am a missionary and others are not is not because I am something special. I would humbly submit that many who wanted to become missionaries but ended on a different path are better Christians than I am. I look up to several of them.
I’ve made many mistakes along the way (we all do) and I managed to survive them somehow, but there are also a couple of mistakes that I’ve avoided, which I would like to share with aspiring missionaries.
So, if you want to become a missionary, then are here are three things that you don’t want to do.
#1: Don’t get into debt
Several years ago, a young woman approached me after a Bible study and told me that God was calling her to go on a mission trip to Africa. She also believed that He was calling her to spend $5,000 to go on a two-week tour of Israel with her pastor. So, she needed to raise the $5k for Israel, another couple thousand to fly to Africa, and another monthly sum while she was away in Africa.
The monthly sum that she needed to raise was not just for her work and cost of living in Africa. Actually, most of the monthly support she needed was to cover debts in America. She was in the hole from getting a college degree that would take her until she was in her 30s to pay off if she were to get a job in her field of studies. She also had car payments to make and the car dealership was not going to stop sending bills just because she was on another continent.
I’m not here to question this sister’s heart. Personally, I find it difficult to concur that God was calling her to skip out on her responsibilities, but that’s beside the point. The bottom line is that she wanted to be in missions, but her cost of support was greatly increased because of financial debts. With the amount she raised to cover her student loan and car payments, she could have done significantly more work in the field.
Student loans often prohibit people from going on the mission field entirely. A lot of missionaries here in the field don’t even have a degree and they are doing a great job. If you want to be a missionary and your choices are either to go to seminary or to live debt-free, then I recommend choosing a debt-free life. As a veteran, I was blessed to have the G.I. Bill cover my bachelor and master degrees and I’m currently writing my doctoral dissertation at a good seminary that’s dedicated to providing the best education at the lowest cost.
#2: Don’t expect there to be a job opening
If you can find a good spot for you that’s already available on the mission field, then that’s great!
The reason that jobs in missions are available is because Christians stepped up to needs around the world with the good-old entrepreneurial spirit. But, if you care about doctrine, then those job opportunities suddenly become restricted. If you have a passion for a particular demographic, then the opportunities are restricted further. Once you narrow down what exactly you want to do, you might find that nobody in the world is doing that. And that can actually be exciting! But, it can also be scary. It means you might need to be the guy who steps up to the need and starts his own venture.
That’s essentially how Grace Abroad came to be. We have a passion for free grace and dispensational translation, teaching, and outreach. Nobody else out here does. The choice was either to start Grace Abroad, or wait until somebody else did. And believe me, that would have been a very long wait.
But, we can’t just snap our fingers and expect a ministry to magically appear. That brings me to our third “don’t.”
#3: Don’t be afraid of work
If you don’t like to work hard, then being a missionary isn’t for you. Period.
Sometimes, that work comes in forms that you wouldn’t expect. When I finished my degree in Russian in 2010, I couldn’t find any ministries in Eastern Europe that were going in the same direction that I was (like I said, don’t expect there to be a job opening). So, I decided to move to Ukraine, get a secular job, and build a ministry from the inside (which is something I probably could not have done if I was in debt).
I don’t really like teaching English, but it’s something I’m good at and can pay the bills with. You don’t need to like your job, but you do need to eat, so I taught English in a secular school as a placeholder to get me by in Ukraine as I went to seminary and got a better feel for the needs and opportunities here on the ground. We call this work, “tent-making,” because the Apostle Paul made tents to get by when his funding was low.
Anyhoo, if you want to be a missionary overseas, it’s a good idea to have a “tent-making” skill. Teaching English is a popular choice, because we missionaries are often teachers who know English. Other good choices include IT work, translation, or ghost writing. If you can freelance it, you can use it.
There’s also a lot of work in ministry that doesn’t look like ministry work. When we think about “ministry work,” we typically think about teaching people from the Word of God. We don’t typically think about resolving project budgets, scheduling meetings about translation projects, filling out the IRS paperwork at the end of the year, typesetting brochures, discussing prices with print shops, staying on the printer to make sure he does his job, etc. Ministry is not for the lazy – just ask your pastor! But, even with the not-so-ministry-looking work, there is absolutely nothing that I would rather be doing with my life.
There are several “don’ts” for the aspiring missionary, but here are three big ones that I’ve noticed. By the way, if you are thinking about joining ministry and have any questions, by all means, feel free to holler at us through the contact section.