When You’re a Struggling Overseas Worker

When I was introduced to *Sarah, a newcomer to Canada, and her son, Austin*, at the drop-in playgroup the other day, I’m ashamed to admit that I judged her a little bit.  Her son seemed a little bit out of control (or just hangry).  And Sarah was tired and appeared apathetic.  She was due with baby number two in a week or so and was in a relatively new country and culture.  There’s no way of knowing the depth of how affected she was by the trauma from her war-torn country and the excruciating pain and loss before leaving her beloved homeland.  There’s no doubt she was missing loved ones – whether they even still lived, I do not know.  I had a sense that she was generally just feeling numb.  And then I got it.  I understood.  

Though my own experience pales in comparison to that of any refugee, I do know what it’s like to live in a foreign country where culture and language, no matter how much I learned, still left me feeling like an outsider.  Sarah’s numbness reminded of my last several years in Thailand, overwhelmed with motherhood, and weighed down with anxiety and grief.  I was numb too.  I get it.  I really do.  My heart was moved with compassion and I felt prompted to pray for Sarah and think more about how I can reach out to her and her family. 

I was also reminded of other moms on the mission field who are in the depths of the numbing shame for not handling life better than they are.  I think of single friends who are struggling despite being called.  These women struggle despite having prepared for serving overseas, despite their numerous prayer supporters, and despite a caring husband, housemate or team.  

One friend shared incredulously that she had actually been told that living in her country of service was exactly the same as living in her passport country.  “Why are you struggling so much?” they asked her.  (For what it’s worth, the two countries were vastly different in both culture and language.  Just basic daily living overseas can be exhausting, not to mention any ministry work!)

If that’s you, if this is how you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with, what I want to tell you is that you’re not alone.  You’re not the only one who has been in your position and struggled.  You’re not the only one whose feet keep getting stuck in the muddy bog, who use up nearly all their strength each time you lift your leg and break free only to get stuck as soon as that foot aims to set firm again.  

To you, I say this:

Don’t let your suffering isolate you.  Tell even just one other person your biggest burden, and you may just find they say, “I’m thankful you shared that with me.”  Or even, “Me too.”  Far too often we think that we’re the only one who has struggled with something and, for the most part, that’s simply not true.  You can even e-mail me [ beth at bethdonchai dot com ] and I would be happy to pray for you!

Seek help or ask someone you trust to assist you to get that help. It may be found in a counsellor, or your physician or both.  Be persistent in getting the help that you need. Be your own advocate or ask your spouse or friend to be your advocate.  There are wonderful online resources like those at MissionaryCare.com to give you a start in the right direction.  There are also extremely helpful counselling services available for missionaries and expatriates in many locations around the world.  Many of the counselling centres that I’m aware of, even offer some follow-up counselling via Skype.  Cornerstone Counseling Foundation and The Well International are two fantastic foundations in Chiang Mai, Thailand who offer a wide variety of counselling services.  Feel free in the comments to make personal recommendations of other counselling centres.  

Give thanks to God – you’ll find that this alone will change your perspective.  This study found that “compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”

Paul wrote many of his letters when he was suffering or facing persecution and yet he was so full of joy and gratefulness to God.  I recognize and fully understand that this is NOT EASY but the same Spirit who empowered Paul lives within each Christ follower today.  

The people who I found to be most supportive and helpful when I struggled were the ones who had gone before me through similar challenges.  They had battled the same battles, sought the help and support they needed, overcame obstacles, moved to healthier ministry locations, made other healthy life changes and were able to now help other missionaries who were struggling.  

This was what Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation, and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for when we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.  For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.   But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

So, whether you’re currently struggling on the missionary field, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar land, or one who has the capacity to support newcomers to your country, just remember that you’re not alone and that it will get better.  I pray that you, too, can get the support you need to not just survive where God has called you to be, but to thrive.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Photo credit: John Silliman on Unsplash

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