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By Dr. Dennis Ahern, Director, Paraclete Services 

You really like your work,” observed an eager short-term missionary after a few days of serving alongside me in Asia.

In that moment, her question perplexed me and so I replied, “If I didn’t like my work, I’d change jobs. What led you to this observation?”

She responded, “Our team travels on short-term assignments and we serve many career missionaries living in Asia. I’ve decided that many missionaries hate their work.”

How accurate is this young woman’s observation today? Is ministry to be enjoyed or do we discover God’s will only after we’ve reached a place of misery? What factors contribute to being a healthy cross-cultural worker? I have now had many years to ponder her observation and to identify some of the factors that contribute to spiritual and emotional health.

The Quality of Our Inner Life is Deepened by Solitude

Do we enjoy our own company? Be honest. Confession is good for the soul. My experience with extroverts is that we’re often energized by the company of others. One hindrance to enjoying time alone with God is adjusting to His gift of silence.

I know Christian leaders who won’t spend sufficient time alone with God because they believe our needy world requires their full-speed frenetic pace. Are we static creatures–we’ve met with God a few times and haven’t bothered to reschedule a visit? When such is the case, we’ve probably replaced our own soul-care for the care of others.  We’ve learned to sublimate our own God-given needs in exchange for service to others. Some of us have skilled ourselves to practice cures for others while ignoring our own illnesses. Is the Holy Spirit requesting resumes because He’s seeking a replacement?

Our oldest daughter worked on a medical/surgical floor during her training to become a nurse. One day, there was a mix-up in admissions and a patient requiring psychiatric care was sent to her. While taking his vitals and medical history, she asked what had brought him to the hospital.

Bewildered at being in the hospital himself, he replied and kept repeating, “I’m the fourth person of the Trinity…what do you think about that?!”

If we find ourselves questioning the need to balance solitude with service, maybe the time has come to reconfigure our resume. Could we enjoy serving because we like being in control? Hopefully in solitude, we’ll learn that the hand of God in service to others is no substitute for the face of God in worship. God is not looking for a fourth member of the Trinity!

The pursuit of solitude offers opportunities for confession, intercession, education, physical exercise, and intentional reflection. The pursuit of solitude can also mean pausing for a sunset, lingering over a poem or a painting, attending a classical music concert, creating space for writing, or meditating on a passage of Scripture. Solitude may also imply walking through a garden at granddaughter-pace, listening to a jay’s scolding, or observing a butterfly’s amber autumn coloring. Solitude’s pursuit gives me permission to carry a camera. As the director of a member care team that serves Christian workers living overseas in cross-cultural ministry, I regularly journey through valleys of darkness with those experiencing pain because they have agreed to devote themselves in service to others. For my own self-care, I desperately need to give myself permission to follow the Apostle Paul’s instructions found in Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things…”

When we give ourselves permission to pursue the discipline of solitude, and it is a discipline, eventually, we’re better able to guide others from the hurt of their moment to the hope of their future because we’ll be admitting our status as fellow pilgrims ourselves. Most importantly, we’ll learn as did Hagar (Gen. 16:7), Moses (Ex. 3:1-15), Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1-4), Nathanael (Jn. 1:47-49), and so many others, that even in solitude He pursues us.

The Quality of Our Inner World is Enhanced by Meaningful Relationships

Do we pursue the meaningful company of others? Cross-cultural ministry can be a lonely experience. As a cultural outsider, deeper friendships will take years to develop. The abundance of missionary transitions often mean that our farewells exceed our welcomes. Serving overseas does remind us of the truth found in the text Albert E. Brumley’s gospel hymn:

“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore…”

But before those angels do their beckoning, deep friendships add value to our lives.

When someone seeks my counsel regarding the possibility of serving overseas, I often ask them, What temptations do you face when you’re lonely and what have you learned about God and yourself on this journey?

In addition to the above challenges to meaningful relationships, even when colleagues are present, close relationships are not guaranteed. Unfortunately, single missionaries often serve in a married-couple world. Married folks often focus conversations on problems related to their mates, ministries, or families. Colleagues may be willing to discuss a broken world but not their own brokenness. Conversations such as these may be safe but do they build toward significance?

Once deciding to transition past superficiality in key relationships, we’re immediately challenged to overcome hindrances created by geographical distance, hectic schedules, and conflicting priorities. In frustration we may ask ourselves, If we’re exhausted scheduling time for meaningful relationships, are the results worth the effort?

My response is that loneliness and isolation are really dark places where what we know about ourselves to be true fades and those lies we are predisposed to believe multiply. Loneliness and isolation are also places where apathy captures existing relationships. When this occurs, intimates drift becoming antagonists and friends become foes. When studying ourselves in the mirror for an honest relationship-defining conversation, are we willing to admit our belief that there are times when we don’t feel worthy of the investment necessary to build intimate friendships? I recently asked a beloved colleague who probably needs to make some new close friends, “Do you believe you are friend-able?”

He replied,  “I like to network others into their new friendships…but I don’t think I’ve answered your question.”

How do relationships transition from relevance to significance? For those who are married, we can read a good book together as a starting point to re-start deeper communication. For those who are single, we can start or join a reading group and learn to focus on those relationships that challenge for depth and growth. We can all learn to be intentional with regard to the building of deeper relationships. For thirteen years, my wife and I have led and hosted a small group that meets weekly in our home. Participants are comprised of members from our church and neighborhood. My wife and I read, prepare, and discuss together for the sake of our own marriage before we study for the sake of others.

Another way to deepen friendships is, when writing family or friends, to enclose stimulating quotations for reflection. Their response will deepen our knowledge of them and we’ll learn more of their story. When inviting guests to our home for a meal, we’ve placed discussion questions under dinner plates to engage in significant, focused conversation.

I have been teased by those who know me that I was once accused of having a superficial conversation but the case was thrown out of court due to a lack of evidence! I am infused with anticipation when I keep the door of my inner world open for new guests and returning friends. If someone sought entrance to our inner world, would we recognize the sound of their knock?

The Quality of Our Inner Vision is Expanded by New Ideas

Do we enjoy the company of new ideas and good books? I am currently reading a mixture of history, essays, biographies, and several books on counseling. My mind constantly simmers with ideas. Creativity is a characteristic of God’s Divine nature and it is His first attribute mentioned in the Bible. Creativity is born when new ideas serve as midwives to value-driven vision.

My wife’s college dorm mom kept her door open with a pot of spiced tea on the stove, simmering and scenting the air with welcome. Scent your inner life with solitude, your inner world with intimates, and your inner vision with fresh ideas. The health of cross-cultural service starts with our need to nurture healthy servants…this means us.


Header Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay