After Jesus knelt before his disciples, removed their dusty sandals, and washed the muck and filth from their feet, he said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13: 14-16 NIV)
Being a volunteer missionary means learning what it means to be a servant. And being a servant means having the attitude that you are willing to do any activity that helps to spreadthe gospel. It also means that you love people in the name of Jesus, despite their skin color, social background or nationality. It implies that you perform as a co-laborer in the mission with other missionaries and national Christians.
Being a servant means you may not be doing things that are glamorous or fun or comfortable. They might be boring or tedious or hard. They might go without recognition or thanks. But if they need to be done for the sake of the mission, you do them with your best effort and without complaint.
If you’ve been assigned a job or task that you genuinely do not know how to do, or know you will not do well, it is appropriate to explain that while you certainly want to serve, you know that this task deserves to be done with competence and skill, and you feel you have less than what it takes. Then ask if there is something else you can do instead, or if you can work on this task alongside someone who has more skill and experience, so you can learn from them.
Even if not at first, over time you will experience joy in imitating the example Jesus set for you.
A necessary skill for a volunteer is the ability to communicate.
We might think that communication in mission work means learning the local language. But communication is about so much more.
Communication is a beautiful dance in which both people listen so they can understand. They respectfully voice their own perspectives, ideas, concerns or questions. And then they patiently hear and understand what the other person has to say in response.
Interpersonal communication is a beautiful dance in which both partners are listening with the intent to hear and understand, respectfully articulating their own perspectives, ideas, concerns or questions, and being ready to hear and understand what the other person has to say in response.
Being willing to work at this is even more important when we are relating to people from another culture and who may use different communication styles. It is important to try to understand and adapt to the ways that people communicate in others cultures, so that we can love them in ways they feel most loved.
Suppose your leader – another missionary or a national leader – is leading in a way you think could be done better. Maybe you don’t agree with their vision, decisions, or leadership style, or things you are being asked to do.
Remember, the people you’re working with, and the work itself, have been there longer than you have. There may be good reasons things are being done that way, or that you are being asked to do something.
Also remember that things work different in different cultures. Start with an assumption they know and understand things you don’t. Spend time with an attitude of learning and trying to understand. Your coach is there to help you understand the differences in culture.
If you still don’t understand or have concerns, ask your coach how you can respectfully ask questions using models of communication appropriate for that culture. For instance, the way people interact with authority figures is sometimes done indirectly in honor-shame cultures and is done directly in Western cultures. Read Cross-Cultural Conflict by Duane Elmer for more guidance.
First of all, recognize that any and possibly all of your expectations will not match up to the reality. You will need to be able to assess what your expectations were – even those you were not aware of – and adjust them to the reality you are now experiencing.
Second, you may have to adjust to doing a different job than you expected to do. Our world is a rapidly changing place. Between the time you received your assignment and raised your funds and your arrival on the field, it is possible that circumstances on the field may have changed a lot.
There can be other surprises, too, such as when dramatic currency shifts change your financial situation overnight.
Remember that God knows everything that is happening. Consider that maybe from the very beginning He had a different plan for you. Take this opportunity to ask where God is leading you, and what He wants to do in and through you, and be ready to accept that.
Sometimes you may feel that you have been flexible to the point of breaking. You may have personality conflict with others that you cannot resolve.
The emotional and psychological flaws or weaknesses that you didn’t know you had until you moved to a different culture may start to interfere with your work, relationships or adaptation to the culture.
You might become lonely, or even anxious or depressed.
Struggling is not a sign of poor faith or a misunderstood call. It is an inevitable part of cross-cultural living that every volunteer will probably experience at one time or another. God can use these times of struggle to help us grow, to strengthen us spiritually and to help us depend even more on God and less on ourselves.
Asking for help is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign of health and personal resilience!
Asking for help might look like confiding in your mentor, or other trusted members of your mission team. You might speak with a wise and spiritually mature local Christian. You may reach out to your pastor back home, supportive Christian family members, a friend. You might even seek mental health support in the form of a counselor or doctor.
Ask God to show you who you can share with, so that you He leads you to someone who can support you with wisdom, knowledge and spiritual maturity.
Don’t wait until it’s a crisis. Being emotionally, psychologically and spiritually well and healthy is an investment in the mission itself and the people you are there to serve. If you’re not well yourself, then you will unnecessarily limit your ability to serve and love them.
When you’re struggling to make sense of what you should do as a volunteer, make your goal for each day to simply love God and love people.
Wake up every morning and pray that no matter what else you do that day – or don’t do – that God uses every moment to help you love Him more, and to love the people you meet with God’s love.
Ask Him to help you love your supervisor and leaders; your other mission workers; the local people you meet in the market, café and begging on the street. When your year of service is up, if everyone you worked with and got to know can say that you were a blessing to them, your year was a success.
There can be times when you may not feel you are achieving much in the way of goals or outcomes. But more important than any of the other volunteer work you do is that you don’t fail to love people.