The struggles of missionaries on the foreign field are less recognized and understood than those of church pastors, but they are just as real. Most of us put missionaries on a pedestal and view them as super-Christians. But they are not spared the difficulties that plague pastors in the States. Here is the story of one missionary couple I’ll call Ben and Marlene (not their real names).
Ben Sloan, his wife Marlene, and their three children were finally in Mali, West Africa. Approved as missionaries by their denomination’s mission board, their path here had not been an easy one. Months of training in the States had been interrupted when their daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder known as selective mutism. She had to have several months of counseling in another city. Then, just when they thought everything was taken care of, their supervisors in Mali were sent back to the US to recover from burnout. Ben and Marlene had to live in Senegal for two months, where they didn’t speak the language and felt all alone.
Now in Mali, Ben and Marlene immersed themselves in French and Bambara language training. Their kids went to a school for missionary children. For a while, the Sloans loved being in Mali. Not only could they share Christ with the Malians; they met friendly missionaries whose homes were always open to each other. “We would throw mattresses on the floor and have sleepovers for each other’s kids,” Ben says. “You didn’t even think about it.”
But as time went on, Ben realized that relationships with other missionaries went only so deep. There was a kind of competitiveness among the missionaries. Instead of someone asking, “How are you doing?” the questions were always, “How many villages have you visited? How many people have you shared Christ with?” Mission work seemed to be all about results. Ben and Marlene missed their church back home, where pastors and friends formed a support system. Here in Mali that support system was missing. There was support for the physical difficulties of living in Mali, where (for example) the power would often go off for an entire day. But Ben and Marlene felt alone spiritually. They had no one to help address the spiritual impact of living in a third-world country without church community. Sundays offered no respite; that was the day all the missionaries scattered to the villages for Bible storytelling. Ben says he and Marlene learned to suffer in silence. He coped with the lack of community by simply persevering. “That’s what I felt I had to do: give, give, give, and never receive. I wasn’t happy, but I had to keep going for Jesus.” In time Ben concluded that the more miserable and lonely he was, the more he must be doing the work of the Lord.
When war broke out in Mali in 2012, the Sloan family had to relocate to Berkina Faso. Ben became an emotional mess. He would cry easily, get angry and depressed, and fight with Marlene. They two argued a lot. Marlene didn’t understand what was happening to Ben; he didn’t understand it himself. All he knew is that he felt very alone.
A death in Marlene’s family sent the Sloans back to the US. They ended up staying for almost a year. They thought things would improve between them, but they didn’t. They could have reached out and asked for help; they could have gone to counseling. But they were too embarrassed.
Continuing turmoil in Mali led the mission board to send the Sloans to Botswana instead. “As soon as we stepped off the plane, we knew we didn’t belong there,” Ben says. “We hated it from day one.” Fights between Ben and Marlene escalated. Ben continued to feel depressed, lonely, and angry. They stuck it out for two years in Botswana. But at last they notified their mission board that things were bad. “We need help,” Ben said. They went to South Africa for an intensive month of counseling and then returned to the States for good.
While still fragile, things are now going well for the Sloan family. Ben and Marlene are in counseling. Ben is discovering how much identity issues were behind his anger and depression. Marlene has found a full-time job and Ben is considering a youth pastor position. Ben looks back on their years in Africa with gratitude: “I never would have learned these lessons any other way. It was painful but I’m glad I went through it. I’m learning a new way to live, a new way to view myself. I am someone God is redeeming, not just using. I’m a work in progress.”
He’s also learned the value of genuine community. “The church needs to be a place where you don’t have to put on a happy face and act like everything’s fine when it’s not. Things are going to happen in ministry. You need a place to go where you can suffer out loud.”