Women have always played an important role in missions. Over half of the missionaries currently on the field are females. These women actively participate in most aspects of Christian ministry (even after they become mothers). However, there are two contrasting views on the subject of missionary mothers. Some people believe that moms should concentrate solely on raising their children. Others suggest that missionary mothers benefit from being involved in church work.
Many missionary wives and mothers try to please everyone. These "super moms" are under great pressure to satisfy expectations from all sides. They try to balance their family and their call to ministry under difficult circumstances overseas. These women not only give of themselves but they sacrifice themselves for the cause. An important question becomes: What is the difference between giving and sacrificing in the role of missionary wife and mother?
I. Realistic Pressures and Expectations
The woman living on the mission field faces many duties and responsibilities as a co-worker with her husband. She sees herself called by God to be a missionary as well as a wife and mother. Frances Hiebert, former missionary wife in India, has done extensive research on the history of women in missions. She believes that some of the most significant Christian modeling was done by missionary wives. These women shared work and ideas with their husbands because the need was so great (Hiebert 1974:459). A woman's desire to combine the roles of missionary and mother only increases the amount of her responsibilities. The missionary wife, therefore, faces expectations that her sisters back home do not usually experience.
A. From the Other Missionaries. Realistic demands and expectations exist at all levels of missionary life. Occasionally moms get pressure from other missionaries (Wrobbel 1989:374). Her co-workers expect her to attend all the team meetings. They feel that she needs to be involved in all the activities. She must also do her fair share of teaching children and ladies' Bible classes. Resources and personnel are limited. Everyone needs to participate.
B. From the Local Christians. The local Christians have their own expectations of the missionary wife. They expect her to be happy, friendly, and excited. She must be hospitable and ready to entertain anyone unexpectedly. She is expected to encourage those struggling with their faith and to help resolve any conflicts between believers.
C. From the Husband. Missionary husbands usually support and encourage their wives but they also have expectations. A wife's duties include keeping the household running smoothly and taking care of the children. She must often put her husband's needs and vocation before personal preferences. At the same time, the missionary wife frequently contributes equally in all parts of the work and at every level of the decision-making process (Patterson 1989:66).
D. From the Children. A missionary mother's responsibilities include her children. They naturally expect certain things from her. For example, she attends their school or extracurricular activities and makes goodies for them regularly. Depending on the location, a mother might also be her children's school teacher, especially with the current movement toward home schooling. In other words, contemporary missionaries bring new family expectations that must be handled carefully (Wrobbel 1989:372).
Missionary moms face expectations from all sides. Some of these are realistic, all of them demand patience and sacrifice. Most missionary moms enjoy getting together with the other missionaries, visiting with the local Christians, helping their husbands, and being with their children. But there are often unrealistic expectations attached to these duties and responsibilities.
II. Problems With Unrealistic Expectations
Unfortunately, many missionary mothers are called upon to withstand a lot of stress. For example, she must grapple with the hardships of living in a foreign country; she must cope with culture shock. She has to figure out how to buy the right size bathtub stopper in another language, spend hours at the bank, or an entire day grocery shopping (Copeland and Griggs 1985:198). These physical and mental demands will eventually take their toll on the hardworking missionary mom. If she tries to tackle every problem single-handedly, she will eventually wear herself down and possibly get sick. Copeland and Griggs state that , "A wife's attitude is critical; by far the greatest number of early returns (home) result from family-related, not job-related problems (1985:198).
A. Her Family Suffers. When over-commitment and 'burnout' occurs, the family suffers. A husband needs his wife to be strong rather than beleaguered by the struggles of living overseas. Children also need their mother to spend time with them, read stories, play games, and talk to them about life. Missionary kids (Mks) can face almost anything if they have a home base where they know they are unconditionally loved (Echard and Arathoon 1989:83). The hectic missionary wife is often so busy that she is too tired to be with her family, let alone interact with them on a meaningful level.
B. Her Spiritual Life is Drained. The missionary woman seeks and desires a close relationship with God. Her Bible studies and prayer times are refreshing. A wife's spiritual life, however, is affected when outside duties and expectations take her away from her power source. She must often give so much of herself that little energy is left for receiving spiritual nourishment.
C. Her Personality is Affected. The story of Dorothy Carey is a vivid reminder of the extreme hardships endured by missionary women and the tragic results that can affect a woman's health and mental stability. Dorothy was married to one of the fathers of modern Protestant missions, William Carey. He worked tirelessly to introduce the gospel to the people of India. In order to accomplish that monumental task, the Carey family endured great hardships. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and near starvation while living a nomadic life for six years in the hot, humid interior of India. Eventually Dorothy's health failed. She succumbed to a mental illness that claimed her life (Ross 1992:360-364).
Not all women will have a nervous breakdown but many will experience changes in personality due to excessive stress on the mission field. Janssen, a noted author on family issues, writes, "It is on the wife and mother that the responsibility for a positive family adjustment most often falls; in most cases she is expected to nurture the rest of the family through the adjustment process" (1989:111). In other words, unrealistic expectations can affect family relationships, spiritual growth, and psychological well-being.
III. Recommendations for Coping with Expectations
There are several practical things that can be done to help alleviate the expectations that are forced on many missionary moms. Some will appear simplistic but they are gentle reminders for the busy, hardworking missionary wife. The following list provides specific recommendations.
1. Overcome the "super mom" myth. One of the most important steps in surviving the stress of missionary life is to overcome the "super mom" myth. Many women feel that to do God's will in a foreign field they must strive for perfection. "They develop a 'no win' scenario for their lives. The goals they have set are so unrealistic that they have set themselves up for failure" (Rowen 1986:97). Christians should always strive to do better, but unrealistic expectations can only cause guilt and pain.
2. Do not try to be the perfect wife. Missionary wives should strive to be partners with their spouses, but always remember that no one is perfect. One author suggests that women who are involved in their husband's ministry will adjust more rapidly to the field and become co-workers rather than just babysitters (Wrobbel 1989:374). Yet, no one can meet all the needs of another human being. God has chosen women to be a 'helpmeet' to their husbands (Genesis 2:18). God also encourages couples to help each other.
3. Not everyone can be an evangelist. Christian women often feel the pull to be great evangelists and Bible class teachers. Research suggests that women have successfully spread the gospel throughout history. Over half of the world's population is female and in some cultures only women are allowed to teach other women. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that all women should be door knocking and teaching every week. Mothers with small children do not have as much time to spend outside the home.
4. Keep hospitality simple. Missionary mothers are often called upon to be hospitable. Most women feel it is their Christian duty to cook lavish and expensive meals for their guests. There are times when moms are too busy in other areas of ministry. They should not feel guilty for serving simple fare to the unexpected guest. It is better to be open and generous with what is available than to try to make false impressions.
5. Avoid over-commitments whenever possible. Avoiding over-commitments whenever possible is crucial to maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Too many activities will affect a missionary wife's ability to cope with the stress and pressure of everyday life on the mission field. Women overseas have taken on roles that they would not have considered in their home country (Bowers 1985:354). Therefore, their lives tend to be extremely busy.
6. Take time for personal relaxation. The missionary mom must take time for personal relaxation. Doing a favorite hobby, reading a good book, or going out to the park will improve the overworked mom's outlook on life. Regular exercise is strongly recommended for a healthy lifestyle (Echard and Arathoon 1989:81).
In spite of the fact that missionary moms are often overworked, they continue to give of their time and energy to the Lord's work. They do not have much spare time, but they give from the heart in order to minister to those around them. Oftentimes they are like the widow who gave her last two copper coins. She did not give out of abundance; rather, she sacrificed all that she had (Luke 21:1-4).
Like the New Testament widow, missionary moms give more than their surplus; they give all they have for the honor of God. They sacrifice by leaving their family and friends back home. Their new living conditions are more demanding; the expectations they encounter are more numerous. These women sacrifice because they are committed to the Great Commission. Consequently, modern missionary wives and mothers should be highly commended for their strength, courage and determination to do God's will.
BOWERS, Joyce M.
1985 "Women's Roles in Missions: Where Are We Now?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly 21:352-360.
COPELAND, Lennie and GRIGGS, Lewis
1985 "Managing Your Personal and Family Life." Going International: How to Make Friends and Deal Effectively in the Global Marketplace. New York, New York: Random House.
ECHARD, Pam and ARATHOON, Alice
1989 Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.
1974 "Missionary Women as Models in the Cross-Cultural Context." Evangelical Missions Quarterly 10:455-460.
1989 Women Overseas: A Christian Perspective on Cross-Cultural Adaptation. New York, New York: Intercultural Press, Inc.
1989 "Women in Missions: Facing the 21st Century." Evangelical Missions Quarterly 28:360-364.
1986 "Doing Mission." Evangelical Mission Quarterly 22:94-100.
1989 "Changing Family Expectations: Implications for Missions." Evangelical Missions Quarterly 25:372-378.
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