Missionaries Ought to Know About ...
Missionaries Ought to Know about Coping with Change
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
as a pdf
Jonah faced change in his life when God told him to become the first
cross-cultural missionary by going east and confronting Nineveh (Jonah 1).
Jonah went west. When he finally obeyed, the people in Nineveh responded to his
message and repented. However, rather than rejoicing, Jonah became
disillusioned and angry because of God’s grace and compassion for a despised
people group. Though succeeding outwardly, he failed inwardly.
At the beginning of his second term of missionary service (Acts 15) Paul
suggested to Barnabas that they go back and visit people where they had been
before to see how everyone was doing. However, as recorded in the verses
immediately following that, Paul wound up going with Silas (rather than
Barnabas), going to Macedonia (rather than to Asia), and meeting new people
(rather than visit people they had seen before). Paul adapted to the changes
and became a successful missionary, both inwardly and outwardly.
Know that change happens.
Even if your life seems to be predictable and stable right now, sooner or
later you will probably have to cope with such changes as Paul did in Acts
15-16. Someone has said that the only thing that does not change is change
itself. This has been true of cross-cultural missionaries from the beginning.
Some people thrive on change and seek it out, but others dread change and
struggle through it when it comes. Most people want enough change to keep life
interesting, but not so much as to make them uneasy.
What can one do to get through those inevitable changes that happen in life?
Of course, change itself is not the problem—the problem is in how we deal with
it when it happens. Here are some ways to cope.
Anchor to a point of stability.
The Bible is clear that our point of stability is in God himself.
- I the Lord do not change… (Malachi 3:6).
- He will never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6).
- Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
- I am the alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the
End (Revelation 22:13).
To successfully adapt to change, we must keep our commitment to God
up-to-date. Without this secure anchor, we may become like Jonah rather than
When you face change and emotions of all kinds come flooding in, you may say,
“I don’t understand why this has affected me so much.” One moment you are
laughing, the next you are crying—because you are normal. Nearly every emotion
occurs during change. Here are some of the most common, illustrated in Paul’s
life as he experienced great change at the end of his third term.
- Uncertainty about the future may result in fear, worry, anxiety,
apprehension, dread, self-doubt, or panic. Paul said he was going to
Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen to him there (Acts 20:22).
- Being forced to change may result in stress, anger, frustration, or
hostility. Paul felt compelled by the Spirit (Acts 20:22).
- Looking at what you are losing may result in sadness, depression,
despondency, or despair. Paul wept as he was about to leave (Acts 20:36).
- Considering new opportunities may result in joy, elation, or happiness.
Paul said he looked forward to finishing the course and completing his task
Note that Paul acknowledged his emotions, and this allowed him to cope and
continue with his work. These emotions may overlap, or you may find yourself on
a pendulum swinging back and forth between them. Acknowledge and express them
as you hold on to your anchor. Trying to build a dam to hold them inside may
result in the dam bursting and the emotions spilling out.
Take time to grieve.
Your losses are real. It is all right (even necessary) to do all the things
Paul and the elders from Ephesus did as they departed from friends in Acts
Coming to terms with your losses as you adjust to change takes time. Trying
to rush through without getting closure on what you are leaving will make it
hard to enter your new roles. (See the brochure on grief)
Swim with the current.
When you feel like you are being swept along in a torrent of change, swim
with the current as long as it is not taking you away from the work God called
you to do. If you are called to put God’s word into the language of the people,
you may insist on using a quill pen and parchment to make copies of it (or even
a Gutenberg press or even moveable type). However, learning to use the computer
will make your work more effective.
- We have proverbs expressing this.
- When the wind blows, don’t build windbreaks, build windmills.
- If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
- When the river flows, don’t just build a dam, put in a hydroelectric
Swimming upstream may simply exhaust you while going with the flow may
accomplish your purpose. Stubborn rigidity may defeat you while flexibility may
get you through the torrent. The only time not to harness the energy of the
current is if it is carrying you away from what God has called you to do. In
this case, you may have to swim across the current and get out of the water.
Pride makes some people try to cope alone, a most difficult thing to do.
Sharing with other people is a great help. Bravery may mean having the courage
to ask for help when you need it. Here are some people who can swim with you—or
throw you a life jacket.
- People who have been through the change you are facing. They may have
helpful suggestions to cope or mentor you through those changes.
- Your family (missionary, church, and biological) cares, so someone in
that family will listen to you and help.
- Close friends whom you trust deeply will allow you to express your fears
and frustrations, and they may offer ways to cope.
- Member care people in your organization can help you function through
- Pastors or counselors with no connection to your organization can bring
an outside objectivity not found within your agency. When facing new
dangers in Jerusalem, Paul called on the elders of the Ephesian Church (Acts
Focus on the good.
Every change has both good and bad in it. You may be leaving friends, but
you will also make new friends. You may have to leave a task you know well, but
you will also learn to do something new. Focus on good new things.
You have the choice of looking back at what you are leaving or looking ahead
to where you are going. Paul wanted to finish the course, to complete the
task. Keeping you attention on what God has called you to keeps you moving in
the right direction. Concentrating on him and his goodness as your point of
stability, you can navigate change. Remember that every glass that is half
empty is also half full. Optimists may make as many mistakes as pessimists, but
they have a lot more fun getting where they are going.
Take one step at a time.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed by the size of the change, break it up
into smaller parts. It may seem hopeless to walk across the continent, but many
people have done it—one step at a time.
Your new assignment may be to begin a school in a village that has never had
one. You went to school but have never started one so the task seems hopeless.
Take it step by step.
- Find a place to meet.
- Select a curriculum.
- Hire some teachers.
Take care of yourself.
During change some people forget to care for themselves. They need to care
for themselves in every way, spiritually, socially, physically.
- Have a daily devotional time.
- Spend time daily with spouse and family.
- Schedule time with other missionaries.
- Eat good healthy meals.
- Exercise several times a week.
- Get rest—keep a Sabbath.
that it will end.
Every stream or river ends at a lake, sea, or ocean sooner or later.
Likewise, every torrent of change comes to an end, and you will experience
feelings of stability and normalcy again. Keep this in mind as you feel like
you are being helplessly swept along in the current.
When people move to a new position in a different city, they may ask how long
it will be before it really feels like home. Although some people make it
sooner, it takes a full year for many to adapt to the change. It may not feel
like home until you have gone through every season, every holiday, etc.