What Missionaries Ought to know about Relationships
Ronald L. Koteskey
and maintaining friendships on the field has been so difficult. You
begin to wonder if there is something wrong with you. Why are
relationships so difficult? What do relationships have to do with the
Great Commission anyway? How can we make friends? What if some
friendships just don’t work? Let’s consider some of these questions.
What do relationships have to do with the Great Commission?
They are central to it. In the Great Commission Jesus told us to go
and make disciples of all people groups. If people are going to become
disciples, they have to recognize that you are disciples—and want to
become like you. Jesus said that people will know that you are his
disciples if you love each other (John 13:35). In the previous verse, he
had called his command to “love one another,” a new command, but it
was really a renewed command. It was first given back in Leviticus,
then quoted by Jesus when he was asked about the Greatest Commandment.
He said to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Certainly the Great Commission involves preaching and teaching people
to love God. However, that may be easier than obeying that second great
command, the command to love each other. When nationals look at
friendships among missionaries, do they say, “Look how they love each
other!” If not, perhaps your friendships need some improvement so that
you can better carry out the Great Commission of making disciples. If
people do not recognize that you are disciples and want to become like
you, your ministry may be quite fruitless.
Why are missionary friendships so difficult?
Making and maintaining friendships is difficult for most people.
People are different in many ways, and may feel threatened or may let
stereotypes keep them from forming close friendships. Some people are
morning types, others evening types. Some work fast and have everything
done early, others complete things at the last minute. People have
different personality traits, such as some being extraverts and others
introverts. Some people are quite mature, others immature. In addition
to these general factors, other more specific ones make it even more
difficult for missionaries to develop and maintain close friendships.
- Time. In your “home” country everyone is busy, but on
the field there is even more to keep you busy. The hassles of
everyday life, such as getting and preparing food, paying bills and
getting things repaired all take longer. You have to maintain
relationships with supporters.
- Mobility. At “home” people move, but changing your
residence twice every five years is built into missionary life—on
the field four years, home one. At home, deputation keeps you on the
road. On the field, you frequently move even during your term.
- Expectations. Although people back “home” disappoint
you, other missionaries may do so even more often because you expect
more of them. They ought to know what you need and meet that need.
Where is their love?
We have a good example of this in the disciples who were an
evangelism team of twelve to reach Palestine. Jesus was the field
director. The disciples had been called, had gone through the selection
process, had left their jobs, had gone through orientation, and had gone
out in teams of two. They had gone through training and had served for
nearly three years. You would certainly expect that they would have
things down pretty well.
Let’s pick up the story in Mark 9. The disciples had been arguing
about who was the greatest. Jesus calls them around and points out that
whoever wants to be first has to be last and servant of all. In Mark 10
they meet the rich young man who would not give up his possessions. When
Peter points out that the disciples had given up home and family to
travel and spread the good news, Jesus agrees and reviews the teaching
about the first being last and the last first. Even after two clear
lessons, as they travel on toward Jerusalem, James and John (or their
mother) ask to be first in the kingdom. When the other ten hear about
this, they become indignant with James and John—those two should know
better! However, rather than scolding them, Jesus calls the disciples
around and again reviews the lesson: Whoever wants to be great must be
the servant of others.
How do we form such relationships?
To live so that people will know that we are his disciples by our
love for each other is not easy in today’s world, but it can be done.
Of course, you cannot be intimate friends with everyone, so after you
have chosen people with whom you would like to develop such a
relationship, try the following to form friendships.
- Time. Friendships take time. Your response may be that you
just do not have time, that you have to prioritize your schedule. If
you believe it is important for people to recognize that you are his
disciples, you may want to start scheduling your priorities. Time
allotted each week to developing missionary relationships will make
you more effective, less likely to quit missionary work, more likely
to be happy, and less likely to become ill.
- Affirmation. One can live for several weeks on one good
compliment. However, most of us go for months without giving or
receiving any. When was the last time you gave a firm compliment to
build someone up and strengthen relationships?
- Trust. Spending time together in an affirming atmosphere is
likely soon to lead to the development of trust. As time increases
so may the trust--but you must be very careful never to betray a
trust. Trust takes months or years to build, and only seconds to
- Communication. Some people have never really had someone
give full attention and really listen. Sometimes we hear what people
are saying with words, but not with their hearts.
- Vulnerability. When trustworthy people care and really
listen, we tend to open up and become more vulnerable, more honest
with each other rather than being “on guard.”
We all need a group of supporting friends. People from
individualistic Western cultures often think that all they need for
their ministry is “Jesus and me,” but they are suffering from
“angel syndrome,” believing that they do not have the same needs as
ordinary people just because they have been called into the Lord’s
What about cliques?
Isn’t there a danger of forming exclusive groups that ignore others
on the field? Of course, there is, but you can take precautions to see
that it does not happen. For example, agree that you will not spend time
together at church or at field events. Make it a point to have someone
else in your home for each time you have someone from your group over.
What if it doesn’t work?
That will almost certainly happen with some people. It is unlikely
that every attempt at friendship will result in the kind of relationship
described here. If not, try again elsewhere. Except for those in very
isolated areas, most missionaries today are near missionaries from other
organizations, and that is a good place to look, even a good place to
begin. If your friends are all from the same agency, you may be setting
yourselves up for burnout as you increasingly discuss mission business
rather than building relationships.
As is so often the case, we know what we should do, we just don’t
do it. In Luke 10 an expert in the law asks Jesus what he has to do for
eternal life. Jesus asks him what was in the law. The man replies by
giving the great commandment, including, “love your neighbor as
Jesus tells him he is right, “Do this and you will live.”
However, trying to justify his lack of relationships, the man asks who
his neighbor is. Jesus tells the story (a cross-cultural one, at that)
about the Samaritan who helped after the two religious men had ignored
the man in need. When Jesus asks who was the neighbor, the expert in the
law answers correctly. Jesus again tells him to go and do the same.
Like the expert in the law, our problem is often not in finding out
what to do, but in actually doing what we see to be right. In Mark 12
another teacher commenting on Jesus giving the great commandment
observes that to love God and “to love your neighbor as you love
yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”
(v. 33). Jesus notes that this is a wise answer. That is, loving your
neighbor may be more important than many of the “professional
missionary” things you do.
Spending much time in the “business” of missionary work may be a
symptom that one is avoiding the hard work of building and maintaining
relationships--that one is trying to fill the need for close human
relationships with “busy-ness.” The single most helpful earthly
resource for combating stress is social support—feeling comfortable
sharing with others and then actually sharing with others who are
positive and supportive.
missionaries developed intimate friendship relationships, they would be
happier, healthier, and would require less missionary care. By the
missionaries’ love for each other, nationals would recognize that they
were Jesus’ disciples and may want to become disciples as well.
Member Care Consultant