What Missionaries Ought to Know about Saying Goodbye
Ronald L. Koteskey
this as a pdf file
One missionary said, "I am tired of making friendships and then
moving all over; to me it is not worth the effort. On furlough I know I
am leaving, so why try?"
Another said, "I don't know how to deal with the changes that
surround the arrival and departure of staff members on the field.
Especially with short-termers coming and going, it seems like we are
always expanding and contracting to include so many different people on
our team…. How do we love deeply yet hold lightly?"
Still another said, "I find it hard to have to say goodbye all
the time. People I become friends with leave our part of the field, and
I have to stay behind. How do I cope with that other than to quit
When you became a missionary, you probably thought about saying
goodbye to your family and friends in your passport country and then
leaving. However, you may have never considered how difficult other
goodbyes would be. Is this a new problem? Is it getting worse? How can
you cope with it? Let us consider these issues.
Is this a new problem?
No, this problem has been around as long as missionaries have. A look
at Paul and his relationships with the people of Ephesus shows us some
of the problems with saying goodbye.
Paul was apparently in Ephesus only a short time near the end of this
second term. After speaking in the synagogue, Paul left a couple in
Ephesus to continue the work. People asked him to spend more time there,
but he declined, saying he could come back if it was God's will (Acts
18:19-21). He and his co-workers there had to say goodbye.
Near the beginning of his third term, Paul again went to Ephesus.
After more than two years of evangelism, discipleship, spiritual
warfare, and encouragement Paul again said goodbye and left. He traveled
to Macedonia with a multinational team of seven others (Acts 19:1-20:1).
Again he and the disciples he left there had to say goodbye.
Near the end of his third term, Paul decided not to stop at Ephesus,
even though he was passing close by, because he was in a hurry. However,
he did stop a few miles south of Ephesus and sent for the elders of the
Ephesian church so that he could meet with them briefly. Then they again
had to say goodbye. In this instance we are told more about the nature
of the goodbye: They wept, embraced, kissed, grieved, and finally tore
themselves away (Acts 20:16-21:1). Saying multiple goodbyes to coworkers
is nothing new for missionaries.
Is it getting worse?
It is probably no more difficult for each individual, but it may well
be that people have to say goodbye more often than they did in Paul's
day. Changes in the last half of the twentieth century have made
short-term missions to any part of the world a reality. Before the
advent of reasonably priced air travel, just reaching many mission
fields often took several weeks crossing the ocean by ship. Today people
can be on any mission field in the world in a matter of hours, a couple
of days at the most.
One type of short-term mission very popular now is one where a group
spends a week or two on a mission field to teach a Bible school, help
construct a building, or do routine maintenance work. Though this has
helped expose millions of people to missions first-hand, it means many
hellos followed by many goodbyes a week or two later. Thus the long-term
missionaries never have a chance to develop relationships with them.
Relationships take time.
Another type of short-term mission increasing in recent years is one
where a person comes to a field for several months or a year or two to
help out generally or to complete a particular project. These people
have no intention of staying long-term and are most common among people
born since the mid 1960s. In this case there is time to develop a
relationship, but the missionaries on the field may be reluctant to do
so knowing that the short-term person will soon be gone. Saying goodbye
to someone you know only superficially is easier.
Does this affect everyone?
Yes, it affects everyone, but it affects people differently. Some
people seem to have little need for deep relationships and are content
to keep relationships at more of a surface level, so saying goodbye has
relatively little effect on them. Other people have a greater desire to
share intimately with a larger group of friends, and saying goodbye
affects them, very deeply.
Women tend to be more relationship oriented than are men. Therefore,
they may be more affected by leaving their friends or having their
friends move away. Unfortunately, their husbands are sometimes not
sensitive to this difference between themselves and their wives.
Of course, such mobility is common in developed countries. In the
United States about one person in six moves every year, so even the
person who does not move says goodbye often. When our oldest son was in
first grade, there were five boys in first grade on our street. By the
time he was in sixth grade, he was the only one left. Of course, a move
within a country may be within the same area, rather than half way
around the world, but it still affects relationships.
Do we just quit building deep relationships?
Some people try to cope by simply becoming detached or
"hardened." By not getting deeply involved with their fellow
missionaries they decrease the pain of having to say goodbye. This
coping mechanism may reduce the pain of goodbyes, but the person
becoming detached, the person who is "rejected," and the
gospel message are all harmed by this.
Jesus commanded us to love each other as he loved us. Loving and
being loved are important to both our mental and physical health. When
deep relationships are avoided, both parties lose a part of their
potential support system. In addition, Jesus pointed out that this was
how others would know that we are his disciples. Thus, by not developing
these relationships, we make it less likely that people will see Jesus
in us (John 13:34-35).
How do we love deeply yet hold lightly?
Since saying goodbye is a normal part of life, especially missionary
life, we can take steps to minimize the pain.
Change your perspective. Rather than concentrating on the negative
aspects of anticipating parting, it is better to concentrate on the
positive aspects of the current relationship. As Tennyson said, it is
better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Look for people who "click." When you find people with the
same values, same aspirations, same commitment, etc. become close
friends even if it seems there is no "future" in the
friendship. One couple we met more than a decade ago when visiting a
field are still good friends. We have become one of their supporters,
visited them on the field again, made contact at conferences, had them
in our home while on home assignment. We have spent hours talking and
Become intimate sooner. Third culture kids of all types (missionary,
military, etc.) become experts at this. When they meet each other and
realize their common background, they begin to share at a deeper level
much sooner than those raised in a single culture. With practice, anyone
can develop this capacity.
Communicate while apart. This has always been possible but is much
easier with the invention of e-mail in recent years. However, e-mail is
a mixed blessing.
On the positive side, friendships can be continued at virtually no
financial cost even when people are far apart. (In fact, relationships
can be initiated without ever meeting personally, and that may become a
On the negative side, some people become so busy keeping old
friendships alive that they fail to make new ones. Some missionaries
communicate via e-mail daily with old friends but spend little time with
the people living near them currently. Thus, they fail to continue to
make new friends.
Grieve your losses. It is all right (even necessary) to do all the
things Paul and the elders from Ephesus did.
Pick up where you leave off. After you become good friends, you can
pick up your friendship where it was when you parted. You still have the
same values, aspirations, concerns, etc., so all you need to do is get
an update on what you have been doing, and your relationship continues
Remember that relationships give hope. At creation God built parting
into the family. When a young man and young woman grow up, they leave
their father and mother and cleave to each other (Genesis 2). Most
people do not refuse to have children because their children mature and
leave; they look forward to reuniting with their children both here on
earth and in heaven. We also look forward to reuniting with other loved
ones in heaven.
Member Care Consultant