Lonely Missionaries: Why and What Can We Do about It

Do Missionaries Get Lonely?

A few years ago, I was talking with John, an Australian friend. I can’t remember how it came up, but I shocked him. I told him that many missionaries are lonely.

I wasn’t surprised to experience loneliness in my early years as a missionary. After all, I’d said goodbye to my whole family and all my friends.

But the intensity of the loneliness surprised me.

5 Minute Read

By Wendy Marshall

The move to Japan in my 20s, with my husband and small son, was a move like none I had ever experienced. Making friends in this new country was not simply getting up the courage to connect to someone new. I couldn’t even say “konnichiwa” (hello) when I arrived, let alone follow a conversation. And the situation didn’t improve quickly because I found the Japanese language very hard to learn.

Why Do Missionaries Get Lonely?

Loneliness is something that missionaries of all ages struggle with. Missionaries may look like they know a lot of people, in both their sending country and their host country. Perhaps that is why John was surprised. However, missionaries often struggle to share their real heart with anyone.

With people who support us, we feel pressure to appear perfect. We seek to be good ambassadors for the work we do, so we are careful what we say and write.

The people close to us before we left for the field have moved on in their lives. We missionaries have also changed and so the closeness we once experienced may no longer be there when we get back. And, understandably, it may be difficult for family and friends to relate to our new lives.

With people in our host country—we do not share a common heart language, the culture is different, and we are viewed as foreigners. Even closeness with Christians in our adopted country is difficult as we come with the label of “missionaries.”

Making Friends as an Expat Is Challenging

The other potential source for friendships is among colleagues and other expats whom we encounter in our lives overseas. Here are some of the challenges we face:

-There isn’t a large choice of people nearby who are “like us.” For example, in Japan we know few people from our home country (Australia).

-Expats are a mobile group of people. Most years we have to say goodbye to people who are about to leave the country. Some we say goodbye to have become good friends, but we may never see them again. And there are always new expats who arrive and we have to start developing relationships all over again.

-Colleagues can be too busy in ministry to invest in expat friends, or they might have been burnt too many times by loss to be willing to form close friendships with new expats.

Loneliness Impacts Mental Health

A few years ago, I saw one of our older colleagues struggle deeply with loneliness. Then I began to realize that the multiple losses of friends were rocking my emotional stability more and more as the years went on.

So, the last time I was in Australia, I talked to a psychologist about it. As a result of that conversation I asked four Australian friends if they would be my “special” friends.

Asking was scary, but I got amazing results. Two of the ladies I asked have formed a trio with me and we’re in daily contact via texting (and once-a-month video call). Because we’re in such frequent contact, it’s very easy to say to them, “I’m having a rough day.”

How Can We Combat Loneliness?

When you’re a new missionary it’s important to spend time immersing yourself in your country of service, and early on, being in daily contact with people back home can distract you. So, I wouldn’t recommend that a new missionary maintain such an intense connection with people back home as I’ve got with my trio. (I’ve been in Japan for 20 years.)

However, I recommend that all missionaries be on the lookout for people with whom they can go deep and be honest with, people who are committed to stay in regular contact. These people should be easy to be with, as opposed to draining or exhausting. I suggest more than one person because life happens and friends with the best of intentions can’t be there for you all the time.

Last year I had to say goodbye to a missionary friend who had sought me out when she first arrived in our area. We had half a dozen years of semi-regular coffee dates before she had to return home to be near her parents as they faced ill health and she is an only child. Those coffee dates weren’t lighthearted affairs: we talked about hard things; we bared our hearts. It was hard to say goodbye to her (I didn’t even get to give her a hug because of COVID). But because I had other friends to help me stay steady, it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been.

Invest in Your Relationship with God

But most of all, I would urge you to invest in your relationship with God. It’s important to have balance in our lives. Because people are not perfect, nor are they all powerful or ever-present, relying only on people to supply our needs for companionship will always result in disappointment.

God gives us friends, but he’s also promised to be there for us himself. Jesus said: “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20 ESV).

Paul spells this out in Romans 3:38-39:For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (ESV).

Missionaries get lonely and it can become a significant threat to their mental health. But whether you are a missionary or not, we can all face loneliness. We each have to be creative about how to address loneliness because the challenges that face us aren’t easy to overcome. Intentionally invest in friends, but never forsake time with your Heavenly Father who loves you more than anyone else can.

Written by Wendy Marshall
Written by Wendy Marshall

Wendy Marshall is an OMF Australia missionary in Japan serving with her husband David and their three boys. She blogs about her life in Japan on her personal blog.

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