When Missionaries Regret Being Missionaries

I’ll never forget the response I got when I told my professor I was considering leaving academia to work for OMF. “Are you absolutely sure, John? There’s probably no coming back if you do this.”

It’s not like he was the first person to question why I was wasting an opportunity at an MIT lab to go do something so…trivial. But there was something about his interrogation that forced me to address the near-finality of my decision. Academia is notoriously harsh on prodigals trying to return from other fields. I wasn’t just about to burn a bridge; I was about to carpet-bomb my career.

Armed with the hubris (uh, I mean faith!) of youth, I pressed forward, reckoning that God could always resurrect a crucified career. Besides, who am I to define things like success and importance? If God was opening this door, then I just needed to step through it.By John Hawke

Stress and Missionary Retention

Roughly 6.5% of missionaries leave the field every year. While this seems like a low amount, it does equate to roughly half of all missionaries leaving within the first decade. Throw in the fact that over 70% leaving for “preventable” reasons, and you’re left with the statistic that 1/3 of all missionaries will leave within their first decade for reasons that could have been prevented. Which tells me that regret among missionaries seems pretty high.

I read about an interesting study on stress among missionaries that suggested that missionaries sustain an enormous level of ongoing stress, strongly indicating “a major life crisis that is highly predictive (80%) of serious physical injury in the next 2 years. Other parts of the study suggested that roughly 40% of missionaries suffer from depression—a number roughly 500% higher than that of the general U.S. population.

Put them together, and what do you get? A whole lot of burned out, disillusioned (ex-) missionaries.

1/3 of all missionaries will leave within their first decade for reasons that could have been prevented.

My Own Regrets as a Missionary

In my case, it wasn’t until my third year working with OMF when my internal narrative changed. “YAY, I’m on mission for God!!” slowly devolved more and more until it hit “Well, this was the biggest mistake of my life.”

At least for a time, I couldn’t go more than a few hours without returning to a soul-crushing feeling of inescapable regret. That I really had wasted all of my potential. That I never should have left family and friends. That at the end of the day, nothing I was doing mattered. At all. Even today, many of these ideas still come back to haunt me, albeit slightly less frequently.

Do I think I was being obedient to God in becoming a missionary? Yes. Are there days when I regret that decision, especially when things are difficult? Also, yes. Will a piece of me always regret that decision? Probably. Does that make me a bad Christian or a bad missionary? I’ve been told as much. By other missionaries, no less.

The (un?)spoken assumption in our missions culture is that “good” missionaries shouldn’t feel regret. After all, admitting to feelings of regret isn’t just a sign of personal weakness. It’s a sign of your lack of faith in God. And if that feels like a time bomb of emotional health, I’d like to refer you again to all the stats above.

Faith and Regret

I think this leads us to an inescapable question. Does having regret (especially about something as “spiritual” as being “called into missions”) imply that I somehow don’t have enough faith or trust in God? I think the “Wisdom Literature” of books like Psalms and Job speak powerfully to this. We even have an oft-forgotten book about laments, so no, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about feeling regret (or stress, or shame, or burnout, or whatever).

What we decide to do with those feelings can lead to all kinds of problems and sin. If that regret is causing us to turn from Christ, act in disobedience, or otherwise sin, then, yes, that’s certainly a problem. I would argue such problems arise when we handle regret improperly, not because we have it in the first place.

Granted, his statement comes from a different context, but I still like John Piper’s quote that “a life without regrets is built on a mirage.”

I also appreciate his conclusion in referencing Philippians 3:13-14:

…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

So what do we even begin to do with this information? I’ll write to a few different audiences.

If you support missionaries:

Communicate your desire to hear about the “hard stuff” they’re going through. And reassure them what they say won’t cause you to suddenly drop their support.

I’ve tried to get into the habit of asking missionaries the question, “what do you wish you could communicate to others? Like, if you didn’t have to put on a good face?” I can’t begin to tell you the amazing conversations that has opened. We absolutely need more people to be a safe place for missionaries.

If you’re considering going:

Whether you feel called to go for a few weeks or a lifetime, please don’t let feelings of doubt or regret “disqualify” you in your mind. After all, it only takes a mustard seed of faith to move mountains.

If you do find yourself in this boat, we’d love to talk! Drop us your info and we’ll connect you with a ministry coach.

If you’re a missionary feeling regret:

Find ways to talk about it. You may not feel able to talk about it with supporters, local friends, or even your mission agency, but you need to find someone. Don’t be afraid to have that initial conversation of “hey, I know this might be awkward, but…”

Learning to Live with Regrets

At least for myself, I’ve found it helpful to simply accept that I regret certain decisions, both good and bad, and then quickly move on in life in obedience to Christ. But treating it with the flagellation commonly attached in mission circles does a great deal of harm to missionary health.

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