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«The Emotional Needs of Women on the Mission Field Ruth Ann Graybill, MSW, LCSW Biola Counseling Center 12625 La Mirada Blvd., Suite 202 La Mirada, CA ...»

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The Emotional Needs of Women on the Mission Field

Ruth Ann Graybill, MSW, LCSW

Biola Counseling Center

12625 La Mirada Blvd., Suite 202

La Mirada, CA 90638

(562) 903-4800


Used by permission.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the freedom to talk

about my emotional needs as a missionary. I can’t begin to tell you how utterly therapeutic this has

been for me. Somehow there always seems to be the unspoken idea that missionaries aren’t supposed to have emotional needs, BUT I DO!! Or somehow we’re supposed to live above our needs, as if we weren't quite human. But the truth is I have more needs than what I typically care to acknowledge, and often I just downright don't know what to do with them!" This particular response is similar to many which I have received as a result of surveying 70 women in the last two years on the subject of their emotional needs on the mission field. The responses to these surveys, along with gleanings from counseling missionaries for over 20 years and my own experience as a missionary for three years have provided the basis for this paper. I would like to address here the needs most frequently identified, ways to address them, the consequences of unmet needs, and several practical applications that can be made.

How are the emotional needs of missionary women different from other women? Frankly, there is really little difference, but trying to meet emotional needs on the mission field can be ever so much harder. Women are typically more isolated in mission settings, limiting opportunities for developing friendships. The challenges of missionary living are greater and more demanding as women contend daily with a multitude of cross-cultural stresses and demands. Simple conveniences of life are often missing. Many basic supports that most of us take for granted are frequently not available on the mission field, such as reliable postal systems, telephones that work, dependable transportation, or even hot water and electricity. Furthermore, there is no ready access to the many helpful resources in abundance here at home, such as family members living close-by, a wealth of possible friendships, a sound church with quality teaching and worship, Christian bookstores, Christian television and radio programs, professional counseling, or support groups. The absence of familiar resources and support systems tends to quickly heighten one's sense of neediness and vulnerability...and how readily sin natures can manifest in the midst of neediness and vulnerability!

Because missionary women are involved in fulfilling the Great Commission in some of the darkest places in the world, they tend to be on the front lines of spiritual battle and are often subject to heightened resistance from the devil. As a result, these women are especially vulnerable to satanic attacks, some subtle and some anything but subtle. One tactic of the enemy commonly used against missionaries is attacking them through their emotional needs. When these needs are not being recognized and addressed in healthy ways, the door is inadvertently opened for discouragement, depression, despair, and ultimately, devastation in any number of ways. Unfortunately, too many of our missionary women become casualties in battle, and the whole world suffers for it. Their loss becomes our loss.

At heart, most women seem to thrive on roots, security, and safety---elements hardly characteristic of the typical missionary woman's experience. If anything, missionary life seems to be marked more by the antithesis of roots, security, and safety. A woman's emotional makeup does not suddenly change just because God may call her to the far ends of the earth. To the extent that she can identify her needs and address them appropriately, her effectiveness on the mission field will significantly increase. And to the extent that we as the non-missionary population can better understand our 1 www.mrnet.org missionary women, our effectiveness in supporting, encouraging, and praying for them will undoubtedly increase.

One particular missionary woman articulates clearly her thoughts on dealing with the issue of emotional needs. She states: "I was stunned - no, shocked - to realize I'd have to grapple so much with emotional needs on the mission field. I think I just naively assumed that because I'm a committed Christian called into full-time ministry overseas, I would never have to worry about this area of my life. I guess I just expected these needs to get taken care of automatically or that God would miraculously remove them from me. I had never realized how much energy would later go into trying to meet my needs or how much pain I'd experience trying to live with needs that I had no clue how to meet. If only I had been encouraged to think about this area of my life in advance."


Following are the most commonly identified emotional needs for both single and married missionary women.

• Intimacy and Close Friendship Hands down, the number one need most often expressed is the need for an intimate, close friend.

This type of longed-for friend is described in a number of ways: “a friend with whom I can share my very soul and know that everything will be kept confidential; someone with whom I can be completely transparent, sharing even my secrets, and still be fully accepted and loved; someone who will allow me to process issues with her and just be willing to listen to me without trying to ‘fix’ things; someone who will provide support, encouragement, and honest feedback; a kindred spirit; someone who will remain a trusted friend through the years”. One particular woman sums up her need this way: "How I long for a consistent and long-term soul mate, someone I can be myself with and know I’m accepted even at my worst emotionally and at my least spiritual times."

This longing for intimacy and close friendship on the mission field characterizes both the single and the married woman, the older and younger, the veteran missionary as well as the newer one. Even if happily married, missionary wives still need close female friendships, realizing that there is something special in the friendships of other women. States one missionary wife with a twinkle in her eye, "Face it, men just don't often listen and respond to us the way we need. Much as I deeply love my husband, often we're just on different wave lengths and I desperately need close female friends with whom to connect. Besides, he's often so busy and simply doesn't have time to just sit down and talk. And when we do talk, he wants me to get right down to the bottom line, but I need to think and process out loud. That often drives him right up a wall! My women friends give me the space to do this."

Indeed, married women blessed with close female friendships comment that their marriages are inevitably stronger because of these friendships. These fortunate women state that having good female friendships in place considerably lessens the pressure they might otherwise place on spouses to meet their emotional needs. Sadly, though, many missionary wives do not have any such close relationships, and their marriages suffer for it. Many wives struggle with the unending demands placed on their husbands’ time and energy, restricting their time together as a couple, and with no close female friends to help fill in the emotional gap. Frequently missionary women express intense loneliness in their marriages as they try to grapple with husbands' preoccupation with work and hectic travel schedules.

Not surprisingly, this longing for intimacy and close friendship is especially the cry of many single women. In contrast to married women, a single woman does not arrive on the missionary field with a “built-in” companion or an already established support system. Rather, she goes as a unit of one.

She has no guaranteed intimate partner, no primary committed person with whom to share her joys and sorrows, with whom to build a future. She enters the mission field alone, likely with no one there knowing or sharing her history. Over time, this sense of "going it alone" can lead to a real feeling of isolation and loneliness if good, solid relationships are not eventually established. As one single woman says who has long struggled with this area, "I came into this experience alone and I'm in it alone." In fact, loneliness is by far the biggest struggle single missionaries seem to face.

2 www.mrnet.org If the need for intimacy and close friendship is so important, what prevents it from getting met? For many missionary women, the blockage is partially the result of isolation and geographical distance from other missionaries or from other Christians with a common language and/or culture. Though some missionaries live close together in their communities, many live in isolated settings, in remote places far removed from their co-workers. In some cases, a missionary woman may be the only person in a city or village who speaks her mother tongue! Comments one woman living far from others, “The isolation is at times unbearable. In my first term, I was so isolated and life was pure survival. I would have given anything for some kind of emotional support. Communication was almost non-existent when we were isolated.” And even when women are able to get together, the opportunities may seem too infrequent to make it worthwhile attempting to build any meaningful relationships.

Mobility in the missionary community is another factor working against close, intimate relationships.

The missionary lifestyle tends to be a constantly mobile one, full of many moves, transitions, hellos, and good-byes. This degree of mobility makes it difficult to develop ongoing, consistent, and deepening relationships. One woman tearfully comments, "I find it hard to establish relationships that are long-term and stable because of people coming and going all the time. Somehow I seem to live with a sense of uprootedness." Notes another woman, “The friend you make today will be gone a year from now, or else you will have moved on." Yet another reflects, "This kind of living makes it easy to shut down rather than risk the hurt of continual change.” In a similar vein, one woman questions, “Why bother trying to develop a close friendship when the other person will invariably be moved to another site before long, or going home on furlough, or else I will be? What’s the point to it? It’s just too painful! I don’t have the energy to keep starting over and over again.” Lack of a safe environment for sharing and lack of confidentiality are two other reasons why women may not experience intimacy on the mission field. Some missionaries have had experiences of sharing confidential information with a co-worker, only to have that information later "leak out" and be used against them. As a result of feeling hurt, betrayed, and violated, they no longer feel safe to share. In the absence of safety and confidentiality they can count on, these women may choose not to make themselves vulnerable again. Anonymity tends to be limited for those missionaries who live and work closely together, making it more difficult to disclose their thoughts and feelings. Some missionaries find the pain of loneliness at times easier to live with than the pain of further misunderstanding among their co-workers with whom they work closely.

Limited ability to relate deeply with each other is another reason women may have difficulty in finding close friends. The mission field tends to attract highly committed people, some who may be inclined to invest considerably more energy into their work than into relationships. The very nature of mission work historically has called for hardy, pioneer-spirited individuals who could "go it on their own" in the toughest of circumstances. This type of person, however well-suited to isolated settings, harsh elements, or sparse accommodations, may have a much harder time dealing closely with people and all the intricacies of relational dynamics. For these missionaries, the thought of opening themselves up to others can be quite intimidating. One spunky, veteran missionary freely admits she feels immeasurably more confident contending with poisonous snakes that on occasion show up on her mission compound than with relational conflict among her co-workers!

The busyness of life can likewise hinder close friendships from developing. So many missionary women comment that there is simply too much to do by too few people. Frequently, they speak of the unending, pervasive needs that continually confront their community. They often struggle with feeling overly committed, but are uncertain how to reduce the demands placed on their time. They are surrounded by the needs of nationals, regularly having a steady stream of needy people coming to their front door. Many women feel stretched beyond measure, resulting in their own needs simply getting lost in the process. They often wish their mission could somehow allocate more time for relationship-building between missionaries. One woman describes the challenge this way, “Everyone here at our missionary center is so overworked and tired and often struggling themselves. No one has anything left to give anybody.” One missionary woman I counseled several years ago asked, with tears streaming down her cheeks, "Why, oh why, can't our mission recognize that unless we cease from our super-busyness long enough to look at the needs among our own people, we won't be very effective in ministering to others? Many of us are so lonely, but no one seems to notice. Can’t they 3 www.mrnet.org see we’re heading for burnout? Why can’t our own needs be valid? Mine are screaming to be heard, and I can’t seem to stuff them down any longer, no matter how hard I try.” Another barrier to meeting friendship and intimacy needs comes in the form of “emotional baggage” carried onto the mission field. This baggage is essentially unresolved emotional issues, such as unhealed emotional injuries from the past, family "ghosts" or "secrets", or those destructive habits that hold one hostage. (Examples are childhood physical or sexual abuse, parental divorce, addictions, sexual sins, perfectionism, or chronic low self-esteem, to name just a few.) This type of “baggage” taken to the mission field invariably has a negative impact on ministry relationships and effectiveness.

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