5 Challenges Missionaries Face—and How Your Church Can Help

As a Christian counselor and seminary professor I’ve had the privilege of working with numerous missionaries over the years. All have unique experiences, but in my work I’ve identified common challenges they face. My hope is that churches will address these challenges and come alongside the missionaries they support. 

Here are five common challenges missionaries face.

1. Interpersonal Conflict

Missionaries often struggle with conflict with team members. Unfortunately, these conflicts easily grow and either slow down the mission work or shut down a whole team. 

It’s vital that missionary teams are trained to deal with conflict. I’ve seen some mission agencies do this well, but many haven’t set up a safe structure to effectively mediate conflict or help preempt these situations with conflict resolution training and personal counseling. Missionaries need counseling and training before they deploy. It will increase self-awareness and emotional intelligence, equipping them to handle future conflicts.

2. Emotionally Abusive Leaders

Emotionally and spiritually abusive team leaders can cause great harm to mission teams. Their tactics can be hard to identify, often exacerbating confusion and doubt among team members. The team, far from their home and support systems, can feel trapped with no way to deal with the heavy-handed leader. This dynamic shouldn’t surprise us if we believe the Bible’s teaching about human sin.

Some may think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve seen this problem frequently in both churches and mission organizations. Ministry leaders get sidetracked and focus on goals instead of the people they’re leading. In their sin they believe their way is the right way, God’s way. They rationalize controlling and manipulative behavior as necessary for accomplishing the Lord’s work. Churches and mission organizations need a greater understanding of this destructive pattern that can split a church or mission team. The church is called to confront sinful behavior in love and protect those sinned against.

3. Past Trauma

Because we live in a fallen world, we’ve all been affected by trauma to some degree or another. Past trauma that hasn’t been worked through in counseling can easily be triggered on the mission field. Mission organizations should help their missionaries address past trauma in counseling before they leave for their assignment. One type of trauma that’s all too common is sexual abuse. Conservative statistics show that one-third of women and one-fourth of men have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18, and I believe these numbers will only increase in our pornified culture.

If these stats are true, then many of our missionaries have histories of sexual abuse. They need to address this devastating trauma and at least be in the process of working through it before they enter the mission field.  

4. Pressure to Perform

Missionaries can fear telling their sending organization the truth about their mental and emotional condition. Likewise, some churches can foster a performance-driven culture of fear where missionaries have no freedom to be called to missions and yet be broken and human. Because missionaries are often seen as “super Christians,” they may feel unable to be honest about their weaknesses. They don’t want to let people down or lose financial support.

I’m not saying missionaries shouldn’t be spiritually mature. I’m saying they aren’t perfect, and they need time and space to grow in sanctification, like the rest of us do. They may need to seek out professional counseling at some point. Fortunately, I’m slowly seeing mission organizations acknowledge the need for their workers to address personal issues and utilize ongoing counseling. How can churches create a safe environment that allows missionaries to work through their issues without fear of negative repercussions? It’s vital to explore and answer this question.

5. Lack of Access to Christian Counseling

Many missionaries have no access (or limited access at best) to qualified, consistent Christian counseling. Certain mission organizations provide some access to professional counseling, but this is usually limited and entails either (1) counselors flying to a specific location for short-term intensive counseling or (2) the missionary coming off the field to meet in the United States. Opportunities for a consistent, weekly connection with a counselor on the field is rare.

This need has led to the creation of online, third-party counseling organizations like Global Counseling Network and Godspeed Resources. They offer missionaries access to weekly, face-to-face counseling with qualified Christian counselors. This setup allows missionaries to work through their issues on a consistent basis while remaining on the field.

Many mission organizations and churches have limited funds for counseling for their missionaries, but counseling should be a vital part of any mission organization. Each missionary should have funding set aside for counseling that can be used to address issues in a godly, confidential setting. My hope is to see all missionaries know that their churches and missions agencies support them holistically: financially, spiritually, and emotionally.