Last year I was in Melbourne helping to prepare candidates for cross-cultural ministry. The leader of the session asked everyone to get into groups and write down a list of personal characteristics that they would expect from someone serving cross-culturally. And moments later there was butcher’s paper all around the room covered with words like; adaptable, committed, biblically-based, strategic, flexible, compassionate, practical, visionary, outgoing, reflective, sociable, humble, organised, spontaneous, humorous, competent, easy-going, empathetic, vulnerable, auditory… And it was enough to make any of us want to run away. How could we possibly be all of those things?
But later as I reflected on our years in Nepal, I think that we put ourselves under even worse expectations. We seemed to hold up an image of an ideal missionary and berate ourselves for never getting there. And maybe the ideal missionary was all of those things on the butcher’s paper. I remember that in the nineties, I was always watching an older, outgoing woman who had beautiful language and spent her time creating memorable dramatic pieces with large groups of women at her Nepali church. So every time she told me stories about the profound biblical truths that emerged from these dramatic pieces, I’d just be thinking, ‘Oh… that’s what I have to be like. To be in worthwhile cross-cultural ministry here in Nepal, I have to be like her.’
And I wasn’t! Not only did I not know how to be like her but I also clearly didn’t have the gifts or the personality to be like her. But in my insecurities, it was the only obvious solution. And I’m sure that it wasn’t just me. Recently, a returned missionary told me that during her entire time on the field, she felt under the distinct impression that she had to be ‘perfect’. And as soon as I type that word and see it in print, it sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it? As if any of us could be perfect… when we’re so acutely aware of ‘the sin that lives in me.’ (Rom 7:17). But I think there’s something about cross-cultural ministry that adds to that sense of expectations. It might be the remittances that come in every month, reminding us of the generous support that allows us to be there. It might be the deliberateness of living in another culture, reminding us of how much is invested in us being there. It might be the newsletters that we write each month, reminding us that people want to know what God is doing. Either way, there’s certainly a sense amongst missionaries that we’re living up to something… and usually failing.
So then, by the time our second term in Nepal rolled around, I was so convinced that the comparisons and expectations weren’t healthy that I decided to do something about it. I spent a year interviewing 49 other workers and writing down their stories. And the first thing it showed me was how diverse we all were – our stories and struggles and joys and frustrations were all different. The second thing it showed me was that our experience of cross-cultural living was strongly linked to personality type. And the last thing it showed me was how much we needed each other, in order to serve as the body of Christ. God has indeed ‘arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.’ (1 Cor 12:18).
So is there an ideal missionary personality? Well, the short answer is no, but there’s a challenge in it for all of us. Instead of looking over our shoulders and comparing ourselves with someone who lives down the street and has all the gifts and strengths that we don’t have, we need to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We need to be deeply appreciative and thankful for the unique ways God has made each of us. And the more we grow in thankfulness and Christ-likeness, the more he will work amongst us and bring about his purposes to the ends of the earth.
Naomi Reed is a former Interserve Partner. She is also a bestselling author and gifted speaker. Her latest book, The Plum Tree in the Desert shares stories of faith and mission from Interserve Partners over the last 25 years. Naomi is also speaking on the Australia-wide Unfolding Grace tour. For more information, see Unfolding Grace.