The Freedom to Go Slow

When we move overseas, we think we’re moving alone.

We may only be responsible for the people who share our surname and travel itinerary, but the reality is that we’re bringing a lot of baggage.

Of course you know I’m not talking about the suitcases (although there are a lot of those, too)….it’s the emotional baggage that weighs us down, my friends.

And do you know where I hear it stemming from most often? The relationship between religious expatriates and their senders.

Foreign servants and our supporting fellowships. We depend on each other and yet we inject insurmountable portions of stress into each other’s lives.

I’m here to talk about the dynamics of the first year of living abroad. But I want to write to two audiences: the goers AND the senders. And I want to be a middleman of sorts.

Because the people who go are only as strong as the people supporting them to go.

So, lest you think you’re running away to a foreign land alone, I’d like to propose a revolutionary concept: WE ALL NEED EACH OTHER. Goers and Senders.

Not in a we-need-money-and-they-need-workers kind of way. But rather, in a the-Kingdom-of-God-is-at-hand kind of way.

And I’m afraid there are a few things that need to be said on neutral turf. Here are two short letters addressed to the above.

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Senders: Give Your People Freedom to Go Slow

The work that supporters do for Kingdom growth is absolutely essential.

So many times, however, churches view financial sponsorship as an investment to be paid back in Bible studies and conversions.

Sin and free will are removed from the equation. The movement of the Father is never mentioned. And a relationship with those serving abroad is limited to quarterly reports of cold, hard statistics of budget expenditures and the number of new baptisms.

The reality is that no single person has the authority or the power to manufacture people’s responses to the news of salvation.

We don’t set people apart. We don’t change hearts. We don’t call others out from the world.

All of that is the Father’s job. And it’s His job to take away sin, too.

So before we call those bringing Good News and ask how many people have responded to that News, what if we asked a few different questions?

How is your consistency in your personal quiet time with the Maker?

How are you praying for the Father to move in the country where you’re working?

How are you being obedient to the things you’re studying and with the doors He is opening?

I guarantee these questions will help you get to know those you’ve sent more deeply, and you’ll be able to better assess their work and ministry effectiveness.

If you want a good return on your investment in foreign discipleship, allow your partners to go slow. Allow them to take time to do nothing but learn the local language and study the cultural dynamics.

Support them emotionally through social media connections, physically through care packages, and spiritually through short-term teams.

Ask them how they are, not just what they’re doing. Pray daily for their well-being and all around health. Communicate your own ministry visions and struggles for your local context.

Most of all, recognize the work that is ours to do and the work that belongs to the Creator. You can serve your M’s most by decreasing your expectations of them and increasing your expectations of God.

Goers: Embrace the Freedom to Go Slow

Go ahead and take it away. That’s right, your desire to make things happen.

It won’t take long into your first year abroad for you to realize that you are the least capable and least powerful you’ve ever been. You’ll be handicapped linguistically, culturally, and socially.

You’ll make mistakes. You’ll offend people on accident. You’ll embarrass yourself to no end.

I wish someone had told my husband and me that this was the absolute best thing we could do in our first season of life overseas. It would have really helped us laugh off the day my husband tried to sell his testicles to our neighbor lady or the day I had three run-ins with the police.

I dream that all people could feel the freedom to go slow in their first year abroad. Because when new learning is coming at you from every direction, you need to be able to take it in and spend time processing it.

I also dream that we would all BE WILLING TO BE IGNORANT. I can’t say this with enough passion. Those of us coming from educated backgrounds are so used to having answers to problems that we are uncomfortable existing in a state of endless questions.

It is difficult to live our first year overseas well unless we keep our solutions to ourselves and instead ask all the questions we can possibly formulate. We must be learners, and we must accept that we are infiltrating peoples’ spaces.

We are rarely asked to come into the communities we enter. Yet we march into people’s lives as if we have arrived to solve their problems and aren’t they so lucky we’re willing to sacrifice?

I reject this philosophy, because I realize how much my individual presence in my neighborhood has changed the dynamics of the lives surrounding me.

In his book Make Haste Slowly, Donald K. Smith says:

It’s difficult to begin involvement with a different people. Frequently, the receptor group is suspicious of the outsider’s intentions and unwilling to openly receive him into their inner society.

Genuine involvement can be established, however, when you’re dependent on the host group…Then the host people will be able to maintain their feelings of self-worth and dignity…When we can become dependent upon the people (even in small ways), it sharply improves communication.

I’ll be the first to admit that going slowly is wretchedly miserable for me. I like to see results, I like to see things moving, and I like to see productivity.

But after a year of practicing this discipline in my language and culture learning, I have witnessed the second year of my ministry abroad moving so much faster than I could have imagined.

Let this be my testimony to you: Going slow has allowed me to go fast. There’s freedom and grace for you to do the same!

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If you’ve been overseas for a while, what do you wish you’d know before entering your first year abroad?

If you’re planning your first season abroad, what about this article challenges your thoughts or feelings?

11 Comments

  1. Nory July 7, 2015

    Hi Lauren,

    I say this article is definitely an eye opener. I sincerely understand you as i am a sender myself… reading your article makes me feel like hearing it from my overseas worker friend overseas.

    1. Lauren Pinkston July 8, 2015

      Thanks, Nory. Glad I could affirm your friends’ sentiments. I got your kind email today, too. Thank you so much for connecting with me! That’s my favorite.

  2. Cecily July 8, 2015

    I say AMEN!  But I think the going slowly business continues, long after the first year.  The thing we must be quick to do is to obey the Father in whatever He directs us to do.  But, after eight years on the field, I am still in too big of a rush.

    If I am rushing through to fulfill my expectations, then I am killing relationships, promoting my self-interests, not taking time to commune with the Father…  I wish I was confident that my senders understood the speed of overseas work.

    1. Lauren Pinkston July 8, 2015

      This is an excellent point, Cecily. We are never commanded to skip over the obedience part of work. And don’t we do that so many times? We want results from others so badly that we neglect our personal commitment to Christ. We just can’t accept this.

      I join you in seeing the slowness as a long-term freedom. And I wish EVERY sender understood the pace of true discipleship. Long and steady. Long and steady. Praying this conversation could open the door between you and those who have sent you abroad. <3

  3. Lydia July 8, 2015

    I’m at the year and a half point, but still feel like I’m at the very beginning. By necessity I have been very involved in the work almost from the beginning, which has led to a number of things… 1) I’m working from my limited understanding of the language, which means a great deal of frustration for me because I feel ten steps behind everyone at all times, as well as a likelihood that I will mess up relationships because when I do think I know something, it’s likely that I don’t really know. 2) I’m in a position of leadership by default because I’m married to the leader (who has been here six years) but that can put me in a difficult position with the others in leadership under him because they really have more seniority, yet in many cases I am delivering a message from him. As the only one on the team with a car, he is often out doing what has to be done while I am left to manage or oversee the team.

    Honestly I need both those questions and emotional and spiritual support from my sending church, but, other than sending a care package, they aren’t reaching out to see how I’m doing and I’m too embarrassed to call and tell them that I’m a spiritual wreck.

    I wish I had the luxury of just working on language in my first year. I feel like it’s too late now to back out of ministry and do the preparation that I skipped.

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2015

      Lydia, your comment touched me because I think the enemy wants us to think it’s too late. I know that I regret the way I went about language learning (also having gotten into leadership before I got the language piece in place). I’m wondering if you and your husband could sit down with others in leadership and brainstorm a plan. Is it possible two months a  year to excuse you from your responsibilities and you focus on language? Is it possible to take six months and hit it hard? Obviously, you are the expert on your situations :).

      But that defeated feeling, that I know is from the enemy. So, let’s step around it and look at what could be done :)! What could be life giving for the longer haul. We bear the image of a creative God who can create out of nothing! What could you create out of your situation?

      I don’t mean to jump in with solutions and be all rah-rah! I get that there are realities and limitations. Sometimes, though, I think the limitations are a bit further out than we draw the line. If your situation were a sporting evening (like baseball or football or basketball, don’t know which will resonate with you), we have the whole field/court, but sometimes only play in one part of it, limiting ourselves. As I said, this may not be at all what you are doing :)! I just want to encourage you to talk with others and see what ideas you all come up with 🙂

    2. Lauren Pinkston July 8, 2015

      Lydia, what a brave and vulnerable conversation you’ve started here. I can’t imagine the pressure you’re carrying with leadership on your shoulders and no time to just simply be a learner. I like Amy’s ideas for finding creative ways to get your language study in. I also know that when you’re working, it’s really, REALLY hard to carve out time to quiet your mind enough for new vocabulary acquisition. Praying for you in this right now.

      What really stuck out to me in what you wrote, though, was the lack of support you’re feeling from your church. It resonated with me because that is EXACTLY where I was a few years ago. I’ll tell you a quick story:

      My husband and I were in a grueling weekend of psychiatric exams and intensive interviews as part of our field prep. We were to choose one elder and his wife from our sending congregation to be a part of the interview process for the weekend.

      One of the activities was to discuss a case study about a teammate caught viewing pornography. In the case study, there were elders coming to visit the team a couple of weeks after the incident. When discussing the situation, we decided to protect the teammate and not tell anyone about his sin in case he were pulled off the field and forced to return home.

      I’ll never forget what happened next. One of our trainers asked, “You had elders–shepherds–coming to visit you after this happened. Why did you decide not to tell them what was going on?” And then I looked into the eyes of the elder from my sending congregation and said, “Because I’ve never felt like I had an elder who really wanted to shepherd my heart. I’ve never had an elder that I felt was concerned about my spiritual health.”

      After I said this, the man nodded his head in a new understanding of my needs as part of his flock, as well as his own role in my church. And from that day, he has taken it on as his personal commitment to check in with us spiritually and support us in any way. We really bonded that day over a really difficult subject.

      I know that this may not be the norm. I have often felt ashamed of being in dry places of faith. I’ve run away from church leadership for this very thing. And it’s blown up every time. I hope this is encouraging for you to read. Sometimes when we’re vulnerable–just like you have been on this space–we open the door for people to support us and care for us. When we share our spiritual needs, people are much more willing to help than hurt in situations I’ve experienced.

      There will always be judgment from some, yes. But your God is bigger than those people. I hope you find the support you need and the courage to advocate for a deeper relationship with your senders. It shouldn’t be you being the one making that first step, but oftentimes it has to be in order to build the bridge. Spending some time in prayer for you tonight. Thanks for sharing here…I know others are blessed by it.

  4. Ellie July 8, 2015

    I love question two and three, I think question one is a good one but I have to say that it really depends on the tone and closeness of relationship how I might feel about it being asked. So often we wish our sending fellowships would not patronise us – question two and three recognise our local knowledge (after having been on the field a while) but question one only works for me if it’s in the attitude of personal support and I fear that not all (many) of the conversations we’ve had with people “back home” fall into that category. Rather more often I might feel “checked up on” like a naughty child. I’m sure some of that I need to work on my attitude, but you’re right Lauren, this relationship from our own experience and many conversations with other overseas workers is one of the make or break things for how hard or positive our experience is. If there is freedom to “be” it is such a powerful thing. Bless you.

    1. Lauren Pinkston July 8, 2015

      I understand what you’re saying here, Ellie. I think I would only appreciate the first question, too, from someone I knew valued and kept their quiet times sacred. And not at all if I felt like I was being checked up on.

      The beauty of accountability, though, is that it is consistent and from a heart of obedience. I really need people ‘checking up on me’ sometimes, if I’m truly honest. I’ll have to report that I’m not faithful at times. But I think mentorship and accountability play a huge role in my consistency with prayer and study. Right now, unfortunately, it’s a season of ‘lack thereof.’ I suppose it’s the inevitable ups and downs of a faith journey. And a two-year-old who wakes up at 5:30 AM. 😉

  5. Ellie July 8, 2015

    oh yes, small children affect our timetabling so much! And I think checking in and accountability and asking the hard questions are really important too, I guess I get that support more from peers in different places/countries than historically from leaders from our sending fellowship. Thank you for sharing the story about the “shepherding” – how wonderful that it’s grown into something so positive.

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