As a child, I read biographies of female missionaries like Mary Slessor, Amy Carmichael, Isobel Kuhn, Gladys Aylward, Helen Roseveare and Elizabeth Elliot. I was inspired by these women, giants of faith, and their lives spoke to me of struggle and sacrifice leading to great blessing.
God continues to use women in his worldwide purposes in a variety of strategic ministries. In UFM Worldwide we are blessed in having women of faith and courage serving the Lord, from Brazil to Burkina Faso, Ireland to Italy, Sierra Leone to Slovakia, Papua New Guinea to Peru, as well as in many others countries.
Women missionaries are engaged in practical and community based ministry: children’s and student work, evangelism and church planting, women’s ministry and training. Our aim is to take the gospel to everyone everywhere.
What springs to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘a female missionary’? Maybe you think of women, now retired, who have spent a lifetime of service in another country? Maybe you think of single women who have given up a career and possible marriage hopes in response to God’s call?
Or maybe you think of married women bringing up their family in another culture — juggling schooling, language learning and ministry, and coping with homesickness?
Maybe too, you recall women who have spoken of people coming to Christ, causing you to admire them, as they challenged you to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’?
And what about the married and single women your church has sent out and/or prays for? How do you relate to modern missionary women?
They are not superhuman! They are ordinary women God uses to accomplish his extraordinary purposes. There are times when they will be vulnerable, lonely, discouraged and spiritually dry.
They need intimacy and friendship, encouragement, help to persevere, healthy relationships with family and friends, and good spiritual nourishment. If married, they need to maintain emotional equilibrium while fulfilling their roles as wives, mothers, homemakers and friends. And those unmarried need to work through the joys and challenges that singleness brings, and even consider the possibility they may remain single.
Ruth Ann Graybill, a Christian counsellor, said, ‘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.
‘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’ (The emotional needs of women on the mission field, online).
Just as we need encouragement to respond well to challenges we face in our lives, so do missionary women wherever they are working. Like us, they need to be close to their Saviour and Lord, resourceful, practical, passionate and firmly grounded in God’s Word.
I am thankful to the Lord for the missionary women I know. Their example and commitment to press on is inspiring, for living cross-culturally and being involved in spiritual work can be physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding.
Often missionary women are isolated, with limited opportunities for developing friendships. The simple conveniences of life can be missing, and distance from family and friends can heighten a sense of vulnerability.
At times, the lack of good Bible teaching, or freedom to sing heartily and meet regularly with like-minded believers in your own language, can bring spiritual dryness; and this can be difficult to reconcile with the need to keep giving out and ministering to others.
Relationships can become strained, and this can be particularly hard to cope with. Some places where women are serving are among the spiritually darkest places in the world, and they face spiritual attack.
However, we can be confident that God upholds those who are serving him, in all circumstances. This is the testimony of many women missionaries. We can rejoice that the promises of God’s Word are lived out in their lives; promises like, ‘God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed’ (2 Corinthians 9:7), and ‘the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it’ (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
We must stand alongside our missionary women. The apostle Paul needed others to stand with him in gospel work and he thanked the church in Philippi for their partnership in the gospel.
Here are some ways we can support women in mission.
Pray for their work and personal needs. Use their prayer letters to inform praying. Pray on your own and with others, in small groups and large gatherings. Pray for them in prayer meetings and church services. Foster links between ladies’ groups and missionary women. (The UFM website contains more information www.ufm.org.uk/who/the-ufm-family and www.ufm.org.uk/pray/prayer-ideas).
Show them they are not forgotten. Receiving cards and parcels is a great encouragement. Remember birthdays and special occasions. Send invitations, even if you know they won’t be able to attend.
Communicate directly and sensitively; tell them you are praying. Find out if your prayers are being answered. Use Skype, telephone, emails, Facebook and WhatsApp messages.
Keep writing, even when you don’t get a reply. But try not to overwhelm them with correspondence and remember to be sensitive in what you write — some are working in countries where their safety, and that of national Christians, and the viability of their work, may be compromised by unhelpful communications. Ask for guidelines how best to communicate.
Send them church news; it’s better to hear the same news from five people than from none. Share personal news and tell them what the Lord is teaching you. Communicate with wives as well as husbands (don’t assume because your church is in touch with the husband that the wife is inevitably doing well).
Appoint another woman to keep regular contact with the woman missionary. This may be an older woman (as in Titus 2) or a friend at a similar stage of life. Encourage openness and accountability.
Respond to pressure points. Times of vulnerability come, for example, as reality sets in after they have arrived on the mission field, or just returned from home assignment, or on leaving the field or on retirement. Suffering, illness and bereavement will come. Don’t let these hardships be faced alone.
Put yourself in their shoes. Recognise the different challenges for single and married women, and those women with children. Explore these areas with your missionary and support appropriately.
Give help especially when a woman missionary is on home assignment (e.g. offer to meet them at the airport; or help with finance, transport, holidays, baby sitting, child care or shopping).
World travel is much easier and cheaper than years ago. Offer to visit or be a holiday companion for a single missionary or missionary family. Again, sensitivity is necessary and it might be helpful to check out your travel plans with your church leadership or mission agency. (Please contact us at UFM if you would like guidelines on how to make the most of a visit. Don’t be offended if your kind offer is turned down; it isn’t always a convenient or appropriate time).
Offer friendship both when they are away and back home. Do fun things together. Ask questions. Find out more about them. Invest time.
‘Jars of clay’
Many missionary women will testify to their weaknesses. They don’t feel like superwomen, however much we want to put them on a pedestal. Along with the apostle Paul, they realise that they are ‘jars of clay’ — fragile, ordinary, easily broken. But they know that this weakness shows that the all-surpassing power comes from God and not from them (2 Corinthians 4:7).
It goes without saying that a lot of what I have written also applies to male missionaries too!
As you love, care and support your women missionaries, your own walk with the Lord will be enriched. Also, you will be involved actively in the advancement of God’s work in places you may never visit, and among people you may not meet this side of heaven.
To respond to the needs of women missionaries, last year UFM Worldwide appointed a women’s pastoral worker, to strengthen the support given to missionary women within the UFM family, and to help sending churches as they provide care for their women missionaries. Please do be in touch with us at UFM if you would like further help and advice in this area.
Elinor Magowan is a women’s pastoral worker at UFM Worldwide