How to Honor Your Parents When You’re Called to Missions

honor your parents
Following God overseas as a missionary is a decision that affects not only the missionary but also the missionary's parents left behind. It's possible to navigate these difficult conversations while honoring each other and God's calling. Photo by TEAM

I was sitting in a living room with a young man, his parents and another mentoring couple, when I realized the parent-child dynamic is strong and complex, even in adulthood. This young man was feeling called to serve cross-culturally, and there were tears, confusion, and confessions.

How do you follow God in your calling and honor your parents, even if they are not on board? 

As a missions mobilizer, I was curious and anxious as I thought about the strong emotional pull for potential missionaries to be both true to God and respectful and loving to their parents. I set out to discover what both sides are feeling during that initial conversation on the subject.

I created two web-based surveys. One for missionaries and the other for parents of missionaries. The responses came from all age groups, including people who were single, married with no children and married with children.

Surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of those who responded to the survey felt called to missions between the ages of 10 and 13. Over 50 percent of the parents of missionaries who responded also said their child was called between these ages.

When missionaries reflected on the emotions they perceived in their parents during their first conversation, equal numbers reported feelings of pride and of fear. Other responses were sadness, criticism, denial, discouragement, and anger. One respondent said, “[My parents] expressed pride outwardly towards others, but had difficulty in the intimate conversations behind closed doors.”

These are strong emotions. They are further complicated if the parents of the missionaries are not Christians, which requires different guidance than what is offered below. But if both parties are seeking God, you are more likely to navigate these challenging and complex feelings well. So, here are four ways missionaries and their parents can honor each other as they pursue God’s calling.

Affirm Each Other

Missionaries, respect your parents’ feelings and help them through the process. They will grieve the loss of sharing everyday life with you. That multiplies if grandchildren are involved.

They may react in negative ways with words or actions that hurt. Ask God to give you the grace to “set an example … in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV). Affirming what they are feeling will display your maturity, both emotional and spiritual, and allow God to work in their hearts.

Parents, affirm your child (no matter the age)! Give them the love and support you have spent your life pouring into them and surrender them to God.  They need to know that you believe in them. Give them the room to respond completely to God.


Missionaries, pick an appropriate time to discuss your calling with your parents. Don’t drop the bomb at a family dinner or in a large group of people.

In some ways, it is easier to be the sent one than the one sending.  The ‘sent one’ is living out the missionary calling that God has given them. Your parent will be living out the calling they have been handed, not necessarily one they asked for.

Your parents may also react differently from each other. Loving, respectful communication will be the key to blessing and acceptance. “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130, NIV).

Parents, listen to your children and pray before speaking, as Nehemiah did. “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (Nehemiah 2:4-5, NIV). Nehemiah wanted to respond to the king appropriately, so he prayed that God would give him the right words. Ask the Lord to do the same for you. Then, tell your children you would like to have time to process, and set up another time to talk about it again in the near future.


Pray individually. Pray for each other. Pray together. The enemy would love nothing more than to see this calling destroy relationships. Instead of taking initial responses personally, take some time to pray, and then come back and talk some more.

Work Together

Missionaries, allow your parents to be involved in your going process and the new life you will be living. Discover information together on where you are going, the people group you will be serving and introduce them to others who will be joining you or who live in-country.

Parents, help your missionaries prepare by helping with support letters and fundraisers, watching the kids and packing when it is time to go. Work through feelings of sadness by advocating for your missionary and participating in their call to share the gospel to the nations.  Love your kids enough to help them fulfill this calling, even if it doesn’t match the dream you envisioned for them.

Ultimately, it’s possible for both missionaries and their parents to honor each other in this process, even if they don’t reach full agreement. Speak the truth in love, and realize that this is part of the discipleship process for you both.

What if you could spend two years . . .

  • learning how to explore a new culture
  • being mentored by seasoned missionaries
  • and finding out where God has uniquely gifted you to serve?

TEAM’s Launch program is focused on preparing you for strategic, vibrant, long-term ministry. Learn more here.

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About the author

Debbie Stephens

Debbie Stephens is the Founder and President of Equipped To Go, a non-profit organization, that serves the local church and other non-profit organizations in equipping sent out ones. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her husband Alan. Debbie also joined the Upstream Collective team in 2010 and coordinates the Jet Set department. She is able to use her skills of training and equipping to prepare Jet Set teams for cross-cultural ministry.


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  • Interesting article, but your examples are based on parents who are at least willing to listen to their child. What are your thoughts on a situation where a Christian parent is 100% opposed and refuses to listen to their child discuss this? What if the parent insists their child must stay in the same country to care for them? How do we honour our parents in these situations?

    • Pippa,
      Fair question. This is definitely a touchy situation and we felt it was too much to include in this article. Not to sound simplistic or trite, but following the leading of the Holy Spirit in each specific case has to happen. There may be times when God pushes the missionary to continue pursuing this call, but He may also lead them to wait and do the work of preparing themselves and their parents for their future overseas.

      Often times their reaction comes with the grief of what they fear they will miss or fear of who will take care of them, as you mentioned. I think examining root feelings on both sides and talking about them openly and honestly will help to at least understand each other. I mentioned in the article about affirming each other. It may be hard, but to affirm the way they are feeling and trying to understand where they are coming from may pave the way for more congenial discussions.

  • Our single daughter has been in a Asian country 23 years. Time has flow by & as we age with medical problems our hearts desire is that she can continue to do her calling. Yes we have discussed this & she knows our desire. We are trusting God for our futures & her ministry.
    I’m sure other parents face this issue.

  • I am a missionary on the field in Rwanda who is 47 and had to leave my adult son behind. He is married with a loving wife and both are Christians. My husband left us and divorced me about ten years ago so me and my son have been quite close through that journey. Since I was called here almost four years ago, I have felt the distance and even disapproval that I am missing so much of their lives. He even said in hurt and anger at one point, ” It almost seems like at times you are dead.” We do communicate with skype and WhatsApp and I try to stay connected in each area of his life. I have tried to talk to him about all of this and while I know his head understands God’s plan for my life at this season, his heart would want a mother nearby. I often see articles about leaving parents but few on leaving adult children behind. Maybe this is something that could be written about for those of us God is calling out later in life to places far from home.

    • Thanks for being so honest and vulnerable, Janet! You are right, not much is discussed in this scenario of a mission calling. I know there are many who are currently, or have been in your similar situation. This would definitely be a topic to dig deeper into. My prayer is for God to comfort both you and your son as you walk out the calling He has placed on your life and that He meets each of you at your very deepest point of need. Thank you for sharing this.

  • I am about to have this conversation with my parents, I am still in high school but have felt God pulling at my heartstrings and leading me in this direction since elementary school.I fear that the only two people who may be able to talk me out of my calling are the two people I need the most support from. I feel led to Somalia to spread the word and help with the Cholera epidemic that has gone on for as long as I have been alive. I fear that they will be able to shake me out of my faith and pressure me into another future which is not what God has called me to. I want to let them know what is going on before I move out for I fear they will feel betrayed if I do not tell them soon. I feel like either way this process will be very painful, they have not taken any of my discussions about going into the ministry seriously. I want to honor my parents and be as respectful as I can but, this is also my calling so how do I honor them in a place of disapproval.

    • I can tell by your post that you love and respect your parents very much. I would encourage you to gather a prayer team to begin praying for this conversation now and especially when you decide to talk with your parents. Pray that their hearts will be softened. You may need to give them some space and time to process the idea, not taking their initial reaction personal. They likely will be dealing with many conflicting emotions.

  • My adult son, his wife, and 3 daughters have just let it slip through another party that there is a possibility they may become full time missionaries. Wow. I felt like someone hit me in the stomach. Yes this is my son and his wife but it is my grandkids too. All these posts I’ve read and seeing other sites the parents are always referred to as “parents”. I am a parent! I do not have a husband. I am all alone in this place. I have 59 yrs old and I have fair health. I’ve been told that it might be 3 years till this could happen. It was never suppose to be this way. Sell your house mom and move down here and I’ll look after you and take care of you. What happened? What am I suppose to do? I am so very sad. They’ve been on many. 1 or 2 weeks mission trips and I’ve always supported those. But this is more than I can begin to understand. I am a child of God. And I am hurting so much right now. How could or would God leave me here alone?

    • Jeania, I can hear the hurt in your comment. It sounds like this was a total surprise to you. Oftentimes, it does take years for full-time missionaries to get to their place of service once they hear the call of God. The call is not just theirs, it is yours too. They may be the ones changing locations, but they need your love, support, and understanding to fulfill it wholly. Can you trust God with their lives? Can you trust Him with yours? This time of preparation for them will also be a time that God calls you to a deeper walk with Him.

  • What resources are there to help parents of missionaries struggling with “letting go?” Though you touched on what parents should do…are there any ministries that minister to the hurting hearts of parents left behind?

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