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

talking to your parents about missions
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.

Communicate 

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). 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

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.




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About the author

Debbie Stephens
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.

7 Comments

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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.

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