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Pandemic, Missions, and Loneliness: Q&A with MTW’s Member Care Network

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Mar 9, 2021

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on all of our missionaries in many different ways. Some missionaries have been quarantined in their countries of service, unable to return home to visit family or supporting churches. Others have been stuck in the U.S., unable to return to the ministries and people they love. Many have been desperately struggling with the challenge of trying to survive and do ministry while confined in their homes in countries with lockdown restrictions far stricter than those imposed in the U.S.

As we’ve spoken with MTW missionaries around the world over the last year, one theme that has come up over and over again is that of loneliness and anxiety—caused or made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand this dynamic better—and to learn how the church can better engage their missionaries in a time of great need—we spoke to three missionaries from MTW’s Member Care Network—Amy Newsome in Japan, and Sam and Lizzie Goodwin in Germany—all MTW missionaries tasked with ministering to their fellow field missionaries, helping them apply the gospel of grace to their lives and work faithfully in their calling. Here’s what they had to say.

MTW: In your conversations as a Member Care field missionary over the last year, how have you seen missionaries grappling with loneliness and anxiety in different ways in the field?

Amy: To some extent, loneliness and anxiety are inherent to missionary life. You leave the comfort of home, familiarity, routines, and systems that are life-giving to you. You go to foreign places and have to create new systems, find new people, adjust to new norms. That’s a process that takes a while, and some places continue to be hard for the duration no matter how much time goes by or how much good effort goes into it. It can be a hard and difficult calling. So now as this pandemic is happening, missionaries are dealing with that on top of their regular challenges. COVID has impacted their family life, their personal routines, their relationships, and then it extends out beyond that into their work, their ministry, their calling—so it feels completely pervasive for missionaries. It impacts everything.

Sam: The isolation of COVID lockdowns has contributed to anxiety levels significantly. The levels of anxiety and depression are climbing across the whole missionary community—whether in Europe or Asia. … All of these ministries that people have been planning for years have been canceled. Church trips to visit missionaries have been canceled. Visits home have been canceled or delayed indefinitely … and all of that is terribly unsettling. On top of that, the shutdown in Europe has been far greater than anything you see in the States.

Lizzie: In Greece, the current rule is that there are only six reasons you’re allowed to leave your home. When you leave your house you have to text this government number the code of the reason you’re leaving and your address, and it will assign you how much time you have to complete that task and be back in your home. And they stop people in the street and ask to see their app so they can check if you’re over your time. Germany has never been shut down for exercise, so we can at least be outside as much as we want. But in France there have been times during lockdown where you could be outside for only one hour a day and go no further than one mile from your home. In [a former Soviet Bloc country,] we have a missionary who is only allowed to go outside to go to the grocery store and back. Otherwise you can’t go more than 100 meters from your apartment. If you have a pet you can go outside twice a day. In Bulgaria and Spain there were several months during lockdown where no child was allowed to leave the house. So we had missionaries inside their apartments—no balconies or yards—for six to eight weeks, and only one adult was allowed to leave the house one time a day to take out the trash and go to the grocery store. 

So, we see some psychological problems developing as a result, a lot more need for counseling, for people to process. And, of course, all this puts a lot of pressure on the parents who are trying to keep some normalcy for the kids. And then missionaries will try to write supporters: “Things are really hard. We’re on lockdown.” And their supporters will say: “Oh, we are too.” And the missionaries think: “Nobody understands what I’m going through.” 

Amy: I’ve heard some missionaries express: “We are being sent to this really expensive city to live and serve and plant churches and do mission, and now we’re sitting in our apartment and can’t do any of that. This is not what the church has sent us to do.” When I talk to people, I hear a lot of wrestling with calling and purpose and identity. 

Sam: Suddenly it feels like they can’t validate their existence, and so they feel isolated in a number of layers. They feel isolated from supporters because they don’t feel free to share with them that they can’t do ministry. They feel isolated from the people they were ministering to, and then they feel isolated from their own team members who they might not be able to see, even though they live in the same city. 

Lizzie: Last summer I was a small group leader during a virtual Reconnect Conference, and of 25 adults, only one couple there was on a regular Home Ministry Assignment. Everyone else had had to leave their country of service at a moment’s notice. We had families who, when COVID hit, the government issued a statement that: “If you want to leave to get to the States, we will help you for the next 48 hours. After that you’re on your own.” They had 48 hours to pack a bag and get on a plane. So we’ve had people in crisis and trauma, and then for those to return to the States, there’s a great deal of isolation, because they no longer feel like they really belong. 

MTW: What has your role been as Member Care field missionaries?

Lizzie: I remember at our monthly member care meeting, Brian Deringer [then director of Member Care] told us: “We have to contact every single person.” We had 160 adults in Europe, and back then everybody wanted a call. We were on Zoom calls from early in the morning to late at night nonstop for two or three weeks solid. After that it started to taper off. Every country in Europe is different, so we’d get together in groups, and everybody’s story was different. We started some new prayer initiatives as the situation evolved—guided prayer time for an hour every week. Once a month we have targeted prayer time around a topic. It’s all a way to break the sense of “I’m in this alone.” 

Amy: When this first started we realized that we needed to have personal contact with every single missionary, and for us in the Asia-Pacific region that was a pretty huge undertaking. I thought it would take a weekend to get in contact with everyone, but it turned into a month-long project. Now in Asia-Pacific we’ve implemented a series called CCC (Candid COVID Conversations), where we have about 12 days and times set up for Zoom calls each month. We’re just inviting people to come and connect with others and talk, share, lament, moan, groan—wherever people are at this point in the experience. … We’re also available to talk individually if missionaries prefer that. Of course there’s a great deal of “one-anothering” that goes on already on the field. Teams are caring for one another. 

MTW: Have you seen new opportunities come in the midst of COVID? 

Lizzie: In France the church plants have struggled to get people to come for years. Now every Sunday they have more and more guests showing up—people who have never been to church. But with social distancing rules, the church is already full and they have to turn people away!  I was talking to this missionary wife talking about the pain and the guilt she felt every Sunday having to turn people away. It’s hard, but it does show that there’s an increased interest in church and God. 

Sam: I was talking to a missionary in a highly Catholic area in Italy. There is a strong resistance to the evangelical community in whole sections of the country, but then COVID kicked in. Normally they have 50 or 60 people come to church on Sunday. But since they went online they have 400 hits almost every Sunday—people who are now going to be able to listen to the gospel preached in a way that they’ve never heard before! All over Europe there have been a number of occasions where the pandemic came and people started asking big questions, wanting to understand: Is there hope? 

Lizzie: Our church [in Germany] has started doing evening services every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, plus three on Sunday. The pastors are working gangbusters. Plus they started a daily podcast for our church reading program—a 10-minute reflection on a passage that the pastor puts out every day. So as far as being able to point people to something solidly evangelical, our church has it covered. 

MTW: What does our faith say about loneliness? 

Lizzie: I think of the passages in the Pauline epistles where Paul is thankful that somebody was sent to him to just be with him in prison. I’m reading between the lines, but you get the sense that there was discouragement. We need the body of Christ. We are made for each other. There are so many verses on “one another-ing,” and it’s harder to do that when you’re sitting alone in a room. I think this pandemic has illustrated our need for each other in ways that we often take for granted even in a missions setting. 

Sam: I think that, in some ways, COVID is forcing us back to God. It has demonstrated our weakness, our fragility—and we need to be reminded of that because otherwise we very quickly feel self-sufficient. We’re told in Romans 5 to give thanks for our suffering because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. The question is: What is it about suffering that produces hope? And the answer is that it drives us back to the only one whose promises are always faithful, who gives us life and breath. That true hope is the only confident expectation that we have. 

Amy: God created community as a support for loneliness. He gives us families, church communities, He gives us the body of Christ. He also gives us Himself, His Spirit, and I think we can’t underestimate the need to really be tuned into and crying out to the presence of God With Us. He is our comforter and help and friend and counselor. So I think this pandemic may be an opportunity to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in a way that we Presbyterians might not always emphasize so well. 

MTW: How have you seen churches ministering to their missionaries through the pandemic? How should churches be ministering? 

Sam: Early on in the pandemic, as churches in the States started meeting remotely, their giving went down. So often they’re just trying to cover their own expenses and realizing: “We can’t support our missionaries anymore.” We talked to a number of missionaries who within the first two weeks of shutdown got emails saying: “We’re cutting your support off.” $1000 a month, gone. So then, naturally, other things in their lives began to spiral. 

So after hearing a lot of those stories from people, we got a letter from a supporting church and they said: “COVID is really taking a toll on people, and after a lot of prayer and consideration we decided that what we need to do is take all of the offerings that we got over Easter and give it to our missionaries—whoever is in need.” We didn’t have to ask them for money, but the effect of that letter alone—all of a sudden we were cared for. All of a sudden there were people who were aware of our situation and prepared to respond the moment we called them. 

Lizzie: We no longer felt like a “lone reed.” They were anticipating that there could be a problem, and they were ready. 

Sam: That was enough to get us through the next setback because we could think: OK, we’re being cared for. That was very a practical thing that they did for us and it was effectively only a letter, but that was huge. 

MTW: If you could communicate one final thing to churches in the U.S. about loneliness and anxiety on the missions field, especially during this time of pandemic, what would it be? 

Sam:  I think many missionaries feel like they’re the only ones struggling with loneliness or anxiety, or they feel like it is somehow weakness on their part. So I’ll talk to a missionary and they’ll say, “I’m so tired, I’m filled with anxiety, and I’m struggling with all kinds of temptations that I’ve never had before. Am I disqualified to be a missionary now?” And I’m like: “OK, let’s talk about it.” And they say: “Really? I’m not a bad person? I’m not a bad missionary?” And it’s like: “No, you’re broken. Welcome to the club.” 

To have a community, to have people with whom you feel like you’re really known and loved even in your brokenness—that’s such a rare thing in the church community, and I think it’s even rarer among missionaries. Even apart from COVID, they’re already a bit isolated, which is dangerous because we missionaries already feel like we have to keep secrets about how things are really going. And then you throw in COVID and the intensity of those feelings goes up, and you feel like you have to keep even more secrets, which is even more isolating. It can be a huge difference-maker to have supporting churches that ask good questions, where the missionary knows that just about no matter what the issue is, they’ve got their back. 

Lizzie: Churches should be communicating like that with their missionaries. You don’t want the head pastor or the head of the financial committee asking those questions—no missionary is going to talk to them candidly. We have a church that has a retired pastor and his wife, and they love nothing more than to love on missionaries, and they don’t answer to anybody. They’re just there to support you. I think those types of relationships are very freeing, with people who aren’t the final decision makers. … And now that everybody is used to Zoom it’s easier than ever for churches to make contact. 

Amy: This is a good time to create a new type of interaction with your missionaries. It’s an opportunity to really bring your connection and partnership with missionaries to a more personal and intimate level. I know people are tired of Zoom, but there’s some good things that can happen in this space. It’s intimate—you’re one on one with another person, still able to connect and really talk. So I think it would be great for churches to recognize that this can be an opportunity, and if God puts a missionary specifically on their heart to really step out and take a risk in trying to connect on a more personal level than they have in the past. It’s an opportunity to really deepen the understanding and insight and that can lead to deeper prayer and more partnership that can really be a blessing to God’s kingdom.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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