As parents, we know our child’s departure from home is inevitable. We hold our breath when they cross state lines for college or a job. But when changing continents becomes a reality, it knocks our breath right out.
With enthusiasm they announce, “God is calling me to be a missionary.” Yet you feel apprehensive, and tension is birthed.
They feel their obedience requires their all; you feel their obedience is taking more than you can give. They anticipate their new adventure; you’re anxious about their departure. They are certain about their going; you’re uncertain about their leaving.
The struggle is real. It’s a tumultuous process of learning to walk across a swinging bridge of emotions that spans the thousand miles separating you from your child, and often grandchildren.
I straddle both sides of this conversation. Years ago, I announced to my parents that my husband, myself, and their grandchildren were moving to Africa. And now, my daughter and her husband are preparing to go. Let me give you some handles of encouragement to hold as you navigate this unexpected and, at times, unwanted terrain.
Seek to Understand Why They’re Going
Each parent’s response to a child moving overseas varies depending on the parent-child relationship, season of life, individual faith, or lack of it. You may waver between cheering them on and secretly wishing they’d stay. Or, perhaps you think they’re taking this Great Commission thing too seriously—they’re naïve about moving to a foreign land. Maybe you question if being a missionary is a “real job.”
“Actively learning to understand God’s mission not only positions your heart to understand why your child goes but also creates a strengthened posture to walk with them on their new journey.”
Actively learning to understand God’s mission not only positions your heart to recognize why your child goes but also creates a strengthened posture to walk with them on their new journey. Your child has been apprehended by a glorious calling of God that is much bigger than either them or you. It’s about God alone.
As you read Scripture, notice how often you see the phrase “for his name.” It’s woven throughout the Old and New Testaments, and it’s being declared throughout the world today. You’ve been invited to be a part of this story as you send your child to declare his name. The God who calls them is with them. He is with you, too, for his name’s sake.
Give Yourself Grace and Space to Grieve
Others may be applauding your child while you stand in the shadows hoping no one sees how you feel. Understand that much of what you’re feeling is rooted in grief. Any major shift regarding something we value stirs up a sense of loss. You grieve because you love your child, and this new trajectory was not something you expected.
You may grieve the loss of holiday traditions, time with a grandchild, close proximity, or just the loss of how you thought life would turn out. Grieving for a time is a healthy response. Allow yourself to grieve, remembering that God knows your thoughts from afar and every word on your tongue before you say it (Ps. 139:2–4). Meet with other parents of missionaries and/or a wise counselor. Don’t grieve alone. Know that there is joy to be found in these changes.
Fuel Thoughts of Great Expectations
Hearing the words “God has called me to be a missionary” may conjure up images of strange diseases, persecution, and danger. It certainly stirs up fears of the unknown. As a parent, it’s tempting to mentally hyperventilate over “what ifs.” What if something happens? What if there’s an emergency? What if I never see them again?
Concern about your child’s well-being is normal. But dwelling on negative “what-ifs” destroys your soul’s well-being. As you grow in this process, so will your mindset; for the mind set on God experiences life and peace (Rom. 8:6).
There’s another, more positive, way think about what-ifs. What if God does great things? What if your grandchildren learn from new cultural experiences? What if you experience a new joy in creatively relating to your child who lives far away? When we rightly fear the Lord, our “soul shall abide in well-being” (Ps. 25:12–13 ESV).
Write Your Own Spiritual Narrative
Let your child’s calling embolden your own faith and provoke you to live your life for what matters most. Recognize that while God is working in them, he desires to move in you as well. Yes, you’ve hit middle age, and all the questions and mental assessments about life seem to accumulate. But, “Do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16 ESV).
Proactively fuel the gift that God has placed within you. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you.” (2 Tim. 1:6 ESV) Moving overseas as a missionary is not the only way to participate in God’s mission. Ask God to reveal how you can actively play a part in his mission too.
Enjoy the Wonder as Their World Expands
There’s the new reality created by this change. Separate cultures mean a separation of shared experiences. The new adventure for you lies in the ability to learn from your missionary child as worldviews expand. Become a long-distance learner.
Learn about their new culture, culture shock, and missionary life. The more you learn, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more you empathize. The more you empathize, the deeper your relationship grows. Refrain from capitalizing on their difficult cultural experiences or loneliness they share by encouraging them to come home. Rather, leverage this time to be an anchor of support, and celebrate the new experiences in front of them.
“Refrain from capitalizing on their difficult cultural experiences or loneliness by encouraging them to come home. Rather, support and celebrate their new experiences.”
Let Your Trust in God Grow
The choice your child is making may be different than what you imagined, but let your trust in God grow larger than the distance that separates you. A pastor’s wife pulled me aside at a conference and with tears streaming down her face said, “I can’t stand that my son and his wife live overseas as missionaries. I’m praying that God will send them home.” My heart broke for her but also for her children. While she didn’t say it, she really desired relief for her overwhelmed, aching soul.
You have the opportunity to pray tenaciously for God to work—through your own children—in places where his name isn’t known. Learn to differentiate between your needs and loneliness and your child’s need to obey God’s call. God desires your trust in him to grow. Your child needs you to pray that they, too, will trust in God and persevere where God has called them.
Speak Blessing More Than Once
Adult children still desire their parents’ approval. It may feel odd to verbally express support of their going in the midst of feeling sorrow in their leaving. But they need to hear your verbal blessing. Otherwise, they leave feeling torn between obeying God and honoring parents. In tough times when your missionary misses home, they hold onto the anchor of their calling from God to go. How wonderful it is when that anchor is blanketed with a parent’s approval.
Consider the trajectory of your life. Likely, it’s not matched any blueprint you mentally sketched out twenty years ago. It seldom does. The world is much smaller than we think, and God’s ways are certainly much bigger than we can comprehend. Navigating a long-distance parent-child or grandparent-grandchild relationship may not have been in your life plan. Yet, God in his sovereignty has extended a call to your child to relocate to a place where his name isn’t known.
This call on your child’s life deeply affects your own. Naturally, heavy-heartedness will hit each time you say good-bye. But there’s an unexplainable delight and a mysterious peace that can transcend the distance when you actively accept and joyfully walk in faith this God-ordained terrain.
Lori McDaniel is a mom of three, pastor’s wife, speaker and works at IMB as manager of the church initiatives team. She served with her family as a missionary for several years in Africa before returning to plant Grace Point Church in Bentonville, Arkansas. You can find her on Twitter @LoriMMcdaniel.