Repenting From My Idol of Missions
What one missionary learned when God called her away from overseas missions
“Releasing ministry to others is impossible for the leader who holds tightly to ministry as his or her reason for being. Ministry can be an attractive idol because it is rarely called out as sinful. It is an idol that others applaud you for.” (Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck, Designed to Lead)
A 6-year-old's vision
My family often jokes that I grew up in a suitcase—my brave parents took me out of the U.S. at 8 months old. For as long as I can remember, my family has lived and breathed missions—more specifically, overseas missions. I’ve known no other life than full-time vocational ministry.
At 6 years old, I gave my “salvation testimony” in front of 150 believers at a church in Southeast Asia. Just a few months later, I told my mom, with tears in my eyes, that I would be a missionary to that country. I knew with every fiber of my being that God had called me to this people group.
Growing up in an international missionary family, I quickly gained empathy for people groups outside of my hometown of El Paso. On the other side of the globe, I learned to weep with those who wept and rejoice with those who rejoiced. I experienced firsthand the intensity of suffering in the world and wanted to do something about it. My upbringing, church and ministry community encouraged me to use that motivation, to address these atrocities and to “make a big impact for God.” When I learned what human trafficking was, I felt that I had found my specific people group to work with. I was horrified by the injustice and wanted women to be saved out of situations of bondage and slavery.
Even at an early age, this led to listening to God, operating in faith and believing for impossible things to happen. And sometimes, they honestly did happen, and God provided the miraculous. In those spaces, I often saw my part to play as greater than God’s. I felt it was truly up to me to save those who were broken and downcast.
As time passed, my commitment toward overseas missions didn’t fade. My parents were proud of me, undoubtedly, because of my fervor and resilience toward missions and ministry. In high school, I won an award for “Most Likely to Save the World in High Heels.” While peers dreamt of Hollywood stardom, I dreamt about being the featured missionary in Charisma magazine. I just knew that someone would write a book about my true acts of service someday. No one could take that away from me.
I lived and breathed missions in Southeast Asia and how to save trafficked women. It was that call on my life or nothing.
I worked for ministries in the U.S. to pass the time, but I never let myself connect with people too deeply. To me, they weren’t the “ones to whom I was called.” I had bigger and better things to do, like living overseas and being a true missionary. I didn’t believe everyone had to be a missionary, but my life would be one of the few that were chosen.
When I met Austin, the man who I would marry, I told him about my vision for Southeast Asia and essentially attached an ultimatum: he’d come with me or we wouldn’t be together. Although Austin didn’t feel a specific call to this country or even overseas missions, he supported God’s leading in my life. I was happy to have someone to help push my vision forward while keeping me grounded and safe overseas. Little did I know how God would use him to shape and mold my heart and soul in ministry.
In 2016, soon after our marriage, we applied to be missionaries in Southeast Asia with ReachGlobal. After decades of waiting for this opportunity, it had finally arrived. During the six weeks of waiting to hear if we’d been accepted, though, I began to notice something ugly and self-centered inside of me as questions gnawed at my soul:
What would happen if we aren’t accepted? Don’t they know this is my dream? Look at my experience, my training, my history! I was made for this. If they don’t accept us, what does that mean for our future? Who will I be?
I cried for most of those 42 days, and even after we were accepted to serve, I began to realize I’d built my whole life on moving overseas. I’d fashioned and created an idol with my own hands, trying to build my own reputation and status. The Holy Spirit had begun to show this to me before deployment to the field, but not until we arrived did He graciously reveal the depth of my sin.
A dream realized...and unrealized
When we arrived in Southeast Asia, all of my preconceived notions about missions fell flat. Even though these were “my people,” I still found it hard to build meaningful relationships. Despite my calling from God, I still struggled with evangelism and disciplemaking. For so long, I’d focused on what services and ministry I could offer, rather than knowing and accepting that it’s the Holy Spirit who ultimately can change an individual, not my own impressive presentation of the gospel.
Although I lived across the ocean, I had the same issues with God that I had back home. I was still tired and wanted space from “ministry.” I didn’t have an overflowing fountain of energy and zeal to serve at any given opportunity. I still struggled with seeing people as a means to an end for stories in my next newsletter. I still pushed the valued person in front of me to the side for the sake of reaching someone that had “greater needs.”
Moving overseas wasn’t the magical cure-all experience I had imagined. All my ideas about what would help these communities were backwards. I was proved wrong by this group of people, both nationals and other missionaries, as they gently showed me I had no idea what I was talking about. Finding my own selfishness mixed in with my desire for ministry started to discourage me. And on top of that, after we finished our two-year commitment, God called us to move back to my hometown of El Paso.
As our return home became both clear and inevitable, I began a process of grieving what I thought my life would be and reflecting on who I actually was. I realized my identity, life purpose and value had all depended on being a missionary in one particular country. And because I was useless in this culture for which I’d thought I was so prepared, I’d ended up unfulfilled in all of these areas. But now what?
Who would I be if I wasn’t the missionary anymore? Would the church still love me? Would people still think I was worth listening to? How could I prove I was serious about God and a successful missionary before others if I was just serving in the U.S.?
I wasn’t as wise, brave or resilient as I thought myself to be. In fact, I could bring little to the table and felt like I had no real purpose at all. As I addressed these insecurities, I had to face what I had truly been believing: that God loved me more if I was overseas than if I was faithfully ministering to those He set before me. And maybe that’s part of the reason He brought me to Southeast Asia in the first place.
A renewed perspective
During our final months overseas, my heart grieved the loss of a dream of living and serving in a culture I still loved. Yet, amid that grief, God graciously and faithfully intervened. Through my identity crisis, He led me to dependence on Him and the truth of His Word. He wanted me to be with Him far more than produce good work for Him. R. Scott Rodin, in his book, The Steward Leader, says it well:
“The enemy wants to steal joy from us and replace our freedom with bondage to the preservation of our reputation and to the frantic protection and reclamation of our self-image. If we believe that we are the owners, and therefore the guardians, of our reputation, we will be ensnared in an endless pursuit of trying to prove ourselves to be right, seeking our vindication and righting every wrong that has been done to us.”
As God transformed my heart, He also began to bless my work in a way I couldn’t attribute to my own efforts. I handed the project I had pioneered for women in Southeast Asia over to a national woman who could lead it better than I could. God then gave me the opportunity to faithfully encourage and love a group of local pastors as they worked hard serving the Lord in their areas of ministry. God began to work in the pain I felt in my heart toward my hometown and led me in repentance and forgiveness for what happened there.
Although this wasn’t my original vision for my time overseas, I finally started to understand Jesus as both the suffering servant and glorious King He came to be.
As I repented from my idolization of missions, my mindset toward ministry also changed. I began loving the national people as my brothers and sisters, not as people who needed to learn and grow from me. I let myself be known for who I was—walking in vulnerability of not knowing the answers and deferring to others—not who I wanted others to see. I became a learner and a listener to the issues deeper than the surface level ones. I stopped seeing people as “needy” and “different” and began to understand what united us as humans. We’re all desperately searching and in need of the grace of God.
Because of the calling I experienced when I was 6, I felt like I had a “higher” role among God’s people. Like James and John in Mark 10, asking Jesus to sit on either side of him in glory, I wanted an elevated seat in God’s Kingdom—and believed I had earned it. But in doing so, I’d missed the true message and mission of Jesus: being “first” in God’s Kingdom is not ruling over, but serving as He did.
Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, bore our sin and suffering, died and was resurrected—all that we might have righteousness. All so we might be justified not by our own works or callings, but by His complete and final work. In Ephesians, Paul says:
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:4-6)
Because of God’s rich mercy, I’ve been buried and raised up with Him. In my own power, I can do nothing to earn my seat next to Jesus. I no longer have to be a slave to prominence in ministry because there is no “higher” or “elevated” seat in God’s Kingdom. I am free to follow His voice more than the lies that say I’m more valuable if I serve God overseas. I am free to suffer because I am not striving to preserve my agenda and goal of prestige. I suffer with Christ because He suffered, and I am raised to life with Him.
An encouragement to others like me
The call of my life is called to Christ, to become like Him and fulfill the command He gave: “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19-20a). Regardless of location— Southeast Asia, El Paso or elsewhere—the command is the same.
For me, this looked like moving overseas to make disciples and following the Shepherd back to the U.S. to do the very same thing. Now, it’s sharing freely with all people because my value isn’t tied to a “higher” or flashier ministry. It’s not striving to be “famous for God” one day. It’s being transformed myself before I look to transform something else. It’s sharing through transparency, not expertise. It’s recognizing daily that there is no room in the kingdom of God for my secondary kingdom.
It’s faithfully looking at the person in front of me and sharing about Jesus—the One who loved me well enough to free me from my bondage of doing big things for Him.
If God has called you to overseas missions, I am thrilled for you. God has given us unique gifts and passions for a reason. But there is no greater calling than the one you’ve already been given: You are Christ’s and are called to Him, more than a country or people group. Your secondary calling is just that—secondary. It should never be elevated or prioritized over our relationship with Jesus, and God might add to or subtract from it as He sees fit. When your focus remains on the goodness and glory of Christ, ministry changes can come and go without uprooting your identity.
To my brothers and sisters faithfully serving in ministry, I hope and pray my story can reinforce the grace of Jesus that is sufficient to cover a multitude of sins. I pray you continue to let the Holy Spirit convict and restore areas in your ministry where your own desires and visions may have claimed a higher seat than His.
Jesus wants to free us from reputation management and ministry prominence—and that’s such a good thing. We are not owned by supporters, home churches or even our own expectations of ourselves. No amount of applause will ever satisfy like the rest in Christ’s finished work of the cross, freeing us from having to earn our seat at the table.