How Do I Parent As an Missionary Overseas? - Radical
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How Do I Parent As an Missionary Overseas?

Given that our ministry, Radius, focuses on equipping cross-cultural workers to plant churches among unreached people groups, there are many topics that get more time than parenting. Nevertheless, it is a topic that is addressed regularly, and very pointedly. The reason is pretty obvious. If parents don’t have their children under control, and just as importantly, if those children aren’t actually ‘on the team with mom and dad,’ there is little chance those families will be able to serve long-term in the locations they need to live in. We must teach towards this end. 

Overseas Missionaries as Parents

We have no perfect parents on staff, and our kids, grown or still in the home, reveal that every day. My wife and I had our share of hard meetings with missionary Dorm Parents (parents responsible for overseeing the kids in a particular dorm) and with public school officials regarding our kids. At times we wondered if our kids would begrudge us for their years spent in a boarding school in Papua New Guinea (PNG). (Note: boarding schools should not be a first option for anyone. However, in certain circumstances they may be the best option out of a few tough ones.)   

We wondered if our kids would be bitter over opportunities they missed out on by growing up in the middle of the jungle. And we wondered if they would feel the need to act out once they had left PNG and returned to life in the USA with all the excitement and ‘opportunities’ that college life brings. We had sleepless nights in the jungle when our three older ones were away from us at the boarding school, and we pondered from every angle possible, ‘Are we missing something?’  They seem to be doing ok, but are we being naïve, blind, or ‘driven by the work’?  We agonized, as parents do. 

A Variety of Parenting Styles

In our 20 years in PNG, Beth and I also served for one full year as Dorm Parents, and we saw a variety of parenting styles; some worked well long-term, and others didn’t. I sat on the board of that MK boarding school for thirteen years (commuting from Iteri three times a year) and in that time dealt with many missionary kid (MK) issues, with our own kids and with the kids of others.  At times it seemed that every boarding school child had a reason to go sideways. For MKs who were home-schooled or who attended local schools, there were other sets of issues and challenges. 

So, as we saw MK’s who ‘made it’ and those who struggled from a variety of schooling backgrounds, what were some running threads? First off, I’ll define what I mean by they ‘made it.’ For the sake of this article, I mean that they came out of their years overseas with their faith very alive, had social skills that enabled them to not go ‘into a cave’ when they returned, and possessed an outlook towards their future that kept them from going into a holding pattern. I’ve seen and know a lot of those MK’s … and I also know of some who haven’t done well. 

Tips for Oversee Missionary Parents

So here are a few understandings that are critical for parents who hope to ‘successfully’ raise their children overseas.

1. Missionary parents are, by in large, responsible for the spiritual state of their children.

This is in contrast to ‘It’s the fault of the Sending Agency, the Dorm Parents, the Boarding School, or other factors’ mentality. Parents must own their responsibility. That can’t be stressed enough. Woe to the parent who looks to the school or agency for what he should be doing. This responsibility lies first and foremost with the father, who is “the chief parent, the one accountable to God for his family.”[1] 

Space doesn’t permit me to say more on this. Families that are wobbly in this area of ‘Who is leading us? Is it mom or dad?’. Especially in the area of communication of values, godliness, and discipline, are more prone to seeing their kids finding new values when they leave the home and mission field. 

2. The child who learns obedience from their parent and is at ease with order in the home (and beyond) at an early age typically does better overseas.

Proverbs 13:24 says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Parents who delay this kind of discipline because they ‘want to deal with the heart’ find themselves waiting too long. Children who learn to respond to ‘No!’ early are blessed. They are more able to function in a home and family. And in school and the world where expectations of obedience, work, and limits are normative. They are in a better spot to accept the many bumps, grinds, letdowns, and worse that await them on the mission field. These chores teach them that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

They are part of something larger than themselves, and they are at ease with this. Parents who quietly endure children who are out of control are forgetting a host of strong admonitions from Scripture.[2] This needs to be taught, expected, and reinforced from an early age.

3. Missionary parents who felt guilty over bringing their kids to the mission field rarely do well by them.

A subtle ‘I’m making up for his deficient growing up experience’ mentality seems to permeate how they interact with their kids, even if never spoken about. To know that this is absolutely what God has for our children, as well as us, is a critical component to our children doing well. Victimhood is rampant in our culture today. The parents of MK’s who buy into the idea that their children are somehow ‘victims’ will commonly live to see their child adopt that view too.

4. Parents should have a confidence in God.

If they have a confidence in God, they are never surprised at what comes our way. They are able to pass on that conviction to their children. They set those children up for resting in the Lord, especially during hard times, even as mom and dad do. 

5. Parents should see the role as gospel messengers as a high calling.

Parents should pass on to their children the privilege and honor that it was to be used by God in making Him known gave to their children a noble idea of what they were doing. At times the apologetic parent actually puts God in a bad light, implying that God didn’t care about the kids, that they were baggage, but ‘God wanted to abuse mom and dad for His base purposes.’ ‘God is a user’ is a message that came through loud and clear to those kids, not the idea that the Father has allowed that family the privilege of making Him known. Parents are in charge of that message.

Preparing Families for Overseas Missions

This surely isn’t a comprehensive list of parenting issues we teach about. But as we prepare individuals (who oftentimes get married and bring children into this endeavor), and families for the long-term life spent making Christ known, we must address this area clearly. There are few folks who have walked the life that is in front of these students. Yet on our Radius staff team we have eight families who have done this. A few are even still doing this here in Mexico. All of our families are ‘wide open to inspection’ by students, and they do ask questions all the time. As students they are concerned about their kids growing up overseas, and they should be. It’s a tender topic, but one that is addressable.  

As mentioned earlier, at Radius we have classes on Language Learning, Cross-Cultural Teaching, Discipleship, Church Planting, and Biblical and Spiritual Foundations that get much more time than parenting. But we realize that unless this area is strong and parents are equipping their children for the long haul, the ministry of making disciples and planting churches will never come into play. Pragmatically and biblically (I Tim 3:4–5) this area of the home must be up for the task.

[1] ‘Gospel Powered Parenting’, William Farley, pg. 127

[2] Ex. 20:12, Prov. 22:15, 23:13,14 29:15,17 Eph. 6:1,2  Col. 3:20

Brad Buser is the co-founder of Radius International. He and his wife spent twenty-three years church planting among the Iteri people. He teaches Church-Planting, Intro to Bible Translation, and Theology of Suffering at Radius.


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