After a term of service on the field, most missionary debriefs are about hurts and disappointments. In almost every case these are the result of unmet or unfulfilled expectations.
One definition of “expectation” in the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is: “a feeling or belief about how successful, good, etc., someone or something will be.”1
In order to meet our expectations, we set goals or make plans. It’s in this step that we often make mistakes that lead to unmet expectations.
Good goal setting
Set realistic goals: We are often not realistic about the time and expense that it takes to accomplish a task. A simple rule of thumb is to allow more money and time than you think something will take, and you are more likely to meet your goal.
Don’t use comparisons in setting goals: A mom with preschoolers at home shouldn’t set her goal for accomplishing language acquisition the same as a single missionary. Setting goals by using comparison with others will almost always end in frustration. Follow Paul’s admonishment of “doing your creative best with your own life” (Gal. 6:4 MSG) to keep from falling into this trap.
Remember your audience when setting goals: That we have an Audience of One is a great reminder in setting goals. Rather than worrying about what your host culture, supporters, or co-workers are thinking, set goals with Proverbs 3:6 in mind, “Listen for God’s voice in everything you do . . . he’s the one who will keep you on track.”
Ask for input from others: Finding out what those close to us think is often the most helpful step in setting more realistic goals.
Dealing with unmet expectations
But what if we have carefully set goals and still don’t meet our expectations? In this case, we need to develop a godly view of suffering.
The word “suffering” seems an usually strong word used in this context. Aren’t words like “disappointment” and “sadness” more apt when talking about the result of unfulfilled expectations? A biblical definition of suffering, however, is: “to sustain; to be affected by; as, to suffer loss or damage.”2 It fits this context.
A good example of how to develop a godly view of suffering in missionary life is seen in the example of William Carey. Carey had high expectations for his missionary career, adopting “expect great things of God, attempt great things for God” as his motto.3 This quote has inspired many to become missionaries. But once on the field, Carey’s expectations evaporated in the light of reality, including the death of his son, his wife’s declining mental health, lack of finances, and a poor response to the gospel. He was quoted as saying, “This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me.”4
It was during this time that Carey realized that he wasn’t afraid of failure, but rather was afraid of succeeding at things that didn’t matter. He used suffering to becoming even more focused on what God wanted him to do in his life and service. It can be the same for us. More than anything else, suffering in our lives can help us refocus and align our expectations with God’s will.
If we are to meet our expectations, we need to be thoughtful in the goals that we set. But we also need to remember that, in spite of our best efforts, our expectations may never be met. At those times, we need to remember that God might be using this disappointment in our lives to grow us into godly people.
1. “Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary,” accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/expectation
2. “The King James Bible Page,” accessed March 18, 2017, http://av1611.com/kjbp/kjv-dictionary/suffer.html
3. “Christian History: William Carey,” accessed March 18, 2017, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/william-carey.html
4. “Christian History,” ibid
Eileen Nielsen is a middle school and high school counselor at the Christian Academy in Japan, as well as Member Care Facilitator for TEAM.