It's a fair question. But it's a sensitive one for me. Most people have no idea how much this question affects me. I have thought about this question for years - long before we even had children - and I think about this question still. What will you be doing?
It's a fair question because we're called to a medical ministry, but I'm not the medical person in our marriage. It's a fair question because we're called to live and minister in another country and another culture, but I'm so tied up with raising two little boys that I can barely get out of the house in our own country and culture. It's a fair question because although I definitely feel called to be a missionary, I've never been able to peg down exactly what kind of work I should do.
But it's a sensitive question because I know, without doubt, that I'm called to be a missionary too, and I know, without doubt, that I have skills and talents that could be used in a ministry setting, and I know, without doubt, that I'm sacrificing innumerable opportunities to be directly involved in ministry because we are blessed with kids who require me to take care of them all the time. Eli and I are moving to Africa to be missionaries, but my role as a missionary will look quite different than it would have if we weren't going to a medical site, or if I could narrow down what to do with myself, or if we didn't have such young children. These are the realities and the struggles for me. I'm excited and grateful to be called and to be going, but I've spent a long time (and am still spending time, to be honest) adjusting my expectations and coming to terms with what my life as a missionary will look like.
This issue has been on my heart and mind for so long that I jumped at the opportunity to do a research project on the subject when I was in grad school at Wheaton. Another young woman in my class had been dealing with the same question as she and her husband were preparing to be Bible translators in Africa, so we teamed up for the project and had an enlightening and thought-provoking experience as we waded through our research. The resulting 54-page paper ultimately sought to answer this question: “In what ways and to what extent are missionary wives involved in ministry on the mission field in addition to their roles as mothers and homemakers?”
We read books and articles on the subject in addition to interviewing six missionary wives who had served in a total of twelve different countries and who had raised (or were still raising) children on the mission field while their husbands assumed the primary role in ministry. It was fascinating, to say the least, and we were both encouraged and discouraged as we learned about the lives of missionary wives throughout the research process. Some of them had rather positive experiences on the mission field as they raised their children and took care of the home, even if it meant they were not able to spend much time doing ministry, while others wrestled with frustration and disappointment because they weren't very involved in ministry due to the time constraints of raising a family and/or the cultural expectations of women's roles that were placed upon them.
As we thought about these issues, it was interesting to learn some of the historical precedents for missionary wives. For instance, before the Reformation, celibacy was required of all missionaries, men and women alike. After the Reformation, Protestantism abolished the rule of celibacy, meaning that missionaries could be husbands and wives for the first time. It was a drastic turning point in the history of missions. Although missionary wives were not traditionally as involved in ministry as their husbands, they were often valued for supporting their husband's ministry and for providing an example (along with their husbands) of Christian monogamous marriage, as well as being considered culturally-appropriate teachers and evangelists to women and children. It was eventually recognized that women had skills and talents to offer in their own right, and single women began flocking onto the Protestant mission scene in the late 19th century. In fact, some women were so effective in their ministry that opposition arose to the idea of married missionary couples because, as some missionary societies argued, it wasn't feasible to support an entire family since the wife, presumably, was occupied in the home rather than doing ministry. Some mission societies went so far as to require single women to swear to celibacy for at least a few years before they'd be allowed to marry, in order to not lose the skills she brought to the ministry.
Thankfully, all the evangelical mission agencies I know of are more than welcoming to wives and families today. In fact, many of them tout the notion that we ourselves believe: that the entire family is called. Eli is not the only one called to be a missionary in our family. I am very much called too, and so are Caleb and Kai and the little one arriving later this year. We firmly believe that God placed this call on them when He gave them to us. Our mission organization, WGM, feels the same way and we are grateful for that.
With that said, however, it doesn't answer the question of what a missionary wife does on the mission field. The answer, of course, varies for everyone. The most important thing (in my opinion) is that the missionary wife is given just as much credit as the missionary husband. Even if the only thing I outwardly do day-in and day-out for the next several years is change diapers and clean spills and teach the ABCs, I have a vital role in our ministry. I will be keeping our family intact, I will be raising and discipling our children to be Christ-minded people, and I will be engaging in the local community and the global Church. That is important work and I hope people will recognize that. In fact, one of the earliest studies done on missionary wives' satisfaction on the mission field discovered that it wasn't the wife's role that led to satisfaction or not, but rather role recognition, definition, job description, and acknowledgement given to her that led to satisfaction. I could not agree more.
Now that we actually have children and are actually in the final stages of preparing to head overseas, the question of "What will you do?" rings in my ears more than ever. When I discuss this with people, I usually acknowledge the struggle. There are certainly things I'd be interested in doing if I had the time or opportunity to do them, such as disability ministry or literacy work, but I'm not sure that will happen for awhile, at least not regularly. And I'm learning to be okay with that. People periodically suggest ways I could still do ministry while also being a full-time mom, which is thoughtful of them, but which misses the point. I can't do what I want to do right now (like writing) because of being a full-time mom. I can't do much else, even here in America, let alone across the world where I won't have access to the occasional childcare I enjoy here. It's a sacrifice I'm making right now, and it will continue to be a sacrifice for years to come. It's the sacrifice of parenthood.
But being a parent is a gift and a calling too, and it's certainly a ministry. For years and years to come I will have people living under my roof who need me to teach them about Jesus. I will have people living under my roof who need me to pray over them every night. I will have people living under my roof who need me to encourage them and help them discern their own gifts and talents to use for the Kingdom. This parenting thing is definitely a ministry, whether we do it here in America or there in Africa. The blessing of doing it in Africa is that we get to do it where God has asked us to, and we get to join the global Church in advancing the Kingdom as we do it.
So while Eli will be working to heal sick patients in addition to teaching and discipling Kenyan residents as they prepare to practice medicine on their own, I will be changing diapers and cleaning spills and teaching the ABCs and getting to know my neighbors and praying with patients as opportunities arise and seeking to love God more everyday and teaching our children to do the same. That is what I'll be doing and that is what it sometimes looks like to be a missionary in Africa.