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Our World Turned Up-Side Down and Returned us to the Freedom We Tried to Give Away

Hindsight is a funny thing. The ability to look back and simultaneously shake your head at yourself AND know that what you did made complete sense at the time.

As singles, my husband and I had each already served one term with a well respected missions agency. During that time we both had difficult and damaging experiences with what we now understand were spiritually abusive individuals and organizational policies. Despite this, we felt significant loyalty to our agency. Our individual passions for reaching the world with the gospel remained strong. We felt sure that our negative experiences were due to the specific dynamics of our teams and circumstances. So, we both began the long process of returning to the field. 

One major piece of the returning puzzle was to complete a masters level seminary training. Life during that time was intense. The seminary required us to maintain a full course load, attend chapel services, and be active members of a local church. The sending agency wanted us to be regularly sharing the gospel with people and leading them to Christ as well as doing cross cultural ministry. A further requirement was that our churches had to sign off on us being not just members in good standing, but heavily involved members who shouldered significant leadership responsibilities. Additionally, we were expected to maintain physical fitness and not accrue too much debt, which meant working as many hours as possible to pay for our lives and degrees.

There was also the multi year application process itself. Hours of writing, answering faith and life questions, detailed belief statements about every possible aspect of various doctrines. Multiple rounds of interviews. Clearances for physical, financial, mental, and spiritual health. Deep dives into any possible area of sin we may have ever struggled with. We brought up any potential issues from our previous terms and asked if they would be barriers to our going now. They assured us they wouldn’t, and we trusted that.

While juggling that immensely heavy load, we somehow managed to meet, date, get married, change jobs, have our first child, and move... twice. It was so intense that our minds and bodies were feeling the strain. During that season my husband developed a stutter and I struggled to form complete sentences when speaking. Though these effects were temporary, they were an indication of the significant stress we had been living under for many years.

Even so, we were thrilled to now get to walk this missions path together. Because our experiences with our teams had been so negative, we were hyper aware that as a family we would have the power to care for and include singles on our team in ways we wished ours had done for us. We knew it was something that could make a massive difference for them. Everything we did was geared toward moving overseas with this agency. Our physical possessions reflected our desires to keep stuff to a minimum and own only what would make sense to bring with us overseas. Even our social circle and the activities we participated in were centered around overseas missions. We were frazzled and overworked, but eagerly striving toward the exciting life of ministry ahead of us.

Our change in marital status necessitated our re-starting the application process with our agency. It now also included many questions about every aspect of our relationship, down to assignment of household tasks and intimacy. Our child needed to receive all of the necessary clearances as well. If they had any questions, it was more essays and bubble forms. If any childhood developmental questionnaire or skill wasn’t in the average or above average range, it would delay our application process by several months. If we had ever weighed too much, we had to be re-weighed multiple times over a series of months to prove we were securely back to the BMI they required. Almost everything was done on paper or online with very little human interaction or feedback on any of the forms.

It was a month before graduation when it all came tumbling down. We were at the very end of the application process, had a job lined up, and were in touch with the field team we’d join. All the boxes were checked. All the clearances done. All except one…

Seemingly out of nowhere they asked for some more forms from my husband. A representative told us there were concerns. But no one would say WHAT they were concerned about. The only answer we got was that he needed to be VERY transparent. But transparent about what? It was so oddly vague. He filled out all the papers and sent them back.

Then we received a message saying our process would be delayed by a few months. That their concern persisted and they would now require a multi-appointment psychological evaluation to be completed. While we weren’t opposed to an evaluation, the timing of the delay was going to be a significant issue for us financially and logistically. We were rattled and had details to work out, but confident the evaluation would prove he was fine.

Before we had a chance to line everything up, the call came. The one that said they had decided an evaluation would not be good enough. That this still unnamed issue was so significant that he’d need to receive regular therapeutic treatment for several years before they’d be willing to send us. They emphasized that it was a really difficult decision because we were great otherwise and they very much wanted us to come back and re-apply in a few years.

The team we were to join was advised not to contact us. We were told not to contact anyone from the agency as they had been instructed not to take our calls. They did not want to hear our questions or our explanations. They felt they had learned enough from the bubble forms to make a life-altering decision for us without ever directly asking the question and hearing the answer. This was framed as care. So we could move on. So we didn’t have to explain to anyone.

We were shocked. Confused. Furious and hurt. Everything we had worked and lived toward for the past 6 years was just gone without even the courtesy of a conversation. Our world was up-side down. We had lost the path forward and they still wouldn’t say why…eventually someone from the agency happened to be in town and disclosed it to us.

It stemmed from the misunderstanding which caused my husband to be sent home early from his first term. It had been in his file all along. He had specifically asked about it multiple times and been assured it wasn’t a problem.

During his first term, he reached out for support for possible burnout and depression. He was sent to a field counselor connected with the agency who mistakenly believed him to be suicidal. The counselor left the room without explanation and called the agency, which decided to immediately put him on a plane home and terminate his employment with a couple of months severance. He asked why, but was not told. He asked for permission to go back to his field posting to say goodbyes and pack his things, but that request was also denied. They later framed this as care, as ensuring his safety. Turns out that making major decisions for people’s lives without explanation was their pattern.

When asked on our recent application form if he had ever been suicidal, he truthfully answered that he had not. Rather than ask him why his answer did not match their records, those reading the application determined it meant that he was in denial (a mental health issue) or deliberately deceitful (a sin issue). They said it would take several years of therapy and life change to determine which it was and resolve it.

More shock. More confusion. More anger. How could this well respected agency, these people who had dug deeper into our lives and required more transparency than anyone really had a right to, refuse to even speak their concern until after they had put a hard stop on our lives? Why not just ask? Literally years worth of invasive questions were asked and answered, but this one that mattered so much never was. Never would be. The evaluation they were refusing to allow could have put it to rest. But now we were shut out. Pushing back accomplished nothing. The addition of the dangling carrot of the offer for us to back in a few years to give them the chance to do this all over again was sickening.

Everything for us was tied to this agency. We had every reason to expect we’d be working for them for the rest of our lives. They had encouraged us at every step of the process. Assured us that we had a place there. Our identity and calling as overseas missionaries, housing, ministry, profession, income, social circles. It was all just gone at the last possible second. We hadn’t thought we needed a plan B.

The season that followed was the most difficult of our lives to that point. We felt so burned and burnt out from living under so many expectations for so long. We moved across the country to where we had some family willing to support us until we found jobs and a place to live. We learned that resumes primarily consisting of missions and odd jobs together with seminary masters degrees aren’t super helpful unless you are seeking a ministry job… which we didn’t have the bandwidth for at that time. We pulled together part time jobs to make ends meet for the family we now had. We did our best to establish new relationships and learn a new town. There was so much disillusionment, confusion, isolation, and shame.

Then came all of the questions and doubts.

  • Was God angry with us?

  • Was this a punishment for something we were unaware of?

  • What were we supposed to do now?

  • Had He really called us to missions?

  • Did we hear Him wrong?

  • How do we trust that He’d lead and we’d hear correctly now?

  • If He is good and wants good for us, why has following Him brought so much pain?

  • How do we live this U.S.-based life that we never planned for?

  • How do we have real relationships with people when they can’t possibly understand what this loss meant for us?

  • How do we move forward from here?

Over the course of the next 9 years we came to see God’s protective hand in us not going with that agency, or going at all. Things were still difficult. No clear “I brought you here for this” God-moment has come. Questions linger. BUT multiple major family and world events have occurred which made us hugely thankful to be where we are rather than where we intended to be. Things that would have upended our lives, done us great harm, and required us to start over multiple times.

Those opened our eyes to God’s gentle sweetness to us in preventing our going. He walked every step with us, even when we feared to take His outstretched hand.

We were able to see in hindsight what we couldn’t while we were in the midst of it. That despite its solid theology and biblical mission, this agency functioned as a high control group. Extreme expectations that when unmet resulted in being totally cut off. Requirements of complete transparency in all things from us, but necessary information withheld on their part. We would have been living under a microscope in an unhealthy, unstable limbo for as long as they would allow, all the while being told it was a privilege.

Life lived under unbiblical scrutiny and “law” is not what God desires for any of his children. Not even ones like us who would willingly submit ourselves to it.

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