We hear over and over again from our missionaries that their paths to the field started with a still small voice that amplified over months, years, sometimes even decades.

Maybe you’ve heard the whisper, but don’t yet know if it’s time to go. You aren’t raising support, packing your bags or saying goodbye yet, but your daily decisions can still significantly help — or hinder — your ability to effectively engage the unreached in a cross-cultural setting.

If even in the very back of your mind, you think you might want to become a missionary, here are some pitfalls to avoid.

1. Don’t ignore your local church

Missionaries represent their sending churches, which also play a crucial role in Jesus’ Great Commission. Get to know your pastors, elders and missions committee members — and let them get to know you — so that God can use them to help determine your steps toward missions. These are the people who will pray for you, encourage you and support you, even though you’re far away. Invest in your local church now so that relationships there will stand the test of time and distance. 

Your local congregation also can serve as a place to hone and develop your ministry skills, before you face the added complication of serving in a new culture. It can be easy to love God’s global church in principle — but once you get to the field, you’ll find that God’s global church is made up of a lot of people with the same kinds of issues that the people in your home church face. Learn to serve his people now so that it comes naturally later.

2. Don’t focus solely on your home culture

While you wait, start to gain some experience with other cultures. This site has a good list of books about culture to read, but look for chances to put what you’re reading into practice. That might mean working with international students or seeking out a refugee organization that needs volunteers. It could mean developing a friendship with a neighbor or member of your church who comes from a different cultural background. Don’t worry if the people you connect with now aren’t from the people group you want to work with in the future. Learning what to observe and ask can provide a solid foundation for cultural understanding no matter where God leads you. Here are some questions to get you started. 

Stepping on a plane for a short-term trip often plays a role in leading global workers into full-time service.

3. Don’t stay put

Most of the people who go on a short-term mission trip don’t end up serving as career missionaries. But most career missionaries have taken at least one short-term trip. Short-term trips done well can help you practice ministry skills and refine where God is leading you. One SEND missionary who didn’t sense any geographic calling went on four trips. Because choosing a place to serve from anywhere in the whole world was so overwhelming, he was thankful that God used each of those opportunities to further refine his call.

4. Don’t take on more debt

Let’s face it: Missionaries aren’t in it for the money. Overseas workers tend to live on tight incomes, or their finances vary from month to month, depending on how much support comes in. While some missions will allow workers to raise support toward paying off their student loans, many other forms of personal debt can prevent people from being able to serve overseas. If you already have debt, don’t let finances keep you from following God’s call to make disciples of all the nations! Start paying down your balance now so that you’ll have the financial freedom to move later.

5. Don’t waste your mind 

Learning a second language can help you pick up others on the field.

Think about what kind of education might serve you well once you’re on the field, and use your time in your home culture to study. Learning a second language — any language — develops study skills that you can apply in the future. Theological education naturally benefits people who want to preach or teach in a national church or Bible school. But opportunities in missions go far beyond traditional, church-based ministries. Marketplace & Development Enterprises helps people start businesses that have Kingdom impact. Health workers build bridges of trust into communities. English teachers naturally discuss important life topics with their students; learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages can make such a ministry more effective. Administrators and financial directors free up missionaries who don’t have such experience so that they can focus on using their gifts to make disciples among the unreached. God can use your education — any education — to reach this world.  

6. Don’t leave out your significant people 

Think about the folks who will be affected if God leads you to serve overseas. If you’re married, your spouse and children will see their lives change dramatically, but your move also will mean a sacrifice on the part of your parents, siblings and closest friends. Of course, obeying God’s call is your highest priority, but consider whether it would be wise to start including these other significant people in the discussion. You know your loved ones best, so use your discernment. Some folks might feel unnecessary stress if you bring up the topic of a cross-cultural move while you yourself still have more questions than answers, but some of your loved ones could find great comfort and satisfaction if you invite them to participate in every step of the journey.

7. Don’t go it alone

Even as you seek the Lord’s will about whether you should become a missionary, consider researching missions organizations. There are lots of us out there! Often, these groups work in different parts of the globe, but as you research, you also will notice differences in how finances are handled, in requirements for moving overseas, in approaches to team-building and leadership, and so on. It can be overwhelming to find an organization that’s the right fit for you. Consider compiling a “short list” of excellent organizations now in order to speed up your path to the field later. (Shameless plug: Here’s why we think you should consider adding SEND to your short list.)

Tip: Get the inside scoop by talking with missionaries about their organizations. Do they feel supported, even during tough times? How much influence does the organization exert in helping the missionary choose a local church or a ministry role? In what ways do gender issues influence the ministries in which men and women can participate? Do they feel sufficiently financially stable that they are freed up to focus on reaching the unreached? Does the organization also provide member care for the missionary’s children, or just the adults?

And, above all …

8. Don’t forget to pray!

Do you have any other tips? Was there anything that slowed down your progress to the field that you wish you had avoided? 

More on becoming a missionary

  • Want to find more resources for becoming a missionary? Sign up for On Mission, SEND’s monthly guide for people considering cross-cultural service. Subscribe here, and as a welcome gift, you will receive a free download of a world map that highlights today’s unreached people groups. Together, we can bring them Good News. We can’t wait to join you on the journey!
  • To talk with a missions coach, fill out this quick survey. It’s a three-minute investment that could change your life.
  • Are you called to missions? Ready to serve? Financially fit? This page can help you find answers.
  • Thinking about joining a missions agency? Check out the benefits SEND offers families that join our organization.