Let me introduce my guest writer: a worker with my agency serving in the Balkans. She originally wrote this for her own newsletter, but it is so good I share it with her permission.
On my 25th birthday, I got on a plane and began a journey of ministry in the Balkans. I was a mix of emotions that day: starry-eyed about my adventure, misty-eyed because of the goodbyes, and confident in the calling to reach unbelievers with the gospel. Today, in honor of my 3-year Balkanniversary, I’m sharing 10 things I wish I could tell my 25-year-old self when I was beginning this journey.
1. The goodbyes are only beginning but don’t stop loving people.
There’s a surprising amount of turnover of workers in the Balkans—expats coming and going, as well as locals moving to other countries. It can be hard to keep opening yourself up to people who might leave in a year or two, but it’s a privilege to choose again and again to love the people God has put in front of me.
2. Life in the Balkans is at a higher volume.
From the blaring American pop music in every café to the crazy traffic, to the windy mountain roads, the regular protests, the constant construction projects, the echoes of the call to prayer and church bells all day long, the smell of the river, the stray dogs sleeping on the sidewalk, the hot and cold temperatures, the way you come face-to-face with homelessness, the fireworks set off at every wedding, the funerals and mourning that last for weeks, the loud music that your neighbor blasts from her yard, the occasional earthquake to shake things up, the stark communist style buildings mixed with modern architecture and quirky street art, the colorful, fresh Mediterranean-style food, the majestic castles, bitter coffee, the dramatic histories of life and war in years past … There is just something about life here that is more intense.
3. You will learn so much about patience.
When living in another culture, everything takes more time. I’ve learned to expect that I will probably need to go 2 steps back to go 1 step forward. Part of this is learning how to navigate a new system and part is living in a culture where relationship is more important than a particular task or efficiency.
4. You will be grateful every day for your training, but you’re still not prepared.
This quote from a leader in my agency describes it perfectly, “The most competent I ever felt was when I was on the plane headed for my first term in cross-cultural ministry. I had been to Bible college, read books, attended classes on evangelism, and led women’s Bible studies. I felt prepared and ready to change the world. Had I known that was going to be the last time I felt competent, I might have savored the moment more!”1
5. Despite the distance, you will grow closer to family than ever before.
I think that living in the Balkans—a very family-oriented culture—has caused me to especially value time spent with or talking to my parents and sister. I talk with them every week, and their insights and encouragements have been invaluable to me! God has also provided other friends here in the Balkans and around the world who have become like family. I never feel like I have to make my decisions alone because of the wise, caring people he’s put in my life to lean on!
6. Keep sharing Christ faithfully, even when people aren’t responsive.
When I was 15 years old and decided to follow Jesus, it was the best moment in my life. I felt like a weight was lifted off me. I could stop striving and instead live as one loved deeply by God. I wanted everyone around me to experience that kind of peace. Over the past 3 years, I’ve been able to share my faith with friends and strangers, and my heart has become discouraged when people aren’t interested. They tell me that they are dissatisfied with their lives and are longing for something to fill them, but they don’t think it’s Jesus. The story of Zacchaeus from the book of Luke has reassured me that there are some people who are longing for an encounter with Jesus and are willing to change everything about their lives to repent and know him.
7. Don’t obsess over what you’re not—live into your giftings and limitations for God’s glory.
At first, I remember thinking to myself several times every day, “I wish I were older.” In that season, I was asking God for wisdom in each situation and I envied my teammates who had been doing ministry for years and had witnessed acts of God’s faithfulness. Since moving to my current small city, I often think, “Why didn’t God make me an introvert? It would have been so much easier!” I see my introvert friends thriving with the down-time and slow speed of life. Meanwhile, God is challenging me to be intentional and creative about spending time with people. Even in the past couple of months, I’ve wondered why God has allowed me to have health problems and diet restrictions. Too often I’m like Moses—drawing attention to my weaknesses—rather than trusting God to use me in spite of them.
8. Don’t delay developing a theology of singleness.
This a reality of my experience. I’m a single missionary who hopes to get married at some point but who is sure about my calling to the Balkans. I never put much energy or thought into developing a theology of singleness in the past because I didn’t want to need it. But what I’ve learned this year, as I’ve begun to research this topic, is that all of us, as believers, need to see the value of single people in the church. And we all need to see the beauty of marriage too. We all reflect Christ in our different stages and contribute in different ways in building the body of Christ!
9. Life overseas isn’t always an adventure—it can often be mundane.
I’ve spent hours each week cooking, washing dishes, hanging up laundry, and cleaning my apartment until it’s up to local standards (absolutely pristine). I’ve been learning what it looks like to reflect, worship, and nurture my relationship with Christ even in these seemingly boring activities.
10. Lean into Christ, know him, love and be loved by him—don’t ever believe anything bad about him!
When my health problems began, I started to imagine Jesus being present with me each moment of the day. While I walk to work. Or set up my classroom. Or eat lunch. Maybe this is because I miss having a roommate. But I think the bigger idea is that no matter where this ministry journey takes me, my relationship with Jesus is the anchor. He is present with me and he is the one who will build his church.
Father God, I pray for my co-worker and others like her who are adjusting to life in a new country, eager to share the gospel with those who don’t know your love and forgiveness. Minister to them and give them assurances that they are right where you want them and you are using their efforts to build your church.
1 Sue Eenigenberg and Suzy Grumelot, Sacred Siblings: Valuing One Another for the Great Commission (Littleton, CO: William Carey Publishers, 2019), 123.