Supporting Article

Marital Issues Facing Chinese Missionaries

China is in the beginning stages of sending cross-cultural missionaries. In my dissertation research on Chinese missionaries’ view of member care, I found that this is a new concept, and most missionaries and mission agencies are not even aware of the existence of current online resources. Some agencies and churches try to offer member care services; however, for financial reasons and due to the limited number of experienced member care providers, they cannot do much. In this context, when ChinaSource asked me to write an article on the issue of missionary marriage in China, I gladly accepted, despite its challenging nature. Reviewing my interview notes and conducting a review of the relevant literature led me to the following conclusions.

First, marital satisfaction has a high correlation with mission effectiveness and longevity.1 In this regard, marriages of Chinese missionaries are the same as others. As Brierley states, marital and family problems are the third overall factor in missionary attrition.2 Recently, there has been a growing interest in predicting the lives and effectiveness of missionaries from a family perspective.3 According to my findings, children’s education and marital satisfaction are among the top five factors in premature departure from the field.

Next, there is a great deal of similarity in the success or failure of marriages between missionaries, Christians, and non-believers. This is somewhat surprising because it appears that missionary marriages experience a high frequency and intensity of stress, such as exposure to a range of environments, cross-cultural and counter-cultural adjustments, living away from previous support systems, demands from missionary organizations, and balancing family life with the demands of missionary work. These exposures may cause or trigger mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety; however, these stressors do not necessarily lead to negative effects. According to Rosik and Pandzic, “The missionary experience does not appear to have a differential impact on marital satisfaction of husbands and wives.”4 On the contrary, most of the people I interviewed said that despite the amount of stress they often encountered, doing missions together actually allowed them to experience higher marital satisfaction, a finding that is also consistent with Jones and Jones.5 The types of marital challenges faced by Chinese missionaries and missionaries in other countries are not very different in content, but they are very different in order of importance; for example, children’s education was an important factor for all missionaries and had a significant impact on the length and quality of their lives on the field.

Then, the educational background of missionaries correlates highly with their external resources and the places they can go. Relatively speaking, couples with higher educational backgrounds have more options about placement, their children’s educational choices, and greater ease in raising funds. Those with a college education also tend to have higher expectations of the quality of life. For instance, their hope to provide better educational opportunities for their children is much higher than those missionaries who receive less education. They also desire more involvement and expect to have more of a voice in setting vision and rules instead of simply obeying and proceeding. If their voices are not respected, it will hurt their motivation to commit to and cooperate with their team. Therefore, the leadership style and decision-making procedures should be more flexible for these people.

Missionaries with lower levels of education tend to focus more on the needs of their daily life and finances. They are relatively more tolerant of hardship, more independent, humble, optimistic, and more content with life; these internal resources offset the negative impact of environmental factors, and they have greater resilience to stress and lower chances of burnout.

Furthermore, even though missionary couples from around the world experience similar environmental and internal challenges, Chinese couples have fewer resources for language learning and financial, spiritual, and psychological support than do Western missionaries.  Chinese missionaries have fewer opportunities to work for reputable international mission agencies, so from recruitment and equipping to educating their children, Chinese missionary families often live with higher expectations and lower support. The high expectations come from their churches and mission organizations. These expect their missionaries to go to dangerous and poor areas to work, and sometimes their request for missionaries does not match the missionaries’ equipping. I noticed that some mission leaders over committed to certain goals during mission conventions, then hoped the frontline missionaries would accomplish what they had promised.

Finally, the more freedom missionary spouses had in determining their ministry role, the less marital conflict they had and the greater was their happiness. This was one of the most obvious findings from the couples I interviewed. As Crawford and DeVries noted, when missionary spouses are free in choosing their roles, they are more willing to extend their service.6

Why Do Missionary Marriages Succeed?

Shared love maps. According to Gottman, the love map is that part of the brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner, that is, their hopes, dreams, and so on.7 Emotionally rich couples are very familiar with each other’s worlds. The couples I interviewed and the couples I cared for had this quality, and even though they were living in extremely difficult circumstances with limited external resources, they could often cope with these pressures if they were willing to understand and respect each other’s needs, cries, and expectations.

For example, because her husband had to focus on missions, a missionary wife needed to work very hard in a factory and also had to take care of two young children, but she told me she felt privileged to support her husband. She felt that as a young believer she was not qualified to do God’s work, but she respected her husband’s calling and was willing to take care of the family so that he could focus on his calling and not worry about the needs of the family. At the same time, the husband appreciated his wife’s contribution, and whenever he had the opportunity to learn about marriage and family (which is rare for them), he put aside his other work for a while and invited her to study with him. He often expressed his appreciation for his wife’s efforts rather than taking them for granted. Couples usually have a clear understanding of their roles and division of labor before they enter the mission field, and this enables them to treat each other with more respect.

Turning towards each other instead of away. One of the interview questions was: How would your life and marriage be different if you were not in a missionary role? The most frequent response given by the couples was that being in a missionary role made their marriages stronger. They felt that if they had stayed at home, they would not have received as much training and warnings about potential threats to their marriages, and they would not have deliberately worked on their marital relationship. Instead, as missionaries, they deliberately work on their communication and conflict resolution skills, and they prefer to grow as a couple and face the challenges.

They emphasized that as missionaries they are asked for more and given more. They have more accountability partners, increased awareness of spiritual warfare, guardrails set in place for their relationships, and opportunity to form prayer partners. Thus, they have less opportunity to withdraw from each other, especially when they are working with a team. Relatively speaking, they have more opportunities to turn to one another and connect. Gottman notes that this turning to each other is the foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.8 By doing this, couples build an emotional bank account—a bank balance that gives them enough relationship resources to cooperate and support each other in the face of all kinds of difficulties (such as children’s education, environmental hardships, financial stress, and others).

Letting your spouse influence you. Partners in a relationship must be willing to accept influence and share power. While most of the couples I interviewed had equal power and allowed each to express him- or herself freely, I also noted with sadness that one wife was not allowed to have her own voice; her talents were silenced and ignored. Her mental, psychological, and physical condition worries me. What makes me sad is that not only did the husband believe his wife’s sacrifice for the family and his work is spiritual (spiritual meaning it is good in God’s eyes), but the wife also believed so. According to John Gottman’s research, when a man is unwilling to share power with his partner, there is an eighty-one percent probability that his marriage will self-destruct.9

Ability to create shared meaning.  According to Gottman, marriage is more than just raising children, sharing chores, and having sex. There can be a spiritual dimension which has to do with creating an inner life together—a culture rich in symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for the roles and goals that bind a couple together and lead them to understand what it means to be part of a family.10 When asked what advice they had for couples who want to do cross-cultural missions, their responses always began with sharing the same calling, or at least a strong acknowledgement of that calling. They explained that conflict is unavoidable, and couples will fight over different issues whether they are missionaries or not. However, because they have the same calling, they can create shared meaning in their lives and are willing to face challenges and build relationships with churches and institutions together. This shared meaning helps them become best friends and life partners.

Shared expectations about life and children’s education. Couples’ expectations about their lives and their children’s education play an important role in determining how they live their daily lives. Couples who have a higher tolerance for hardship have more flexible educational choices for their children, their life expectations are more aligned with their resources, and they generally experience less marital stress. They are more likely to be content and to focus on new experiences rather than on pain and loss. They have lower levels of marital tension. They can turn a crisis into a good memory. For example, during the first night that one couple spent at their mission site, many termites entered the room, and they thought it was a terrorist attack. Since it was midnight and very dark outside only the sound of the termites could be heard, and it resembled that of military drones. However, the next day, when the locals told them it was termites and they were good protein to eat, they sorted out the termites on the floor, cooked and ate them.

Providing Support for Chinese Missionaries

1. First, in the screening process, choose those who have already sharpened each other and found their balance. These couples respect each other, have a common vision and a clear division of their roles in marriage and mission. Second, consider living ability and expectations. By “living ability,” I mean the survival skills that will be needed in a different culture; for instance, in a mountainous area, learning mountain climbing and keeping oneself oriented in the mountains. Missionaries also need to know how to survive and take care of themselves in a different culture without external assistance, for example, doing administrative work, cooking with local ingredients, and so on.

Family assessment should include personality, psychopathology, character, family patterns, resilience, spirituality, cultural adaptability, cohesion/connectedness, communication, and relationships.11 Choose couples who are teachable and open to new experiences and flexible toward change.

2. Equip couples from the beginning of the recruiting process for re-entry into their home culture. Provide timely and appropriate training and support according to their mission cycle and personal needs. Checking in weekly helps them sort out their struggles and keep from storing up issues. The availability of social support is a significant predictor of the success and adjustment of cross-cultural workers. Other research supports the idea that organizational support, especially training and preparation, is vitally important for cross-cultural workers’ mental health and effectiveness on the field.12

3. Member care service needs to be targeted to missionaries in their first term, especially those who are entering parenthood or raising young children.13 There are many areas in which churches can provide care, such as moral support, financial support, prayer, communication, and re-entry support. In addition, caring for the missionaries’ families back home can help to keep them free of worries.

Organizations must cultivate a culture of appreciating and equipping missionaries rather than consuming them. Rather than putting them in a panic because they must explore and learn on their own and saying, “Have faith in God and the Holy Spirit’s guidance,” they must value their overall development.  Organizations can show this by providing them theological, cross-cultural, language, and interpersonal skills, along with other types of training.

4. Resources and new ways of learning are abundant and flexible in today’s rapidly changing China. These are seen especially in the area of education. Fully understanding and making use of these innovative changes will make up for the lack of educational opportunities for children’s education. Helping with the children’s education can reduce a missionary couple’s stress load.


The well-being of missionaries is part of the mission. Since the church does mission through its missionaries, attention needs to be given equally to mission and missionaries’ care. The welfare of the missionaries will determine the quality of the mission. Member care should not be seen as a burden for churches; rather it provides an amazing opportunity for churches to bridge the spatial distance between the missionary family and the church.

Humbly wait and learn—missions cannot be rushed. Cross-cultural ministry is different from local evangelism. The cost, personnel requirements, and difficulties are significantly greater than for local evangelism. Missions is not a task that can be learned while doing. I encourage church leaders to have humble attitudes—ready to observe, learn, be aware of and equipped concerning the high requirements of cross-cultural missions for all involved including the missionaries, the churches, and the agencies. This follows the heart of God.


  1. John R. Powell. “Families in Missions: A Research Context,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 27, no. 2 (1999): 98–106.
  2. Peter W. Brierley, “Missionary Attrition: The ReMAP Research Report” in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Cause and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor(Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997), 85–103.
  3. Fred Gingrich, “Assessing Families (Not Just Individuals) for Missionary Service,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 44, no. 4 (2016): 329–347.
  4. Christopher H. Rosik and Jelena Pandzic, “Marital Satisfaction among Christian Missionaries: A Longitudinal Analysis from Candidacy to Second Furlough,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 27no. 1 (2008): 3.
  5. Marge Jones and E. Grant Jones, Psychology of Missionary Adjustment. Springfield, MO: Logion Books-Gospel Publishing House, 1995.
  6. Nancy Crawford and Helena M. DeVries, “Relationship between Role Perception and Well-being in Married Female Missionaries,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3 (2005): 187–197.
  7. John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 54.
  8. Ibid., 88.
  9. Ibid., 116.
  10. Ibid., 261.
  11. Crawford and DeVries.
  12. Claire A. Camp, Joy M. Bustrum, David V. Brokaw, and Christopher J.  Adams, “Missionary Perspectives on the Effectiveness of Current Member Care Practices,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 42 no. 4 (2014): 359-368.
  13. Rosik and Pandzic.
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Lisa Tsai

Lisa Tsai (pseudonym) is a trained family therapist from China and has done research on the needs of cross-cultural workers sent out from China. View Full Bio