In Uganda, as in many parts of the world, hospitality is highly valued; visitors are always seen as a blessing. We lived in that hospitable country from 2003 to 2011, and were frequently welcomed into friends’ homes, from the well-off to the poorest of the poor, and given large meals, colourful platefuls of seemingly giant mangoes, watermelon slices and bananas, huge mugs of sweet tea, bowlfuls of groundnuts, and as many bottles of Fanta as we could drink (to our children’s delight). When friends and students came to our home on the university campus, at the very least a cup of water had to be offered within the first few minutes, along with a plate of groundnuts, and tea or a cool drink to follow if they stayed any length of time. Not only was it a hot walk up a steep hill up to our house, but also a sacrosanct cultural expectation.
Hospitality did not only include welcoming day-to-day local friends though. There were also overnight stays for fellow-missionaries who were visiting, maybe passing through on the way to the airport, or the dentist and the shops. There were longer stays for teams and visitors from home churches, not to mention relatives. There were also requests to have friends of friends to stay, who on a life-changing trip through Africa just needed a place to stay for a night or two. Although we didn’t, some missionaries took in short-termers to live with them for extended periods.
From talking with countless missionary friends over the years, and now briefly surveying a sample of Redcliffe’s Member Care students, it is clear that my experience is not unique. Apparently, when involved in mission, whatever your situation, you will find yourself giving hospitality. It is simply a given. One student wrote: “Mission is all about hospitality!” We could easily turn that around and say “Hospitality is mission.” It is a wonderful privilege, a biblical command, and very often a lot of fun – but it can also be a burden, or just become too much. One couple referred to their recent decision to limit over-night visitors to ten nights a month, which is still two to three nights every week, a limit they find they cannot always keep.
This level of hospitality is costly in many ways, not least in time, and money. For those living in towns with supermarkets, packaged food can be expensive, as is eating out. (Although this varies in different parts of the world.) For those living more rurally and depending on locally available products, going to the market and creating meals from scratch is time-consuming. Hosting a newly arrived missionary or team to the field can be emotionally draining – helping people cope with the new and unfamiliar, wanting them to feel at home… For families with children, it can be disruptive to normal routines, meals and bed times. For home-schooling families, it can de-rail a carefully planned timetable. For introverts, it can just be exhausting.
Drawing together contributions to my informal survey, I have compiled the following: Five Good Reasons for Offering Hospitality, and Five Ways to Ensure Hospitality Remains a Positive Part of Ministry.
Five good reasons for offering hospitality
1. It is a biblical command
In a passage of teaching on living the Christian life together in love, Paul includes the exhortation to “practise hospitality.” (Rom. 12:13). Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” The command follows an instruction to “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters”: showing hospitality is part of loving one another – rather than being purely an opportunity to possibly meet an angel! In the pastoral epistles hospitality is frequently mentioned as a requirement of Christian living and leadership.
2. It is a gift to the people being hosted
Most people across every culture seem to appreciate being invited into someone else’s home. It makes them feel valued and loved – and as such it is a ministry in itself. If guests are colleagues who have newly arrived in country, or who have been away travelling, it is probably a relief to them not to have to cook for themselves. It can be a source of encouragement to a colleague or friend who is struggling. For some guests it may mean even more than that: one person wrote, “for some, in providing them a meal, I knew they would survive another day.” For non-Christian friends, offering them hospitality is a great way to witness. In all of these ways, hospitality is a way of blessing people, and in turn, being blessed.
3. It is a way to get to know people better
Spending time over a meal or a drink is often the first step towards building deeper friendships. It is a chance to hear each other’s stories, and share lives. Life-long friendships can result. It can also be very helpful in a team situation, as a way of developing the all-important relationships within the team, and relaxing and letting off steam together.
4. It gives supporters a chance to know you and your ministry better
If people from a sending church or mission agency go to visit their missionary on the field, and actually stay in their home, it is an excellent way to get to know them better, and enables more informed prayer for the missionary and their work. They will also have first-hand experience of daily life with its ups and downs: from the power-cuts, brown water and dangerous roads, to the wonderful sunshine, and delicious local food.
5. Giving hospitality is enjoyable.
One person responded that cooking for others is an enjoyable way of using their skills: they find it a creative outlet. Several indicated that it is a joy to be able to serve others. Speaking from my own experience, some of my best memories are of a group of friends old or new, gathered together around a meal, or a game, relaxing and laughing – simply enjoying being together.
Five ways to ensure hospitality remains a positive part of ministry
1. Know the reasons why we do hospitality
Being aware of these good reasons for showing hospitality can help make it a positive thing to do, rather than an added burden or a duty to fulfill. With Member Care in mind, several respondents commented that it would therefore be helpful if agencies included teaching on hospitality in orientation, to help missionaries think it through and be prepared for it.
2. See it as part of the ministry
One person commented that giving hospitality often leads to deeper ministry, so we should see hospitality as part of our ministry. Speaking from experience, when we worked at Uganda Christian University we often invited students to our home, and this completely changed the dynamic with them in the classroom. So hospitality is not an extra thing for missionaries to do, but an important and integral part of their ministry.
3. Be prepared
Given that hospitality can often be needed or offered at short notice, or happen at already busy times, it could be helpful to have some fall back preparations in place. One respondent suggested having some standby recipes that work for a crowd, or that work at short notice: for example a recipe that uses cupboard ingredients only, so that they can always be kept on hand. Another suggested setting some money aside in the budget for hospitality.
4. Have boundaries
Good Member Care should ensure that people are aware of their personality traits and needs before going on the field. Missionaries need to know themselves, their gifts and limitations. As mentioned previously, some people love hosting and find it uses their gifts, while others might find it more of a strain. Introverts need the down time that hosting can all too often eat into. So it is good to have some limits in place, to ensure that a person is not looking after others whilst bringing exhaustion and burn-out on themselves.
This can be more tricky in a house-sharing or team setting, where people’s needs will have to be balanced. It can also be a difficult issue in a marriage where one partner thrives on hosting more than the other, or is just more extroverted. Pre-field training and preparation in this area would be all-important to prevent such tensions arising once in the thick of the situation.
Family might be another good reason for limiting the amount of hospitality offered. If having people for meals and/or overnight stays takes the parents away too often from their children at crucial times, or is proving a strain on family relationships in any way, that ought to be thought about. A limit on the number of occasions someone hosts per month could be helpful. Asking another family to share the hospitality could also help, if a visitor is staying for any length of time.
And in some circumstances they might have to simply say No. A suggestion from one respondent was that it would be helpful to be aware of local guesthouses that could be suggested as an alternative for an overnight stay. Taking visitors to a local restaurant for a meal instead of cooking could also be a good option, if manageable in the budget.
5. A hospitality policy for mission agencies?
One respondent referred to a policy of their mission agency, that a missionary staying with other missionaries should offer them a certain amount of money per night or per meal, or give a food-gift. This arrangement helps with inter-missionary hospitality especially if it is a frequent occurrence. It seems to be a very good idea that the Member Care giver in an organization should have some insight into the amount of hospitality being expected of missionaries, when it comes to missionaries en-route and visitors to the field. (The natural day-to-day hosting of local friends would be separate from this.) It would be helpful if questions around hosting were included in annual reviews and debriefs. This would be a way of a person flagging up if too much is being expected of them, if it is causing stress for themselves or their family, or if it is a cause of tensions between house-mates or team-mates.
This article has shown that hospitality is an inevitable, joyful, and rewarding, but sometimes stressful aspect of missionary life, and a crucial aspect of mission. It has been said that mission is all about hospitality, and that hospitality is mission. It seems important then that it is thought about and planned for, along with every other aspect of ministry. Member Care can and should play a role in ensuring that it remains a positive aspect of people’s ministry, by including teaching on it in orientation, tracking expected levels of hospitality, being aware of any stress being caused through periodic reviews, and supporting their missionaries in making decisions regarding boundaries that will help them maintain a sustainable ministry.