Life in a Graveyard

One by one we watched them leave, quite often heart-broken, usually discouraged. But always leaving a big chunk of their hearts behind them. Graveyard life did them in, and it’s no surprise. It’s often dark and gloomy, oppressive and crushing.

What in the world am I talking about? Italy. Beautiful, marvelous Italy, where few missionaries remain. It’s often called a “missionary graveyard,” and for good reason.

What in the world am I talking about? Italy. Beautiful, marvelous Italy, where few missionaries remain. It’s often called a missionary graveyard, for obvious reasons.

Less than four years

Most foreign missionaries (90%) remain in Italy for less than four years. That’s a high departure rate. Too high, though understandable. It’s a challenging mission field, with a tendency to chew missionaries up and spit them out. But not always for the reasons one might think.

Lack of results, spiritual depression, government bureaucracy, and corruption all play their part. But post-Christian Europe in general is not an easy field, especially southern Europe.

Through the practice of nominal Catholicism or Orthodoxy, many are aware of Christianity. This awareness makes them Christians, according to them. This creates disinterest or apathy toward the Gospel message we bring. So few are willing to listen, and even fewer consider it.

God is always at work,
even when all seems hopeless.

Lack of unity

But that’s not why we’ve seen so many leave. Most missionaries go out prepared for a long uphill climb, and ready to face battles. Our 33+ years here have taught me that what most defeats them is a lack of unity.

Italy is a nation embedded in tradition; it’s regarded as sacrosanct. Innovations in ways and ideas are often viewed as a menace. And newcomers are often treated skeptically. Especially those trying to bring change.

Some church leaders also have a proprietorship attitude towards their congregation. They see outsiders (even fellow nationals) as a threat. What if the newcomer tries to steal some of their sheep? So criticism, disapproval, and resistance abound. Likely as a protection mechanism, and not intended to harm. But it does much damage anyway.

Instead of an enthusiastic welcome, newcomers often face discouragement and undermining behavior. And from their own comrades in battle. Resulting in new tombs in the figurative graveyard. Which already stretches the length and breadth of the nation.

Seeing the heartache

One-by-one we watched them leave. Sorrowing with them, and grieving over the gap left. But we don’t judge them, for we know what a difficult choice it was and the pain it caused them.

We rejoice that most of them are now active laborers in other vineyards. And not only as pastors or Bible teachers, but in schools, hospitals, and many walks of life. Still being salt and light where the Lord has placed them.

Yet it’s sad for those who stay. Who remain in a land littered with figurative tombstones. Surrounded by the barren landscape of so many unreached towns.

Over 70% of Italy’s 8,000 towns (those that have a city hall) have no Bible-based church. Many towns have no witness at all.

So today’s post is another call to prayer. To pray that Italy’s mission cemetery stops growing. And that the suspicion and criticism that contribute to it will disappear.

Christ resurrection power

Yet we are not discouraged, for we know that Christ’s resurrection power has not changed. He still brings transformation. And he can bring life from death and beauty from ashes, even in the bleakest graveyard conditions.

God can bring life anywhere,
even in a graveyard.

Life itself is littered with graveyards. Ruined friendships, failed marriages. Lives destroyed by addictions, violence, or crime. Or those who feel nearly buried alive by life’s discouragements and difficulties.

If you’re dealing with graveyard circumstances, take heart. Christ’s resurrection power is available. And able to reach down into the most oppressing gloom and heartache. The enemy of our souls seeks to wreak death and destruction. But Christ’s invincible resurrection power is available. It can bring life and hope, defeating even life’s fiercest foes.

Images: Cemetery by Scott Rodgerson | Tombstone by GoranH | Butterfly by ulleo.

8 replies on “Life in a Graveyard”

While thinking of your post and praying I had a thought that may be encouraging. Rather than Italy being a graveyard for missionaries, maybe God sees it more as a boot camp for Christian workers. They are stretched and challenged far beyond anything they have ever known and then sent to where God intended all along. Thank God that after boot camp some like you guys stay the course and faithfully serve there. Thank you for all you do there in the birthplace of my grandparents.


That is an encouraging way of thinking about it, Pete. And I do hope that is the case for the many who have left. It is a good boot camp. I do hope they they are flourishing wherever God has placed them. What I find sad, though, is that they usually leave here so discouraged. As for us, we stay because we know this is where God wants us. He, and he alone, has enabled us. He is faithful!

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Thanks Linda! Prayers from fellow missionaries are so appreciated. You know the battles and struggles, but also the victories and God’s faithfulness. What a blessing that we can encourage each other, even from far away! My prayers are with you and your husband too. ❤


Thank you for sharing this eye-opening post, Sheila. I already pray for you and your husband but will add this concern, that missionaries might unite, celebrate one another’s fruitfulness, and support one another through the challenges. I thank God you two are there, voices of experience and reason that He can use to influence others!


Thanks Nancy. We appreciate your prayers so much. It’s the prayers of God’s people that have kept us going all these years! The lack of unity has diminished some over the years, but it’s still a real problem, so prayer is needed. You voiced our own prayer perfectly in your last sentence. That others, especially newcomers, could be encouraged by our years of experience here and that influence would help them to see that God can bring them through regardless! He remains ever faithul no matter how hard things may seem. Thanks dear friend, for your prayers and encouragement!! ❤

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