I will never forget the time as a teenager when I first told my parents that I felt called to missions. Their response was both encouraging and measured. They expressed initial happiness but also cautioned with the words, “Let’s wait and see.”

Years later, now as a former missionary, people will occasionally share with me their own desire to serve overseas. They sense that God is calling them into ministry and wonder what they should do next. In many ways, I want to respond like my parents, affirming such a wonderful calling while also tempering their excitement. I also want to give some practical advice.

What follows is my general counsel for prospective missionaries. More could be said, to be sure, with specificity depending on the situation. But these suggested first steps represent a broad perspective, with a clarity that comes from both mistakes made and lessons learned.

1. Take your time

Missionaries are passionate people. They are often Type-A go-getters who don’t like delay. From the moment they’re called they are ready to storm the gates of hell. But, in such cases, perhaps the greatest need for them is to tap the brakes. Take your time. Slow down. Breathe. There is incredible urgency in the world, but you must also sense the urgency which is within. You must realize the need to clarify ahead of time theological convictions and ministry priorities. You must be aware of your potential to do incredible harm to yourself, your hearers, and even the gospel if you are not well-prepared. Many a missionary has made shipwreck of his family or his ministry in the name of haste. So, please, take your time. Jesus and the Apostle Paul didn’t start right away. Chances are, neither should you.

2. Master the Scriptures

A large component of your preparation should be theological. Again, those in a hurry to reach the lost may want to bypass traditional theological education. They think it takes too much time. But if you are to be a minister of the gospel you need to master the scriptures. There is no shortcut here. The mission field is strewn with shallow missionaries and, almost by default, shallow churches. False teaching and a lack of theological clarity are the blight of the global church. How are you going to address that need with a thimble full of a Bible knowledge? And what will be your ballast when swirling around you are the winds of methodological innovation? What we need now more than ever are missionaries who are grounded in the word of God and who can rightly handle it in any context.

3. Become more relational

It would be easy to say that is enough. But acquiring a body of knowledge never qualified anyone for ministry. Knowledge without love is nothing. What that means for most Westerners is that we will need to learn how to love. More specifically, we need to learn how to communicate love in other cultures. Typically, Eastern and Southern cultures around the world are far more relational. They expect impromptu visits. They enjoy chatting with neighbors and strangers. They want to talk about everything and about nothing. Meanwhile, we in the West are often task-oriented and time-conscious. We have lost the art of conversation in our tech-driven society. But if you are going to serve people, you need to have certain relational and conversational acumen. You should, beginning now, seek experience meeting with people for extended periods of time, even people very different than you. You need to learn how to ask questions, how to draw out their desires or their pains. You need the kind of demeanor that turns a preacher into a pastor. In short, you need the compassion of Christ.

4. Learn a marketable skill

What skills and experience do you have? I cannot count the number of times I was asked that question as a missionary candidate. And I rarely had a good answer. But such ignorance and ambivalence will get you almost nowhere. If you want to serve as a missionary, secular expertise is critical. More and more countries in the world (even traditionally-open countries) are closing their borders or tightening immigration. Fears of global terrorism and the swell of nationalism are combining to squeeze out opportunities for religious worker visas. Which means, if your heart is to go to the unreached nations of the world, a Bible college degree will not likely suffice. In fact, it may be more of a scarlet letter. So I would encourage anyone considering overseas missions to pursue or enhance their current marketability. Learn a trade. Earn a degree. At the very least, become certified as an English teacher. Do anything. But whatever you do, do something to enhance your access to the nations.

5. Serve where you are

Professional development, however, is not enough. You should be taking advantage of this time to gain vocational experience as well. By that I mean you need ministry experience. You need to be serving right where you are, finding opportunities to meet needs in your current context. You should be evangelizing the lost, now. You should be pursuing relationships with internationals, now. You should be volunteering in your church, now. Don’t wait until you reach the field. Train yourself in the art of witnessing. Grow in your ability to serve others with hospitality. Gain experience teaching the Bible—even if that’s to Kindergarteners. So often I’ve seen prospective missionaries living for what’s next and missing what is now. But flourishing where God has you in the present is key to future fruitfulness.

6. Depend on your local church

Missionaries are also notorious for going it alone. But they, perhaps more than anyone else, need the local church—and not just for financial support. Early on in the process they need guidance from the elders and confirmation in their calling. They will likely need help selecting a sending agency or a field of service. While on the field they will benefit from regular encouragement and prayer from the body. Times may come when they need specific direction or even correction. But it’s almost impossible to create those relationships and paths for communication after landing on the field. Far better for you to develop meaningful and deep connections before departure. You’ll be glad you did.