By Emily Roth
“I didn’t realize you could have such joy in what you do.” Sarah Pisney once told God that she would never be a missionary in Africa. This past summer she celebrated 10 years of ministry in Uganda. She describes the past decade as a journey on a winding road, complete with blind corners, cliff edges, and stunning views.
Sarah first arrived in Uganda to serve for two years with Hope Alive!, a relief and development project providing accessible education and Christian mentorship for children. The many administrative tasks of managing a non-profit organization drained Sarah’s energy and joy. She instead discovered a passion for teaching and discipling teenage girls.
“Teaching is my heart,” Sarah said.
She returned to Uganda with the plan to open a discipleship school for girls between high school and university. But she again found herself buried in administration. By August 2013, she was reevaluating her calling and gifts.
In university, God led her to a degree in biblical studies. Later, He sent her to seminary. She didn’t understand at the time how He would use these years of study and preparation.
“His plans are so much greater. It just takes so much surrender and obedience on our part,” Sarah said.
When she approached her pastor in Uganda about serving the church, he invited her to teach a Bible class to the church leaders. This surprised Sarah. It was a counter-cultural decision for a Ugandan pastor to take. Ugandan culture operates according to an economy of knowledge. Many leaders are reluctant to share their knowledge for fear of losing their positions of power. For this reason, many churchgoers have been led to believe Scripture is too difficult for them to understand on their own.
“They don’t know the truth and they don’t know how to get to the truth,” Sarah said.
Since Sarah began to teach in the church, 70 students have completed the 17-week curriculum focused on biblical interpretation. At the end of each course, the church hosts a graduation complete with gowns and certificates for the students.
Sarah now teaches the course alongside an associate pastor, who provides a Ugandan perspective to the lessons. She plans to one day see the classes led completely by Ugandan Christians.
“My goal is to empower Ugandans to do what I do,” Sarah said.
In addition to the Bible classes, Sarah has continued to disciple young women, although outside of a school context. Once a week, young women gather in Sarah’s home to cook, laugh, dance, and support each other. Sarah has mentored many of them since they were in high school, and now most are taking university night classes.
“Having girls come to my house is much more casual, much more relational, and that has worked out a million times better,” Sarah said. “We talk about relationships and decisions that we are making and who we go to for counsel.”
Over the years, Sarah has earned their trust in an environment where gossip and power plays are common practice. Because knowledge is power, the vulnerability can be dangerous even between family members and friends. Sarah’s goal has always been to create a space of mutual openness and safety for the young women.
“I would do nothing to break that trust that took me years to earn,” Sarah said. “I value that hard-earned trust more than anything.”
This year Sarah had an opportunity to personally exemplify openness and vulnerability with the group. After many challenging years, she was diagnosed in November 2018 with clinical depression and anxiety. Mental illness is not openly discussed in Uganda. It is instead covered up and avoided. So when Sarah shared the news, the young women were surprised and said that she was the first person they knew to have depression.
“The greater good I see from sharing it outweighs any fear that could have been there. That’s just the work of God,” Sarah said.
The young women are now inviting their friends to the group. They encourage the newcomers, saying that Sarah’s house is a place where they can feel safe to share their struggles and seek support.
“Even when life is chaotic here, even when I have a rough day, there’s this peace that’s saying I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Sarah said.
Looking back on her journey, Sarah knows God was equipping her for His plans. He challenges her to use the gifts she has towards His purpose and glory.
“We are not here for ourselves. We were given a purpose and a goal on this earth to do. We can lose sight of that and Satan loves for that to happen, but we’re here for a purpose. We can’t forget it,” Sarah said.
Since her diagnosis, she has learned to manage depression and anxiety with medication, her psychiatrist and counselors, and supportive friendships in her church. The journey has also grounded her in more truths about God, such as his enduring love and acceptance. Depression had stripped her of all joy. Now she has a renewed joy for teaching as she co-leads the Bible classes, disciples the young women in her home, and serves in women’s ministry for her church.
“We are so honored that we get to do his work here,” Sarah said. “We are such a mess and he chooses us to do his holy work here. Who are we that we get the honor to do it?”