Many people in the mission world are exposed to significant levels of suffering. Whether it’s walking past vast numbers of the destitute on the streets of Asian megacities, watching people die of diseases that could be cured in the west, or supporting the millions of people worldwide living in refugee camps, mission workers witness a lot of suffering. Sometimes it’s a passive experience which can be part of life in their field of ministry, or sometimes an active one as they devote themselves to providing relief.
Others of us experience suffering ourselves, perhaps through the car accidents which are all-too-frequent in the sort of places we work, robbery, kidnap, assault, or natural disaster. We may experience broken relationships, spiritual abuse within toxic agencies, or exploitation by those we are aiming to serve.
Such exposure to suffering can have a variety of impacts. It can lead to compassion fatigue, with people becoming uncaring as they steel themselves to withstand the suffering around them. It can lead to burnout as they strive compassionately to personally meet the needs of everyone they come across. And it can, in extreme circumstances, lead to severe theological doubts or even a loss of faith as people struggle to come to terms with the presence of suffering in a world created by a loving God. Not to mention conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
How do mission workers suffering from such trauma find relief for it?
- They need to get away. People working in traumatic contexts should withdraw regularly for rest and healthcare, to make sure they stay well enough to do their jobs. In the process they’ll need to feel helped not to feel guilty for leaving those who need their help. By withdrawing to recharge their batteries, they will in the long run be able to be help more people. Fortunately there is a growing number of retreat centres worldwide where mission workers can get a break and, if they want, also find debriefing.
- They need to engage spiritually with the situation. Where is God to be found in this mess? What is God saying to them? How is the Holy Spirit empowering them to do their ministry?
- They need to have a proper debrief. It’s important with people engaging with trauma that they don’t merely have a brief chat with a colleague, but meet with professionals as part of a process of unpacking their emotions. Ministries like ARREST, Healthlink360, Interhealth, and Le Rucher specialise in providing such focussed support.
- They need a supporting church that can care for them when they come “home” for a break, by providing hospitality, love and support, and an opportunity for them to talk if they want to, while respecting the fact that they may want to keep silent and think things through in their minds rather than verbalising everything. They need to feel involved without having lots to do, as they will need space to work through what is going on inside them.
- They need to be accepted for who they are at this moment. One of the big challenges for mission workers with doubts about their faith is that there are few people they can talk to honestly. They are frightened to tell their agency that they are constantly tearful and feel guilty of their relative wealth and security for fear of not being allowed to go back. They fear they will lose the support of their church if they say that after what they’ve seen, they can’t believe in a God of love any more. An accepting, non-judgmental environment in which mission workers can express such doubts can go a long way towards their healing, though sadly what we hear most from mission workers is that they have nobody who understands.
In order to prevent the build-up of stress in a mission worker to an unhealthy state, they should have a good understanding of a theology of suffering, recognise their own physical responses to stress so that they can take appropriate action, and have supportive relationships where it is safe to talk openly about the challenges they face.
Far too many mission workers are invalided out of the field because they weren’t properly supported and cared for… by church, by agency, and by themselves.