I recently stayed overnight in a typical British guesthouse where breakfast was an interesting experience. Not because of the food, service or facilities, but due to the interesting social interaction – or lack thereof.
In a small dining room where guests sat at separate but adjacent tables, conversation was curiously stilted, as people were aware that their private discussions were being overheard. A men’s football team tried to joke with each other about the previous night’s escapades without incurring the scorn of other guests. A harassed father tried hard to keep his disobedient toddler under control without losing his temper. A browbeaten woman took the opportunity to chide her husband at a time when he couldn’t answer her back.
It occurred to me that often conversations between mission partners can be similar. We often refrain from saying the things that we’d really like to because we are aware that others are listening. We don’t like to disagree in case we sow the seeds of dissent, or act as a bad witness in front of others. So we bottle up the things we’d really like to say, and if we don’t blurt them out in a fit of self-indulgence they can build up inside us to such a point of frustration that they contribute significantly to our levels of stress.
Why do we do this? Because we mistakenly believe that when Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers” he meant that we shouldn’t rock the boat. But by failing to address relationship issues and by sweeping things under the carpet, we are not making peace, we are only keeping it. Peacekeeping may prevent outbreaks of open hostility but it takes real peacemakers to bring reconciliation and harmony.
So how do we make peace? First, we need to recognise that disagreement isn’t necessarily the same thing as disloyalty or rebellion. There is such a thing as what the British parliament calls “loyal opposition”. Somebody who has a theological, missiological or personal disagreement with you may actually love you, share your vision for ministry and be committed to your success. Disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t on the same side as you.
Secondly, we should remember that leadership can be a lonely and vulnerable place. Every objection can seem like a personal attack even if it’s intended to be a constructive suggestion. To a leader, people who speak out can seem like critics, people who oppose can appear to be rebels. If you’re going to disagree with somebody, ask yourself first how your comments will appear to them, and do your best to show them that you are not challenging them personally, or their position, just their decision.
Third, we should remember that if someone disagrees with us, they may actually be right. It can be tempting to surround ourselves with people who always agree because it is so much more affirming and comfortable, but it’s also the path to bad decisions. The person who disagrees with you may actually help you to come to a better decision, even if it can be hard work getting there.
Many mission workers carry unnecessary stress because they feel unable to speak their mind, whether it’s through concern that they might find their service terminated for causing trouble, fear that a person they challenge might lash out at them in pain, or because a misguided sense of loyalty tells them that they ought to agree with everything. The current trend towards confidential personal debrief with a person from outside the mission worker’s agency is to be welcomed, because it gives mission workers an opportunity to get issues off their chest in a safe environment, and find a constructive way of dealing with unresolved issues. If your agency does not provide this service, consider asking for it.
Syzygy offers a confidential debriefing service to any mission worker, whether serving with an agency, church network or fully independent. Contact us on email@example.com for further information. We find that it often helps people see past their immediate frustration and find long-term solutions to unresolved issues.