Build a RAFT!

Is this going to help you survive?
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We have written about the challenges of re-entry on a number of occasions but so far we have not introduced our readers to the RAFT.  This helpful analogy was introduced by David Pollock who was an expert in transition.  His point was that the RAFT helps us leave well, so that we don’t feel we have unfinished business when we arrive back in our passport country.

Imagine a RAFT made of four logs lashed together.  Each log represents a different aspect of an emotionally-healthy departure.  They are:

Reconciliation.  It can be tempting when we know there is tension between us and someone else to just leave it, since we won’t be seeing them again.  But St Paul writes “Live in peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).  In other words, whether it’s your fault or not, you take responsibility for sorting it out.  Take the time to restore damaged relationships, to repent and ask (and offer) forgiveness.  Failure to do this can lead to a feeling that there is unfinished business which prevents us getting closure.  Unresolved issues can also overshadow the development of new relationships in our destination.

Affirmation.  Often people want to thank us for what we’ve done and what we’ve meant to them.  It may not fit our culture well and we might be embarrassed to hear people say nice things about us (let’s face it, we usually wait till the funeral to say them) but in some cultures it’s appropriate to honour people publicly and effusively.  Likewise we should be prepared to honour others and thank them for their work, welcome, and contribution to our lives and ministry.  Give cards or farewells gifts to people so they have something to remember you by.  It demonstrates that we value people.

Farewells.  Make sure you say goodbye properly to everyone.  Not just with one large party where you don’t have time for anybody, but with individual meals.  Make sure you give people quality time.  Try to finish your ministry responsibilities long before your departure so you have time for everyone – and for recovering from the emotions of saying so many goodbyes.  Also say goodbye to buildings, places, pets that have been special to you, and belongings you will be leaving behind so that you are consciously severing any nostalgic links you have to places as you move on.  And hold a ‘decommissioning’ service.  Transition is easier to cope with when there is a ritual element to it, so leaving well should include a way of handing over well.

Think Destination.  In the busyness of saying goodbye, selling or giving away belongings and handing over ministry, it can be easy to forget the flip side of leaving – re-entry.  Good preparation for re-entry can help ease the transition by resolving in advance all the issues about where you’re going to live, school your children, what support you will need as you transition and who will provide it.

By building a sturdy RAFT, you will have more chance of surviving the perilous journey ahead!

 

For further advice on leaving the mission field, see our helpful Guide to Re-Entry

Middle Space

No, it’s not something from Star Trek or a book by Terry Pratchett.  I was recently introduced (thanks to Ally Gibson of WEC International) to this aspect of phenomenology.  It’s the concept that when you and I sit down to talk, the space in between us is not empty – it is full of emotions that both of us put into it, but the other does not see.

So I may come to a meeting full of expectation, hope, anticipation and enthusiasm, together with a mental agenda of all the things I want to talk about.  You might bring your fears, anger and desperation.  Neither of us knows about what the other puts into the Middle Space, but unless we make each other aware of them, our meeting risks being dissatisfying.  If I don’t know about your fear, and you are reluctant to introduce the subject, I may go away from the meeting thinking it went well, but you will leave dissatisfied.

So how do we deal with the things in Middle Space?  We need to be aware that there may be things in it we don’t both know about, so we must discover them.  In a more formal context, such as counselling, we may be used to hearing “What would you like to talk about?”, but we need to find informal ways of doing the same thing.  “How are you feeling?” would be a good start.  A good friend of mine often asks “How are things with your soul?”, which drills a little deeper and leaves a simple “I’m fine” looking a little evasive.

Failure to address what is in Middle Space can have a huge impact on our relationships:

  • In any team meeting we may not communicate about the things that are really of concern to us.
  • In cross-cultural teams some of us may bring expectations about honour, respect, permission to speak which are not understood by others.
  • In cross-cultural marriages we may bring our own cultural expectations of a partner which are completely different in our spouse.
  • In member care we may miss issues which are bubbling away under the surface causing stress to our mission partners.

So let’s be intentional in putting our thoughts and feelings openly on the table, to improve communication, reduce misunderstanding and help our mission workers thrive!

 

Fitting back in

Recently I used a familiar children’s game to illustrate the challenges of fitting back into our church, family and wider society as we return to our sending country.  However, just to increase the challenge, I made everyone play it blindfold!  Because that’s just what it can feel like on re-entry.  Not only are you unsure what shape you are, you are not certain where you fit in, and you don’t even feel competent to navigate the unfamiliar environment.  So let’s have a look at the strategies adopted by those who played the game successfully.

1. They started by working out what shape they were.  Having picked up a piece, they felt it carefully to make sure they understood it.  Many mission workers returning ‘home’ don’t stop on the way to reflect on how much they have changed since they first left home.  Their identity has become a mission worker, a foreigner, a church leader, and if it is not thoroughly rooted in Christ, they will be uncertain of their own identity once they are no longer mission worker, foreigner, or church leader.

2. They felt around in a careful and systematic manner for a place they could fit.  They did not randomly try to fit their piece into every hole they found.  They investigated each hole with their fingertips to see if it was right, and if it wasn’t, they moved on to the next.  On returning to their ‘home’ country, mission workers shouldn’t just assume they will fit back in where they left off.  They will have changed, and their home context will have changed, so we all need to be open to the possibility that we will need to find somewhere new to fit.  That might mean changing church, moving to a new town, recognising that some old friends have little in common with us anymore, and finding a new ministry through which to serve.

3. They didn’t get frustrated.  We have all seen a child trying to use force to get a shape into a hole which doesn’t fit it, and returning mission workers can be just the same as they grapple with the powerful emotions involved in re-entry.  But taking time, being persistent, and gently manipulating the shape until it is orientated correctly to slot in pays off in the long run.

Mission workers often underestimate the impact of re-entry and don’t prepare for it thoroughly like they prepared for going.  They either fail to recognise that it will happen to them, or they don’t expect it to last so long – in some cases several years.

Syzygy leads retreats and workshops helping mission workers through re-entry, and we also support mission workers on a one-to-one basis.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

 

The growing Syzygy network

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The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

I’ve recently met with a lot of people going through transition.  Whether they are leaving a posting, parting company with their sending agency, closing a ministry, going to a new country… people in mission relocate frequently and are no strangers to change.

People going through change often notice their physical reactions.  They may be unusually tired (beyond the usual jetlag symptoms) or unduly emotional.  This disturbs them, as they like to think of themselves as self-controlled, focussed people who don’t fall apart easily.  But something about leaving has rocked their boat, and they lose emotional equilibrium.  And losing emotional equilibrium rocks their boat further.  So they get tearful, or angry, or sleepy.  It’s a perfectly natural response to a stressful situation.  And relocation is stressful.

It’s like being a plant that has its roots pulled out of a nice snug pot, teased apart a little, and planted back in new soil, unfamiliar soil.  We all know that this needs to be done periodically to help the plant thrive, but you can be certain that the plant doesn’t appreciate the experience.  Most plants wilt a little, or drop a few leaves, before bouncing back with new growth.  Transition is seldom enjoyable.

There is the stress of packing things up, deciding what to keep and what to do with the rest.  There is the endless paperwork involved.  There are emotional goodbyes with people we love.  There is grief at losing relationships, guilt at having the freedom to move on, and bereavement as we leave projects and people we have worked with for years.  If things haven’t worked out there may be a nagging sense of failure, and if our departure is forced, there may be fear, anger and disempowerment involved.

There is also uncertainty about the future – where we are going to live, be church, work and relax.  We may be going to a different culture with which we are unfamiliar.  And we know from experience that transition is seldom one clean step – there are many moves, new starts and restarts until we can feel settled again.  And just as we think we’ve got there, another change rocks our boat, or some innocent comment or event triggers a memory and throws us back into crisis.

Recognising how the uncertainties and stresses affect us is the first part of the solution.  Understanding how the transition affects us reminds us we need to take steps to treat ourselves to familiar things – if you’re going to a major world city it’s quite possible that your favourite chain of coffee shops or restaurants has got there before you!  Doing familiar things helps us cope with the unfamiliar, so we can take refuge in our favourite meals, music or hobbies, and take time to talk with loved ones who support us through the change.

But above all connecting with God is important.  In the busyness of transition God often gets squeezed out, when he is needed even more.  He is the one unchanging constant in our ephemeral lives, and when everything else is upheaval he is the same – yesterday, today and forever.  Many of the Psalmists in times of difficulty and turmoil wrote songs to him reconciling their trust in his unfailing goodness with their unpleasant experiences.  Reading them helps us to connect with him in the midst of our turmoil:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…

“Cease striving, and know that I am God.”

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

Anyone who is going through a transition and would like some support is welcome to contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a conversation, either in person or via social media.

 

Cross-cultural church planting

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in southeast Asia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

 

A Plea from a Missionary

It has been really exciting to see a surge in church planting happening around the world. I believe that planting churches, or should I say, planting churches well, is probably the most effective strategy for reaching those without Christ that there has ever been. Now you know I’m pro-church planting, I’d like to share some thoughts and suggestions for those planting churches cross-culturally from the perspective of a missionary who’s seen the good and the bad. I’m particularly thinking of people church planting in the Global South (previously called the ‘developing world’) with their denomination or church network.

With more people than ever planting churches outside their own culture there’s a need for better training and preparation for cross-cultural mission. The kind of training that most mission organizations require of their workers. I’m pleased to hear this is being included by some church planting networks but it is often not the case. Church planting is too important to embark on without proper consideration of how to serve cross-culturally and how to avoid dependency on foreign influence and money.

So, in no particular order…

Stay humble. Take the posture of a learner who hasn’t arrived with a set of flawless principles and methods. Learn all you can about the country, people group, culture and religion before you go and continue to learn while you’re there. Listen well.

Study about serving cross-culturally before you go. Not all Bible colleges or church planting networks teach about working in other cultures but they really should as so many are now getting involved short or long term. Make sure teaching on ministering cross-culturally is part of your church stream or denomination’s training of church planters. Planting a church anywhere is hard work; doing it in a different culture to your own is even harder. The gospel challenges every culture but that’s no excuse for not aiming to be culturally appropriate in the way we minister.

Commit to learning the local language. Intentionally set time aside at the start to do this. Many get too busy too soon and write off the idea that they’ll ever be able to minister in the local language. It will be hard but the rewards and benefits are worth it as we identify with and show our love and respect to the local people in this way. Putting it bluntly, if the Mormons can be bothered, let’s make it a priority.

Learn from mission organizations. Some church planting networks tend to have little to do with mission agencies. Mission agencies have years of experience in planting churches and cross cultural discipleship and evangelism.

Learn also from organisations which have experience of community development and poverty alleviation etc. Wise up on effective ways to help the poor. Recognise that giving handouts is not helpful in the long run and much work has been done to understand better ways to walk alongside the materially poor or the oppressed.

Live in the town you’re planting in before you plant the church. No-one can specify exactly how long for but knowing a place and making relationships takes time. Planting a church just after arriving

communicates that we think we have a model of church we can just reproduce anywhere without knowing the place or its people. An exception to this could be when we start Bible story-telling or sharing the gospel in a community we don’t live in and this develops into a fellowship of believers.

Love the people. When we’re passionate about reaching a place with the gospel it’s easy to focus on all that needs to change and we can be quick to spot the many faults that exist. Look for things to appreciate. Determine to reject any tendency toward superiority over the local people. The hope is to reach people with the gospel; they know when they are a project rather than genuinely appreciated and loved.

Love the Church. Never forget the often huge price paid by local believers before you arrived. This must humble us. In many parts of the world believers have shed their blood for the cause of Christ or suffer for their faith in ways we never will. One church planted by foreigners made no secret of saying that the existing church in the area was boring. That is such a bad attitude and very ungracious.

Love local pastors. If there are other churches in the area get to know the leaders. Churches planted by foreigners are the source of much concern and often pain among many local pastors. Getting to know you and how God is leading you is very important. I know of one situation where almost whole youth groups, built up over years, have left locally led churches to attend a foreigner-led and funded church with lots of resources, free gifts and exciting programs. Not surprisingly there’s been hurt among local pastors.

Mind the money. Avoid building a building or equipping a building or funding a church’s activities or paying church staff using money sent from overseas. Better to start small with no building than to create dependency on foreign money. The hope is to plant reproducible churches. If what’s planted requires money and equipment that local people don’t have/can’t get it will never reproduce. Christianity is already viewed as ‘foreign’ in many places and using foreign money only compounds this belief. Seek to avoid dependency on foreign money and encourage the church to be self-supporting, giving sacrificially. A lot of churches in wealthier nations set up partnerships with churches in the Global South which mostly involve sending money and often lead to unhealthy influence over the activities, style and decision making of the local church.

Keep it simple. Avoid creating a model of ministry that looks foreign and can’t be replicated by local believers. Set only the priorities and let local people take ownership to decide later what extras they want. As others have noted, the book of Acts gives us some pillars to erect first: teach the Word of God, worship (in a culturally appropriate way), build a fellowship, break bread, be committed to prayer and encourage lives of service. From these pillars, more can be added slowly, together with local input and leadership.

I recently went to a new building in SE Asia that was ready for a congregation that didn’t exist yet. Built with foreign money, there were music stands, a drum kit, a sound system and a raised platform. This only exacerbates the view that Christianity is foreign and that ministry requires lots of money.

Make disciples that make disciples. I’m amazed that in all my Christian life I can recall only a few times I’ve heard anyone teach on how to actually disciple someone. We may get some people coming to our church but are they being discipled? Do they in turn know how to disciple other people? Obviously this is key to reproducing more churches. A healthy church takes responsibility for its part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

One last thing. It should be obvious but choose a name that works in the local language!

Alex Hawke

 

Editor’s note: Anyone thinking of going to plant a church in a different culture would also benefit from reading Syzygy’s guide to Going Alone.

 

 

 

Processing….

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You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

3,2,1, Bungee!

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We have in the past written a lot about teamwork, partly because it is one of the holy grails of mission, and partly because it is so hard to achieve when building a diverse collection of individuals into a strong community that can weather the frequent arrivals and departures which are endemic to the mission world.

Jesus said that the world around us would know we are Christians because of the love we have for one another (John 13:35), but the cases are few indeed where the world outside our walls looks at us and observes “Those people really live well together.  I wonder what their secret is.”

Part of the problem is that to build an effective team we have to generate sufficient desire to come together that it overcomes that which separates us. Imagine a group of people standing far apart from each other in a circle, with the objective of coming close enough to each other to all hold hands. But each one is tied to a bungee rope which pulls them back to the perimeter of the circle. To hold hands, first they have to run with sufficient force to overcome the effect of the bungee rope, and then hold hands so firmly that they cannot be pulled apart.

So how can we overcome the effective of the cultural bungees which pull us apart? Many mission workers from the West often have an individualistic mindset which reflects the community in which they were raised but is often at odds with the more corporative-minded community in which they are serving and indeed the New Testament culture in which our faith was born. So we have to take steps to recognise the cultural challenges which can prevent us coming together.

First, we need to change our own mindsets (not other people’s!) so that we are committed to unity with the people we have been put with, whoever they may be. We need to work hard at getting to know them, building common ground and demonstrating commitment. By doing this I have built strong friendships with people from different backgrounds who I might have overlooked if I had more choice in selecting my community.

Secondly, agencies, churches and teams need to create a culture and vision which inspires people enough to overcome their differences. What will help us become genuinely committed to the team? When does it become something so good that we will give up other good things for it? We talked about this when thinking about how the disciples of Jesus were initially kept together despite their differences, because they had a common desire to be with Jesus. What is our common goal?

Finally, we also need to recognise what pulls us in other directions, and make tough decisions about what ties need to be cut, or how to reduce the pull of some of them by, for example, voluntarily limiting time interacting with people, things or places which may pull us away from our community.  Sometimes these things are valid and appropriate (for example the care needs of elderly parents back in the home country), though there are many links, hobbies, connections which we could reduce the impact of if we tried.

A fruitful team starts with you and me making a decision to commit ourselves to it – to run hard towards the rest of the team and hang on tight.  Vince Lombardi, NFL player and one of the most successful ever sports coaches comments:

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work.”

 

Be excellent to each other

I know a chapel recently vacated by a group of nuns, who took with them the large cross which had been nailed on the wall behind the altar for many years.  Although the cross has now gone, it is still possible to see the outline of where it used to be, which reminds me that even where the cross has been removed, its shadow remains.  This can lead us to mistakenly believe that the cross is at the centre of our lives, when actually we are looking at its shadow.  Where is the cross missing in our lives and communities, even though its shadow remains?

If we do not return continually to the cross, and remind ourselves of our complete need for that one moment in time when Jesus dealt with the price for our shortcomings and excesses, and realign our lives to live out the impact of that great cosmic event, we can end up with an empty outline of Christianity which may appear structurally, liturgically and ethically Christian but lacks the authenticity of a truly redeemed lifestyle.

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

In Europe today we are seeing the rise of intolerance.  Some groups are feeling threatened by other groups.  Some think their needs are being marginalised.  Some fear a loss of their cultural identity.  As a result, these people express themselves vocally, sometimes violently, against those they perceive to be different.  Similar fears can arise in missions teams around the world too, where one particular group or culture becomes dominant.  Others can easily feel marginalised and overlooked.

For example, singles can feel their needs are not addressed where those of families are prioritised (or vice versa).  Or where teams operate using English as their common language, those who don’t speak it well can feel they don’t have the ability to express themselves.  In other circumstances people who come from a culture where it is courteous to wait to be invited to speak often have no opportunity for their voice to be heard if others are accustomed to speaking their mind loudly and  frankly.

Fortunately these issues seldom boil over into rioting!  But they can lead to an undercurrent of discontent and add to stress and attrition.  Which is why we need to make sure that the cross isn’t absent from our missionary communities.  The shadow of it may be there, but sometimes the reality of it can be startlingly absent, particularly in the way in which we treat one another.

The New Testament is full of counter-cultural teaching on relationships.  Some examples are:

  • Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39)
  • Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)
  • Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:13)
  • Submit to one another in Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
  • If God so loved us, we ought to love each other (1 John 4:11)

It might be a good idea for us to start our meetings with readings of such scriptures, and reflect on how we can live out those commandments, in order to remind ourselves to “Be excellent to each other.” (William S Preston, Esq.)

Multi-cultural co-workers

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Multicultural teams are a key feature of global mission, and so too is the conflict and misunderstanding that they can bring!  In the past we’ve looked at different aspects of teamwork but today we’re going to look at some different characteristics that we can consciously look to develop in ourselves to help us contribute to the smooth running of the team.

When we think of multi-cultural teams it is often tempting to focus on nationality or heart language, but there are also many other factors that contribute to the cultures that individuals bring into a team, like ecclesiology, socio-economic background, gender, marital status, level of education and generation.  These all affect the often-unconscious assumptions people bring to how things should be done, and what is valued.

1) Humility.  Many, if not most, cultures bring up their citizens to have national pride.  This is only a small step away from a jingoistic belief that we are better than all the rest.  Which is patently not true – just look at how every four years the English think this is their year to win the football World Cup when in fact their team usually struggles to get past the first round.  Too often European and North American mission workers have been guilty of thinking “West is best” or “White is right”, but other cultures can also fall into the trap of denigrating others.  Humility helps us recognise that while our home culture may bring some strengths into the mission field, we have much to learn from both our host culture and our co-workers.

2) Self-awareness.  We build on our humility effectively when we understand the extent to which we operate within a culture we have grown up in, which subconsciously affects our values and thought patterns.  Armed with self-awareness we are better equipped to understand why somebody else’s choices and preferences annoy us so much, and why ours do the same to them.  It helps us to treat people as individuals and not stereotype them according to the culture we see them as belonging to.

3) Inquiry.  I am frequently amazed that some mission workers can complain loudly and frequently about the behaviour of others without stopping to inquire what drives that behaviour.  For example, when I lived in Africa I heard many (white) mission workers complain that “Africans are lazy”.  Anyone who has seen a grain lorry overturn in the bush and seen hundreds of people appear from nowhere and squirrel away tons of spilled maize into bags and chitenges will know that Africans most certainly are not lazy.  But those mission workers who think so have probably never tried to align their objectives with those of their employees, or motivate them effectively, with the result that the Africans don’t work hard – for them.

4) Love.  It covers a multitude of sins, and should be put on over everything else like an overcoat.   With genuine, sacrificial love like Jesus had, we are able to value individuals as Christ-redeemed brothers and sisters, inquire into their cultural norms and help them to feel honoured and valued.  Love helps us accept people for who they are, rather than simply trying to correct them for being wrong.

So next time we are tempted to grumble about tensions in our cross-cultural communities, let’s ask ourselves first how much more vibrant they would be if only we were able to let go of our own culture a little bit more.

Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?

Personal integrity

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?

This week we’re going to skip the Jericho success and march straight on to the battle of Ai and the sin of Achan.  I guess we could have made a blog on how if you keep going round in circles making a fool of yourself long enough eventually God will give you a spectacular breakthrough, but I don’t think that’s the experience of most of us.

To cut a long story short, the Israelite army was beaten – thereby endangering God’s reputation – because one man had a secret sin.  One man’s moral failure risked the whole invasion as the Israelites were demoralised and their enemies learned they that their God was not invincible after all.  With our Christian emphasis on grace and forgiveness, it’s easy for us to tolerate similar small shortcomings in our lives, but this incident makes it clear that God takes our personal integrity seriously.  And in case you’re thinking that’s just an Old Testament paradigm, remember Ananias and Sapphira (Acts chapter 5)?

So our behaviour is still important, even if we think nobody can see.  And when we talk of personal integrity, moral failure and secret sin, most of the time there’s an implication that we mean sexual sin.  But it’s more than that.  In both the biblical cases mentioned it was about covetousness.  It could also be anger, resentment, greed, secret drinking when we’re supposed to be teetotal on the field, or many other personal problems which we like to tell ourselves we have under control, but in fact, we don’t.  And wouldn’t it be terribly shaming to us and dishonouring to God if those sins were discovered and our entire ministry collapsed?

So what do we do about it?  Most of us know the answer already, but we tell ourselves sweet little lies like “it’s not harming anyone”, “it’s my way of coping with the pressure” or “it could be a lot worse” which blind us to the truth that we are putting the entire ministry of ourselves and our colleagues at risk, as well as God’s reputation.

In order to deal with this we need a radical awakening (which sadly sometimes only comes with downfall).  We need to ask ourselves whether we really are “walking in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).  Or, as a friend of mine put it:

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?*

Satan knows our weak spots, and we need to recognise them to and take steps to defend them.  Some practical steps we can take to do this include:

  • go on retreat and specifically pray about how God wants to develop our character and lifestyle;
  • have an accountability partner with whom you can be totally honest and confess sin;
  • keep a prayer diary – of successes and failures – to chart progress;
  • make a point of reading Christian books that directly address your weaknesses.

If a confidential discussion about any issues in your life would help you, get in touch with Syzygy by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’d be pleased to help you get walking in a worthy manner again.

Rick Lewis

 

Circumcision

A flint knife of the type the Israelites may have used (Joshua 5:2)

After first sending in the priests instead of storm-troopers, and then stopping to do the bronze-age equivalent of posting selfies on social media, the Israelites are still not going to carry out an invasion in the normal way.  They next thing they do is put every single one of their soldiers out of action for a couple of weeks following elective surgery.  It would have been a great time for the Jericho army to have attacked them.

In some ways, the circumcision of the Israelite men was like the consecration we have already talked about – it was an outward sign of dedication to God, reminding them of the covenant with Abraham.  The Israelites invading the Promised Land were far from being foolhardy in having surgery which would incapacitate them for a fortnight or so.  They were in fact demonstrating their trust in God to protect them and to fight for them when they couldn’t fight.  Much as we would talk about walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  And this group went on to trust God for their victories over the coming years, notably in the conquest of Jericho which they would soon go on to take without even needing to land a blow.

What would be the equivalent for us of being circumcised just as we enter a war zone?  What would that look like in the context where we work?  To follow God with a little more unpredictability rather than always trying to play it safe?  Hudson Taylor pointed out that if there is no risk in our ventures, there is no need for faith.  Yet in our increasingly risk-averse and litigious culture, it can be hard even to entertain the concept of risk when we feel we should be minimising it.

Life involves risk, mission more so.  The places where people don’t know Jesus can be some of the most dangerous places on the planet for us to go.  It’s not that we deliberately seek out danger, as if we were seeking a thrill to enliven meaningless lives, but if following in the footsteps of Jesus takes us into dangerous territory, we proceed in faith rather than turning back because the risk is too great.  We trust God daily for our income, our safety, our visa renewals (just about!) and many other things.  Let us reflect at the start of another year what else we can manage without organising for ourselves but by trusting God to take care of it for us.

 

Building a cairn

Source: www.english-heritage.org.uk

Every morning when I log on, Facebook greets me with “We care about your memories” and an offer to repost a photo from yesteryear.  It is evident from the reposting that goes on that some people enjoy using this utility, though I look in vain for the ‘go away and leave me alone’ button.

We like to remember.  We have photos of long-dead relatives on our bookshelves.  We hang pictures of our favourite places on our walls.  Our conversations are peppered with “Do you remember when…” as we laugh about situations we’ve been in.  Individuals and families do this well.  Countries build war memorials, or statues of great leaders.  Hikers build cairns.  But the world of mission is generally not good at remembering, and we certainly don’t build memorials or statues, because we want the glory to go to God, not people.

The first thing the ancient Israelites did after crossing the Jordan was to set up a memorial.  They built a cairn (Joshua 4:1-9).  One person from each tribe was selected to carry a rock from the bed of the dried-up river and build a cairn on the bank so that the people would always remember God had parted the river for them to cross over.  They turned memory into something physical so that they wouldn’t forget.

We need to remember because not only does it honour God to recount the things He has done (Psalm 145:4), it builds our faith to be reminded of his provision for us in the past.   David built his courage for fighting a giant by remembering that he’d already killed a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:36).

As we enter the Promised Land of 2017, how are we making arrangements to remember what God has done?  Here are some of our suggestions:

  • Have a photo gallery of previous co-workers in our agency.  We often honour the founders of our mission agencies, but do we remember the others who made a sacrifice to pass the founder’s baton on to us?  Do we honour the ones who gave their lives in service to God?
  • Celebrate anniversaries, not only of the founding of the agency, but peoples’ ‘birthdays’ in the mission field, the founding of a church or ministry.
  • Have pictures, artefacts or ornaments which meant something significant at one time, and make a point of telling newcomers why they’re important.
  • Keep an “on this day” diary, reminding you of when God spoke, or did something significant for you.
  • Make a point of reminding old friends and colleagues of situations you’ve been through together.  Ask older co-workers about their memories of people and places.
  • Research and write biographies of people who’ve inspired you – not just the great saints who are well documented but the unknown saints who laboured in obscurity to lay the foundations of where we are now.
  • Use ‘Blue plaques’ or a suitable equivalent on your property to remind yourselves of who was there and what they’ve done.

Remembering the past doesn’t mean living in it.  We remember it to give context to today and help us move into the future.  Not long ago, as a visiting speaker I got a (somewhat bewildered!) church to build a cairn in their meeting room.  I provided enough rocks for them and encouraged everyone to pick up a rock and build with it, each rock representing a commitment to tell a story to someone who hadn’t heard it, ask a question of someone who had been in the church a long time, and celebrate what God had done – so that they could build on their past as they embrace their future.

Let’s all find ways of doing something similar!

Crossing the Jordan

Happy New Year to all our readers!  It has become traditional in this blog to start the year with an appeal to join us in prayer for world mission, but this year we’d like to do something different – we’re going to invade the Promised Land!

Not in a literal sense, but we’re going to start the year with some meditations in the book of Joshua, with a view to motivating us for world mission and bringing more people into the Kingdom of God.

So when the time comes for the Israelites to cross over the river Jordan after 40 years in the wilderness (and many of us mission workers can identify with that experience!), the Israelites do a number of things very differently from the way we might, and these can be a model for fruitful mission.

First they sent out some spies – and I’ve never been quite sure why they did this since 40 years earlier they’d done this and it hadn’t worked out well.  But it is analogous for us to a vision trip, pre-departure research and training.  In other words, know where you’re going.  Don’t just jump in blindly and assume you’ll find your feet.  Careful preparation helps minimise the risk of culture shock, committing cultural offences, and disorganisation which can end a mission almost before it’s started.

The next thing that they did was to consecrate themselves (Joshua 3:5).  This is a technical term for making oneself ritually pure, an activity that in those days involved ritual baptism and clean clothing.  The whole point was to be made clean before God – not the sort of behaviour one would expect before an invasion!  We have lost much of this concept of ritual purity in the west but the purpose is so that one can be fully right with God before claiming God’s assistance in our enterprises.  As we start out on a new year of mission, how are we consecrating ourselves to God?

And then they sent the priests ahead of them.  They carry the holy chest which signified the presence of God with them, and all the people follow it.  During the wilderness years this chest had become a totem which brought the Israelites success in battle, but the significance for us is paramount – the people follow where God is going, a lesson they had learned in the wilderness when they were led by a pillar of fire and smoke.  For me, the key lesson from this for us is that so often we get on with something and ask God to bless it, rather than seeing what God is doing and asking if we can join in.  How can we follow God more closely in the coming year?

Was Hudson Taylor wrong?

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

“God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply.”

This quote from Hudson Taylor (1832-1905, missionary to China, founder of the China Inland Mission, now OMF International) is highly likely to be quoted in any discussion about raising funds for mission, and is usually used to trump any other argument.

It is generally taken to mean that if you’re doing what God wants, the money will appear.  But even worse than its overuse and misapplication is the fact that this striking quote is never challenged.  It is given the status of a verse from the gospels.  Hudson Taylor said it, so it must be true.

But is it really true?  It certainly doesn’t feel true to the many thousands of mission workers worldwide struggling to pay living expenses.  So if we believe this verse, we are then forced to conclude that either we don’t have enough faith to believe God for his provision, or that we’re getting something wrong.  This can inspire us to review our calling, our methods and our attitudes towards fundraising, or it can propel us into a spiral of self-doubt, lack of confidence and a crisis of faith leading to our unnecessary departure from the mission field.

If our funding isn’t coming in, perhaps we do need to question our calling.  When was the last time you sat down and really prayed over what God wants you to do with your life?  When did you last discuss this seriously with your church or mission leadership?  Are you conscious of a sense of calling to what you’re doing now?

It’s also worth reviewing how much money you really need.  Perhaps the funding is not coming in because our agency is asking us to live a Western-standard lifestyle where we could easily make do with less.  For example, we may not have enough money to buy an air-conditioned 4×4 to get us through the Cairo traffic in comfort, but we may be able to pay for a bus ticket where we can share the journey with crowds of people we can start to build relationships with.  But then of course we have to offset the stress of travel against our ability to survive in a foreign culture.  What would Hudson Taylor do?

In many circles today it is tantamount to heresy to question the aphorisms of the great Hudson Taylor.  But despite his phenomenal role in the world of missions he was still a flawed human who made mistakes.  Perhaps, as with many giants of the faith, he assumed that what applied to him in his relationship with God, also applied to others.  There is no disputing that he had an incredible gift of faith to believe for and pray in God’s funding.  But not all of us have that gift.  It is good to be inspired to faith by his example, but not to be crushed by failing to live up to it.

We should never forget that while God is theoretically able to provide for all our needs, he keeps all his money in other people’s pockets, which severely compromises his cashflow.  If the people looking after his money are not obedient to him in emptying their pockets for world mission, many faithful mission workers may not experience the fullness of his provision.

Taylor famously made a point of never asking for money.  But D L Moody, also a giant of the faith, was explicit in asking people to empty their pockets, and he is seldom quoted on the matter of fundraising despite his notable success.  Perhaps we should take him as a role model instead of Taylor, and take the liberty to qualify Taylor’s famous quote: as long as his people give faithfully.”

Supporting retiring mission workers

RetirementFollowing on from our last two blogs focussing on transition, today’s blog focusses on retirement, which is also a transition.  We already have a blog for mission workers preparing to retire, and in fact we have an entire guide to retiring for them, so today we’re going to focus on how church can understand the nature of retirement for mission workers and effectively support them through this transition.

Every day people retire.  It’s such a common event that like many other transitions in life – birth, starting school, graduating, marriage, divorce and being widowed – it is an experience so common to humanity that we often overlook the potentially traumatic nature of this transition.  People often need support through the retirement process to help them come to terms with feelings like:

  • I’m no longer a productive member of society
  • I’ve lost my identity
  • Nobody values me
  • I’m just waiting for God
  • How do I fill the emptiness?

These may equally apply to mission workers, who also have to cope with the challenges of becoming part of a society they may not have lived in for decades, and which can feel very alien to them even though they feel they ought to belong.  They may have to cope with living without a sense of vocation, and need to integrate themselves into a church for which overseas mission is an optional extra in their range of ministries instead of the driving passion that the mission worker feels.  They may be struggling with guilt over leaving behind a struggling church or a needy people group.  All these factors can contribute to spiritual or emotional challenges which can make a retiring mission worker quite dysfunctional.

So what can their supporters do to help?

  • Understand that they are not naturally unhelpful; they’re just struggling with a major life transition
  • Introduce them to mission workers who have already successfully transitioned into retirement
  • Find a way for them to have a significant role in the church, without overburdening them with responsibility until they feel ready for it
  • Make sure they have a thorough debrief
  • Listen to their stories sympathetically even when you’ve heard them many times over
  • Recognise that they’re not really critical of the church; they’re just struggling to adapt to a different way of doing things
  • Help them navigate the challenges of benefit/tax/housing bureaucracy
  • Pay for them to go on a ‘Finishing Well’ retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre
  • Provide pastoral support/coaching/mentoring/counselling as appropriate
  • Encourage them to continue to support mission work through their sending agency
  • Be practical about providing assistance with daily living
  • Talk them through things that have changed in your country since they last visited

And above all, please try to remember that they are (probably!) not naturally difficult people.  They are grieving, hurting people who are struggling to find their feet in a culture they don’t feel at home in, who will need support for several years before they really settle in.  It’s rather like the reverse of the process they started when they first went abroad, and the patience and support we gave them when they first went to a foreign country is exactly what they need now.

You can find more recommendations on how churches can support their mission workers effectively in our Guide for Churches.

 

You can never go back…

IMG_20160715_163854Recently I visited a village I had lived in when I was a child.  It was several decades since I had last been there, but I hadn’t expected much to have changed.  It’s a sleepy little village on the way to nowhere.  Our house was still there, though the big elm trees in the front garden had fallen victim do Dutch elm disease many years ago.  The two churches and my primary school were still there, the latter extensively rebuilt, the former completely untouched.  But everything else had changed.

The shopping parade had been converted into houses.  The post office had disappeared, together with the pillar box where I used to lean out of our car’s passenger window to post letters while my father drove past without stopping.  The large house at the bottom of our garden where the bank manager lived had become a housing estate.  Not even the village pub had survived.

I came away with the sad feeling that it’s a place I ought to have recognised, but didn’t feel at home in.  There were enough landmarks to orientate me, but not enough familiar sights for me to feel I still belonged.

This feeling may be familiar to many of us who have gone back to try to regain hold of the past, only to find it just beyond their reach.  This is what many mission workers feel when they return to their ‘home’ country, often after many years abroad, to find it has changed beyond recognition and they don’t fit in.  Many of us end up feeling more at home in our country of service, and wish we could go back – in fact some of us make so many return visits that we end up damaging our re-entry into our ‘home’ country, because we never really let go of the other one.

It’s an alarming feeling to be so disorientated, particularly because it’s unexpected.  We call this Reverse Culture Shock – and it’s a shock because we are often completely unprepared for it.  We prepare hard to go and live in a culture which is different to the one we grew up in, but we often fail to train to go and live in a culture which we think ought to be the same, but is different.

We have plenty of advice for mission workers in other blogs and in our Guide to Re-entry, but churches and families too need to understand this.  It’s not that returning mission workers aren’t delighted to see you, but so much has changed that they need time – often several years – to find their feet in their new ‘home’.  The reason they talk so boringly about where they used to serve is that it feels familiar to them, and they have a sense of belonging there which they haven’t yet found at ‘home’.  The reason they may be restless and grumpy is that they had a significant ministry there and haven’t yet developed one here.  And where they served, they were surrounded by other people driven by a passion for taking the gospel to the nations, and here they can’t quite understand why your new car, house extension or promotion are quite so significant to you.  Which can easily make them come across as arrogant, impatient, or judgmental.  They would hate to know you thought that, but it’s easy for them to create that impression.  So please be patient with them.  Friendship means sticking with them even when you don’t feel like it.  Allow them to talk.  Help them work out how to belong.  Connect them with other mission workers who’ve been through the same thing.  And please connect them to Syzygy, because we can help them – and you – battle through this to find a place where they can really feel at home.

Sadly, many mission workers struggling with re-entry lose friends in the process.  Some become estranged from family members and others end up leaving their churches and try, often without success, to find a church where they feel they fit.

We can never go back… but we can always go on.

Transition – safely from one side to the other

Kate on a bridgeIt has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change!  Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches.  Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.

Change destabilises us emotionally.  It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium.  We don’t know where to shop.  We don’t understand the language.  We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong.  Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up.  We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.

Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.  We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge.  The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.

There are several things we can do to make this transition easier.  First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making.  We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support.  We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us.  We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.

Second, we need to say goodbye.  Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination.  And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner.  We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.

Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done.  It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey.  But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We have learned things and we have borne fruit.  We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.

Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition.  Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort.  Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture.  Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility.  They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.

And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God!  No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there.  Psalm 139 reminds us of this:

Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?

If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.

If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,

Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.

Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –

But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.

 

Have they been with Jesus?

Getting to know you well?

Getting to know you well?

Last week’s reflection on the importance of being with Jesus can also be a reflection on our mission training practices.  When we look to recruit new mission workers we can so easily focus on their skills and abilities, but overlook their character, which is transformed by the amount of time they have been with Jesus.  It’s fairly easy to recognise what people can do, but how do we get to know who they really are when they’re not putting on their best performance at an interview?

Once upon a time some mission agencies invited candidates to work in their sending offices for a number of months before they go, so that they could really be known.  One or two agencies still do spend time with them immediately prior to departure, but often only a couple of weeks.  We may talk about journeying with them through the application process, but that’s often a series of short meetings, not real time together.  Agencies often rely on the Bible Colleges to be part of this process, but the multi-year residential model is increasingly under pressure so this is unlikely to satisfy.  References from churches can often help, but likewise, much of the time that a church leader spends with their candidates will be in a ministry context, or in meetings, and not necessarily getting to know who they really are.

As a sending team of churches, family, friends and agency we need to make sure we really get to know people.  Perhaps it’s not practical for our mission mobilisers to share their lives for three years with candidates, but can we move towards at least having people to stay for a weekend?  Churches – how much time are you spending with your candidates on a personal level, getting to know what really makes them tick?  And can we establish some intentional mentoring, whereby our candidates form relationships with mature believers, whether mission workers or not, so that their lives can be opened up to some critical influencing and constructive support?  How do we build around mission workers a sending community who really get to know them well, putting less stress on an agency to do all the decision making?  And ultimately, how can we together discern whether people really have been with Jesus?  Let’s really walk together through the application process.