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.

 

Helping TCKs rekonnect

rekonnectThird Culture Kids (TCKs) face many challenges in their young lives.

They don’t really know where they belong, and have a vague feeling that they don’t fit in anywhere.  At the end of each term, some of their friends leave school for good.  Their grandparents are strangers.

Perhaps one of the worst experiences for them is when their parents decide to go ‘home’ for a visit back to the country they came from.  If you’re 10, and you’ve grown up in the country where your parents work, the country they came from certainly isn’t home.  It’s a weird place which is usually cold or wet (often both) where you have to wear lots of clothing you’ve no idea how to do up.  The bananas and pineapples taste disgusting because they’re not freshly picked.  You have to wear a seat belt in the car, or maybe even sit on a special child seat.

Your parents keep dragging you to boring church meetings where people you don’t even know keep asking you if it’s nice to be back home.  Other kids laugh at you because you’re wearing clothes that were bought in a country where fashion looks different.  Nobody explains how things work, and everybody just assumes that you fit in normally.  But you don’t, and you can’t explain why.  You can’t tell your parents because you don’t want them to worry.  So you just cry on the inside and wait till you can go back home again.

So what can be done to help TCKs survive ‘home’ assignment?  In addition to reading our guide on how to make home assignment work for kids, if you’re bringing TCKs to the UK this summer, book them into a rekonnect action holiday.  Run by people experienced at working with TCKs, these camps in rural Derbyshire provide a safe place for kids to talk about their experience, learn about life in the UK and most importantly celebrate the diversity they all share.  Meeting with other TCKs helps kids normalise their experience and realise that they’re not the only people who don’t fit in – in fact they’re just the same as lots of other TCKs who immediately understand what they’re going through.

There are two TCK holidays – one for TCKs aged 13-18 years which runs from 25-29 July, and one for kids aged 6-12 from 8-12 August.  You can find out more by clicking on the links, or going to the rekonnect webpage, or emailing the administrator at rekonnect@gmail.com – but don’t leave it too late, they’ll book up fast!  So do your kids a favour and make ‘home’ assignment a better experience for them.

“Orphaned” mission workers

backpackerSyzygy has recently come across several cases of ‘orphaned’ mission workers, which reminds us how tough life in the mission field can get for some people.

These are mission workers who suddenly find themselves in the field without adequate support, and they are often desperate and tragic cases where people are unable to support themselves.  They frequently have a deep conviction that God has called them to serve in a certain place but are then unable to sustain themselves in ministry.  Such situations can come about for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • a supporting church closes, leaving mission workers with no funding
  • mission workers choose to go independently without proper support and cannot maintain themselves in the field
  • an agency withdraws from a particular region but the mission worker, feeling a strong sense of calling to the local people, declines to leave and stays on as an independent
  • mission workers fail to maintain good relationships with their supporters and over time gradually lose support, or are even dropped by their church because there is no communication

Such people sometimes come to Syzygy for help.  While we can debrief them and provide advice, we cannot do for them what they really should have done in the first place: build and maintain strong relationships which give them lasting support and accountability.  Sadly many mission workers go independently of churches, agencies and even their families because they are strong independent types, and in many ways they can be just what is needed for pioneering situations.  But it can make them reluctant to collaborate and listen to others.

Our advice to such mission workers is to return to your sending country (wherever possible) and spend time rebuilding the foundations that should already have been in place.  Advice for those thinking of going independently, and those who need to return and rebuild their support base, can be found in our Guide to Going It Alone.

Some of these ‘orphans’ are indeed so alone that they do not even have the funds to get themselves back to their sending country.  Sadly Syzygy does not have sufficient money to help them, though a visit to their national embassy may help them at least get a flight ‘home’.  Mission workers should always have an exit strategy before even going, and the question

What do we do if this all goes badly wrong?

should always be part of the pre-departure planning.  Sadly many people only start to plan for disaster once it’s already happened.

We recommend that a relative, church or agency always holds sufficient money in a designated account to pay for flights back for the whole family, and ideally enough to help with ongoing support costs through the transition too.  Setting aside such a large sum before going may seem impossible to mission workers on a tight budget, but it should be factored into the set-up costs.  Some may think that is not trusting God to provide, but we think it’s just trusting God to provide up front so that we have one less thing to trust God for when things all go belly-up in the field.

Blessed are the Peacekeepers?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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 info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.  We find that it often helps people see past their immediate frustration and find long-term solutions to unresolved issues.

Member Care for short-term mission

CBPPreparing for a presentation I was giving at a recent Short Term Mission Forum, I realised that this is an area which is often overlooked by both those organising short term mission and those providing member care.

Member Care workers seem to focus largely on long-term mission workers, to such an extent that looking through the Member Care books on my shelves I found that most of them didn’t even refer to short-termers.  Likewise, people organising short-term programmes can easily focus on the practical issues and neglect the personal care for the person going.

As part of my research for this presentation I produced some very quick and grubby statistics.  They are not academically robust and are merely a straw poll, but the results are shocking.  I found that only slightly more than 50% of the people going on individual short-term placements through an agency attended a formal pre-departure training event or a post-return debrief.  For short-termers going as part of a team those having training rose to 60%, but those having a debrief fell to just 40%.

Perhaps short-term gets overlooked because it’s not considered as hard as long-term.  Perhaps it can’t shake off the mistaken impression that it’s just an adventure holiday with a difference.  Yet the people going short-term may be younger, less mature, and less experienced in cross-cultural pressure than long-termers.  Moreover, in the course of their mission they may be exposed to challenging situations with which they’ve not had to deal before.  So in terms of the impact on them of short-term mission, and processing culture shock and preventing post-traumatic stress, good Member Care is critical to the well-being of those going short-term, whether on a summer team or on a placement which can last up to two years.

Three elements that are essential to provision of Member Care to short-term workers are:

Selection and preparation – While selection may have an element of screening people to make sure they are robust enough to survive their mission, it seems that it may in fact be quite perfunctory if the trip is only for a few weeks.  Perhaps the need to get people on board and justify the sending of the team may supersede good care.  And while training events may include cross-cultural training it may well focus on the practicalities of behaviour rather than the emotional challenge of adapting to life in a foreign culture.

In-field support – team leaders may not necessarily be trained or experienced in facilitating a supportive environment which can help short-termers adequately process the challenges they face and look to God for the resources they need to manage the transition.  Proactive support needs to be arranged.

Post-return debriefing – while recognising the challenges of getting everyone back together for a debrief event, it is important that people have the opportunity to review their experiences and unpack the issues raised as a result.

So what can agencies do to ensure better Member Care for their short-termers?  Here are Syzygy’s top tips:

  • Ensure that Member Care personnel have an input into the design and review short-term programmes.
  • Be familiar with and committed to the Member Care provisions of the Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission (the core value of partnership and paragraphs 1.5, 2.4, 2,7, 3.3-3.5, 4.1-4.5).
  • Review the Member Care Guidelines and reflect on how they apply to short-term mission.
  • Be committed to ensuring that every short-termer is provided with effective Member Care before, during and after their assignment. Bring in Member Care providers from other agencies if necessary.
  • Set appropriate targets to measure how many short-termers receive training and debriefing.
  • Build an effective and well-trained volunteer force to carry out individual training and debriefing in support of the full-time team.
  • Facilitate, fund or provide training for church members to be able to prepare and debrief their short-termers well.
  • Liaise effectively with sending churches to ensure that short-termers have an opportunity to debrief in their home church.

Why do we need to provide good Member Care?  Not merely because it’s good practice, prudent risk management, an effective witness to the people the short-termers are working with, or a good recruiting model since happy short-termers can evolve into long-termers.  Because we love.  Because we care.  Because we don’t want to be the unwitting cause of people’s long-term spiritual and emotional damage.  Or, as our friends at Missionary Care put it:

Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the Great Commandment

Antlions and other triggers

Antlion traps

Antlion traps

Recently I was out walking, and crossing some gravelly ground I noticed a neat round depression about an inch in diameter.  “Antlion!” I thought to myself, before remembering that I left Africa 15 years ago and haven’t seen an antlion trap* since.  Likewise, while driving in some rocky place like Wales or the Lake District, I occasionally catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a large grey object and think “Elephant!”  Sound, sights or smells can trigger a reflex response sending us back in time many years.  For those of us who have lived abroad it can also trigger feelings of ‘homesickness’ for the place we once served, even though we may have left there many years ago.

This illustrates the fact that the subconscious changes that take place in us as we serve in another culture can often take many years to subside, if they ever do.  I still find myself clapping my hands occasionally in a Zambian gesture of thanks, or using words from a language that nobody around me will understand.

This can be somewhat discouraging for those of us back in the UK on home assignment, or just to live in this country.  In a recent workshop with mission workers we discussed such issues: the things we miss about our home abroad, the things we don’t understand about our ‘home’ culture any more, and why we find it hard to settle back in and feel we belong.  We discussed the Syzygy confectionery model of cross-cultural adaptation, which many found helpful.  And we worked through a number of ways to avoid becoming a bitter old grouch who is forever complaining that their church doesn’t get it.  Here are our top tips for preventing re-entry becoming a horrible experience:

Don’t have unreasonably high expectations of your church.  They may be incredibly supportive and caring of you, but may not understand exactly what you need.  So when you feel they’re not there for you, such as when their eyes glaze over just 2 minutes into your conversation telling them about your amazing ministry, remember that they may not get the significance of what you’re doing.   Many of them may wonder why you need to go abroad when there’s already so much to do here.  So I recommend preparing one or two short, powerful stories that may intrigue them and draw them in.

Don’t have unreasonably high estimations of your own importance.  Most mission workers expect to be given a platform to talk about their work though other people in the church aren’t.  Others feel frustrated if they are not asked to preach when they would not have been asked if they weren’t mission workers.  Some expect everything to be organised and paid for by their church, when they are quite capable of doing that for themselves.  In a world where the prevailing message is that we are all mission workers, people often don’t understand why cross-cultural mission workers feel they need more support.

Remember to adapt cross-culturally.  When we go to a different culture, we learn about its culture and work hard to fit in, but we often forget that we need to work equally hard when we return.  Don’t just moan about the differences you can’t get used to, or why life was so much better where you used to live; find out why things have changed and work out a way of dealing with it.

Don’t judge.  Those of us who have lived in a foreign country have had the amazing privilege of seeing how large and diverse the world really is, and we return to where we came from able to see our home culture with the eyes of an outsider.  Those who have never stepped outside their home culture don’t find it easy to do that.  Don’t condemn them for not noticing; remember that you too were once like them.

Treat the church as your mission field.  Many of us return to be part of churches that don’t understand why we have to go abroad to do mission, or even why we need to do it.  Don’t browbeat them.  Treat them the same way you would those you’ve been witnessing to abroad; explain gently, persuade, demonstrate – all in a spirit of love.

Get some help!  It can often help to talk to people who understand what you’re going through.  Meet with people from your agency or wider community who’ve been through re-entry.  Get some debriefing or go on a retreat to hear more clearly what God has to say to you in all this.

If you’re struggling to feel at home in your ‘home’ culture, do get in touch with us on info@syzygy.org.uk – we’d love to talk to you!

* Antlion larvae dig traps in sand to catch their prey – mainly ants – rather like the sarlacc in Return of the Jedi

So thick-headed!

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

Supporting traumatised mission workers

pastoralMany 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.

A review of Syzygy’s year

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time of year many people send out round robin letters to tell everybody they don’t see regularly what they’ve been doing throughout the year, and we’re no exception.  It’s been an excellent year for us and we praise God for his grace to us as we seek to serve him in supporting mission workers worldwide.  During the year we passed the milestone of our tenth birthday and were amazed to look back and think that 10 years ago we could not have imagined what God would do in us and through us.

We’ve had the joy of continuing our co-operation with other agencies and networks such as Global Connections and the European Evangelical Mission Association, together with several of their forums, and to forge new links with other agencies for whom we’ve been able to provide advice and consultancy.

We’ve successfully developed new training modules including workshops on how to thrive as a single mission worker, how to deal with ongoing challenges following re-entry, and understanding why many mission workers allow themselves to become stressed.  We’ve also supported individual mission workers going to the field and returning to the UK.  We’ve taken these into a number of contexts, speaking at several conferences (including the European Member Care Consultation) and at bible colleges.

We continue to provide pastoral support to mission workers both remotely while they are in the field and in person when they are on home assignment, doing debriefs and home assignment reviews.  This can be a terribly challenging task, as our clients are often badly wounded by their experiences, but it is also incredibly fulfilling.  We also provide information about different resources and advice on various topics such as immigration and tax continues.

avatarOur website has continued to attract attention, racking up a record number of hits and followers on both Facebook and Twitter.  A new guide to retirement has joined our growing collection of Guides to Doing Mission Well.  In case you missed some of our blogs, we introduced some new concepts into missiology, such as understanding where we really find our identity, knowing why mission workers can be more vulnerable to burnout in their fifties, how to pray for mission workers using household objects, and using sweets to help us understand where we are in cultural adaptation.  Over the summer we had a mini-series on how the Protestant Work Ethic has had such an unhelpful impact on western Christianity.  We considered the movie Avatar as a metaphor for Gen Y, reviewed some excellent books and considered what happens when Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations.

We continue to have some good reviews of our book for single mission workers and continue to sell many copies of it.  We’ve upgraded two of the three cars which we lend to mission workers on home assignment, and received donations from several individuals and trusts which helped us achieve this.  And we gained a new volunteer, Barry, who drives our cars to wherever they are needed.

Of course, we can’t do this on our own, and we’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of our many supporters who have helped, prayed, volunteered, funded and provided publicity for our services.  We recognise that we cannot do this without your help – and God’s – and we appreciate your partnership with us.  Thank you for helping us help mission workers worldwide.

Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

‘Re-entry’ is a term that is frequently used for mission workers returning to their ‘home’ country.  It conveys the sense of a spacecraft coming back into the earth’s atmosphere, which is the most risky part of the whole voyage into space.  This imagery was used successfully in Marion Knell’s book Burn Up or Splash Down which talks about how to re-enter successfully.  We’ve also got a section on re-entry in our Guides to Doing Mission Well.

There are also courses to help people manage their re-entry – notably the All Change/New Directions courses run by our friends at Oscar, and Penhurst Retreat Centre’s New Direction retreat.

But what happens when it goes wrong?  Instead of a gentle, parachute-assisted splashdown it feels more like a crash landing.  Many mission workers experience a profound sense of disorientation when they return.  They feel like they don’t belong in the place where they always used to.   They no longer fit in.  They’re not at home.  And this is profoundly unsettling, because it’s the place they feel they really should fit in.  It’s rather like being in that 1960s sci fi film in which a spaceman finds himself on a duplicate earth by mistake – it looks just like home, but it doesn’t feel right.

With appropriate support some people adapt successfully after a few months.  But many don’t, and they continue to struggle with a sense of alienation.  They can become angry, frustrated or disillusioned.  Their churches don’t really know how to help them move on.  They feel isolated, unable to connect with family and friends.

These can be entirely normal reactions to re-entry, but unaddressed they can become unhealthy.  But where can people with these problems turn for help?  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop called Crash Landing? which is specifically tailored for returned mission workers who have struggled to feel at home in their ‘home’ country.  It helps to answer such questions as:

 Where is home?

How can I thrive when I feel I don’t belong?

Why don’t I fit in and what can I do about it?

How do I relate to a church which doesn’t share my values?

Crash Landing? will equip people with the skills and resources needed to be able to begin the process of adapting to living in this in-between world and help them to find a way forward.

Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for details of the next Crash Landing?

The essentials of debriefing

pastoralMany cross-cultural mission workers return from an assignment overseas, whether a two-week visit or 40 years abroad, with a multitude of conflicting emotions and impressions which, if unaddressed, can cause them ongoing problems.  Whether they are back in the UK for good or for a short visit, they may well be struggling to deal with the experiences they’ve had abroad while trying to cope with reverse culture shock, and debriefing is part of helping them to come to terms with their experiences.  In research conducted by Dr Debbie Hawker, one returning cross-cultural worker commented:

Debriefing made me aware of possible reactions to expect and it was reassuring to know there was further help if needed.

Debriefing provides returning mission workers with:

  • a safe place to reflect on their experiences
  • an opportunity to help normalise their feelings
  • help to identify issues of concern

Another cross-cultural worker commented:

“My organisation offered no help when I returned. I felt I really needed help from people who really understand the pressures of ‘re-entry’ and the symptoms of burn-out. How vital is support and debriefing in the period following return.”

 

How do we structure a debrief?

It is important for the debriefer to have in their mind an idea of how the debrief is going to pan out.  It should ideally take 2 to 2½ hours – any less may not provide time to get to the bottom of issues and any longer may be emotionally exhausting for the mission worker.  One mission worker observed:

“My organisation offered a 45-minute debriefing appointment.  I was conscious of the time limit right from the start.  It made me feel ‘unrelaxed’ and all I could think of was ‘how can I fit in all I’d like to tell someone?’”

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

The following structure for a debrief may be helpful to keep in mind:

  • Introductions.  Time to set ground rules, establish a rapport, and identify some positive features of their experience.
  • Identifying what was most troubling.  Ask the mission worker to identify up to three issues which troubled them.
  • Facts, thoughts and feelings.  Explore the issues one by one, working through the facts of the issue, thoughts (e.g. “He was wrong”) and feelings (e.g. “I am so angry”) before starting on the next issue.
  • Any other aspects you want to discuss?  Give the mission worker a chance to raise anything else.
  • Did you have any symptoms of stress?  During this time the mission worker may have been irritable or depressed, sleeping badly or experiencing dietary problems, all of which may be indicators of stress.
  • Normalising and teaching.  This is the time for the debriefer to talk, explaining where relevant that the mission worker’s feelings and reactions are normal, and providing help and guidance on a way forward.
  • Return ‘home’.  Explore the mission worker’s feelings about being back in the UK.  Explain about reverse culture shock and help them understand that it is a normal experience.
  • Anything that was positive?  It’s good to draw your time to a close with some positive reflections on their time abroad.
  • The future.  Ask them what their future plans are, and what help they need.
  • Close.  Finish off with prayer, and check any arrangements for follow up or meeting again.

However, we must also be aware that structure must not dictate to the debrief, and it is entirely appropriate to depart from this outline if the conversation naturally flows in a different direction.

 

What are we looking out for?

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

While some mission workers may have had a wonderful time and are giving glory to God for what has happened, certain negative issues commonly crop up and it is worth keeping an eye open for signs of them.

  • Isolation: The mission worker may feel a lack of supportive relationships either in the field or at ‘home’, they may not understand or fit in well to local culture, or be unable to communicate effectively.
  • Guilt – for being so wealthy, for leaving work unfinished, for leaving people behind in the field or not being there for family members at ‘home’.
  • Conflict – with other team members, with leaders, with nationals, within their own family.
  • Spiritual issues – loss or damage to faith, the challenge of suffering, weariness and burnout.
  • Unfulfilled expectations – dissatisfaction in ministry, sense of failure, where is God in all this?
  • Reverse culture shock – not settling, angry with church/culture/family, disillusioned with worldliness and materialism.
  • Stress.  We also need to watch out for symptoms of stress, burnout or even depression which may be present.

 

And finally….

Remember that this is all about the person being debriefed.  It is a way of expressing our love and esteem for them, and this time is available for them to use as they wish.  Hopefully, the experience will leave them feeling hopeful and refreshed, understanding their feelings about what they’ve been through, and not feeling so isolated and misunderstood.

I thought beforehand that it was going to be a waste of time, but I found that actually it was very helpful to be able to talk about everything, however small, that had happened.

 

Further reading:

Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries by Dr Debbie Hawker (2012) is the best work on this subject and has been used extensively in preparing this blog.  It is available online at:

http://www.peopleinaid.org/publications/debriefingaidworkersprinted.aspx either as a hard copy or a pdf.

This is an abridged version of a more detailed article in one of our Guides to Doing Mission Well which can be viewed by clicking here.

Reverse culture shock

More change on the way

More change on the way

It seems to me that every time I come back from a trip abroad, a new shop has opened on my local high street.  I don’t know if they wait for me to go away, in the hope that I won’t notice, but it’s a regular occurrence.  Since I travel quite frequently, this adds up to quite a turnover of stores.  Over time, the character of the high street changes, but most people wouldn’t notice, as the change is gradual and incremental.

But if I were to come back after a year or two away, the difference would be much more marked.  I would still recognise the high street, but I could clearly see it’s different.  The supermarket has changed hands (again!).  The post office has gone.  The bank has turned into a posh restaurant.  The greengrocer’s is now a charity shop.  We grieve (just a little bit) the loss.

This is a small example of what is called ‘reverse culture shock’.  It never ceases to amaze me how few mission workers, particularly independent ones, are prepared for the fact that things are not the same as they were when they left.  Life has moved on without them.  The sense of things not being quite the same can lead to a feeling of not quite belonging any more.  Once the euphoria of meeting family and friends again has worn off, returning mission workers can be left feeling slightly disorientated.  It’s a mild form of grieving – grieving for a lost past that cannot be recovered.

La bancaAdd into the changing high street the fact that church has changed (there may be a new vicar, old friends have left), family has changed (granny has died, mum and dad have moved into a house that was never home to me), and society has changed around us in too many ways to mention, and reverse culture shock can become quite an issue.  On top of what has changed in our environment, we have changed too while we’ve been away.  We’ve learned a new language, taken on aspects of a new culture, and seen God at work in an entirely different context.  So we can’t reasonably expect to fit back in where we left off, whether it was three decades ago, or just a year.  These changes can lead to loss of friendships, dislocation of family, and alienation from church.

If you find yourself feeling unaccountably emotional (tearful, angry, impatient, frustrated) – or indeed curiously numb – some 6-8 weeks after your return, it’s possible you’re suffering from reverse culture shock.  This can go on for quite some time, but recognising it for what it is will be the best way to start dealing with it.  Having a proper, formal debrief can help – either with your church or agency, or if they don’t feel competent to do it, please contact Syzygy to arrange one with us.  Talking about it with somebody who understands can help normalise your experience and facilitate your adaptation.  If you’re the church, family, or friends of people returning from abroad, watch for signs of reverse culture shock and be prepared to help with it.  For more information about it, see our article which is part of our guide to re-entry.

Overseas mission has a habit of knocking off some of our sharp edges.  As a result, we don’t fit back into the square holes we came out of.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.  We’ve just grown.

Syzygy in Mozambique

Sunrise in Mozambique

Sunrise in Mozambique

One of the things that Syzygy loves to do is to get out in the field and visit mission workers.  It helps us keep an up-to-date perspective on the challenges they are facing, and learn more about the challenges of cross-cultural ministry in the 21st century.  By conducting research in the field we are able to keep our advice and our blogs relevant and appropriate.  Field visits also give us a wonderful opportunity to meet with overworked mission partners and help be part of restoring their strength and energy.

This month Tim is going to Mozambique.  He’s going to stay with our old friends Aaron & Sarah Beecher at Tariro where he’ll be doing some biblical teaching at a conference for the staff and students.  He’s also going to be running a workshop for mission workers in the region (see our recent article Staying Healthy) and we hope this will lead to further opportunities to meet and encourage people we’ve not yet connected with.  Often when we’ve done events like this before, the participants request individual conversations which can keep us busy for the rest of the week!

Being familiar with some of the challenges of living and working in the area (Tim spent a year there, many years ago, before moving on to Zimbabwe), we anticipate that there will be many challenges in counselling people, dealing with issues arising from long-term cross-cultural fatigue, workplace conflict and reconciliation issues.  Mozambique is a difficult place to minister, with little opportunities for r&r or even good in field fellowship with other mission workers.  So we anticipate this will be a far-from-easy trip.  And we’re not going anywhere near a beach!

A long walk home

A long walk home

Tim’s schedule involves flying out on 4th June, changing flights in Cairo and Johannesburg before arriving in Beira the next day.  Staying Healthy  takes place at Tariro on 8th June and the staff conference will be a few days later.  Tim leaves Mozambique again on 17th June.

Please partner with us on this ministry trip by praying for:

safe travel, and making the right flight connections

the successful delivery of Staying Healthy

useful and constructive connections to arise from Staying Healthy

wisdom and anointing in counselling, advising and helping mission workers

God-given appointments we haven’t yet made

health, vitality and wisdom throughout the trip

clear communication with everyone!

We hope to bring you occasional updates via Facebook and Twitter during Tim’s visit.  If you don’t already follow us, click on the link so you don’t miss out.

The need for debriefing

pastoralAfter three years of doing regular blogs about missions, often with a particular emphasis on stress, I am amazed to realise that I have not yet specifically blogged about that most vital of tools – debriefing.  I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in passing but that is in no way sufficient considering the significance of this powerful resource to help combat stress and culture shock in the life of the overseas mission worker.

Debriefing is the act of sitting down with a facilitator to reflect on past experiences and how we feel about them.  During the course of a mission trip, whether short or long-term, each mission worker undergoes new experiences (many of which are challenging or even dangerous) and comes into contact with new sensations, many of which may not be at all pleasant.  These challenges may well be repeated differently at the various stages of our experience: leaving home, arriving in a foreign country, changing assignment, moving to another part of the country and returning ‘home’ all require repeated adjustments to change.  While we stoically cope with all these challenges, each one contributes to the general level of stress we feel, and can create an inability to cope with more change and deal with relationship challenges responsibly.

To have the opportunity to reflect on what we found different, how we felt about it, and how that continues to impact our ideas and feelings helps us process our thoughts and emotions so that we are more aware of what’s going on inside us.  It helps us to recognise that the occasional tearful or angry outburst, or an inner deadness can be perfectly normal in some circumstances.  In the process of doing a debrief, which can take a few hours or several days depending on the complexity of the issues involved, we have the opportunity to restore a sense of balance and inner peace.

sweater-splitDebriefing is rather like dealing with a drawer which is so full of stuffed-in jumpers that it won’t close neatly any more.  Often we just shove our emotional responses down inside us, but there comes a time when we can’t deal with any more, and that can lead to emotional breakdown.  To tidy out the drawer, we take out every jumper, decide whether we want to keep it or not, and if we do, we fold it up neatly and put it back.  Then the drawer will shut properly.  The debriefer asks questions of the mission worker, which helps him or her identify and evaluate their feelings and decide what to do with them.

Proper debriefing can be vital to the long-term inner health of the mission worker.  Debriefing has been linked to improved resilience and decreased mission attrition (Kelly O’Donnell, Global Member Care).  Regular and appropriate debriefing can keep mission workers in peak condition, but it is also possible that failure to provide proper debriefing, particularly after a traumatic incident like a serious car accident or a hostage situation, can lead to long-term emotional damage and even loss of faith.

Syzygy recommends that all overseas mission workers make sure they have debriefs on every home assignment.  Ideally, it should be about 6-8 weeks after getting back.  This is the time when the initial joy of being reunited with friends and family is beginning to wear off and the challenge of reverse culture shock is beginning to bite.  It should take place in familiar surroundings if possible, and involve everyone who has been part of the mission experience – including the children, who sadly often get overlooked.

If your sending agency or church does not provide this for you, we are very happy to provide you with a debrief, with their agreement.  We specialise in providing this service for independent mission workers who do not have an agency and perhaps have not yet realised how much they need debriefing.  We conduct our debriefings at a time and place that is convenient to you in order to minimise the impact or travel and strange surroundings on your experience.  Please contact info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.

Secondary Stress

Recently I seem to have been talking a lot about secondary stress with mission workers.  It’s a common though relatively unrecognised problem among overseas workers, particularly those working in compassion ministries or among poorer communities.  Secondary stress is the burden we take on not as a result of our own working or living conditions, but those of others.  It’s not excess baggage so much as other people’s baggage.  It’s what we pick up when we try to lighten the load on others who are already weighed down.

It is perfectly natural to feel a degree of anguish when working, for example, in a refugee camp, or when counselling others who have problems.  We would be pretty heartless if we were not affected by the tragedies we witness or the grief we hear about.  Our resulting compassion should spur us to more action to help the afflicted.  But when we can’t sleep at night because of it, or have images we can’t get out of our heads, it is becoming hazardous to us, and even in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis we need to take some steps to ensure that we maintain ourselves in a condition to be able to continue to help those who need our help.

The first step in dealing with secondary stress is to recognise that we may be suffering with it, because we often don’t notice.  It creeps up on us, daily growing, until something goes wrong.  Because I’m involved in debriefing a lot of people, often with major problems, last summer I arranged a debrief for myself, not because I thought I needed it, but because it is good practice.  Only after I emerged emotionally exhausted from the debrief did I realise how much other people’s baggage I was carrying.

One excellent tool for doing an inventory on yourself is Dr Beth Stamm’s Professional Quality of Life Measure, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Headington Institute.  It is simple to use, and asks just 30 questions about your work in helping others.  There are also other useful self-assessment tools on stress, burnout and lifestyle inventory available from the same website.

Once you have recognised that your levels of secondary stress are unacceptable, put into action your usual anti-stress techniques – debrief, holidays, or relaxation.  See our stress archive for more suggestions.  If none of these suggestions work, and you are still showing symptoms of elevated stress levels, you should take medical leave of absence, extended rest and seek counselling or even the help of a professional psychotherapist.

If when you return to work things immediately get worse again, you should be reassigned.  This of course, will add to your stress as you will feel guilty that you have let needy people down, but if you are not sufficiently resilient to cope in this situation, you may end up being a needy person yourself, and it is better for you to move on and to let a more resilient person take over.

If you’d like to learn more about secondary stress I recommend you listen to Member Care Media’s 4-part podcast by Dr Brent Lindquist, who in addition to being excellently named really knows his stuff.  Each episode is packed with helpful information and the whole series will take you less than an hour to listen to, but much longer to work through!  There are also a lot of other good materials on the MemCare website which will help you to stay healthy.

Unpacking

Source: www.freeimages.com

A friend commented recently that I use the word ‘unpacking’ a lot.  It’s true: as a traveller I find myself unpacking frequently, and being of an orderly disposition I don’t really feel settled in until the case is unpacked  and everything’s neatly packed away.  You know I’m really tired if I get home late but leave the bags unpacked on the floor till the morning.

But it’s not this sort of unpacking that she was talking about.  It’s when unpacking is a metaphor for reflection on an experience, an emotion, or event.  You could equally call it processing, but I think that sounds a bit too, well, process-oriented.

In my experience mission workers do far too little unpacking.  We carry a lot of clutter around with us, and often pay a price for taking our ‘excess baggage’ with us.  It can be very unhealthy to take with us everywhere we go our crates of past disappointments, frustrations and hurts.  Spiritually and emotionally, it’s good to travel light.  So how do we get rid of our excess baggage?

Unpacking is the activity of reviewing what has happened to us, reflecting on it, learning the lessons, and moving on.  We are most accustomed to doing this when we have a debrief.  We look back at our last term of service and review what went well, or badly, and how we grew as a result.  Truthfully recognising our role in the events, and how we reacted to them, helps us.  It can bring emotions to the surface which, once acknowledged, can be dealt with.

 

People who follow Ignatian spirituality do this practice regularly, in many cases at least once a day.  They call it the Examen.  It’s a very healthy procedure which involves analysing how we feel, particularly if a strong emotion has surfaced.  We can do it periodically, often in the aftermath of a challenging event or incident.  Asking ourselves such questions as Why was I so angry?  What was I afraid of? or What made me feel so happy? will help us learn about our emotions and understand our responses.  By examining our choices and our reactions, we create a place in which we can forgive those who have wronged us, and repent of the wrongs we have done.

Sometimes when emotions rise up it’s because  we feel vulnerable (even if it’s only subconsciously) It has been compared to  sitting on top of a wobbling pole, so we try to re-establish security by placing big rocks around the base of the pole to stop it wobbling.  These rocks represent potentially compulsive behaviours like shopping, drink or drugs, being a star employee, excelling as a parent/partner/child, eating, or having sex.

These activities, while not necessarily wrong in themselves, help to bolster our short-term feelings of self-esteem, so when we’re tempted to indulge in one or more of them to excess, it is helpful to ask why.  It may be that some recent experience has undermined our self-esteem so that we need to take steps to feel good about ourselves.  The problem is that none of these activities actually delivers long-term good self-esteem, so we have to keep on doing them to feel good.  Only a full appreciation of our relationship with God in Christ can set us free from this cycle of compulsive self-destruction.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Sometimes we experience emotional instability because we are carrying too much excess baggage.  It’s rather like having a case which won’t shut without us sitting on it, so the stuff inside keeps spilling out at inopportune moments.  This is what happens when our emotions burst unhelpfully into daily life.

The solution is to open the case and get everything out.  Take a good look at each individual item (memory, emotion, experience) and decide whether you really need to keep it.  If not, throw it out.  If you do need to keep it, fold it up neatly and put it back in the case, which will now shut properly.

Orderly unpacking will help us travel lighter.

The fifth emergency service

(with respectful acknowledgements to the AA)

Earlier this year I was at a conference where the speaker tried an icebreaker.  ‘If your organisation were an animal’, he asked, ‘what would sort of animal would it be?’ Everyone around my table was studiously avoiding eye contact, trying hard not to go first.  I was muttering to myself ‘I hate things like this.  I’m just not creative enough for this’ when he asked his second icebreaker: ‘If your organisation were a car, what sort of car would it be?’

And it instantly hit me – Syzygy is an AA van*.  We help broken down mission workers.  We fix the problem.  We get you where you’re going.  And though you might only see one person when you deal with Syzygy, there’s a whole team of experts behind him.

Within a matter of minutes I had refined this image further, to detail the types of services we provide:

Roadside assistance: We’re there for you when you break down.  Advice on stress, debriefing, mentoring and hospitality can help get you back on the road.

Relay: Wherever you’re going, we’ll help get you there!  We provide practical  support, from lending you a car to advice on preparing for re-entry, with online guides to missions on our website.

Homestart: When things start going wrong in the field, we can help by providing pastoral visits, problem solving, crisis management and relief staffing.

As a result of that revelation, we are changing our image.  We think that this imagery fully encapsulates our ethos of help, support and practical problem solving.  In future we’ll be using a photo of a flashing orange light as our logo, and we’ve adopted a new tagline:

THE SUPPORT SERVICE FOR MISSION WORKERS

I did think that ‘rescue service’ or ‘emergency service’ sounded more punchy, but on reflection we decided that this doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that much of what we do is not done in a crisis, but is about preventing a crisis happening.

A new image, but the same service – striving to keep mission workers in good physical, emotional and spiritual condition so that they are able to at carrying out their God-given mandate.  Our new flyer is out this week.  Click on the image to the left to read it.  If you’d like some copies to display at church or in your workplace, please email tim@syzygy.org.uk

*Other breakdown services are available.  Actually I should have chosen RAC because at least they’re orange like Syzygy.