Good leaders…

The biggest problem for many working people is that the actual work on their desks is the easiest part of the job. Nothing they are responsible for doing at work is especially challenging.  It’s only hard to do the job because of the politics, the stupid rules and the dark, fearful energy that flows throughout the workplace and bogs everyone down. A broken culture makes everything else harder, from organizing projects to getting critical approvals to move your work forward.[1]

In the above quote, Liz Ryan was writing about organisations in general, but she could just as easily have been writing about some of our churches and mission agencies.  On a previous occasion I wrote about the toxicity that lurks in some head offices, and while not wishing to repeat myself, I do want to ram the point home: I come across too many mission workers wounded by their own organisations.

Granted, some of these people may have been annoying, difficult people to work with (so good management starts with good recruitment) but in the kingdom of God we need to develop the desire and ability to work well with even some of the most awkward brothers and sister.

And that is the principal issue: no matter how abrasive or maverick these mission workers are, it’s the agency which has harmed them, at least in their opinion.  And we’ll come on to that issue another day, but we’ll stick with the agency for the moment.

So how do we recognise a culture which hurts people?  Three key characteristics are

  • rules become more important than people
  • doing becomes more important than being
  • results are more important than influence
  • decisions are imposed rather than discussed
  • debate is branded as dissent

The key to ensuring this doesn’t happen is to have leaders of good character.  They can be recognised by many characteristics but we think good leaders:

  • behave more like pastors than bosses
  • are open to hearing alternatives without feeling threatened
  • are emotionally intelligent enough to understand how they respond to others
  • put people’s wellbeing before the organisation’s
  • value people for who they are, not what they can achieve
  • are secure enough to recognise their own vulnerability and embrace it
  • are able to acknowledge and apologise for their own mistakes

How do we get our organisations to the place where this feels like real life?  Like any organisational change, it needs commitment from senior leaders who can recognise the need for change.  The people at the top set the agenda, and if they don’t, there will not be sufficient impetus for change.  This is not only the home or the field directors, but also trustees, and other influential people in the organisation.  For many of them this will need a change of mindset away from running a business to leading a community.  For want of a better model, many of us have adopted secular management strategies which turn our agencies into corporations.  These have the ability to subtly change our values to achieving goals, maintaining profitability and maintaining the reputation of the organisation, which although necessary, are not in themselves positive outcomes and can draw us away from biblical values.

Syzygy is happy to support agencies through implementing cultural change, and we recommend independent mentoring for all senior leaders to help them become the people God wants them to be.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/10/19/ten-unmistakable-signs-of-a-toxic-culture/#49a9f802115f

The growing Syzygy network

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

The sheep on the other hill

Source: www.freeimages.com

One of the challenges that faces church leaders, particularly when attempting to focus on world mission, is the extent to which their time and attention is demanded by their loudly bleating sheep.  The pastoral needs of church members are very high on a minister’s list of priorities, and many of their sheep will complain loudly if the pastor isn’t seen to be meeting them.

And very often it has to be the church leader personally, even though the church may have a fully-equipped pastoral team.  We may talk about the value of team ministry, but so often people want the top person to be personally involved in meeting their needs and are upset if she isn’t.  I often think of a story I heard about a woman who had been in hospital, and subsequently complained to the pastor that “Nobody  had visited her”, when in fact she’d had several visits from church members, some of them multiple times.  What she meant was that the minister hadn’t visited her!*

This dynamic forces the church leader into meeting perceived needs, in addition to all the genuine crises going on in the church.  The minister’s approval, and sometimes his actual employment, can be dependent on how well he is seen to be meeting these needs, so it is understandable if they take up a lot of the minister’s time and attention.  But what about the sheep in other folds, on other hills, whose bleating isn’t so easy to hear because they’re further away.

Overseas mission workers have pastoral needs too.  Although they may be members of an agency, that doesn’t mean those pastoral needs are met.  And some people don’t serve through an agency anyway.  But they are still part of their home church, with a reasonable expectation that the church (whether it’s the pastor or a team) will meet their pastoral needs.

These needs are often not addressed by agencies, who rightly do not see pastoral care as part of their responsibility (unlike member care) or by the local church which the mission partner serves through, which may not have the capacity to understand and minister to the issues going on in the mission worker’s life, as these issues may be very different from those of the indigenous church.  This lack of pastoral support can add to stress and contribute to burnout and attrition

Syzygy has a guide for churches which can help them understand the needs of their overseas sheep.  We also offer advice to churches who would like to support their mission partners more effectively, and bespoke training for those churches who would like to develop the skills of their pastoral team to care effectively for mission partners.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

The fact that the sheep aren’t in your fold doesn’t mean you’re not their shepherd!

* Story found in Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness by Jerry Cook with Stanley C Baldwin (Regal Books 1979)

Friendly fire?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberately abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012, “Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.”  Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?

 

Crisis in member care?

Source: www.freeimages.com

A crisis has been brewing in member care for nearly a decade, which is still widely unacknowledged and has not yet begun to take effect, but when it does, mission workers across the globe will feel the impact.

Since the financial crash of 2008 mission agencies have experienced a significant drop in income which has required them to rethink their approach to doing mission.  This often takes the form of questioning whether structures and processes designed in the 19th century are still relevant today, and if not, how we can reimagine the future of missionary sending.

A major feature of this is the argument (which to be fair, precedes the financial crisis even though declining income has given it more urgency) that sending mission workers should be the responsibility of the local church rather than agencies.  This is a valid perspective, but for more than a century agencies have effectively told churches to give them their people and their cash, so that the agency can send them.  Now they want churches to engage more, but the churches do not always know how.

What is the impact for member care?  Over the last couple of decades member care has made great strides in putting the care of mission workers on the map.  Most sending agencies are fully committed to member care, and many have full-time members of staff coordinating it, even if they don’t always do it as well as they’d like to think they do.  But pushing the sending responsibility over to churches means that agencies are discreetly, possibly even unintentionally, looking to shuffle off their responsibility for member care too.

Churches, meanwhile, are in a similar situation to the agencies.  While many churches already do member care well, others are extremely challenged to care for their mission partners.  Falling church incomes mean fewer staff while longer working hours for church members mean fewer volunteers available to serve.  Yet the church members demand higher quality services and the public are generally more needy of the practical help churches provide.  Add to that, many churches have not been actively involved in providing the member care that will start to come their way.  How are they going to develop the vision, capacity and skills to deal with this situation?

Syzygy is uniquely placed to assist with this challenging situation.  We are able to:

  • help churches develop member care capacity by providing training, mentoring and partnership.
  • work with larger agencies to help them continue to provide member care well should they choose to do so
  • assist smaller agencies which are unable to do their own member care by partnering with them and providing member care ourselves

Over the coming months we will be actively promoting these services so that we are able to provide support to all parties in this situation, with the ultimate goal that mission workers are more effectively supported than ever.  Should your church or agency be interested in finding out more, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

 

 

Permission to fail

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Treasure in broken vessels

kintugiMany of us in the West will share an attitude to damaged pottery – it’s ruined.  A chipped plate, a cracked mug – throw it out.  Not only is it now worthless, we wouldn’t want others to see us using it.  They might think a little less of us if they did.

In Japanese art, however, the attitude is completely different.  The broken pieces are carefully gathered and pieced back together with gold seams where there are cracks.  The restored vessel is considered more beautiful, because of the care that has gone into mending it and that fact that its healed body tells its story.  Instead of rejecting the flawed and damaged, the Japanese embrace it.

Most of us in the mission world have been badly damaged.  We try to cover it up, act as if nothing has happened, think that others will think less of us if they find out.  But pots that are in everyday use get damaged – it’s only the ones that are locked away in a cupboard that stay pristine.  Life takes chips out of all of us, some more than others, and none of us is in mint condition.

In rejecting the damage, we deny some of our history.  We overlook the fact that God is gently but intentionally putting back together a valuable and much-loved possession, pouring his attention and effort into making it whole again.  The gold in the cracks is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it makes us even more beautiful than if we were pristine.  God loves these damaged goods so much that he keeps on using us, keeps on repairing us, until more and more of him shines through our shabby and battered exteriors.

Allowing others to see the cracks also allows them the opportunity to see God at work in healing our lives.

 

Podcasts for single mission workers

IMG_20160812_084512One of the (many) challenges single mission workers face is finding resources to help them in their challenge to live a rich and fulfilled life without a life partner.  Sometimes their perception of a huge hole in their life where their life-partner should be can become so overwhelming that it dominates every aspect of their life, and often there is little in the way of resources to help them refocus their attention on the amazing possibilities and opportunities of being single.

Now Syzygy has partnered with Member Care Media to produce a series of 5 short podcasts which include some essential teaching for single mission workers.  We hope that these introductions to material shared more fully in our regular retreats for singles at Penhurst Retreat Centre will help single mission workers thrive in their singleness and learn to see it as a blessing rather than a challenge to be overcome, or even better, ended.

The podcasts can be found on the singles page of Member Care Media, and the subject matter includes:

  • An introduction to singleness and why it is a challenge for so many mission workers
  • Biblical characters who were successfully single
  • A Biblical perspective on why singleness isn’t intrinsically bad
  • Unpacking the ‘gift’ of singleness
  • Strategies for a fulfilling single life

It is our hope that these resources will be used by single mission workers worldwide, to help them get the most out of their singleness.

Another resource we produced a couple of years ago is the book Single Mission, which we believe is the first book by single mission workers about single mission workers for single mission workers.  Many agencies have used it as part of their training and orientation – and not only for their singles!  It has been greatly appreciated by married people too, who have used it to learn about the challenges of being single later in life which they may not have experienced.  Why not try it out?

 

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.

 

A personal comment on resilience

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I am going to end this series of blogs on resilience with something very unusual in five years of blogging – a personal testimony.  Late in 1999 I returned to England in a badly damaged condition after five years of mission service in Africa.  During the previous decade I had suffered overwork and stress, emotional and spiritual abuse, unresolved grief, and frequent illnesses culminating in hepatitis.  And now I had chronic fatigue syndrome!  Unable to care for myself, I moved in with a friend who took care of me as I slowly recovered.

During this time a strange thing happened: I became filled with joy in a way that was completely new to me.  I would spontaneously burst into songs of praise even when walking down the street or in the shower. My prayer life became characterised by gratitude.  I was puzzled that this was at odds with my material state: poor health, no money, no hope of getting a job, the frustration of long-term illness.

And then I realised the essential truth that my spirit was rejoicing in even though my mind was slow to catch up.  Everything really important in life was already taken care of!  God loved me unconditionally.  Christ died for me.  My eternal salvation was secure.  So what if the rest of my mortal life was illness and poverty?

This is the eternal perspective that Paul was able to tap into when enduring his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  This is what happens when we have roots that run deep into God so that we can survive the tough times.

It was five years before I was restored to health, and the lessons I learned during that time have been life-transforming.  They enable me to thrive because my essence is focussed on my being, not my doing, and is rooted in God’s acceptance of me in Christ.  They help me even at times of extreme busyness to live as a Mary, not a Martha.  They also provide the experience which now equips me to help others find peace in the midst of their busy and stressful lives.

I pray for each of you reading this blog, that you will also know the sense of heavenly trajectory and peace that comes from having deep roots.  If you don’t, please contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for a confidential discussion.

Resources on resilience

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

“Up” into the light

004When trees are planted close together, they often don’t waste energy growing outwards into the familiar bushy shape we know of a mature solitary oak. This is exemplified in plantations, where they are deliberately placed close together so that they will quickly grow tall and straight to provide good timber. Think pine or gum tree plantations.

The proximity of the trees to each other encourages them all to grow upwards, towards the only source of light. This too should be our goal in life – to grow ‘up’ towards God.

Many of us involved in mission lose sight of this in our enthusiasm to reach out to those who do not yet know Jesus. We organise campaigns, strategies and church plants and in our busyness of keeping the whole thing on the road we somehow forget the real goal of life. David Pawson once said something like “God doesn’t need servants – he’s got plenty of angels.  But he is looking for a bride for his son.”  That does not mean that there is no need for service in the Christian life.  That’s the partnership that results from a growing relationship with God and leads to an ever-deepening intimacy as we see God at work in us and through us.

Last week we considered the proximity of others a source of protection for us, but it should also be a source of spiritual stimulation. If our teams, churches or supporters are not inspiring us to grow towards God, we should be challenging them to.  We are called to be part of a worshipping community, and even though some of us are pioneer workers who are physically separated from others, we still need the encouragement and inspiration of those who support us.  We need to consciously develop deeper relationships in which it is natural to talk about God, what he has done in our lives and written in his word, so that we help one another to grow.

While our mission may be to reach out, our calling is to reach up.  As Alex reminded us a few weeks ago, we should be fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Paul exhorts us to press on towards the upward goal (Philippians 3:14). Maintaining our heavenly perspective enables us to endure the many hardships which we undergo in the course of our mission. Knowing that we suffer for Christ helps us to endure. Understanding that there is glory on the other side of this life frees us from working for glory now… or it should do.

Yet many of us are far more like Martha than Mary (Luke 10:28-42). We rush around doing stuff for Jesus in preference to being with him. For some of us, ministry may even be therapy rather than worship – striving to find identity, meaning and purpose in what we do rather than Who we are doing it with. Mary, on the other hand, contentedly sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say. I wonder how many of us choose the better part? Or are we simply too busy?

Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.

Safety in numbers

Chanctonbury ringWe all know the idea of safety in numbers, whether it’s herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti, or shoals of mackerel avoiding predators like tuna.  But we might not have noticed that trees do the same.  A few tree species produce winged seeds that catch the wind and fly far away, but most, like the oak, produce heavy ones that don’t fall far from the parent tree, so that they can build up a forest around them for protection.

Whether it’s a naturally-occurring forest or a human-made plantation, trees tend to flourish in groups.  This can be best seen in some of the Victorian plantations that still stand on the top of some of Britain’s hills.  Trees seldom grow alone on the top of exposed hills, and if they do, they don’t always grow big and strong.  The wind breaks off their tender new growth resulting in squat, bent trees.  This still happens on the windward side of hilltop woods.  The ones that bear the brunt of the wind still struggle, but in doing so, they provide shelter for the downwind ones.  The further away the trees are from the force of the wind, the taller and straighter they grow.  In other words, the upwind ones take a hit for the others.

Mission workers are too often like lone trees struggling against the elements.  They leave the safety of their natural environment to go somewhere more demanding.  They might persist but they don’t thrive.  Which raises the obvious question – where is the community?  Who is taking the hit for you so that you can grow big and strong?

It doesn’t have to be one supporter who suffers greatly bearing this burden, but a number who share it between them.  Part of raising support before we go is finding the members of this team who not only provide the money (and that’s what we focus on getting, right?) but can provide practical and pastoral support, communication and prayer.

It’s also about being part of a team in the field which supports us in our challenges.  Whether they are specialist member care workers, supportive colleagues or understanding team leaders, we need to make sure that we have a team which takes the hit for us (and vice versa).  We must also remember not to overlook the provision that God has given us in the local believers.  Too often we come to the mission field with a mentality of serving the local church which is at best paternalistic if not neo-colonialist, and we don’t even entertain the fact that they might be able to serve and encourage us.  But perhaps we serve them best when we show that we are not strong and invincible but fragile and vulnerable and allow them to help us in our need.

Few of us are called to be a lonely pine on a hilltop.  Most of us are intended to be mighty oaks of righteousness, planted together in groups which will bless and encourage others.  So take a look around and see where the other trees are, and whether you can’t actually start growing closer together.

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.

Today I am…

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

You may have come across our series of Easter tweets “Today I am…” This is not a pun on the name of the everlasting God, but an invitation to reflect on who we might be in the Easter story. Are we a bystander, a disciple, a Pharisee or a Roman? Or someone else altogether?  What role do we play?

This is not a new technique for bringing to life an episode in the Bible, but it is not common in evangelical circles. Yet placing ourselves within the story, and not merely reading it, can help to bring it to life in a new way. Asking ourselves what we did or said, or how we felt can help us become players in the drama. For example, imagine you are Peter, sitting by a fire in the courtyard, and for the third time somebody accuses you of being with Jesus, which you vehemently deny. A cock crows, and Jesus looks at you. How does he look? Angry, disappointed, sad? How do you feel? Ashamed, embarrassed, frightened? Asking ourselves to use our senses to imagine the sights, smells and sounds in the story unpacks them in a new way.

Life was not easy for the people Jesus called to follow him. They had seen vast crowds fed, heard incredible teaching and one had even walked on the water. They had faced opposition and criticism.  And now they were in hiding, in fear of their lives. They had started out realising that Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter, but someone special. They accepted him as their rabbi. They came to believe he was the Messiah. Then they feared he was just another failed rebel leader, before finding out that somehow he had come back from the grave, the same but changed, and they came to trust that he was not only the Messiah, but God.  And nearly all of them were executed for believing that.

Likewise we mission workers have to deal with success and failure (“those two imposters”) and the challenges they present to our theology. We can easily be thrown into doubt or confusion when disaster strikes, or triumphalist when it all works out well. We can trust in our own abilities and giftedness or we can wonder whether we heard God right, or whether God has let us down. We can doubt our own calling, or even our own faith.

Paul was no stranger to being buffeted by the storms of a tough life. In 2 Corinthians 11 he lists stoning, beating, imprisonment and shipwreck among his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB)!  But despite the knocks and hardships, he kept on going. He wrote:

We often suffer, but we are not crushed.
Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.
In times of trouble, God is with us,
And when we are knocked down, we get up again.

(2 Corinthian 4:8-9, CEV)

This quality is known as resilience, and it is in great demand. It is a current topic in member care as we all consider how to help people acquire it. Resilience is the rare ability not to be derailed by the challenges we face, and on the odd occasion when we get knocked down, to get up and keep on going. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be doing a mini-series of blogs on resilience. We hope they help mission workers everywhere to keep on keeping on and not despair. We hope to help them discover how, like Paul, they can suffer so much and think it insignificant.

Today, I am Paul…

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!

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.

Bruised, confused, abused

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This term was used recently in a discussion by a colleague reflecting on how many mission workers return to the UK, whether permanently or short-term, with serious emotional or spiritual damage.  It may be somewhat overstated but nevertheless expressed well what many of us working in member care see regularly.  Quite apart from the normal stresses of living cross-culturally, many of these people had been victims of their own organisations and leadership.  Incompetence, error and even malpractice are far too prevalent in the senior echelons.

We at Syzygy are not happy to highlight the weaknesses we come across in churches and agencies, or the personal shortcomings of some of their leadership, but we come across this sort of situation quite frequently and from time to time we feel the need to bring it to peoples’ attention.  When mission workers are harmed by their own people/organisations, something is desperately wrong.  It is not honouring to God, it’s not loving to our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a good witness to the people we are working with, and it’s not a sensible way to treat what we all acknowledge is an extremely limited and valuable resource – our people.

So why does this happen?  We have already blogged about the fact that many leaders feel pushed into a role they’re not ready for, with the result that they either abdicate responsibility or become dictatorial in enforcing their authority.  Add into this the pressures of increasing age, the cross-cultural stress which most people in a mission environment work under, the shortage of finance and personnel in most agencies, and unrealistic demands of supporters and sending churches, contribute some compassion fatigue and some cross-cultural exhaustion, and the result can be a number of people who are not really fit to be on the field themselves let alone be in a position of managing others.

So what can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions from Syzygy’s own experience:

Specific training for leaders.  We suspect that few mission workers ever have the opportunity for personal development as they transition into a new role.  Professional training on such topics as managing people, communication skills and understanding team roles would be an appropriate part of such a package, as well as specific training on areas where new leaders self-identify as vulnerable.

Mentoring for leaders.  Leadership can be a lonely place.  There are issues you can’t talk about with your friends, and decisions you have to take alone.  Many leaders are aware they are struggling but have nobody they can honestly talk to about it: they may well be afraid that their church or agency will terminate their support if they think they can’t handle the pressure.  So facilitating somebody from outside the organisation to be an independent mentor for each leader would be a big step forward.

Downsize the agency.  Many agencies believe in perpetual growth, and to be honest there is always more work we can do.  But just because there is a need we don’t have to meet it ourselves.  Rationalising what we do, withdrawing from some areas or ministries, and reducing the number of team members may all be good responses to an overworked leadership.

Encourage better self-care.  No matter how busy leaders are, time when the phone is switched off, families relax together, people can go on holiday or retreat, or engage in hobbies is always worthwhile.

Provide better member care.  Member care in some areas is still unreliable.  More people with a pastoral role focussed towards the mission workers will help keep self-c are on the agenda.

Syzygy provides support for mission workers and agencies in all these areas.  For a totally confidential discussion email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

Growing mission workers

My garden - afterMany years ago, before I worked for Syzygy, I worked as a gardener.  I learned all about plants, how to nurture and care for them, know the right place to plant them, and how to protect them from harm and help them thrive.  Careful preparation and nurturing led my plants to thrive and I designed and built beautiful gardens.

Since leaving that behind and working instead with mission workers, I have come to the conclusion that mission workers are rather similar to the plants.  They need careful preparation.  They need to be put in the right location for them to thrive.  They need protection and support – and occasional pruning so that they can produce more fruit!

One mistake that uninformed gardeners can make when growing trees is to stake them too firmly.  Aware of the possibility that strong winds might blow an immature tree over, gardeners can be tempted to tie their trees up so tightly that they can’t even move.  Which leads to a problem: the trees never need to develop sturdy roots.  So they grow up vulnerable, and not even the stakes can stop them blowing over.

A better technique is to stake them loosely – firm enough so that they can’t blow over but loosely enough to allow them to wobble in the wind.  The tree’s response is to send its roots deeper to stabilise itself.  Which results in a stronger, more resilient tree, able to weather storms and find water in times of drought.  It endures for decades, growing large, providing food and shelter for others, and sustaining the environment.

This, to me, is the essence of member care.  Not wrapping people up in cotton wool and protecting them from every potential hazard.  That only creates vulnerable mission workers.  The strong mission workers are those who have endured some hardships and setbacks, been supported and encouraged in the midst of this experience, learned some lessons and carried on.

Many churches and agencies have people who want to provide good member care, but don’t know where to start.  They care, but feel they don’t have the skills, or don’t fully appreciate their issues.  So here are our recommendations for getting into member care:

Go to the European Member Care Consultation – this biennial meeting takes place next in March 2016 in Germany and will provide workshops for beginners as well as masterclasses for the more experienced.  Book soon as the early bird discount expires next week!  Follow this link for more details.

Become part of your national member care network – many countries have member care networks.  You can find out about some of the European ones on the website of Member Care Europe; other continents can be found at the Global Member Care Network.  Such networks provide confererences and training for their members.

Read some books – we particularly recommend Neal Pirolo’s book Serving as Senders and Larrie Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient and Effective.  You can find more books on our reading list and we’ve recommended several which we find useful in other blogs.

Study for an MA – want to take it further?  Redcliffe College does an MA in member care which is ideal for refining your skills.