Fitting back in

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

…or should I go?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week we considered some of the steps you can take to support ageing parents while staying on in the mission field.  But no matter how good you are at doing that, there may well come a time when you have to leave the field and go to support your parents.  Today we’ll consider some issues which need to be settled so that you can know going back to your parents’ country is the right thing for you to do.

In a multitude of counsellors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14).  This is not a decision to be made lightly, so involve people you trust: church leaders, friends, family (including your parents) and medical advisors.  Make sure you don’t just make a decision with your head, or follow your heart, but pray about it to see if together you can work out what God is calling you to do.  It was, after all, at a conference that James pronounced “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28)

Make the decision sooner rather than later.  It’s only natural for you to leave it as long as possible because you want to stay on in the mission field, but you will need to leave some time for you (and your family if you have one) to settle into life in your parents’ country before you have to throw yourself into looking after your parents.  You may need a year or two to navigate the challenges of re-entry, and if you find yourself acting as a full-time carer within days of getting off the plane, you probably won’t have the space to process everything you need to – and will have unresolved emotional issues as a result.

Be honest with your siblings and review each of your skills.  You may not actually be the best person to provide the personal care for your parents, but you may be great at organising it from a distance or handling their finances.  Your parents may prefer one of your siblings to see them daily rather than you.  But your siblings may assume that because they have full-time jobs (unlike you!) you have the flexibility to be there for your parents, unlike them.  Make sure your family understands that your calling is just as important and inflexible as their employment.  This applies particularly to single women in the mission field, who families often think are more readily available to provide care because they don’t have a husband and children, so the expectation of looking after parents often falls unfairly on their shoulders.

Nobody who has put a hand to the plough and then turns back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).  With the best will in the world this harsh verse will be preying on your mind.  It will be quoted at you by Pharisees, and Satan will make sure you don’t forget it.  Have you betrayed your calling?  Did you love your family more than Jesus (Luke 14:26)?  This is why any decision needs to be thought and prayed through thoroughly.  Be convinced that this is God’s way of ending your time in the mission field (or taking an indefinite break) or this idea will continue to gnaw away at your soul and embitter you.

Finish well and say good goodbyes.  Treat this as if you are leaving permanently – because you may be!  People often leave the field ‘temporarily’, assuming that they will return when their parents no longer need their support, but in fact ageing parents can continue to live for decades, and by the time you are ready to return so much will have changed: you, your family situation, your church and agency, the needs of the mission and the country where you served.  Perhaps you won’t be wanted, and will have to deal with unsaid farewells and unresolved emotions in the future.  Better to leave well, and perhaps have a second bite at the cherry later, without holding on tightly to the hope of it.

There are huge emotional, spiritual and practical challenges involved in leaving the mission field to care for ageing parents.  Syzygy is experienced at helping people in these situations, and if you’d like to talk to us, either in person or via social media, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

Should I stay…?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Many overseas mission workers will be aware of the huge crisis lurking somewhere out there in the future when their ageing parents become sick, or simply are unable to look after themselves any more.

We know that at some stage we may have to weigh our desire to love, honour and care for our parents with the sense of calling we have which has taken us far away from them, and we need to work out what is the right thing to do when the time comes.  Do we  resign our position as mission workers and return to our parents’ country, or do we continue in our vocation and look for other alternatives for our parents’ care?  There are no easy answers, and even the Bible counters “Honour thy father and they mother” with “Let the dead bury their dead.”  But the decision is still out there, and most of us know it will come home to roost sooner or later.

Let us assume for the moment that most of us want to stay in the mission field.  After all, we have a sense of calling, there is a work for us to do here, and it’s our home.  If we had wanted to return to our parents’ country, we probably would have done so already.  So here are a few suggestions on how we can continue to support our parents from a distance, and so prolong our time in the field while not neglecting our parents.  Next week we will have a look at some of the issues involved in leaving.

  • First, can you arrange to take more frequent home assignments so that you can see your parents more regularly, keep personally updated on their needs and monitor their situation?  If you’re a family and can’t afford to fly everyone back once a year, can one of you take a couple of weeks each year to visit your parents while leaving the others behind?  Use these visits to spend valuable time with your parents, find out what’s really going on in their lives, and get to know their community.
  • Discuss the situation openly with your parents and siblings, so that you are all agreed who is to do what.  Make sure they all know that you’re not trying to shirk your responsibilities and are willing to do your share of the support from a distance.
  • Get a Power of Attorney over their affairs, so that you can act on their authority from a distance.  You will need this authority just to get information from their bank or doctor so make sure that you’ve registered a copy with them.
  • Get to know their neighbours, if you don’t know them already.  Who can help with the shopping?  Who will sound the alarm if the bedroom curtains aren’t opened in the morning?  Make sure neighbours know how to get in touch with you.
  • Get to know their doctor and discuss the situation with them so they won’t be surprised when you phone from abroad to ask a question.
  • Engage some professional care from an agency or a charity who can take in meals and help with cleaning, medication or helping your parents get out of bed.
  • Recruit your friends to be their friends.  While you’re on home assignment, hold suppers for your friends at your parents’ house if you can, so that you have a natural way of introducing them.
  • Get help from the church.  If your church is in their area, let your church leaders know the situation.  Even if your parents aren’t Christians they might welcome the contact.  And if they are Christians, make sure you are in touch with their church leadership too, so that they are fully briefed and can keep in touch with you from a distance.
  • Utilise technology.  Not only can you talk to your parents via social media, you can have webcams and movement sensors in their house so you can keep tabs on them!
  • Find out what resources are available in their community, and visit the social services and local charities.
  • Go through their house minimising trip hazards, adding handrails and improving lighting
  • Make sure you have sufficient savings to pay for a last minute flight home, as tickets can be very expensive if you haven’t booked in advance.

Hopefully, by planning carefully and engaging with your family and your parents’ community, you can facilitate their support from a distance rather than providing it personally.  And if you have any other suggestions for caring from a distance, please let us know!

Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

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

 

Supporting retiring mission workers

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

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

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

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

So what can their supporters do to help?

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

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

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

 

You can never go back…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A new car for Syzygy

20151128_122535We’re delighted to announce our latest arrival – a VW Passat estate, ideal for families of up to 5 with lots of luggage, yet comfortable and economical for those long motorway journeys.  It joins our Passat 4-door and the Toyota Previa in providing transport solutions for mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  You can read more about this valuable ministry on its own page.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank our friends who donated their cars and gave money to help us get a car which will make returning mission workers who see it first at the airport say “Wow!” and not “Oh no…”

Helping TCKS use social media wisely

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

A discussion at Global Connections’ TCK Forum last week considered helping TCKs to use social media wisely – a challenge for all of us involved with raising healthy children.  We often remember that Jesus told us to be as innocent as doves in this world where we are like sheep among wolves, but we can so easily forget that he told us to be as wise as serpents too (Matthew 10:16).

In an age when children and teens are spending ever more time on the internet, at a time when we hear daily reports about online gaming, cyberbullying and sexting, how can we take steps to help our young people be safe?  And what is the role of sending agencies and churches in helping parents?

What can churches and agencies do?

  • Include in our orientation programmes information about social media so that parents are equipped to help their children understand internet security, particularly when skyping with grandparents and facetiming with schoolfriends.
  • Encourage the involvement of a few trusted adults so children can have positive relations with a small number of adults who aren’t their parents with whom they can talk honestly about challenges, e.g. godparents, uncles and aunties.
  • Encourage awareness of risk within the missions team – often the mission community consists of a team of up to 100 in-country partners who are automatically deemed ‘safe’ because they’re in the family. But how well do we know them?  Let’s not make inappropriate assumptions about people we don’t really know.
  • Include a social media policy within our safeguarding policies. This helps to put social media on the map and create an opportunity for us to talk about the challenges.
  • Help our adults to avoid denial. Many parents will say “My Jimmy wouldn’t do that, he’s a good boy” but the evidence is that Jimmy might actually be doing something online that would horrify his parents.  Let’s help parents realise there is a real danger online that can affect their children.
  • Include social media challenges in our re-entry training – we need to help parents understand that their children may have been shielded from harm by being in a Christian school, and that a secular school in their passport country may have a very different set of values among its pupils.

What can parents do?

Helping young people be safe focuses far more on our relationship with them than on the rules.  It is now widely recognised that rules limiting online time or having computers in a family room aren’t effective, as young people can simply get online on their phone in their bedroom, go round to a friend’s, or change the settings on their internet security.

  • Develop an open and frank relationship so that you can discuss sensitive issues with your children
  • Model forgiveness rather than condemnation when a child makes a mistake online
  • Learn to be aware of social media so that you can talk knowledgeably with your child about issues. Get on Facebook and find out about Minecraft!
  • Don’t spy on your kids’ internet activities – it communicates distrust
  • Focus on knowing your child, not what your child has been doing
  • Communicate that precautions you want them to take are not because you don’t trust them but may not trust people they interact with online
  • Most schools have a policy on cyberbullying – know it and use it
  • Don’t ban or limit gaming time but find out what they might be getting out of it and develop other ways of meeting that need
  • Don’t’ get too upset about the amount of time your kids spend watching online vids – it’s how they relax!

We have remarked before in these blogs that pornography is not the problem.  Likewise misuse of social media is a symptom of something deeper.  Many young people are sucked into bad things because of their need for acceptance and belonging in a community.  It is incredible hard for a godly teen to stand out from the crowd in a sexualised culture.  Helping them to feel valued, trusted and accepted will go a long way towards maintaining a healthy self-esteem which will help protect them against bad influences.

What resources are available?

  • CCPAS has an online course on internet safety
  • Childline has child-friendly resources on dealing with cyberbullying, sexting, and gaming
  • Safer Surfing is an Austrian website (your browser will offer to translate it) with good resources
  • Saltmine Trust has a drama presentation and interactive workshop for use in UK schools.

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

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.

Which sweet are you?

Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Model of Cross-Cultural Adaptation. This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model[1] which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them.  In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation.  The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!

Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*.  They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside.  Every Malteser is alike.  So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.

But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos.  On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different.  In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised  – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do.  That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.

But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals.  That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside.  So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them.  Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.

Then we go back to our ‘home’ country.  But we’ve changed on the inside.  So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside.  Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced.  ‘Home isn’t home any more.  This is when we can get reverse culture shock.

Sweets

So what do we do about it?  Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again.  But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson.  That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’.  Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.

The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel.  They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different.  It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not.  So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do.  This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.

Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more.  We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more details.

* Other types of confectionery are available.

  • [1] Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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?

Preparing for retirement

passing the batonWhile retiring may be a fairly flexible concept when one is fulfilling a God-given calling, there comes a point in the life of most ageing mission workers when they consider whether they continue in their work or return to their sending country.  Some may be involuntarily retired, as a result of the policy of their sending agency or church, financial pressure or failing health.  Others may take the opportunity of reaching a significant birthday to review their future.

Whatever stimulates it, retirement is a major transition and Syzygy has taken the ground-breaking step of publishing a guide to retiring.  We don’t think there’s anything else quite like it on the internet.  There are many links to our own and other websites and resources, so just click on the orange hyperlinks  to follow them.

While the decision to retire will rest with the mission worker(s) seeking prayerfully to determine God’s will for their lives in old age, we encourage them to make this decision in the context of a supportive discussion involving a community of their agency, sending church, receiving church, family, friends, colleagues and member care professionals (where appropriate).

In our guide to you can find our thoughts on questions like:

  • Why retire at all?
  • Why not stay on?
  • Why is it hard?
  • How do I plan for retirement?
  • How do I leave well?
  • What will I do with my time?

You’ll also find another document in our occasional series 101 things to do…, and obviously this one’s called 101 things to do on retiring.  It’s a helpful tickbox list of all the things you need to think about before and after retiring.

Retiring can be a stressful transition for anybody, even those keen to give up working.  It can involve a loss of identity and purpose, a diminishing of profile in society and a lack of self-respect.  Yet we continue to be beloved children of God, with a calling on our lives and a way to use our time serving our Saviour, even if it’s in a different way.  Good preparation can help smooth the transition and lead to a fruitful and productive retirement.  So, if you’re planning to retire in the next few years, please take a look at our guide.  And if you’re not planning on retiring, please forward this blog to anybody who is, so that they can benefit from it.

 Even to your old age and grey hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isaiah 46:4)

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.

Statutory Residence Test

A happy landing?        (Photo: SXC)

A happy landing? (Image: SXC)

Overseas mission workers need to be aware of developments in taxation which may affect you as a result of the publication of the Statutory Residence Test (SRT) which came into force on 6th April 2013 and is causing a lot of concern in the missions community.  This is important as you may find yourself hit with a large income tax bill which you didn’t expect.

The SRT is an attempt to codify into law the various provisions and allowances which have grown up around whether you are considered to be resident in the UK or not.  This is significant because UK residents are taxed on their global income, and non-residents only on their UK income.  The new test may inadvertently catch out some mission workers who receive their income overseas but spend a lengthy time in the UK for home assignment, or to have a baby.   This is because in previous years a rolling total of days in the UK was allowed before becoming automatically resident, so the calculation for residency was an average of more than 90 days per year over a four year period; now it is a total of more than 90 days in any given tax year.

The test has three parts:

  1. whether you are automatically non-resident;
  2. whether you are automatically resident;
  3. if neither of the above, whether you are resident or non-resident according to whether you have sufficient ties to the UK

The details of these are complicated, as you would expect.  We’ve tried to simplify them for you, but make sure you read the provisions for yourself to check your situation.  There are complicated definitions, and special provisions where a stay in the UK straddles two tax years.  But in a nutshell, one tax advisor commented:  “We feel that it is much easier to become unintentionally resident than before, and harder to cease residence again.”

How much will your visit cost you?     (Image: SXC)

How much will your visit cost you? (Image: SXC)

Examples:

You are automatically non-resident if:

  • you have lived and worked abroad for 2 years, and return to the UK every year for no more than 16 days; or
  • you have lived and worked abroad for 4 years, and return to the UK every year for not more than 46 days; or
  • you work full-time abroad and return to the UK for less than 91 days and the number of days on which you do more than 3 hours’ work in the UK is less than 31.

You are automatically resident if:

  • you spend 183 days or more in the UK.  This test is of vital significance for mission workers on home assignment for more than six months; or
  • you have a home in the UK for a period of more than 90 days, and you are present in that home for at least 30 days, and you have no overseas home or an overseas home in which you spend more than 30 days.

To help you through this process, we have produced two flow charts helping you through the tests.  Click on the links below to see a pdf.

Automatic overseas test     Automatic UK test

These are not definitive and you should consult the HMRC website for yourself.  You should take advice from your agency, or if you don’t have one, an accountant.

Our recommendations are that you investigate this situation thoroughly before you spend more than two weeks in the UK, keep records of when you travel to the UK and how many days you spend here, and a log of the amount of working hours you do each day and where you stay.  Craziness!

The fundamental implication of all this is that we may be seeing the end of year-long home assignment (which is a trend already under way anyway).  Anyone who does a home assignment of more than 90 days will clearly be resident and liable to UK taxation.  This of course is no change from the current situation, but the formalisation of the rules will make it harder for agencies and individual mission workers to ‘forget’ them.

You can read the full text of the new provisions here: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/budget-updates/11dec12/stat-res-test-note.pdf.

Immigrants and strangers

In a recent exercise with a group of TCKs, we did a Bible study in which I challenged the young people to name as many characters from Bible who didn’t fit into the culture of the people around them.

From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and  Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart.  Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples.  In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list.  I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?

For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country.  Yet is this really the right approach?

People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in.  If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here.  But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in?  Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong?  Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world!  Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)

The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV).  There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’.  People who weren’t from round here.  People who were different, who didn’t fit in.  Who didn’t have rights.  People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there.  The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.

This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us.  Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God.  Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.

This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church.  Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens.  To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church.  This truly is good news for a broken world.

At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news.  He wasn’t from round here.  He moved into our world and brought a message of hope.  Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation.  For a while he was a political refugee.  He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head.  He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave.  This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.

How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?

Update on the Syzygy cars

Regular readers will be well aware of the two cars which Syzygy lends to mission workers on home assignment in the UK.

We’re delighted to announce that due to the generosity of some friends we have been given a third – a Ford Galaxy.  This is a real answer to prayer as we needed to be able to provide a vehicle that was suitable for larger families.

This leaves us with another problem:  we can’t afford to insure three vehicles so will need to sell the Passat unless some further funding comes in.  We’d love to have three cars, as there is clearly a demand for them – so far this year we have turned down 25 requests to borrow our cars!

So will you please join with us in praying that God will provide (urgently!) the money we need to pay for additional insurance?

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.

England – land of bitter sweets

This week adult TCK (Third Culture Kid) Gill Gouthwaite reflects on what it meant to come ‘home’ to England as a missionary kid.

To me, England was a land of aniseed balls and liquorice, sticks of rock and gobstoppers, dolly mixtures and wine gums.  It was a land of daisies and dandelions, cowslip and hawthorn, where the most dangerous nature got was the occasional bramble or rose-thorn, or on a particularly bad day, a nettle sting.   Food was sausage rolls and quiche, scalding hot tea or instant coffee in church cups (never with sugar, which rots your teeth in England, though presumably not in Brazil), smoky barbeques in spring showers, aspartame-flavoured orange squash and overdone lamb.  Hillwalking in cagoules, wet feet, the excitement of clambering over a stile, of reaching the summit and being lifted to stand proudly atop the trig point, eating soggy sandwiches, and sipping a well-deserved taste of mint liqueur at the local pub after a long day’s walking.  The Beano and the Dandy, stamps printed with pretty pictures, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  This was England.

Naturally I knew when we returned that I didn’t know what the English were like.  Logically I knew this, but in my heart they were a simple, sweet people who saw my parents – and me by association – as heroes, willing to leave Everything to do the Will of God.

But to people at school this was not who I was.  I was the Brazilian girl who, disappointingly, turned out not have luxurious Latin locks or olive skin…  I was the American who had never lived north of Mexico.  I was the English girl who wasn’t even born here.  I had the right to whichever countries they chose, when they chose.  England, it seemed, was a land of Eurovision politics and sarcasm, of ‘health and safety’, of the infernal ‘Spice Girls’ and of  ‘Steps’, where one could dislike any and all of these things, but one must absolutely know who they were and why one disliked them.  England was also a place of profound ignorance and apathy about international suffering, which, when it impinged on one’s consciousness, could be assuaged by putting £2 in Oxfam’s collection bucket.

This was how I felt for years.  Things have changed now, both in me and in this, one of my countries.  But the changes did not come easily, or quickly.  I wish now that someone had taken me under their wing and taught me why it is that we don’t like Eurovision, but still we watch it; who ‘Posh Spice’ was, and to pity her; and to laugh aloud at the absurdity of a ‘wet floor’ sign in a shower room.  I could not laugh then, but now I do, by the grace of God.

 

Gill still likes to stand proudly atop trig points, but no longer needs to be lifted. . .