Battery Charge IconA retired mission worker was discussing with me recently that he’d noticed that people now in their 30s and 40s seem a lot more likely to suffer from burnout than people of his generation.  He gave two significant reasons: lack of preparation and lack of integration.

In these days when there are still 3-year residential courses at Bible Colleges preparing people for mission, studying such modules as missiology, contextualisation and linguistics, we would think we are well-prepared.  But my friend was referring to the selection process of the agency.

In his day, there would have been a protracted conversation which would have climaxed in a month’s preparation before departure, six weeks’ more training on a ship (yes he’s that old!) and finally three months’ orientation in the field.  That would have given him and the agency a lot more time together to get to know each other and understand the culture that they would be sharing for the next few decades.  Long timescales and long distances made sure everybody took preparation seriously because there was no easy way back.

Unlike today, when we spend much less time growing to understand each other, and recognise that if it doesn’t work out, there’s another flight home tomorrow morning.  Preparation is much shorter, and orientation may be as little as a couple of weeks.

So with a shorter lead time, how do agencies effectively communicate their vision and values, not just in theory, but helping people think about what that would look like in practice?  Agencies need to think not merely as an employer when selecting their mission partners.  There is more to selection than skills and abilities.  People have to cope with cross-cultural changes and fit into teams where there is already a strong prevailing ethos.  This is not always thought about: we might consider whether people buy into the agency’s values, but will they fit in temperamentally with the team they’re destined to join?  And how effectively will we support them through that transition?

How do we get to know them quickly?  By encouraging them to walk with us before they go long-term is significant: going short-term, acting as a homeside volunteer, going to conferences and prayer meetings, researching our history, reading our website, talking with our mission workers on home assignment.  This of course takes time and effort which many agencies no longer have, so we need also to rely on our partnership with their sending church to help us work out if they will be a good fit.  A visit to the place they are going to serve is recommended, to meet the team and see how the team operates.  And of course, much time spent in prayer by everybody, to determine what we understand to be God’s will in this situation.

We’ve already addressed the challenges of not integrating in an earlier blog, where we looked at how technology has made it so easy for us to stay in touch with our family and friends that we may never really leave, which means we may never fully integrate in our destination culture.  It takes time and effort to fully immerse ourselves in a different culture to the point where our language is fluent and we can discern those small cultural nuances and unspoken assumptions that allow us to be fully at home, and we may be facing a more globalised era in which that level of integration is no longer necessary, or even possible as a postmodern generation thinks not in terms of a life spent in the field but in a life lived missionally in a wide variety of ways and contexts.

But if my retired friend is right, ensuring that new mission partners are a good fit in their teams, and helping them to thrive in their host culture are two practical things that agencies can do to help prevent the build-up of stress which can lead to burnout and attrition.