Investigating ourselves

Conflict resolution? (source: www.freeimages.com)

Six months ago we commentated on incidents of ‘Friendly Fire‘ in our agencies.  Occasionally Syzygy comes across mission workers who feel they have been bullied by someone in leadership in their agency, and the agency didn’t take the issue seriously.  The situation has resulted in them leaving the mission field laden with negative emotions after they felt the agency has closed ranks against them when they raised this issue with management.  Such stress and attrition should be avoidable.

Perhaps these people were viewed as troublemakers.  Perhaps their perception of how they have been treated is not accurate.  Perhaps the agency didn’t think it was worth rocking the boat – we have occasionally heard it alleged that a particularly powerful individual within the agency was not worth challenging.

So how can agencies manage such situations well?

Principally, they should have a grievance procedure, and be committed to following it.  (A ‘grievance’ is the English term for the formal making of a complaint against an employer.)  The details of a grievance prcedure may vary from country to country according to local laws, but there should always be a procedure clearly laid out for mission partners to follow if an informal discussion with their leadership doesn’t resolve an issue to their satisfaction.  Unfortunately some agencies don’t have grievance policies, and confusion about whether mission partners are members/employees/self-employed can mean that processes like this which are mandatory in many countries are overlooked by agencies who like to think of themselves as a ‘family’.

A grievance procedure should outline a clear process which contains the following steps:

  • If a mission partner feels their complaint is not being taken seriously, they can put it in writing to their immediate leader (or their leader’s leader if the complaint is about the leader);
  • The mission partner is invited to make their complaint in person to someone who will investigate, having the right to take someone with them for moral support;
  • An investigation will be carried out with impartiality;
  • A written response will be given to the mission partner including information about how to appeal against the decision if they are not happy with it;
  • An appeal will be dealt with by a senior leader not directly associated with the field the mission partner is working in, or an independent third party if that is not possible;
  • External mediation is the final step,
  • If a grievance is made in good faith, but not upheld, the mission partner will not suffer any organisational backlash.

Throughout this process, the mission partner should be given confidentiality, and although complete anonymity may not always be compatible with a thorough investigation, the existence and investigation of the grievance should not be made known to people who are not involved in it.  It may be possible to offer the mission partner a temporary reassignment or leave of absence to remove them from a tense working environment while the grievance is being heard.

But as well as having a robust process for dealing with issues, the values of the agency should clearly include treating people well.  We claim to be a family, but we don’t always treat each other with the love that brothers and sisters deserve.  Whatever has happened, we must remember that all our mission partners are children of God, doing their best to fulfil the great commission, and that in line with biblical teaching we need to treat others with respect and deal with conflict in a godly manner in which the goal of any grievance should be the restoration of relationship.

A successful outcome would include:

  • reconciliation between the parties
  • recognition of sin on both sides, where appropriate, including structures within the agency
  • support for both parties to grow in followership and leadership skills

However, with the best will in the world, we may end up not being able to agree over an issue, and parting company, but if that is the case let us make every effort to ensure that people’s time in the mission field ends well, so that they do not nurse hurt, and can continue to be a good ambassador for our agency.

As an independent third party, Syzygy is happy to help any agency develop its grievance procedures or carry out a review of them.  Likewise, we are willing to listen to and support anyone who feels that their grievance has not been addressed.  For more information contact info@syzygy.org.uk.

Because even as we fulfil the great commission, we must remember to keep the greatest commandment.

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

…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!

Disagreeing well

Source: www.freeimages.com

Teamwork is something that has been on our mind quite a bit in recent months recently and we’ve blogged about it several times.  Today I want to have a brief look at conflict within the team.

Conflict is one of the principle avoidable reasons for mission workers leaving the field, whether conflict within their own team or with their agency leadership. This issue is a chronic festering ulcer in the missions world, which has existed since the dawn of missions nearly 2000 years ago (Acts 15:39), and will in all probability continue till its end, though that is no reason to not to try to resolve the situation.

Conflict exists for many reasons, and some of them are perfectly understandable such as the clash of cultures in multi-cultural teams. There is not necessarily anything wrong in this, but when different groups of people have been brought up with differing assumptions about the way the Kingdom of God works, there will be challenges as we work together in grace and humility to resolve such issues.

There will also be perfectly understandable character clashes. Sometimes people just rub each other up the wrong way. That’s normal, and not the issue. The issue is can they continue to love each other, serve each other, bless each other as they work together for the good of the Kingdom?

But much conflict comes from selfish pride, ambition, insecurity – yes, among the Christians! So the first thing each of us must do is think before we speak. Ask yourself why feelings of anger or frustration are rising in you. Has somebody injured your pride? Challenged your self-esteem? Why are you reacting?

Next we must listen. Who is speaking? Why did they express themselves that way? What are they saying in addition to their words? What pain are they speaking out of?

Then we must speak carefully. Often we can speak hotly, out of passion, and not think through our words. They can easily be misunderstood. How we express ourselves can pour water on the flames of disagreement, or petrol (Proverbs 15:1). Conversations can easily turn bitter, with expressions like “You always’’ becoming accusing. It is better to say “I get the feeling that…”

Finally, we must reconcile. Even if we cannot find agreement, we must try to stay in communion with one another. Sometimes after a robust conversation we need to go to the other person and make sure that we forgive each other for any harsh words. Taking communion together confronts us with our need to be in fellowship with one another, as Jesus teaches that it is important to put things right with one another before we come to God (Matthew 5:23-24) and the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer together makes us keep short accounts as we recite “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us” together.

In an age when road rage is common and internet trolls seem to encourage meanness, Christians should be a shining example of disagreeing well, of valuing others despite having different opinions, and continuing to love those who disagree with us and forgive those who hurt us. Let us always remember that it is more important to love than to be right.

Education, education, education

Hebron School, India, many years ago

It’s not just Tony Blair*.  Parents everywhere make the education of their children one of their top priorities, and mission workers are no different.  One of the major obstacles to people going in mission is the fear that their children’s education might be compromised as a result of their time overseas, and one of the major causes of attrition is mission workers returning home to get their children into their home country’s education system.

While many parents fall into the simple trap of assuming that education overseas cannot possibly be as good as the state education in their country of origin, the truth is often very different, and here are some of the possibilities you can investigate abroad:

Local schools.  Believe it or not, some countries have excellent schools!  Advantages: it is often cheap or even free, children engage with the language, history and culture of their country of residence, and make local friends.  Disadvantages: the final qualification may not be internationally recognised.

British schools abroad.  There are many schools overseas which follow the English curriculum.  Advantages: children stay within the English curriculum, facilitating UK schooling during home assignment and entry into the UK university system.  They make friends from within their home culture (though some of them may have a much higher socio-economic status than mission kids, leading to potential discontent).  Disadvantages: high fees, though many schools can be persuaded to grant bursaries as mission kids broaden the social profile of their school.

Find a list at http://www.expatandoffshore.com/british-schools-abroad/

International schools.  Most large cities have a number of private schools teaching in English, and some of them achieve very high standards.  Advantages: children engage with the language, history and culture of their country of residence while learning in English, and make international friends (though some of them may have a much higher socio-economic status than mission kids, leading to potential discontent).  Disadvantages: high fees, though many schools can be persuaded to grant bursaries as mission kids broaden the social profile of their school.

Christian schools.  In order to facilitate mission, there are Christian schools in many countries, often with boarding facilities.  Advantages: children are educated within a Christian environment and make international friends.  Disadvantages: many of these schools follow a US –style curriculum which may not be relevant to other nationalities.  If your child is a boarder you have the pain of waving goodbye to them at the start of every term.  More information about locations of Christian schools is available by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.

Home education.  There are a wide variety of options for home education including online schools and written curricula, many of them Christian.  Advantages: children can stay at home while continuing their education, which may follow the curriculum of their passport country.  Disadvantages: discipline can be a problem, due to confusion between the role of parent and teacher, and one parent may in effect work full-time as a teacher.  Children can also be isolated from others their same age and not develop social skills through interaction.

We realise that educational choices are a minefield, full of pressure, doubt and ‘what ifs’.  Many agencies have a TCK advisor who can help you explore the options more fully.  But for us the key question is: if you can trust God for your ministry, can you trust God for your children’s future?  In conventional thinking, we are very much aware that university, job, security, and income all depend on how well we do at school.  However as Christians we have a different mindset: while we want the best possible education for our children we are very much aware that which doors are opened to them in life depends far more on the grace of God than on their exam results.  And a good education consists not only of grades but in walking closely with God, in the development of character, and in the ability to mix easily with people of different cultures.

*  “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education” Tony Blair in a speech at Southampton University, 23rd May 2001

3,2,1, Bungee!

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Be excellent to each other

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

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

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Hudson Taylor wrong?

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and calm in the midst of danger

Llangollen“He lets me laze in green meadows, stroll alongside babbling brooks, and it refreshes my soul.”

A slightly loose rendering of Psalm 23 sounds positively idyllic.  It’s something that we all long for, that place of peace and rest where we can truly relax and recharge our batteries. Whether it’s a tropical beach, a snow-covered mountain or a green meadow, we know we need it.

So why is this sheep’s experience of God so different to ours?  Most of us have lives and ministries full of arguments, crises, funding gaps, regulatory demands and enough stress and turmoil to make a postcard on the fridge door the closest we get to experiencing the soul-restoring work of the Good Shepherd in our lives.  Has he led us on the wrong path?  Where did it all go so wrong?  While we may long for the pleasant experience of the green pasture, the truth is so very different.  Or is it?

The ‘sheep’ writing this Psalm also had times of terrifying darkness.  He knew that there were enemies out there trying to get him.  Life is difficult, dangerous and short for a sheep on its own.  In those challenging times we need to stay close to the protection and provision of the shepherd.  We need to trust that no matter how bleak things look, there always remains the possibility of the green pasture.  The Shepherd doesn’t banish the danger and threats, but protects us in the midst of it.

What does that mean to us in practical terms, as we battle through the Cairo traffic, face up to the threat of insurgents or try desperately to meet the needs of our church from our limited resources?  We do ministry in places where it seems peace is impossible to find, yet we know that without it we face the risk of burnout and having to leave the field.  How can we maintain our resilience?

We need to learn to take little pieces of the green pasture experience with us into the darkness.  One example is to pause for regular times of prayer.  As I am writing this the alarm on my phone struck 9.00, so I stopped work and went to a peaceful place to pray, just for a few minutes.  I bring the peace back with me into the workplace.  Another example is that I often find myself driving through a post-industrial area of my city which as scarred by derelict warehouses, railway viaducts and graffiti.  I could choose to see it as soul-destroying, but instead I look out for the poppies that bloom defiantly in the wasteland, and allow my soul to be refreshed.

True soul-refreshment is found not only in getting away from the stress and burden of everyday life, but also by intentionally bringing peace into it.

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.

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.

Guest blog: Keep on keeping on!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

At the 1968 Summer Olympics John Stephen Akhwari ran in the marathon representing Tanzania. Part way through the race he fell badly and dislocated his knee. He valiantly kept running as best he could and finished last. He was asked why he had kept going. He replied, “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”

As those serving cross-culturally we face a whole variety of things that can distract, frustrate, upset or disappoint us. At times we may feel really discouraged and be tempted to give up. Like you I’ve faced some disheartening circumstances and various challenges to my faith and call, even recently. I often return to Hebrews 12:1-3 where we find both stunning reasons to keep running our race and some ways to do that. Whether we’re doing fine or experiencing deep discouragement or uncertainty I hope this will be fuel for the journey, some help to keep us keeping on.

Jesus is worthy. He sits ‘at the right hand of the throne of God’ v2. We keep going because Jesus is worthy of praise, glory and honour that He’s not receiving from most of the people we see around us. If this doesn’t motivate me to keep going then I am definitely not here for all the right reasons. Ultimately what we experience in the course of our race, the trials, the risk-taking, the frustration is worth it first and foremost because Jesus is worth it. Other people’s lack of response to the gospel message must not take my eyes off Him. I can still worship; He is always worthy, always wonderful and faithful. Also, if we think this is about us then we’ll either be proud or feel defeated, both of which hinder us from running our race.

Jesus understands. v3 exhorts us to ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ Jesus suffered way more than we ever will. It’s a huge comfort when I’m weary or discouraged to know that Jesus has been here and has ‘shared in our humanity’, Heb 2:14. Have we been lied to? Taken advantage of? Persecuted for doing what’s right? Misunderstood? Had our loving efforts rejected? Jesus knows. We follow the Suffering Servant and He’s promised to be with us. He understands both us and the broken people around us. This has a way of drawing us nearer to Him as we identify even a little with his sufferings and know he has identified with ours.

Throw off hindrances and sins. Athletes run or play with just the essentials so nothing gets in the way. Is grumbling hindering our teams? Is self-pity weighing you down? Are we neglecting private prayer and worship? Are we giving in to sexual temptation? If it’s pride let’s see Jesus as worthy and as the one who endured the cross. There’s no room left for pride when we’ve seen Jesus for who He is.

It’s a classic strategy of Satan to accuse us and make us feel condemned. V2 says Jesus sat down in heaven. His great work of redeeming us from the power and penalty of sin was done and He’s alive to reign, live in us and work through us. So accept God’s forgiveness anew, remembering we’re free from condemnation and don’t have to carry the burden of sin and failure. I laughed out loud when I first read this from Martin Luther, “When Satan tells me I am a sinner he comforts me immensely since Christ died for sinners.” Ha! The simple fact of the gospel disarms one of Satan’s best tactics every time.

Some of our hindrances aren’t sinful but they’re distracting or have become idols, taking the place of Jesus in our priorities. Social media may be doing that for some of us. Or ‘ministry success’. To all these hindrances, temptations and sins I’m learning to say: ‘Jesus is better.’ The temporary reward I feel indulging in these things is like dirt compared to the infinite value of Jesus and the satisfaction he alone can bring.

Let’s regularly ask God what hinders us from running the race, confess and repent. Be ruthless and get help. I’ve seen sin lead to people leaving their field of service causing hurt and lasting damage and leading to less ambassadors for Christ reaching the unreached.

Stick together. The use of athletic imagery here and in Paul’s letters isn’t supposed to imply we run solo. ‘Us’ appears several times in these few verses along with ‘we’, ‘our’ & ‘you’ (plural). Clearly it’s written to a group exhorting them to do these things together. Having the support of other believers is crucial to staying on course. The encouragement Ellie and I get being a part of a small team and a house church here is immense. Praying together, sharing struggles, helping each other move house, worshipping together. Are you connected regularly with some supportive fellow runners? People with whom you don’t feel you have to pretend? Christian community is also where we remind each other of the glorious truths of the gospel and can confess our sins and get help with the things that are entangling us.

Pace yourself. That we are to ‘run with perseverance’ (v1) tells us that it’s going to be hard. And that this is a marathon not a sprint. Knowing this we need to pace ourselves. A number of mission organizations encourage their workers to work only 2/3 of the day. If you’re working in the evening, take either the morning or the afternoon off. Also one person’s rhythm is different from another’s. Things like having young children or living with a medical condition or being older also impact on what’s a sustainable pace for different people. Plan rest days or breaks into the coming months.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (v2). Staying focused on Jesus requires us to be intentional. Regular prayer, worship and reading of scripture are key as is fellowship with others who love Him. Rest, exercise, friendships, a healthy work/life balance will all help us keep going but none are as important as our ongoing, close relationship with Jesus. During the Hebrides revival Duncan Campbell wrote:

These are days of much activity in the field of church and mission work, but no amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King himself. The devil is not greatly concerned about getting between us and work; his great concern is getting between us and God. Many a Christian worker has buried his spirituality in the grave of his activity.

Our attention easily moves to ourselves, our organizations, our methods, our shortcomings. We wonder if our faith is big enough or how we compare to others. Problems can seem overwhelming. Regularly, intentionally gazing at Jesus brings right perspective and we start to see what could be instead of what is right now. And if we lose our focus on Jesus we have nothing of lasting value to give to the broken world around us.

Verse 3 indicates that if we ‘consider him’ we won’t lose heart. The recipients of this letter were facing trouble. We face trouble. It can push us toward Jesus. It must if we’re to keep going. It’s challenging to keep loving & keep serving. We’re not supposed to be able to do this without God. We’re going to need to get on our knees before that difficult meeting, about that awkward relationship, about that broken person who doesn’t seem to be changing.

We need vision to keep going. Ultimately Jesus is our vision, over and above whatever particular vision God may have given us for our various different ministries. He’s our source, our sustainer and the giver of our purpose. We can keep running because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our sin forgiven, a message burning in our hearts, carriers of His presence, secure in our identity. I’m sure also many of us would testify that ministry vision, ideas and inspiration have come when we’ve been seeking Jesus.

Finally, keep an eternal perspective. Heaven is real. Knowing where we’re going changes how we live. Future glory outweighs present suffering for the sake of the gospel. We can face trials, hurt, discouragement, even persecution unto death because we know what’s coming. For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross, v2. He knew it was worth it: God would be glorified, we would be redeemed and with Him forever and that coming joy spurred Him on to endure the cross. May both the coming joy of being with Him and the desire that those we serve be there with us spur us on too.

The witnesses in verse 1 are the heroes of chapter 11, and maybe 1000s of others since, who have finished their race. It’s like they cheer us on: “Keep going, keep getting up; it’s worth it! Nothing done in Jesus’ name will ever, ever be in vain!” The sacrifices may be great but the reward will be greater.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON!

Alex

Alex Hawke

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.

“Orphaned” mission workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we do if this all goes badly wrong?

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

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

Sacred Pathways

Sacred PathwaysDo you ever have the troubling feeling that while everyone around you in church is having an amazing experience of God, you are feeling nothing at all?  You wonder if there is something wrong with you.  Are you having a spiritual crisis?  Have you lost your faith?

Such thoughts can be common among all Christians, but can be a particular challenge for mission workers who may have a much narrower choice of churches, and find their ministry needs them worshipping as part of a church which is intentionally geared towards meeting the needs of the local believers.  This can make a significant contribution to levels of stress and mislead people into thinking they are not cut out for the mission field.

People feeling like this may find Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Pathways helpful.  I’ve used it many times to help people understand why they may feel they don’t fit in.  Thomas’ simple theory is that we all meet God in different ways, so what works for one isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.  He has come up with nine different types of people:

Naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, intellectuals.

Needless to say, people are not necessarily all one and none of the others, but a mixture, though a dominant type will probably be present.  The beauty of the names he gives is that they are readily accessible.  It’s pretty intuitive to know whether you are an activist or a caregiver, though he does go into an explanation of each in the book.

So what does it mean for the frustrated mission worker?  The first thing to say is that it’s not a licence to stop being part of a church!  It’s a tool to help you understand why your church doesn’t work well for you and what you can do about it.  So, for example, if you’re a naturalist you’re much more likely to meet God out of doors than inside, so make sure you get some nature in your spiritual life, possibly by going to a park to read the Bible.  If you’re a traditionalist you need some sort of routine, so if your church is the sort that does something different every week, compensate for that by introducing routine, or even liturgy, into your personal devotional time.

Sacred pathways is available from many online bookshops and you can read more about it on Gary Thomas’ website: www.garythomas.com/books/sacred-pathways where you can also download the study guide and read a sample chapter. The study guide gives helpful descriptions, examples of famous people who represent each type, scriptures and songs for aid in worship and suggestions of pitfalls one can fall into.

Let’s hope that this simple but effective understanding can help jaded Christians re-engage with God in a way that is suitable for their personality!

Marriage in mission

A long road ahead? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

A long road ahead? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

We’ve blogged a number of times about the challenges of being a single mission worker, and we wouldn’t want to imply we don’t care about married mission workers, so it’s time to write something about marriage.  In fact we here at Syzygy meet more married mission workers facing significant challenges in their marriage than we do single mission workers struggling with singleness issues.

Cross-cultural mission can take a heavy toll on marriage through such issues as long and unpredictable hours of work, the stress of coping with living in a different culture, missing family in the sending country or children away at boarding school, spouses’ differing competence in learning a foreign language, disagreements over education and childcare, lengthy time apart, and the spiritual dynamic of being in mission.  Husband and wife will probably cope with all of these issues differently, which can lead to tension and resentment if one partner seems to be managing better, or one seems to the other not to be pulling their weight.

As if that were not enough, many mission workers marry cross-culturally, which means both partners bring into the marriage their own unexpressed (and possibly even unacknowledged) preconceptions about marriage and what it involves (see Janet Fraser-Smith writing in Single Mission by Hawker & Herbert).  Karen Carr’s research indicates that a healthy marriage can increase mission workers’ resilience and help them thrive in their vocations, while a demanding marriage reduces a mission worker’s ability to cope with stress and may aggravate burnout and even lead to attrition.

A healthy marriage needs work, and there’s no need to be embarrassed about wanting a better marriage.  Taking time out to work on marriage is important, and we recommend that couples get away together regularly with the express purpose of having plenty of time to communicate, get to know each other better, and intentionally discuss issues which cause tension in their relationship.

To make this even more intentional, they could buy a book to work through together, and we can heartily recommend:

In Love But Worlds Apart (Grete Schelling & Janet Fraser-Smith, AuthorHouse 2008)

Love Across Latitudes (Janet Fraser-Smith, AWM 1997)

The 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman, Northfield 1992)

The Highway Code for Marriage (Michael & Hilary Perrott, CWR 2005)

The Marriage Book (Nicky & Sila Lee, Alpha 2000)

Other good ways of doing preventive maintenance on a marriage include:

  • Doing a Myers Briggs profile together. This may help couples understand why the two of them think or act differently, and why when they have different preferences, neither of them is wrong… just different!
  • Finding an older couple to spend time with, to pray together and discuss issues. Having people you can be honest with about the stresses in your relationship can bring perspective and support.
  • If time permits it, doing a marriage course together. There are several different models but we recommend the one which comes out of Relationship Central at Holy Trinity Brompton, which is called, unimaginatively, the Marriage Course.  It’s ideal for couples to do over 2-3 months on home assignment.

And finally, here are some handy day-to-day tips for continuing to work on a marriage while in mission:

  • A compliment is better than a complaint.
  • Make time to pray together each day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Have a regular date night to keep romance fresh and make time to talk about your relationship
  • Don’t compare your partner with an ex/ideal/colleague, either in your mind or out loud, and take steps to make sure your partner knows you’re not doing this.
  • Don’t use expressions like ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’ which only polarise a disagreement.
  • When you apologise don’t make excuses – “I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t…” Just say sorry.
  • Talk your partner up, not down. You’re there to help them grow not to cut them off at the knees.
  • Say “I love you” at least once a day, and more often if you can – but mean it.
  • Remember that the only person you can change is yourself.
  • Marriage works better if you focus on your partner’s needs and your own shortcomings, rather than your partner’s shortcomings and your own needs.

And finally, don’t be ashamed to use the 12 words which can save a marriage:

I am sorry.  I was wrong.  I love you.  Please forgive me.

Do you know yourself “Inside Out”?

InsideOut3DThis year’s summer children’s blockbuster is Inside Out, the latest animation from the Disney/Pixar studio.  With an approval rating of 98% on popular review website Rotten Tomatoes it is well in front of Frozen (89%) and streets ahead of summer rival Minions (54%).

Inside Out follows the story of five different emotions – fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy – as the 12-year old girl they live in and influence moves house from Minnesota to Los Angeles.  The idea is not necessarily new, having already been seen in Numskulls, Herman’s Head, and Meet Dave, though focussing the attention on the emotions as the primary “head office” staff is new.  The concept originated with Director and story writer Pete Docter who envisioned it having made his own childhood move abroad and subsequently watching emotional changes in his daughter as she grew up, and the scenario is based on the work of psychologists.

Seeing it caused me to reflect on how many mission workers are unaware of the emotions inside them causing them to make knee-jerk reactions to situations and conversations without a full understanding of how key life events, core memories and psychological frameworks interact to affect who we are and what we say and do.  This of course gets even more complicated when we are part of a multi-cultural team whose members probably have very different assumptions about the way the world works and whose emotions are triggered by things they feel strongly about which might not affect us at all.

dark portraitNow add into the mix the fact that most of us are operating under high levels of pressure which can reduce our ability to act or speak rationally, and we can quickly find ourselves being dominated by a negative emotion, or finding ourselves responding negatively to someone else who is.  That one emotion can start to define us and our responses.  This can lead to inter-relational stress, tension and burnout, and ultimately people leaving the mission field because they can’t cope with it any more.

So, without spending years in counselling, what can the average mission worker do to become more emotionally aware?  Here are some tips:

  • Ask yourself which emotion dominates you? Is it one of these five, or is it another one?  (we were rather disappointed that there was only one positive emotion featured in Inside Out, and thought love and hope were sadly missing).
  • If you experience a sudden emotional outburst during the day, ask yourself what may have led up to it. Reflect on whether it was an appropriate response to the incident which triggered it, or a sign of something deeper going on inside you.
  • Discuss the above with a trusted friend – he/she may know you better than you know yourself!
  • Be aware of your emotional state and get to know the warning signs if you are about to lose control. Find ways of defusing your anger and fear, and that of others.
  • Spend time thinking and praying about what may have caused one particular emotion to become dominant in you, and whether it’s right to do something about your past such as repenting of an attitude or choice or trying to restore a broken relationship.
  • Ask God to bring healing into the brokenness of your life, and pray that the Holy Spirit will grow more fruit in you (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23)

And while we’re using movies as the inspiration for understanding our emotions, remember the words of a wise old sage:

Fear is the path to the dark side: fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

(Yoda)

More burnout?

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.

So thick-headed!

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

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

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

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

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

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

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