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!

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.

Transition – safely from one side to the other

Kate on a bridgeIt has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change!  Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches.  Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.

Change destabilises us emotionally.  It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium.  We don’t know where to shop.  We don’t understand the language.  We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong.  Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up.  We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.

Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.  We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge.  The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.

There are several things we can do to make this transition easier.  First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making.  We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support.  We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us.  We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.

Second, we need to say goodbye.  Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination.  And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner.  We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.

Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done.  It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey.  But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We have learned things and we have borne fruit.  We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.

Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition.  Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort.  Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture.  Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility.  They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.

And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God!  No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there.  Psalm 139 reminds us of this:

Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?

If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.

If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,

Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.

Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –

But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.

 

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.

Member Care for short-term mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circle of life?

Does John McLane's 'mission' typify the experiences of many of us?

Does John McClane’s ‘mission’ typify the experiences of many of us?

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph relates how a US scriptwriter says there are eight key  elements of any story which guarantee that the film or television programme which uses them will be a best seller.  Stories which fit the mould include such diverse productions as Frozen, Sex and the City, Last Tango in Halifax, Die Hard, Father Ted and Breaking Bad.

Dan Harmon describes the elements as forming a circle which brings the protagonist back to the starting place, but having changed along the way.  The appropriate elements are that the lead character:

  • is introduced
  • wants something
  • enters a new world
  • adapts to that environment
  • gets what they want
  • suffers as a result
  • returns to their previous world
  • changes as a result

And of course, if it’s a Hollywood production, there’s a happy ending.  This scenario could equally be, instead of a movie, the life cycle of a mission worker:

  • we want to serve God
  • we go abroad or into a new culture to do it
  • we learn (slowly and painfully) to adapt
  • in the process we are serving God
  • but it costs us
  • eventually we return to our previous world
  • we have changed as a result of the experience we’ve had

For many of us, the changes we have experienced and the lessons we’ve learned help us to become more Christlike.  Despite the hardships, the overall experience has been enriching and worthwhile.  But for some of us, the fact that we have changed along the way makes it hard to enter our previous home.  In fact it’s not home.  We are overwhelmed by reverse culture shock.  Moreover, some of the changes may have made us angry, bitter and resentful.  We don’t feel comfortable alongside our old friends.  We relate differently to our family.  We feel we don’t fit into our church any more.

For those of us who haven’t experienced the Hollywood ending, there is hope.  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop to help us process our experiences and unpack our emotions.  You can find out more about it by clicking on Crash Landing?

A review of Syzygy’s year

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

 Where is home?

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

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

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

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

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

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)

The essentials of debriefing

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

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

Debriefing provides returning mission workers with:

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

Another cross-cultural worker commented:

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

 

How do we structure a debrief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What are we looking out for?

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

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

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

 

And finally….

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

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

 

Further reading:

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

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

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

TCKS coming ‘home’

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

It’s a while since we discussed TCKs, and since we reviewed reverse culture shock a few months ago, this might be a good opportunity to focus specifically on how this affects TCKs.  TCKS are Third Culture Kids – people who spent a significant part of their formative years growing up in a culture which was not that of their parents.  They don’t fully fit in either in their parents’ home country, or the country (or countries) in which they grew up, so they form their own third culture which features aspects of both.  Where the parents are mission workers, they are also known as Mission Kids (MKs).

Among the many huge challenges facing TCKs is the question of where home is.  They can often experience significant confusion over the issue, particularly when they’ve lived as mission kids in more than two countries.  But they seldom agree with their parents that the original sending country is home.  This complicates returning to the sending country, whether temporarily for home assignment or permanently, as in relocating for educational reasons.

Home... or away?

Home… or away?

Parents can easily talk about this as ‘going home’, which it may well be for them, but for the children, it is more like going to a foreign country.  They may be familiar with aspects of it but it is probably not home.  They are leaving home!  Their wider family in the sending country, and also in their ‘home’ church may reinforce this view, asking children who are already feeling lonely, bewildered and homesick how it feels to be ‘home’.  It’s not surprising if they occasionally get a hostile response.

Recognising that any such transition is a huge challenge for young people is the first step in dealing with it.  Some of our top tips for helping TCKs cope with this transition are:

  • ensure that the parents can spend more time than usual with their children, since they are a key point of stability in a different world;
  • connect with old friends back home through social media to maintain meaningful relationships;
  • bring with you favourite toys, furniture and food supplies so that you can continue to celebrate where you’ve come from;
  • meet with people from their host culture in the new country, and connect with other TCKs who have already made the transition;
  • continue to speak in the language of your host country to reinforce your connection with it;
  • take children and teens to Rekonnect – a summer camp specially designed for TCKs;
  • ensure that key features of life and culture in the new country are explained.  Don’t take it for granted that TCKs know how to tie shoelaces or button a dufflecoat if they didn’t have shoes and coats as they grew up!
TCKs in Brazil - Pam and her four sisters

TCKs in Brazil – Pam and her four sisters

One of Syzygy’s trustees, Pam Serpell, herself a TCK who grew up in Brazil, wrote a dissertation on this subject for her degree, and has given us permission to publish it here.   In her research she discovered that TCKs who reflected back on their experience of relocating to the UK used words like depressed, misunderstood, belittled, lonely, excluded, trapped and even suicidal.  This will not come as a surprise to those who have already been through this transition, but indicates how seriously the challenges for TCKs need to be taken.

Pam also looked at what helped prepare the TCKs for the transition, supported them through it, and what else they thought might have helped.  She clearly felt there is a need for sending agencies to do more to help prepare TCKs, perhaps through a formal orientation programme, and to support them through it.  Fortunately, in the 10 years that have elapsed since she did her research, many agencies have made great progress in this area.

Yet despite the evident challenges involved in being a TCK, Pam concludes:

All the people who took part in my research expressed being grateful for their upbringing and the experiences they had in ‘growing up between worlds’ and I would encourage any TCK to concentrate on the benefits of their experience and look for the positives.

You can read a pdf of Pam’s dissertation here.  As with all material on the Syzygy website, it is available for reuse where appropriate as long as the author receives due credit.

Being an effective sending church

Who's holding the other end?

Who’s holding the other end?

One of the saddest situations I come across in mission is when I ask a mission worker “Is your church supporting you?”  Too often the answer is a short pause, a wry smile, and “Kinda”.

This response often indicates that the church is happy for them to go, may give them a bit of money occasionally, and remembers to pray for them from time to time.  Unfortunately, many churches do not have a significant vision for global mission and think that this level of support is quite adequate.  Yet it is clear from the response that the mission worker doesn’t feel fully supported.  In fact for some of them it feels like abseiling without being confident that somebody is holding the other end of the rope.  And the only way you find out whether anyone’s holding it, is when it’s too late to do anything about it.

Syzygy and Oscar are joining forces to address this issue.  Both agencies are more than willing to visit churches, talk with their leadership or missions teams, and provide training and encouragement for the entire church.  If you’d like to get a feel for what this might look like, we are running an introductory evening in Birmingham on the evening of 8th October at Rowheath Pavilion at 7.30.

1279274_fragile_parcelGet Out More! is a free event for church leaders and others supporting mission workers.  We’ll tell some stories of how bad it can get on the mission field, and how we can help to put it right.  We’ll provide some tips on what you can do to help.  All in an informal atmosphere which may even include a drink in the Pavilion bar afterwards.

Churches which wish to get a bigger vision for supporting their missionaries effectively can also refer to our  Guide to Doing Mission Well.  There are also other resources listed on that page.  We’d particularly like to draw your attention to Neal Pirolo’s two excellent books Serving as Senders and The Re-entry Team, which are ideal resources for helping churches.  And our page 101 things to do to support your mission partners.  Our friends at Oscar also do a particularly effective day course for churches called Serving as Senders.

We hope to see you at the Pavilion!

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.