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.

 

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

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!

The sheep on the other hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Processing….

Source: www.freeimages.com

You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

Please give generously!

moneyGiving is not unique to Christmas.  Many other cultures give generously to others at the times of their major festivals, but of course what is unique for Christians is our message that God gave first – “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

Just as people give reciprocal gifts at Christmas, God’s generosity inspires us to give back to him – not out of obligation, or a misplaced desire to repay the debt, but out of sheer gratitude for the exuberance of his own generosity.  We can never repay this generosity and one popular prayer acknowledges this: “All things come from you, and of your own we do give you”, referencing 1 Chronicles 29:14.

At this time of year much of this generosity rightly overflows to those who have little: the residents of refugee camps; the homeless and destitute in our major urban centres; those fleeing from natural disasters; the elderly who may often be alone.  This year there is another group joining them – the overseas mission worker.

Not that they’re actually homeless (yet), but financial challenges in major donor countries over the last decade have reduced giving to mission workers significantly.  Rising unemployment has cut giving.  Financial uncertainty has cut giving.  Lower returns on pension yields have cut giving.  People in the west feel that they are not as wealthy as they were, and are worried about their future, so there is a tendency for them to cut back on giving, rather than “giving beyond their ability, despite their [perceived] deep poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

This year the situation has worsened because of the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum.  Since this affects every penny sent by UK churches to mission workers overseas, each mission worker might have seen their income fall by over 10% in six months, depending on where they live.  This could be the difference between continuing in mission and returning home.  For a mission worker on an allowance, say, of £18,000 a year, that’s £150/month wiped out.

“Where is their faith?” you may ask.  It’s in your pockets (see our blog Was Hudson Taylor Wrong?)  So please give generously this Christmas to mission workers – and keep on giving generously throughout the year.

 

Seeing beyond the picture frame

Seeing beyond the picture frame

In our day to day lives, it can be a struggle to look beyond the picture that we see. There’s a framework of life we live within; often defined by our routine, job, commitments, ministries. This keeps us occupied and consumed; it’s what we see and know and experience. This framework is the same one in which we are tempted to box God into, and even then we often don’t see what he’s doing when it’s right in our very midst. Our view is narrow, partial, incomplete, limited by our eyesight and perspective.

While taking a walk at Killerton House, Devon, I came across this beautiful frame that had been positioned to capture the landscape ahead. It was strange how this frame didn’t obstruct or interrupt the view, but rather made it more striking, forcing me to take note of that which was within the frame, and that which was beyond it. The frame also had no influence on squashing or restricting the landscape beyond – it couldn’t contain the whole picture. This frame only tells part of the story.

The photograph above is equally inadequate at demonstrating the vastness of the surroundings. There is still so much beauty spilling out that doesn’t make it into the frame, or even the edges of the photo, and so much stretching further still beyond the horizon, faded by the cloud cover, and transcending beyond the reach of the human eye.

This prompted me to reflect on how God is always at work beyond what we see. In Ephesians 3:20, we read of how God is able to do ‘immeasurably more that we can ask or imagine’ (NIV) – ‘superabundantly’ (AMP). There are no limits to God’s power, goodness, and grace at work. He isn’t confined by a frame, there is no horizon, because there is no ending! There is always a ‘beyond’ that we can’t comprehend.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:9

This is a humbling scripture to read – because it reminds us that we haven’t got much of a clue when it comes to God’s ways and thoughts – and the extent of our cluelessness is measured by how much higher the heavens are than the earth! And yet it is also deeply encouraging; we can rest in certainty that while we cannot see the whole picture, it is held in the hands of a God of unfathomable goodness, justice, mercy. A creator who breathes life, and has redeemed our lives.

This view gives us just a glimpse of his beauty and splendour, and we can rejoice in knowing that he is intimately part of the small picture that we see, yet his majesty and hand at work extends so far beyond this. This encourages us to rest in him and trust that he knows what he’s doing with our lives and with this world, both of which can overwhelm us at times. He’s at work in the seen and the unseen. For now, we know in part, but one day we will know in full. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

 

Diverted?

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

As a follow up to last week’s discussion (Derailed) here is a further reflection on the challenge of feeling that somehow we are no longer on the mainline.  This is a challenge for most of us mission workers who are more like Martha than Mary, because we have an urgent desire to be getting somewhere in our ministry.  Such is the impact of the Protestant Work Ethic on our thinking.

Even though we may wish to be thundering at full speed down the mainline, pulling a prestigious express full of significant people, God may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to stop us for a bit.  We find the experience frustrating, but we need to remember that it’s not all about us, and there may be other parts of the rail network having an impact on our personal journey.  So here are some reasons why trains unaccountably stop from time to time (other than to let Edward Thomas write a poem about it).

  • Filling up. Trains need to refuel and while it’s normally done at specific times (such as home assignment) it occasionally needs to be done at other times too.  Take the opportunity to go on a longer retreat than you might normally have time for, or have an extra debrief to make sure you’re ready to go when the signal changes.
  • Collecting other carriages. Sometimes the train I’m on waits at a station for another train to come in behind it and be coupled up to make one longer train.  Is this an opportunity for you to take new supporters on your journey with you?  Spend more time investing in your sending church and building relationships.  Maybe you can recruit some new team members.
  • Waiting for the line to clear. Sometimes the signal is at red because there is a blockage down the road that needs to be cleared.  I have experienced times when other things have needed to fall in place before I can get on with what I feel God has given me to do.  Or perhaps another train is coming through and we need to get out of its way or it would damage us.
  • Taking an alternative route. How often does God take us down a branch line for no obvious reason?  Maybe it’s just to enjoy the scenery, and pootle along at a gentler pace.
  • Routine maintenance. Well, now you’ve got the time, go and see the doctor, dentist, optician, counsellor, life coach…  Make the most of your pause and check all the moving parts are properly greased!

Finally, if you feel you’re stuck in the station waiting for the light to turn green, why not take the time to look around and see who else is in the station?  Maybe it’s time to make some new friends.

We can’t always tell why God shunts us into a siding at times.  Why did Jesus have to wait until his 30s?  David sitting in the desert on the run from Saul must have thought his calling would never happen.  Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness thinking he’d missed his opportunity.  What was Paul doing with his life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch?  But if we can learn one thing from this experience is that it’s God who is in the signal box, not us, and we have to learn to trust him to pull the right levers at the right time.

Derailed?

Sderailedeveral of my acquaintances in the mission world are struggling to return to their field of mission due to difficulties getting visas.  It prompts me to reflect on how people are facing the challenges of not being at home, having to homeschool children, not being able to do their work, and trying hard to support their colleagues remotely.  Often these people have also overstayed their welcome in family homes, inadvertently found they’ve become liable for UK taxation, and had to hand back the Syzygy car they’ve borrowed because somebody else had already booked it.

This situation has led to many feelings of frustration and confusion.  Some people struggle to connect with God, and some are angry with God, because they know they have a calling to do a specific work and God has not opened the door for them to do it.  They feel as if their life and ministry has been derailed, and the longer it goes on, the more confused they become:  “Why is God stopping me what he has called me to do?”

Paul appears to have experienced this problem too (Acts 16:6-10).  He and his team were trying to move on and couldn’t figure out where to go next.  It appears that they were prevented from going to several different places.  Yet at no stage does Luke attribute the blockages to demonic activity or human opposition – it is always God who has stopped them going somewhere.  One gets the sense that God was shutting doors that they were tempted to take in order to get them to take seriously the new one he was about to open.  That was immediately prior to the Macedonian vision which took Paul into Europe for the first time.

Some years ago I participated in a security briefing where hostage negotiator Phil Harper pointed out that our mission to reach out to other people with the gospel never ceases, even if we are kidnapped!  Many of us think in the narrow terms of our specialist focus, rather than broader calling we all share.  If you have a calling (for example) to Nepal but can’t get back there, why not think a bit broader?  What about seeking out a Nepali community in the UK and working with them?  Or going to India where there are many Nepali economic migrants?

Sometimes God shuts doors before he opens new ones.  Mission workers of the China Inland Mission, ejected from China after the communist revolution, realised for the first time that they could go to the Chinese diaspora instead, in cities like Bangkok and Singapore.  Then they realised that other Asian peoples needed the gospel too, and OMF came into being, now working in many east Asian countries and with diaspora groups globally.  This might never have happened if they’d all stayed in China.

If you know people with visa problems, please pray for this specific area of their lives, that God would open doors for them that nobody else can shut.  Even if they’re doors they didn’t expect.  Pray that they would experience clear guidance.  Pray that they will not feel ‘derailed’ but will take the opportunity to do mission work wherever they are.

 

In praise of prayer groups

prayJ O Fraser, missionary to China with OMF in the early part of the 20th century*, learnt much about prayer while reaching out to the Lisu people, coming to realize the vital part that the prayers of those back in the UK had to play in seeing fruit in his labours. To his main prayer support team he wrote:

I am not asking you just to give ‘help’ in prayer as a sort of side line, but I am trying to roll the main responsibility of this prayer warfare on you. I want you to take the burden of these people upon your shoulders. I want you to wrestle with God for them.

We are currently on ‘home assignment’.  One of the highlights has been visiting 3 prayer groups which are so kindly praying regularly for us.  We’ve been touched, humbled and blessed meeting with them. One of these groups has met in some form for 60 years and another for 40 years!  Two of the groups adopted us after we’d left the UK and met us for the first time recently.  They have faithfully followed our news and when we met together asked us great questions and prayed fervently.  They were precious times.  Reflecting back over the last two years we’ve become more aware of the spiritual battle we’re in and recognize more than ever the need to have people interceding both for us and the people we’re reaching out to.

If you’re in a prayer group or praying regularly for cross-cultural workers be encouraged that your prayers really have an impact.  Keep going!

If you’re not in such a group, could you join one or start one up?  Many mission organizations have prayer groups scattered around the country.

If you’re a mission worker make sure you’re sending specific prayer requests to your church or prayer groups regularly and let them know of answered prayer, something we’re often prone to forget.

OMF have a helpful booklet, ‘How to Pray for Missionaries’ and this blog post also gives some great points for prayer: http://seagospel.net/seven-things-to-pray-for-missionaries/

One final word from J.O. Fraser:

Paul may plant and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase; and this increase can be brought down from heaven by believing prayer, whether offered in China or in England. . . . If this is so, then Christians at home can do as much for foreign missions as those actually on the field. . . . What I covet more than anything else is earnest, believing prayer.

pray

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.

 

Where is home?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week’s guest blog is from Agnes Bruna, a lifelong mission worker who is a volunteer with Shevet Achim in Jerusalem.  Here she discusses her own experience of that classic challenge for long-term mission workers: an increasing confusion about what ‘home’ is!

Soon I will be spending a month in the UK on vacation.  I’m looking forward to it, though it will be the first time I’ll be in the UK without having a fixed address to stay. Weird!

It got me thinking about where home is.  Jerusalem, where I live and work, has a surprising number of Dutch people and when people ask me where I’m from, I confidently say: from The Netherlands.  After all, I have a Dutch passport to prove it, right?  Actually, not so confident.  My Dutch is slowly but surely disappearing.  I have no idea what goes on in The Netherlands – I haven’t lived there since 1973!  When I talk to Dutch groups about our work here, I get indulgent smiles at the mistakes in my Dutch.

So, do I identify with the UK?  After all, I lived there longer than I lived in Holland.  My English accent is (according to my wonderful American friends and co-workers) distinctly British.  My children and grandchildren live there.  And this is where I go, of course, for my holiday.  The church I consider my “home church” is in England.  On the other hand, less and less people respond to my blogs.  I don’t know what is going on in my friends’ lives unless they’re faithful Facebook posters.  I am very blessed that my children are good in staying in touch, through Facebook and Whatsapp, and some of my grandchildren are getting old enough to occasionally contact me on Whatsapp.

Or does the Middle East increasingly feel like home?  I feel privileged to live in the historic city of Jerusalem.  The Old City walls are very much a part of my daily life whether I go for a coffee at Christ Church café, try to find bargains in the souks, meet up with friends, or simply go to church.  I know more about the workings of the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority, I can now more or less confidently navigate Iraqis and Syrians (and the odd Iranian) through Israeli and Jordanian border crossings and airports, I have been several times in northern Iraq.  My fluency in Hebrew has come back, I understand and speak more and more Arabic and Kurdish, and the culture here feels normal.  Whatever normal is!  Hey, I even found a reliable dentist here just behind the Arab Souk.

So what is home?  To me home is where I find Jesus working in wonderful and mysterious ways.  And where I find fellowship.  And to me it doesn’t matter whether I discuss visas in Hebrew so we can save children’s lives, live in a predominantly English-speaking Christian community, worship in Arabic, pray for and with each other in multiple languages and styles, or back in the UK worshiping and praying with you all in English.  As it says in Hebrews 13:14, John 18:36, and several other places, God’s Kingdom is not of this world.  We do not belong here, even though Jesus has put us here for a time.

Where you go, I’ll go

Where you stay, I’ll stay

When you move, I’ll move

I will follow you

Who you love, I’ll love

How you serve, I’ll serve

If this life I lose, I will follow you, yeah

I will follow you, yeah.

(Chris Tomlin)

 

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.

Safety in numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I am…

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2 Corinthian 4:8-9, CEV)

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

Today, I am Paul…

Are singles treated like children?

Struggling to grow?

Speaking at the European Member Care Consultation last week on helping single mission workers thrive in the mission field prompts me to post a little taster of what I’m talking about.  In some ways singles are like plants: we want to grow, but sometimes the conditions aren’t right.  Some things stop growth – like shade, stony soil, poor drainage, and competition for nutrients will stunt the growth of plants, so there are certain things which make it harder for single to thrive.  In this short blog I want to consider the extent to which single mission workers are (sometimes inadvertently or unwittingly) given the impression by colleagues, both expat and national, that they are second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes they are not really respected, just because they are single.  In many of the cultures where we serve, marriage and parenting are highly esteemed, which means that those who are still single aren’t really thought of as grown up.  I was once told by a Zimbabwean: “What do you know?  You have no wife – you are just a boy!”  While we can’t do much about the local culture, we don’t have to let local Christians have their views shaped by secular value.  Can we teach them something of the sacrifice single mission workers are making?  How they are trusting in God (not in many children) for care during their old age?  How they depend on God alone for comfort and encouragement since they have no ‘soulmate’?

And it’s not only local culture which can give the impression that single mission workers are not really valued.  Sometimes the sending agencies inadvertently include even long-serving singles with short-termers, probably due to the assumed ‘temporary’ nature of their singleness.  But this just undervalues people.  One single woman told me:

I am a 37 year-old woman with 37 years of life-experience and 32 years of being a follower of Jesus.  Yet too often I am treated like part of a youth group and left out of important decision-making discussions in which married couples with similar or less experience/abilities are included. 

Too often singles are left out of important discussions.  How many singles find their way into leadership positions?  The church or agency might claim they are valued, but too often their absence from leadership structures betrays that they are often considered to be no more than children.  Sometimes they’re even asked to look after the toddlers while the ‘adults’ have an important meeting!  But where there are couples present for the important meeting, surely one of them should look after their own children, rather than disempowering the singles.

So questions for churches, sending agencies and receiving teams:  Have you personally encountered any of these challenges?  How did you feel?  Are you aware of single mission workers you are responsible for who are facing these challenges?  How can you support them effectively?  Can you change the organisational culture to demonstrate you value them?

Syzygy is leading a retreat for single mission workers at Penhurst Retreat Centre where issues adversely affecting them will be unpacked, and suitable responses considered.  Please do let people know about it!

Bruised, confused, abused

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing mission workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.