We have already blogged on several occasions about the people who have been hurt by their own sending church or agency, either by the impersonal approach of its policies “We’re withdrawing your support for you because we have changed our strategy” or by the actions of individuals within it.

Sadly such situations continue to occur and what we haven’t yet consider how people in a church can support their mission workers who are wounded.

First, you will need to pay attention.  Most mission workers will not readily spill the beans, partly out of loyalty to their church or agency, and partly for fear that if the truth comes out their supporters will encourage them not to go back.  So you’ll need to watch out for signs of stress when they talk about their situation, reticence about their working relationships, or a lack of enthusiasm in their presentations.  Dig into this with questions like “what are you going to be doing when you go back?”, “How are you feeling about going back?” and “How do you get on with the people in your team?”

Once you’ve realised that something has gone wrong, encourage them to talk confidentially about it to one of their supporters, or maybe an independent debriefer.  Again, they might be reluctant to, but remind them they may need to get things off their chest.  Maybe find a retired mission worker they could open up to.

If it’s you who is they are opening up to – be prepared for a torrent of emotion!  They may have long pent-up feelings about this which they’ve struggled with for a long time and once they are released they may take a while to settle down.  Emotional discharge can be good for the person involved but alarming for you.  Once they’ve dealt with the emotion, they might be able to find a practical approach to resolving the situation.

If relationships have completely broken down with someone in their church or agency, offer to act as an intermediary, or to support them in a face-to-face discussion to resolve the situation.  That too may take up a lot of your time but having an independent observer present at discussions may calm any potential confrontation.  But remember not to take sides!  While you may be keen to support your mission worker, staying impartial helps you help them.  After all, you’ve probably only heard one half of the truth and they person they are in dispute with may have an entirely different perspective.

And if they have been bullied, abused or manipulated by a leader, have no qualms about helping them whistleblow!  Take it up with them at the highest levels you can.

You may like to give them resources that will help them process what’s happened.  We particularly like Honourably Wounded and A Tale of Three Kings.

Help them understand how personality traits can often complicate communication, and also language barriers.  Even if people speak the same language, they may speak it differently.  Some cultures are far more direct at speaking than others, while some will talk in circles to avoid confrontation or giving offence.  When they go to a foreign country your mission partners will be helped a lot to understand the culture they’re in – but they might learn nothing about getting on with each of the 22 different nationalities on their team!

And if all of your listening skills and wisdom get you nowhere, don’t give up!  Talk directly to the leadership of the church or agency, and bring in an outside arbitrator if necessary in order to resolve the situation.

Your mission partner may well be in a situation which could jeopardise their place with their agency, their missionary calling, and in extreme circumstances even their faith.  You might not feel qualified, but you can help them.

The biggest problem for many working people is that the actual work on their desks is the easiest part of the job. Nothing they are responsible for doing at work is especially challenging.  It’s only hard to do the job because of the politics, the stupid rules and the dark, fearful energy that flows throughout the workplace and bogs everyone down. A broken culture makes everything else harder, from organizing projects to getting critical approvals to move your work forward.[1]

In the above quote, Liz Ryan was writing about organisations in general, but she could just as easily have been writing about some of our churches and mission agencies.  On a previous occasion I wrote about the toxicity that lurks in some head offices, and while not wishing to repeat myself, I do want to ram the point home: I come across too many mission workers wounded by their own organisations.

Granted, some of these people may have been annoying, difficult people to work with (so good management starts with good recruitment) but in the kingdom of God we need to develop the desire and ability to work well with even some of the most awkward brothers and sister.

And that is the principal issue: no matter how abrasive or maverick these mission workers are, it’s the agency which has harmed them, at least in their opinion.  And we’ll come on to that issue another day, but we’ll stick with the agency for the moment.

So how do we recognise a culture which hurts people?  Three key characteristics are

  • rules become more important than people
  • doing becomes more important than being
  • results are more important than influence
  • decisions are imposed rather than discussed
  • debate is branded as dissent

The key to ensuring this doesn’t happen is to have leaders of good character.  They can be recognised by many characteristics but we think good leaders:

  • behave more like pastors than bosses
  • are open to hearing alternatives without feeling threatened
  • are emotionally intelligent enough to understand how they respond to others
  • put people’s wellbeing before the organisation’s
  • value people for who they are, not what they can achieve
  • are secure enough to recognise their own vulnerability and embrace it
  • are able to acknowledge and apologise for their own mistakes

How do we get our organisations to the place where this feels like real life?  Like any organisational change, it needs commitment from senior leaders who can recognise the need for change.  The people at the top set the agenda, and if they don’t, there will not be sufficient impetus for change.  This is not only the home or the field directors, but also trustees, and other influential people in the organisation.  For many of them this will need a change of mindset away from running a business to leading a community.  For want of a better model, many of us have adopted secular management strategies which turn our agencies into corporations.  These have the ability to subtly change our values to achieving goals, maintaining profitability and maintaining the reputation of the organisation, which although necessary, are not in themselves positive outcomes and can draw us away from biblical values.

Syzygy is happy to support agencies through implementing cultural change, and we recommend independent mentoring for all senior leaders to help them become the people God wants them to be.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/10/19/ten-unmistakable-signs-of-a-toxic-culture/#49a9f802115f

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberately abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012:

Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.

Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.

But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?

 

pastoralMany people in the mission world are exposed to significant levels of suffering.  Whether it’s walking past vast numbers of the destitute on the streets of Asian megacities, watching people die of diseases that could be cured in the west, or supporting the millions of people worldwide living in refugee camps, mission workers witness a lot of suffering.  Sometimes it’s a passive experience which can be part of life in their field of ministry, or sometimes an active one as they devote themselves to providing relief.

Others of us experience suffering ourselves, perhaps through the car accidents which are all-too-frequent in the sort of places we work, robbery, kidnap, assault, or natural disaster.  We may experience broken relationships, spiritual abuse within toxic agencies, or exploitation by those we are aiming to serve.

Such exposure to suffering can have a variety of impacts.  It can lead to compassion fatigue, with people becoming uncaring as they steel themselves to withstand the suffering around them.  It can lead to burnout as they strive compassionately to personally meet the needs of everyone they come across.  And it can, in extreme circumstances, lead to severe theological doubts or even a loss of faith as people struggle to come to terms with the presence of suffering in a world created by a loving God.  Not to mention conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How do mission workers suffering from such trauma find relief for it?

  • They need to get away. People working in traumatic contexts should withdraw regularly for rest and healthcare, to make sure they stay well enough to do their jobs.  In the process they’ll need to feel helped not to feel guilty for leaving those who need their help.  By withdrawing to recharge their batteries, they will in the long run be able to be help more people.  Fortunately there is a growing number of retreat centres worldwide where mission workers can get a break and, if they want, also find debriefing.
  • They need to engage spiritually with the situation. Where is God to be found in this mess?  What is God saying to them?  How is the Holy Spirit empowering them to do their ministry?
  • They need to have a proper debrief. It’s important with people engaging with trauma that they don’t merely have a brief chat with a colleague, but meet with professionals as part of a process of unpacking their emotions.  Ministries like ARREST, Healthlink360, Interhealth, and Le Rucher specialise in providing such focussed support.
  • They need a supporting church that can care for them when they come “home” for a break, by providing hospitality, love and support, and an opportunity for them to talk if they want to, while respecting the fact that they may want to keep silent and think things through in their minds rather than verbalising everything. They need to feel involved without having lots to do, as they will need space to work through what is going on inside them.
  • They need to be accepted for who they are at this moment. One of the big challenges for mission workers with doubts about their faith is that there are few people they can talk to honestly.  They are frightened to tell their agency that they are constantly tearful and feel guilty of their relative wealth and security for fear of not being allowed to go back.  They fear they will lose the support of their church if they say that after what they’ve seen, they can’t believe in a God of love any more.  An accepting, non-judgmental environment in which mission workers can express such doubts can go a long way towards their healing, though sadly what we hear most from mission workers is that they have nobody who understands.

In order to prevent the build-up of stress in a mission worker to an unhealthy state, they should have a good understanding of a theology of suffering, recognise their own physical responses to stress so that they can take appropriate action, and have supportive relationships where it is safe to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Far too many mission workers are invalided out of the field because they weren’t properly supported and cared for… by church, by agency, and by themselves.

Source: www,sxc.hu

Source: www,sxc.hu

It will come to no surprise to most mission workers that stress is part of life.  All human beings, whether we’re studying for exams, needing to hit a deadline at work, trying to feed a growing family on restricted finances or trying to live harmoniously with the rest of the world, experience some exposure to stress.  A small amount of stress can be good for us – it’s what makes us get out of bed in the morning or helps us focus rather than drifting through life, but there comes a point at which it can be counter-productive.  Too much stress can have a bad effect on our health.

What will come as a surprise to most mission workers is that not only do they have to deal with increased levels of stress due to their vocation, their cross-cultural challenges, the culture in which they live and their distance from their natural support mechanisms, their stress levels are often so high they are actually dangerous.

Stress is what happens when your mouth says 'I'd be happy to' and your gut says "NOOOOOO!"

Stress is what happens when your mouth says ‘I’d be happy to’ and your gut says “NOOOOOO!”

Nearly 50 years ago two US psychologists developed a simple and effective tool for measuring stress.    They called it the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, not because it’s a spectacularly good name, but because their surnames were Holmes and Rahe.

They allocated points to stressful life events and discovered a causal link between too much stress and ill health.  Today most of us would take this for granted, but Rahe and Holmes were the first to demonstrate it and evaluate the risk.  A score of over 300 points on their scale indicates a strong likelihood of serious illness resulting from stress, BUT

Even if the average mission worker has not had many significant life events in the last year, their exposure to background levels of stress due to living in a different culture means that their score could effectively be doubled.  And for the first year in the field, it could be trebled.

Although no research has been done to establish this statistic a fact, it is still troubling to think that our health, and even our lives, may be needlessly compromised by a culture of overwork which tolerates toxic levels of stress.  It is small wonder that many mission workers suffer from stress-related illness.  This can ultimately lead to them leaving the field.

Now that we’ve got you well and truly worried about the stress you’re currently experiencing, why don’t you take the test for yourself?  You can download a simple form here.  All you have to do is put a figure in the right hand column if you’ve experienced that particular life event during the last year.  So if you moved house, put 20 in the appropriate column.  If you’ve done it twice, put 40.  Then make yourself a nice cup of tea, sit in a comfy chair and add up the totals in the right hand column.

And relax...

And relax…

If your total is over 200, you should consider some lifestyle changes.  Drop some responsibilities.  Take up a hobby.  Get regular exercise.  Take more leave.  If your total is over 300, get some help.  Talk to a counsellor or member care professional.  Review your ministry and ask God if you’re in the right place or doing the right thing.  If your total is even higher than that, take some sick leave.  Now.

In my experience, many mission workers think and act as if they’re indispensable, even though they will deny it.  Sadly, this means they take on too much responsibility and don’t do enough unwinding to manage effectively the stress they are under.  They often fall ill and leave others to pick up the pieces, which of course causes their colleagues additional stress in turn.  Until we can all learn to spend less time in the office and more time on the beach/piste/golf course, we are all going to be risking our health unnecessarily.

Faced with a choice between burning out for God, or rusting out through lack of use, Christians should find the middle ground, and last out fruitfully.

Orange lightMany mission workers slowly lose the capacity to perform well over time.  The reasons for this are many but can include:

  • the cumulative effects of living in a foreign culture
  • long-term workplace stress
  • toxic relationships with colleagues
  • sense of isolation and lack of support
  • the physical demands of living in a different climate
  • spiritual stagnation resulting from years of giving out while not receiving.

These issues, like the proverbial frog in a pan of boiling water, can sneak up on us unawares and drain our vitality, our joy and our ability to serve God.  We soldier on, not realising there’s a problem until one day we wake up and realise we just can’t go on any more.  The result can be physical illness, long-term fatigue or burnout.

Sadly, Syzygy meets with too many people in this situation.  If these issues remain untreated, they can even lead to psychological damage and loss of faith.  The resulting attrition is toxic to individual servants of God and prejudicial to effective mission.  We aim to prevent this happening.

Syzygy exists to help mission workers maintain themselves in peak condition to serve, and as part of this we have developed a one-day workshop designed to be delivered in-field to mission workers as a routine checkup.  Why do we Choose to be Stressed? will look at core issues like our identity in Christ, and help us to understand what makes us tick.  We will trainingexamine our motivations – which may in fact not be the ones we think they are!  Equipped with a better understanding of ourselves, we will then consider the steps we can take to help us cope with stress more effectively, learn how to take care of ourselves better and make suitable changes to our lifestyle so that we become more resilient and able to continue serving effectively.

We hope to make this workshop available in a variety of countries in the coming years.  If you would like to host one, please get in touch with us by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  The workshop is also suitable for delivery in the UK as part of home assignment retreats or briefings for new mission workers.

Break point 2Ever feel like you’re reaching breaking point?  Then you need to be part of

WHY DO WE CHOOSE TO BE STRESSED?

Many mission workers slowly lose the capacity to perform well over time.  The reasons for this are many but can include:

  • the cumulative effects of living in a foreign culture
  • long-term workplace stress
  • toxic relationships with colleagues
  • sense of isolation and lack of support
  • the physical demands of living in a different climate
  • spiritual stagnation resulting from years of giving out while not receiving.

These issues, like the proverbial frog in a pan of boiling water, can sneak up on us unawares and drain our vitality, our joy and our ability to serve God.  We soldier on, not realising there’s a problem until one day we wake up and realise we just can’t go on any more.  The result can be physical illness, long-term fatigue or burnout.

Sadly, Syzygy meets with too many people in this situation.  If these issues remain untreated, they can even lead to psychological damage and loss of faith.  The resulting attrition is toxic to individual servants of God and prejudicial to effective mission.  We aim to prevent this happening.

Syzygy exists to help mission workers maintain themselves in peak condition to serve, and as part of this we have developed a one-day workshop designed to be delivered in-field to mission workers as a routine checkup.  Why do we choose to be stressed? will look at core issues like our identity in Christ, and help us to understand what makes us tick.  We will examine our motivations – which may in fact not be the ones we think they are!  Equipped with a better understanding of ourselves, we will then consider the steps we can take to help us cope with stress more effectively, learn how to take care of ourselves better and make suitable changes to our lifestyle so that we become more resilient and able to continue serving effectively.

We hope to make this workshop available in a variety of countries over the coming years.  If you would like to host one, please get in touch with us by emailing training@syzygy.org.uk.  The workshop is also suitable for delivery in the UK as part of home assignment retreats or briefings for new mission workers.