Supporting retiring mission workers

Source: www.freeimages.com

Following 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.

 

Have they been with Jesus?

Getting to know you well?

Getting to know you well?

Last week’s reflection on the importance of being with Jesus can also be a reflection on our mission training practices.  When we look to recruit new mission workers we can so easily focus on their skills and abilities, but overlook their character, which is transformed by the amount of time they have been with Jesus.  It’s fairly easy to recognise what people can do, but how do we get to know who they really are when they’re not putting on their best performance at an interview?

Once upon a time some mission agencies invited candidates to work in their sending offices for a number of months before they go, so that they could really be known.  One or two agencies still do spend time with them immediately prior to departure, but often only a couple of weeks.  We may talk about journeying with them through the application process, but that’s often a series of short meetings, not real time together.  Agencies often rely on the Bible Colleges to be part of this process, but the multi-year residential model is increasingly under pressure so this is unlikely to satisfy.  References from churches can often help, but likewise, much of the time that a church leader spends with their candidates will be in a ministry context, or in meetings, and not necessarily getting to know who they really are.

As a sending team of churches, family, friends and agency we need to make sure we really get to know people.  Perhaps it’s not practical for our mission mobilisers to share their lives for three years with candidates, but can we move towards at least having people to stay for a weekend?  Churches – how much time are you spending with your candidates on a personal level, getting to know what really makes them tick?  And can we establish some intentional mentoring, whereby our candidates form relationships with mature believers, whether mission workers or not, so that their lives can be opened up to some critical influencing and constructive support?  How do we build around mission workers a sending community who really get to know them well, putting less stress on an agency to do all the decision making?  And ultimately, how can we together discern whether people really have been with Jesus?  Let’s really walk together through the application process.

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)

 

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.

The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The migrants who have so spectacularly been coming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East are already having a huge impact on Europe which will last for generations.  Whether this impact is revealed in the vast numbers of new residents taken into countries like Germany and Sweden, or the huge fences that have gone up around other countries’ borders to keep out even people only wishing to pass through those countries, the entire continent is being affected.  In the UK, the first of the refugees taken from camps in Syria are beginning to arrive, and across the continent politics is being affected by the argument between those who say we should show more compassion to our fellow humans, and others who say our countries are already full and charity begins at home.

These issues are so huge that many individual Christians are feeling disempowered, despite caring deeply about the issue.  They feel they can’t change anything, have no impact on government policy and don’t know what they can do to help.  So here are some of our suggestions.

Pray – It goes without saying that refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, need our prayers.  So do the charities, churches, government officials and individuals working with them.  Many refugees have seen their loved ones killed, and have lost their homes and communities.  They are traumatised, and so are many of the overworked counsellors trying to help them.

Donate  – Many of the charities working with refugees could do so much more to help if they had more resources, to help them feed and clothe people in refugee camps, provide education and healthcare, and help to welcome and settle immigrants.

Be informed –  Many mission agencies are working with refugees – find out which ones they are through their websites.  The European Evangelical Alliance has an excellent webpage, and the latest edition of Vista addresses the issue of migration.  The Refugee Highway Partnership has a major role to play in this and the European Evangelical Mission Association is hosting a conference in June focussing on refugee issues and the church’s response.  Find out if your network or denomination has a policy, spokesperson on refugee issues and get involved.

Help – Volunteering to help a charity might seem like a huge challenge, but they may need people to sort through donated clothing, distribute food packages and do other tasks which their own staff may be overworked with and would value some help with.

Do – Find out if any refugees are coming to your town, get in touch with whoever is coordinating care for them, and ask what you can do to help.  Over 50 local authorities have been helping to settle refugees so there are probably some near you.  They will need practical support, help understanding your country’s dominant culture and language, and friendship.  You don’t have to be particularly skilled to show them around your community, or drive them somewhere, or go with them to meetings with benefits officers to make sure they understand.

Serve –  Many of us have skills which we don’t think about using to help mission workers.  We can cook, drive, and speak the dominant language of the host community.  We have many connections we can utilise to help.  Many of us have professions like hairdressing, nursing, or teaching which we could use to help refugees.

Advocate –  In a world where much in the media is openly hostile to the idea of taking in more refugees, write letters to newspapers, local counsellors and members of parliament advocating for them.  Sign petitions and use social media to keep the issue in peoples’ minds.

The issues of refugees in Europe is not going to go away quickly.  It will change our societies, our understanding of community and the ways in which we go about mission.  Churches have a huge part to play in this transformation and have a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge of change.

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

Marriage in mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman, Northfield 1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you compliant?

Once, when I was working on the mission field, I had to go and tell the head of one of our departments that the government had mandated 30% pay rises for all their workers.  “I’m not doing that,” he fumed.  “They’re already the best-paid workers in the area.”

“You’ve got no choice,” I pointed out.  “The Government says so.”

“We don’t have to obey them.  We’re working for God.”

I wonder if you’ve ever come across people like that, who think that their higher calling saves them from being accountable to lower authorities.  It can be tempting for all of us to take short cuts, and these days we can spend a lot of time making sure we comply with directives: health & safety, safeguarding, anti-discrimination rules, risk management, employment legislation, work and residence permit procedures, tax and payroll regulations, accounting rules, food hygiene – it can be hard even to keep up to speed on what is required in running an office, let alone make sure everything we do is compliant.

Particularly for smaller agencies, it can be a big headache.  It’s not that these things are in themselves bad.  In fact they’re not unreasonable.  But most of us are not professionals in the relevant fields and struggle to understand the nuances and subtleties of what we can and can’t do.  Particularly if we have to do it in a foreign language, in a culture that sidelines women, has significant levels of government incompetence, and in which a small ‘voluntary administrative fee’ is needed to keep the bureaucracy moving forward.

So it can be tempting just to ignore them, like my friend above wanted to.

That may work for a while, but what happens when something goes wrong?  Suppose you failed to do a risk assessment for a short-term trip on which someone gets hurt.  Or you don’t have a safeguarding policy in place when somebody accuses one of your staff of sexual harassment.  Or you didn’t bother setting up a pension scheme for your five employees because it would cost you too much and they’re happy with the current system.  Your organisation – and your trustees personally – are open to prosecution.

Perhaps even more significantly, the name of Jesus is harmed.  What kind of a witness is it when people think ‘Those Christians are always ignoring the law’?  It’s not only our reputation that is at stake, it is His too.  Paul told the Philippians to be blameless and above reproach in a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15).  In doing so we share in the character of Jesus and reveal it to the world.

Finally, in complying with regulations we’re following the teaching of Jesus who said:

Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s , and to God the things that are God’s.

(Matthew 22:21)

How often do we try hard to do the latter without doing the former?

 

Moving Round the World

Inside-Out-21Following on from last week’s blog inspired by Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, we return to the same film this week to reflect on the upheaval which led to story developed in the film.  Apologies if you haven’t seen it yet!

The action occurs because a family moves from a very happy and settled life in Minnesota because the dad has got a new job in Los Angeles.  Their 12-year-old daughter reacts badly to this change, causing her some emotional damage.  Yet we were able to see some very elementary mistakes which the parents made which resulted in the situation being much worse than it needed to be.  TCKs will be only too familiar with some of these challenges.

The reason for the move seemed to be more important than the family.  Whether it’s ‘work’ or a ‘ministry call’, many TCKs grow up being resentful of the God who tells them to keep moving.  Parents should know how their children respond to change and adapt their decision-making process to make sure it works for the child.  This is a time for a family to do lots of fun things together, build happy memories and ensure the child feels loved and valued.

The parents have not involved their child in the decision.  This disempowers the child and could make her feel vulnerable.  The whole family needs to be involved, even though some children may be too young to grasp all the issues involved.  Their fears need to be addressed.

There was no preparation for the transition.  The child clearly doesn’t know what to expect.  It would not have been hard to look at photos, find local amenities on the internet, or even to make an exploratory visit so the child has a better understanding of the new home before moving.  Even saying such things as “Next Christmas we’ll be able to have a barbecue on the beach!” will help a child envisage their new life and become excited about it.

There was no emotional support for the child.  Once in the new home, the child was immediately expected to function normally in a different world.  Ideally there should have been some time allocated for the family to explore their new city together and find fun things to do so that she will feel more positive about the new home before taking on challenges like school.

The furniture didn’t turn up and the child ended up sleeping on the floor in a strange house.  Things like this are not uncommon in missions, and making them an adventure can help.  How we deal with the unexpected is a significant part of thriving as we experience change.  The whole family sleeping together on the floor as if they were camping out would be better than sending the child to bed alone in an empty bedroom.

There are many resources available through the internet for helping prepare families for moving, and we particularly recommend these:

Families on the Move.  Marion Knell’s excellent handbook for taking the whole family abroad.

Preparing Families for Life Overseas.  This one-day course for the whole family is run every April at Redcliffe College.

Sammy’s Next Move.  This is a storybook about a snail who travels the world with his parents, carrying his home with him wherever he goes.  Ideal for young children.

Do you know yourself “Inside Out”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Yoda)

More burnout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we really need to learn the language?

Pick a language!

Pick a language!

I recently ran into a mission worker (let’s call him Bill, which is not his real name) who had been a mission worker in a foreign country for a couple of years, together with his wife.

Since the language of that country is somewhat complicated, I asked how he was getting on with learning it.  His reply was one I have never before heard:

We didn’t bother with language lessons; we have a full-time interpreter.  If we want to phone out for a pizza, it’s easier to get her to do it.

Many of you will be involuntarily cringing at the very thought of this.  Honestly, it happened.  Bill had been in country for two years and couldn’t even order a pizza.  Do you think that’s right?

At Syzygy we think learning the language serves a number of purposes:

  • it shows respect for the people we have come to serve
  • it opens up communication with those who don’t speak English
  • it helps us understand their culture better
  • it creates missional opportunitiess as we practice
  • it equips us to read road signs, magazines and books and understand TV and radio
  • it helps us share the gospel with everyone around us

Yet many independent mission workers don’t take language learning seriously, if they bother at all.  Most agencies require their mission partners to make a significant effort, and it’s not uncommon to do a year of full time language study, gradually reducing that as ministry takes over.  But even with discipline, it can take many years to achieve fluency, and many of us settle for adequacy.

The British by and large have a poor reputation for language learning, and we are fortunate that the global prominence of our transatlantic cousins means we often don’t need to bother, but most of us feel it’s important to make an effort.

I frequently hear Brits say that they’re not very good at languages, but when they have to haggle for a chicken, or negotiate their way through the visa office, their need focusses their attention and they do a pretty good job.  Their attention is focussed even more effectively when their mission agency requires them to speak the language to a certain standard within a given time, and threatens to send them home if they don’t achieve it.

But how much effort is really necessary?  Is it appropriate to rely on interpreters all the time?  Or just hope that there’ll always be somebody around who speaks English?  While such attitudes may have overtones of neo-colonial arrogance, we seem to be entering a postmodern era world where many mission workers will only stay a few years in the field before moving on.  If that is true, do we really have time to invest a year in language learning?  Do we really need to strive for proficiency like the old-time lifelong mission workers did?

These days, there is little excuse not to try to learn at least a little of the language.  With online courses and dvds so cheap, and even online translation apps available, it’s possible to pick up a few words easily, and lay a good foundation even before you get on the plane.  It doesn’t really take a lot of effort to make a good start, and once you are in the field being able to speak just a few sentences in your target language will generate such goodwill in your community that people will be much more willing to listen to the message you’re trying to communicate, whichever language you end up using.

From enemies to team-mates

A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

A typical meeting of a mission team? (source: www.freeimages.com)

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think about what a disparate group Jesus’ 12 disciples were.  We don’t know about all of them, but we can infer things about them from what we know of their professions and what they are recorded in the Bible as saying.  As we know they included the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James & John (Matthew 4:18-21) as well as a tax collector (Matthew) and a revolutionary freedom fighter (Simon the Zealot*).  Peter was larger than life and James & John clearly had short tempers (Mark 3:17, Luke 9:54).  Thomas possibly had a more cynical nature (John 11:16).  The fishermen, while not necessarily poor (they owned their means of production), were probably what we would now consider skilled labourers, as was Jesus himself, while Matthew would have been significantly wealthy, at least prior to joining the disciples (cf Luke 19:1-10).

Most interestingly, in the politically-charged environment of the occupied Levant, Matthew would have been considered a traitor, collaborating with the occupying power by collecting outrageously high taxes.  Every nationalistic Judaean would have hated him, particularly Simon was a Zealot, a fanatic agitating for radical overthrow of the oppressors.  How on earth did those two manage to get along living alongside each other for three year?  Of course there must have been arguments, but they stuck it out.  And that was before they were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost!

I believe there was one crucial factor that drew them together more than their political views would have divided them:  they wanted to be with Jesus.  They wanted to be where he was, and do what he was doing.  And the price they paid for that was to learn to live together.

In many multi-cultural mission teams today there are disagreements over many things: theological, cultural, and social.  They may include questions of missiological practice, ecclesiology, or basic assumptions about what Christian culture is.  These disagreements are significantly exacerbated where there is a clash of personalities, and in any randomly-allocated group of twelve people, there is highly likely to be one person that you don’t get on with.  Dealing with such people can lead to significant levels of stress.

So when we find ourselves in a similar situation, what can we do to make it work?  Here are some simple steps:

  • 1) Look to the bigger picture and recognise that we are all a small part of a large plan
  • 2) Recognise and accept our differences, acknowledging that other people’s different attitudes and values are not necessarily wrong
  • 3) Admit our own sinfulness and self-centredness and ask God to help us become more like him
  • 4) Work hard to understand those we have tension with, learn their story and find out what has made them who they are.

St Paul gives us some helpful hints on our attitude towards those with whom we disagree in Romans 14:

  • Accept one another and do not judge (vv 1, 3)
  • We are all answerable to God for our own attitudes and behaviour (vv 4, 10)
  • Our attitude can cause others to sin (v 13)
  • We are supposed to be building one another up (v 19
  • The Kingdom of God is more important than our disputes (v 20)

I was greatly encouraged when one couple reported to me recently that they were having some difficulty in relating to their co-workers, and ask for prayer not that the colleagues would change, but that they would!  This is a godly attitude which recognises that if we want to be with Jesus, and do the things he is doing, we’re likely to find ourselves with co-workers that we wouldn’t naturally choose.  We can make an issue of this or we can get on with the process of adapting.  I have found myself in a similar situation, working alongside people I would not naturally have chosen to be with, but by getting to know them better they have become good friends.

We don’t know the end of the story of Matthew and Simon.  Perhaps they became the best of friends, or maybe they simply learned to tolerate each other.  Maybe Jesus knocked their heads together a few times before they got the message.  But we do know that they stayed together in the same team for at least three years, and even after the death of Jesus they stayed together for at least 40 days (Acts 1:13).  That is because what united them was greater than what divided them.

* There is much scholarly debate about this term.  Some say it may simply mean that he was enthusiastic, but the Zealots were named by Josephus as a sect of Judaism which advocated armed uprising against the Romans.

Urgent!

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

150 years ago this week, on 25th June 1865, Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission, now OMF International.  It had (and still has, though slightly adapted) the goal of “the urgent evangelisation of China’s millions”.

Taylor was greatly concerned that the Chinese were dying without Jesus.  This prompted the sense of urgency which pervaded not only the CIM but other 19th century missions too.  They were motivated to take the message of Jesus to people who  were being lost, consigned to hell for eternity.

These days, hell is an unpopular and rarely mentioned concept in much of western Christianity.  We feel it is distasteful, incompatible with the idea of a loving God, and disrespectful of those who choose not to follow Jesus.  We certainly don’t use it in our outreach, preferring instead to tell people of God’s love for them rather than focus on divine wrath.

Whether you agree with downgrading hell to a theological optional extra or not, the disappearance of hell from the evangelistic agenda has removed the sense of urgency.  We recognise that telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent is not the best way to build a bridge towards them.  And while we may not be sure what happens after death to those who don’t follow Jesus, we trust God to be fair and sort something out.  Rob Bell infamously flirted with universalism in his controversial book Love Wins, which was welcomed by many people who can’t stomach the idea of God condemning millions of his creatures to burn for eternity for the simple crime of not worshipping him even though nobody had told them to.

Today we prefer to take our time to woo people into the kingdom of God because we’re not in a hurry any more.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped dying without Jesus.  In the time it’s taken you to read this blog, thousands have died before being told the message.  Whatever you believe happens to them after death, it can’t be as good as spending eternity with Jesus.  So go and tell them.  Quickly.

God meant it for good?

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)

Living in Cyberia

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

A long time ago, before global telecoms were invented and when post took months to get to the other side of the world, intrepid mission workers went abroad not knowing if they would ever see family and friends again.  While some stayed in the coastal cities where they could get newspapers from ‘home’ (albeit a few months old) and mix with people from their own country, others went to new fields in the interior, far from their home culture.  They learned the local language, adapted to the customs, and often dressed in indigenous clothing to help them integrate.  Many of them adapted so well that they became more like the locals than their own people.

Some would look back on that as a golden age.  But technology came.  Once people could fly to their fields relatively cheaply, they could maintain better contact with their ‘home’ and family.  They could start going back more frequently than every five years.  People could come and visit them.  Phone calls became possible, and then faxes.  And mission agencies recognised that, while better communication could enhance the mission worker’s sense of wellbeing, they also realised that it could be a distraction from becoming embedded in the culture.  Some agencies discouraged frequent returns, or restricted visits from family, particularly during the first year.  They imposed limits on contact with the sending country to help people bed down in their new culture and learn the language well.

Gen Y - excessively connected?

Gen Y – excessively connected?

Now, with social media available even in the most remote villages, people are seldom out of contact with friends and family.  They can have regular face time with people on the other side of the planet, remotely attend birthday parties, and give people virtual tours of their homes.  They can upload videos and share blogs.  It is so much better for maintaining their support, the strength of their ongoing relationships.  But it raises another point – do people ever really leave?  Do they become embedded in the local culture any more?  Do they find their supportive relationships with their new local friends, fellow mission workers in the field, or with people in their home country?

So technology has solved the problem of isolation, but possibly at a price.  In a world where mission workers can come ‘home’ every Christmas, and host visitors on a regular basis, are they preserving a little island of their home culture and not becoming enculturated in their host country?  What does it do for their relationships with locals?

It has often been observed that Generation Y, having much more understanding of themselves as global citizens than previous generations did, are able to engage much more readily with other cultures, and may not even recognise the dichotomy between leaving and joining.  They can connect equally well in several cultures.  But it remains to be seen whether they will build up the wealth of socio-linguistic understanding that previous generations who spent decades in the same field.  Can we afford to wait while all that corporate knowledge leaves the field as baby boomers retire?

CT Studd, founder of WEC International, famously spent the last 18 years of his life in Congo, leaving his wife in London running the support network.  They only met again during her one brief visit to the Congo.  I wonder what he would have made of how technology has changed the world of mission.

Burn out or rust out?

C T Studd (1860-1931)

C T Studd (1860-1931)

Last week’s blog was a well-known poem from an earlier time, when Christian mission was marked by a zeal and an urgency which is not often seen today.  Zeal has been replaced by moderation, and urgency by a strategy of nudging people gently into the kingdom of God rather than pushing them.  Different times, different ways.

One striking feature of the poem for me was the desire to ‘burn out’ for God.  It meant something different in those days, rather like a candle continuing to burn all the way to the end rather than sputtering out halfway.  Today, burning out is the result of dangerous levels of stress and overwork and is to be avoided at all costs.  We might occasionally see a bumper sticker which says “It’s better to burn out than rust out” but in fact neither is good.  The best option is to last out.

‘Lasting out’ recognises that our life and Christian ministry is neither a sprint nor a stroll – it’s a marathon.  If we take it too slowly we won’t get very far, and if we take it too fast we’ll run out of energy.  We need to find a sustainable pace somewhere in between the two extremes.

Battery Charge IconIn order to avoid burning out, we need to identify strategies for ensuring that our inner reserves of energy are recharged as rapidly as they are drained.  Rather like a mobile phone with its battery logo flashing, we need to find some way of recharging it, and turn off some of the energy-demanding apps if we can’t.

So what does that mean in practice?  First, it means creating adequate space for ourselves.  Whether that means retreat, Sabbath, time out with friends, solitude to relax in the bath or on a beach, it is entirely appropriate for us to stop what we are doing from time to time.

Second, it means learning to say no.  Having the courage to refuse to do things we haven’t got time for, don’t have a vision for, or don’t have the ability to do well.  Having a clear sense of what we are called to do can help us filter out the distractions which may well need doing, but not by us.

C T Studd, who wrote the poem Only One Life, was notable for the hard work he put into serving God.  Many of his generation did the same.  While many of them achieved great things for God, there are also others who were plagued by illnesses and ailments which today might be diagnosed as signs of stress.  Often they left the mission field early and returned to their home country with broken health.  Many others died on the mission field.  We can only speculate how much more they would have been able to achieve if they had had the benefit of modern member care.

So, without denying the urgency of the task of bringing the gospel to countless billions who will die without Jesus, let’s recognise that we need to pace ourselves.  If we have a mission given to us by God, our prime responsibility is to keep ourselves fit enough to be able to carry out that mission.