Circle of life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fence at the top of the cliff

Cliff

Source: www.freeimages.com

We’ve all seen them – fences to stop people falling.  Usually accompanied by large signs saying ‘DANGER’.  Authorities put them up to stop people getting hurt, for people’s own protection.  It makes sense.  We don’t want anybody to get hurt do we?  We should make them alert to the risks, and if possible even put barriers in their way for their own safety.  Yet in some places, such as the spectacular Victoria Falls, there is no protection at all.  Inevitably, in such locations, people use their own discretion and sadly there are accidents.

This resembles the world of mission.  There are too many times when people intrepidly go abroad in mission, unaware of the dangers, underestimating the risks, without sufficient support, and accidents happen.  People struggle with health-damaging stress, become emotionally or spiritually wounded, give up and come home, or maybe even lose their faith.  Many of the people that Syzygy works with have suffered some degree of avoidable injury.  We do our best to help them recover so they can resume their ministry.  We are privileged to be able to be part of this process, but we’d rather not be.

Too often we are like an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, when we’d rather be the fence at the top.

Prevention is better than cure.  That’s why we’ve compiled a series of guides for doing mission well, so that people planning to serve God cross-culturally can be made aware of the issues involved and how they can plan to deal with them.  Because we’d much rather prevent the damage occurring than pick up the pieces afterwards.  Another way in which we help is by providing training and support to churches, so that they can support their mission workers better.  The more the sending church is involved with the mission workers, the more likely they are to thrive.  The church is a critical yet often overlooked partner in providing support.

This year Syzygy’s goal is to be able to talk to more churches to help them support their mission workers.  We can run vision events and training days.  We have partners who can provide ongoing relationships to act as a resource centre to churches.  But we need the first contacts.  Our biggest challenge is that church leaders can be (rightly) suspicious of people coming in from outside telling them how to do their jobs.

This is where you come in.  We need advocates in churches to introduce us and vouch for us, so that we can make those initial contacts.  Please talk to your church leaders and let them know about us.  You can point them to the part of our guides that is written specifically for churches.  And please let us know – we’d love to give them a call!

Then perhaps we can function more like a fence than an ambulance!

Which sweet are you?

Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Model of Cross-Cultural Adaptation. This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model[1] which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them.  In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation.  The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!

Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*.  They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside.  Every Malteser is alike.  So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.

But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos.  On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different.  In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised  – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do.  That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.

But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals.  That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside.  So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them.  Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.

Then we go back to our ‘home’ country.  But we’ve changed on the inside.  So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside.  Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced.  ‘Home isn’t home any more.  This is when we can get reverse culture shock.

Sweets

So what do we do about it?  Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again.  But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson.  That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’.  Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.

The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel.  They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different.  It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not.  So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do.  This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.

Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more.  We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more details.

* Other types of confectionery are available.

  • [1] Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Come over here and help us

Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

 Where is home?

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas – the happiest time of the year?

Photo by Dave Dyet from FreeImages

According to contemporary mythology, Christmas is the happiest time of the year.  A time for giving, celebrating, and enjoying being with family.  Many seasonal songs perpetuate that myth.  Yet for many people it is far from that.  Coping with the various personal tragedies which can afflict humanity, Christmas is merely a mirror of the joy they don’t have.  So often church only seems to make it worse, enthusiastically buying into the seasonal activities while blissfully unaware of the isolation this can cause.  Christmas can be the most unhappy time of the year.

It can be an extremely difficult time for those who have been bereaved, divorced or abandoned, particularly if that has occurred in the last year.  For them this celebration will be a mockign memory of former happy times.  Other people will be lonely, having no special person to share it with, and it’s interesting to reflect on how many popular Christmas songs indicate that the presence (or absence) of a key loved one is a crucial factor in whether Christmastime is happy or not.  Some people will have no children but will be longing for their own children to treat, and they burn with pain each time somebody says ‘Christmas is all about the children’.  With so much activity centred on the children, those who want them can feel that it just makes their lack harder to bear.  Christmas can be the most lonely time of the year.

While the celebrations of many who do not have family, or have a key part of their family missing, are overshadowed by their lack, many of those who do have family will also be suffering.  Perhaps loved ones are estranged, or relationships are tense, with a threat of arguments or even violence over Christmas.  Others are weighed down by the burden of expectation, needing to get along with in-laws or deliver a perfect Christmas experience of food, presents and decorations, perhaps while lacking the time or the finances to do it properly and fulfil everybody’s Christmas dreams.  Christmas can be the most uncomfortable time of the year.

Others will have no home at all, relying on shelters and hoping for mild weather, or will have no food to eat, or will be unable to afford to heat their homes.  Others will be refugees, wondering if their community can survive international conflict or natural disaster.  Christmas can be the most painful time of the year.

It is no coincidence then, that the child whose nativity we celebrate was not born into a perfect family Christmas.  The were forced to be away from their home by a dictatorial empire, and quite possibly were ostracised by family due to the suspicions surrounding Jesus’ paternity.  With no place to call their own, they found rough shelter in a strange town and Mary gave birth in uncomfortable and humiliating surroundings.  Soon afterwards they were political refugees, on the run from an oppressive tyrant murdering innocent children who might grow up to overthrow him.

Yet Jesus came to bring hope and comfort to those who suffer.  In this age through his church, and in the future in heaven, he promises better for us.  For those of you who feel lonely, uncomfortable or in pain at this time of year, we offer some words of encouragement:

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied; blessed are you who are crying, for you shall laugh.  (Luke 6:20-21)
  • To those of you who can’t have children, don’t say you’re all dried up; I’ve got something better for you – a name that will last forever (Isaiah 56:4-5).
  • Look!  God has come to set up home with humanity… and he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no death, or mourning, or crying or pain any more.  These things all belong in the past (Revelation 21:3-4).

And for those of you who are fortunate enough to be enjoying a happy, festive occasion, maybe you’d like to spend a few moments considering how you can share your company, food and joy and with those for whom Christmas is a season to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Guilt and shame

One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

A guilt society would be characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the use of terms such as ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘duty’.  Individuals in such societies regulate their behaviour by reference to their own conscience.  There will be shame when somebody misbehaves, but the guilt is primary.  This society will be recognised by many western mission workers as their home culture, as this culture is often dominant in the Christian world.

Shame societies, on the other hand, will place less emphasis on abstract concepts of right and wrong and more stress on the need for social cohesion by maintaining the honour of the individual, family or nation.  Individuals will regulate their behaviour by reference to the shame that exposure would bring, and the risk of social ostracism or ‘losing face’.  There may also be a sense of guilt, but the shame of exposure would be primary.  Many of the countries in which western mission workers minister will be shame societies.

This distinction is useful for understanding why other cultures do not necessarily see things our way.  So if I come from a guilt culture, I will feel it is objectively ‘wrong’ for somebody to steal my bicycle.  But if I’m serving in a shame culture, it may be a bigger cultural taboo for me to challenge the thief, thereby exposing him to shame.  My emphasis on ‘correct’ behaviour may inadvertently have become a bigger issue than the original theft.  That is why western mission workers may perceive the people they work with as having an unacceptably low tolerance for theft, absenteeism or  bribery (for example), while themselves being perceived as being legalistically inflexible and irrationally intolerant of local norms.

The long-term impact of living in a culture different to one’s own can be stress, fatigue and even burnout.  Ethical situations may frequently tax the individual.  Some, for example, may wonder why so many people ask them for bribes, while others will be amazed that an apparently simple administrative transaction is complicated by the completion of paperwork when a simple facilitating payment would suffice.

This situation is made much more demanding for cross-cultural workers when they see Christians happily partaking in the culture they find it so difficult to understand.  Their natural inclination is to believe that their own values are correct and appropriate (and therefore Christian) and so the others are compromised.  Behaviour that is tolerated, albeit reluctantly, in the non-Christian locals is seen as unacceptable in the church.

How can we deal with such deep issues which can, if unresolved, threaten our emotional well-being and our relationships with the people we’re supposed to be serving?  Here are some suggestions:

  • recognise your own cultural preferences and try to understand those of your host culture.  Do your best to see that it’s possible that neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they’re just different.
  • discuss your concerns with people of your own culture who have been there long enough to understand how the local culture works.
  • try not to be judgemental towards your host culture.  Recognise that there may be good reasons why they’re different, and acknowledge that they may likewise be judging you.
  • if particular issues vex you, look at what the Bible says about them, and be willing to recognise that your preferences might actually be no more godly than theirs.
  • be very sensitive in challenging the church with what you see as ungodly attitudes.  Don’t openly condemn but instead find a suitable Bible verse and ask them to explain what that would mean in their culture before explaining what it means in yours.

TCKS coming ‘home’

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

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

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

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

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

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

TCKs in Brazil – Pam and her four sisters

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the real believers?

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

We mentioned previously the conference on contextualisation held last month, and I’d like to follow up by wading into the debate on what happens when muslims find faith in Jesus.

In parts of the world where there is a dominant non-Christian culture, notably but not only Islam, it has become common in recent years for some people who find faith in Jesus to stay within their socio-religious communities.  They may still attend the mosque and call themselves muslims (or muslim followers of Jesus).  This is not necessarily because they fear persecution (they may well get that anyway) but because the community is so tight and hostility to Christianity so strong, that they would lose family, friends, social networks and the ability to earn money or even buy food.  By remaining within their community, even though they hold unorthodox beliefs, they maintain their support structures and, crucially, the opportunity to witness to their families and neighbours.

Some Christians think that these ‘insiders’ cannot possibly be real Christians, and that if they were, they should leave their communities, join a church, call themselves Christians and take the resulting persecution.

A biblical case study of relevance would be the early Jerusalem church.  While clearly self-identifying as followers of Jesus (or The Way), they still considered themselves Jews, attended temple services and kept the law.  They were, in effect, a Jewish sect.  They didn’t stop being Jewish just because they followed Jesus.  While relationships with other sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees were occasionally violent, mostly they co-existed for nearly forty years.  The split began when the Jesus followers didn’t take part in the war against Rome (68-70 AD) and fled en masse to Pella, so their loyalty to Jewish nationalism was impugned.  Eventually, around 85AD the Jews developed a curse on those who split the faith, which forced the Jesus followers out of the synagogues where it formed part of the liturgy.

In other words, the Jewish believers were happy to remain within Judaism until those who rejected Jesus pushed them out of it.  It was the same in the churches Paul visited – they always started with the synagogue until they were expelled.  It may well be the same with muslim-background believers – only time will tell.

Recent research among one particular group of muslim-background believers in Jesus found some startling results.  390 believers in 118 communities (ekklesia) were interviewed.  83.9% met together with other believers at least once a week, mainly in homes.  Most of them are in groups of fewer than ten people and their activities include Bible-reading, prayer, worship and fellowship.  41% of them had come to faith through experiencing dreams or visions of Jesus, or miraculous healings.  57% of them had found faith after being witnessed to by other believers.  Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that 92% of them had shared with non-believers the message of salvation through Jesus alone.

Until the church can match statistics like that, we don’t have the right to claim that they are not ‘proper’ believers.

Culture shock

Strange food?

Strange food?

When I first went to live in Africa, after a couple of months I started to feel unhappy.  I didn’t feel comfortable in my surroundings, and had difficulty accepting some of the ways things were done.  Then I went on a trip to Cape Town, where I felt very happy, so happy in fact that it threw my recent experience into sharp contrast and I began to reflect on it.

I realised that Cape Town has a lot of architecture that is familiar to me.  It has an Anglican cathedral and, formal parks with flower beds and statues.  And of course, an Irish pub!  There is a distinctly European feel to the city centre.  I realised that I didn’t have to apologise for being European – that was what God had made me – and that it was unsurprising if I didn’t fit in easily in Africa.

I had culture shock, a mysterious state of dis-ease which many mission workers will recognise but which still really unsettles beginners.  Unresolved, it can lead to spiritual and emotional problems which can contribute to early and preventable departure from the field.  Those serving with agencies will have been warned about it, and hopefully will be supported through the experience, but those serving independently may be completely ignorant of it, as I was.

Culture shock often strikes after the initial excitement of a new mission and the euphoria of discovering a new country have started to wear off, and we have to get on with the demanding task of settling down in an alien environment.  It can vary from being a vague sense of unhappiness to a debilitating depression which can have a severe impact on physical energy levels.

It can be triggered by something as trivial as not enjoying rice porridge for breakfast every day, or not being able to sleep because of the heat or the noise of the insects, but it is actually the symptoms of the mind struggling to adapt to a different reality to the one you were previously used to.  Whenever change happens in our lives, we bolster our emotional stability by depending on the things that haven’t changed.  But when you find yourself living in a new country, unable to say even the simplest things in the local language, not recognising the food, having no friends, with a different work culture and a new way of doing church, there’s not much left that hasn’t changed, so we struggle to cope.

The loss of identity which can arise from going back to stage one and becoming a beginner again, and the loneliness and isolation that can result from not having supportive relationships only compound the struggle.

Sadly, there is no quick remedy.  But recognising that you are suffering from culture shock is the first part of dealing with it.  Just be patient – it will eventually wear off, usually after a few months.  It doesn’t mean you’re unfit for cross-cultural ministry, you just take a bit of time to adapt.  You can mitigate the effects by going to places that are familiar (air-conditioned malls or western-style restaurants) or by doing familiar things (your favourite dvds or music, for example).  Write down how you feel, maybe as a poem – that can help to express unwanted emotions.  Try to get to know people from your own country, if there are any around, and talk about your feelings.  Don’t be embarrassed – they’ve probably struggled through culture shock themselves.

But amidst all the change of going to do mission in a new country, remember the one thing in your life that hasn’t changed – God.  Place your security in God’s love for you, pour out your frustration in prayer, and ask for grace to cope.  God has sent you on your mission, and will equip you to survive.  The ancient Israelites suffered from culture shock when they went into exile.  They found no sympathy from their captors.  They wrote the experience down in Psalm 137 – a cathartic way of dealing with emotions.  We are uncomfortable with some of the understandable anger they felt, but they asserted their own cultural identity in the midst of it (verses 5-6).  History tells us that they survived, adapted and thrived.  I am sure you will too.

For more background to cross-cultural issues, see our cross-cultural training manual Worlds Apart

Featured mission: Kapumpe

kapumpe-logoMany of you will already be familiar with the excellent work of Kaniki Bible University College in Zambia.  What you may not be aware of is that after many years of working to support orphans in its local community through feeding, clothing and facilitating school attendance, not long ago Kaniki conceived a vision for providing its own primary school to increase the available facilities in the area.

God has provided amazingly for this new project.  Funds were donated, land was bought, buildings were put up by a mixture of local workers and visiting volunteers, and staff arrived.  The school is set to open next month and will add to the existing  educational opportunities in the area by raising teaching standards and increasing capacity.  You can read more about this amazing journey on their website.

But the work continues.  Kaniki still needs volunteers of all sorts – short term, summer teams, long term – to help with construction, teaching, admin, children’s work and a variety of other ministries.  The cost of volunteering at Kaniki is incredibly low, and good accommodation, food and mentoring are provided.

kopThere is also ample opportunity for getting to know the students, who come from a variety of African nations, for working in local churches and exploring this amazing country.  This is a well-managed project which will be ideal for people seeking to dip their toes in the waters of overseas mission.  You can find more information about volunteering at Kaniki here.  There is an ongoing need for volunteer teachers – click here or more information.

For over thirty years Kaniki has hosted volunteers, whether as individuals, couples, families or as part of organised groups.  They have contributed to the life of the college and in turn been profoundly affected by their experience of overseas mission there.  Many are now full-time workers overseas, others are key mission advocates in their home countries.

Two such volunteers are Tim & Gemma, who now run the Kaniki volunteers team.  They started out as students on a training programme at Kaniki, and subsequently went on to lead that programme before taking on responsibility for the whole community programme.  “Both our lives were changed forever when we came to Zambia on short-term mission,” they say.  “It turned out to be the start of an amazing journey and we would love other people to join us.”

Syzygy is happy to be part of facilitating volunteers at Kaniki.  For further information contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk or get directly in touch with Kaniki at kop@kaniki.org.uk.

Reverse culture shock

More change on the way

More change on the way

It seems to me that every time I come back from a trip abroad, a new shop has opened on my local high street.  I don’t know if they wait for me to go away, in the hope that I won’t notice, but it’s a regular occurrence.  Since I travel quite frequently, this adds up to quite a turnover of stores.  Over time, the character of the high street changes, but most people wouldn’t notice, as the change is gradual and incremental.

But if I were to come back after a year or two away, the difference would be much more marked.  I would still recognise the high street, but I could clearly see it’s different.  The supermarket has changed hands (again!).  The post office has gone.  The bank has turned into a posh restaurant.  The greengrocer’s is now a charity shop.  We grieve (just a little bit) the loss.

This is a small example of what is called ‘reverse culture shock’.  It never ceases to amaze me how few mission workers, particularly independent ones, are prepared for the fact that things are not the same as they were when they left.  Life has moved on without them.  The sense of things not being quite the same can lead to a feeling of not quite belonging any more.  Once the euphoria of meeting family and friends again has worn off, returning mission workers can be left feeling slightly disorientated.  It’s a mild form of grieving – grieving for a lost past that cannot be recovered.

La bancaAdd into the changing high street the fact that church has changed (there may be a new vicar, old friends have left), family has changed (granny has died, mum and dad have moved into a house that was never home to me), and society has changed around us in too many ways to mention, and reverse culture shock can become quite an issue.  On top of what has changed in our environment, we have changed too while we’ve been away.  We’ve learned a new language, taken on aspects of a new culture, and seen God at work in an entirely different context.  So we can’t reasonably expect to fit back in where we left off, whether it was three decades ago, or just a year.  These changes can lead to loss of friendships, dislocation of family, and alienation from church.

If you find yourself feeling unaccountably emotional (tearful, angry, impatient, frustrated) – or indeed curiously numb – some 6-8 weeks after your return, it’s possible you’re suffering from reverse culture shock.  This can go on for quite some time, but recognising it for what it is will be the best way to start dealing with it.  Having a proper, formal debrief can help – either with your church or agency, or if they don’t feel competent to do it, please contact Syzygy to arrange one with us.  Talking about it with somebody who understands can help normalise your experience and facilitate your adaptation.  If you’re the church, family, or friends of people returning from abroad, watch for signs of reverse culture shock and be prepared to help with it.  For more information about it, see our article which is part of our guide to re-entry.

Overseas mission has a habit of knocking off some of our sharp edges.  As a result, we don’t fit back into the square holes we came out of.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.  We’ve just grown.

Why do we choose to be stressed?

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.

Immigrants and strangers

In a recent exercise with a group of TCKs, we did a Bible study in which I challenged the young people to name as many characters from Bible who didn’t fit into the culture of the people around them.

From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and  Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart.  Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples.  In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list.  I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?

For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country.  Yet is this really the right approach?

People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in.  If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here.  But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in?  Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong?  Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world!  Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)

The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV).  There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’.  People who weren’t from round here.  People who were different, who didn’t fit in.  Who didn’t have rights.  People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there.  The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.

This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us.  Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God.  Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.

This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church.  Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens.  To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church.  This truly is good news for a broken world.

At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news.  He wasn’t from round here.  He moved into our world and brought a message of hope.  Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation.  For a while he was a political refugee.  He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head.  He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave.  This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.

How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?

Jesus in the Port

This consultation was a major blessing and a privilege to be part of.  Participants included the host Robert Calvert (long-time minister of the Scots International Church in Rotterdam) and his PLACE colleagues Stephen Thrall (Paris), Dave Clark (Dundee), Axel Nehlsen (Berlin) and Andrej Madly (Cluj).  They are all heavily impacted by Ray Bakke who was the special guest.  There were about 30 participants who included people working in Dundee, Glasgow, Birmingham, London, Paris, Rotterdam, Groningen, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and Cluj.  Many of the participants were outside their home culture (e.g. Germans working in the Netherlands) and every continent was represented, particularly people from African backgrounds.  There were also several participants working in Rotterdam who dropped in for part of the conference.  The atmosphere was extremely convivial and relaxed, with people quickly striking up good conversations.

There were five discussion sessions in all:

Cities – led by Rogier Bos we considered some of the essential characteristics of major Europeans cities (e.g. old, and centred on an Christian core such as a cathedral though Christianity is a disappearing influence, multicultural, becoming brands in their own right, built on a premise of self-actualisation and having an increasingly ageing population.  We considered the challenges of ministry in these contexts (churches with little sense of mission, stuck in maintenance mode, with much creative innovation on the fringes, and confusion about ecclesiology, missiology, ethics and eschatology).

Change – Robert Calvert talked about the sort of change we need to engage with, change that is radical enough to force us to reconsider our missiology and ecclesiology.  He particularly asked us how we evaluate change.  Traditionally we look at numbers of conversions, but ‘redeeming a community’ does not necessarily result in an increase in headcount though God can still be at work.  He cited as an example a Rotterdam church made up largely of ex-criminals who came to Christ as a result of an urban regeneration project but were unwelcome in traditional churches.

Leadership – Ray Bakke talked about inspiring leaders, people who are prepared to break the mould and engage with homosexual/transgender culture, enter gangland communities, or gain access to muslim schools by completely removing Christian references in their work.  He told several dramatic stories of incarnational mission.  The story which had the strongest impact on me was one of a pastor who deliberately moved with his family into a deprived area, and sent his children to the local school despite other Christians accusing him of ‘abusing’ his children by doing this.  His son became friends with a classmate and regularly invited him back home for meals.  When the family discovered that the boy was homeless, they adopted him.  Some time later the boy became a Christian, saying to the pastor it was easy to understand.  “You sent your son to my school and we became friends, so you adopted me.  God sent his son into the world, and whoever becomes his friend gets to be adopted!”  What a simple but effective image of the gospel!

Networks – Harald Sommerfeld and Axel Nehlsen (leaders of Together for Berlin) did a presentation on effective networking, highlighting the difference between strong ties, which are good for bonding and reciprocity while taking up time and not necessarily introducing you to new contacts and ideas, and weak ties which do the latter but not the former.  Ideal networkers need a blend of both.  Having successfully linked together a number of agencies and churches working in Berlin, their recommendation is not to try to bring everyone into one central network but to ensure that you are connected to at least one key player in each network who can then extend your influence into other circles.  I feel that is exactly what we should do with this network!

Prayer – we had a whole session on prayers for our communities, identifying key issues for each city and praying into them.

Additionally there were visits to the Danish Seafarers’ Mission, an Agape project living and working among immigrants, and an outreach and regeneration project in a poor area of the city.  These people and several others told their stories of radical incarnational mission which often left them unsupported by local churches unable to make an adequate adaption of their ecclesiology/missiology, which ultimately bore fruit for the Kingdon of God.

Several people told their stories and many of them featured successful work in muslim communities and schools, or fruitful projects which were initially too radical to gain support from local churches.  We agreed to keep in contact with each other through social media, and to meet together regularly in future years.  This is a network which is worth participating in if you are active in urban church planting in Europe.

The consultation was organised by Partners Learning and Acting in Cities of Europe (PLACE), a forum which grew out of Hope for Europe.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.

Urbanisation: the city of God?

Cities – heaven or hell? Photo by ekki from FreeImages

I have been to three conferences on urban mission in the last nine months, with one more scheduled for August.  Urbanisation is a current theme in missions, as churches and mission agencies slowly wake up to the fact that for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.  This means that the seething masses of unsaved humanity are predominantly to be found in cities, and increasingly in mega-cities, so it is there that we should concentrate our efforts to reach them.  Agencies such as Urban Expression, Redeemer City to City, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Eden Network are to be commended for spearheading this drive.

Many Christians avoid cities.  Biblically, cities can represent bad news: the first city, Babel, was a monument to human pride and self-sufficiency (Genesis 11:4) that remained a cipher for ungodliness right through to the last book in the Bible.  Cities are the opposite of the Garden of Eden to which we strive to return.  Even when we do move to cities, many Christians tend to congregate in the leafy suburbs rather than engaging with the inner city sink estates or peri-urban shanties.

At conferences on urbanisation at least one speaker points out that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, as if this makes urbanisation the will of God.  Yet this simplistic reading of Revelation overlooks the fact that the imagery in this book is primarily pictorial or allegorical and is not necessarily to be taken literally.  The city in Revelation has nothing to do with urbanisation.  In Revelation, Babylon is a trope for a humanistic, materialist, decadent and oppressive world system, and the New Jerusalem represents a restoration of theocratic shalom in which God is immanent.

It should be remembered that historically Revelation was written under the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (= ‘Babylon’) and the martyrdom of many thousands of Christians in the Colosseum, so the document reflects the desire among believers, both Jewish and gentile, for a place in which they could be enfranchised and safe.  Revelation does not describe the houses, transport hubs, offices and warehouses of the new city.  It simply states that there won’t be a need for a temple, and in a conscious reference back to the Garden of Eden, tells us that there will be life-giving trees and a river, and (most importantly) that God will live there among God’s people (Revelation 22:1-5).  Urbanisation is not the important issue; restoration of life and relationship is.

At one recent conference, Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell asked participants to write down three words that described a city.  I imagine that most of us chose words reflecting a city’s creativity, industry and dynamism, or that described the noise, dirt, pollution and congestion.  Later in her presentation, she asked us how many of us wrote the name of a person.  Cue stunned silence.  One of the huge problems with cities is that they can become impersonal.  Cities have turned homes into housing and turned communities into districts, and we should remember that our missional work can become equally objective and systematic when it needs to be subjective and relational.

God does not love cities because God is in favour of urbanisation.  God loves people, and since people are congregating in cities, God’s love is concentrated in cities, not on cities.  Why should God not have mercy on millions of people who ‘do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4:11)?

But how many Christians are called like Jonah to the city, yet head for Tarshish instead?

Featured Ministry: Member Care Media

We have mentioned before in these pages the extraordinary ministry of Member Care Media, which provides a valuable service to mission workers worldwide.  A project of TWR, Member Care by Radio (as it was originally named, was set up to provide a daily radio broadcast aimed specifically at the needs of cross-cultural mission workers in places where they were physically beyond the reach of regular and proactive member care.

With the arrival of the digital age, the project became Member Care Media, though the basic concept remains unchanged.  Each recorded ‘broadcast’ is now available to listen to online, with some of them also featuring as transcribed articles, and an entire library is available on the website for you to browse through.  They cover a range of subjects including emotional health, family, short term mission, cross-cultural living and working, teamwork, leadership and TCKS, and are all dealt with by professionals working in the relevant field.

While the broadcasts are aimed primarily at people working in a cross-cultural context, there is a wealth of resource available on emotional health, marriage and leadership which will be of use to all Christians in helping them cope with the demands of their life and ministry.

We suggest that you may like to use these broadcasts as part of your regular times of self-maintenance.  They are all fairly short, so listening to each daily broadcast might be a bit demanding on your time, but it’s not unfeasible to listen to one a week.  Couples could listen together to ones about marriage and family, and work teams could listen to the ones about teamwork and use them as a basis for discussion afterwards.  Small groups could use them as part of their devotional times together.

This collection of resources by some of the member care sector’s most prominent practitioners is too good to be kept a secret!

School for TCKs

This month our resident adult TCK Gill Gouthwaite reflects on her experience of being educated abroad.

So how did I become so fabulously educated, growing up in the wilderness of a third world country?  All of us went to Brazilian primary school, and for secondary transferred to an International British School.  That meant going where the British school was, in second-biggest metropolis in the world.

Going to a British school overseas was glorious.  It was the poshest school in town, and we studied in company with the state President’s grandchildren.  I remember one boy announcing to me that his grandmother had funded one of the largest bridges in town (I’m still not entirely sure what he wanted me to do with that information. Ask her for money?).  Another had received kidnapping threats, so he had two bodyguards whenever we went on field trips.  Of course it did mean we got dead good birthday presents from our school friends, but then we had to wear a bizarre uniform: pinafores and blazers are weird in a country where jeans and a t-shirt are the standard school uniform.

It also meant we lived away from home in a special house, called the hostel (nicknamed the mental hospital).  We were looked after by the lucky missionary couple who pulled the short straw to look after that madhouse.  It was unique.  Having people who aren’t your parents making decisions about your life is surprisingly stressful on a kid.  I dreaded spending time with them so much that I would rather go to school if I had the flu (through no fault of that unfortunate longsuffering couple’s, may I add).

In Brazil there were always bars on the windows, which to me meant we were trying to keep someone out.  Whoever that someone was, they presumably wanted to attack me (hence the bars); it happened on the news all the time.  So I kept the door to my room open so I could run out into the (in my head) safer communal areas of the house in case that happened.  The only problem with my cunning plan was that Auntie Betty* (our housemother) used to vacuum every morning, including on Saturdays.  Today I can applaud her cleanliness, but at the time I cursed it (not with actual curse words, I was a missionary kid after all; but I think she got the gist…).

The day that I asked (I say I asked, but it might possibly have come across as a criticism) why she was ironing my nightgown, we finally had our bust-up.  I got told off for being rude to her, and from then on I decided to keep my opinions and my feelings to myself.  For years after that crying was hard for me – it was just a sign of weakness.

So the salient feature for school for me wasn’t actually school, which was excellent by any standards, but the separation it entailed, and the differentness that it gave us.  Like so much in life, it wasn’t the experience itself that mattered so much as the people I met, and their reactions to me.

*name changed

……………………………..

Editorial comment

Education for their children is one of the biggest concerns of most mission workers who have young children.  The trauma of long-term separation, the risk of compromising a child’s future by not giving them the best educational opportunities, and the sheer cost of some of the alternatives weigh heavily on many people’s hearts.  However many TCKs grow up to be well-rounded, sociable people who look back on their school experience as a time of building lasting relationships with people from all around the world.

Options for educating TCKs include homeschooling, using the local education system (and quite frankly many people’s concerns that the schools in the countries they’re serving in don’t reach the standards of their sending country are frequently unfounded), leaving children ‘at home’ with friends or relatives, sending children to international schools in a major city or sending them away to boarding schools (Christian or otherwise).

There are no easy answers as the ideal situation will depend on each family, and the options available to them.  However we recommend that you read the excellent articles published on the website of our good friends at Oscar.

Secondary Stress

Recently I seem to have been talking a lot about secondary stress with mission workers.  It’s a common though relatively unrecognised problem among overseas workers, particularly those working in compassion ministries or among poorer communities.  Secondary stress is the burden we take on not as a result of our own working or living conditions, but those of others.  It’s not excess baggage so much as other people’s baggage.  It’s what we pick up when we try to lighten the load on others who are already weighed down.

It is perfectly natural to feel a degree of anguish when working, for example, in a refugee camp, or when counselling others who have problems.  We would be pretty heartless if we were not affected by the tragedies we witness or the grief we hear about.  Our resulting compassion should spur us to more action to help the afflicted.  But when we can’t sleep at night because of it, or have images we can’t get out of our heads, it is becoming hazardous to us, and even in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis we need to take some steps to ensure that we maintain ourselves in a condition to be able to continue to help those who need our help.

The first step in dealing with secondary stress is to recognise that we may be suffering with it, because we often don’t notice.  It creeps up on us, daily growing, until something goes wrong.  Because I’m involved in debriefing a lot of people, often with major problems, last summer I arranged a debrief for myself, not because I thought I needed it, but because it is good practice.  Only after I emerged emotionally exhausted from the debrief did I realise how much other people’s baggage I was carrying.

One excellent tool for doing an inventory on yourself is Dr Beth Stamm’s Professional Quality of Life Measure, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Headington Institute.  It is simple to use, and asks just 30 questions about your work in helping others.  There are also other useful self-assessment tools on stress, burnout and lifestyle inventory available from the same website.

Once you have recognised that your levels of secondary stress are unacceptable, put into action your usual anti-stress techniques – debrief, holidays, or relaxation.  See our stress archive for more suggestions.  If none of these suggestions work, and you are still showing symptoms of elevated stress levels, you should take medical leave of absence, extended rest and seek counselling or even the help of a professional psychotherapist.

If when you return to work things immediately get worse again, you should be reassigned.  This of course, will add to your stress as you will feel guilty that you have let needy people down, but if you are not sufficiently resilient to cope in this situation, you may end up being a needy person yourself, and it is better for you to move on and to let a more resilient person take over.

If you’d like to learn more about secondary stress I recommend you listen to Member Care Media’s 4-part podcast by Dr Brent Lindquist, who in addition to being excellently named really knows his stuff.  Each episode is packed with helpful information and the whole series will take you less than an hour to listen to, but much longer to work through!  There are also a lot of other good materials on the MemCare website which will help you to stay healthy.