Invisible furniture

Source: www.freeimages.com

I recently heard a story about a woman who was asked by her boss to work over Christmas.  His justification was: “We all want to be at home with our kids, and you don’t have any.”

Most of us have heard such comments, which in some ways are logical and rational.  But what the boss didn’t appreciate is that the woman had only recently had a miscarriage.  For the second time.  And been told she could probably never have children.

Whether this story is true or not, I don’t know.  But that’s not the point.  We can often make simple comments that have a massive unforeseen effect on the person we’re talking to.  We don’t set out to hurt them, but we don’t know where their bruises are.

It’s rather like blundering into their living room, bumping into a coffee table and knocking over a drink.  We never intended to do that, but the mess takes a lot of clearing up and may cause longer-term damage.

Only when we do it with people’s feelings, we can’t see the coffee table, because it’s inside them, in their soul.  I call this invisible furniture.  We don’t even know it’s there, but when we bump into it we cause havoc.  I have done this myself – on one occasion a co-worker went completely crazy at me for no apparent reason.  Only later did I found out that I’d inadvertently touched on a very painful experience in her past which I knew nothing about.

There’s nothing we can do about other people’s invisible furniture.  For the very reason we don’t know it’s there.  But we can assume it’s there.  So I make sure I never ask a married person with no children what plans he or she has for a family.  It’s none of my business and I have no idea how painful that issue is for them.  The same goes for asking a single person “When are you going to get married?”  Just don’t go there!

But we can be aware that when people’s reaction to something we’ve said is extreme, we might have knocked over an invisible mug of coffee.  Be quick to forgive what seems like an overreaction, ready to recognise our offence, and quick to apologise for any offence.

It also helps those of us who have invisible furniture inside us (and who doesn’t?) to be aware of how easily we can be upset, and take preventive action.  If we are aware of our invisible furniture, we could try to move it out of other people’s way by having some counselling.  Or we could, when relationships are sufficiently trusting, let people know that it’s there – “That’s a difficult area for me, can we change the subject?”

And we can minimise the significance of the furniture by thinking through mature ways of responding which don’t punish a person for bumping into it.  For example, for many years when I was asked about my family, I would reply grumpily “I haven’t got one” and then blame the person for their insensitivity.  After much reflection I now reply “I don’t have many relatives but I do have a lot of great friends I think of as family.”  It’s much more positive for me, and for them.

And it makes sure I don’t get any coffee stains on my invisible carpet.

Caring for Generations Y and Z in mission

Generation Connected?

It is no secret that we live in an increasingly divisive and polarised world.  Social media, rather than helping to bring people together, often serves as the medium for people to criticise, denigrate and demonise those with whom they disagree.  The rhetoric is anything but Christlike.  Respectful and honest dialogue is hard to find, not to mention diversity of opinion.  People simply prefer to fill their Facebook or Instagram feeds with likeminded opinions.  This is the context in which generations Y & Z have grown up!

As these generations gradually move into cross-cultural missions and join intercultural teams, conflicts abound.  As Member Care workers, we must learn how to care for, serve and challenge this new generation of mission workers.  The challenges are real and the context has changed.  Today’s younger generations have grown up in a world that says, “if you disagree with me, you don’t love me.”  Moreover, it is common for them to believe that if one disagrees with them, it means they didn’t listen to them.  The math is simple: listening equals agreement! It is no wonder why conflict plagues so many missions’ teams.

Missions is changing, because generation Y & Z are changing the paradigm in which missions is viewed and practiced.  Simply put, they want hands-on missions experiences where they can see, touch, feel and hear change happening in a real and personal way that brings both justice and transformation to communities, countries and people groups.  Look around, this is the age of incarnational and social justice approaches to missions.

Within this new paradigm, Member Care providers need to be informed and equipped to provide care for generation Y & Z mission workers:

  • Be ready to challenge them on whether or not they are open to listening to new and opposing ideas.
  • Ask them what it means to be heard and loved.
  • Engage with them on how Jesus can bring both healing and transformation to a hurting, divisive and lonely world.
  • And finally, model for them what it means to be open to diversity of thought and opinion by actively listening and respecting their ideas and opinions.

Miahi Lundell

Today’s guest blog is by Mihai Lundell, a mission worker based in Italy with OCI.  He is also on the boards of Member Care Europe and the Global Member Care Network.

This blog first appeared in the newsletter of the Global Member Care Network.

When Jesus doesn’t help

Christians usually focus our studies on healing by looking at the stories of Jesus healing people.  But there is at least one occasion when Jesus didn’t heal somebody.  It’s not recorded in the gospels (for obvious reasons!), but we can infer it from an account in Acts 3.

A man who had never been able to walk was begging at one of the temple gates, where he was accustomed to begging every day.  Peter and John came by, and Peter healed him, just like Jesus would have done.  It’s a significant event because it’s the first evidence that Jesus really did pass on his miraculous power to his disciples (John 14:12).

Only it is highly likely that Jesus didn’t heal this man when he had the opportunity!  He must have walked through this gate on multiple occasions as it was probably the most popular gate* for pilgrims going up to the temple, and he must have passed this man.

I can imagine him starting to head towards him, in anticipation of transforming his life, when he felt the restraining words of the Father: “Not him, son, I’m saving him for someone else.”  Jesus must have been disappointed, the beggar must have been disappointed, but Peter and John certainly wouldn’t be.

One of the biggest discouragements in the lives of mission workers is disappointment.  You thought you had heard God’s call to the harvest but there is still no fruit.  The person you have discipled for years turns her back on God.  Not only is your church membership shrinking, your children are not walking with God.  The miracles don’t happen.  You begin to wonder if there’s any point in you being there at all, and maybe you should give up and go home.   I reviewed a real life case some years ago and continue to find more cases of disappointment in the lives of mission workers I meet.

Yet the church looks for success.  They want to know how many people you have baptized – and if it’s not many, what are you doing with the money they give you?  You can’t express your doubts or frustrations to your church – they might stop supporting you!  So your prayer letters never mention the challenges and the discouragement.

Neither can you tell your agency – they might send you home!  The very people who are there to support you through the hard times are the ones you don’t feel you can be honest with.  So where do you turn?

  • You can get a confidential debrief from Syzygy, whether in person or via social media.  Just get in touch on info@syzygy.org.uk.  Or there are plenty of other independent debriefers we can put you in touch with.
  • You could engage a mentor to help you grow through the issues.  Syzygy can help you arrange this too.
  • You could go on a retreat and talk to the retreat leader.  We can advise on several places worldwide where you can find mission-focused retreats.
  • You could start to talk to friends whom you trust.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your faith in a God who cares about you and your struggle, and walks with you in it.  It may not be immediately obvious to you why God hasn’t answered all your prayers, but wait patiently, for he has a plan.

 

* For an interesting discussion of where this particular gate might have been, visit www.ritmeyer.com/2010/12/14/the-beautiful-gate-of-the-temple/

Comfortably numb?

As we enter Holy Week, I am struck by the wide range of emotions involved in the events of this epic week nearly 2000 years ago.

There’s the jubilation of the Triumphal Entry, followed so closely by the disappointment of many of the crowd who expected Jesus to confront the Romans.  There’s the excitement of intellectual debate, the thrill of miracles, the challenge of teaching, the fun of a meal with Lazarus which was suddenly turned solemn by Mary’s worship, Judas’ frustration and betrayal, the terror of the arrest and trial, and of course the tragedy of crucifixion followed by the ecstasy of the resurrection.  And all week long Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, mission workers go through a huge range of emotions during their career, but also any given week can have massive ups and downs.  Ministry success (or disappointment), relationship challenges and joys, the secondary stress of hearing the traumatic stories of people we ministry to, our own physical and medical issues, support-raising, surprise visits, and cultural misunderstandings can have our emotions all over the place.

This can be very exhausting and in order to try and achieve emotional stability some of us can be tempted to shut our emotions down and stop feeling.  For example, TCKs and long-term mission workers who are tired of the pain of so many goodbyes can isolate themselves and stop forming new friendships so they can protect themselves from sadness.  Or we can simply not get involved with the many needs around us.  Someone remarked to me only last week how unloving she had become while on the mission field: because she had no way of meeting the needs of all the people around her, it was easier to ignore them.

Becoming unfeeling can be a sign that we have reached the end of our ability to cope.  Numbness is a way of protecting ourselves which can show we’re not coping well.  Sometimes we have  intentionally fostered emotional numbness to hide the pain – even from ourselves.  We need to be gently coaxed into opening up while receiving love and support.

Warning signs of emotional numbness can include:

  • remoteness towards family and friends
  • lack of joy in things which would have excited us in the past
  • loss of appetite for food or desire for sex
  • lack of delight in the Lord
  • disinterest in pastimes
  • boredom and lethargy

If you find yourself or your friends feeling numb – and even more significantly feeling comfortable about feeling numb – give them love and support, and refer then for member care, whether to their agency or to an outside resource like Syzygy.

Jesus appears to have fully entered into the spirit of each event, conversation and encounter during Holy Week despite the knowledge that he would die a gruesome death towards the end of it.  What kept him going was his awareness that it was only temporary, and that soon he would come out the other side: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2).

Our heavenly perspective gives us a huge capacity to endure, to maintain perspective, and to trust God in the midst of our difficulties.  Let’s not close down our souls so that we can endure to the end, but open them up to God and to others so that we can truly live the abundant life we are called to.

Dealing with grief and loss

As I remarked a few weeks ago when addressing the question of mourning, Christians are not always good at being in touch with our emotions.

I have been told, probably like you, that since Jesus gives me joy, I should smile.  I shouldn’t be angry.  Fear is the opposite of faith so to be afraid is to sin.  Such comments reflect a heavenly perspective which is so out of touch with the world we live in that it’s fairyland.

Having emotions is part of being human, and to deny or suppress them is merely to try to reject a part of ourselves which is no more sinful than any other part of us.  It’s just human.  And denying aspects of our humanity is bad for us.  It has been rightly observed that:

Any emotion which we buried is always buried alive, and it digs its way out again.

Mission workers can have to confront a wide variety of emotions throughout their lives:

  • leaving family and friends behind when they go to the mission field
  • returning on home assignment to find things have changed
  • sending children to boarding school because the schools where they serve are not good
  • suffering major trauma like civil war, kidnap, traffic accident and disease
  • experiencing secondary trauma as they help the vulnerable and marginalised
  • leaving their way of life in their adopted country to return to a ‘home’ country they no longer feel at home in.

Recognising the emotional impact of these occurrences on us and those around us is a mature and responsible way of coming to terms with them.  That’s why talking therapies such as debriefing or counselling are such good ways of helping the healing process.  The grief-loss cycle (click here to download a copy) is a well-known tool for helping with this.  It helps us understand how we feel in the aftermath of a trauma, and why it’s ok to feel like that.  Often I find that people recovering from trauma feel guilty about their emotions when in fact their feeling is a normal psychological response to what they’ve been through.

The grief-loss cycle charts typical stages of trauma recovery.  It shows how our well-being descends from where it was to a low, and then comes out of it.  Though it’s not the same journey for everybody, and it’s not always a linear progression through the curve, it can help us understand why we feel what we do, and acknowledging those feelings help us to recover more rapidly.

Research has shown that getting some talking therapy while going through a recovery process can often help people’s well-being return to the level it was previously, it can actually help them come out of the experience in an even better place as they grow through the experience.  Syzygy can help by providing mission workers with a debrief following a significant incident.  Click here to get in touch and find out more.

The last word in Resilience

Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker have combined their unique talents to produce a new resource – Resilience in Life and Faith.  As one would expect from two authors with excellent track records, it does not disappoint.

Defining resilience not as merely ‘bouncing back’ (as I so often have done!) but helpfully quoting a variety of authors to demonstrate that although the status quo in our lives may not be restored after a trauma, what we learned in the process changes us for the better, they have come up with their own model for understanding the different facets of life which impact upon our ability.  They call it ‘SPECS’ and I will not explain that here so that I don’t have a negative impact on their book sales!  Suffice to say it considers all aspects of our human being to ensure we have a complete awareness of how to balance our lives well.

The chapters explore each of these facets in turn, first the psychology (Debbie) and then a character study from the Bible (Tony).  This useful pairing means that the theory, presented simply enough for the amateur to understand but deeply enough to be helpful and authoritative, is balanced with lived-out practice, which is thoughtfully and interestingly brought to us.  Each chapter closes with helpful questions for reflection, which gives the book the feel more of a devotional rather than a textbook, usefully bringing together two genres.  At the end is a quick but effective self-assessment to highlight the reader’s current life practice and how it affects each facet of their resilience.

Reading this book I felt better informed about resilience, and inspired to maintain it.  I commend this resource to practitioners of pastoral care for whom it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf, and to all Christians who will find information to help them thrive in their daily lives.

You can buy Resilience in Life and Faith direct from the publisher – just click here.

Excellent extraverts!

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Last week we looked at introverts, thought about the environment they function best in, and how we can help them thrive.  This week I want to look at extraverts, and consider how we can help them thrive too.

Extraverts primarily gain their energy from the world outside them, so need to engage with it.  Unlike introverts, being alone and reflecting will make them uncomfortable and they are much happier being involved with people, often in large groups.  Being naturally gregarious, they are confident at meeting strangers, building bridges and enjoying diversity, and they can quickly make connections in a new culture and engage effectively with people.

Extraverts appear to be in majority, although possibly it only looks that way because they are more likely to have the opportunity to shape the culture of their church or agency by being vocal and engaging with others.  They are generally more comfortable being in groups, because they recharge their batteries in the company of others.  They will love events, and are often involved in organising things.  So how can we organise things to help them thrive?

  • Solitude and silence will make extraverts feel uncomfortable, and if left alone, for instance if they are ill or working in an isolated location, they will not be happy until they are around people, so they may need planned interactive support.
  • Many extraverts have attractive and magnetic personalities which will draw others into relationship with them. So they are good at getting people involved and welcoming newcomers.  The downside of this is that the people they draw into the community can bond to them individually rather than the group as a whole, or individuals within it, so when that mission worker moves on, their connections may lose interest in the group and drift off.
  • Extraverts enjoy working where there are other people, particularly if they can talk about things.  So an open-plan office, or a coffee shop, will be ideal.  Home alone will not be!
  • Since extraverts thrive in community, many of them will need to be in a place where they can find it, so they are not ideally suited to a pioneering situation where they will not have like-minded people around them. Though some may be able to thrive on the relationships they build with local people, others will struggle with loneliness and isolation if there are no people nearby who speak their heart language or share their faith.
  • Extraverts deal with stress in a group. So after a hard week they are looking around for someone to socialise with.  If all their friends are otherwise engaged, their stress will be compounded by the lack of company.
  • Extraverts might also tend to do things a bit last minute, so if they do ring people up and invite them for dinner, it might be at a few hours’ notice. If people already have other plans and are unwilling to change them, the extravert may well feel undervalued or even rejected.
  • Although extraverts are excited by new ideas and love to plan new projects or events, they may not actually be the best at planning the details, so it really helps them to try to put people alongside them who understand that and can plan the practical details without raining on the extravert’s parade.
  • Extraverts may need reinforcement and recognition, so if nobody is complimenting or affirming them, they are probably feeling a bit deflated and under-appreciated.
  • They probably need to think out loud, so they won’t start talking with a finished idea. So don’t shut them down by saying “That won’t work” but give them time to think their ideas through.  Suck plans out of them by asking questions like “How is that going to work in practice?”
  • Extraverts are conference people and will get a huge buzz from meeting large numbers of people. So make sure they get the opportunity to do this regularly.

Contrary to the opinion of some introverts, extraverts are not a force of nature bringing noise and disruption to everything, and they have many skills and gifts to bring to the team.  What the mission world needs is not all-extravert teams or dispersed introverts, but both in a good balance where they fully appreciate each others’ needs and abilities and are able to thrive together.  I’m a strong introvert, but some of my best working partnerships have been with extraverts, as together we can play to each other’s strengths.

A better understanding of the dynamics of introversion/extraversion can be achieved through individuals and groups doing workshops based on the Myers Briggs or other similar personality indicators, and Syzygy is very happy to facilitate this for agencies or individuals.  Just email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

 

Incredible Introverts!

It is said that introverts enjoy living in a secure private space to themselves and recharging their batteries in solitude rather than in a group setting.  So how do people who are introverted cope in the mission field?

Just to refresh your memories, C G Jung originated the terms introvert and extravert to define two types of people, although he didn’t mean these terms in the sense in which they are often used today: shy or outgoing.  The introvert is orientated towards their inner world, and they derive their energy from their thoughts and feelings.  Extraverts do the opposite, and we’ll focus on them next week.

Introverts are typically considered reserved, but feel comfortable by themselves or in smaller groups rather than big crowds.  They may choose to have fewer relationships, but better ones.  They like to take time to reflect on things and often don’t do spontaneity well.  When really tired, they will crave solitude and may go to great lengths to shut themselves off from others till they recover, possibly locking themselves in a room or not talking even to their spouse.

But these are generalisations, and we must remember that introversion/extraversion is not a binary condition, it’s a spectrum, with plenty of ambiverts in the middle and everyone subconsciously adapting their behaviour to how they feel about the conditions around them.

So what does all this theory mean for introverts on the mission field?

  • They might not be there in the first place! They might have struggled at selection if they felt awkward being interviewed.  They might not make a great first expression if they’re not outgoing, and they might find it hard to demonstrate church involvement if they don’t feel comfortable in the crowd.  They might not be well-known to the leadership who will therefore find it hard to give a good reference.  So missions mobilisers need to be aware if this and not overlook the introvert’s commitment, thoughtfulness and ability to work alone.
  • They probably need their own home, so that they can have times when they shut the door and shut the outside world out. If not a separate house, a self-contained flat will be fine.  But they probably won’t thrive in a house-share with a stranger, at least not initially.  And they may find eating regularly in a canteen draining, preferring to take their food to somewhere private instead.
  • They may take longer for the rest of the team to get to know them. They might not be shy (in fact some are very friendly!) but they’ll take time to open up, and won’t thrive in a large group.  But given time they will pick their friends and make faithful and loyal relationships with the trusted few.
  • They will struggle at large conferences and team meetings. They’re more likely to be on their own in a corner reading a book than chatting in a coffee shop.  But one-to-one/few they will be able to engage intensely and build deep and meaningful connections.
  • At least one published author thinks introverts make good leaders! But they might get overlooked by their colleagues because they won’t necessarily push themselves forward, and they may not be seen as good at relating to people because they don’t perform well in groups.  But their calm demeanour and tendency to reflect can help them lead well.
  • They want to get away! Their need for space might propel them to go for long walks, or at least to sit in a park.  But if the park is full of people, or the security situation means they can’t go for walks alone, they will become stressed.  Then their need for withdrawing could be misunderstood as not wanting to be part of team, or not liking others, particularly in community-focussed cultures which may not understand introversion.  Other people may need to help introverts find solitude – asking them to house-sit for example if they share their home with others.
  • They won’t naturally take to large-scale evangelism involving meetings or public addresses. However they will be ideal for discipling/mentoring a few people at a time.
  • The city might not be the best place for them to thrive. With all the people and busyness, introverts can feel uncomfortable in cities.  Small town ministry might work better for them as they won’t feel so claustrophic.
  • They will probably prefer email to phone or face-to-face communication. This could suit them for placement in a dispersed team, where meeting together is not easy.  They could thrive on their own in a Creative Access Nation.
  • Hi-impact teams will not be a good working environment for them. Regular times of sharing information, brainstorming together and working as a close-knit team may bring an introvert to emotional exhaustion.  But working alone, or in a small loosely-affiliated team will bring out the best in them.  Introverts’ love of solitude equips them to be alone in pioneer ministry where there are no other like-minded people for miles.

So if you are working with introverts, finding out more about what makes them tick could help you understand them better.  Give them plenty of space so they can thrive.  And if you’re an introvert – don’t be ashamed of who you are!  Live your life the way that works best for you even though others don’t get it!

 

Overhelpful?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Being helpful is a notable Christian trait, though something we often carry to excess.  Even more so for mission workers.  We care, and we hope to change things.  We see people hurting and our compassion drives us to improve things for them.  We want to solve problems.  We want to make things better.  We need to see healing.  It’s a trap we can easily fall into.  One of the hardest things for compassionate people to do is sit and watch someone struggle with pain, confusion and need.

Yet as we learn the skills involved in counselling, mentoring, coaching and pastoral care, we discover that we are not there to solve the problem.  We are there to encourage, assist and if necessary equip our client to solve their own problems.  Doing it for them disempowers them, and does not help them develop resilience and problem-solving skills to use the next time they face a challenge.  At worst, it can deprive them of an opportunity to be driven to rely solely on God for their comfort and sustenance in the midst of their difficulties.

So we learn to sit on our hands, bridle our tongues, and let people do it for themselves.  It is in fact much kinder and more helpful for us to do this, because people grow as they tackle the challenges they face.  And though the problems may not go away, they might find the consolation of God in the middle of them.

We all know that Job’s friends are a good example of what not to do.  They offered advice, criticism, theology and rebuke, all to no avail.  Their words made no difference to Job, and in the end God criticised them for their approach.  But what we often overlook is the small bit of information at the end of chapter 2 – they just came and sat with him for 7 day! (Job 2:11-13).  They grieved with him, they cried with him, but said nothing.  Sometimes our presence is more helpful than our words.  The traditional English response to crisis of putting the kettle on may in fact be far more effective than our many words of wisdom and helpful actions.  Often people don’t need help, they just need company on their journey.  Companionship and company are a good place to start.  Who can you offer those to this week?

Three things returning mission workers need to know

Too many to take home?

Following on from our review of “Back Home” a couple of weeks ago, I’d like to follow up by answering a question I was asked by a couple preparing to return to the UK after a period of serving God abroad:

“What are the most important things we need to know?”

There are in fact three principle things that knowing about can help prepare you for re-entry into what once was your ‘home culture’.

First, you are highly unlikely to fit in.  Whether it’s simply because all the changes that you see around you make you feel “This isn’t home anymore” or something more significant like you are disillusioned with church because it doesn’t seem to have the same priorities as you, there will be hundreds of times when you feel like a square peg in a round hole.  Being prepared for this will really help you.

Second, You may well experience a significant loss of self-worth, particularly if you have returned in order to retire.  In the field, your skin colour might have given you status.  In church you were always asked to preach or pray because you were the missionary; now you’re just another woman in the church.  Previously, you had a mission, a sense of calling, and a support group praying for you; now you don’t really know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.  Making sure your identity is deeply-rooted in your relationship with God is an antidote to the feelings of insignificance and worthlessness you may have to battle.

Third – Syzygy can help!  Whether you read our blogs on re-entry or our guide on how to do re-entry well, whether you come to one of the retreats we help lead, or contact us for some one-to-one support, we have the resources you need to help you navigate this challenging time effectively.

You don’t have to do re-entry alone!

YANGs

A recent discussion with other member care workers, followed by a discussion with some prospective mission workers who plan to take early retirement and go abroad leaving behind their grown up children, prompts me to draw attention to the plight of YANGs – Young Adults Not Going.

The number of healthy and financially independent adults who are able to bring their working life to a close and use their professional and life skills serving God abroad has been increasing significantly in recent years and they have brought a welcome boost to the teams they are part of.  Here at Syzygy we have worked with several couples in this situation over the years and they have been a great blessing to fellow mission workers and nationals alike.

However, their absence from the UK can come at a significant cost to their children.  While it may be tempting for these older candidates who are just at the end of the baby boomer generation to think that their 20-something children are grown up and it’s about time they learned to stand on their own feet, this overlooks the fact that millennials are used to having much more support from their parents (helicopter parenting) and can take longer to feel grown up than previous generations.  So the departure of a parent to a foreign country can feel very much like a bereavement – particularly if it also means the loss (albeit temporary) of the family home which is rented out to strangers.

Perhaps for the first time in their lives they can’t go ‘home’ for Christmas.  A stranger is sleeping in their bedroom.  All the belongings that a student wants to keep but can’t take to university are now in storage.  Nobody is there to babysit for them.  And mum and dad are no longer physically there for them in a crisis.  It can feel even worse if on top of their loss they have to take up responsibility for caring for their elderly grandparents or a needy sibling.

That’s not to say that the parents shouldn’t go, but they need think hard about how to support their children from a distance.  The Global Connections TCK forum has some useful suggestions for parents considering going abroad in mission – click here to view them.

Sending churches and agencies also need to be aware of the risks to YANGs, and while they may decide that member care for them isn’t directly their responsibility, they do need to find a way of facilitating discussion around these issues so that the YANGS feel supported.  Otherwise they may struggle so much that the parents are drawn away from the mission field in order to be there for them.

Without active planning to prevent this eventuality, YANGs could very easily become YINs – youth in need!

Back Home

It’s great to have an opportunity to share a book about Member Care in English which doesn’t originate from the UK or USA!

Jochen & Christine Schuppener’s helpful book Back Home which was published a couple of years ago has now been translated from German and is a welcome addition to the library of material available for those negotiating the pitfalls of return to their ‘home’ country after a period abroad.

Helpfully divided into four sections – Leaving, The Move, Arrival and Reintegration – Back Home is presented in small, accessible, easy to read chapters.  Loss of status, chaos and disruption, relating to work colleagues, cultural stress and dealing with grief are all some of the helpful subsections.

The Schuppeners’ psychology backgrounds underpin the material to ensure that it is rigorous but they use sufficiently simple wording which helps rather than confuses the amateur.

A number of clear diagrams also help to make the point and there are also checklists and tips to create a varied presentation style. Particularly helpful are the frequent references to children or teenagers which can help an adult easily understand why a child may approach the transition in a completely different way to a parent.

Plenty of case studies and examples help to root the theory in the reality of the returnee who has lived overseas, with many quotes from people who’ve been through the transition back into their passport country.

As the book is not directly aimed only at mission workers, it also include work contexts which is extremely refreshing.  Although these may not be directly applicable to returning mission workers, there are good principles in them which will help Christian workers returning to their sending countries for further ministry there.

Back Home is available for a very good price on Amazon by clicking here and if you logon through Amazon Smile you can help Syzygy too (find out more about this here).  You can read more about the Schuppeners’ and their work on their website.

Ten Self-Care Resolutions

Caring for ourselves can seem selfish but if we don’t then we can’t sustainably serve those around us.  Self-care should in no way negate Jesus’ call to self-denial nor be an excuse not to work hard, rather it helps maintain our resilience and perseverance in the midst of the challenges of serving others.

It’s not just a means to an end though; God simply loves us and our well-being matters to Him.  So, here are 10 resolutions to help us stay well and stay faithful plus some suggested verses to meditate on:

1. I am a child of God.  I am unconditionally loved.  My identity does not lie in my achievements.  I will rest in God’s love and not strive for other’s approval. (1 John 3:1, John 1:12, Romans 8:15-16)

2. I am sent by God.  God doesn’t make mistakes.  My life has purpose.  I will trust Him when I’m not sure what’s going on. (John 20:21, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 2:8-10)

3. I don’t have to hold it all together; that’s Jesus’ job.  It’s OK to not always feel OK.  I will get help for my spiritual, emotional and practical needs. (Colossians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 1 Samuel 23:15-16)

4. Rest is good.  Jesus rested.  I have permission to rest.  In fact God commands me to rest.  I will plan to rest. (Matthew 11:28-30, John 4:6, Exodus 20:8-11)

5. I was made to enjoy a relationship with God.  I will daily spend time reading the Bible, worshipping, praying and whatever else helps me to connect with God. (Psalm 63:1-8, John 15:1-8, James 4:8a)

6. I am also made for relationships with other people.  I will intentionally invest in friendships, be honest and give and receive support in my church, small group or team. (Proverbs 27:9, 27:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-20)

7. Prayer support is vital.  I will regularly share prayer requests with my friends and supporters. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, Colossians 4:2-4, Ephesians 6:19-20)

8. My body is a gift from God and useful for the work He’s called me to do.  I will look after my body by exercising regularly, eating well and sleeping enough. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Proverbs 14:30, 3 John 1:2)

9. I am allowed to enjoy life.   I will regularly engage in activities which I enjoy. (Proverbs 17:22, John 2:1-2, Nehemiah 8:10)

10. There are always reasons to give thanks.  I will reject the temptation to grumble and give thanks instead. (1Thessalonians 5:18, Psalm 118:28-29, Philippians 4:6)

 

 

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in southeast Asia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

Tranquillity, gentleness and strength

The astute among you will have noticed that I have been following the October readings in the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer, which is a valuable resource for those of us wishing to cultivate a devotional life drawing on ancient traditions.

The readings have been quotes from the influential 20th century poet and mystic Evelyn Underhill.  In one passage, she writes about what today we would call resilience:

If we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, a consideration of the tranquillity, gentleness and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life will serve us better than anything that is based on the loftiness of our religious notions, or fervour of our religious feelings….  This is the threefold imprint of the Spirit on the soul surrendered to God.

Resilience is a characteristic much-prized in mission workers, but one that is hard gained.  Much member care is focussed on supporting people through trials and tribulations so that they grow more resilient with each test and are able to grow.

Yet resilience is not acquired through Biblical knowledge or professional skills, which are often the properties which commend themselves initially to church and agency as they mobilise and send us.  Resilience is acquired through prayerfulness, time spend in the presence of God despite the demands of family, church, ministry and community.  It comes from choosing, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus when we know there is work to be done.

I discovered this resilience in my own life many years ago when I was struggling with long-term sickness, living on state benefits and finding it hard to live a ‘normal’ life.  Yet at the same time I experienced an inner joy and lightness of spirit that was in complete contrast to the circumstances surrounding me.  I concluded that what helped me was a heavenly perspective: God still loved me; Christ had still died for me; my place in heaven was secure – so what if the rest of this life is misery, sickness and squalor?

Yet many mission workers, far from experiencing such joy, are mired in what Mrs Underhill calls “the inequalities of family life, emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health, and the rising and falling of our religious temperature.”

If your experience is more like that, it’s time to stop, take a holiday or go on retreat, before your stress levels lead you into burnout.  It’s time to lay down some responsibilities and make time to sit and hold hands with God.  As a result, we don’t necessarily get on top of the material circumstances of our lives, but we can transcend them.

Self-care

I have written in this blog many times about the need for mission workers to be actively supported by their church, agency, family and friends – all of whom are very important for the resilience and fruitfulness of the mission worker.

However, the provision of intentional, pre-emptive, supportive care does not absolve mission workers from caring for themselves!  With millennials in the mission field, who are accustomed to more attentive parenting, workplace nurturing and personal mentoring, there may be an expectation of higher standards of support than were previously considered appropriate.  We need to lovingly remind mission workers that they are not children, they have been selected for their ability to thrive in the mission field, and have been trained to withstand the challenges of life in demanding places.

We must therefore resist the attempt to treat them as fragile, wrap them in cotton wool and run around looking after them.  Instead we need to encourage them into self-care.  This covers every aspect of who they are:

Physical self-care – They need to be paying attention to how their diet, exercise and sleep are healthily maintained to keep them well.  They need to be aware of their own biological cycle, how they adapt in their body to changing months and seasons, the amount of heat and daylight available to them, and how they plan their life around their natural strengths.  At what time of day are they at their best, and can they adapt their working time around that?  Taking the full holiday entitlement, Sabbath days and weekends (where possible) will be part of this.

Mental self-care – maintaining mental well-being has two aspects to it: allowing the mind to unwind from stress, and stretching it to enable it to cope with more.  So regular academic study, distance learning on practical or theological issues to keep people’s skills up to speed is important.  As is the need to create downtime to give the brain a chance to switch off, particularly at night to allow more chance of good sleep.  Developing a physical hobby, perhaps a craft or a sport, will go a long way towards facilitating this.

Spiritual self-care – mission workers are selected for their ability to feed themselves from the Bible and thrive in hard places, but regular times of retreat, seeing a spiritual director and being helped through podcasts or discussion groups can contribute to their spiritual well-being.  So too can keeping regular hours of prayer, journaling, or using a personal liturgy to help with prayer.

Emotional self-care – often we find ourselves too busy to stop and reflect on how well we are relating to those around us: family, friends, church and co-workers.  How do we intentionally deepen our accountable relationships?  How do we live in ongoing repentance and stronger commitment to others?  This can be complicated by being in cross-cultural teams, churches or families – can we identify the facets of the culture we live in which cause us the most stress, and find ways of coping better, even to the point of thriving in them?

In considering all these different things they need to do to care for themselves, mission workers may want to consider inviting a friend to be an accountability partner, to ask searching questions about what they are doing to look after themselves.  Some people may feel that the idea of looking after oneself does not fit well with ‘laying down one’s life’, but like a good marathon runner, we are in this race to finish well, and in order to do that we need to pace ourselves rather than run the race like a sprint!

Love Across Latitudes

Janet Fraser-Smith’s helpful workbook Love Across Latitudes has been helping people build stable cross-cultural marriages for 25 years and is now in its sixth edition.

As two people try to build a successful marriage together they bring into it their unvoiced (and often even unrecognised) assumptions about how to relate to each other, and what they understand a marriage to be.  Occasionally there are serendipitous harmonies between these various assumptions, but more frequently one or both partners lives with the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations until an argument occurs and they realise their partner had no awareness of what was expected of them.  Such occasions occur more frequently when the partners are of different nationality, ethnicity or culture.

Janet’s workbook provides a valuable resource to those embarking on cross-cultural relationships (or indeed already in one!).  Written in helpfully accessible English with a recognition that as least one of the partners may speak English as a foreign language, and with plenty of personal stories and practical examples to balance the useful theory, it is design for couples to read together, and provides frequent questions as a tool for reflection and discussion.  It is intended to initiate intentional engagement with cultural factors which may impact on a marriage.

Sections specifically focussed on culture help to expose the unstated assumptions behind our understanding of relationship, marriage and family.  Others tackle issues like communication, tough choices, compromise and stability in relationships.  We heartily recommend this resource to anyone involved in a cross-cultural relationship, including TCKs in a relationship with someone of the same ‘nationality’.

The Perfect Storm

In 1993, author Sebastian Junger was researching a book about the sinking two years before of a fishing boat in extreme weather off the east coast of the United States.  In an interview, Bob Case from the National Weather Service explained to Junger that conditions became unusually intense because of the freak convergence of multiple weather events creating a “perfect” scenario for catastrophic wind waves and rain.  From that conversation was born the term, “the perfect storm.”  You’ve probably seen, or at least heard of, the movie that followed.

Last week influential mentor Rick Lewis introduced a group of member care workers to his take on this.  He pointed out that the perfect storm for Christian leadership occurs where the systemic hazards in the church or agency they lead meet the vulnerabilities inherent in a leader’s personality.

By “systemic hazards” he is referring to the adverse conditions that coalesce around Christian leadership.  These conditions are sometimes simply a consequence of helping people deal with momentous issues of life, and sometimes they are dysfunctions of the communities that Christian leaders serve.  We all know that leadership is hard.  But it is made harder than it needs to be when systems function in carnal ways that are not reflective of the kingdom of God.  Very few Christian organisations are thoroughly hazardous to their leaders; but none are completely free of hazardous conditions.

By “vulnerabilities in a leader’s personality”, he is referring to those parts of the psyche that are still in the process of being brought into conformity with the image of Christ.  These are the weaknesses, old wounds, dark secrets, immaturity and foolish ways that quench leadership capacity.  All leaders – all people, in fact – have such vulnerabilities.  They are never entirely eradicated, but through the power of the Holy Spirit significant growth and healing can be achieved and the ongoing negative effects can be neutralised.

Leaders and systems form symbiotic relationships.  The individual and the community each affect the other both positively and negatively.  Human nature being what it is, the negatives tend to have an increasing effect over time, unless outside intervention is interposed.  The hazards in a system will exploit the vulnerabilities in a leader unless someone helps the leader to keep their feet while in the midst of the storm.  Mentoring helps Christian leaders navigate the perfect storm, leveraging their strengths to address their vulnerabilities so that the hazards present in Christian organisational systems are contained and systemic health promoted.

We are not going to give away Rick’s material in this blog!  Suffice to say that here at Syzygy we have seen several instances where the way an organisation is structured and motivated coincides with a leader’s character weaknesses to set that leader up for spectacular failure unless some sort of mentoring intervention occurs to support the leader in growing and the organisation in changing.

Those who wish to know more can contact Rick via us by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk or buying his helpful book Mentoring Matters which contains more information on this subject.

Pray for Syzygy!

Prayer does not fit us for the greater work;

prayer is the greater work.

(Oswald Chambers)

It has become our custom in recent years to start the new year with an appeal for prayer.  We regularly remind our readers of the need for partners to pray for mission workers, unreached people groups, the suffering church and crisis situations, and we believe prayer is the key to releasing God’s power and presence into challenging situations.

This year we make no apology for another appeal to prayer, but with one change: we’d like you to pray for us.  Ever since we started we have had a small group of committed prayer partners who pray for our needs, and as we’ve grown we’ve depended on the prayers of these friends even more.

Last year we turned a corner in our understanding of the role Syzygy can play in supporting mission agencies with member care, and this was largely in response to seeking God about the future of Syzygy.  In response we have established a network of experienced member care workers in different parts of England (sorry, rest of the UK, we’re working on serving you too!).

Now we need to pray for the work for them to do.  In the past we have served around 150 mission workers each year through training, debriefing, advice and practical support – now we have the capacity to serve a significantly greater number but we need to pray for them to come to us, and for us to be able to help them.  You can find out how to support Syzygy in prayer through our Get Praying! page, but we’d particularly like to draw your attention to the PrayerMate App.  We send out a new prayer request every day for you to get on your phone.

Will you please pray with us that God will send these people our way, so that we can equip ever more mission workers to be effective and resilient?

 

Middle Space

No, it’s not something from Star Trek or a book by Terry Pratchett.  I was recently introduced (thanks to Ally Gibson of WEC International) to this aspect of phenomenology.  It’s the concept that when you and I sit down to talk, the space in between us is not empty – it is full of emotions that both of us put into it, but the other does not see.

So I may come to a meeting full of expectation, hope, anticipation and enthusiasm, together with a mental agenda of all the things I want to talk about.  You might bring your fears, anger and desperation.  Neither of us knows about what the other puts into the Middle Space, but unless we make each other aware of them, our meeting risks being dissatisfying.  If I don’t know about your fear, and you are reluctant to introduce the subject, I may go away from the meeting thinking it went well, but you will leave dissatisfied.

So how do we deal with the things in Middle Space?  We need to be aware that there may be things in it we don’t both know about, so we must discover them.  In a more formal context, such as counselling, we may be used to hearing “What would you like to talk about?”, but we need to find informal ways of doing the same thing.  “How are you feeling?” would be a good start.  A good friend of mine often asks “How are things with your soul?”, which drills a little deeper and leaves a simple “I’m fine” looking a little evasive.

Failure to address what is in Middle Space can have a huge impact on our relationships:

  • In any team meeting we may not communicate about the things that are really of concern to us.
  • In cross-cultural teams some of us may bring expectations about honour, respect, permission to speak which are not understood by others.
  • In cross-cultural marriages we may bring our own cultural expectations of a partner which are completely different in our spouse.
  • In member care we may miss issues which are bubbling away under the surface causing stress to our mission partners.

So let’s be intentional in putting our thoughts and feelings openly on the table, to improve communication, reduce misunderstanding and help our mission workers thrive!

 

Good leaders…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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