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.

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.

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!

 

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!

Mourning

Mourning is something that many western cultures don’t do well.  Unlike our Mediterranean neighbours, or more expressive people from tropical climes, we think holding our feelings in check is a Good Thing.  “Stiff upper lip, old boy.”

Christians are often even less inclined to mourn than others, because we have a sure and certain hope that our departed have gone to be with Jesus.  We use terms like “promoted” to express our positivity.  I was even once told by a family member at a funeral that we were not going to cry, because it was a happy day of celebration for our friend who had gone to a better place.  Which left me with a lot of grief and no outlet for it. Sometimes we need to express our emotion and have a good wail.

Mourning is healthy.  Expressing our grief is part of how we cope with loss, and being real about our emotions is important.  People who can grieve unreservedly can come to terms with their loss more effectively.

But this blog is not just about confronting our bereavement.  It’s about loss in every sense.  And we mission workers have to deal with an awful lot of loss in our lives.

We often don’t recognise as loss the things we have sacrificed, because we’re serving the Lord and the joy of being faithful servants more than compensates us.  But sometimes our perspective of willingly laying down our lives in service to Him who laid down his life for our salvation can be a bit like refusing to grieve at a funeral: we never come to terms with our loss because we’re always trying to be positive.

Recognising what we have lost, and mourning it, helps us to continue in emotional health and be resilient, as well as being realistic about the cost of following our call.  So let’s look at some of the things we might want to mourn:

  • Close friendships we are unable to continue with in person as we move to a foreign country
  • Places that were once familiar haunts which have changed beyond recognition while we were abroad
  • The spouse or children we never had because we couldn’t find a suitable partner willing to serve in the remote location we felt called to
  • The physical health we could have had if our illnesses had been treated in a modern western hospital
  • Relatives we never had a chance to say goodbye to because they died unexpectedly while we were on the other side of the planet.
  • Professional skills which have grown out of date due to lack of opportunity to develop them
  • The sense of belonging in a certain place that we’ve come from and will one day have to go back to and feel like strangers
  • Grandchildren we don’t have a chance to get to know well because they’re growing up in a different country
  • Friendships in the field that always struggle because our home assignments never coincide
  • The house which the whole family calls home and our adult children can still come back to stay in their childhood bedroom
  • The wealth and security offered by a good career
  • The formative years of our children which we miss a large part of because they’re away at boarding school.

Most mission workers I know will look at such a list dismissively and say “It was a small price to pay for the privilege of serving God”, and in one way they are right.  Paul wrote for all of us when he said “all those things I have lost count as nothing to me” (Philippians 3:7).

But all of us should take time to think about the things we have lost, recognise them and grieve appropriately rather than spend our lives in denial.  David rightly said “I will not give God something that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).  Recognising and mourning the loss helps us to give God something of value, rather than something that wasn’t important to us anyway.

 

Are you called?

Happy New Year to all our readers!

At this time of year, it’s popular to do a bit of self-review, and set out resolutions and changes that we’d like to make in our lives.  It’s also a good idea to take a bit of time (maybe on retreat) to review what happened in the last year and learn lessons from it to apply in the coming year.

So in keeping with that spirit I’d like to encourage you to reflect on your sense of calling and ask yourself some fundamental questions about it.  Calling, as you will recall from a previous blog as well as our Guide to Going, may vary from one person to another but can generally be defined as a deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you to do, or a place for you to be. It is discerned both spiritually and practically by a community working together to determine what is right for you – a community made up of family, friends, church and agency who together confirm your course of action.

If you are a mission worker in the field, you must have had a sense of calling at some time in the past which impelled you to get up and go, and encouraged others to send and support you.

But do you still feel that sense of calling?  If not, what has happened?  Have you taken on other tasks and responsibilities which seemed like a good idea, or which you thought needed to be done, but which have ended up taking you away from the service you felt called to?

If you do still have a sense of calling, how are you protecting it?  Are you testing against it the various tasks, relationships and opportunities that come your way, to ensure you don’t get dragged off course?  And how are you shaping and refining it?  Are you regularly praying into it to get more clarity and definition about where and what you are called to?

In the interests of being a good team member and supporting the aims of our agency, there will inevitably be times when we are asked to lay aside our own sense of what we have been called to in the past to take on something new.  Maybe it involves a change of ministry, or a different town (or even country).  As our own circumstances change, this might actually be a new calling which supersedes the original one.  Who are we consulting and praying with to make sure that the decisions we need to make are a team effort? 

Wandering away from our sense of calling puts us into a dangerous place.  We have no conviction to hold us in place when the going gets tough, we may well find ourselves doing things that God doesn’t want us doing, and operating for a significant amount of time outside our sense of calling can sap our energy and do long-term damage to our resilience and well-being.

So I encourage all of us to set aside some time at the beginning of what will inevitably be a busy and challenging year to reflect on our sense of calling and ensure that we are convinced we are the right people in the right place doing the right thing.

And if you can’t say that with conviction, do something about it!

The Lord gives…

The latest Syzygy car

Ever since the early days of Syzygy, I have prayed regularly “Lord, please give us more money”.

Sometimes it’s been a question of not being able to pay for essentials like car insurance, at other times we’ve needed to invest in new assets.  We’ve seldom had more than a few hundred pounds spare, but we’ve always trusted in God and he has always provided for us.

On one occasion I had a week to get find a new car, but had no money at all.  Several of us prayed and someone gave us a car.  Our car ministry has seldom given us an easy ride, though we strive to make sure the mission partners who borrow our car get just that.

So in the last few months as our bank balance has built up (for no obvious reason), I began to wonder if God wasn’t giving us this money because we’re going to need it.  And it turns out, we did.

Two weeks ago one of our cars was involved in an accident.  Fortunately nobody was badly injured but the car was clearly not going to be repaired quickly, and we needed a car urgently as the next mission partners are due to have one this week.  So I bought one.  We had enough money to get a good one.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Last week I learned that not only was our crashed car not worth repairing, due to an error in the insurance, the insurers wouldn’t pay out the write off value.  So I scrapped it.  We got next to nothing for it.  Blessed by the name of the Lord!

So the excess in the bank account has been used up and not replaced.  It’s back to business as usual: “Lord, please give us more money!”

You can read more about the Syzygy car ministry on this page.

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.

Book review: Burn Up or Splash Down

When considering the perpetual challenge of ‘re-entry’ for mission workers returning to the countries they went out from, I have referred several times to Marion Knell’s excellent book with the above title. The title refers to the challenge of re-entry for a spacecraft returning to earth, and how that critical point of the journey can so easily go wrong.

Here at Syzygy we have seen far too many mission workers return to their sending country in a state of unpreparedness, or who struggle with issues even after many years of being back ‘home’ because these issues weren’t addressed at the time, so we want to encourage broader circulation of this valuable book.

Marion writes encouragingly in her introduction:

You can make it back into whichever part of the earth’s atmosphere you’re destined for.  There are people around who speak your language, who have survived the impact.  But you need to have the heat shields in place, the life-support systems working, and a good reception committee on the other end steering you back.

Her book helps you to make sure those things into place.  Marion explains what re-entry is, in simple terms, and why it can be such a challenge.  She helps us understand how stress can affect us as we return.  She shows us how to leave a place well and has plenty of good advice on the challenges of an international relocation.  She emphasises the important of having a good debrief.

The second part of the book focusses on TCKs and the challenges they can go through with re-entry, and tips on how they can thrive, and the book concludes with a section for sending churches on how to welcome back their mission partners effectively.

Marion’s writing style is light, entertaining and easy to read.  Unlike many member care books, reading the book is an enjoyable experience, not hard work.

If you are a mission worker planning to return ‘home’, read this book as soon as you think about returning.  If you’re responsible for sending mission workers, either with a church or an agency, read this book now!  You can buy it from the Global Connections website where members get a discount.  You might also like to read our guide to doing re-entry well.

A few years ago we designed a course called Crash Landing? which was designed to help those who made it back to their sending country and survived the impact, but were wounded in the process and still carry the scars.  Get in touch with us if you could use some support in helping you finally settle back in.

Exodus

Recently I was involved in leading a retreat for mission workers returning to the UK after finishing a period of service.  In our devotional times we looked at several passages from Exodus which seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for our mission partners journeying into life in the UK.

Like the Israelites, they had left the familiar behind, and there was no going back.  They had packed up their belongings and left their homes, friends and ministries behind, and they were on their way to a new home.  Granted, not everything where they lived had been easy, but there were plenty of things they missed, like meat (Exodus 16:3) or fish, fruit and vegetables (Numbers 11:5).

But they’ve not arrived home yet.  They are still on the journey, in a wilderness of sorts, which is strange and unfamiliar.  They don’t belong there.  They don’t know their way around.  They don’t know how things work, how to use contactless payment or Deliveroo. They are bewildered and vulnerable, and can be quick to become unhappy.

One day they will arrive in the Promised Land.  They will find they feel at home, won’t be isolated from the culture and ignorant of terminology and technology.  They will settle and belong.

But in the meantime, they need the rest of us to remember that they’re not ‘home’, they’re merely ‘here’.  They may feel cold, or miss the noise of exuberant worship, or vibrant assault on their senses of everyday life in their host country.  They need us to understand that they are still in transition.  Neal Pirolo’s book The Re-Entry Team  is a very helpful resource for churches in helping them understand how to support returning mission partners and we recommend that every church gets a copy.

In the meantime, what can these mission partners do to help themselves?  They should stay close to the Pillar of Fire and Cloud.  It guides them through the desert.  It stops when they need rest and moves when they should move on.  It comes between them and their enemies.  Yes, they can’t actually see the presence of God, but they can feel it and know it in their hearts.  And in the midst of a massive change in their lives, God is the one constant in the universe.

The crack in the wall

Source: www.freeimages.com

Some years ago I lived in a house which had a significant-looking crack in a wall.  Of course, I could have papered over it and pretended it wasn’t there.  Or filled it with plaster and assumed it was fixed.  But the crack would have remained, a weakness in the wall, that may have got worse, even to the point of becoming critical.

Far better to investigate, monitor, and repair wherever possible, because the crack is probably a symptom of stress being applied to one or more parts of it, that is threatening to break it apart under the pressure.

Rather like walls, mission workers are subject to extreme stresses in their lives, and their character can begin to crack under the pressure.  So who monitors them, and how, to make sure any issues are dealt with before a serious collapse occurs?  Church, friends, agency, family and co-workers can all be part of this by intentionally caring about small incidents which may reveal deeper issues.  When somebody loses their temper with a co-worker, speaks harshly to a spouse, or perhaps evidences momentary vulnerability to excessive alcohol consumption, do we love them enough to go beyond forgiving their behaviour to challenge it and ask them what lies beneath?

Spotting these warning signs can be a very important part of stimulating early intervention.  But it’s not always easy.  Many churches expect their mission partners to be of higher than average character and so accountability can be a problem: nobody asks robust questions because they don’t want difficult answers.  Mission partners can be reluctant to appear fallible in a world that doesn’t tolerate failure, so they are happy to pretend everything is fine.  Yet one day the cracks may be too big to deal with, and a marriage breaks down, or a ministry falls to pieces.  People leave the field in shame.

So what can we do to avoid a collapse?

  1. We need to develop cultures that encourage accountability, and if mission partners are to feel comfortable to talk about underlying issues in their lives, they need the confidence that they will not be pilloried for failure but supported to reform.  Jesus said ‘Let the one who is without guilt cast the first stone’ (John 8:7) but sometimes his followers seem more eager than he was to throw rocks.
  2. We need to provide accountability structures, encouraging our mission partners to meet with peers and seniors for confidential support and mentoring.  We need to make it clear that this can work in partnership with other churches and agencies, rather than trying to keep it ‘in house’.  Being accountable to an ‘outsider’ fosters more openness than being accountable to a line manager.
  3. We need to create a framework for asking robust questions.  They don’t need necessarily to be direct accusations such as “Have you accessed pornography on your phone in the last week?” but more subtle ones like “What do you do to make yourself feel good after you’ve had an argument with your spouse?”  Questions which set up the opportunity for a confession without presupposing one.  I find “How can I pray for your marriage?” is a good one, or “How are things in your soul?”, which a friend of mine uses a lot.

Giving people an opportunity to reflect on their weaknesses, discuss their character flaws and work together on solutions can fix those cracks in the wall before it’s too late.  It’s called preventive maintenance.  We allow mechanics to do it on our cars, dentists to do it on our teeth, but we don’t let friends do it on our souls, which are far more important.  Maybe we should start.

What support?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Sadly, I frequently come across mission workers who have returned from an assignment disillusioned by the lack of support they received from their church.  Often these are independent people who’ve gone with their own vision, but sometimes they’re also people who have been sent by their church.

So together we unpack their disillusion.  What did they expect?  Why did they expect it?  Did the church know they expected it?  How do you know they did?

And it often turns out that these expectations were based on a loose verbal undertaking such as “Of course we’ll support you!” which was never fully discussed or documented.  By the time the mission worker realises that there was never any real agreement, it is usually too late to resolve and there needs to be some conciliation work.  I come away from such meetings thinking “If only…”

I always recommend that mission workers and churches (and of course agencies too if they’re involved) talk through their mutual expectations and document them in a partnership agreement or memorandum of understanding.  It’s not a legal contract, it’s too loose for that, and it’s not done in a litigious spirit but one of partnership.  But it does spell out in very simple terms, what everyone expects.  And it has signatures to prove that it was properly agreed.  You can put in in whatever you think is important, and I’ve seen really long ones and also ones that can fit on one side of A4, which I prefer, as I don’t think too many details make it easier to come to an agreement.

A good structure would be: the church will do this; the mission partner will do that.  It sounds positive.  And the issues that should be addressed should ideally include the following:

  • How frequently does the church formally pray for the mission partner, and communicate with the congregation about needs?
  • Does the church provide financial support, how much and how long for? Does it include extras like flights home, and how long should it continue after return?
  • How much is the church involved in making major decisions?
  • Is the church responsible for providing Member Care, and what would that look like?
  • Who is involved in making decisions in an emergency, and what funding is available?
  • Who is the principal point of contact for communicating?
  • Who is responsible for National Insurance, tax, pension and health insurance contributions?
  • How long will the agreement last and what happens when it expires?
  • Who provides operational oversight in the field?
  • What arrangements are there for pre-departure and post return health screening and training/debriefing?
  • How does the church hold the mission partner accountable? Are there other parties involved?
  • Is an appraisal involved and who will do it?
  • How much home assignment is permitted?
  • How much funding is the mission partner responsible for raising?
  • How frequently should the mission partner communicate with the church, and how?
  • How are any disputes about the agreement adjudicated?

 

It might seem like a lot of work to talk through all these issues, but the situation will be a lot clearer if time is taken to do so.  There will be less confusion, better support, and a much smaller chance of a relationship breakdown.  Syzygy is always ready to talk such issues through with churches – contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk to request an appointment.

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’.

Life balance

The runup to Christmas is often a busy and demanding time.  Decorations to put up at home and work, festivities to prepare, carol concerts to attend, presents to buy, meals to share, nativity plays to endure, church services to plan… The list goes on and on.  So much for celebrating the Prince of Peace.

But this is just one more symptom of the crazy demanding world we live in.  A world in which technology means we are available to our colleagues and customers 24/7.  A world in which we’ve almost forgotten that until 1994 shopping on a Sunday was almost impossible in the UK.  A world in which everyone expects more but has less to give.

For mission workers life balance is always hard, for many reasons.  Our kids have needs which are different because they’re growing up in a different culture.  The spiritual dynamic of the place we work saps our energy.  There never seems to be enough money or people.  The constant turnover of co-workers is emotionally demanding.  Coping with life in a foreign culture can be exhausting.

How do we balance all these competing demands for our attention?

First, we should decide what is important to us.  Family, friends, children, ministry, work, hobbies, health, God are all important and need to be in the mix, but what is the proportion and priority?  It will look different for each of us and we need to decide what is the most appropriate in our circumstances.

Then we need work out (on average) how much of our attention to allocate to each element in the mix, and when.  Some of this is already done for us, if we have for example a 9-5 job, or we need to be at specific church services on Sundays.  But we may be able to be creative.  For example, if you find date night hard to do with your partner because you have kids and can’t get babysitters, why not arrange a date lunch once a week when you both set aside time for a long, leisurely lunch together while the kids are at school?

Then we must be disciplined in protecting that time.  Some of us deliberately cannot access work emails on our phone.  Or make a point of turning the phone off at certain times so we can’t be interrupted.  We can put things in our calendars and say “Sorry I’m busy that day” without telling people why we’re busy.

If you need to get your life back into balance you are welcome to talk to someone from Syzygy.  Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to get in touch.  And we can recommend a weekend retreat on the subject at beautiful Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex.  If you can fit it in.

At Syzygy we come across far too many Christians who are pulled in so many directions because they find it hard to say no or find it easy to overcommit.  If we are going to be known for having “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) we need to get that life into balance.

 

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Investigating ourselves

Conflict resolution? (source: www.freeimages.com)

Six months ago we commentated on incidents of ‘Friendly Fire‘ in our agencies.  Occasionally Syzygy comes across mission workers who feel they have been bullied by someone in leadership in their agency, and the agency didn’t take the issue seriously.  The situation has resulted in them leaving the mission field laden with negative emotions after they felt the agency has closed ranks against them when they raised this issue with management.  Such stress and attrition should be avoidable.

Perhaps these people were viewed as troublemakers.  Perhaps their perception of how they have been treated is not accurate.  Perhaps the agency didn’t think it was worth rocking the boat – we have occasionally heard it alleged that a particularly powerful individual within the agency was not worth challenging.

So how can agencies manage such situations well?

Principally, they should have a grievance procedure, and be committed to following it.  (A ‘grievance’ is the English term for the formal making of a complaint against an employer.)  The details of a grievance prcedure may vary from country to country according to local laws, but there should always be a procedure clearly laid out for mission partners to follow if an informal discussion with their leadership doesn’t resolve an issue to their satisfaction.  Unfortunately some agencies don’t have grievance policies, and confusion about whether mission partners are members/employees/self-employed can mean that processes like this which are mandatory in many countries are overlooked by agencies who like to think of themselves as a ‘family’.

A grievance procedure should outline a clear process which contains the following steps:

  • If a mission partner feels their complaint is not being taken seriously, they can put it in writing to their immediate leader (or their leader’s leader if the complaint is about the leader);
  • The mission partner is invited to make their complaint in person to someone who will investigate, having the right to take someone with them for moral support;
  • An investigation will be carried out with impartiality;
  • A written response will be given to the mission partner including information about how to appeal against the decision if they are not happy with it;
  • An appeal will be dealt with by a senior leader not directly associated with the field the mission partner is working in, or an independent third party if that is not possible;
  • External mediation is the final step,
  • If a grievance is made in good faith, but not upheld, the mission partner will not suffer any organisational backlash.

Throughout this process, the mission partner should be given confidentiality, and although complete anonymity may not always be compatible with a thorough investigation, the existence and investigation of the grievance should not be made known to people who are not involved in it.  It may be possible to offer the mission partner a temporary reassignment or leave of absence to remove them from a tense working environment while the grievance is being heard.

But as well as having a robust process for dealing with issues, the values of the agency should clearly include treating people well.  We claim to be a family, but we don’t always treat each other with the love that brothers and sisters deserve.  Whatever has happened, we must remember that all our mission partners are children of God, doing their best to fulfil the great commission, and that in line with biblical teaching we need to treat others with respect and deal with conflict in a godly manner in which the goal of any grievance should be the restoration of relationship.

A successful outcome would include:

  • reconciliation between the parties
  • recognition of sin on both sides, where appropriate, including structures within the agency
  • support for both parties to grow in followership and leadership skills

However, with the best will in the world, we may end up not being able to agree over an issue, and parting company, but if that is the case let us make every effort to ensure that people’s time in the mission field ends well, so that they do not nurse hurt, and can continue to be a good ambassador for our agency.

As an independent third party, Syzygy is happy to help any agency develop its grievance procedures or carry out a review of them.  Likewise, we are willing to listen to and support anyone who feels that their grievance has not been addressed.  For more information contact info@syzygy.org.uk.

Because even as we fulfil the great commission, we must remember to keep the greatest commandment.

What about the POMs?

No, not the Brits!  Parents Of Missionaries.  A couple of times recently we’ve considered the POMs in the context of the challenge of caring for them from a distance as they age, but that was strictly from the mission worker’s perspective.  What does overseas mission look like from a POM’s perspective?

Parents generally acknowledge, albeit sometimes reluctantly, that their little darlings will one day grow up, move away, and see less of them.  But at least they hope to visit regularly, and see each other for family celebrations like Christmas and birthdays.  They hope to play an active part in raising any grandchildren, and enjoy lots of hugs when they meet.

But when the little darlings become mission workers and move to the other side of the planet there can be a huge sense of loss occasioned by the separation.  Yet POMs know they are supposed to feel pride that their offspring has found her vocation and followed her calling, which only means they find it harder to openly acknowledge their grief.  Add to that the guilt POMs can feel because they’re not absolutely delighted.  Also they can’t truly express their feelings to their children for fear of discouraging them, and POMs can very easily succumb to psychological damage.

OK, the children aren’t actually dead, but in practical terms the loss when a child emigrates is not dissimilar to bereavement, and needs to be grieved in the same way or else unresolved grief can eat away at a POM’s wellbeing

So if you are a POM, how can you  cope with this situation?

  • Recognise the issue and get support.  Talk to a pastor, or a counsellor.  Make an effort to meet up with other POMs because they have been through the same thing and will stand more chance of understanding the challenge you face.
  • Try to see your loss as a sacrifice for the Lord.  After all, you probably dedicated your children to God when they were young, so now he is taking you at your word and taking what you have already offered him.  They’re not yours, they’re Gods.  In the Bible Hannah did this (1 Samuel 2:18-19) and rejoiced, even though she only saw her son once a year.
  • Make the most of your time with them.  When they’re back on home assignment they may well be tired, overworked, frantically visiting supporters, and may even be living with you in a house that is too small for you all, so don’t go for quantity of time, but quality.  Try to have one week’s holiday with them when there are no other distractions, and be happy with that.
  • Ask their agency to connect you with other POMs for a mutual support network, and if there isn’t one, why not start one?
  • Recognise you’re part of their ministry.  You have spent much of your life nurturing your kids to become the people that God wants them to be, so don’t stop now that God is using them overseas.
  • Check out online resources like the National Network of Parents of Missionaries (in the USA) and tips helpfully provided by Diane Stortz.  Start a similar network in your own country if you can’t find one
  • Read Savageau and Stortz’s book for Parents of Missionaries

 

It is entirely natural for humans to want to be close to our loved ones, the ones we’ve nurtured and cherished for so many years.  But it’s entirely normal for the family of God to be about our Father’s business, wherever that may take us.  Letting our children go abroad may be the toughest thing God ever asks of us, but as Jesus said:

Whoever loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me

(Matthew 10:37)