More burnout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thick-headed!

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

Should I stay or should I go?

ClashKnowing when to leave is always one of the biggest challenges for mission workers, particularly when a crisis occurs.  A topical application of this issue would be the earthquakes in Nepal, as a result of which some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.  Other mission workers stayed.  Who has made the right decision?

A few years ago, in a discussion facilitated by Emma Dipper, a group of HR managers were asked how risk-averse they had been when they were living abroad.  Most of us were so un-averse that we could be considered irresponsible, gung-ho mavericks.  We were then asked to think through how risk-averse we are when we think about the mission workers in the field for whom we currently have responsibility.  As we thought that through, we realised we would hit the panic button much quicker.  We would pull people out quickly because we had health and safety responsibilities, issues concerning ‘due care’, and trustees with legal responsibility holding us accountable.

red buttonGiven the litigious nature of western culture, it’s not surprising some churches and agencies would pull their people out of Nepal.  Suppose a mission worker were killed in the second earthquake, or one of the 200+ aftershocks, and the agency were sued by an angry relative.  We would be unable to mount an effective defence, knowing there had been a risk but not having done anything to mitigate it.  So it seems prudent to pull our people out, even if they don’t want to leave.  We have to consider the agency’s reputation.  But this will also give the mission workers huge guilt issues – they’ve had the luxury of going to a safe place while their local friends have to sleep outdoors and hunt for clean water.  Have they run away, or deserted their posts?  What will their Nepali neighbours think when the Christians run away at the first sign of trouble?

Those who stayed in Nepal are having a huge impact, channeling relief funding, facilitating reconstruction, organising counselling and debriefing for traumatised Nepalis, and demonstrating the love of God in their commitment to staying.  Many Nepalis will be encouraged that they cared enough to stay when they could so easily have left.  But the price is the trauma the mission workers will suffer, and their fear for their children.

The Bible leaves us with no easy answers either.  Jesus walked determinedly into Jerusalem knowing that he would be killed but on an earlier occasion slipped away from a mob in Nazareth that wanted to lynch him.  Noah built a boat to escape in, and must have been traumatised by the cries of those trying to escape the flood whom he didn’t let in.  No wonder he took to drink afterwards!  Paul was bundled unceremoniously out of Damascus to save his life, yet on other occasions showed uncommon bravery.  Yet the general tenor of the New Testament is that we should expect to suffer.

Perhaps our best hope of a making an appropriate decision is to ask the local church.  They will be much more aware than we are whether our ongoing presence in their community is likely to bring danger or protection, or to help clear up or be a hindrance.  At least one agency I know of makes all their personnel responsible to the national church leadership, so that the decision to evacuate is taken out of the hands both of the mission worker and the church/agency.  Perhaps that’s a new paradigm for missions – trust the locals to make good decisions!

Supporting traumatised mission workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burn out or rust out?

C T Studd (1860-1931)

C T Studd (1860-1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the good of those who love him?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Bad stuff happens to mission workers.  You don’t have to be in the world of mission for long before you hear of people who have been kidnapped, killed in car crashes, caught terrible diseases, been lynched, suffered emotional or spiritual abuse, or lost their faith as a result of what they’ve experienced.  That is the lot not only of mission workers but of many thousands of Christians worldwide, particularly in communist and moslem countries.

But when these things happen to us and our loved ones, it can make us doubt either our faith or God’s goodness, because most of us in the West subscribe to a triumphalist theology: God is in control and everything will work out.  We build our worldview on three principal tenets:

  • God loves me and wants the best for me
  • God is able to do anything to help me
  • God is fully aware of all that is going on in my life.

House of cards

While each of these beliefs is true, it’s naïve to build them into a house of cards without reference to other variable factors in the way God created the world, like freewill, cause-and-effect, teamwork and prayer.  And the fact that we are in a battle with the kingdom of darkness.

The result is that when something goes badly wrong it challenges our belief system and therefore our faith.  We wrestle, like Job, with the problem of why bad things happen to good people (Job 10:3).

But a belief system such is this is based on a false premise: the consumerist view that God is there for me, and that if God doesn’t deliver to make my life more comfortable/safe/happy, he has invalidated my faith in him and disproved his own existence.

Vivien Whitfield wrote:

Can we go on trusting God even when terrible things happen and God seems absent?  Only such altruistic trust is the basis for a true relationship with God, shorn of ulterior motives.  God is to be loved and obeyed for himself, not for what we can get out of it.  God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos – not only for me; we sometimes need to be reminded of that.

From The Passion of the Christ

From The Passion of the Christ

If God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos, there are times when his plans may not be in our own interest.  He may ask us to do something hazardous not because it’s good for us but because he needs it to be done.  In doing so we become more like Jesus, laying down our own lives in obedience to God’s will.  There was no way that being crucified served the immediate interests of Jesus, but he chose to be obedient to God’s plan instead.  And sometimes God’s plan for us may be that God has asked us to do things that are clearly not in our own interest but enable him to accomplish something in and through us for the greater good of the Kingdom.

When we don’t understand what is going on, and why something bad has happened, we often turn to Romans 8:28: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”  Taken on its own, out of context, it looks as if all we have to do is love God and everything will go fine for us.  But that is just Christian superstition.  We need to read on to verse 29 to find out the definition of ‘good’.  It means being conformed to the image of the Son.  It doesn’t mention wealth, or happiness, or safety.  In fact St Paul makes the opposite clear: this is in the context of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword!  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer!  How can that be?  We conquer, not because everything goes well for us, but because when it doesn’t, we don’t give up, we don’t compromise, we don’t retaliate.  We become more like Christ.   That doesn’t make our suffering any easier.  But it does, at least, make it tolerable.

Singles in a Moslem Context

crowd_aloneOur blog two weeks ago about the challenges facing single mission workers in Moslem contexts has prompted some of you to ask what the answers are.

Well you won’t be surprised to find that there are no easy answers!  That is because people are different, contexts vary, and the living conditions differ considerably across the Moslem world.  What may work for an introverted woman living openly as part of a Christian team in Cairo may not work at all for an extraverted man living in an isolated setting in Malaysia.  Yet there are three key issues which need to be addressed for singles to stand a chance of thriving:

1) Good preparation.  Training and placement are crucial.  An agency must take time to get to know their candidate and consider how he/she will respond in a given culture or team context.  They need to put them in a team setting that is right for them, and above all make sure that the candidate is warned about and prepared for the challenges of working in a Moslem context.  Just knowing in advance that it will be difficult can help the single mission worker.

2) Good field support.  Team leaders need to be aware of the challenges facing singles, so that they can provide adequate in-field support, make sure the whole team is equipped and motivated to provide a nurturing and supportive environment, and ensure that decisions about field placement and housing are taken appropriately.  Having a good supportive team, where there is a significant level of social and spiritual engagement, and a good mix of single and married people, helps with a sense of community.

3) Good ongoing care from family, church and agency.  Awareness of the specific issues, and providing focussed care and support will help the single mission worker cope with the difficult situation.  Taking particular care to be there, whether in person or by using social media, for people at times like holidays, Christmas and Valentine’s Day when they can be particularly vulnerable will be of great help.

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Having said that, there are some particular practical suggestions we can make for thriving in a difficult environment.  They may not be appropriate in every location, particularly for those people working in creative access nations, but we hope that they can stimulate a conversation about finding a way forward.

Establish a ‘religious’ identity – in some countries priests, monks and nuns are treated with respect, and are accepted as singles who have devoted their lives to religious service.  It may be possible in some places to wear a clerical collar, a pectoral cross and allowing oneself to be addressed as called ‘Father’ or ‘Sister’.  Protestants often shy away from religious clothing and prefer to dress in plain clothes, but does this lead to the impression that we are just ordinary people instead of religious workers?  Accommodation needs could also be met by having a same sex singles house or compound modelled on a monastery or convent so the community can make the religious connection.  Some people however consider this might be giving a fraudulent impression that we are something we are not.

Establish a married identity – many single mission workers divert unwanted attention by wearing a wedding ring.  This can reduce molestation and cut the number of unwanted marriage invitations.  However, although some people report significant success with this tactic, others think it’s fundamentally dishonest, and can lead to problems when we have to admit that we’re not actually married.

Spiritual support – single people may benefit from having more spiritual support from the team, perhaps establishing a ‘home group’ for them or encouraging them to find mentors and prayer partners.

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Transport – since many people find buses and taxis threatening places, their transport needs should be considered, perhaps by employing a team driver and a team minibus, or ensuring people live in the same part of town so that people can easily be escorted home.

Self defence – many singles report feeling vulnerable walking home by themselves after dark.  Knowing they have the ability to protect themselves if attacked may help them feel less vulnerable.

Practical support – teams should be aware of the need to provide practical support to newly-arrived singles.

Social activities – team should organise social events where it is possible for singles to mix freely with children, marrieds, and people of the opposite sex. Regular retreats should be organised in places where it is safe for singles to be seen together.

In summary, singles working in the Moslem world face some significant challenges which can exacerbate the usual challenges single mission workers face.  However, of all the people we have spoken to on this subject, most of them are positive about serving God abroad as a single person.  Few of them said it had been easy, and many reported significant emotional challenges, but most said that it was still worth while.

Ever since the time of St Paul, single mission workers have been going into challenging situations to share the love of God, because they love God more than they love comfort, security and home.  They have made a huge contribution to the spread of the gospel, and we honour them for it.  We pray that with better support the current generation can stay in the field even longer, and be even more fruitful in their lives and ministry.

50 shades of moral compromise

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The release this weekend of the film of the popular porn book 50 Shades of Grey prompts us to talk about an issue that has been on our minds for a long time – the prevalence of pornography in the mission field.  It is widely known that easy and unaccountable access to pornography over the internet has made it much easier for Christians to succumb to this temptation in secret, and though accurate figures are hard to obtain and often anecdotal it is clear that many Christian men regularly access internet porn as do a significant number  of women.  Some years ago a psychologist involved in screening candidates for the mission field reported that up to 70% of men and 30% of women applying for the mission field had intentionally accessed pornography in the previous year.

Pornography is an issue for the church, because it robs us of our self-esteem, our sense of mission and our integrity.  It can leave us with a sense of guilt despite asking God for forgiveness, because it makes us feel unclean.  It can undermine our relationships by objectivising people and it can distort our understanding of sex as a gift for expressing intimacy and commitment by making it all about unaccountable self-gratification.  It can promote trafficking and slavery while many of us are actively involved in fighting these dreadful crimes and helping the people who have escaped.  When exposed, it can lead to the loss of ministry, breakup of marriage, damage to the faith of fellow believers and mission workers leaving the field.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Yet pornography is not the problem.  It is only a symptom of deeper self-esteem issues.  People may turn to pornography for any number of reasons: married people may have an unfulfilling or non-existent sex life, singles may find it hard to control sexual urges for which they have no legitimate outlet, and people who are depressed, frustrated or insecure may turn to pornography for the quick feel-good buzz caused by sexual climax.

We write these things not to judge, but to offer help.  Here are some of our tips for overcoming the temptation to use internet porn:

  • Talk to God honestly about your sexuality and ask for the Holy Spirit to help you bring it under his lordship
  • Try to think of every older person as your parent, same-aged people as your siblings, and younger people as your children. That helps correct the pornographic mindset that objectivises people as tools for our own self-gratification
  • Read books such as the immensely popular “Every man’s/woman’s battle” series
  • Give somebody else access to your computer so they can see what you’ve been looking at
  • Meditate on verses such as Philippians 4:8 and Colossians 1:10 and do a Bible study on the Greek word ‘pornos’ and its cognates
  • Have an accountability partner who doesn’t do porn. It’s harder to get forgiveness from a friend than it is from God!  Other people who do porn can just reinforce each other’s sense of ‘failure’
  • Reflect on the damage done to millions of people by pornography. Visit  a refuge program and talk to people who have been enslaved by the sex industry
  • Use accountability software on your computer such as Covenant Eyes and visit websites like www.safersurfing.eu for advice and support
  • Reflect on what drives you to porn. Has somebody punctured your ego or left you feeling unloved?  Talk to a counsellor about it.
  • Exercise the old-fashioned virtue of self-control (1 Corinthians 9:25, Galatians 5:23, 2 Peter 1:6)

Sygyzy is willing to talk to anyone, male or female, in complete confidence about their pornography issues.  Please contact us on xxx@syzygy.org.uk.

I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own.

 (Ephesians 4:1)

Singles working in a Moslem context

GMCCThis week finds Syzygy in Turkey, taking part in the Global Member Care Conference.  This event brings together people involved in supporting mission workers from all over the world.  The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Member Care in Hard Places’, and we will be looking at how we can effectively support people working in a variety of contexts including:

  • countries where it is extremely dangerous to live openly as a Christian
  • places where disasters have occurred
  • helping people who have suffered significant persecution

Syzygy’s contribution to this useful debate is a workshop entitled “Single Mission Workers in Moslem Contexts”.  We will be looking at the unique pressures on single mission workers that living and working in the Moslem world can cause, and consider ways in which they can be prepared and supported more effectively.  Our research shows that many single mission workers serving long-term in such contexts continue to serve faithfully for many years, though they can suffer significant levels of stress which can impact on their physical and emotional well-being.  We have found that the most significant issues they struggle with include:

dark portraitLack of social status: Single people living outside their parents’ home are an oddity in the Moslem world.  Whether they are thought of as strange, or pitiable, or just an object of curiosity, mission workers of both sexes can struggle with standing out from the crowd.  They may even be suspected of being spies!  Having a spouse and children (particularly boys) adds to social status.

Lack of opportunity to make single friends: Whether it’s local people or other mission workers, it can be a challenge to have social relations with other singles.  For those keen to meet potential spouses, it’s even more so difficult as some societies will place significant restrictions on single people’s opportunities to meet.

Being vulnerable to abuse: Many women commented that their singleness makes them open to being stared at, commented on, propositioned or harassed as they have no man to protect them in a macho world.  Several considered their status to be little more than that of prostitutes and suggested that local men think they are available.

fragile 2Loneliness: While this is common to many single mission workers, it’s exacerbated in a social environment where it can be unsafe to go out alone, and where social mixing with married colleagues can be open to misunderstanding.  Being the only single person on a team can add to a sense of isolation.  Additionally, in a context where there is a powerful spiritual dynamic, not having a partner to pray with and encourage can increase the sense of loneliness.

Lack of security: Several women commented that they felt unsafe going out at night.  This had an impact on their ministry and social lives.

Together all these issues add up to one key factor: isolation.  While some mission workers are naturally better at dealing with this than others, and some learn to develop effective strategies for dealing with isolation, they can still feel deeply the effects of isolation.

There are clearly implications in all this for selection, preparation and in-field support that need to be thought through carefully before sending single mission workers to Moslem cultures.  Needless to say, their wellbeing hinges on receiving effective support from family, church and agency.  In fact, if these three groupings are simply aware of the challenges single mission workers face by ministering in a Moslem context, they may start to implement more effective solutions.  In a couple of weeks’ time, we’ll post some of our suggested solutions.

Resilience – learning how to bounce back

951860_stress_v_2This week’s guest blogger is our old friend Rick Lewis, an experienced mentor of Christian leaders.

In my work as a mentor of Christian leaders I regularly find myself in conversations with extraordinarily able people who are struggling with low energy levels as a result of becoming emotionally drained.  Of course, this is not a condition experienced only by Christian leaders – any one of us can become emotionally drained.  Yet I would contend that the nature of leaders’ roles within Christian organisations exposes them to vocational hazards beyond the normal range that not only bring them to exhaustion but also tax their ability to bounce back.  This has made the matter of resilience for Christian leaders one of the most critical issues for sustainable ministry and ministry today.

Even if you agree with this assessment of the special stresses and strains experienced by Christian leaders, you may still be wondering about the most constructive ways to address the problem.  Nobody I know is perfectly resilient, but some leaders I’ve mentored do seem to do better than others.  What can be learned from them?

Drawing from observations I have made and linking them with insights from the Bible, I want to suggest ten factors conducive to personal resilience.  These factors could be developed in the context of a mentoring partnership, or applied in some other process of support for leaders.  I want to stress that the resilient leaders I have in mind were not immune to becoming emotionally drained.  The point is that when they did become drained, they were able to bounce back in a relatively short period of time to a state of energy, hope and joy, making their ministries healthy and sustainable.

My top resilience factors, in no particular order, are these:

  1. Supportive relationships of love, trust and encouragement – “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
  2. Wise care of one’s physical health – “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)
  3. A metanarrative that provides a basis for hope – “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord ’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  4. Positive role models – “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” ( Hebrews 13:7)
  5. Realistic assessment of and confidence in one’s abilities & strengths – “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:3)
  6. Willingness to develop and draw on others’ strengths – “But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:12-13)
  7. Self-restraint to manage strong feelings and impulses – “Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret —it leads only to evil.”  (Psalm 37:7-8)
  8. Capacity to construct and implement realistic plans– “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’”  (Nehemiah 2:4-5)
  9. Engaging regularly in reflective practice – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
  10. Humility before God – “’God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Rick_LewisI have resisted listing renewal by the power of the Holy Spirit as a separate item because it is of a higher order than any of these factors. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to restore our inner being is behind all that I have presented and extends well beyond it. In the end, the resilience we need as Christian leaders comes from the Lord. Yet it is good for us to remember that there are wise ways in which we can cooperate with his grace at work in our lives to run the race he has marked out for us to the very end.

This blog originally appeared on www.anamcaraconsulting.com.au where you can read a full version.

Coffee – a fragrant aroma

Ripe coffee berries

Ripe coffee berries

Fruit is a well-known biblical metaphor.  Jesus tells us that bearing fruit glorifies the Father (John 15:8), and Paul says we are joined to Christ so that we can bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4).  Jesus makes it clear that the fruit is the evidence that we are disciples (John 15:8) – or not (Matthew 7:20).  Whether we understand the fruit to be a metaphor for our activity (Colossians 1:10) or our character development (Galatians 5:22-23), it is clear that if we’re genuine disciples of Jesus, fruit is the outcome.

When we think of fruit, we probably have in our minds fruits like peaches, grapes, apples, apricots or strawberries, which we can just pick and pop in our mouths.  They are the ready-meals of the fruit world.  But other fruit requires a bit of work to it.  While we can eat grapes just as they are, they can also be made into wine.  Apples can be made into pie.  Corn, a slightly different type of fruit, can be made into bread, a much more pleasant form of carbohydrate.  But to achieve this, the fruit needs to be crushed, chopped or ground.  A totally different experience.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Another type of fruit is coffee.  Most of us never even seen the coffee fruit on the plant, but we enjoy the end product.  But to get to us, the coffee fruit has a terrible experience.  First, the fruit is stripped off the bean and discarded.  It has no value to us.  The bean is then fermented, and rinsed in large quantities of water.  Then the bean is roasted and, finally, ground up and brewed using hot water.

Suddenly being fruitful doesn’t sound quite so attractive.  And many of us are no stranger to processes like those the coffee bean undergoes – we often feel like we’re in deep water, walking through fire or being ground to bits.  When things like this happen, we can often wonder if we’ve got it all wrong, and begin to doubt our faith.  We discussed the theology of this last week, but suffering is an ever-present reality in the lives of most Christians, and is clearly the biblical norm.  All the writers of the New Testament letters expected their correspondents to be undergoing varying degrees of difficulty, if not active persecution.  One even tells them to ‘count it pure joy’! (James 1:2)  This is because even though the process is unpleasant, the outcome is good.  James tells us that as a result we will be ‘perfect and complete’ (James 1:4).

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

The careful processing, roasting and brewing of a fine coffee results in something remarkable.  A simple berry has been turned into a refreshing drink which invigorates and stimulates.  Taken in moderate quantities it is beneficial to concentration, alertness and general health, and may even contribute to longevity.  Even its aroma is attractive.  The next time we undergo some sort of trial, let us remember what the coffee goes through to bring some joy into the life of its drinker, and remember that our suffering is part of the process of bringing joy to the Lord, as in the flood or the furnace we are made more like Jesus.

A review of Syzygy’s year

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time of year many people send out round robin letters to tell everybody they don’t see regularly what they’ve been doing throughout the year, and we’re no exception.  It’s been an excellent year for us and we praise God for his grace to us as we seek to serve him in supporting mission workers worldwide.  During the year we passed the milestone of our tenth birthday and were amazed to look back and think that 10 years ago we could not have imagined what God would do in us and through us.

We’ve had the joy of continuing our co-operation with other agencies and networks such as Global Connections and the European Evangelical Mission Association, together with several of their forums, and to forge new links with other agencies for whom we’ve been able to provide advice and consultancy.

We’ve successfully developed new training modules including workshops on how to thrive as a single mission worker, how to deal with ongoing challenges following re-entry, and understanding why many mission workers allow themselves to become stressed.  We’ve also supported individual mission workers going to the field and returning to the UK.  We’ve taken these into a number of contexts, speaking at several conferences (including the European Member Care Consultation) and at bible colleges.

We continue to provide pastoral support to mission workers both remotely while they are in the field and in person when they are on home assignment, doing debriefs and home assignment reviews.  This can be a terribly challenging task, as our clients are often badly wounded by their experiences, but it is also incredibly fulfilling.  We also provide information about different resources and advice on various topics such as immigration and tax continues.

avatarOur website has continued to attract attention, racking up a record number of hits and followers on both Facebook and Twitter.  A new guide to retirement has joined our growing collection of Guides to Doing Mission Well.  In case you missed some of our blogs, we introduced some new concepts into missiology, such as understanding where we really find our identity, knowing why mission workers can be more vulnerable to burnout in their fifties, how to pray for mission workers using household objects, and using sweets to help us understand where we are in cultural adaptation.  Over the summer we had a mini-series on how the Protestant Work Ethic has had such an unhelpful impact on western Christianity.  We considered the movie Avatar as a metaphor for Gen Y, reviewed some excellent books and considered what happens when Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations.

We continue to have some good reviews of our book for single mission workers and continue to sell many copies of it.  We’ve upgraded two of the three cars which we lend to mission workers on home assignment, and received donations from several individuals and trusts which helped us achieve this.  And we gained a new volunteer, Barry, who drives our cars to wherever they are needed.

Of course, we can’t do this on our own, and we’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of our many supporters who have helped, prayed, volunteered, funded and provided publicity for our services.  We recognise that we cannot do this without your help – and God’s – and we appreciate your partnership with us.  Thank you for helping us help mission workers worldwide.

Middle-aged mission workers in crisis?

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

50 can be a challenging age for anybody.  On reaching half a century, we have to start coming to terms with ageing, knowing that most of us are now over halfway through our lives.

Perhaps we are no longer able to play 5-a-side with the teenagers, or we are starting to have to make regular nocturnal visits to the toilet or coming to terms with the fact that our body tells us we can’t have children.  We may need varifocal lenses or hearing aids.  At the same time, we may be dealing with the drama of our children leaving home, or confronting the tragedy that we might never get married, and dealing with the pain of caring for elderly parents.  So there is a lot for us to take on board.

At the same time, we are rising to the peak of our professional responsibility.  We may be in senior management positions, elders in a church, pillars of our community, trustees of various organisations.  We are expected to mentor younger people, act as consultants and advisors, and start ‘paying something back’ into the community.  People expect our behaviour to be better than when we were teenagers (“You’re old enough to know better!”) and there is less tolerance of our mistakes as we are assumed to be more mature.  But there’s also that nagging doubt that we’ve built on shifting sand.  Will our life’s work last?  Have we devoted our lives to something worthwhile?  Will our children thrive?  Or in others words:

The pressure of responsibility and expectation on us rises, just as our energy levels are starting to fall. 

50s crisisA simple graph can demonstrate this.  The red line indicates the rising burden on us; the blue line the declining energy levels.  And the point where they cross is where disaster is waiting.

The crisis can take a number of forms: a stress-related health incident, ministry burnout and resignation, moral failure, crisis of faith, divorce – and all these hazards lurk out there waiting to trip up the unwary mission worker.  For no obvious reason an apparently exemplary worker will suddenly crack under pressure and fall to pieces, injuring many others with the fallout.  Lives are damaged, churches shattered, faith rocked.  Broken and hurting people return to their sending countries haunted by words like failure and defeat.

So how can we prevent this happening?

Mission workers can:

  • Ensure you maintain a vibrant relationship with God, taking time off work if necessary to devote time to God.
  • Remember to say no to additional responsibilities if you do not feel called to take them on.
  • Take time to reflect regularly on your identity.  Are you a Martha or a Mary?  Which way round is your dynamic triangle flowing?
  • Have a frank relationship with an accountability partner or mentor.
  • If you’re married, make sure you take regular steps to invest in your relationship.  If you’re not married, make sure you learn to thrive in your singleness.
  • Learn to delegate effectively so that you don’t have to cope with excessive busyness as well as excessive responsibility.
  • Rejoice that though we are physically decaying we are growing more godly (2 Corinthians 4:16)
  • Take a break at the first sign of stress-related illness.

Churches and agencies can:

  • Take active steps to ensure their mission workers are not overworked and take regular holidays and study leave
  • Use regular appraisals to ask challenging questions about spiritual, emotional and physical well-being
  • Encourage mentoring
  • Organise training to help mission workers understand what makes them tick and why they may be tempted to overwork.
  • Ensure mission workers are sufficiently well-funded to be able to take holidays.
  • Have a good member care team in place
  • Send out family and friends to support and encourage.
  • Ensure that mission workers take regular and sufficient home assignment and have regular healthchecks
  • Recognise that cross-cultural living can take its toll on people’s health and spirituality
  • Provide practical support to help reduce the pressure on mission workers
  • PRAY!!!

Praying creatively for your mission workers

Here’s a simple yet creative idea for a mission prayer meeting.  Don’t just do the same old boring thing of praying through each paragraph of a newsletter.  Do something a bit more original.  Take a selection of common items you’d find about the house.  Ask yourself what they represent, and if it might look different from your mission worker’s perspective.  Pray into it.  Here are some simple examples you could use.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Mobile phone – this represents their ability to communicate.  Whether writing or phoning home, communicating with locals in their language or dealing with colleagues in a third language, mission workers often have difficulty in understanding and making themselves understood.

Toilet roll – we don’t need to go into details but life in a country your immune system didn’t grow up in can be full of nasty diseases.

Car keys – in many parts of the world roads are even worse than Devon’s!  Vehicles may not be up to safety standards and there are no working time directives limiting the hours professional drivers spend behind the wheel.  Travelling, whether by car, bus, motorbike or cycle can be hazardous.

Bottle of water – we take utilities for granted but many mission workers live in parts of the world where the power can go off for days at a time, or there is no running water.

Family photograph – many mission workers are separated from loved ones.  Children may be at boarding school, or elderly parents may be left behind at home.

IMG_0715Chillies – the food is often very different from back home, and can take a lot of getting used to.  Some people may have allergies to particular types of local food, or may be unable to get food they need such as gluten-free.

Fan – many mission workers live where the weather is extreme, and for some seasons of the year almost unbearable.

Bible – the reality of life on the mission field is that mission workers can become spiritually dry.  They may be engaged in spiritual battles and face great opposition, or the spiritual dynamic of the dominant religion may have an impact on them.

Wedding ring – marriages come under great strain on the mission field, as one partner may have a vision for being there, and the other is tagging along, or perhaps one does better with the language with the other lagging behind.  Conversely, there are also pressures of a different kind on singles in the mission field.

Bowl – in many countries beggars are everywhere, and foreigners can stand out as targets.  It can be easy to get compassion fatigues, or to be worn down by the constant high profile.

Dictionary – mission workers usually need to learn a second language, and sometimes a third.  This can be time-consuming and daunting for those who are not naturally gifted at it.

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Source: www.sxc.hu

Passport – paperwork is a continual problem.  Visas, work permits, driving licences, residence permits all have to be obtained (without resorting to corrupt expedients) and periodically renewed.  This can be emotionally demanding, with many repeat visits to crowded government offices where you can queue for hours to find that the person you need to talk to is not there.

Credit card – money is frequently a source of stress for mission workers.  Most of us rely on the divinely-inspired generosity of a small group of supporters to provide for the often quite substantial ministry costs we have.  Sometimes we have to leave the mission field for financial reasons alone.

Book – many mission workers use their professional skills as theologians, medics or educationalists, and need to keep their knowledge and qualifications up to date.  Yet finding time to read academic journals, let alone take CPD courses in the midst of a demanding role can be very difficult.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Toy – children can suffer in the mission field, and that has a huge impact on the parents.  Without support, children can easily become the mission worker’s Achilles heel.

DVD – mission workers need to relax too!  Yet often they find they have too much work, or feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

Office ID card – for many mission workers, the single biggest source of stress is their colleagues.  Often coming from a variety of cultures, with a common language that they aren’t all gifted in, and with a variety of church backgrounds and missiological viewpoints, it can be extremely hard to form a team in which everyone gets on well.  Arguments and even personal disputes can become commonplace.

Please use this information to pray into the situations of the mission workers you support.  The advantage of this method is that you can use it to pray anywhere, anytime, for your mission workers.  For example, if you’re waiting for a bus, look around you and seek inspiration.  What do you see?  Cars – pray for your mission worker’s safe travel in a world where roads and transportation may not be as good as ours.  A dog – pray for safety from being bitten by rapid dogs, or mosquitos, or lions.  A pillar box – pray for their good communication with family, church and friends back home.

Try this way of praying for mission workers and your prayer life may never quite be the same again!

What do you to when someone throws a spear at you?

Saul and DavidThis is the attention-grabbing tagline of a book with a much milder name, A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  Written in 1980 to counter the threat of authoritarian leadership in the church, it has become a minor classic which has proved highly therapeutic for victims of domineering leaders.

We have mentioned before in these blogs how some mission leaders can be ill-equipped for their leadership role, which is why Syzygy is committed to leadership development and mentoring, and are looking at other ways of supporting leaders.  Sadly, many Christian workers have been hurt by leaders who, uncomfortable in their role, resort to domineering or manipulative leadership styles to enforce their authority, brutally crushing ‘rebellion’ and marginalising the ‘rebels’.  We know, because we’ve been there.  And reading this book was part of the recovery.

A Tale of 3 KingsA Tale of Three Kings traces the life of King David, first as a young man working for a tyrant, and later as a king overthrown by his ambitious son, Absalom.  These are the eponymous three kings.  Edwards uses them as types – Saul as an insecure leader who wrongly feels threatened by anyone competent, Absalom as a proud, ambitious achiever quick to claim power that is not his, and David as a humble, broken leader who will not fight to take what is not his, nor to keep it.  He argues that despite the great suffering caused to him by both Saul and Absalom, David is the only one of the three who acts righteously throughout.

The answer to the opening question is “You get stabbed to death.”  Because in the brokenness, the dying to self that pain brings, you kill the Saul within you whose fleshly response is to retaliate.  That is what helps equip you to become a leader.  The minute you pick up the spear and throw it back, you become another Saul, Edwards argues.  Moreover, he argues that it was David’s suffering at the hands of Saul that equipped him to become a great king, because he saw first hand how a tyrant destroys.

Saul’s response to the challenge he perceived from David was to destroy.  In doing so, he revealed his own character weakness.  As Edwards puts it,

 Outer power will always unveil the inner resources, or the lack thereof.

This book is not to everyone’s taste, and its literary style takes a bit of getting used to, but for the Davids among us it brings great comfort, and to the Sauls and Absaloms, a thought-provoking challenge.  Many people who think they are Davids will be brought up short to discover how much Absalom is in them!  The book deserves its subtitle A Study in Brokenness because that is exactly what it is, as it aims to help us study the brokenness (or lack thereof) in our own lives.  A helpful section at the back makes this specifically personal by asking such questions as:

  • Who throws spears at you? How does God want you to respond?
  • What needs to happen to put your own inner Saul to death?
  • Sauls see only Absaloms. Absaloms see only Sauls.  Neither can recognise a David.  How can we distinguish the one from the others?
  • David considered the throne to be God’s, not his own to have, to take, to protect, to keep. Could you say the same about what God has given you?

You can read more of the story behind A Tale of Three Kings here, and buy the book online at Seedsowers or other online retailers.

Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

 Where is home?

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

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

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

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

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

Hard at work?

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

In our recent mini-series exploring the impact on mission of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), we’ve considered why mission workers can be tempted to drive themselves to overwork, and how the PWE can affect our prayer life and how we interpret the Parable of the Talents.  Today we’re going to look at another way in which mission workers can put themselves under unnecessary pressure to deliver results – overwork.

Some years ago we here at Syzygy realised that many mission workers are overworked, not merely because there are not enough resources, people or money, but because there’s an extent to which they choose to be, at least subconsciously.  Our studies led us to believe that there is often something in their background, probably in their childhood, which is driving them on to deliver results.  Perhaps it was a parent who continually demanded excellence, a teacher who was never satisfied with the effort made, a performance-fixated church leader or some other person who regularly said something like “You’ll never achieve anything!”

Learned behaviour in childhood is notoriously hard to unlearn as an adult, and even a Christian who is absolutely convinced of the unconditional love of God may still exhibit behaviours which were originally adopted to appease the demanding authority figure, because they’ve never been openly challenged.  We see this effect quite frequently in mission workers: although the original person who gave rise to that behaviour may have been dead for years, the victim is still trying to prove them wrong.  And those responses subconsciously affect their work for God – they’re trying to achieve in order to earn approval.  Unaddressed, this situation can lead to significant stress, burnout, and possibly even mission workers leaving the field.

Dynamic TriangleIn the 1950s a Christian psychologist called Frank Lake came up with a model to explain this.  We’ve adapted it somewhat to make it a little more accessible and we call it The Dynamic Triangle.  It’s very simple.  It starts with the assumption that we are accepted, in Christ, by God.  God loves us and cares for us.  From that flows our identity in Christ: we are children of God; friends of God; co-workers with God.  That awareness creates a security out of which we can achieve things for God.  Our achievement underlines the fact that we are already accepted.

Frank Lake observed that in many cases, the triangle flows anti-clockwise.  Building on our learned childhood behaviour, we try to achieve something in order that we can establish our identity.  Our identity in turn reassures us that we are accepted.  Though we may not intellectually agree with the proposition that God loves us because we achieve things for him, that’s what our behaviour shows.  So we drive ourselves harder and harder to achieve more and more so that we can feel secure in God’s love… even though we say we don’t have to!  And because our sense of security and identity is dependent on our performance, we drive ourselves hard in order to demonstrate our salvation.

fishingBehaviour which conflicts with beliefs can lead to significant inner tension and can play a key part in mission workers burning out.  Syzygy runs a day workshop to help mission workers, agencies and member care workers understand this dynamic.  For more information see our page Why do we Choose to be Stressed?

So why, if God loves us unconditionally, do we do any work at all for God when we clearly don’t have to?

Healthy, well-adjusted children are motivated by their supportive and accepting relationship with their parents and know they do not have to achieve to earn it.  But they want to be with their parents.  They often copy what their parents do, and adopt the same mannerisms and expressions.  We too, have the same opportunity: to be with God, to start to become like God, and to see what God is doing and want to join in.

That is why we do mission.  We’re not trying to earn God’s love, we’re trying to express it.  We follow the model of Jesus, who said and did what the Father did (John 5:19-20, 8:28).

Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies.  He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born.  Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation.  The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.

Much discussed and frequently discredited, particularly with the decline of organised religion in Europe (see next week’s blog), the PWE has been nevertheless an interesting indicator of an economic dividing line across Europe which continues to this day.  As a current example, what do the countries which suffered most in the Eurozone crisis have in common?  They’re all in the non-protestant group: Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece.  Or, as a more irreverent commentator put it, they’re countries where people work for less than 20 hours a week.

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

That commentator’s corollary was that in the Protestant countries, we live for less than 20 hours a week.  And that is a perceptive observation.  Because the PWE means that people in the protestant countries, even those who are not active believers, unwittingly subscribe to the view that work is a moral imperative, that one ought to work, and work hard, to use the gifts that God has given us wisely.  We have even interpreted the parable of the talents to reinforce this view, and we will comment on that in a blog in two weeks’ time.

The PWE is still alive and kicking in the western church in the form of hard work and responsibility.  It seems that Christians today in the west, while on one level fully buying into the idea that our salvation is a free gift of grace which we can do nothing to earn, spend the rest of their lives working hard for God to pay off the loan which they’ve taken out.  This creates in us the drive to continue serving even when overwork is squeezing the life out of us.

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Mission workers often typify this situation.  Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside.  They call it ‘laying down their lives’.  But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice.  Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout.  They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

One of the questions that we at Syzygy frequently ask mission workers is:

Would God love you any less if you never did anything for God again?

The answer, of course, is always no.  So why do we live our lives as if our salvation depended on our works alone?  Max Weber knows.

Other blogs in our mini-series on the Protestant Work Ethic cover issues such as:

Brazil – what happens when it all goes wrong?

BrazilBeing defeated 7-1 in a football match is an unmitigated disaster, particularly when it’s at home in the semi-final of a world cup.  Recently Andy Murray crashed out of Wimbledon after apparently being upset in the locker room just before the start of the match.  Mark Cavendish crashed on the finishing straight of the first stage of the Tour de France.  And we won’t even mention the Ashes.

All of these defeats have a profound impact on those involved.  As well as having to cope with the huge personal disappointment, they have to relive the event as they comment on it over and again in television interviews.  Some of them will lose their jobs as a result, and possibly even their livelihoods.  All of this is worked out in the shame and humiliation of the public eye.

But what happens when mission workers have to face a disaster of their own causing?  Perhaps they thought that because they’re working for God they were exempt from complying with local regulations and a hefty fine threatens to close down their ministry.    Maybe they trusted people and didn’t put in place adequate checks on their integrity, resulting in malpractice in their church.  Or through pride, arrogance or stubbornness they fell out with their own colleagues and split the team in two.  Perhaps they have failed to maintain their car properly, resulting in a fatal accident.  Maybe they’ve failed to look after their own health, or their marriage.  Sadly such occurrences are far more common than you might think, and often the mission workers have nowhere to turn to for help.

Nobody like accepting responsibility for failure.  We try to blame someone else, and if there’s no obvious human, Satan is always a useful scapegoat.  Mission workers fear that if they own up to their own faults, their agencies and churches might stop supporting them, and they may lose their funding.

In mission, we don’t tend to handle defeat and failure well.  We often don’t face up to it, or we try to sweep it under the carpet.  But, unlike banks, mission workers are not too big to fail.  In fact, a timely admission of error can be appropriate and healthy.

Agencies and churches should work to create a supportive and honest environment in which failure can be admitted, repentance made, and lessons learned.

Syzygy provides confidential debriefing and pastoral support for mission workers, particularly those who feel they have nobody else to talk to.  For more information email info@syzygy.org.uk.

Measuring stress

Source: www,sxc.hu

Source: www,sxc.hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And relax...

And relax…

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

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

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