Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!

Guest blog: Keep on keeping on!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

At the 1968 Summer Olympics John Stephen Akhwari ran in the marathon representing Tanzania. Part way through the race he fell badly and dislocated his knee. He valiantly kept running as best he could and finished last. He was asked why he had kept going. He replied, “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”

As those serving cross-culturally we face a whole variety of things that can distract, frustrate, upset or disappoint us. At times we may feel really discouraged and be tempted to give up. Like you I’ve faced some disheartening circumstances and various challenges to my faith and call, even recently. I often return to Hebrews 12:1-3 where we find both stunning reasons to keep running our race and some ways to do that. Whether we’re doing fine or experiencing deep discouragement or uncertainty I hope this will be fuel for the journey, some help to keep us keeping on.

Jesus is worthy. He sits ‘at the right hand of the throne of God’ v2. We keep going because Jesus is worthy of praise, glory and honour that He’s not receiving from most of the people we see around us. If this doesn’t motivate me to keep going then I am definitely not here for all the right reasons. Ultimately what we experience in the course of our race, the trials, the risk-taking, the frustration is worth it first and foremost because Jesus is worth it. Other people’s lack of response to the gospel message must not take my eyes off Him. I can still worship; He is always worthy, always wonderful and faithful. Also, if we think this is about us then we’ll either be proud or feel defeated, both of which hinder us from running our race.

Jesus understands. v3 exhorts us to ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ Jesus suffered way more than we ever will. It’s a huge comfort when I’m weary or discouraged to know that Jesus has been here and has ‘shared in our humanity’, Heb 2:14. Have we been lied to? Taken advantage of? Persecuted for doing what’s right? Misunderstood? Had our loving efforts rejected? Jesus knows. We follow the Suffering Servant and He’s promised to be with us. He understands both us and the broken people around us. This has a way of drawing us nearer to Him as we identify even a little with his sufferings and know he has identified with ours.

Throw off hindrances and sins. Athletes run or play with just the essentials so nothing gets in the way. Is grumbling hindering our teams? Is self-pity weighing you down? Are we neglecting private prayer and worship? Are we giving in to sexual temptation? If it’s pride let’s see Jesus as worthy and as the one who endured the cross. There’s no room left for pride when we’ve seen Jesus for who He is.

It’s a classic strategy of Satan to accuse us and make us feel condemned. V2 says Jesus sat down in heaven. His great work of redeeming us from the power and penalty of sin was done and He’s alive to reign, live in us and work through us. So accept God’s forgiveness anew, remembering we’re free from condemnation and don’t have to carry the burden of sin and failure. I laughed out loud when I first read this from Martin Luther, “When Satan tells me I am a sinner he comforts me immensely since Christ died for sinners.” Ha! The simple fact of the gospel disarms one of Satan’s best tactics every time.

Some of our hindrances aren’t sinful but they’re distracting or have become idols, taking the place of Jesus in our priorities. Social media may be doing that for some of us. Or ‘ministry success’. To all these hindrances, temptations and sins I’m learning to say: ‘Jesus is better.’ The temporary reward I feel indulging in these things is like dirt compared to the infinite value of Jesus and the satisfaction he alone can bring.

Let’s regularly ask God what hinders us from running the race, confess and repent. Be ruthless and get help. I’ve seen sin lead to people leaving their field of service causing hurt and lasting damage and leading to less ambassadors for Christ reaching the unreached.

Stick together. The use of athletic imagery here and in Paul’s letters isn’t supposed to imply we run solo. ‘Us’ appears several times in these few verses along with ‘we’, ‘our’ & ‘you’ (plural). Clearly it’s written to a group exhorting them to do these things together. Having the support of other believers is crucial to staying on course. The encouragement Ellie and I get being a part of a small team and a house church here is immense. Praying together, sharing struggles, helping each other move house, worshipping together. Are you connected regularly with some supportive fellow runners? People with whom you don’t feel you have to pretend? Christian community is also where we remind each other of the glorious truths of the gospel and can confess our sins and get help with the things that are entangling us.

Pace yourself. That we are to ‘run with perseverance’ (v1) tells us that it’s going to be hard. And that this is a marathon not a sprint. Knowing this we need to pace ourselves. A number of mission organizations encourage their workers to work only 2/3 of the day. If you’re working in the evening, take either the morning or the afternoon off. Also one person’s rhythm is different from another’s. Things like having young children or living with a medical condition or being older also impact on what’s a sustainable pace for different people. Plan rest days or breaks into the coming months.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (v2). Staying focused on Jesus requires us to be intentional. Regular prayer, worship and reading of scripture are key as is fellowship with others who love Him. Rest, exercise, friendships, a healthy work/life balance will all help us keep going but none are as important as our ongoing, close relationship with Jesus. During the Hebrides revival Duncan Campbell wrote:

These are days of much activity in the field of church and mission work, but no amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King himself. The devil is not greatly concerned about getting between us and work; his great concern is getting between us and God. Many a Christian worker has buried his spirituality in the grave of his activity.

Our attention easily moves to ourselves, our organizations, our methods, our shortcomings. We wonder if our faith is big enough or how we compare to others. Problems can seem overwhelming. Regularly, intentionally gazing at Jesus brings right perspective and we start to see what could be instead of what is right now. And if we lose our focus on Jesus we have nothing of lasting value to give to the broken world around us.

Verse 3 indicates that if we ‘consider him’ we won’t lose heart. The recipients of this letter were facing trouble. We face trouble. It can push us toward Jesus. It must if we’re to keep going. It’s challenging to keep loving & keep serving. We’re not supposed to be able to do this without God. We’re going to need to get on our knees before that difficult meeting, about that awkward relationship, about that broken person who doesn’t seem to be changing.

We need vision to keep going. Ultimately Jesus is our vision, over and above whatever particular vision God may have given us for our various different ministries. He’s our source, our sustainer and the giver of our purpose. We can keep running because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our sin forgiven, a message burning in our hearts, carriers of His presence, secure in our identity. I’m sure also many of us would testify that ministry vision, ideas and inspiration have come when we’ve been seeking Jesus.

Finally, keep an eternal perspective. Heaven is real. Knowing where we’re going changes how we live. Future glory outweighs present suffering for the sake of the gospel. We can face trials, hurt, discouragement, even persecution unto death because we know what’s coming. For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross, v2. He knew it was worth it: God would be glorified, we would be redeemed and with Him forever and that coming joy spurred Him on to endure the cross. May both the coming joy of being with Him and the desire that those we serve be there with us spur us on too.

The witnesses in verse 1 are the heroes of chapter 11, and maybe 1000s of others since, who have finished their race. It’s like they cheer us on: “Keep going, keep getting up; it’s worth it! Nothing done in Jesus’ name will ever, ever be in vain!” The sacrifices may be great but the reward will be greater.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON!

Alex

Alex Hawke

Bruised, confused, abused

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This term was used recently in a discussion by a colleague reflecting on how many mission workers return to the UK, whether permanently or short-term, with serious emotional or spiritual damage.  It may be somewhat overstated but nevertheless expressed well what many of us working in member care see regularly.  Quite apart from the normal stresses of living cross-culturally, many of these people had been victims of their own organisations and leadership.  Incompetence, error and even malpractice are far too prevalent in the senior echelons.

We at Syzygy are not happy to highlight the weaknesses we come across in churches and agencies, or the personal shortcomings of some of their leadership, but we come across this sort of situation quite frequently and from time to time we feel the need to bring it to peoples’ attention.  When mission workers are harmed by their own people/organisations, something is desperately wrong.  It is not honouring to God, it’s not loving to our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a good witness to the people we are working with, and it’s not a sensible way to treat what we all acknowledge is an extremely limited and valuable resource – our people.

So why does this happen?  We have already blogged about the fact that many leaders feel pushed into a role they’re not ready for, with the result that they either abdicate responsibility or become dictatorial in enforcing their authority.  Add into this the pressures of increasing age, the cross-cultural stress which most people in a mission environment work under, the shortage of finance and personnel in most agencies, and unrealistic demands of supporters and sending churches, contribute some compassion fatigue and some cross-cultural exhaustion, and the result can be a number of people who are not really fit to be on the field themselves let alone be in a position of managing others.

So what can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions from Syzygy’s own experience:

Specific training for leaders.  We suspect that few mission workers ever have the opportunity for personal development as they transition into a new role.  Professional training on such topics as managing people, communication skills and understanding team roles would be an appropriate part of such a package, as well as specific training on areas where new leaders self-identify as vulnerable.

Mentoring for leaders.  Leadership can be a lonely place.  There are issues you can’t talk about with your friends, and decisions you have to take alone.  Many leaders are aware they are struggling but have nobody they can honestly talk to about it: they may well be afraid that their church or agency will terminate their support if they think they can’t handle the pressure.  So facilitating somebody from outside the organisation to be an independent mentor for each leader would be a big step forward.

Downsize the agency.  Many agencies believe in perpetual growth, and to be honest there is always more work we can do.  But just because there is a need we don’t have to meet it ourselves.  Rationalising what we do, withdrawing from some areas or ministries, and reducing the number of team members may all be good responses to an overworked leadership.

Encourage better self-care.  No matter how busy leaders are, time when the phone is switched off, families relax together, people can go on holiday or retreat, or engage in hobbies is always worthwhile.

Provide better member care.  Member care in some areas is still unreliable.  More people with a pastoral role focussed towards the mission workers will help keep self-c are on the agenda.

Syzygy provides support for mission workers and agencies in all these areas.  For a totally confidential discussion email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

Blessed are the Peacekeepers?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I recently stayed overnight in a typical British guesthouse where breakfast was an interesting experience.  Not because of the food, service or facilities, but due to the interesting social interaction – or lack thereof.

In a small dining room where guests sat at separate but adjacent tables, conversation was curiously stilted, as people were aware that their private discussions were being overheard.  A men’s football team tried to joke with each other about the previous night’s escapades without incurring the scorn of other guests.  A harassed father tried hard to keep his disobedient toddler under control without losing his temper.  A browbeaten woman took the opportunity to chide her husband at a time when he couldn’t answer her back.

It occurred to me that often conversations between mission partners can be similar.  We often refrain from saying the things that we’d really like to because we are aware that others are listening.  We don’t like to disagree in case we sow the seeds of dissent, or act as a bad witness in front of others.  So we bottle up the things we’d really like to say, and if we don’t blurt them out in a fit of self-indulgence they can build up inside us to such a point of frustration that they contribute significantly to our levels of stress.

Why do we do this?  Because we mistakenly believe that when Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers” he meant that we shouldn’t rock the boat.  But by failing to address relationship issues and by sweeping things under the carpet, we are not making peace, we are only keeping it.  Peacekeeping may prevent outbreaks of open hostility but it takes real peacemakers to bring reconciliation and harmony.

So how do we make peace?  First, we need to recognise that disagreement isn’t necessarily the same thing as disloyalty or rebellion.  There is such a thing as what the British parliament calls “loyal opposition”.  Somebody who has a theological, missiological or personal disagreement with you may actually love you, share your vision for ministry and be committed to your success.  Disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t on the same side as you.

Secondly, we should remember that leadership can be a lonely and vulnerable place.  Every objection can seem like a personal attack even if it’s intended to be a constructive suggestion.  To a leader, people who speak out can seem like critics, people who oppose can appear to be rebels.  If you’re going to disagree with somebody, ask yourself first how your comments will appear to them, and do your best to show them that you are not challenging them personally, or their position, just their decision.

Third, we should remember that if someone disagrees with us, they may actually be right.  It can be tempting to surround ourselves with people who always agree because it is so much more affirming and comfortable, but it’s also the path to bad decisions.  The person who disagrees with you may actually help you to come to a better decision, even if it can be hard work getting there.

Many mission workers carry unnecessary stress because they feel unable to speak their mind, whether it’s through concern that they might find their service terminated for causing trouble, fear that a person they challenge might lash out at them in pain, or because a misguided sense of loyalty tells them that they ought to agree with everything.  The current trend towards confidential personal debrief with a person from outside the mission worker’s agency is to be welcomed, because it gives mission workers an opportunity to get issues off their chest in a safe environment, and find a constructive way of dealing with unresolved issues.  If your agency does not provide this service, consider asking for it.

Syzygy offers a confidential debriefing service to any mission worker, whether serving with an agency, church network or fully independent.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.  We find that it often helps people see past their immediate frustration and find long-term solutions to unresolved issues.

Member Care for short-term mission

CBPPreparing for a presentation I was giving at a recent Short Term Mission Forum, I realised that this is an area which is often overlooked by both those organising short term mission and those providing member care.

Member Care workers seem to focus largely on long-term mission workers, to such an extent that looking through the Member Care books on my shelves I found that most of them didn’t even refer to short-termers.  Likewise, people organising short-term programmes can easily focus on the practical issues and neglect the personal care for the person going.

As part of my research for this presentation I produced some very quick and grubby statistics.  They are not academically robust and are merely a straw poll, but the results are shocking.  I found that only slightly more than 50% of the people going on individual short-term placements through an agency attended a formal pre-departure training event or a post-return debrief.  For short-termers going as part of a team those having training rose to 60%, but those having a debrief fell to just 40%.

Perhaps short-term gets overlooked because it’s not considered as hard as long-term.  Perhaps it can’t shake off the mistaken impression that it’s just an adventure holiday with a difference.  Yet the people going short-term may be younger, less mature, and less experienced in cross-cultural pressure than long-termers.  Moreover, in the course of their mission they may be exposed to challenging situations with which they’ve not had to deal before.  So in terms of the impact on them of short-term mission, and processing culture shock and preventing post-traumatic stress, good Member Care is critical to the well-being of those going short-term, whether on a summer team or on a placement which can last up to two years.

Three elements that are essential to provision of Member Care to short-term workers are:

Selection and preparation – While selection may have an element of screening people to make sure they are robust enough to survive their mission, it seems that it may in fact be quite perfunctory if the trip is only for a few weeks.  Perhaps the need to get people on board and justify the sending of the team may supersede good care.  And while training events may include cross-cultural training it may well focus on the practicalities of behaviour rather than the emotional challenge of adapting to life in a foreign culture.

In-field support – team leaders may not necessarily be trained or experienced in facilitating a supportive environment which can help short-termers adequately process the challenges they face and look to God for the resources they need to manage the transition.  Proactive support needs to be arranged.

Post-return debriefing – while recognising the challenges of getting everyone back together for a debrief event, it is important that people have the opportunity to review their experiences and unpack the issues raised as a result.

So what can agencies do to ensure better Member Care for their short-termers?  Here are Syzygy’s top tips:

  • Ensure that Member Care personnel have an input into the design and review short-term programmes.
  • Be familiar with and committed to the Member Care provisions of the Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission (the core value of partnership and paragraphs 1.5, 2.4, 2,7, 3.3-3.5, 4.1-4.5).
  • Review the Member Care Guidelines and reflect on how they apply to short-term mission.
  • Be committed to ensuring that every short-termer is provided with effective Member Care before, during and after their assignment. Bring in Member Care providers from other agencies if necessary.
  • Set appropriate targets to measure how many short-termers receive training and debriefing.
  • Build an effective and well-trained volunteer force to carry out individual training and debriefing in support of the full-time team.
  • Facilitate, fund or provide training for church members to be able to prepare and debrief their short-termers well.
  • Liaise effectively with sending churches to ensure that short-termers have an opportunity to debrief in their home church.

Why do we need to provide good Member Care?  Not merely because it’s good practice, prudent risk management, an effective witness to the people the short-termers are working with, or a good recruiting model since happy short-termers can evolve into long-termers.  Because we love.  Because we care.  Because we don’t want to be the unwitting cause of people’s long-term spiritual and emotional damage.  Or, as our friends at Missionary Care put it:

Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the Great Commandment

Sacred Pathways

Sacred PathwaysDo you ever have the troubling feeling that while everyone around you in church is having an amazing experience of God, you are feeling nothing at all?  You wonder if there is something wrong with you.  Are you having a spiritual crisis?  Have you lost your faith?

Such thoughts can be common among all Christians, but can be a particular challenge for mission workers who may have a much narrower choice of churches, and find their ministry needs them worshipping as part of a church which is intentionally geared towards meeting the needs of the local believers.  This can make a significant contribution to levels of stress and mislead people into thinking they are not cut out for the mission field.

People feeling like this may find Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Pathways helpful.  I’ve used it many times to help people understand why they may feel they don’t fit in.  Thomas’ simple theory is that we all meet God in different ways, so what works for one isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.  He has come up with nine different types of people:

Naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, intellectuals.

Needless to say, people are not necessarily all one and none of the others, but a mixture, though a dominant type will probably be present.  The beauty of the names he gives is that they are readily accessible.  It’s pretty intuitive to know whether you are an activist or a caregiver, though he does go into an explanation of each in the book.

So what does it mean for the frustrated mission worker?  The first thing to say is that it’s not a licence to stop being part of a church!  It’s a tool to help you understand why your church doesn’t work well for you and what you can do about it.  So, for example, if you’re a naturalist you’re much more likely to meet God out of doors than inside, so make sure you get some nature in your spiritual life, possibly by going to a park to read the Bible.  If you’re a traditionalist you need some sort of routine, so if your church is the sort that does something different every week, compensate for that by introducing routine, or even liturgy, into your personal devotional time.

Sacred pathways is available from many online bookshops and you can read more about it on Gary Thomas’ website: www.garythomas.com/books/sacred-pathways where you can also download the study guide and read a sample chapter. The study guide gives helpful descriptions, examples of famous people who represent each type, scriptures and songs for aid in worship and suggestions of pitfalls one can fall into.

Let’s hope that this simple but effective understanding can help jaded Christians re-engage with God in a way that is suitable for their personality!

Marriage in mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman, Northfield 1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Round the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know yourself “Inside Out”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Yoda)

More burnout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Given 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?

House of cards

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

dark portraitThis 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:

Lack 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.

Loneliness: 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.