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.

Housing for Home Assignment

to letHousing for home assignment is frequently a huge headache for mission workers.  In fact, it’s probably the single biggest challenge, though for many mission workers, their family and church may not even recognise this.  So for starters, here’s a summary of the challenges:

If you’re single – You may end up moving in with your parents.  While this is potentially demeaning for any adult, it may also put pressure on your relationships (particularly if your mum keeps asking when she’s going to need to go shopping for a hat).  Or you may end up in a spare room at a friend’s house.  This can be great fun when it works, but you may be acutely aware that it’s not your home and you need to work around somebody else’s space.  At other times singles can end up in a succession of different places, often staying with strangers, which can be emotionally demanding no matter how hospitable they are.

If you’re a couple – People take couples’ needs more seriously than singles, recognising that you need your own space.  You’re more likely to get a home of your own, but it’s still not always easy.

Sharing accommodation isn't always easy

Sharing accommodation isn’t always easy

If you’re a family – The bigger your family, the bigger the challenge.  It can be very hard to stay with friends due to the lack of space, but the rising cost of renting in the UK means you may not be able to afford somewhere large enough, and lack of space can put pressure on your family relationships.  Families sometimes find themselves living far from friends, church and family, because they have to take what accommodation they can get.  It doesn’t help the children form a positive impression of their parents’ home country.

Syzygy recommends that mission workers get a place of your own if this is at all possible.  It gives you the private space you need to process all that’s gone on in your life on the field, and to deal with the pressures of adjusting to life in the UK (see Reverse Culture Shock).  But renting is expensive, and it can be very hard to get a rental contract for less than a year, so there are a number of different solutions:

Multi-generational occupancy can be fun

Multi-generational occupancy can be fun

Live in your own house – If you own a house, ask your tenants to move out so that you can live in it.  It can help with a settling back into your ‘home’ but the challenge with this option is that your income drops though you still have to pay the mortgage.  You also run the risk of not being able to let it again when you leave, although you can take the opportunity to do routine repairs which may help you get a better rent.

Save up money while you are overseas to set aside to pay rent when you return.  Living back in your sending country may be significantly more expensive than being in the field, so setting aside a little every month (yes, I know it’s hard!) can help with this.

Ask your family/church/agency to help pay for the rent.  Don’t be shy!  They may not even have realised it’s a problem and could be happy to help.  Churches in particular may need to be reminded of your needs.

Time-share a rental with other mission workers from the same church or town.  You might be able to find other people sent from the same town as you who can synchronise their home assignment with yours, so that you can get a year’s rental agreement and take six months of it each.

Borrow a home from someone going overseas.  Agencies can help arrange this, even if you’re not a member, as their short term mission workers will need to fill their homes while they’re abroad.  Do some networking with other agencies in your field before you leave.  Christian Home Exchange Fellowship may also be able to help.

Ask Syzygy.  We know of one or two housing options that we can’t publicise, but contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Ask Oscar.  The mission worker’s second favourite website (after this one!) has lists of the various options, including agencies and private lettings.  Just click here.

Other long-term solutions can include forming partnerships with other mission workers to buy a property which can be used like a time-share, or if you know a number of mission workers from related churches in the same area, you may be able to encourage the churches to club together to buy a property for use as a mission home.  One church I know bought a small development of flats and now rents most of them commercially, giving the church an income while they leave one flat permanently available for mission workers.

It’s also really important to gather a team around you, if you don’t have one already, who will prepare your accommodation.  A group of friends, relatives and supporters who can source, rent and clean a home before you return, make sure it’s furnished and has food in the fridge, is a real blessing.  Some churches collect and store everything from sofas to cutlery so that it can be used to kit out a rented house.

One thing that is important to stress is that having the right accommodation for your home assignment is a crucial element in managing the stress involved in returning to the UK, and it is well worth investing the time, energy and finance in finding the best solution.

Guest blog: getting a driving licence

govt office

Who’s next?

This week’s guest blogger is a good friend of Syzygy who has not written for us before, but we are not going to identify her as we do not wish to shame publicly the country in which she is working – Ed.

Today I decided to tackle one of the jobs that had long been on my “To Do” list: convert our UK driving licences to local ones.  The website states that this is a simple process.  So with that in mind I headed down to the Ministry.

It is possible to pay someone to go and convert your UK driving licence for you, but the going rate is about £55 so I decided that I would do it myself.  As the only female and the only foreigner in the area I was somewhat of an oddity (no change there!).  But people were very helpful in pointing me to the correct queues to stand in.  The process requires a number of steps, all of which can be expedited by paying a middleman extra money to push your paperwork to the front of the queue.  But I decided that I did not want any special privileges – I am often uncomfortable with the way a foreigner will/can queue jump while nationals are expected to patiently let them through.  So I dutifully joined the line.

The man with the key has gone...

The man with the key has gone…

There were many different steps in the process, which involved various trips up and down the stairs of the building and into different offices to get my papers stamped.  At one point there was a little confusion as to whether my husband had to be present for his medical to be signed off (he didn’t) and as to whether we needed to take a driving test (phew, we didn’t).

All went smoothly, if at a rather pedestrian pace, and I made friends with the others in the queue alongside me, until I had to head upstairs for the Big Man to sign off my licence.  I presented him with all the paperwork required and he asked me questions about what we were doing here and then demanded letters from the different hospitals I have worked in and from our local employer, all of which I knew were not really required.  When I left his office (with unsigned papers) the man next to me explained that he had been wanting me to pay a “facilitation fee” to complete my licence.

This is something we do not do.  I was rather unsure how to proceed after this.  However, the doctor who had completed my medical form was affronted on my behalf at being asked to pay more than I should and he decided to act as an advocate for me, stating that I would not get the licence without his help.  This basically involved him escorting me back to the Big Man’s office and speaking up for me – to a somewhat humbled official!  As a result after a further 5 different office visits (a total of 12 different stages) and 4 hours later I left with two new driving licences.

The official handshake

The official handshake

This it was an important lesson for me – the feeling of helplessness in the face of power and bureaucracy and even though I knew I was in the right, I was powerless to change the situation.  My naivety at trying to be treated just the same as locals when unfortunately in this country my skin colour affords me both privilege and extra hassles!  The realisation that the lower down office workers helpfully completed their jobs, with no fuss or demands, however, those with the power often use this to their own advantage and abuse their position.

I was so thankful to the kind young doctor who spoke up against this for me.  Without him I think I would have left empty handed.  Indeed many of my friends have since told me of their 5 day efforts to get a licence or being made to take a driving test  – all because they too would not pay a bribe.  This situation is a sad reality replicated across many countries in so many situations.  Those in power often wield it unevenly.  The services they should provide equitably often become only available to those with a friend in the right places or with the money to pay, leaving those who are low down in society, the poor and uneducated, without a voice to speak out and needing someone who will advocate for them.

An interesting ebook on Bribery and the Bible is available from www.missionarycare.com

Guilt and shame

40288_without_face___1One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

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

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

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

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

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

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

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

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

Myers Briggs

ISTJ Head (Copyright CPP)

ISTJ Head (Copyright CPP)

I have mentioned previously the benefit of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a tool for managing stress through self-understanding and this seems a good time to revisit it.  Understanding what makes us tick can be critical for our relationships, both personal and professional, and finding the best way for us to live and work from a position of rest instead of stress.

MBTI is a simple and effective way of working out how you fit into the world, and it has four separate scales according to how you would answer these four questions:

  • Do you prefer engaging with the world outside you or the world inside?
  • Are you a details person or an ideas person?
  • Do you prioritise principles or people?
  • Do you like to be planned or spontaneous?
Harry Potter characters - which personality type are they?

Harry Potter characters – which personality type are they?

The real MBTI analysis is much more complex than that, and is scarily accurate.  It takes your measurements on each of these four scales and distils them into one of sixteen personality types.  Frequently people read the synopsis for their personality type and comment that they could have written it themselves! It’s important to stress that there are no wrong or right answer to these, just preferences, and while some people might clearly be right at one end of one of the spectrums, others may be somewhere near the middle.  It doesn’t matter because we’re all different, but knowing your own response to these questions may help you understand why you like to do things in a certain way, and why other people may misunderstand you.

For example, I like to be planned, which means I value order and structure.  I like everything in its place and an agreed process for doing things.  When I’m stressed, I can become insistent on putting rules in place because it helps me establish some order and create an environment I can feel comfortable with.  But someone who isn’t like me could see my attempt to create order as needless bureaucracy, and I have been accused (unjustly in my opinion!) of being controlling, because I don’t value the flexibility that is important to them.

ISTJ stress head (Copyright CPP)

ISTJ stress head (Copyright CPP)

Recently there have been several different ways of expressing MBTI types in a commonly accessible way.  These have included characters from Star Wars or Harry Potter, which are creative and amusing, but one of the most effective ones is a simple icon developed by CPP.  This consists of a head for each personality type, together with key words associated with it.  There is also a corresponding ‘stress’ head which has the key words which are associated with stress for that personality type.  If you know your MBTI, you’ll find them interesting, and if you don’t, you may be able to work it out from these, though it needs to be said that these are no substitute for doing a proper analysis with a professional trainer.  You can find the complete set at the CPP website.

In my opinion, doing an MBTI test should be an essential part of preparing for cross-cultural mission, as it helps equip us to be more self-aware and to get along better with our fellow team members.  That in turn reduces stress and helps us to minimise attrition.

You can find out more about MBTI from the Myers & Briggs Foundation.  If you would like to do an MBTI, contact info@syzygy.org.uk and we can facilitate one for you.

Other personality analysis tools are available.

Avoiding Chronic Fatigue

Source: www,sxc.hu

Source: www,sxc.hu

As we observed in a previous blog about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), many mission workers are prime candidates for suffering from this particularly pernicious illness.  Having said that, while we want to take this opportunity to warn people against it, we must be clear that this is an illness which can strike anyone.  It is a genuine medical condition and it is not a psychosomatic condition or a state of mind.

Nevertheless, it is also clear that while it can attack anybody, many of the people who suffer from it are overworked or highly stressed, and it appears that something about being under stress may weaken the victim’s ability to resist CFS, which typically follows a viral infection when the body’s immune reserves are already low.  So here are some of the steps that we can take to minimise the risk of succumbing to CFS.

Avoid getting ill!  Field health awareness training often forms part of the initial training for mission workers, but after our initial training we all tend to assume we know it all.  That’s when we fall into bad habits.  So it does no harm to review the basics.  Avoiding dehydration and exposure to the sun, maintaining a healthy diet, regular handwashing, taking appropriate prophylactics (particularly for malaria), ensuring our inoculations are up to date, and taking vitamin pills if necessary are all ways of ensuring that we remain generally healthy and avoid infection.

Look after number 1!  Taking care of yourself is not a popular concept among mission workers, who often think in terms of ‘laying down our lives’, but if we have a calling on our lives, surely our primary responsibility is to ensure that we stay well enough to fulfil that calling.  It is futile to work hard at it for a couple of years and then find ourselves invalided out of the field.  Way back in the seventeenth century Vincent de Paul, who himself was a noted charity worker, wrote:

It is a trick of the Devil, which he employs to deceive good souls,

to incite them to do more than they are able,

in order that they may no longer be able to do anything.

 

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Recognise our motivation.  While I’m sure we would all primarily claim to be serving God, what lies behind that motivation?  Despite our common belief that we are unconditionally loved by God, and are assured of our salvation, I find plenty of evidence that many of us are still trying to earn God’s love and pay for our place in heaven.  Or perhaps we are trying to prove to a long-dead grandparent, teacher or pastor that we can actually achieve something with our lives despite what they told us.  Others may be trying to gain significance, or to meet their own personal need to be needed.

Make appropriate lifestyle changes.  Armed with the self-awareness we have gained from above, how can we live more sustainably?  Key factors include learning to say no, recognising that just because something needs to be done it doesn’t mean we have to do it ourselves, cultivating ways of relaxing such as taking up a hobby, making time for regularly times of reflection, prioritising quality time with family or friends, and ensuring that we take our full holiday entitlement.

Hopefully, making such adjustments to our lifestyles will help us to stay healthier, and avoid exposing ourselves to unwanted illnesses like CFS.

For those people in the field, Syzygy delivers a day seminar called Why do we Choose to be Stressed? which deals with why we get stressed in the first place, and how we can manage our lifestyles more sustainably.  Please get in touch with us on info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.

Culture shock

Company's Gardens, Cape Town

Company’s Gardens, Cape Town

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

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

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

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

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

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

Strange food?

Strange food?

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

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

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

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

Managing your agency effectively

trainingMany mission workers do not go to the field expecting to become leaders within their own organisations.  They go because they want to plant churches, do student work, or fulfil any of a number of other frontline roles.  Yet after a couple of terms they find themselves among the longest-serving people in their team, and are given a team leadership role.  Yet they may not have the management skills and leadership gifting to help them in their role as junior management.  Their previous life may not have involved any management training, and they might not have had much opportunity to develop any leadership skills they have.

This has negative consequences for them and for their team.  Uncomfortable in their role, and somewhat guilty that they’re no longer doing the job they felt they were called to, they can either resort to an authoritarian leadership style, or abdicate their responsibility which leaves their team without direction.  The whole team suffers and leaders burn out quickly.

Growth-Engineering-Vision-MissionLast year, Syzygy took our first step in addressing this issue by teaming up with Springdale College: Together in Mission to produce our mentoring programme for mission leaders with Rick Lewis.  Now we’re able to add to that another joint project with Springdale – The Christian Executive Leader’s Course.

This course (or CEL, as we are calling it) acknowledges the fact that many people in executive leadership, whether in the UK or in the field, have had little opportunity for management training or to develop their natural giftings, and therefore are not fully equipped for the day to day task of running an agency.  As a result they can suffer unnecessary levels of stress, and can contribute to organisational inefficiency, or even collapse.

Our course looks to address this issue by providing training in financial management, HR, law, accounting and strategic management, among other things.  Modelled on equivalent secular management courses, each topic is delivered by qualified professionals in their field, and is available at a fraction of the cost that might normally be charged commercially.

Running for a full week, from 28th October to 1st November, CEL will be delivered in a quality management training centre in Birmingham.  Accommodation and all meals are included in the cost, and activities are organised for each evening to ensure that full value is delivered.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident that this will be an excellent course, equipping CEOs and directors to be more effective in managing their agencies.

 

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Source: sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Sadly, Syzygy has encountered several cases of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)* among mission workers recently.  For those who have not discovered it yet, this is a post-viral illness which leaves the victim feeling incredibly weary, both emotionally and physically.  Sufferers may be confined to a wheelchair, unable to do even basic tasks, and find it hard to motivate themselves to deal with even the simplest tasks, even though their outward appearance is unaffected.  This has led to unhelpful suggestions that victims should ‘pull themselves together’ or ‘stop malingering’, because it is hard for those who don’t have CFS to understand how debilitating it is. One former sufferer explained it by saying:

 “Imagine you have the toughest week at work.  Colleagues have been off work and you’ve had to take on their responsibilities.  There’s been a crisis and your boss is furious that you let it happen.  You’ve worked late every night this week to keep pace so your partner is annoyed when you get home late.  Your kids have been ill and are up at night so you’re not sleeping.  There’s a heatwave and everyone’s losing their tempers, and the gridlock is worse than ever.  How do you feel on Friday night?  That’s how I feel on Monday morning.”

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Although it has been known for some 30 years, this illness still is little understood, and there is no generally-accepted medical cure for it, although some alternative therapies claim success, and the use of anti-depressants can help mitigate the symptoms.  Syzygy knows people who have been miraculously healed and others who have recovered with the help of neuro-linguistic programming, but for most people the illness can persist for many years, and they simply learn to live with it.

So why might it affect mission workers?  There is some evidence that CFS affects people who are highly stressed, with the  suggestion that people who get it may be overworked or have been through a recent emotional trauma.  This may indicate that as an illness it is potentially more widespread, but people who have been suffering from stress are for some reason less able to fight it off than others.  Syzygy’s experience is that many mission workers lead extremely stressful lives, with long working hours, emotionally-challenging situations (frequently at the hands of their colleagues), significant responsibility and heavy burdens.  In addition to this, many of us pay insufficient attention to keeping ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically fit and to healthily managing our stress-responses.  We are susceptible to fatigue and burnout.  Which means we are prime candidates for CFS.

Some of the people we know who have CFS have helped us compile a short checklist which may help those who are struggling with this difficult illness.

What to do if you have CFS

  • Don’t feel guilty.  You’re ill, so take sick leave for as long as it takes.  The needs of your organisation, church or ministry are not your problem.  Your health is.
  • Make sure you get complete medical support.  Sometimes something as simple as a vitamin injection can help, though it’s not a cure.
  • Listen to your body and get to know the signs of impending exhaustion.  Don’t wait to stop till it’s too late.
  • Don’t fight it.  Recognise that you’re ill and there are certain things you can no longer do even if the devil tells you you’re lazy.  Having said that, it’s good to have little targets, like getting out of the house every day, just to make some small victories.
  • Don’t be afraid to get prayer.  Sometimes the disappointment of not being healed holds people back from getting prayer, but who knows if this is God’s time for your healing?
  • Learn to take regular breaks between activities.
  • Conserve your energy for things that are really important.  Don’t waste it doing things you don’t need to, or seeing people you don’t really like.
  • You may find a support group helpful, but take care it encourages you rather than dragging you down.
  • As you start recovering, take the opportunity to reflect on your work/life balance, your motivations and attitudes as decide what changes you can make so that you live more sustainably.

How you can support people who have CFS

  • Recognise that CFS is a real illness.  The people who have it are not lazy and would love more than anything else to get better.  Read up on it so that you are well-informed.
  • Understand that it can take all the energy they have just to get to the bathroom.  They’re often not able to pray or read the Bible, and many can’t even think clearly.  So they’re not ‘enjoying a rest’.
  • CFS sufferers can find it hard to process information, as thinking takes energy.  They can’t handle complex conversations, challenging plotlines or demanding literature, so don’t bombard them with books and DVDs.  The exception to this rule is Tony Horsfall’s excellent Working from a Place of Rest which is easy to read and profoundly helpful.
  • Appreciate that anything which takes emotional energy is exhausting.  Even conversing with friends can be demanding, so please limit your contact, and be understanding if they ask you to leave.
  • People with CFS can get very frustrated with their limitations, so be tolerant if they are irritable.
  • If you’re married to someone with CFS, recognise that they may have no energy to invest in the relationship, either emotionally or physically.  Sorry, but this is not the time for you to be making demands on them.  That will only make them worse.
  • When they get better, people who’ve had CFS will be incredibly appreciative of those who’ve supported them.  It may make them a better person.
(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Source: www.sxc.hu

In our experience, CFS can be a transformative life experience, and people come out the other side with a new understanding of themselves, God, and their approach to life.  Many say that it was ultimately worthwhile going through it all, and talk about it not as lost years, but as invested years.  This may be little encouragement to those still suffering, but we pray that this will eventually be your response too.

You can learn more about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from the NHS website or the ME Association.  If you are suffering from CFS, do please contact us for more specific advice on info@syzygy.org.uk.  A followup blog will address issues of maintaining our general wellbeing so that we minimise the risk of getting CFS.

* CFS is also known as Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME) or Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS)

Sowing what you did not reap

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Planting out rice seedlings in Cambodia

I am sending you to harvest in fields where others have done all the hard work for you. (John 4:38)

Sometimes we hear stories of miraculous revivals which seem to have no preparatory work involved.  They just seem to spring out of nowhere.  Historically we might think of the Welsh revival, or the Karen turning to Christ in response to Adoniram Judson’s preaching, or the arrival of Christianity in Korea following the death of Robert Thomas.  They’re not just historical though, and such revivals continue to happen today, for example in parts of Latin America, India and Africa.  Even south Wales.  People who reap such harvests are often praised, as if somehow they’ve done something innovative or creative to make revival happen.  These blessed few get to speak at conferences, publish books, and tell their story over and over again to admiring churches.  They attract followers, their organisation grows, and they’re able to achieve more and more.  They become CEOs.

At the same time, there are probably many thousands of mission workers globally who are struggling hard yet reaping very little.  Their churches may not be growing, their projects not entirely effective.  They are plagued with self-doubt, yet continually strive harder in order to achieve more.  Or they may be under pressure from sending churches or support partners.  ‘What are you doing out there?’  ‘Is it really effective?’  ‘Are you sure you’re not wasting your time (translation: our money)?’  You’re probably one of them.   Working hard, sowing seed from which there is no obvious harvest.  Such mission workers are often at risk of burnout, leaving their ministry early, and possibly even beginning to have doubts in their faith.  Yet their hard work may be planting the seed which others will harvest a generation later.

Image source: www.sxc.hu

Image source: www.sxc.hu

This apparent injustice will be familiar to many of us.  It’s also Biblical.  Jonah, despite his initial reluctance, was the Bible’s most successful mission worker.  In just one day of ministry an entire megacity repented (Jonah 3:4-5).  By the grace of God (Jonah complained), and not because of Jonah’s oratory.  Philip saw revival in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), and Peter saw a small revival break out spontaneously in Caesarea when he went to visit a centurion (Acts 10:44-48).  Yet Paul, at one stage of his ministry, wandered around for weeks looking for the right place (Acts 16:6-8).  He was ineffective in Athens (Acts 17:32-34).  And most of the Old Testament prophets had nothing but jeering and opposition to their ministries.

If we could bottle ministry success it would be a best seller.  But we can’t.  Most of us have absolutely no idea why our ministry thrives, or doesn’t.  But what is probably true is that it has less to do with our strategy, or effort and our resourcing than it does on the grace of God.  When God chooses to move sovereignly to bring revival, it will not be because one pastor has a good idea.  It will be because God chooses to bless a particular church, town or people group.  At the moment we are seeing incredible revival among Iranians.  It has little to do with the church’s outreach.  It’s just because that suits God’s purpose.

It can be easy for us to let success go to our heads, or to allow failure to discourage us.  But recognition that it is God’s decision where revival breaks out relieves the pressure on us and allows us to do two things.  The first is to pray.  If God is on the move, the best strategy is to find out what’s on God’s heart and ask if we can join in.  Sometimes God will say yes, in which there’s no credit to us when it goes well.  If God wants us to work somewhere else, that is God’s decision and the result does not reflect badly on us either.

The second is to embrace humility, whether we have the outward trappings of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  If it’s in God’s hands, it’s not in ours, so we can deserve neither blame nor credit.  And we should remember that the Bible does not call us to be successful – it calls us to be faithful and fruitful.  Faithful in serving God wherever we are called, and fruitful in the process of doing that.  The fruit we bear may be numerical, or in the maturity of our church, but it may also be in the personal character growth that comes with perseverance when we appear to be unsuccessful.  To serve where God wants, and to serve how God wants, is the ultimate in faithfulness and fruitfulness.  We can only be responsible for ourselves.  And leave the results in God’s hands.

Serving as Singles

Andy MurrayThis week’s blog is not a reference to the tennis championships at Wimbledon, but a consideration of the needs of single mission workers serving the Lord cross-culturally.

Not long ago, the HR director of a UK mission agency told me that they recommend that all their married mission partners do a marriage refresher course while they are on home assignment.  This is good practice as it will help them think about the damage caused to their relationship by their time in the field, and help them strengthen their marriage to be more resilient in the future.

However the same agency makes no similar recommendation to its single mission partners for dealing with their singleness!

And, to be honest, even if they did, it wouldn’t be easy for their mission partners to find the appropriate resources.  Marriage enrichment courses abound.  You can find them run at retreat centres or in many churches (see Relationship Central for more information).  Yet where do you find any resource to help singles?  It’s an issue that is not adequately addressed, despite the increasing number of singles in our churches.

mi1Syzygy is very happy to be able to redress this balance.  We are happy to be partnering with Penhurst Retreat Centre, whose amazing ministry we have profiled before, to provide a 48 hour guided retreat for single mission workers in early September.

Serving as Singles is a celebration of singleness in ministry.  This retreat will be an affirming time helping single mission workers embrace their situation in life, look to Christ to provide our needs, and discuss strategies for coping with the difficult aspects of being single. There will be time for teaching, discussion, prayer, silence and laughter. It is open to all singles involved in mission whether unmarried, divorced or widowed.  Above all, we will be pointed back to Jesus as the lover of our soul, to spend time with him, listening to what he has to say to us.

Penhurst is a quiet, cozy retreat centre deep in the lovely Sussex countryside, which provides plenty of opportunity for rest and reflection.  It is an ideal place for an event such as this.  To book your place, visit the Penhurst website.  But do it quickly, as places are strictly limited!

Mission report – Mozambique

Typical scenery in Mozambique

Typical scenery in Mozambique

Recently Syzygy was back on the road again, as Tim went travelling in Mozambique for two weeks.  Visiting old friends Aaron & Sarah Beecher, Tim was also able to visit and encourage a number of other mission workers in the area.

The first event was Staying Healthy for the Long Haul.  It was attended by 23 people from several ministries working in Mozambique, along with Christian expats in business locally.  We spent time considering the principal internal pressures we place on ourselves which reduce our capacity to manage stress.  Then we identified some of the most significant external demands on us, and thought about strategies to manage and reduce them.  Given that stress is a key factor in mission attrition, it is important to address such issues.  Our discussions focussed on helping mission workers develop the emotional intelligence to understand their inner drivers, recognise how this influences their choices and become empowered so that the are no longer dominated by them.  Much conversation followed over the next two weeks.  One of the participants said:

There was so much good quality material we could have spent the whole weekend reflecting on it!

Others who were unable to be there were disappointed when they found out how helpful it was.  Syzygy is now able to bring this day-long workshop to other locations to help mission workers.

Quality metalworking at Tariro

Quality metalworking at Tariro

For the first time in nine years, Tim was able to visit Tariro, a technical school teaching high quality carpentry, metalwork and motor mechanics to Mozambican students.  It was encouraging to see so much development in this significant ministry and find it having such a powerful impact on the neighbourhood in terms not only of training, but of the spread of the gospel and a consistent Christian witness.  Tim spent two mornings providing Bible teaching to all the students which generated significant discussion among them about how Christians should live, particularly bearing in mind their witness to the local community.  It was also encouraging to see the long term training and discipling of key workers in the community leading to their ability to take responsibility and hold key roles in Tariro.  One man who was raised in a local orphanage and joined Tariro as a teenager is now the Vice-Principal and is studying for a technical degree.

Mural at Africa 180

Mural at Africa 180

Tim also spent plenty of time visiting the mission workers at Africa 180, a local ministry of I Reach Africa, a most impressive agency with great compassion and a ‘can do’ mentality.  Dedicated staff there run a number of ministries including prison outreach, a clinic with a nutritional programme for babies, a pre-school and a developing secondary school.  This too is a powerfully compassionate witness in the local community.

There were also plenty of opportunities to preach, teach, and provide one-to-one support for mission workers.  Tim caught up with a number of old friends, and engaged in a variety of ministry with them.

We are very grateful for your prayers for the effectiveness of this mission, which helped bring results in a number of challenging situations.  Please continue to pray for the work of the missions mentioned above, and the people who work with them.  Life in Mozambique is far from easy for mission workers, with many challenges varying from a tough spiritual climate to large quantities of poorly-driven lorries on the congested roads.  Their spiritual, emotional and physical well-being is always at stake.

Book review: Honourably Wounded

Honourably woundedSadly, many overseas mission workers are wounded in the course of their ministry – as a result of burnout, spiritual fatigue, enemy action and sometimes even ‘friendly fire’.  Many of them return to life in their sending country with a deep sense of loss for the ministry they have left behind, and mourning for the lost relationships.  Often their churches do not know how to help them, and the agencies one might expect to be able to help them have often been part of the problem, so there is no opportunity for supportive dialogue.  Syzygy often meets people who still have unresolved issues many years after the field.  They don’t know how to handle their hurt, or even explain it to themselves let alone others.

Dr Marjory Foyle spent 30 years as a mission worker in India and Nepal, initially as a medical doctor and then as a psychiatrist.  Her work on understanding the need for better care for mission workers led her to become one of the founders of the member care sector.  Her seminal work Honourably Wounded (Monarch 2010, ISBN 978-0825463334) is a small book which has had a major impact on how churches, sending agencies and mission workers understand and deal with the emotional and psychological damage that can be caused to workers on the mission field.  To those who have been wounded in action, it has been a huge comfort to know that someone understands and can help.

Much of mission workers’ inability to cope well with stress is due to the false conception of ‘laying down our lives for the Lord.’  This is often taken to mean that we deny ourselves everything wholesome and enjoyable in order to get on with the task we have been given.  Marjory points out that:

“dedication and commitment to God, while essential if we want to go on with God, do not mean the wholesale denial  of the real person within, but provide us with freedom to expand, develop, and enjoy the good things God has created”.

MarjorieMarjory’s book is highly readable, honestly addressing difficult situations, and bringing good psychiatric awareness to the layman.  It covers a wide range of subjects including depression, culture shock, occupational stress and interpersonal relations, and it has an extensive bibliography which is also informative.  Marjory’s extensive experience of missions, and of the problems people can encounter has fed into a very practical resource.  She has a clear understanding of the dynamics or the relationships between family members, colleagues and the local culture and places all this in a firm biblical context.

While Marjory’s biblical understanding informs every chapter, the final one – a God’s Biblical Model for Member Care  – makes it abundantly clear that God doesn’t want his workers burning themselves out and is passionate about their health.  She writes of mission workers: Because there is always such a lot to do and they feel personally responsible, they overwork and use up a vast amount of physcial and mental energy with inadequate recharging of batteries.”  This book is her response to that problem.

If you have been wounded in action, or are trying to help someone who has been, this is the single best resource you can buy.

Syzygy in Mozambique

Sunrise in Mozambique

Sunrise in Mozambique

One of the things that Syzygy loves to do is to get out in the field and visit mission workers.  It helps us keep an up-to-date perspective on the challenges they are facing, and learn more about the challenges of cross-cultural ministry in the 21st century.  By conducting research in the field we are able to keep our advice and our blogs relevant and appropriate.  Field visits also give us a wonderful opportunity to meet with overworked mission partners and help be part of restoring their strength and energy.

This month Tim is going to Mozambique.  He’s going to stay with our old friends Aaron & Sarah Beecher at Tariro where he’ll be doing some biblical teaching at a conference for the staff and students.  He’s also going to be running a workshop for mission workers in the region (see our recent article Staying Healthy) and we hope this will lead to further opportunities to meet and encourage people we’ve not yet connected with.  Often when we’ve done events like this before, the participants request individual conversations which can keep us busy for the rest of the week!

Being familiar with some of the challenges of living and working in the area (Tim spent a year there, many years ago, before moving on to Zimbabwe), we anticipate that there will be many challenges in counselling people, dealing with issues arising from long-term cross-cultural fatigue, workplace conflict and reconciliation issues.  Mozambique is a difficult place to minister, with little opportunities for r&r or even good in field fellowship with other mission workers.  So we anticipate this will be a far-from-easy trip.  And we’re not going anywhere near a beach!

A long walk home

A long walk home

Tim’s schedule involves flying out on 4th June, changing flights in Cairo and Johannesburg before arriving in Beira the next day.  Staying Healthy  takes place at Tariro on 8th June and the staff conference will be a few days later.  Tim leaves Mozambique again on 17th June.

Please partner with us on this ministry trip by praying for:

safe travel, and making the right flight connections

the successful delivery of Staying Healthy

useful and constructive connections to arise from Staying Healthy

wisdom and anointing in counselling, advising and helping mission workers

God-given appointments we haven’t yet made

health, vitality and wisdom throughout the trip

clear communication with everyone!

We hope to bring you occasional updates via Facebook and Twitter during Tim’s visit.  If you don’t already follow us, click on the link so you don’t miss out.

Why do we choose to be stressed?

Orange lightMany mission workers slowly lose the capacity to perform well over time.  The reasons for this are many but can include:

  • the cumulative effects of living in a foreign culture
  • long-term workplace stress
  • toxic relationships with colleagues
  • sense of isolation and lack of support
  • the physical demands of living in a different climate
  • spiritual stagnation resulting from years of giving out while not receiving.

These issues, like the proverbial frog in a pan of boiling water, can sneak up on us unawares and drain our vitality, our joy and our ability to serve God.  We soldier on, not realising there’s a problem until one day we wake up and realise we just can’t go on any more.  The result can be physical illness, long-term fatigue or burnout.

Sadly, Syzygy meets with too many people in this situation.  If these issues remain untreated, they can even lead to psychological damage and loss of faith.  The resulting attrition is toxic to individual servants of God and prejudicial to effective mission.  We aim to prevent this happening.

Syzygy exists to help mission workers maintain themselves in peak condition to serve, and as part of this we have developed a one-day workshop designed to be delivered in-field to mission workers as a routine checkup.  Why do we Choose to be Stressed? will look at core issues like our identity in Christ, and help us to understand what makes us tick.  We will trainingexamine our motivations – which may in fact not be the ones we think they are!  Equipped with a better understanding of ourselves, we will then consider the steps we can take to help us cope with stress more effectively, learn how to take care of ourselves better and make suitable changes to our lifestyle so that we become more resilient and able to continue serving effectively.

We hope to make this workshop available in a variety of countries in the coming years.  If you would like to host one, please get in touch with us by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  The workshop is also suitable for delivery in the UK as part of home assignment retreats or briefings for new mission workers.

And on the Sabbath…

ChillingYou’re probably already aware that the Genesis account of creation tells us that God rested on the seventh day, but have you realised that God actually blessed it, and made it ‘holy’ (Genesis 2:3)?  God blessed humanity, and some of the animals too, but didn’t call us holy.  So the seventh day is clearly something important.

Holy doesn’t necessarily mean sombre or sacred, it can also mean separate or special.  The first thing God called special was a day off!  That says something about the significance of taking a regular day off.  You may know of the importance that the Jewish people have historically attached to their Sabbath, and while it has become somewhat rule-encrusted (as you will find if you ever go to Israel and get in a lift on the Sabbath – it stops on every floor so you don’t have to ‘work’ by pressing the button!) the traditional Jewish celebration of God, the Word and family is a good way to focus on what is really important in our lives.  Many Christians who have followed their example and tried to avoid work, shopping, DIY and other leisure activities on the Sabbath have discovered the blessing of a complete day of rest.

Of course, many Christians in ministry are not able to take their Sabbath on Friday/Saturday/Sunday as they are often ministering in church.  They may try to take a day off in lieu during the week, but this doesn’t always work so well as children are in school, colleagues who are still at work make phone calls, church members have needs and the general temptation to shop, catch up on emails or do the housework can eat away at that precious time with God and family.

RelaxingMany of us, of course, believe that every day is Sabbath, in the sense that it is a day dedicated for serving God, but while it is true, this understanding has helped to undermine the sense of setting aside a day for stopping and restoring the soul.  But this one day off a week, whenever we take it, is part of God’s plan to help us avoid becoming workaholics and burning out with constant striving.  It is important to get rest.  Recently I was involved in preparing the job description for my church’s new minister, and I wrote into it ‘You will take one complete day off each week’ because I believe that without stopping and recharging the batteries regularly, we can quickly run them down.

God, of course, did not need to recuperate from creating the entire universe.  The Hebrew word Shabbat from which we get ‘Sabbath’ implies sitting, being still, or stopping.  We might easily in modern language say ‘chill’.  I can just imagine God and Adam, lying on recliners by a pond somewhere, having a drink together and chatting.  Some gentle hanging out together.  We should remember that Adam was created on the sixth day of the week, and on the seventh, like God, he chilled.  Adam’s first day on the job was a day off!  The result was that he started his work rested and refreshed.  He didn’t need the Sabbath to recuperate from the previous week; he had it to prepare for the coming one.

Which is why our ministry works best if it flows from our place of rest rather than drives us to it.

Nurturing singles

crowd_aloneIn his book Being Single (2005, Darton, Longman & Todd), Philip B Wilson makes the following statement based on his research:

For many Christians who are single, church is not a welcoming or a comforting place to be.

The same could be said of many sending agencies as well.  Failure to nurture single mission workers can result in a cohort of lonely, unfulfilled and spiritually stagnating people who feel marginalised and who often believe the only answer to their unhappiness is to find the right life partner.

Given that many single people are destined to remain single for the rest of their lives (particularly women, who in most agencies and churches significantly outnumber the single men), any community which fails to affirm and accept singles risks hurting, stressing, alienating and possibly even rejecting a substantial part of its membership.

On behalf of single people everywhere, Syzygy has come up with a few suggestions to help both church and agency consider how they can promote wholeness for singles and avoid inadvertently creating a culture which assumes marriage is good and anything else is therefore bad.  Here is our list of the top five dos and don’ts.

Don’t:

  • Use the word ‘family’ indiscriminately, as in “We are a family church” or “We want to attract more families”.  While church should be family in the widest possible sense (Luke 8:21), using the word too loosely can repel those who are not a happy part of a nuclear family.  It is good to affirm families, but in doing take care so not to denigrate the rest of the church.
  • Expect marriage to be the answer to every problem that single people have.  It isn’t the answer to the problems of married people!
  • Marginalise single people so that they are kept on the fringes of the community.  They have as much right to belong as everyone else.  Affirming them creates an environment in which all people can be valued.
  • Assume that single people are lonely and unfulfilled until they ‘settle down’.  Many of them have a vibrant relationship with God, a fulfilling career and ministry, a good social life and they are very happy in their singleness (Matthew 19:12).
  • Matchmake without permission.  Single people can be offended by the assumption that they must be in want of a partner, even if they’re not in possession of a good fortune.  While matchmaking can be done out of care and compassion, it can communicate that you assume there is a deficiency in the life of a single person.

jump-727739Do:

  • Promote discipleship.  The closer we all grow to God, the more we realise that our real fulfilment is found in loving and serving God, and not in finding the right partner.
  • Pray that single people might be fulfilled in their singleness.  We frequently pray for God’s blessing on couples and families, so why leave out the singles?
  • Foster a caring, sharing community in which all people can develop meaningful relationships with others and nobody feels left out or uninvolved.  Encourage people to look out for one another’s needs (Philippians 2:4).
  • At significant seasonal events (e.g. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving) and on Sunday lunchtimes, encourage the community to open its doors to others rather than exclude them.  Single people often find it really hard to go home after the joy of church fellowship to eat a ham sandwich by themselves.
  • Welcome single people into leadership.  Because singles are often thoughtlessly lumped in together with young people due to their assumed ‘interim’ state , their giftings and abilities can be overlooked and they are often used simply as drones who are there to provide a labour force.

Syzygy continues to blog about the needs of single people, not because their needs are greater than those of people in relationships, but because their needs are more likely to be overlooked and unmet.  Syzygy is in the process of writing a book together with Dr Debbie Hawker which hopes to address these needs, and Tim is leading a retreat for single mission workers at Penhurst Retreat Centre in September.  Click here for more details.

With God in the desert

The Wilderness of Judea

The Synoptic Gospels all record that Jesus went out into the desert and spent 40 days there in prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his ministry.  That is a significant retreat, but going into the desert was not an uncommon thing to do in his day – John the Baptist had lived in the desert, and various Jewish monastic communities thrived there.  Later on, Christian ascetics would move there, and eventually many Christian monasteries started.

The desert is a place of transformation.  It represents the end of human existence.  Hunger and thirst, heat and cold render it inhospitable to humans, and the existence there of wild animals and outlaws makes it dangerous.  Yet here at the extremity of human survival, we meet God.  Both Moses (Exodus 3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) had powerful experiences of God in the desert which equipped them for future ministry.

But why go into such a place where survival is difficult?  What drew them there?  Surely it’s about more than just getting away from it all?

For the ancient Israelites, their first corporate experience was in the desert, and as they wrote their Scripture and told their stories that experience embedded itself in their cultural assumptions.  Yes it was dangerous – “were there not enough graves in Egypt?” they asked Moses (Exodus 14:11) – but in their extremity, they met God.

Water from the rock

In the desert God provided them with food, water, protection and guidance.  With their human existence hanging by a thread, they learned that with God, the desert is a safe place.  Most significantly, it was in the desert that they heard the voice of God (Deuteronomy 4:22-27).  It is not a coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for desert – midbar – can also be translated “He speaks”.

Today we don’t need to go into the desert to meet God.  We can meet God anywhere.  When we are at the end of our human endeavour, God provides.  When we have run out of strength in battling our human nature: controlling our tongue, managing our sex drive, mastering our temper – whatever our personal challenge is, that’s when we can turn to the grace of God to help us.  Perhaps that’s one meaning of Jesus’ teaching “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross…” (Luke 9:23).  It’s when we finally admit we can’t make ourselves better people, or do a better job, and allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives instead.

In my experience, too many cross-cultural mission workers are trying too hard to do more than they can or to be someone they’re not.  It drives many of us to burnout as we reach the limit of our ability to keep on striving.  That’s when we need to abandon ourselves to God to care for us.  We need to stop gritting our teeth and carrying on, and start letting God work in us and through us.  We need to let go of the illusion of strength and competence we project around us, and allow God to move through our brokenness and vulnerability.

The Spring of En-Gedi

The Gospels record that Jesus was in the habit of regularly going off by himself to pray.  That’s how he expressed his total dependence on the Father to teach him what to say (John 8:28) and show him what to do (John 5:19).  His entire ministry flowed from this dependence.  It is a ministry model we would do well to implement for ourselves.  We can’t always make the time to get away for an extended retreat, but we can take steps to do a retreat in daily life, and I’ll detail some of these in a future blog.

It is thought that David wrote Psalm 23 while hiding from Saul at the spring of En-Gedi, in the Judean wilderness.  It is a beautiful, refreshing stream in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).  Only when we are in the middle of the wilderness will we truly appreciate how God “leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)