Resilience – learning how to bounce back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee – a fragrant aroma

Ripe coffee berries

Ripe coffee berries

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

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

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

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

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

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

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

A review of Syzygy’s year

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-aged mission workers in crisis?

Souce: www.sxc.hu

Souce: www.sxc.hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how can we prevent this happening?

Mission workers can:

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

Churches and agencies can:

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

Praying creatively for your mission workers

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

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: www.sxc.hu)

Source: www.sxc.hu

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

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

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

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

 Where is home?

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

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

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

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

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

Hard at work?

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Early in the 1900s, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was pondering why some European countries had evolved into industrial powerhouses while others still had largely agrarian economies.

He realised that the former group were the Protestant countries of northern Europe, while the latter group largely comprised the Mediterranean and Balkan countries where the predominant denomination was either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.  He concluded that some aspect of Protestantism must be responsible for industrialisation, and the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic was born.

Weber concluded that the teaching of the protestant reformers, reinforced by later writers like Benjamin “time is money” Franklin, placed an ethical value on hard work, diligence and frugality as the outward evidence of salvation.  The negative value Protestants placed on ostentation meant that many of those who had wealth, particularly the non-conformists, re-invested it rather than spent it, resulting in the build up of capital and the start of capitalism.

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

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

(with acknowledgements to Rob Cottingham)

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

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

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Souce: (www.sxc.hu)

Mission workers often typify this situation.  Overworked into a joyless drudgery, they continue to drive themselves dutifully while drying up on the inside.  They call it ‘laying down their lives’.  But it is in many situations an unnecessary and unrequired sacrifice.

Syzygy believes that the PWE has contributed significantly to the overwork and stress that cripples mission workers, leading to burnout.  They carry the weight of their responsibility heavily, and feel guilty if they stop to enjoy themselves.

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

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

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

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

Brazil – what happens when it all goes wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring stress

Source: www,sxc.hu

Source: www,sxc.hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And relax...

And relax…

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

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

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

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.