Crushing your offspring

The geese at Penhurst Retreat Centre, where I’m staying while writing this blog, are much loved by many of the staff and guests here.  So there was great excitement when six eggs were discovered in a nest in March.

This was followed by disappointment as the eggs passed their due date, and then elation as they were found to have hatched, and then grief as the goslings didn’t survive.  It seems that they were crushed in the nest by their mother.  Perhaps she tried to continue incubating them to keep them warm, not realising they now needed to be able to breath.

The incident reminded me of how mission workers, in their love and care for the people they minister to, can inadvertently cause them harm too.  There are many ways in which we can do this.

We can be paternalistic.  It can be so easy to think that people are not yet ready to take responsibility.  We trust them with little because we don’t think they can be trusted with much.  We don’t set them free to fly.

We can be imperialistic.  Even today when there is so much training and discussion about cross-cultural adaptation we can inadvertently think that our way is right.  We all know that “West is best” is not correct, but we might often use the words ‘Biblical’ or ‘New Testament’ from a western perspective which doesn’t necessarily relate to the local believers.

We can be controlling.  Even if we stand back from things, we can accidentally play the role of puppet master.  We control the purse-strings because we know how to be accountable.  We ‘advise’ the local leadership.  We can informally express opinions which are taken seriously by others.  We exercise influence behind the scenes which means things are done the way we want.

We can be effective.  I know many of you will be wishing that you really were effective, but some of us are so good at what we do that there is no obvious need for others to develop.  Our mentorees grow up in the shadow of a good leader and find there is no need for them, so they don’t hone their own leadership skills.  Then when we move on, they struggle, because they have to take over without much in the way of experience.

We can work hard.  Often our workaholic efforts (see my denunciation of the Protestant Work Ethic) mean that we do so much we don’t invite our local colleagues to share the burden.  Perhaps we don’t think they will do it as well as we would and we don’t want to compromise effectiveness.  But we can inadvertently leave little work for them to do.  Go and play golf instead and let them cope without you.

One day you will leave your current assignment, whether through retirement, re-assignation, or death.  The people working with you will have to manage without you anyway.  It’s better to let them do it now while you’re there to pick up the pieces with them, than to let them grow older but not wiser.

Only when you get off your nest will we see whether your goslings have thrived or been crushed.  So it might be a good idea now to stand up and see how they’re getting on.  They might be ready to fly.

What Notre Dame tells us about our attachment to buildings

Photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash

The fire last weekend at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was a tragic and heart-rending experience for many.

In some of the live footage the gasps of the onlookers were audible as the tower fell.  Afterwards many people, particularly French ones, spoke of their sense of loss, their grief, their numbness in terms which mirror bereavement.

And for many people, not just Parisians, there really was a sense that part of them had died too.

How is it that buildings – and not necessarily ancient, sacred and beautiful ones – can become such a significant part of us?

Some buildings, of course, we choose to invest with part of our identity.  They might represent our nationality, our culture or our religion.  They can symbolise our history and encapsulate our values.  So they are more than buildings – they represent who we are.  Perhaps that’s why Prince Charles was so annoyed way back in 1984 about the proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery in London:

…what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

We profoundly object to change that is forced on ‘our’ buildings, because it embodies change that is being forced on us.

Other buildings are part of our corporate history.  That explains why some mission workers are so traumatised when an agency sells off its beloved old country house headquarters.  It’s not an objection per se to the move to practical, functional offices, but it’s the lost of a place that has links to past generations of mission workers, to key events like the training of a particular cohort, or a formative season of ministry.

And some events are part of our own personal history.  Churches in which we married, houses in which we lived, and places we have enjoyed visiting.  Most of us have driven past old homes to see what they are like now – because we are still attached to them (see our blog on the folly of trying to go back).  This is why it can be such a difficult experience for mission workers abroad to find their parents are selling the family home and there is no opportunity for them to go back and say goodbye to the bedroom they grew up in.

Mission workers, perhaps more than most, have a significant need to try to hold on to some stable points of reference from the past.  As they return to the UK on home assignment or to retire, they find a bewildering array of change in their family, church, high street and national culture.  While they can attend workshops or retreats to help them manage this (and I have just led one at Penhurst Retreat Centre on this very topic) their journey can still feel very much like a trek through the wilderness in hope of a promised land.  A few familiar landmarks can go a long way towards smoothing the transition.

Podcasts for single mission workers

IMG_20160812_084512One of the (many) challenges single mission workers face is finding resources to help them in their challenge to live a rich and fulfilled life without a life partner.  Sometimes their perception of a huge hole in their life where their life-partner should be can become so overwhelming that it dominates every aspect of their life, and often there is little in the way of resources to help them refocus their attention on the amazing possibilities and opportunities of being single.

Now Syzygy has partnered with Member Care Media to produce a series of 5 short podcasts which include some essential teaching for single mission workers.  We hope that these introductions to material shared more fully in our regular retreats for singles at Penhurst Retreat Centre will help single mission workers thrive in their singleness and learn to see it as a blessing rather than a challenge to be overcome, or even better, ended.

The podcasts can be found on the singles page of Member Care Media, and the subject matter includes:

  • An introduction to singleness and why it is a challenge for so many mission workers
  • Biblical characters who were successfully single
  • A Biblical perspective on why singleness isn’t intrinsically bad
  • Unpacking the ‘gift’ of singleness
  • Strategies for a fulfilling single life

It is our hope that these resources will be used by single mission workers worldwide, to help them get the most out of their singleness.

Another resource we produced a couple of years ago is the book Single Mission, which we believe is the first book by single mission workers about single mission workers for single mission workers.  Many agencies have used it as part of their training and orientation – and not only for their singles!  It has been greatly appreciated by married people too, who have used it to learn about the challenges of being single later in life which they may not have experienced.  Why not try it out?

 

Supporting retiring mission workers

RetirementFollowing on from our last two blogs focussing on transition, today’s blog focusses on retirement, which is also a transition.  We already have a blog for mission workers preparing to retire, and in fact we have an entire guide to retiring for them, so today we’re going to focus on how church can understand the nature of retirement for mission workers and effectively support them through this transition.

Every day people retire.  It’s such a common event that like many other transitions in life – birth, starting school, graduating, marriage, divorce and being widowed – it is an experience so common to humanity that we often overlook the potentially traumatic nature of this transition.  People often need support through the retirement process to help them come to terms with feelings like:

  • I’m no longer a productive member of society
  • I’ve lost my identity
  • Nobody values me
  • I’m just waiting for God
  • How do I fill the emptiness?

These may equally apply to mission workers, who also have to cope with the challenges of becoming part of a society they may not have lived in for decades, and which can feel very alien to them even though they feel they ought to belong.  They may have to cope with living without a sense of vocation, and need to integrate themselves into a church for which overseas mission is an optional extra in their range of ministries instead of the driving passion that the mission worker feels.  They may be struggling with guilt over leaving behind a struggling church or a needy people group.  All these factors can contribute to spiritual or emotional challenges which can make a retiring mission worker quite dysfunctional.

So what can their supporters do to help?

  • Understand that they are not naturally unhelpful; they’re just struggling with a major life transition
  • Introduce them to mission workers who have already successfully transitioned into retirement
  • Find a way for them to have a significant role in the church, without overburdening them with responsibility until they feel ready for it
  • Make sure they have a thorough debrief
  • Listen to their stories sympathetically even when you’ve heard them many times over
  • Recognise that they’re not really critical of the church; they’re just struggling to adapt to a different way of doing things
  • Help them navigate the challenges of benefit/tax/housing bureaucracy
  • Pay for them to go on a ‘Finishing Well’ retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre
  • Provide pastoral support/coaching/mentoring/counselling as appropriate
  • Encourage them to continue to support mission work through their sending agency
  • Be practical about providing assistance with daily living
  • Talk them through things that have changed in your country since they last visited

And above all, please try to remember that they are (probably!) not naturally difficult people.  They are grieving, hurting people who are struggling to find their feet in a culture they don’t feel at home in, who will need support for several years before they really settle in.  It’s rather like the reverse of the process they started when they first went abroad, and the patience and support we gave them when they first went to a foreign country is exactly what they need now.

You can find more recommendations on how churches can support their mission workers effectively in our Guide for Churches.

 

Resources on resilience

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

We want to see Jesus

024Most ancient church buildings have a number of plaques of different sorts on their walls – tombstones of the gentry, memorials to famous parishioners, tributes to the war dead or past incumbents – but at Penhurst in Sussex there is one that in my experience is utterly unique: a private message addressed to just one person.

It is not in a prominent position; in fact it is not visible from most parts of the church, yet it is clear and conspicuous to the person about to mount the steps to the pulpit, and it is addressed only to the preacher.  It reads:

Sir, we would see Jesus.

It is a quote from John 12:21, and it is a reminder to preachers of their responsibility to reveal Jesus to their listeners.  Yet this duty (and joy!) is not the preacher’s alone; it falls to all believers – as Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

Some of us will indeed be called to go to the other side of the world, while others are called to go to the other side of the street.  It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘going’ that counts.  In our schools, offices and retirement homes we can all look to ‘show and tell’ to our colleagues.  In our homes we can explain and exhibit Jesus to our families and neighbours.  In gyms and golf clubs we can incarnate the risen Lord to our team-mates and competitors.  There is no-where and no-when that we cannot – and should not – take the opportunity in some way to bring Christ into a sharper perspective, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, to the people around us.

Paul sets us an excellent example.  He writes to the Corinthians “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).  He felt compelled to share the good news.  But as we will see next week when we look at his missions strategy in Europe, he made it clear to the Thessalonians that this was not only standing in the synagogue trying to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah who was destined to die and rise again (Acts 17:2-3); it also meant publicly demonstrating Christ in his impeccable behaviour (1 Thessalonians 2:10) and privately imploring individuals to believe (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

To help me remind myself of my role in this great sermon which we live and speak every day, I like to start the day with an ancient prayer.  Perhaps you would like to join me in it:

O Lord, grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendour of thy presence, but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow humans.

The importance of retreat

We have mentioned in several blogs the importance of retreat – to get away from it all, recharge the batteries, and seek God in prayer.   This is an important part of maintaining our emotional and spiritual health – to withdraw for a while from the busyness of our lives and responsibilities and to stand and stare:

What is this life if, full of care,

we have no time to stand and stare?

W H Davies’ whimsical poem Leisure cuts straight to the heart of our busy responsibility-laden lives: – if we don’t create time to re-connect with God, the natural world around us, our own emotions and the natural rhythms of our lives, can we really said to be living?  How come the very people Jesus has given abundant life to are running around like headless chickens offering abundant life to others but somehow failing to enjoy it themselves?

Saint Aidan and his seventh century co-workers (see our blog from July 2010) set up their monastery on a remote island, whose only access was via a causeway which was submerged at high tide.  Accordingly they developed a rhythm to life which was governed by the tides: time on the island which they spent in prayer and contemplation, and time on the mainland when they engaged in mission.  Many contemporary mission workers have forgotten the importance of this rhythm, and enthusiastically do mission work without making time to restore their spiritual resources.  Small wonder that they struggle with exhaustion and burnout!

We recommend that as part of a strategy for maintaining spiritual health, missionary longevity, and human wellbeing, every mission worker should develop a personal rhythm involving daily, weekly, monthly and yearly times of retreat, contemplation, prayer and reflection.  To help with this we have provided a page listing some good places (mostly in the UK) where retreats can be organised.  These can vary from space to find individual times of prayer to fully-led times of retreat.  They can be done silently or not, in groups (better for the extraverts!) or in solitude.

We realise that regular retreat may imply five days away once or twice a year, and for many people, particularly those with families, this is not always practical.  However it is possible for one partner to give another a free day once a month to spend time with God, or even for busy parents to grab five minutes of peace and quiet in the bathroom to read a psalm and say a quick prayer.  It is not the quantity of retreat that is important, so much as the regularity.

Whichever way of doing retreat works best for you, we strongly recommend that everyone makes sure that in their busyness they don’t squeeze out of their lives the God who longs to have more of our attention.  It was Mary who was commended by Jesus, not Martha.

Featured Ministry: Penhurst Retreat Centre

We have mentioned a few times on this website the need for regular retreat to help manage stress. Some may wonder exactly what this means, or are a bit daunted by the prospect of five days of complete silence in a monastery.

If that’s you, then Penhurst Retreat Centre is an excellent place for you to have a retreat. One of the most charming things about Penhurst is that it doesn’t feel like a conference centre. It’s a home, in a 17th century manor house, which is tastefully furnished just like it was when it was lived in by a family. An ideal start to feeling, well, at home in a new environment.

It is situated accessibly near main roads in East Sussex, but far enough away not to hear them, and indeed it’s so rural that it’s hard to hear anything at all apart from the sounds of nature and agriculture. With lovely gardens and an orchard which is being developed into a prayer garden, it makes a very restful and relaxing place. There is also opportunity for some country walks and access to the famous Ashburnham estates nearby. One satisfied customer, Alex, commented “”My stay here was just what I needed – perfect for me! This place inspires prayer, with its sense of God’s peace and presence. It’s an easy place to listen to God, a place of blessing.”

Penhurst is also intimately small. Unlike some places where there are dozens of people so it’s hard to find a place to be alone for prayer other than in your room, Penhurst takes fewer people, so you can always find somewhere to get away, whether it’s in one of the two chapels, the lounge, the library or the church just across the garden.

If you don’t like the thought of being on your own, there is a full programme of led retreats and workshops, many aimed specifically at mission workers. In fact, there is a distinctly missional theme to the place, with its many historic connections to global mission, and each room is dedicated to a famous missionary, with photos and books in the room to inspire you.

There are friendly helpful staff who lead prayer twice a day (optional) and are available for discussion and advice whenever you want it, and the food is excellent. The cottage pie even rivalled my mum’s!

For more information visit Penhurst’s own website