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.

Comfortably numb?

As we enter Holy Week, I am struck by the wide range of emotions involved in the events of this epic week nearly 2000 years ago.

There’s the jubilation of the Triumphal Entry, followed so closely by the disappointment of many of the crowd who expected Jesus to confront the Romans.  There’s the excitement of intellectual debate, the thrill of miracles, the challenge of teaching, the fun of a meal with Lazarus which was suddenly turned solemn by Mary’s worship, Judas’ frustration and betrayal, the terror of the arrest and trial, and of course the tragedy of crucifixion followed by the ecstasy of the resurrection.  And all week long Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, mission workers go through a huge range of emotions during their career, but also any given week can have massive ups and downs.  Ministry success (or disappointment), relationship challenges and joys, the secondary stress of hearing the traumatic stories of people we ministry to, our own physical and medical issues, support-raising, surprise visits, and cultural misunderstandings can have our emotions all over the place.

This can be very exhausting and in order to try and achieve emotional stability some of us can be tempted to shut our emotions down and stop feeling.  For example, TCKs and long-term mission workers who are tired of the pain of so many goodbyes can isolate themselves and stop forming new friendships so they can protect themselves from sadness.  Or we can simply not get involved with the many needs around us.  Someone remarked to me only last week how unloving she had become while on the mission field: because she had no way of meeting the needs of all the people around her, it was easier to ignore them.

Becoming unfeeling can be a sign that we have reached the end of our ability to cope.  Numbness is a way of protecting ourselves which can show we’re not coping well.  Sometimes we have  intentionally fostered emotional numbness to hide the pain – even from ourselves.  We need to be gently coaxed into opening up while receiving love and support.

Warning signs of emotional numbness can include:

  • remoteness towards family and friends
  • lack of joy in things which would have excited us in the past
  • loss of appetite for food or desire for sex
  • lack of delight in the Lord
  • disinterest in pastimes
  • boredom and lethargy

If you find yourself or your friends feeling numb – and even more significantly feeling comfortable about feeling numb – give them love and support, and refer then for member care, whether to their agency or to an outside resource like Syzygy.

Jesus appears to have fully entered into the spirit of each event, conversation and encounter during Holy Week despite the knowledge that he would die a gruesome death towards the end of it.  What kept him going was his awareness that it was only temporary, and that soon he would come out the other side: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2).

Our heavenly perspective gives us a huge capacity to endure, to maintain perspective, and to trust God in the midst of our difficulties.  Let’s not close down our souls so that we can endure to the end, but open them up to God and to others so that we can truly live the abundant life we are called to.

Dealing with grief and loss

As I remarked a few weeks ago when addressing the question of mourning, Christians are not always good at being in touch with our emotions.

I have been told, probably like you, that since Jesus gives me joy, I should smile.  I shouldn’t be angry.  Fear is the opposite of faith so to be afraid is to sin.  Such comments reflect a heavenly perspective which is so out of touch with the world we live in that it’s fairyland.

Having emotions is part of being human, and to deny or suppress them is merely to try to reject a part of ourselves which is no more sinful than any other part of us.  It’s just human.  And denying aspects of our humanity is bad for us.  It has been rightly observed that:

Any emotion which we buried is always buried alive, and it digs its way out again.

Mission workers can have to confront a wide variety of emotions throughout their lives:

  • leaving family and friends behind when they go to the mission field
  • returning on home assignment to find things have changed
  • sending children to boarding school because the schools where they serve are not good
  • suffering major trauma like civil war, kidnap, traffic accident and disease
  • experiencing secondary trauma as they help the vulnerable and marginalised
  • leaving their way of life in their adopted country to return to a ‘home’ country they no longer feel at home in.

Recognising the emotional impact of these occurrences on us and those around us is a mature and responsible way of coming to terms with them.  That’s why talking therapies such as debriefing or counselling are such good ways of helping the healing process.  The grief-loss cycle (click here to download a copy) is a well-known tool for helping with this.  It helps us understand how we feel in the aftermath of a trauma, and why it’s ok to feel like that.  Often I find that people recovering from trauma feel guilty about their emotions when in fact their feeling is a normal psychological response to what they’ve been through.

The grief-loss cycle charts typical stages of trauma recovery.  It shows how our well-being descends from where it was to a low, and then comes out of it.  Though it’s not the same journey for everybody, and it’s not always a linear progression through the curve, it can help us understand why we feel what we do, and acknowledging those feelings help us to recover more rapidly.

Research has shown that getting some talking therapy while going through a recovery process can often help people’s well-being return to the level it was previously, it can actually help them come out of the experience in an even better place as they grow through the experience.  Syzygy can help by providing mission workers with a debrief following a significant incident.  Click here to get in touch and find out more.

The last word in Resilience

Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker have combined their unique talents to produce a new resource – Resilience in Life and Faith.  As one would expect from two authors with excellent track records, it does not disappoint.

Defining resilience not as merely ‘bouncing back’ (as I so often have done!) but helpfully quoting a variety of authors to demonstrate that although the status quo in our lives may not be restored after a trauma, what we learned in the process changes us for the better, they have come up with their own model for understanding the different facets of life which impact upon our ability.  They call it ‘SPECS’ and I will not explain that here so that I don’t have a negative impact on their book sales!  Suffice to say it considers all aspects of our human being to ensure we have a complete awareness of how to balance our lives well.

The chapters explore each of these facets in turn, first the psychology (Debbie) and then a character study from the Bible (Tony).  This useful pairing means that the theory, presented simply enough for the amateur to understand but deeply enough to be helpful and authoritative, is balanced with lived-out practice, which is thoughtfully and interestingly brought to us.  Each chapter closes with helpful questions for reflection, which gives the book the feel more of a devotional rather than a textbook, usefully bringing together two genres.  At the end is a quick but effective self-assessment to highlight the reader’s current life practice and how it affects each facet of their resilience.

Reading this book I felt better informed about resilience, and inspired to maintain it.  I commend this resource to practitioners of pastoral care for whom it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf, and to all Christians who will find information to help them thrive in their daily lives.

You can buy Resilience in Life and Faith direct from the publisher – just click here.

Overhelpful?

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Being helpful is a notable Christian trait, though something we often carry to excess.  Even more so for mission workers.  We care, and we hope to change things.  We see people hurting and our compassion drives us to improve things for them.  We want to solve problems.  We want to make things better.  We need to see healing.  It’s a trap we can easily fall into.  One of the hardest things for compassionate people to do is sit and watch someone struggle with pain, confusion and need.

Yet as we learn the skills involved in counselling, mentoring, coaching and pastoral care, we discover that we are not there to solve the problem.  We are there to encourage, assist and if necessary equip our client to solve their own problems.  Doing it for them disempowers them, and does not help them develop resilience and problem-solving skills to use the next time they face a challenge.  At worst, it can deprive them of an opportunity to be driven to rely solely on God for their comfort and sustenance in the midst of their difficulties.

So we learn to sit on our hands, bridle our tongues, and let people do it for themselves.  It is in fact much kinder and more helpful for us to do this, because people grow as they tackle the challenges they face.  And though the problems may not go away, they might find the consolation of God in the middle of them.

We all know that Job’s friends are a good example of what not to do.  They offered advice, criticism, theology and rebuke, all to no avail.  Their words made no difference to Job, and in the end God criticised them for their approach.  But what we often overlook is the small bit of information at the end of chapter 2 – they just came and sat with him for 7 day! (Job 2:11-13).  They grieved with him, they cried with him, but said nothing.  Sometimes our presence is more helpful than our words.  The traditional English response to crisis of putting the kettle on may in fact be far more effective than our many words of wisdom and helpful actions.  Often people don’t need help, they just need company on their journey.  Companionship and company are a good place to start.  Who can you offer those to this week?

Do mission workers need drive?

I was asked recently whether drive is a necessary characteristic for a mission worker.

My instinct is to say no.  I have seen a lot of drivenness in ministry, often expressed as a compulsion to succeed, to achieve, to prove others wrong, and in many cases is appears to stem from unresolved personal inadequacies.  Drivenness can lead to stress and burnout as we try to achieve things in our own strengths rather than trusting God for fruit in our ministry.  We have blogged many times about these dangers.

But drivenness is not the same as drive.  Drivenness implies something painfully pushing someone on, like a herder using a cattle prod to keep oxen moving forwards.  Drive, however, is internal.  A car has drive under its bonnet.  Without it, the car wouldn’t go anywhere.  Drive is less intense than drivenness.  Drive motivates us to get out of bed in the morning.  Without any drive at all, we would drift aimlessly through life.   In a positive way it stimulates us to fulfil basic natural needs to eat and sleep, and higher desires, which may be healthy or not.

And surely some drive is necessary for a mission worker.  If you were the leader of a mission agency would you recruit people with no drive?  Someone who just turns up and casually asks if they can join you, somebody who might drift through life on the mission field never initiating projects, not pressing forward?  They’d probably not get through the first round of recruitment – as someone who has been through that process myself, I know that drive is needed just to complete the application form!  So a certain amount of drive is necessary.

But drive has a negative side in that it pushes us to acquire a sense of belonging, significance, fulfilment and achievement, albeit less compulsively than drivenness, though in just such an unhealthy way.  Drive is the Freudian Id, or to use a Pauline expression, the ‘flesh’ which is not merely the healthy desire to meet natural needs, but the unhealthy demands that those needs are prioritised, even at the expense of others.  These are things which Christian thought tells us to die to.

So, to answer the question, let’s look at the life of Jesus.  Did he have drive?  Clearly, yes.  He talked about things that he came to do (Luke 10:19), and showed determination to achieve them (Luke 9:51).  He refused to be distracted from his mission (Matthew 15:24), and didn’t seek his own gratification (Mark 10:45).  Ye he clearly wasn’t driven.  He made time for people (John 4), and created plenty of time for God (Mark 1:35).

So I think the answer to the question is that it depends where drive comes from.  Is it a fleshly or soulish desire to have our own needs met, even if we express that desire through the vehicle of a productive-looking ministry?  Or is it a godly passion which drives us to ever more submit to God’s will in our lives in the pursuit of his greater glory.

After all, Jesus did tell us “Whoever seeks to save their own life will lose it, but those who lose it for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25)

 

The value of sabbatical

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As Syzygy takes a much-needed holiday this week, today we are going to pause and think about the value of stopping and reflecting.  Many times we have blogged about the value of retreat, and while we recognise that this can imply a time of solitude and silence which would be torture for some of our more extroverted readers, all of us can find value in withdrawing regularly from the busyness of life’s challenges and burdens to reflect on life and ministry.

Occasionally we may hear about people who have been on sabbatical, or maybe we have even met some of them, and wonder why we don’t seem to be able to get so much as a week off let alone a few months!

Sabbatical draws its principle from the Sabbath, the seventh day, and keeping the Sabbath rest is something that has marked Israel out from its neighbours over the millennia, and is also a custom the church followed until fairly recently.  Less famously the Old Testament law included a Sabbatical year – a year in which fields, fruit trees and vines were left unsown and unharvested every seventh year to allow them to rest.  And perhaps more importantly, to allow the people to trust that God would provide sufficient harvest for them in the sixth year to last them until the eighth year’s harvest came in.  Sadly there is little evidence that this act of faith and obedience was ever fully-implemented in ancient Israel, although the idea has continued to hold sway in ministry.

Not that we necessarily get – or even need – a whole year off every seventh year.  But to be free of ministry responsibilities for a significant amount of time once in a while is valuable in a way that short bursts of holiday or even the less-structured but nevertheless demanding time of home assignment can never be.

However much time we manage to set aside, there is value in stepping out of our daily routine to reflect.  Without doing so, we can get so stuck in the treadmill we don’t have time to think.  If we can break that cycle and get away, we can ask ourselves serious questions like:

  • Are we still true to our original calling?
  • What are we doing that is outside the will of God?
  • What work can we drop/delegate to someone else?
  • Is there a better way of achieving our goals?
  • What new things is God calling us to?
  • What else does God want to say to us or do in our lives?

Perhaps, if we took more time out to reflect, there would be fewer issues of missionary burnout.

(Syzygy Trustees please note I have now been in my current post for 8 years!)

 

Self-care

I have written in this blog many times about the need for mission workers to be actively supported by their church, agency, family and friends – all of whom are very important for the resilience and fruitfulness of the mission worker.

However, the provision of intentional, pre-emptive, supportive care does not absolve mission workers from caring for themselves!  With millennials in the mission field, who are accustomed to more attentive parenting, workplace nurturing and personal mentoring, there may be an expectation of higher standards of support than were previously considered appropriate.  We need to lovingly remind mission workers that they are not children, they have been selected for their ability to thrive in the mission field, and have been trained to withstand the challenges of life in demanding places.

We must therefore resist the attempt to treat them as fragile, wrap them in cotton wool and run around looking after them.  Instead we need to encourage them into self-care.  This covers every aspect of who they are:

Physical self-care – They need to be paying attention to how their diet, exercise and sleep are healthily maintained to keep them well.  They need to be aware of their own biological cycle, how they adapt in their body to changing months and seasons, the amount of heat and daylight available to them, and how they plan their life around their natural strengths.  At what time of day are they at their best, and can they adapt their working time around that?  Taking the full holiday entitlement, Sabbath days and weekends (where possible) will be part of this.

Mental self-care – maintaining mental well-being has two aspects to it: allowing the mind to unwind from stress, and stretching it to enable it to cope with more.  So regular academic study, distance learning on practical or theological issues to keep people’s skills up to speed is important.  As is the need to create downtime to give the brain a chance to switch off, particularly at night to allow more chance of good sleep.  Developing a physical hobby, perhaps a craft or a sport, will go a long way towards facilitating this.

Spiritual self-care – mission workers are selected for their ability to feed themselves from the Bible and thrive in hard places, but regular times of retreat, seeing a spiritual director and being helped through podcasts or discussion groups can contribute to their spiritual well-being.  So too can keeping regular hours of prayer, journaling, or using a personal liturgy to help with prayer.

Emotional self-care – often we find ourselves too busy to stop and reflect on how well we are relating to those around us: family, friends, church and co-workers.  How do we intentionally deepen our accountable relationships?  How do we live in ongoing repentance and stronger commitment to others?  This can be complicated by being in cross-cultural teams, churches or families – can we identify the facets of the culture we live in which cause us the most stress, and find ways of coping better, even to the point of thriving in them?

In considering all these different things they need to do to care for themselves, mission workers may want to consider inviting a friend to be an accountability partner, to ask searching questions about what they are doing to look after themselves.  Some people may feel that the idea of looking after oneself does not fit well with ‘laying down one’s life’, but like a good marathon runner, we are in this race to finish well, and in order to do that we need to pace ourselves rather than run the race like a sprint!

The crack in the wall

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Some years ago I lived in a house which had a significant-looking crack in a wall.  Of course, I could have papered over it and pretended it wasn’t there.  Or filled it with plaster and assumed it was fixed.  But the crack would have remained, a weakness in the wall, that may have got worse, even to the point of becoming critical.

Far better to investigate, monitor, and repair wherever possible, because the crack is probably a symptom of stress being applied to one or more parts of it, that is threatening to break it apart under the pressure.

Rather like walls, mission workers are subject to extreme stresses in their lives, and their character can begin to crack under the pressure.  So who monitors them, and how, to make sure any issues are dealt with before a serious collapse occurs?  Church, friends, agency, family and co-workers can all be part of this by intentionally caring about small incidents which may reveal deeper issues.  When somebody loses their temper with a co-worker, speaks harshly to a spouse, or perhaps evidences momentary vulnerability to excessive alcohol consumption, do we love them enough to go beyond forgiving their behaviour to challenge it and ask them what lies beneath?

Spotting these warning signs can be a very important part of stimulating early intervention.  But it’s not always easy.  Many churches expect their mission partners to be of higher than average character and so accountability can be a problem: nobody asks robust questions because they don’t want difficult answers.  Mission partners can be reluctant to appear fallible in a world that doesn’t tolerate failure, so they are happy to pretend everything is fine.  Yet one day the cracks may be too big to deal with, and a marriage breaks down, or a ministry falls to pieces.  People leave the field in shame.

So what can we do to avoid a collapse?

  1. We need to develop cultures that encourage accountability, and if mission partners are to feel comfortable to talk about underlying issues in their lives, they need the confidence that they will not be pilloried for failure but supported to reform.  Jesus said ‘Let the one who is without guilt cast the first stone’ (John 8:7) but sometimes his followers seem more eager than he was to throw rocks.
  2. We need to provide accountability structures, encouraging our mission partners to meet with peers and seniors for confidential support and mentoring.  We need to make it clear that this can work in partnership with other churches and agencies, rather than trying to keep it ‘in house’.  Being accountable to an ‘outsider’ fosters more openness than being accountable to a line manager.
  3. We need to create a framework for asking robust questions.  They don’t need necessarily to be direct accusations such as “Have you accessed pornography on your phone in the last week?” but more subtle ones like “What do you do to make yourself feel good after you’ve had an argument with your spouse?”  Questions which set up the opportunity for a confession without presupposing one.  I find “How can I pray for your marriage?” is a good one, or “How are things in your soul?”, which a friend of mine uses a lot.

Giving people an opportunity to reflect on their weaknesses, discuss their character flaws and work together on solutions can fix those cracks in the wall before it’s too late.  It’s called preventive maintenance.  We allow mechanics to do it on our cars, dentists to do it on our teeth, but we don’t let friends do it on our souls, which are far more important.  Maybe we should start.

Struggling to grow?

Recently, while on retreat, I came across a rocky headland where a wide variety of plants was struggling with grim determination to grow.  Grass, heather and trees all struggled to thrive in the rocky soil.  Not in their natural environment, deprived of good soil, they were undernourished, stunted and vulnerable.  Not unlike a few mission workers I know!

Mission takes nearly all of us out of our normal environment.  It also takes us to a context where we may find it hard to thrive.  Sometimes we are isolated (emotionally, spiritually, culturally, physically) with little encouragement, fellowship or input.  This is why Syzygy started publishing devotional blogs, so that we can help to provide a little input into the lives of isolated mission workers.

If the plants I mentioned above were in my care, I might consider moving them to a new location where they are more suited to the growing conditions.  While some of us may be aware that we are called to endure in tough places, others may be wondering if we’ve made the right choice.  And there’s no shame in relocating to a place where we can thrive better if we feel that’s the right choice before God.  After all, if our life is more shrivelled up and stunted than it is abundant (John 10:10) it would be good for us to reflect on how positive our Christian witness is likely to be.

Alternatively I might try to change the growing conditions of the plants I were caring for.  I’m a great believer in manure and (although we might joke that most of our agencies are good at giving us that) like plants we need to make sure that we get sufficient nutrition to thrive.  Eating well is obviously an important part of staying healthy, but we also need to make sure that emotionally and spiritually we are taking in more than we give out.  Where are the supportive relationships we need?  Is social media sufficient, or do we need to arrange for more team members to join us in our location?  Are we able to sustain ourselves from our own private Bible study or do we need to access podcasts, books and commentaries?  Do we need to schedule more time away from the mission field in order to recharge our batteries effectively, or make plans for more retreat?

When looking at struggling plants on that rocky headland, while having sympathy for their challenge, I also felt huge admiration for their tenacity.  Being plants they obviously had no means of simply moving to a location more conducive for growth, so they just stubbornly got on with it.  Like many of the mission workers I know.  Like it says in Matthew, those who hang on by the skin of their teeth will be saved (Matthew 24:13).  If you’re in that situation, we salute your tenacity.  Keep on keeping on!

Coping with constant change

Change, it has been observed, is the only constant.  And that was pointed out 2500 years ago by a Greek philosopher.

Many of us in mission struggle to keep up with various aspects of change, whether it’s organisational structure, new technology, government regulations or the constant coming and going of co-workers.

Most of us are not particularly disposed towards change, and the accelerating rate of change seems ever more bewildering.  So how can we learn to survive in a world where change is guaranteed, to continue apace?  Here are our top tips:

  • Accept that things change – for better and for worse.  Change is normal!  Our first experience of coming into this world was through change, and we continue to change throughout life until the final change in death.
  • Give yourself time to process the change – it takes time to get used to what is new and you won’t necessarily get the hang of it straight away.
  • Discuss it with family and friends.  How can they help you and vice versa?  Who is the person for whom the change is easy?  How can they be a resource for the others?
  • Recognise the stress that change causes and take steps to manage it well.
  • Research ways of making this change go as smoothly as possible.
  • Stick to familiar routines that will provide some element of stability in the midst of the change.
  • Rest in God – who never changes.
  • Eat well, sleep well, exercise well.  If you are physically healthy you will be better able to cope.
  • Are you afraid of the future?  Give it back to God, in whose hands it is anyway.
  • Make a to-do list and tick items off to create a sense of control.
  • Understand how your personality type copes with change and focus on using your strengths to help you rather than lamenting your weaknesses.
  • Read the bits of the Bible which were written by people undergoing massive change.  How did they deal with it?
  • Identify and name what you think you are losing.  This helps you be able to say goodbye to it – even reluctantly!
  • Develop your hobbies to ensure you have a way of relaxing.
  • If there is change in one aspect of your life, try to ensure there is stability in other areas to reduce the pressure on you from the change.
  • Reflect on how you personally can benefit from the change and help others to do so.
  • Find a safety valve so that you can vent your negative feelings privately without causing harm to other people or agencies.  Avoid expressing too much to close colleagues or on social media!
  • Take a retreat or holiday to recharge your emotional energy.
  • See the positives: is this a chance to grow?  Could things be better for you or your team in the future?
  • Acknowledge the extent to which your resistance to change may be based on your bad experiences of change in the past.
  • Create a ‘monument’ so that you can respect and honour the achievements of the past as you press on towards the future.
  • Be open with God and close friends about your feelings.
  • Manage stress through mindfulness, Pilates, meditation or breathing exercises.
  • Journal your feelings so that you are able to get them off your chest – and then look back to see how much God has done in you through the change.
  • Develop a rhythm of prayer or use regular liturgy to help enhance your stability during times of change.
  • Get professional help from a coach or mentor to help you process the challenges you’re facing.
  • Be open with family, friends and co-workers about how well you’re doing.  It will help them to help you.
  • Don’t assume that just because change is hard, it’s wrong.  It may ultimately be beneficial.

Syzygy runs workshops on handling change well.  If you’d like to book one for your church or agency, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

Life balance

The runup to Christmas is often a busy and demanding time.  Decorations to put up at home and work, festivities to prepare, carol concerts to attend, presents to buy, meals to share, nativity plays to endure, church services to plan… The list goes on and on.  So much for celebrating the Prince of Peace.

But this is just one more symptom of the crazy demanding world we live in.  A world in which technology means we are available to our colleagues and customers 24/7.  A world in which we’ve almost forgotten that until 1994 shopping on a Sunday was almost impossible in the UK.  A world in which everyone expects more but has less to give.

For mission workers life balance is always hard, for many reasons.  Our kids have needs which are different because they’re growing up in a different culture.  The spiritual dynamic of the place we work saps our energy.  There never seems to be enough money or people.  The constant turnover of co-workers is emotionally demanding.  Coping with life in a foreign culture can be exhausting.

How do we balance all these competing demands for our attention?

First, we should decide what is important to us.  Family, friends, children, ministry, work, hobbies, health, God are all important and need to be in the mix, but what is the proportion and priority?  It will look different for each of us and we need to decide what is the most appropriate in our circumstances.

Then we need work out (on average) how much of our attention to allocate to each element in the mix, and when.  Some of this is already done for us, if we have for example a 9-5 job, or we need to be at specific church services on Sundays.  But we may be able to be creative.  For example, if you find date night hard to do with your partner because you have kids and can’t get babysitters, why not arrange a date lunch once a week when you both set aside time for a long, leisurely lunch together while the kids are at school?

Then we must be disciplined in protecting that time.  Some of us deliberately cannot access work emails on our phone.  Or make a point of turning the phone off at certain times so we can’t be interrupted.  We can put things in our calendars and say “Sorry I’m busy that day” without telling people why we’re busy.

If you need to get your life back into balance you are welcome to talk to someone from Syzygy.  Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to get in touch.  And we can recommend a weekend retreat on the subject at beautiful Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex.  If you can fit it in.

At Syzygy we come across far too many Christians who are pulled in so many directions because they find it hard to say no or find it easy to overcommit.  If we are going to be known for having “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) we need to get that life into balance.

 

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

The growing Syzygy network

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Footprints in your soul

Anyone who has done any amount of walking in the hills will be aware that many footprints leave a mark on the landscape.

The least trod paths are denoted by shorter grass.  Those used a little more have grass worn away into bare soil.  More use starts to wear away the soil and form ruts, and this is where real erosion starts.  Water seeping down the mountainside finds its way into the ruts and runs more easily downhill, eroding the remaining soil.  Stones are exposed and come away, leaving a great gash in the mountainside which becomes an impromptu stream and needs repairing before irreparable damage is done to the landscape.

Mission workers may be less aware of how words can cut channels into their souls in a similar way.  Each negative comment can leave a footprint behind.  Repeated often enough they can become a rut which begins to shape our thinking.  Innocent words will run into that rut causing even more damage.

So a child who hears “You’re stupid” will be hurt.  If it’s said often enough she will get used to hearing it, and start to believe it.  Continue hearing it and even a casual comment like “We don’t do things like that around here” will be heard as “You’re stupid”.  The child will either become completely crushed, expecting people to realise she’s stupid, or she’ll fight back, and try and prove them wrong.  Both responses are unhelpful to her ongoing psychological health and the relationships she forms.

In the transactional analysis method of psychotherapy, expressions such as “You’re stupid” are known as scripts.  Like scripts for a play, they are written for us by an author, usually an authority figure like a parent, pastor or teacher.  We then repeat them in an inner monologue, reinforced by others repeating them, until we play the part that someone else has written for us.

Syzygy meets lots of mission workers who are acting out scripts.  Expressions like “You’ll never achieve anything”, “You should hurry up” and “You should work hard” have left a deep imprint in their soul.  Many of them have burned themselves out in the mission field trying either to live us to the scriptwriter’s expectations, or to prove the scriptwriter wrong.  Perhaps you’re one of them.

Recognising a script is half the battle to releasing yourself from it.  Realising that you don’t have to repeat it is the other half.  Just reading this blog has probably made you aware of the existence of a script in your life.  It may take some time to get the second half right, but at least you are now free to exercise some choice in whether you believe the script or not.  Now you can decide not to believe it, not to follow its instructions.

“It was for freedom Christ has set us free” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5:1).  Why wait to live in the fullness of freedom?  Free your mind now from the harmful effects of the negative words spoken to you!

 

Tim speaks about this and other issues affecting our identity in Christ in retreats and workshops called Managing the Stress of Mission.  The next one will be held at Penhurst Retreat Centre in August 2017, and they are available for use as part of team conferences and staff training days on request.

The sheep on the other hill

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One of the challenges that faces church leaders, particularly when attempting to focus on world mission, is the extent to which their time and attention is demanded by their loudly bleating sheep.  The pastoral needs of church members are very high on a minister’s list of priorities, and many of their sheep will complain loudly if the pastor isn’t seen to be meeting them.

And very often it has to be the church leader personally, even though the church may have a fully-equipped pastoral team.  We may talk about the value of team ministry, but so often people want the top person to be personally involved in meeting their needs and are upset if she isn’t.  I often think of a story I heard about a woman who had been in hospital, and subsequently complained to the pastor that “Nobody  had visited her”, when in fact she’d had several visits from church members, some of them multiple times.  What she meant was that the minister hadn’t visited her!*

This dynamic forces the church leader into meeting perceived needs, in addition to all the genuine crises going on in the church.  The minister’s approval, and sometimes his actual employment, can be dependent on how well he is seen to be meeting these needs, so it is understandable if they take up a lot of the minister’s time and attention.  But what about the sheep in other folds, on other hills, whose bleating isn’t so easy to hear because they’re further away.

Overseas mission workers have pastoral needs too.  Although they may be members of an agency, that doesn’t mean those pastoral needs are met.  And some people don’t serve through an agency anyway.  But they are still part of their home church, with a reasonable expectation that the church (whether it’s the pastor or a team) will meet their pastoral needs.

These needs are often not addressed by agencies, who rightly do not see pastoral care as part of their responsibility (unlike member care) or by the local church which the mission partner serves through, which may not have the capacity to understand and minister to the issues going on in the mission worker’s life, as these issues may be very different from those of the indigenous church.  This lack of pastoral support can add to stress and contribute to burnout and attrition

Syzygy has a guide for churches which can help them understand the needs of their overseas sheep.  We also offer advice to churches who would like to support their mission partners more effectively, and bespoke training for those churches who would like to develop the skills of their pastoral team to care effectively for mission partners.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

The fact that the sheep aren’t in your fold doesn’t mean you’re not their shepherd!

* Story found in Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness by Jerry Cook with Stanley C Baldwin (Regal Books 1979)

3,2,1, Bungee!

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We have in the past written a lot about teamwork, partly because it is one of the holy grails of mission, and partly because it is so hard to achieve when building a diverse collection of individuals into a strong community that can weather the frequent arrivals and departures which are endemic to the mission world.

Jesus said that the world around us would know we are Christians because of the love we have for one another (John 13:35), but the cases are few indeed where the world outside our walls looks at us and observes “Those people really live well together.  I wonder what their secret is.”

Part of the problem is that to build an effective team we have to generate sufficient desire to come together that it overcomes that which separates us. Imagine a group of people standing far apart from each other in a circle, with the objective of coming close enough to each other to all hold hands. But each one is tied to a bungee rope which pulls them back to the perimeter of the circle. To hold hands, first they have to run with sufficient force to overcome the effect of the bungee rope, and then hold hands so firmly that they cannot be pulled apart.

So how can we overcome the effective of the cultural bungees which pull us apart? Many mission workers from the West often have an individualistic mindset which reflects the community in which they were raised but is often at odds with the more corporative-minded community in which they are serving and indeed the New Testament culture in which our faith was born. So we have to take steps to recognise the cultural challenges which can prevent us coming together.

First, we need to change our own mindsets (not other people’s!) so that we are committed to unity with the people we have been put with, whoever they may be. We need to work hard at getting to know them, building common ground and demonstrating commitment. By doing this I have built strong friendships with people from different backgrounds who I might have overlooked if I had more choice in selecting my community.

Secondly, agencies, churches and teams need to create a culture and vision which inspires people enough to overcome their differences. What will help us become genuinely committed to the team? When does it become something so good that we will give up other good things for it? We talked about this when thinking about how the disciples of Jesus were initially kept together despite their differences, because they had a common desire to be with Jesus. What is our common goal?

Finally, we also need to recognise what pulls us in other directions, and make tough decisions about what ties need to be cut, or how to reduce the pull of some of them by, for example, voluntarily limiting time interacting with people, things or places which may pull us away from our community.  Sometimes these things are valid and appropriate (for example the care needs of elderly parents back in the home country), though there are many links, hobbies, connections which we could reduce the impact of if we tried.

A fruitful team starts with you and me making a decision to commit ourselves to it – to run hard towards the rest of the team and hang on tight.  Vince Lombardi, NFL player and one of the most successful ever sports coaches comments:

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work.”

 

Be excellent to each other

I know a chapel recently vacated by a group of nuns, who took with them the large cross which had been nailed on the wall behind the altar for many years.  Although the cross has now gone, it is still possible to see the outline of where it used to be, which reminds me that even where the cross has been removed, its shadow remains.  This can lead us to mistakenly believe that the cross is at the centre of our lives, when actually we are looking at its shadow.  Where is the cross missing in our lives and communities, even though its shadow remains?

If we do not return continually to the cross, and remind ourselves of our complete need for that one moment in time when Jesus dealt with the price for our shortcomings and excesses, and realign our lives to live out the impact of that great cosmic event, we can end up with an empty outline of Christianity which may appear structurally, liturgically and ethically Christian but lacks the authenticity of a truly redeemed lifestyle.

And this lifestyle starts with how we treat others.

In Europe today we are seeing the rise of intolerance.  Some groups are feeling threatened by other groups.  Some think their needs are being marginalised.  Some fear a loss of their cultural identity.  As a result, these people express themselves vocally, sometimes violently, against those they perceive to be different.  Similar fears can arise in missions teams around the world too, where one particular group or culture becomes dominant.  Others can easily feel marginalised and overlooked.

For example, singles can feel their needs are not addressed where those of families are prioritised (or vice versa).  Or where teams operate using English as their common language, those who don’t speak it well can feel they don’t have the ability to express themselves.  In other circumstances people who come from a culture where it is courteous to wait to be invited to speak often have no opportunity for their voice to be heard if others are accustomed to speaking their mind loudly and  frankly.

Fortunately these issues seldom boil over into rioting!  But they can lead to an undercurrent of discontent and add to stress and attrition.  Which is why we need to make sure that the cross isn’t absent from our missionary communities.  The shadow of it may be there, but sometimes the reality of it can be startlingly absent, particularly in the way in which we treat one another.

The New Testament is full of counter-cultural teaching on relationships.  Some examples are:

  • Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39)
  • Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)
  • Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:13)
  • Submit to one another in Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
  • If God so loved us, we ought to love each other (1 John 4:11)

It might be a good idea for us to start our meetings with readings of such scriptures, and reflect on how we can live out those commandments, in order to remind ourselves to “Be excellent to each other.” (William S Preston, Esq.)

Permission to fail

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Load-shedding

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Source: www.freeimages.com

Those of us who live in developing countries will be only too familiar with one of the major sources of stress and disruption in our lives – the regular power outages which mean that unless we have invested in our own generator or solar panels, we frequently have no electricity for several hours of the day.  When it comes on there is a mad dash to recharge every battery, do the cooking and laundry while the equipment works and catch up with all the emails before the power goes off again.  Just mention load-shedding to a group of mission workers and there will be sighs, groans of frustration and a long litany of tales of woe.

Yet, seen from another angle, load-shedding is a regrettable occurrence which is better than the alternative – total unplanned blackouts.  Load-shedding happens when the demand for power exceeds the available supply.  Sometimes a power station breaks down, or the water supply is too low for the hydro station to operate.   Load-shedding protects the power distribution system from wider failure caused by trying to run too many appliances, which can lead to substations failing and major damage to the distribution system.

Most mission workers are not good at doing load-shedding in their own lives.  Often their available supply of energy is insufficient for all the things that they have committed to.  They keep going resolutely, unaware of the damage that they are doing to their systems while they run on with an permanent emotional or spiritual brownout.  Often this can continue at a low rate for years until a major stressor occurs and there is a system wide failure.  This can vary in what it looks like – lack of emotional energy to invest in family, loss of faith, stress-related illness, emotional outbursts, moral failure – but they are all symptoms of the same underlying problem: the mission workers are doing more than they are able.

The short-term response to overload, as power companies realise, is to cut the demand.  In the same way that the electricity company simply cuts off the supply to a given area, so the mission worker needs to lay down some responsibilities so that the drain on their emotional, spiritual and physical energy is reduced.  The longer-term solution is to balance the supply and demand more effectively.  There are a number of effective ways you can do this:

  • review the range of responsibilities you carry and prayerfully consider how sustainable it is
  • look at your personal strategies for rest and retreat to ensure you are taking enough time out of your ministry to recharge your batteries effectively
  • consider how effective your prayer support is
  • review the level of stress you are operating under and restore it to appropriate levels
  • work with your co-workers to rebalance your team structure and activities so that they are sustainable for everybody
  • work out whether you are an introvert or an extravert and adapt your lifestyle accordingly
  • review your eating and sleeping habits to make sure that they work well for you

Load-shedding is a short-term fix not a long-term solution.  Mission workers opting to load-shed may keep things going for a bit but if they fail to implement a permanent solution may find themselves at risk of a major power failure in the form of burnout.