May 29, 2024

In three previous blog posts, I have been talking about crucible experiences (trials, or in other words, painful and stressful life or work circumstances) and the role they have in transforming us. But as I have noted, difficult life experiences in themselves do not refine us. Our response to the crucible experiences of life and ministry is what allows the crucible to become transformative.

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul
Pietro da Cortona, 1631

Crucible experiences are often endured alone, or at least without the company of other human beings who truly understand the pain and stress you are experiencing. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days alone with the wild animals. Elijah ran away from Queen Jezebel to Mt. Horeb, leaving his only companion in Beersheba to travel 40 days into the wilderness alone. Abraham went to Mt. Moriah to offer up his only son as God had commanded, and although Isaac with him, Abraham bore his test in silence, without explaining all that was going on in his mind to his son.

But although the crucible may often be experienced alone, I believe that crucibles are best processed with the help of others. If crucibles are designed by God to transform us, and we are to fully mine the wealth of all that God wants us to learn from them, we need the Body of Christ to learn from them. God sent Ananias to Paul in Damascus to help him make sense of what had happened to him on the road when his whole world was turned upside down. Jesus debriefed Peter on a long walk along the beach up in Galilee after Peter denied him 3 times. Even Jesus was attended by angels after the devil had tested him in the wilderness (Matt 4:11).

Robert Thomas in his book, Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader, writes:

Leaders, by the very nature of their role, rarely work alone or learn alone. Indeed, the experience of the Leaders for Manufacturing program at MIT and the Young Presidents’ Organization suggests that the most effective learning takes place when the individual leader has access to others who care enough to challenge, cajole, critique, and care. Thus, in preparation, organizations need to make explicit provision for leaders to build their own advice networks—people to whom they can turn for honest, critical, and timely advice. In deployment, these same people can serve as a learning community, a place where insights can be shared and where personal dilemmas, problems, and achievements can be presented, analyzed, and understood. (Kindle Locations 3586-3591).

How can we access these “advice networks” or “learning communities” to help us make the most of the learning available in a crucible situation?   Let me give you a couple of ways this works in our organization.

1. Coaching or mentoring during the crucible

We are increasingly recognizing that our younger missionaries are asking for mentors to guide them through the challenges they face in their early months and years in a cross-cultural environment and the challenges they encounter as new parents or newly married couples.   Some of our senior missionaries have played critical roles as mentors and friends for new missionaries, helping them to persevere when the crucible seems unbearably hot.

In our mission organization, we provide a coach for a 3-month period for every first term missionary at the midpoint of their first term, which is often at the height of the crucible experience for new missionaries.   We call this MOP-up (Member Orientation Program under pressure), and it builds on the prefield training.  I shared a testimony about this coaching experience in another blog post a few months ago.

In one of the crucible experiences that I went through a number of years ago, I felt very much alone.  But in God’s providence, shortly after the height of the crucible’s intensity, I found a coach through a Google search, and became his “coachee” for a period of six months.   He helped me process some of the questions that had remained unanswered from the crucible – and some new ones as well.  One of the most valuable lessons I learned through this coaching time was what I blogged about in my previous post – be a learner, not a victim.   This coaching experience was so impactful in my life, that I made coaching a significant pillar in our SEND U training strategy.

2. A time of reflection and learning after the crucible

After an intense crucible experience, people are ready for a rest and some time away from the pressures of ministry.  These are excellent times for reflecting on what has happened together with a mentor or a teacher. Sometimes (probably not often enough) we even have the opportunity to take an educational leave or a sabbatical.   Away from the pressure and immediacy of the situation, we are often better equipped to draw some conclusions about what we should have done differently in the heat of the crucible.

After my first term on the mission field, I had the opportunity to enrol in a year of graduate study during our first home service in Canada.   Although I was a little apprehensive about going back to school, I found out that not only was I more than ready to immerse myself in a learning environment, I was better equipped to engage and research real-life questions.  Whereas in college, I had largely dealt with theoretical issues, I found that in graduate school I was addressing significant problems and questions I had recently experienced in the context of ministry, and hence the education had a far greater impact on my future life and ministry.

Our SEND U team is planning a mid-career retreat for missionaries who have been with our organization for 15 years or more.   One of the primary purposes of the retreat is to give people who have been through multiple crucible experiences an opportunity to process what they have experienced in a supportive environment and learn a few key concepts that will leverage their experiences and knowledge to the greatest impact for the kingdom of God.   Then we will help them develop a plan for the “second half” (what their priorities will be, what skills they will need to learn, and what adjustments they will make in order to finish well).

Another example of providing a time of reflection is what is called “Reconnect” in SEND.   Our home offices plan times of debriefing after each term on the mission field.   This “Reconnect” time provides opportunities to tell your story (often with tears) and process that story with the help of counsellors and peers.   The personnel departments then seek to equip these returning missionaries for an effective home service.

You may choose another method to develop a support group to help you deal with the crucible.   But my advice is to not just pick friends who will feel sorry for you and suggest that you need to give up and come home.   Find friends that will ask the tough questions about what God might be wanting to teach you. Give them permission to do so.   Thomas says (in quote above) that “the most effective learning takes place when the individual leader has access to others who care enough to challenge, cajole, critique, and care.”    Crucibles are too painful to waste them.   Let’s try to scrape all the learning we can out of them – and generally we need the help of others to do so.

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