May 28, 2024
This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Missionary resilience

Resilience is a critical topic

How do Christian global workers become resilient? This is the question that Geoff Whiteman posed to over 1000 missionaries.1 See for information about this survey. It is a question that concerns anyone involved with member care for global workers. To illustrate, the title of Laura Mae Gardner’s highly-recommended book on member care is “Healthy, Resilient, & Effective in Cross-Cultural Ministry.” From the title itself, one can see the central and crucial role of resilience in productive mission workers. Kelly O’Donnell, CEO of Member Care Associates also highlights the importance of resilience in his book on global member care.

Member care, I have learned over and over again, is not about creating a comfortable lifestyle. Nor is it about trusting people instead of trusting God. Rather, it is about further developing the resiliency to do our work well which includes our character, competencies, and social support. It is also about developing relational resiliency, which includes working through the inevitable differences and impasses with international and local fellow-workers.

O’Donnell, Kelly. Global Member Care: Volume One: The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice. William Carey Library. Kindle Edition, Loc. 459.

Why do we need to understand resilience?

In this blog series, I want to share what I have been learning about missionary resilience. I will be unpacking what I have read about resilience from contemporary authors and in the Scriptures.

Understanding resilience is not only important so that we can minimize attrition. In other words, our goal is not simply to prevent missionaries from returning to their sending countries prematurely. We want our colleagues and ourselves to thrive. Our desire is that they bear much fruit, and grow and develop in their ministry gifts and skills. We want our children to reflect positively on their experience as TCKs.2 Third-culture kids.

After serving for more than 35 years in three different cross-cultural contexts, I suppose that I could be called “resilient.” But I still have much to learn, particularly about how to help our newest colleagues develop their resilience. Those of us who have survived the stresses of our initial years of missionary service often have not reflected on why we have made it thus far. We may also conclude that the challenges we faced were so different than those faced by the current generation of new missionaries that we have little to offer them in terms of encouragement and advice. I think that would be a wrong conclusion. There are principles of resilience that span the generations.

But we also need to acknowledge that although we “old-timers” are survivors, that does not necessarily make us resilient. We may not be thriving, particularly in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. We may no longer be growing and developing, but rather just “hanging on” until retirement. That is not the understanding of resilience that we want to pass on to the next generation.

Recovering and adjusting

Let’s start with defining resilience. Resilience is about processing and adapting to stress and pressure. When referring to inanimate objects, resilience is the ability to return to its original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched.3

However, when we are talking about people and their resilience, we generally mean their ability to adjust and recover from some type of stressful or traumatic experience. For example, this experience might be the loss of a loved one, a major financial loss, sickness, or a significant life change. We sometimes talk about their ability to “bounce back” from those experiences.

Resilience is the two interacting factors of 1) preventive resistance (immunity), and 2) reactive resilience (the ability to rebound from adversity). It is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It also means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Resilience — Hoplite Resilience Center

Bouncing forward

But we also need to recognize that being resilient does not necessarily or even optimally require a return to the pre-crisis normal. Often, after trauma and loss, the resilient person actually becomes healthier and stronger than they were before the crisis. They grow and learn from the experience. They have increased their capacity to both deal with future stress as well as contribute in the service of others.4 See a couple of other blog posts on this subject – Crucibles develop our capacity and Culture shock: God’s crucible.

Michael Neenan makes the same point in his book on resilience.

Being resilient doesn’t restore your life as it was prior to the adversity but rather, what you’ve learnt from tackling the adversity usually changes you for the better; it helps you to become keenly aware of what’s important in your life and, as we said, encourages you to pursue it.

M. Neenan, Developing Resilience: A cognitive-behavioural approach (Routledge, 2009), p. 18.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talk about this same phenomenon in their book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.5 See chapter 5.They call this”post-traumatic growth” and “bouncing forward.”

If secular writers are talking about growing stronger from adversity, how much more should we as Jesus-followers! I will say more about the positive benefits of stress and hardship in the fourth post in this series. At this point, I just want to note that resilience is not primarily about maintaining our status quo. Rather, it is key to understanding how we grow and develop as cross-cultural workers.

Persevering in our calling

Nevertheless, resilience is very closely related to perseverance. Whereas you will not find the word “resilience” in the English Bible, the word “perseverance” and its Greek lemma “hupomone” is found dozens of times in the New Testament. In order to persevere in times of hardship, you need resilience. In order to remain true to our calling, we need resilience.

We see this call for perseverance in the book of Revelation in the context of prophecies about the coming tribulations:

This calls for patient endurance (hupomone) on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.

Revelation 13:10, 14:12.

As Karen Carr says,

Resilience is having strength to fulfil the call God has given us, even when it will be painful and difficult. Resilience is staying fixed on a higher purpose, motivated by love of God, our neighbour, and the world, and supported by friends. While others let us down, we are carried by the one who called us.

Karen Carr, ‘Personal resilience’, in F.C. Schaefer and C.A. Schaefer (eds), Trauma and Resilience (Condeo Press, 2012), p. 93, quoted in Resilience in Life and Faith: Finding your strength in God by Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker (p. 5).

In this light, we see that resilience is not just a characteristic of those we call the heroes of the faith or of the missionaries whose biographies are found in our church libraries. No, resilience is a Christian essential, something we all need to remain true to our Lord and follow his calling on our lives.

Without resilience, we lose heart

If resilience is closely related to perseverance, then we need to make another observation. We realize that we need resilience not only to deal with individual traumatic experiences, as difficult as they may be. Resilience is also needed to fight weariness. Here we are not talking just about physical weariness but also weariness of the soul (see Jesus’ invitation in Matt 11:28-29).

Weariness eventually leads to losing heart and giving up. This is the danger that the writer to the Hebrews warns his readers about:

Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up.

Hebrews 12:3, The NET Bible.

The recipients of Hebrews were growing weary under the strain of the ongoing opposition and rejection that they faced as followers of Jesus. This was tempting them to lose heart and to give up. They were being tempted to return to the protected religion of Judaism. Or maybe they were tempted to simply become nominal Christians who rarely if ever fellowshipped with other believers and no longer served Christ.

Weariness, resilience and the pandemic

We have heard that many missionaries have become exhausted during this pandemic. I do not believe that the exhaustion or weariness is because the pandemic has given us more to do. Actually, our schedules have probably become lighter in the past couple of years. I definitely have traveled much less due to the travel restrictions. For many of my colleagues, regular local ministries have been canceled or significantly reduced in their frequency and time demands.

It is not the volume of work that makes us weary. Rather we are tired because so much of our work in the pandemic is not the type of work that we find most satisfying or that suits our personalities. Very few of us signed up for missions because we like sitting in front of a computer screen all day. We do not find that kind of work satisfying or fulfilling, even if we enjoy interacting with the people on the other end of the call. In fact, some of us may have become missionaries for the very reason that we wanted to get away from work that requires us to sit in front of a computer all day!

If we are continually and for over a long period of time required to do things that are not suited to our strengths, we will be mentally and emotionally depleted.6 See a helpful podcast by Patrick Lencioni and his team entitled “The Truth about Burnout.”

So, working remotely with daily video conference calls and very little in-person ministry can be exhausting. Even though the number of hours we put in may be less than before the pandemic, we are weary. Hence, we need resilience to persevere. We need to understand how to develop our resilience.

We can grow in resilience

But resilience can be developed. Only if we understand that resilience can grow do the following verses in James chapter 1 make sense.

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.

James 1:2–4

Therefore, let’s remember that resilience is not a fixed character quality. It is not that some have it and others don’t. Our genes do not determine how much resilience we have. By God’s grace, all of us can learn to become more resilient, not just survivors.

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