We have been discussing the need for resilience among cross-cultural workers. In the last post, we talked about how God develops resilience through suffering. But what is the mission organization’s responsibility in supporting their workers in these times of crisis and stress? How does the organization determine its level of involvement in caring for its missionaries?
These questions are not easily answered. Cross-cultural workers vary widely in their desire for and expectations of organizational involvement. Some only want their organization to provide receipts to their donors and make sure the missionary receives the support on a regular basis. Others want a full range of services, including health insurance, training, pastoral care, leadership, and supervision, conferences and retreats, risk assessments and security training, and IT support.
SEND International is one mission that has sought to better determine what level of organizational involvement it should provide for its members’ well-being. Here is the story of what one region in SEND has done to find answers to these questions.
A survey of field missionaries
In 2019 SEND International established a workgroup to study the feasibility of designing and implementing a regional “hub” structure for the Eurasia region. SEND had already worked in this part of the world for a couple of decades, but we wanted to strengthen the services we provided to our missionaries serving there. One of the mandates of the workgroup was to protect what works well in Eurasia (strengths) while improving what is not working well (gaps). To learn more about the strengths and gaps of our organization in this region, the workgroup created a questionnaire and a list of possible interviewees.
Three groups of SEND members were identified and invited to be interviewed. The largest group was current members of SEND in Eurasia, next were regional leaders and finally various “representatives”. These representatives were mobilizers, coaches, HR professionals, and member care personnel from various sending councils. Because of the nature of their ministry, the interviews with representatives focused primarily on their area of expertise. In all, 85 SEND members were invited to be interviewed.
Of the 85 members invited to be interviewed, 30 were serving in Russia, 27 were serving in Ukraine, 4 were serving in Central Asia, 3 were serving as regional leaders and 21 were serving as representatives in the US, Canada, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Not everyone agreed to be interviewed and not every interview was completed. In the end, a data set of 68 completed interviews was produced.
Gaps in member care
As we analyzed the data from the interviews, we noticed that people were identifying member care as both one of the greatest strengths and greatest gaps of SEND in Eurasia. Most interesting!
While the study revealed much good information about the strength and weaknesses of member care in Eurasia, the range of answers indicated that there was some lack of clarity about the meaning of member care. People commented on various gaps in member care. They talked about issues related to consistency, proactiveness, marriage and family, missionary children, home service, professional development, team conflict, peer relationship, follow-up, checking in, and many others.
Defining member care
It became clear that the level of expectations and the definition of member care varied widely among interviewees. Therefore, one of the recommendations from that workgroup was to develop a clear definition of what SEND means by the term “member care” for this Eurasia region. The definition would require “buy-in.” This would both help direct the efforts in member care and clarify expectations about member care. To that end, leadership gathered another workgroup and asked them to develop a draft definition. Once the draft was complete, it was given to the Regional Council to refine and implement.
The member care workgroup began working in the fall of 2021. Using the comments from the 2019 study and a new short survey, it developed a draft definition of member care. Then the draft was sent out to missionaries in the region to review. As expected, some of the comments revealed that there is still a wide range of opinions about what is meant by member care. The review process also resulted in several threads of insightful and productive conversations about member care.
Different levels of organizational involvement
In one of those threads, someone mentioned a webinar called, “The Role of Mission Organizations in Missionary Well-Being.” It was led by Kimberly Drage from the organization SentWell. I watched a recording of the webinar and read parts of Dr. Drage’s dissertation. Both were very informative. In that webinar and the accompanying dissertation, Drage made a distinction between the unique contributions that “high involvement” and “low involvement” organizations make to missionary well-being.
These distinctions helped crystalize some of the concepts that the workgroup and many of the conversation threads were struggling to verbalize. One of Dr. Drage’s recommendations was that an organization should decide if they would like to take a high or low-level approach to involvement with members.1 Kim Drage, “The Role of Organizations in Employee Well-Being in Faith-Based Organizations” (PhD diss., University of St. Andrews, 2019), 47. The answer to this question would impact both the agency’s definition of member care and the kind of missionaries they will attract and retain.
Where on the spectrum are we?
Before answering this question, I asked, “Is SEND currently a high-involvement or a low-involvement organization?” This seemed like an easy question to answer, but it quickly became more complicated. Since the question offered only two options, high-involvement or low-involvement, the first two people I asked gave opposite answers. I asked several other people this question and found no consensus. As I pondered the question more, I realized that this is really not an either-or type of question. This is more of a question about where SEND falls on the range between the two options.
Our family’s pre-field experience
As I was first thinking about this question, I was thinking about our own family’s experience. When we were candidates, we first had to go through three weeks of Candidate Orientation training. Later, we went through two weeks of Membership Orientation. While still in the US, the mission required us to go to the annual one-week Family Conference in Michigan.
Because we had small children, SEND also asked us to go to a training conference on educating children overseas. Others in the preparation process went through additional training in language acquisition, cross-cultural adaption, and theology.
The mission told us how much monthly support we needed to raise. The home office gave us a coach to help us through this process. Furthermore, we needed to get medical clearance and meet various time-bound goals to raise our support. That seems very much like a high organizational involvement approach. Once we met all the requirements, we left for the field.
Once on the field
After arrival in Ukraine, we enrolled in a language school. That was about the extent of the organizational requirements on us. We didn’t have a coach. There were no requirements for additional training or reporting. So, while on the field in the early 2000s, I would say that SEND, for us, was a low-involvement mission.
Our home service experience
After five years, we went on our first home service. About a month before our home service, we received a number of emails from the US office with requirements for home service. I was surprised to read that there were several things that we should have done six months before home service. We were already behind! But we did our best to catch up before we returned to the US.
Once we were on home service, we received a personalized list of requirements. The organization required us to go to a conference called “Reconnect” to help us adapt to our year in the US. Since we were in the US, we needed to again attend the SEND annual Family Conference in Michigan. We received a new support level number that required us to raise additional funds. We needed to get medical clearance. Again, the home office assigned a coach to help us through this process. Suddenly, SEND was a high-involvement organization again.
After thinking through our scenario, I changed my initial response to the question, “What kind of mission is SEND International?” My answer now was, “It depends on your current status.” Then I talked to some colleagues from other sending offices. I realized that the pre-field, on-field, and home service requirements and experiences varied greatly across the organization. One’s experience was also different based on how long ago you joined the organization. A few decades ago, these organizational requirements were much less. So, I modified my answer to that question again. Now I would say, “It depends on your current status, field of service, current year, and sending office.”
The need for clarity
I am not complaining about the lack of consistency in organizational involvement across the mission or over time. Variations are probably needed in the type of member care the organization provides for people of different cultures and from different generations.
Clarity on organizational involvement on the field
What I am advocating for is clarity. Here in Eurasia, we should ask ourselves the following question. “On the spectrum of high-involvement and low-involvement, where do we want our organization to fall with respect to member care?” In our workgroup’s draft definition, we state, “SEND Eurasia affirms the desire to care for our members in a way that strikes a balance between autonomy and active support for members.”
So, as different regions within SEND, I think we would do well to decide where we want to be on that spectrum. Then we need to decide how to establish and maintain that balance. With a clear definition and set of expectations, mission members will be able to adjust their expectations and, in turn, respond better to their own needs and the needs of their colleagues.
Clarity on organizational involvement from the sending office
It would probably be useful for each of us to ask ourselves another question. “Where does our particular sending office fall on the member care involvement spectrum?” Based on the answer to those two questions we can adjust expectations and develop personal structures and support systems to better meet our own needs and those of our colleagues.
For now, to help us gain clarity on the field level, the workgroup has already developed a draft definition and submitted it to the Regional Council. The Regional Council is in the process of finalizing the definition and taking steps toward implementation.
Benefits of clarity
For me personally, I found the input of our colleagues both in the workgroup and outside the workgroup thought-provoking and very helpful.
Clarifying this definition and answering the question about our sending areas will help us adjust our expectations of current and new colleagues. This, in turn, will reduce anxiety. I believe that just these two outcomes will help us all be more resilient.2 See the blog series about developing resilience in cross-cultural missionaries. This clarity will help us thrive in long-term cross-cultural ministry.