Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Author: Ken Guenther Page 1 of 24

Director of SEND U

Jesus' resilience
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The inspiration for resilience

This year, as I have thought about planning my growth and development, I have decided that I want to read more biographies. In his great book, Resilient Life, Gordon MacDonald says “deliberating exposing oneself to people who are better and smarter” than we are is part of the process of disciplining our minds and learning resilience. Definitely, we can find amazing and inspiring examples of perseverance and resilience in biographies such as Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Imam’s Daughter by Hannah Shah. But the greatest example of perseverance and resilience is found in the Gospels. If we are looking for heroes to emulate in the character quality of resilience, we start with Jesus.

Inspiring them to persevere

In a previous post, I talked about the discouragement and fatigue of the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. These believers 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. So the author of Hebrews encourages them to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Perseverance is another word for resilience. How does he inspire them to persevere? By pointing to Jesus.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Hebrews 12:2-3 from “the Message” paraphrase

The writer to the Hebrews asks his readers to consider Jesus as a paragon of resilience from three different perspectives. We need to look back at Jesus’ example of resilience. Then we need to look up to him for his help and grace. Thirdly, we need to look forward with him to his coming reward.

resilience and grace
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The source of resilience – grace

What is missional resilience? In a nutshell, it’s grace not grit. We must receive Jesus’ resilience to join him in his mission as we turn toward the triune God, others, and ourselves for loving support.

Geoff Whiteman, Resilient Global Worker Study: Persevering with Joy, March 2021.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the need for resilience in cross-cultural work and particularly now in the pandemic. I mentioned Geoff Whiteman’s research. He surveyed more than 1000 missionaries to find out what contributes to making global workers more resilient. What was his overall conclusion? It can be found in the quote above – resilience in mission work is rooted in God’s grace.

In a workshop at the 2021 Missio Nexus Mission Leaders Conference, Whiteman presented various recommendations for mission organizations to support missional resilience. Based on his research, he talked about the type of training, leadership, and caring that would help global workers become and stay resilient. Whiteman’s research demonstrated that mission organizations have much to learn and many ways in which they can improve. Nevertheless, Whiteman still concludes that resilience is first and foremost a gift of God’s grace.

The witness of Scripture

This echoes the witness of the Scriptures. Repeatedly we find that the Word of God promises the grace of resilience to those who cannot endure in their own strength. Here are a couple of examples.

need for resilience
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Resilience: the need

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 ResilientGlobalWorker.org 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.

receptivity
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Should we go to the most receptive?

As a young missionary candidate about 40 years ago, I considered various countries as possible destinations for my future ministry. One of the main criteria I used was receptivity. I wanted to go to a place where the church was growing rapidly. I was attracted to the harvest. In a harvest field, I reasoned, there would be a greater need for training of national workers, which was the area of missions I was most interested in. So, I chose the Philippines and the lowland work among Roman Catholics in particular.

Experiencing the harvest

Given that I was still in my early 20’s when I arrived in the Philippines, I realized that I first needed some experience and credibility before I could begin training others. My wife and I enjoyed ten years of wonderfully fruitful years in church planting and training in the Philippines. We were part of the harvest. The Filipino people are amazingly hospitable and very receptive to the Gospel. The evangelical churches were growing so quickly that within a few years, I realized that the percentage of evangelicals in this country was going to surpass the percentage of evangelicals in my home country of Canada. I also came to understand that the Filipino church in the lowlands soon might not need expatriate trainers like myself.

In this journey, I came to understand the urgency and importance of going to those that are least reached. But it also became apparent to me that those who were least-reached were also most often the people groups that were not as receptive to the Gospel, at least not initially. It would not be as rewarding or fulfilling to serve in the places where the harvest had not yet begun. Working in places where there is limited receptivity can be very wearying and discouraging. Although our next ten years of serving in Far East Russia were also fulfilling in many ways, I experienced discouragement and a loss of heart there that was quite different from what I experienced in the Philippines.

effective organizational cultures
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What makes an organizational culture effective?

Cross-cultural workers spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing, and examining cultures. Ethnography is a foundational skill for missionaries. But I have found that we are much less adept at understanding and describing organizational cultures, even the cultures of the organizations in which we serve. What does an effective organizational culture look like? What kind of organizational culture would lead to greater fruitfulness and well-being of our members? Even more mysterious is how leaders can nurture the organizational culture they would like to prevail. Or can we even change or develop our organizational culture?

I have just finished “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle. I believe that this book begins to answer some of these questions, at least for me. Coyle set out to discover the reasons why some groups, teams, or organizations accomplish far more than what we would expect of them if we only looked at the sum total of the individual talents of their members. His research has resulted in an excellent and fascinating book about group culture. Coyle believes that these cultures don’t just “happen” but are intentionally created by learning and practicing a specific set of skills.

In his book, the author describes 3 essential “skills” of highly effective groups:

effective organizational culture
  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

Coyle devotes a section of his book to describing each skill. Each section includes multiple stories about great teams and organizations. Then it concludes with a set of suggested action steps for developing that skill.

Build safety

The first skill is all about the value of belonging. As cross-cultural workers, we are very familiar with the feeling of not belonging. Thus, we are often not able to contribute fully to the discussions and decisions in the cultures and communities in which we live. We long to belong, to be accepted, to be valued for our contribution. Even as we recognize that we will always be outsiders, we want to become “acceptable outsiders.”1 See Joann Pittman’s article “Learning to Be an Acceptable Outsider” for a better understanding of this term. We want to feel that it is not only safe to live in these communities but also safe to contribute meaningfully to its well-being.

soul rest
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Vacation and Soul Rest

Vacation time

August is vacation time for many of us serving in cross-cultural missions. Whereas July is often busy with various camps and short-term teams, August is more often focused on spending time with family and enjoying the warm weather before classes and the fall ministry schedule begin again. As expected, in the last few weeks, I have received innumerable “out-of-office” notifications from my colleagues. This morning, I had only a couple of new emails and messages to which I need to respond. This is the predictable pause in August while colleagues take a break from ministry. It almost causes us to forget how very unpredictable and disrupted our lives have been in the last 18 months.

Finding rest for your soul

But a break from ministry while taking some vacation time does not always result in soul rest. Some people seem to need a vacation to recover from their vacation! Unfortunately, vacation does not nearly always result in people returning refreshed and rested. We may feel physically rested. But since most of us are not involved in much manual labour, physical rest is not the primary objective of our vacation. As knowledge workers, we want to rest our minds, our hearts, our center core, that which we call our soul. But as we sometimes ruefully admit to ourselves, taking some vacation time did not result in soul rest. How does one actually rest one’s soul?

coaching or mentoring
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Do I need a mentor or a coach?

In the last while, I have been thinking about how to strengthen our mentoring within SEND. In a recent analysis of leadership development within our organization, I noted that we needed more intentional mentoring of developing leaders by our current leaders. This is a gap in our current leadership development. Thinking about how to fill that gap has naturally led me to try to define mentoring. How is mentoring different from coaching? SEND U has already sought to create a coaching culture within the mission. More than 200 people in SEND have received some type of training in coaching. So, do we need both mentors and coaches?

Defining coaching and mentoring

A significant difficulty in answering this question is that the definition of coaching varies so much. For example, Lois Zachary and Lory Fischler in their mentoring fable, “Starting Strong” say,

Coaching is more instructive, but mentoring is more of a relationship. It’s not about me telling you what to do and you doing it.

Lois Zachary & Lory Fischler, Starting Strong: A Mentoring FAble, p.21.

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