Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

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expectations
photo: “Heavy Luggage,” by Maurice Koop, used under a Creative Commons license

Excess Baggage: The Weight of Unmet Expectations

This blog post was originally posted on the blog “A Life Overseas.” It is reposted with permission from the author. Craig Thompson and his family served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan for 10 years before returning to the USA. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures.

A survey of missionary attrition

In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field.1 Andrea Sears, “Expectations Factors,” The Missions Experience,” October 14, 2021. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of:

  • team members, reported by 62%
  • community, 58%
  • relationships back home, 54%
  • ministry results, 52%
  • job responsibilities, 50%

And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be:

  • team members, reported by 65%
  • job responsibilities, 64%,
  • community, 61%
  • family life, 56%

A survey of missionary expectations

These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss. In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations lately and hope to address it here in the coming months. To start, I’d like to repost my article below, in a slightly edited form. It originally appeared under the title “Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down.”

feeding your soul

Feeding your soul in a time of crisis

In my last post, I reflected on our new status as refugees from Ukraine. I talked about some of the ways that God had prepared me for this crisis and was helping me process this new reality. The processing continues. We have not given up on the hope that we may be able to return to Ukraine and resume our ministry there. But we are seeking to deal with the possibility that we may not. Today, I want to reflect on what has sustained me through this time of crisis, even when the future is so uncertain, and answers to my questions seem so far away. How do I feed my soul when God does not seem to answer our prayers?

A personal crisis

Without a doubt, what all of us see depicted on the news is far more catastrophic than my personal crisis. Yet the possibility that our cross-cultural life and ministry may have come to an end on January 30 has created a significant amount of stress and anxiety within me. As many of you know, my wife and I have made Kyiv, Ukraine our home and base of ministry since 2009. In order to facilitate a training program for new missionaries, we traveled to North America at the end of January. We had planned to be in North America for about 10 weeks, with return tickets booked for a few days after the completion of the training program.

But the day I opened the online course was also the day that Russia began its “special military operation” in Ukraine.  One of the first residential buildings in our city to be hit in the conflict was about 200 meters from our apartment building. Since then, most of our friends and all of our missionary colleagues have left Ukraine or at least evacuated out of Kyiv.

Dealing with many questions

We pray daily for peace to be restored in Ukraine and for the safety and protection of friends that remain in Kyiv or in that country. When will the conflict end? Will we ever be able to return to our home? Where will we live if we are not able to return? We are currently staying with relatives in Canada but know that this is not a long-term solution.

How does God’s calling on my life to develop leaders intersect with the need of the refugees pouring out of Ukraine? I know so little about working with refugees. I am still struggling to understand what it means for me to be a refugee. How can I train others to work with them?

refugee
Photo by a colleague from the Ukraine-Poland border. February 26, 2022

I am a refugee: reflections of a missionary leaving Ukraine

I am a missionary who is also a war refugee. I came to that realization a couple of days ago. My wife and I are Canadian citizens but residents of Ukraine. Or at least we were until about a month ago. We have our Ukraine temporary residency cards, recently renewed. Our home for the past 12 and a half years has been in the city of Kyiv. This has been the longest we have lived in any country or in any home since we got married and left for the Philippines almost 35 years ago. Now we are “back” in Canada. Because of the current war in Ukraine, we do not know for how long.

In the past week, I have experienced many different and sometimes conflicting emotions. I am thankful to God that we were given sufficient warning and were able to leave Ukraine before the fighting began. But I am also shocked and deeply saddened by the devastation and death that the war in Ukraine has caused. I feel a great sense of loss as I think about the possibility that we may never return to our home, friends and ministry base in Ukraine. At the same time, I am proud of and admire the courage, resilience and resourcefulness of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. Fervently and continually, I pray for peace in Ukraine – and wonder what this all means for us.

What is a refugee?

But am I really a refugee? After all, we were born and raised in Canada. This is where our parents, brothers and sisters, our daughter and son-in-law, and three of our grandchildren make their home.

Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.

UNHCR – What is a refugee?
fruitfulness
Photo by Howard Bouchevereau on Unsplash

Resilience and fruitfulness

In my first blog post on this topic of resilience, I said that understanding resilience is not primarily about minimizing attrition. Our goal is not simply to prevent missionaries prematurely returning to their sending countries. 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. In this post, let’s explore the relationship of resilience to fruitfulness.

Rewards come at the end

This morning, I received another email encouraging me to watch a training webinar. It included a familiar incentive:

Additionally, as a ‘Thank You’ to our loyal KLS members, we will be giving away a $10 Starbucks gift card to a random attendee at the end of each of our February webinars. Make sure you stick around until the end of the webinar to be eligible to win!

Email from KnowledgeWave.com, February 15, 2022

To receive a reward, you have to stay to the end. This reminds me of similar promises in the letter to the Hebrews.

resilience in community
Photo by PNW Production from Pexels

Resilience in community

In a supportive community, it is easier to remain resilient. Thus far in our series on resilience for cross-cultural workers, we have talked primarily about the resilience of individuals facing adversity and stress. But we all realize that we are more resilient when we face that adversity together with others.

As Ecclesiastes says,

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:12

Jesus relies on his friends

Yes, Jesus is our inspiration as we seek to become more resilient and persevering. He persevered despite great suffering and merciless opposition. He demonstrated unfailing reliance on his heavenly Father. But our Lord also had his small group of close friends and disciples who walked with him through the hardships and rejection he endured. So, it is no surprise that he insisted on bringing Peter, James, and John with him to his place of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matt 26:36-39).

organizational involvement
Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Resilience: What part does the organization play?

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.

Suffering and resilience
Photo by Hannah Gibbs on Unsplash

Suffering: God’s method of developing resilience

For several months now, I have been thinking about this topic of resilience in cross-cultural workers. I admit that I have been somewhat troubled by what the Scriptures tell me about God’s method of using suffering to develop resilience. As I have said in previous posts on this topic, the Scriptures do not use the word “resilience”. But the word “perseverance”1 in the Greek, “hupomone” is found repeatedly in Holy Writ. It seems to capture the idea of resilience.

So what do I find troubling in Scripture? In my thinking, the logical way to strengthen a missionary’s resilience is to:

  1. provide them with good training to prepare them for hard times
  2. ensure that they have excellent member care when they go through hard times.

From a human perspective, I struggle to see how suffering in any way contributes to the development of resilience. Isn’t our goal here to minimize the suffering?

Resilience comes from suffering

But what do the Scriptures say about how God produces perseverance in the believer? Look at what Paul says in Romans chapter 5.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3–4

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