Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Stress Management Page 1 of 3

Photo by Phil Nguyen

Is It Possible to Parent Well?

Editor’s note: This blog post was originally posted on the blog, A Life Overseas. It is reposted with permission from the author, Abby Alleman. She previously served overseas as a missionary with her husband and three children. Now she and her husband touch the lives of refugees through the ministry of the Welcome Network. Learn more about Abigail at her blog and website (abigailalleman.com). Follow her on Instagram @abigail.allema.

Can I as a missionary parent well?

Somewhere between the 1,100-mile move and the wheels falling off (not literally, but figuratively) of our family’s parenting vehicle, I asked the question:

‘Is it possible for me, as a career missionary, to parent well?’

It seems I crucify myself between two thieves: Fear and Self-Doubt. And there are probably a million other places I can go which defeat me as a parent.

But, fellow cross-cultural parent, I am not writing this for any of us to stay in places of shame or defeat. I believe God has a fresh word for all of us amid the uncharted waters of loving our kids in new spaces, both figurative and literal.

Trying to protect your children from being shaken

When we were first considering a dramatic ministry change, I called a friend to pray over me and my family. She saw a picture of me trying to protect my kids from what this new call and accompanying relocation could do to them. As I released them, they were in scary places I had no control over, and they were shaken. Yet, my friend’s word of encouragement was that without this ‘shaking up’ they would never establish themselves in their own unique relationships with God.

Whether you are in transition, or simply in the throes of what missionary journeys can do to us as very human parents who still struggle, may I offer this same word to you for your children?

staying on top of things
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Staying on top of things

A few years ago, I was planning for an upcoming “boot camp” for new field leaders. Our boot camps are two full days of training but hardly “a place or undertaking that resembles a military boot camp especially by requiring one to endure intensive training or initiation”.1 Merriam Webster definition #3 for “boot camp. But then maybe we should ask the participants, not the trainer! In preparation, I asked these new field leaders and their directors what topics they would want us to cover. I gave them a list of topics we had covered in previous years. Someone suggested “how to stay on top of things”, something not on my list. In subsequent years, participants have almost always selected this topic as something they want to address at boot camp.

The difficulty of staying on top of things

This suggestion initially surprised me, but it immediately made sense. New field leaders have a steep learning curve as they move from front-line ministry into more administrative roles in missions. One of the challenges in this transition is how to manage the myriad of expectations, tasks and messages that come with their new role. See my recent blog post on the paradoxes of leadership. But regardless of whether you find yourself in a new leadership role or not, we all struggle to “stay on top of things”. As mission workers, we all end up wearing multiple hats, filling many different roles because of a shortage of personnel.

In this blog post, I want to briefly summarize what we talk about in this hour and a half session at boot camp. These are the principles and tools that have been most helpful for me to “stay on top of things”. I recognize that you will need to adjust my system to fit your personality and work style.

Managing Leadership Anxiety
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Managing Leadership Anxiety: a review

I would not have readily chosen “anxiety” as the word to characterize my low experiences in leadership. Frustration, yes. Loneliness, yes. Overwhelmed, yes. Disappointment, yes. But I have not often thought of myself as suffering with anxiety. That is, I had not identified my struggles in leadership as anxiety until I read (listened to) Steve Cuss’ book, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs. I now realize that anxiety has often been at the root of many of these struggles.

In this blog post, I want to continue the theme of the last couple of blog posts – reviewing helpful books on leadership. As was true of both previous blog posts, these books are not only for those in formal leadership roles. All of us in cross-cultural missions are leaders if we are seeking to lead people to change their thinking, beliefs and lifestyle. “Managing Leadership Anxiety” therefore applies to all of us who sense a call to disciple the nations to become followers of Jesus.

Leaders need to manage their own anxiety first

Besides being an author, Steve Cuss is a pastor who began his ministry as a trauma and hospice chaplain. In helping families deal with grief and loss, he learned that he needed to first of all manage his own anxiety. He needed to understand what was going inside of himself before he could truly connect with others. When he became a lead pastor of a rapidly growing church, he realized that anxiety came with that role as well. Cuss needed to develop ways of thinking and behaving that allowed him to manage that anxiety.

The goal of managing anxiety is not simply for relief, it is to connect more fully with God and to raise awareness of what God is doing. Anxiety blocks our awareness of God because it takes our subconscious attention. This means that anxiety can be an early detection system that we’re depending on something other than God for our well-being.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 17).

Not knowing what to do

Cuss defines leadership as knowing what to do. But as leaders, we often don’t know what to do. Yet we have to do something, because we are leaders. This makes us very uncomfortable and leads to anxiety. We worry because we can’t control what is going to happen. We are not sure that we have adequate information, wisdom, or training to tackle the task before us. As leaders, we wish that someone would tell us what to do or that we could be certain of a particular outcome. As Cuss says:

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?

resilience and grace
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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
Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

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.

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