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?

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.

soul rest
Photo by S Migaj on Unsplash

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?

What's right
Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

Can I stop asking “what’s wrong?”

Note: This blog post was first published on the Grow2Serve blog and is used with permission. Our guest author regularly facilitates a 2-week online course entitled “Sustainable Resilience“.  This course is for cross-cultural workers who have lived at least 3 months in a new culture. 

Finding meaning and purpose

During “Sustainable Resilience”, we spend significant time talking about #10. We are referring to Southwick and Charney’s list of ten factors that were almost always present in those who demonstrated high resilience in adversity. Here’s #10:

Meaning and Purpose – were active problem solvers who looked for meaning and opportunity in the midst of adversity and sometimes even found humor in the darkness; used their traumatic experiences as a platform for personal growth.

Southwick, Steven; Charney, Dennis. Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, p. 16.
As the deer pants for streams of water
Photo by Simon Greenwood on Unsplash

Hope from a Distance: Psalm 42 and 43

The pandemic of 2020 has brought about some new terminology such as “social distancing”, “shelter-in-place”, and “hunker down.” Additionally, travel restrictions have prevented international travel, causing missionary families to miss graduations, weddings, and funerals. Also, many churches have not been able to meet face to face due to local restrictions on size of gatherings. COVID-19 has brought a lot of turmoil into our lives. Where can we find hope from a distance?

Psalm 42 and 43

Over the past several months my thoughts have often returned to Psalm 42 and 43. The writer of these two psalms (probably composed as one) was experiencing separation from public worship for reasons we do not know. The two psalms are characterized by numerous questions and a refrain repeated in Psalm 42:5, 11 and Psalm 43:5. The two stanzas of Psalm 42 are laments and Psalm 43 turns the lament into prayer. Consequently, these two psalms provide us an example of how to move from despair to hope in God even when our questions remain unanswered. We learn to hope from a distance when God’s deliverance is not yet clearly in view.

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