Facing cross-cultural stresses
Missionaries face stressful situations by virtue of the fact that they live and work cross-culturally. Some researchers have insisted that cross-cultural workers are under no more stress than anyone else, and yet studies are showing that many living cross-culturally exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Maybe it’s time the Church takes notice?
I had a friend who survived 3 tours in the Vietnam War as a Navy Seal. He came home from one of those tours with a slim chance of living and was the only one from his platoon to survive. I knew him as my supervisor for my seminary internships in the Philippines. As God would have it, my friend was in Manila when a coup broke out. Hearing the gunfire and mortar rounds go off, my friend flashed back to Vietnam, flinging himself to the ground screaming and crying. He was not in harm’s way, but the sounds were enough to trigger him while his mind was trying to make sense of the trauma and stress he lived through during the war.
Certainly not on the same scale, every cross-cultural worker I know has similar occurrences of some sort. Their mind tries to make sense of change, always looking for something familiar to relate to. Returning home is often the hardest. I know that has been my experience. I can’t imagine those who live and work in more rural outback or jungle settings. How can they even begin to relate to city life back in their passport country? Worse still, though their sending and supporting churches are glad to see them, no one “back home” has a real point of reference to understand this person who acts kinda weird at times. The unspoken pressure is for the person to fit right back in to the culture they left so many years ago and in some cases, the pressure is even stronger not to bring their newly acquired culture with them.
I ask workers how they handle the tension of “going home” to which many reply, “we just stick to the script of what donors want to hear”. Few have friends or family asking sincere and meaningful questions about their life. Many TCK’s dread going to their passport country for just this reason. Most cross-cultural workers and their kids feel far more at home in a place we might label ‘foreign’ than their own passport country simply because the people they tend to meet and hang out with are just like them—foreign. There’s solidarity in one’s own tribe even if they’ve just met 10 minutes ago.
When mission agencies and NGO’s talk about Member Care, the focus is generally on care for personnel in their field of service. The assumption is that someone else has the back home needs covered. In some cases, these needs are addressed either through independent agencies that provide such care and attention to returning personnel or sending and supporting churches that have seasoned people responsible for looking after their missionaries. However, while various agencies are growing in their awareness that the missionary is “worth keeping” and many churches are beginning to get that their missionary is “too valuable to lose”, I’d like to see a concerted effort of the church (mission agency and local church) in demonstrating the gospel through care. The literature in this area falls on one side or the other. I’m not seeing a joining of hands either in the mission effort or nurturing the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of those who give their lives to further the gospel. I think it’s time.
Granted, sending churches have limited influence and direct impact on their sent ones (though an argument could be made to the contrary). Then there are the local churches the workers attend while in their field of service. Where I live, it is not uncommon for a worker to worship with a group they may only see on Sunday, attend Bible study with a completely different group, lead studies and mentor nationals, and also be responsible to their team who may or may not be the same people in the previously mentioned groups. Unfortunately, this dynamic tends to breed isolated self-sufficiency where areas of personal weakness and unhealth can go unnoticed for a long time or simply be unaddressed. The assumption is that, “Someone else is taking care of it,” or worse, “It is none of our business; because that is what member care is for, right?”
One writer on the subject suggests that member care as a “multifaceted, team effort, requiring the participation of everyone.” However, he believes that the backbone of any effective member care program is the ongoing mutual care that occurs among workers. In other words, while the whole is required, more specific attention from those in proximity is key. Yet, this does not absolve the other layers of care of due diligence. Whether local or distant, the problem is that when a worker struggles to the point of burn out or even opting out, the church tends to view the fallout as the worker’s failure alone. Frankly, this sort of attitude is really a failure of the body of Christ.
The church universal is dropping the ball. For any number of reasons workers in the midst of struggle are too often left to their own resources. Funds are difficult to come by in order to get adequate help. Some agencies have poorly developed strategies of care or don’t really buy into the need for it. Sending and supporting churches have a hard time understanding the nature of the blow out and may tend to back away from their worker or cut support altogether. Financially conscious church treasurers may have a hard time releasing money for someone in crisis. Churches want to see the gospel move forward not spend time picking up the pieces of a worker not quite worth their salt.
Unfortunately, some suggest that agencies and workers develop strategies of care because practically speaking, “the needed level of support and help is not going to come from outside sources, so it must come from within their own community of colleagues.” Really? Is the sending church satisfied with this conclusion? Yet, at the same time, those on the field are reluctant not only to get caught in another’s struggle, but they also believe themselves lacking the necessary training to provide adequate counsel. Regardless of the reasons, the results are the same. Workers are left to figure difficulties out on their own.
These varied and conflicting attitudes within the church confuse me. We know that our message is validated by the quality of our love for one another. (see Jn. 13:34-35) So, why is this so hard to get our lives around? Also, statistics show that worker vitality is correlated to preventive care.
Maybe it’s time for the church to acknowledge its responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper. Jesus did mean what he called us to in loving one another. The statistics only prove what our hearts have understood for a long time.
A few ideas on a solution:
- Count this as a call to re-examine our understanding of one-anothering (not our theology, but the outworking of what we think we believe) in light of Trinitarian theological implications of what it means to be image bearers.
- 2. For caregivers, I challenge you to take on less crisis care and begin developing models of sustainability. Let’s work ourselves out of a job by investing in the whole community of workers to learn how to one another. There has to be a better away than waiting for a workshop or seminar at conference time.
- Agencies! Re-examine HR policies from the eyes of Jn. 13 & 17 rather than employment law. I can’t help but wonder if we can actually show the world a better way than just developing departments to take care of our weak.
- Sending & supporting churches: I urge you to re-examine your own policies and attitudes toward ministry and those you send out and support to ‘get the job done’. How much better testimony to an unbelieving world to actually care about those who struggle more than celebrating the supposed hero?
Obviously more could be said on each suggestion. What I’d prefer is open dialogue and actually movement toward unity in the body. So, please, push back. Let’s consider ways and means of displaying the wonder of Christ in the way we relate rather than our philosophy the gospel.
 Kenneth Williams, “A Model for Mutual Care in Missions,” in Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelism, ed. Kelly O’Donnell (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992), 46 .
 Ibid., 46.
 Dale Joseph Duhe, “Where There Is No Shepherd: Providing Member Care for Missionaries in Foreign Lands” (ProQuest Information & Learning, 1994), 17, psyh.
 Blöcher, “Member Care (What It Means),” in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, 182.
 More on this in a later post, or you can read chapter 3 of my dissertation. See also, Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).; Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).; Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998).; Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).; C. Baxter Kruger, The Great Dance (Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2000).; Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent University, 2002). for a start.