What Are You Not Talking About?

By Bill MacLeod, Director, MissionConnexion 

What are your missionaries wrestling with on the field that you at home are not talking about? If you asked them, what do you think they would say? Do you think they would or even could be completely honest with you if they did respond?

At our recent MC2 Midwest Care Connexion conference in Minneapolis, I sat in on a compelling workshop led by Amy Young of Global Trellis, entitled: “4 Issues That Missionaries are Dealing with that You’re Not Talking About.” 

Amy and her team approached 358 overseas workers (80% are on the field right now, 15% are in a support role, and 5% are former workers that have a heart for this topic) asking, “do you have an issue or issues you are dealing with that if your sending agency knew about it, it could jeopardize your ability to stay on the field or work in the home office?”

51% said, yes, they had something they felt would put them at odds with their organization if it were known. The second question went deeper when the survey asked, “What it your “This”? They were given a list of areas that typically rise to the top, including, Politics, Physical health, Emotional health, Sex/sexuality, Faith/theology, Marriage, Organization, Kids, Debt/finances, Singleness, Miscellaneous.

So why don’t workers share? Assuming that everyone is well-intentioned, a key reason is the disparity between the worldview of “Senders” and “Goers” and what she calls the “pedestal complex”. “Senders” typically say “these (missionaries) are not like me: they must be superhuman.” But they are honestly trying to honor the sacrifice and reality cross-cultural workers face. “Goers” typically feel that a lot is at stake and say to themselves “I need to be superhuman.” They are honestly trying to be worthy of the money, effort, sacrifice, and prayer invested.

The three areas that rose to the top in this survey sample of individuals were:

  1. Emotional Health – phrases that came up:
    • ‘struggle with depression and/or anxiety”
    • “I don’t have much bandwidth”
    • “anger with a colicky child”
    • “I struggle with rage; or anger over getting my way”
    • “my spouse’ mental health limitations”
    • “when is the right time (for me) to lay down what we’re doing for the sake of myself?”, people reported taking ADHD meds, or bipolar meds; feeling beaten down; periods of intense fear and anxiety,
    • “I feel done”; clinical and post-partum depression; unhealed childhood trauma; PTSD from living in a warzone,
  2. Faith and Theology – phrases that came up even with people very much affirming:
    • “I am very much still with King Jesus!”
    • “I don’t completely agree with the theology of my organization”
    • “I struggle to pray” or “I haven’t prayed in ages”
    • “I’m in the Bible regularly for my church or the Bible study I lead, but I can go quite a long time without reading scripture on a personal level”
    • “I do not see God the same way I did when I came on the field”
    • “why is the Church so mean to women?”
    • “If God is coming to Muslims in dreams, why do we need to be here?”
    • “we raised funds etc., but now wonder if we are needed here in the same way I thought we were when we were sent out?”; wrestling with issues around the American Church
    • “no longer believe in a literal Hell”;
    • women: “why can I do X on the field but cannot when I come home?”
    • many women referenced “purity culture” which had been influential when they were young but not helpful as they hit 30’s-plus”
  3. Marriage and Singleness – phrases that came up:
    • “my marriage is strained”
    • “I am burnt out in my marriage”
    • “a loveless marriage and chaotic family life”
    • “I want a divorce but I can’t”
    • “someone came to visit us on the field and we look ok on the outside because ministry is going well, but it is not”
    • “having to do everything with your spouse does not always make the marriage better”
    • “I often have to choose between being a good spouse or a good colleague”
    • singles reported that living a celibate life in a foreign culture is hard and even in the church culture
    • “everyone has an opinion and everyone seems to think it is OK to speculate on the single person’s life, status, and mindset without actually having to get to know the individual”
    • “it is very lonely to be single and live a pure life”
    • “navigating the Muslim world as a single woman is a weight, that I am a burden”

How can we respond?

  • Be more open to seeing what the issues are.
  • Be willing to help them get counseling or help.
  • Be willing to help them get insurance for medications needed.
  • Express that we want them to communicate with us.
  • Take them to lunch once home and say this is a ‘safe place’ for you to share what is really going on?
  • Dig deep and ask difficult questions if you have established a relationship with them.
  • Ask ‘are you struggling with ___?” and work hard to be honest.
  • Have Confidential Personal and Ministry debriefings that will not be recorded.
  • Work hard at becoming good listeners.
  • Recognize we are all growing and changing.
  • Pray for your workers’ mental health, emotional health, finances, etc.
  • Schedule regular monthly check-ins with your workers.
  • Emphasize “you are NOT alone” with the issues you are facing.
  • Develop a list of resources that can help them.
  • Remind them that (we know) it really takes a LOT to live in another culture on multiple levels.
  • Incentivize taking time off.
  • Offer financial and logistical support so people can take vacations etc.
  • Ask businesspeople who travel a ton if they have air miles they could share for missionaries’ use?
  • Use Amy’s list and develop a series of times to discuss these personal issues with those who can help.
  • Use Global Trellis’ website for discovering solutions through their presentations.