by Mel Howell
With the cooperation of several missionary-sending agencies, I was able to survey 664 missionaries currently on the field, record the life stories of many who are adult children of alcoholics, and interview nearly a dozen therapists who specialize in serving the evangelical missionary community.
"My father, while drunk, threatened to break my legs if I joined a mission agency, because I was throwing away my education. Since I was 25 and living on my own, and having paid for my own education, I felt his demand invalid." So began the missionary adventure of 40-year-old Shelly, now a career missionary of nearly 15 years. While the degree to which her father expressed his outrage is extreme, one element about this experience is surprisingly common. Shelly is the daughter of an alcoholic. That characteristic, though rarely talked about, will continue to influence her life, just as it does for evangelical missionaries who, like Shelly, are adult children of alcoholics (ACAs).
Does it really matter if a missionary grew up in an alcoholic family? Doesn’t Christ make everything new in a person’s life, rendering our past insignificant? Is it anybody else’s business if a missionary’s past left emotional and spiritual scars? Those questions first began germinating in my thinking at the Urbana Student Mission Convention in 1990 when an emphasis was placed on serving Christ out of brokenness. As several of the speakers encouraged students to face the inner hurts they received from growing up in dysfunctional families, I kept thinking of previous conversations with missionaries from my own church who were still processing their painful pasts. A common factor in many of their stories was an alcoholic parent.
My curiosity about the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family took a more academic turn when it became the topic of a Ph.D. dissertation. With the cooperation of several missionary-sending agencies, I was able to survey 664 missionaries currently on the field, record the life stories of many who are adult children of alcoholics, and interview nearly a dozen therapists who specialize in serving the evangelical missionary community. In my survey, about 14 percent, or one in every seven, identified themselves as ACAs. The results of my study offer both hope and practical suggestions for better supporting ACA missionaries and others who grew up in similarly dysfunctional families.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a number of books helped mobilize a popular movement in American culture—a recovery movement for adults raised in families shaped by parental alcoholism. Most of these books were written by secular clinicians observing common behavioral and cognitive characteristics of their ACA clients. Adult children of alcoholics were described as self-critical, constantly seeking approval, often unsuccessful in intimate relationships, taking themselves and others too seriously. As a result of these and numerous other characteristics, ACAs were perceived as having problems with control, trust, and coping with authority, as well as being burdened by guilt, shame, and inappropriate anxiety. The early writers found ACAs struggling with depression, low self-esteem, repressed feelings, anger, and a higher incidence of substance abuse. Support groups patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous began springing up around the nation, including some in churches which attempted to meld ACA concepts with biblical insights and prayer. Terms like codependency and dysfunctional families began making their way into church vocabularies and pastoral counseling sessions.
Increasingly, the ACA stereotypes have come under scrutiny by researchers who question whether people can be so easily classified. The results thus far are mixed, but several things are becoming apparent: (1) People are far too complex to categorize with such limited information as the parent’s sobriety. (2) So-called ACA characteristics are probably more reflective of people who grew up in a home with a variety of dysfunctions. (3) Many ACAs do identify with one or more of the defined characteristics.
Which brings us back to the one in seven missionaries who are ACA. My survey indicates that when asked to rate their identification with 13 commonly described ACA characteristics, the ACA missionaries did identify withallof them more than the non-ACA missionaries, but only marginally so. In other words, you can’t accurately predict how ACA missionaries act or feel much more than you can predict actions or feelings for any other missionaries. That’s encouraging news for those who might feel they are damaged goods or victims or even less usable in God’s kingdom because of their backgrounds. And there is more good news. When asked about cross-cultural problems on the field, including relationships with nationals or coworkers, marital and parenting issues, uncontrollable anger, compulsive sexual behaviors, workaholism, or personal alcohol or drug abuse, ACA missionaries responded very much like all the other missionaries surveyed.
Does this mean we don’t have to give any further concern in our prefield screening procedures, candidate training, or on-field pastoral care for those who come from an alcoholic background? No. The broader study, including in-depth case stories, input from professional therapists, and other questions in the survey, suggests several ways to strengthen our missionary teams for those who come from dysfunctional backgrounds.
First, depression appears to be an area of difficulty for many missionaries, especially those with an alcoholic family background. Further study needs to be done on this topic as it relates to missionaries in general. Candidates who report an ACA history should be graciously interviewed about previous experience with depression or anxiety and should be given tools for recognizing and coping with depression before they go to the field. They should understand that depression is more likely a result of familial predisposition than personal sin and that they may be prone to go through depression as they move through the life cycle. Looking back, Rick, a missionary who fulfilled his dream of going "where Christ had not yet been named," wished that his agency had been more "vigorous" in challenging him to participate in counseling or an ACA peer support group before he left for the field. The son of an alcoholic mom and an emotionally absent father, Rick suggests that such intervention might have spared him years of struggling with anger and depression, both of which created problems with his teammates and later with his wife.
Dave Carder, counseling pastor at the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California, suggests teaching ACA candidates about preventative techniques for depression, like getting adequate rest, eating a healthy diet, exercise, giving themselves permission to take work breaks and to plan time for leisure, creating a home or office filled with color and light, and listening to music. Coping skills necessary for periods when emotions get low should be discussed. Journaling, talking openly with spouse or friends, and exploring circumstantial issues that may contribute to depression can all be helpful. One of the great benefits of e-mail is that a strong relationship with a trusted counselor, pastor, or friend can be sustained even when the missionary moves across an ocean.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS
Prefield interviews for ACAs should also include at least two additional areas of special consideration. Studies show that a healthy relationship with parents is one of the predictors of successful overseas adjustment. What is the current status of the candidate’s relationship with his or her parents? Is there a need for counseling to help the candidate forgive past or present hurts? Forgiveness is not something that can be dictated by a candidate secretary, nor can it be resolved in a quick prayer session. This may be a life process but one that should be well under way before tackling the spiritual stresses and strains of cross-cultural service.
Kelly’s father frequently became physically abusive when drinking. When she was in her early teens, he directed his anger at himself, taking his own life during an alcohol-induced argument with her mother. With the help of a counselor and a Christian support group, Kelly has gradually learned toapplyGod’s grace to painful memories of her father, even to the point of forgiving him. Kelly still struggles with bouts of depression and anxiety, but her growing ability to forgive her father is enhancing her relationship with her Heavenly Father. For Kelly, that may well be the difference between early attrition and long-term service as a missionary.
DISTORTED THINKING ABOUT GOD
A second concern with ACA candidates (and others who have had poor parenting relationships) is distorted thinking about God. This should not be confused with having a cognitive understanding of right doctrine, a prefield requirement often checked off with a signature at the bottom of an agency’s theological statement. Most missionaries can readily agree to a doctrinal statement; that is one of the factors that led them to select a particular agency in the first place. But a child who grew up with a parent who always behaved unpredictably, whose father or mother seldom kept promises when under the influence of alcohol, and who was often left to fend for himself or cope with outrageous behavior sometimes become adults who experience great tension between their head theology and their heart theology.
One former missionary described it like this: "Sometimes I see God as harsh and neglectful like my dad. If something bad happens to me, my first thought is that God allowed this! Why didn’t he stop it? I never doubt his power or presence, just his goodness. It’s one of my biggest challenges." Another missionary veteran confides, "I know it’s faulty theology, and I am working towards knowing God better, but I struggle with a fear of God, waiting for him to zap me at times." One of the counselors I interviewed, Lois Dodd, co-director of Heartstream Resources in Pennsylvania, suggests that agencies move beyond cursory questioning about theology to ask open-ended questions which indicate how the candidate handles painful situations. She looks to see if their response to questions about past or present hurts indicates that they turned to God for comfort. She probes for evidence that healing has taken place and that candidates are resilient, growing people. Candidates who have not experienced God as a loving Father may have difficulty handling stressful situations on the field, resulting in anxiety attacks, low self-esteem, and a tendency to isolate.
TEAM-BUILDING AND TRAINING
During the training phase, missionary candidates are often taught team-building skills. One of the frequently overlooked aspects of team building is learning how to develop an emotionally safe environment in which people are secure enough to share real feelings, including the difficult ones. Many ACAs long to be able to talk about past wounds and current struggles but feel like they would be harshly judged by their missionary coworkers. When asked if she has ever shared some of her struggles with her field teammates, 33-year-old Mary responded, "I don’t think I ever will. I’ve heard too many people make unneeded comments and make fun of others when they have shared."
This need for increased team safety was made evident from the survey when ACA missionaries indicated that, from a list of eight resources (including pastoral or professional counseling), the resource they would most like their agencies to provide is agency-wide education to increase awareness of issues relating to problems stemming from one’s background. Interestingly, non-ACA missionaries felt the opposite. They collectively ranked this resource as No. 8.
This education process should start during candidate training. Candidate school curriculum should include reading and discussing books such as Secrets of Your Family Tree: Healing for Adult Children from Dysfunctional Families (Carder, et. al., Moody Press, 1991). In addition, discussions based on case stories, such as those developed for my dissertation, would accomplish several objectives: (1) They will free some who come from similar backgrounds to open up with their peers in training, which may be healing in itself. (2) They willprovideinsights into feelings, appropriate and inappropriate responses to missionary stresses, and solutions found for working through bruised backgrounds while adapting to cross-cultural life. (3) They will sensitize missionaries to issues they may face in working with team members who come out of dysfunctional backgrounds, perhaps adding empathy and minimizing pat answers. Candidate school is the place to establish an open and nurturing environment in the sending organization as its members spread out around the world.
Relationships Missionaries who have participated in support groups say they are helpful only when the group is composed of other believers who begin and work out of a biblical framework of redemption and hope. Groups with a victim mindset plainly turn them off. Although her first ACA small-group experience only "opened up a lot of old wounds," Ellen eventually joined another group with missionary coworkers that was part Bible study, part focused sharing and prayer with an emphasis on finding freedom in Christ. "It was great," Ellen said, "and has filled me with God’s love and hope. I feel alive again."
Interpersonal problems with other missionaries is often cited as a common area of struggle for missionaries on the field. Both ACA and non-ACA missionaries in my survey indicated that one of their greatest felt (and often unmet) needs is for approval and affirmation from their peers. However, the interpersonal relationship that may be experiencing the greatest testing in both groups is marriage.
Because most ACAs did not live with a healthy marital model, they may lack the innate resources to cope with marital stress when added to the pressures of missionary life. Agencies should invest a significant part of their pastoral care resources in supporting marriages through on-field counseling as well as by linking first-term missionaries to couples with healthy marriages who will provide a safe place to talk about marital, familial, and cross-cultural stresses. This may be especially important for the current generation of missionaries. In Too Valuable to Lose (1997), counselors Kathy Donovan and Ruth Myors report that while older missionaries tend to feel the Lord is sufficient for meeting their needs, missionaries in the Buster generation, often struggling with dysfunctional family backgrounds and private traumas, are more likely to feel that "without a good team, mentoring and pastoral care, they will not cope."
People who have been lifted out of brokenness often have the greatest sense of appreciation for God’s care and a passionate desire to let others know their good news. These missionaries from alcoholic and other dysfunctional backgrounds are increasingly in the trenches of cross-cultural ministry, carrying on the work that has been done by redeemed brethren for two millennia. My findings suggest that while family-of-origin issues are not disqualifiers for missionary service, they should not be ignored either.
A caution I would offer interviewers, field leaders, and therapists, who may tend to interpret words or actions too quickly with too little information, is that missionaries cannot be stereotyped. On the other hand, listening to numerous missionaries with ACA backgrounds has convinced me that living the formative years of childhood in an unhealthy home leaves its scars, even on those who have experienced the love of God. We ought to do all we can to help these saints feel loved, affirmed, and safe to grow in spiritual and emotional health.
Mel Howell has served on the pastoral staff of the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Calif., for 27 years. Although currently senior associate pastor, he spent most of the past 12 years as missions pastor. He is a recent graduate of the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, La Mirada, Calif. Research assistance was provided by Heather Johnson, B.A.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 64-75. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.