Circles & Cycles: Letters to a Stressed Community

by Juha Jones and Ikram

The authors ask and offer suggestions on understanding relational needs and relationship services for missionary teams.

Dear Family Counselor,
There must be something wrong with my family. They are not meeting all my needs. At the same time, they seem to resist the family closeness that I want to build. I think the family should be a place where we can all enjoy being together, doing important things together, and helping each other improve. I can’t understand why my family is not as committed to these things as I am.

Sometimes, when I, the head of the family, want us to be together enjoying each other’s company, they would rather be with their friends. You can just imagine how hard it is to get them to do the things I think are important, like being a witness to the world as a family.

Then, to top it all off, my own wife told me she thinks she would benefit by having some regular time away from us! Am I losing my family? Maybe I should sit them down and remind them of what a family is supposed to be.

Signed, Frustrated in the Arab World

Dear Frustrated,
Your concern for your family is admirable; however, you should chill out a bit. I wish more family leaders were as committed to your family as you are. You are right in saying that a family needs time to just enjoy being together, to do important things together, and to help each other improve and grow. These are exactly the types of goals families need to have together, and each family member needs to be committed to supporting each other in these three areas.

Having said that, don’t you think your expectations and demands on the family are too heavy? What makes you think any family is capable of meeting all those needs? Don’t you think it would be wise for each of you to receive and give some of those things outside the family? We might call it “outsourcing,” but I prefer to call it “living in community.” Let’s talk sometime about how this might look in your life and in your family’s life.

Yours, Family Counselor

Dear Friend,
As you read this letter from Mr. Frustrated, I wonder how you felt. Did you want to rename him “Mr. Clueless”? Maybe you were glad you weren’t a member of his family. Or maybe, you really felt for him: Aren’t we all looking for the same kinds of things he wanted? Yes, maybe he needed to “chill out,” but from where he is standing, it seems like he is the only one who cares about what happens to the family. I assume most people reading this exchange have figured out that this is not really about family. It’s about team. If you reread the letters again and substituted the word “team” every time it said “family,” how does your perspective change?

Action: Try rereading the letter now, replacing “family” with “team.” Do you now sympathize more with the frustrated leader who feels his or her team is not committed to meeting goals as a team? Or, do you now sympathize with the counselor who advises him or her to not put so much pressure on the team and look to a wider community? Much of how we react to the alternative readings depends upon our view of what team (or family) is “supposed to be” versus what we have actually found it to be in our experience.

Some of us in the Arabian Peninsula met recently and discussed the stresses of team life and a different model for thinking about team. What is team really supposed to be? What needs should be met and by whom? Below is a graphic to help our thinking.

The three circles in the graphic represent three areas of life in relationship with others. You might call them our relational needs and relational services: the give and take of life in relationship. There is the need to BE (relax and refresh) with others, the need to DO (serve) with others, and the need to IMPROVE (grow) with others.

Let’s pick up some later correspondence from Mr. Frustrated…

. . .

Dear Family Counselor,
Are you saying that the church community already provides my wife with friendships and times of worship she can enjoy (BE), while at the same time it offers me opportunities for outreach (DO), and sermons that help both of us grow (IMPROVE)? I can accept that to some extent, but surely we should be doing all three. After all, I have friends and worship at church and still have time for outreach, so surely my wife should be more engaged in outreach as well.

Where I have reservations is that a family is actually very different from the church. I believe my family should be committed to being together and working on our relationship more than to any given local congregation we happen to belong to.

Signed, Frustrated in the Arab World

Dear Frustrated,
When you decided to make a family with your wife, your expectations were strongly influenced by your experience of community (whether family, church, or other community) and how that community lives, works, and grows together. Your wife will have come into the family with different experiences and thus, different expectations.

You are right that a family is different from a church. Each group you are in will have a different balance of the three areas of relationship. Often, it will also have a different thing you do together, a different way of hanging out, and a different level of commitment to improving.

I am interested that you think commitment to a family should be stronger than commitment to your worshiping community. I suspect that if you were at a different phase in your life (e.g., when some of your family have already left home), or if you were from a different culture, you may take a very different view. What are the expectations of your family concerning the priorities of different groups in their lives?

Yours, Family Counselor

. . .

The counselor seems to suggest that it is natural for there to be variation, not only in the function of different groups, but also in the way a particular group functions. For example, your church community may provide you with friendships or times of worship you can enjoy (BE), opportunities for outreach (DO), and sermons that help you grow (IMPROVE). Your church experience here and now may not have a large element of outreach and “doing” right now because much of your ministry may not be through the church. Any time you are in relationship, there will be a different balance of the three areas of relationship.

As we look at team life, we can see that different people on a team may appreciate the team for different things. Similarly, different teams may have a different balance between the three areas. We can also see that few of our teams function in isolation from a wider Christian community, and that it is appropriate that members of our teams have some doing, being, and improving in groups that are not “our team.” For many of us, it takes some getting used to the idea that someone else can be getting or giving different benefits within the same team. It feels as if we aren’t focused if we are not all giving the same things or getting the same things. Yet upon reflection, we acknowledge that it is specifically for that variation that we chose to relate together.

Action: Reflect on the following questions.

  • When you meet as a team, is your focus on improving what you do elsewhere, on being with God and each other, or on doing something specific?
  • On what other occasions do some team members meet and what is the focus of those occasions?
  • Where does each member of the team also give and receive in the areas of doing, being, and improving?
  • Does each team member have a social circle in which he or she is doing, being, or improving with locals (rather than just doing it to locals)?

The counselor also implies that as individuals move through life, their circumstances change and thus their relationships with the rest of the team change. There is variation in the life cycle of the team and its members, which means a variation in the functions that teams and individuals fulfil. That brings us to the second graphic (Picture 2 below).

This is a key concept to coping with the diversity we experience in teams. Through our life cycle, the way that God will want to relate to us and use us will vary. Our teams need to be able to cope with someone whose ministry last year was in the malls and homes and this year is in the prayer room. In fact, our vision of team not only needs to cope with these variations, but we also need to rejoice in those variations and take advantage of them.
So what does a healthy balance look like? Here are three dangers that signify an imbalance:

1. There is not enough overlap on the team. This is the very real danger that your relationships are so specialized and separate that they are shallow. This can be true whether or not every one of you is task-focused.

2. There is so much overlap that the relationships have a dangerous amount of pressure and unrealistic expectations placed on them. These highly overlapping relationships may become very insular and unhealthy, or they may fall apart.

3. One or more of the circles are neglected: you have a circle or two that might be too small. Think for a moment what your life would be like if you had no relationships that helped you grow and improve. But then again, maybe you don’t have to imagine too hard. Maybe you feel you are there. This model of the three circles is a way to help us examine our relationships and find healthy balances in various areas of life.

What about workers in places where teams do not exist or where teams cannot meet the needs in all three of these areas? What are they to do? There was once a family who lived in Sohar for many years without a team. Sometimes they traveled hours away to camp with friends for a weekend (friends to be with). They were involved in an Indian expatriate church in which they worked to mobilize ministry to Omanis (people to serve with). And they brought people from their home church to do intensive counseling (people to grow with). Sometimes (as for all of us) the solutions were less than ideal and there wasn’t much overlap between some of their relationships, but they sought to make it work and find some balance.

As we talked through these ideas one of our people shared how the workers in their city had realized that their teams were just not adequate for everything they wanted. He told us how they had begun to attempt to meet those needs by tapping into a wider community. Workers from various teams in the city now join together on various task forces or focus groups that communicate and meet periodically. Need the gospel on cassette? Contact the resource group. Need to develop your Arabic for spiritual purposes? There’s a group for that. Media follow up? Yes, there’s a group that focuses on that too. The workers in the city hope to find that these focus groups take the pressure off teams by affirming the fact that we need to have a variety of circles. This affirmation should empower everyone and give an outlet for individuals to work in areas of their calling.

We also heard about another move to bring the resources of a wider community of workers into contact. Through a formal club, various organizations will offer the expertise of their personnel to other club members. This could mean offering seminars and training modules or other facilities. This wider model of workers in community opens up new possibilities for us to explore. In every situation we find ourselves, we can look outside our team and outside our organization. But we need to be proactive and service-oriented as we look at the circles of our lives in relationship. We need to work to bring balance and a healthy wholeness to our lives as we live in community with others.

We have learned that we cannot expect our teammates to meet each ministry and personal need. We also realize that sometimes our own organization has inadequate resources or expertise to help us reach some of our goals. On the other hand, we are discovering that we ourselves have something we can bring to others. We have experience, expertise, or perhaps a listening ear that may be just what some other worker needs.

The team, as important as it is, is not the sum total of our lives in service to the king. How do we decide how our lives and life circles should overlap? We need to negotiate. On a case-by-case basis we need to find areas where our circles can and should overlap. Working outward from our primary areas of responsibility (i.e., family, team, company), we will be in a continuous process of negotiation with family, team, friends, company, church, etc. For what purpose is the Lord bringing us together? How often should we meet? How many of us and in what way? How can we share what we have learned? How can we seek first the Kingdom of God together? Let’s talk.

With love, Team members in the Arab world

….

Juha Jones (pseudonym) is Arabian Peninsula area director for Arab World Ministries. He also works as a tentmaker in the Arab world. Ikram (pseudonym) has been living and working in the Arab world for fifteen years. He has been very involved in training and mentoring new missionaries.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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