by Marge Jones
A counselor with missionary experience should visit each new missionary.
As I sit at my desk in this remote African town, my thoughts and prayers are with a group of young people who are at this moment preparing for overseas ministry. They are the dedicated group of candidates who have been approved for missionary service by my mission board during the past year, and-are right now in pre-field orientation.
I can imagine their excitement, their sense of accomplishment at having finally "made it" after reams of paper work, psychological exams, interviews, and approval forms. Their sense of belonging to a team, of being part of the Great Commission, of fulfilling a lifelong dream, of heeding God’s call-the culmination of their preparation has finally arrived.
But what is going to happen to their excitement after being on the field for six months or a year? Are they going to be part of another dropout statistic, in spite of all their pre-field and on field orientation? In spite of all their courses on cross-cultural communications and anthropology? Are they going to be disillusioned enough to accept the psychological consequences of quitting?
Seven months ago we were sent to a West African country for a short-term assignment to hold seminars, help the national pastors organize, and get government recognition. Two new couples had been on the field for one year, learning the local language after spending a year in French language study. The only veteran missionaries were a French family who had started the work eight years previously. Unfortunately, a very serious conflict arose between the national pastors and the French couple, who were asked to leave the field. The new missionaries, caught in the middle, became very frustrated over their lack of ministry and wondered just what their future should be.
After a few days of informal fellowship, they felt free to share their feelings with us. We were able to make suggestions about types of ministry, encouraging them to make decisions they could carry out.
So many administrative policies had been presented during their orientation that they were thoroughly confused. But with a little help they set up a field bookkeeping system, started sending in the required reports, used available funds for literature and Bible school textbooks, and organized a preparatory Bible school program.
Today there is a new church functioning with both a national and a missionary as pastors, and the national church has received government recognition. Enrollment is growing in the Bible correspondence courses, although this is a Muslim country. "For the first time I was able to at night," one of the missionaries remarked later. Some minimal counseling had saved these two couples for the field.
Mission boards are studying how to reduce the number of dropouts among new missionaries. They are constantly revising pre-field orientation programs. More and more on-field orientation programs are being tried. But, to my knowledge, very few, if any, mission boards have a systematic, ongoing counseling program for their new missionaries.
An integral part of such a program would be a full-time qualified counselor with missionary experience. This person would visit each new missionary on the field during the first year of service. The counselor would not be a home office administrator. The counselor would be permitted the same confidentiality as a licensed counselor in the States.
The counselor’s visit would not be a checkup on the missionary’s progress in the work. His or her only purpose would be to listen to problems like adjusting to the culture, to other missionaries, to living conditions, to the national church, to the home office-all of the troubles that arise in a strange and often seemingly hostile situation.
Some counseling schemes have been tried and found wanting. One board appointed area directors responsible for a few countries. Among other things, they were supposed to pastor their missionaries. It looked great on paper, but the plan could not work. The directors got into so many administrative matters (usually revolving around the national church) that they had little time left for pastoring. The missionaries appreciated the thought behind the plan, but, as one of them recently told me, they rarely shared confidential matters "because they will go right back to headquarters."
One of the keys to relieving missionaries’ frustrations is to give them a to talk with a nonthreatening professional with an unbiased perspective. The counselor can also suggest changes in attitudes and behaviors. The counselor can help the missionaries see their situation from a different angle, and age them to work through their communication problems and interpersonal relationships.
Recently a new missionary couple left the field during their first term because the husband felt he couldn’t take the stress. Although his wife and children had adjusted to the culture, and were happy in their new situation, he felt burned out. Asked what had caused the difficulty, Ray (not his real name) said he didn’t know. If a counselor could have visited this family on the field, the cause of his stress could have been found and some advice given about how to work the situation.
Many times older missionaries have no idea of the stress first-termers are going.through, because outwardly they seem to be adjusting well. New missionaries are extremely reluctant to share their problems because they feel they should be able to cope. They are expected to have an immediate, effective ministry, not only by other missionaries but also by the board, because they have had the necessary training and orientation. New missionaries are often their most severe critics, feeling deep remorse if they haven’t lived up to their self-expectations.
They cannot and will not share these feelings with the field chairman or director, nor with the area director, because these administrators are directly responsible to the board. In some cases, the administrators themselves are perceived- rightly or wrongly-to be part of the missionary’s frustration. Many times the missionary’s problem may seem too trivial to mention, yet it is hindering his or her ministry.
The counselor can minister spiritually through prayer and Bible study. This person can be a true mediator between a hurting new missionary and the veterans. The counselor can also suggest changes in assignment or location, or adjustments in the work situation that can be beneficial.
This is what happened to Bob (not his real name). He was restless from the beginning, because none of the big city activities he was used to were available. He got more and more irritable. Trivialities became major problems. Things got so bad that the mission thought about sending Bob and his family home.
One day the area director discussed Bob’s plight with a veteran missionary who had a degree in counseling. He suggested that Bob be permitted to finish the term where he was and then transfer to a city ministry. Today Bob is happily finishing his second term in a technical ministry on another continent.
The counselor can also help with procedural difficulties, such as filling out financial or statistical forms required by the home office. As governments place more and more regulations on mission organizations, they are required to do a lot more accounting. During our recent visits to a number of fields in Africa we found a total lack of understanding of these government procedures by the vast majority of new missionaries, as well as veterans.
Although these procedures had been explained at length during pre-field orientation, they were much too complicated to be pot into practice without some help. Funds were being misused simply because the new missionaries did not know proper bookkeeping.
Several mission boards do have staff psychiatrists or psychologists and they use them in candidate selection. However, using these professionals as field counselors can pose a threat to new missionaries, who may be reluctant to divulge problems of an emotional nature for fear of being pegged as psychotic.
Therefore, I feel it is imperative that the counselor have mission field experience. No one can understand missionary problems who has never lived and worked on the mission field. If the mission board does want to use a staff professional, it should require that this person spend at least one four-year term on the field, to get immersed in the field fellowship, the national church, and the local culture.
A number of years ago a capable couple went to a large city in India after pastoring several churches in the States. They ran into problems with their language tutor, a communist, and they were given no occasion to minister in the local churches. Their field chairman lived hundreds of miles away and could give them no help. They left the field and resigned from the mission.
"I have always felt badly about this situation and blame myself to a certain extent," wrote their former field director. "Proper supervision and help on the field could have saved these folks, I believe." Yet this conscientious supervisor at one time had the responsibility for over 500 missionaries in 26 countries, so he could hardly take the time needed to spend with this couple and still take care of Ms other duties.
Considering the time, energy, money, personnel, and prayer invested in new missionaries before they go to the field, should we not invest just as much of each in helping them through their problems after they reach the field? (We invited the following response to this article.-Eds.)
Missionary Development Department, Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, Wheaton, Ill.
I take my hat off to Marge Jones’ proposal. Anyone who has experienced that first term on the field, with its ups and downs, realizes how important it is to have someone who will listen and help weather the storms. As a new missionary, I would have welcomed with open arms anyone who would have taken the time to listen and help me bridge the gap between life on the field and my expectations.
Mission agencies are asking how they can better enable and encourage their missionaries. We are beginning to recognize that missionaries are not invincible, devoid of personal needs and emotions.
Making a counselor available to field missionaries is certainly a valid and needed part of caring for our missionaries. But there is a danger to this approach. The danger is that missions, already too comfortable with meeting needs by providing programs, will just address this issue with another program.
To fully address member care, we first look at ourselves. What are we modeling and promoting as a mission in caring for our missionaries? Are we promoting the idea that it’s only the responsibility of the psychologist to help the hurting missionary? Or are we understanding and living the biblical concept that all of us are in the business of ministering to each other?
As Marge points out, administrative responsibilities often keep our leaders from being available to minister to others on their team. I suspect, however, that their paperwork gives them the excuse they need to not minister to colleagues because they don’t feel "gifted" in helping hurting people. If that’s the case, I think it will take more than a counselor to enable our missionaries. It will take a fundamental renewal of our understanding of ministry. How can we embody the gospel and leave the ministry of helping hurting colleagues to a counselor?
Mission leaders need to enable and encourage their missionaries, and prepare them to be mentors and ministers to those around them. The counselor can help, but the counselor cannot do it all. Unless we understand that leadership is ministry, and model that philosophy, even our counselors will eventually bum out and become ineffective.
Yes, there is a need for counselors on our fields, and the structure of an ongoing orientation may be one way of better helping our missionaries. But let us never let an added staff member or additional program keep us from taking seriously the responsibility of us has to minister to one another.
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