by Marjory Foyle
As I have talked with 121 missionaries and many mission leaders over a three-year period, I have become convinced of the importance of good selection— and of the dangers of inadequacy in the process.
Missionaries are not superpeople; they are flesh and blood like everyone else. But there is one thing that sets them apart from other people: God has called them to missionary service. I am convinced that God does call people, and that a call should be carefully respected, examined, and nurtured.
Missions usually have a selection procedure, and they will commonly examine a candidate’s call. But the selection process itself introduces potential areas of stress and it is important that we examine these. Stress may first of all be related to the screening process. Missions that do little screening—believing God’s call to be sufficient of itself—sometimes find that problem areas that were neither revealed nor addressed in the selection process create later difficulty for both the new misisonary and the overseas administration.
A candidate’s acceptance or rejection by the mission is another stressful area. To many candidates, acceptance indicates that they are "okay": that they have correctly interpreted and carried out God’s will is confirmed. On the other hand, rejection communicates to a candidate that he or she is not "okay": something has gone wrong. This can cause great stress unless the candidate has clearly understood the true situation from the earliest stages of the selection procedure.
But rejection by a mission board can be a positive experience. It may be, for example, that though the reality of God’s call is not in doubt, the place of service has not been made clear. It is a tragedy that a rejected candidate rarely understands this experience positively and instead is angry, resentful, bitter, or totally confused.
As I have talked with 121 missionaries and many mission leaders over a three-year period, I have become convinced of the importance of good selection – and of the dangers of inadequacy in the process. Fifty-four percent of the missionaries I saw complained of problems that were present long before they entered the selection process. Either they were not asked about these problems during their selection, or the problems were minimized or overspiritualized. Only about one-quarter of those who had problems prior to their selection received any help-and that was usually minimal.
The goal of the selection process is to obtain a total profile of candidates, one that includes many facets of their lives. We will confine our discussion here to observations of some of the psychological and social factors that are important in selection procedures. W. Gordon Britt of Loma Linda University has made the following observation: "The history of one’s behavior, past responses, and experience tends to be the best predictor of the future. God’s call and motivation are important, but in the ambiguity and stress of another culture, past experience and events tend to shape how the individual will respond. Consequently, a combination of God’s call, motivation, and past experiences must be used in selection" (Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall, 1983). To learn these things, we must obtain information about the candidate. Three means of obtaining information are commonly used: forms, references, and interviews.
1. Forms. One mission recently discovered that its forms had totally omitted any reference to candidates’ children! This points up the importance of reviewing all forms regularly. Questions should be designed to produce maximum information, even if the relevancy of the question to the application is not immediately apparent. The object is to understand events that were formative in the candidate’s life.
One important area that is often poorly documented is family history: the physical and mental health of grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters, spouse and children. While few candidates are likely to be rejected solely on grounds of their family history, some have histories so loaded that it would be a disservice to them to send them overseas.
Direct questions about the candidate’s previous mental health also are often poorly handled. However, if no questions are asked, a candidate may believe that a history of earlier mental health problems is not relevant-especially if the problem occured prior to conversion. But all life events should form part of a candidate’s total profile. This inquiry can be described in terms of "emotional and mental health," and it often can be fitted into the routine health questionnaire.
I know I am treading on delicate ground, for I believe spiritual problems exist. But I must say that as a psychiatrist, I am concerned about the amount of stress missionaries have that is due to an overload of old emotional problems.
2. References. This word makes mission executives groan – for helpful references are difficult to obtain. For example, church references may be contaminated by the "halo effect": the difficulty church leaders have in detaching themselves psychologically from their candidate – of whom they are proud – in order to give a totally objective report. This is not a matter of dishonesty: it is simply the way the human mind works.
Bible or missionary training college reports can be very useful if the college was residential, and if it had a staff trained to observe problems.
Secular references are often the most valuable. Employers are usually very well informed about their employees, though they may not always be willing to put opinions in writing. Usually, however, they provide a phone number, and it’s always worthwhile checking.
3. Personal interviews. In my opinion, these are the core of the selection process. Three types are important: general, physical, and psychological-mental health.
The general interview should include spiritual life, past education and work, the candidate’s call, interests, and so on. Most missions do this very adequately.
The physical interview is done by a doctor or nurse and includes a history and physical report for every member of the family.
Let me make a personal observation in light of the fact that it is not always easy to get doctors to do this kind of work. Their reluctance is not always understood, and it needs to be addressed. Doctors, like everyone else, have to eat, and they have enormous overhead expenses. Screening physicals on potential or active missionaries takes a great deal of time when done properly, and the task is poorly paid. An overabundance of such patients can create serious financial problems for a doctor-but if he tries to cut down the number he sees, he may be accused of backsliding (poor doctor)!
Some large boards are able to employ a doctor full-time and pay him a reasonable salary. I have long urged smaller missions to join together to employ a doctor to do this work; some doctors would view that occupation as a full-time call to missionary service. But they must be adequately paid.
The psychological-mental health examination conducted by many mission groups now employs psychological tests as part of the screening procedure. The usual pattern is a combination of formal testing and personal interview. (I am personally uneasy about the use of formal testing without an interview.) The aim of this screening is to add to the candidate’s total profile, and it is useful in identifying areas of strength and weakness, as well as possible abnormalities.
Four conclusions may result from psychological testing. (1) The candidate is unsuitable for overseas service and should not be selected. (It is, of course, disastrous simply to drop unsuitable candidates. They need to know the reason why they were rejected and, if necessary, guided along the pathway to obtaining help.) (2) Identifiable problems exist that should delay final acceptance until help is obtained and the candidacy reassessed, with advice from the helping agency. (3) A straightforward problem that can be dealt with immediately is identified, and no delay in acceptance is necessary. (4) No problems are discerned.
SPECIALLY SENSITIVE AREAS
At some point in the selection procedure, areas of special sensitivity need to be discussed. These areas are often culturally related: matters that are sensitive in one country may be commonly discussed in another. It is therefore important for examiners to be familiar with the cultural background of each applicant.
Interviewers need to decide who is to discuss sensitive issues with candidates, and avoid either neglect of certain topics or overquestioning. I have been told sometimes that one should not explore delicate issues, and interviewers may fear a candidate will become angry. A display of anger, however, makes it even more important to discuss sensitive topics. In my own experience, rather than resent it, candidates as well as missionaries welcome the chance to talk over sensitive personal matters.
1. Sexual life. Three areas cause particular stress: homosexuality, extramarital heterosexual relationships, and heterosexual relationships among singles.
Homosexuality is currently a live issue. It is important that every mission board makes its own policy decision – one that must, of course, include the views of the countries to which they send missionaries. In a recent survey of bishops in a large church group, overseas bishops were 100 percent against receiving homosexuals as missionaries.
It is important to consider several aspects of this matter. A candidate may have engaged in homosexual practice before conversion, and it may or may not have been discontinued; an individual may have had one steady partner, or multiple partners; for someone else, homosexuality may have been a regular sexual pattern, or a stress-induced symptom.
The matter of persons who are homosexually oriented, with little or no heterosexual potential, demands very sensitive handling. Some are devout Christians who determine to live as celibates for Christ’s sake. Each mission must determine its policy in this situation, and be supportive and helpful to the candidate.
Extramarital heterosexual relationships may be either stress-induced, or a regular pattern of behavior. This matter needs careful sorting out, and a candidate’s acceptance should be delayed until the situation is clarified. The culture of the country of destination must also be carefully considered, for it is unwise to send as missionaries those who, by their own patterns of behavior, may cause confusion to the local Christians.
Heterosexual relationships in single persons are common in our present social climate. And while conversion frequently results in a change of sexual behavior, with chastity becoming the norm, this does not always happen, and a candidate’s views must be ascertained. Many Christians in host countries do not appreciate the sexual freedom of some Western travelers-and they certainly do not expect to see it in missionaries.
Candidates often welcome discussion in these areas, and they may be greatly helped in learning alternative methods of handling stress.
2. Singleness. Some candidates have no problem with being single. For others, singleness is a problem tinged with hope. The degree of adjustment necessary for singleness should be determined, and methods suggested to cope with it. A suggestion was made recently in Scotland that a preselection singleness seminar ought to be held for the purposes of fuller discussion and to orient people to a possible future as a single. Neither are the problems of single parents today the same as in the past, and they should be carefully discussed.
3. Marital Problems. Sometimes churches or missionary college staff know a couple is having problems but do not tell the mission examiners. In other cases, couples know they have problems but conceal them. These situations are dangerous. Working overseas creates added stress in a marriage, which makes the quality of the basic relationship profoundly important. No one is looking for perfection, but couples should at least know how to resolve their differences and how to communicate.
Problems such as frequent quarreling (with or without violence), poor communication, childlessness and its impact on the couple, role problems, sexual and contraception problems, and the care of children are all areas where advice and guidance may be needed before a couple’s acceptance. Some missions now hold preselection marriage seminars in order to assess current problems and teach marital enrichment techniques. Most missions have a rule about how soon a couple can go abroad after marriage; perhaps six months to one year.
4. Occult experiences. Occultism is a comparatively new area of concern to selecting personnel. Much depends on the mission, but I believe it is important to know the degree to which a person has been involved. Candidates must have a well-balanced Christian faith, with plenty of sound doctrine, and a living, personal experience of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, people who have had heavy previous occult experience may experience stress that can lead to an unhealthy overpreoccupation with demons and their influence.
5. Previous drug involvement. A person previously involved with drugs needs careful professional assessment. For example, we still see a few cases of people once heavily involved with LSD who suffer from flashbacks for some time after coming off the drug. It is important to know past history and present situation.
6. A recent broken love affair, or recent bereavement. Selection procedures should not be finalized until at least six months after such an event has occurred, and evidence that mourning processes are more or less completed ought to be obtained.
SELECTION: THE POSITIVE SIDE
This article has commented on some of the negative factors to be explored in the selection process. There are, of course, many positive factors that can be identified, and current research is attempting to quantify factors that will make a successful missionary.
One area of great importance is the type and degree of maturity of the candidate’s personality. Though this area is notoriously difficult to assess, a judicious combination of psychological testing, references, and interviews may give a reasonably good picture.
People with certain personality traits appear to be specially at risk, excluding those who can be psychiatrically diagnosed as having a personality disorder.
1. Overrigidity. Missionaries must be rigid in the sense of being determined to follow up their calling. But determination is not the same as rigidity, which implies inability to seek and use other people’s opinions, to make healthy adult compromises, and to work as a member of a team. Such people can drive other team members to distraction-especially if they are in leadership positions.
2. Immaturity. I have referred to this in a previous article and only wish to comment here on the dangers of hysterical overdramatization and constant demands for attention. Maturity takes a lifetime to achieve, with many failures along the way, but candidates should at least show some evidence of understanding their own personalities and ways to continue maturing.
3. Overaggressiveness. A capacity for aggression harnessed to the will and grace of God is a valuable thing, otherwise it may be merely destructive and divisive. Such destructive aggression may be based on subconscious negative dynamite, or on assertiveness training gone wrong. Constructive Christian aggression is in a different category: it is mature, peaceable, and valuable.
4. Overmysticism. The Protestant church needs a few "holy hermits" whose primary task is prayer, but the exercise of their ministry should be done "decently and in order." There have been missionaries who announced suddenly that they would do no more daily work, since God had called them to prayer. He probably had – but such a calling should be combined with the grace and patience to make necessary arrangements so that already overburdened colleagues do not have to take over another person’s work with no prior warning.
What type of personality, then, is required for missionary service? Though God values no one type over any other, certain factors ought to underlie each personality type:
1. Insight capacity. People without problems are either dead, or possess an abnormally vegetable-like passivity! The really valuable people are those who have accepted the reality of their problems, begun to understand their origins, and know how to handle them. This is known as insight capacity, and it is most valuable.
2. Reasonable adaptability. I recently talked to a very angry candidate who had just been oriented into the correct behavior for women in the country to which she was going. She said, "If I adapt myself to behave like that, how will those women ever learn anything?" She had a good point. But she needed to learn that there are degrees of adjustment necessary to gain local confidence. The best candidates are those who understand the weaknesses of their host country, but who are able to make reasonable changes in their own behavior where the job demands it.
3. Some knowledge of personal strengths and weaknesses. Insight usually concentrates on weaknesses, but an equally valuable insight recognizes personal strengths. In considering weakness, the great pitfall to avoid is wallowing in guilt. This is a useless occupation unless it leads to true repentance when that is indicated, followed by an experience of God’s forgiveness and a new entry into his healing power. Unfortunately, too many missionaries and candidates seem to enjoy wallowing, and call it humility. But it is a false humility, which may be based on a false guilt.
It is not common for individuals to understand personal strengths. Christians seem to view this as pride. In reality, however, we can get just as much enjoyment from that aspect of God’s creation as we do from a flower garden. There is nothing within us that God has not created; therefore, it is right that we enjoy and appreciate all that he has done for us.
There was once a missionary who began every prayer, "I know, Lord, that I am a worm and no man." This gradually drove one of his colleagues nuts – until one morning, after the usual worm statement, the colleague could stand it no longer. He got up and said in a loud voice, "Thank you, Lord, that I am not a worm. I am a man created in your image, and proud of it!" He had understood the need to balance our understanding of our own emptiness with the good things God had created within him.
4. A humble learning attitude. A few months ago I was in an Indian church listening to a well-meaning foreign preacher. He apologized at great length for preaching, saying he felt embarrassed being in the pulpit because he had everything in his own country and the church possessed so little. But his apology came across as a profound insult. His congregation included members of some of the most prestigious academic and government organizations, and some of them had world achievements. It did not seem to enter the preacher’s head that people in other countries, as well as in his own, had done things they were proud of, and that they had a valuable culture.
Missionary candidates must be prepared to be humble. While they may have something to offer in terms of professional skills, they, too, have much to learn and receive. On arrival they are illiterate, unable to speak, read, or write the local language. They are culturally ignorant. They must, therefore, be ready to kill stone dead any remnants of a know-all, have-all attitude. They must go with a concept of servanthood that says, "Thank God, I can help a little with the skill God has given me. But there is a lot I do not know and cannot do. Please teach me, please help me."
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