Landing on Your Feet: Assisting International Workers when They Return Home

by Dennis Robert

Mission agencies have an ethical and spiritual responsibility to help workers who are returning to “civilian life” back in the U.S. land on their feet.

Editor’s note: This issue we begin a new column which includes news and tips on leadership and excellence in missions from The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA), which helps mission leaders increase the effectiveness of the Great Commission community. The column will run in each issue of EMQ.

Over the past three years, our organization has seen a four percent per year reduction within our international worker ranks. With our five hundred-plus workers worldwide, this equates to about twenty workers per year. Most of this reduction has been through natural attrition (visa renewal problems, care for aging parents, medical needs, etc.); however, about five workers each year have been “non-renewed” (involuntary termination from their positions).

Our organization went through a metamorphosis three years ago as we added a new criterion for missionary selection. In previous years, if a candidate could pass a spiritual orthodoxy screening and raise sufficient funds to be supported overseas, he or she was sent as a missionary. Our sending organization has now added “health” as a fixed essential for being sent. We define health in terms of spiritual, relational, emotional, physical, and intellectual criteria. Setting “health” as a requirement for sending has had concomitant problems as existing teams have found unhealthy individuals on their existing teams. In most cases, these people have sensed that there is not a good match between themselves and their teammates. It doesn’t take a real deep thinker to understand that one may not be in harmony with the direction and personalities of his or her teammates. Sadly though, a handful of people with narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder (neither of which were a part of our earlier screening process) just cannot read the context clues regarding a lack of “fit” with fellow missionaries. It remains true that the biggest reason missionaries leave the field is conflict with fellow missionaries.

One way to help this has been to adopt a “voluntary due process” approach for all workers. This means that all missionaries need four things to help them know where they stand with the organization:

1. A clear understanding of what is expected of them
2. The clear description of how they have deviated from what is expected
3. Time to remediate the deficiency
4. An understanding of the consequences if nothing changes

This doctrine of no surprises is in place even though our organization is an “at will” employer. This means that all of us work at the “will” of the board of directors. None of us has tenure or seniority. All of us, however, have the responsibility to demonstrate mutual care for our comrades serving Jesus worldwide. As a result, we have begun a plan to help those who are returning to “civilian life” back in the United States irrespective of what has caused the return. There is an ethical and spiritual responsibility to help these workers land on their feet back home.

Responsibilities toward Workers
The first of these responsibilities is to help our workers understand their strengths. God has equipped each of us with gifts and strengths to accomplish specific purposes. Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God gives us meaningful and important skills to be deployed all over this planet as the hands and feet of Jesus. Again in Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

We use the Clifton-Gallup “StrengthsFinder,” the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC, and the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Index (CCAI) to help workers begin to see a 360o view of their aptitudes and dispositions. (For new international workers, we also use the MMPI and the FIRO-B to add an important piece to our assessment of overall health.) While none of these has job titles associated with it, a trend line begins to emerge about his or her basic wiring.

Next, we begin to think about the quadrants of jobs that seem to be more natural than others for the individual. I like to describe this as when Lewis and Clark were sitting in St. Louis with the charge from President Jefferson to head “generally west.” They knew the Pacific Ocean was generally west, but there were likely mountains that would take them temporarily north or south on the journey. They knew there were rivers that would take them off course to find a way to ford the water, but the way was always generally west.

These quadrants are roughly aligned with the compass points. The first is the business quadrant. Can I feel comfortable with a for-profit organization whose purpose is to produce return on investment? The second is the education quadrant. Many missionaries have skills that educational institutions would desire. The third is the government quadrant. This includes social service agencies, legislative bodies, and humanitarian relief groups. The fourth is the ministerial quadrant. Can the person add value as a mission pastor, a senior pastor, an adult ministries pastor? Ultimately, what is “generally west” for the returning missionary?
Then we talk about transferable skills of missionaries. When I ask a returning worker about his or her skills, the most common response is: “I’m just a missionary. What can I really do back in the United States? My skills just haven’t kept up.” However, when you think about what missionaries really do, here is a list of transferable skills:

• Commitment to an unselfish task larger than yourself
• Ability to inspire others to “buy in” to your vision (literally and figuratively)
• Ability to break down complex tasks to “bite-sized” jobs
• Achievement of objectives through mostly volunteer labor
• Public speaking expertise
• Communication skills to convey content and emotion
• International experience
• Accountability for individual and team results
• Capability to communicate in two or more languages (perhaps!)

As you can see, international workers have skills that any business would crave, any school would desire, any governmental agency would value, and any church would prize. Missionaries tend to sell themselves short, not realizing how their experience as international workers place them within the rarified air of top candidates for many positions back home.
We also talk about where to find meaningful employment in various geographical areas. It is amazing how much is available to job searchers, even from overseas, on the Internet. Most large metropolitan areas have websites; most job sectors have common employment search engines; and many churches and Christian colleges have their own employment sections on their web pages.

Finally, the cover letter and the resume are reviewed to make sure they are good representations of the high-caliber person whose life they represent. While humility is certainly a Christian virtue, when it comes to applying for a position, we all need to be a bit more “out there” with how God has both gifted us and wired us.

Secular employers are not so much concerned that one’s professional experience has been as a missionary, as they are concerned that a new employee understands the reluctance of most U.S.-based professionals to be engaged in “religious dialogue” on the job. Therefore, both the cover letter and the resume need to reflect the truth about previous mission work and the understanding that in one’s new role, trying to convert others needs to be “off the clock.” With that reality, while a missionary could feel that returning to “civilian life” might constitute a demotion, from God’s perspective a returning missionary can continue his or her call to service anywhere on the face of the globe. A “call” is not necessarily geographic.

Returning workers need to be honored for their years of altruism, without question; however, they also need to be equipped with the truth that they are competent professionals and savvy potential colleagues for many arenas of secular life. After all, God took Joseph from the dungeon and made him second in command of Egypt. He is a God of miracles! God also has equipped us to rightfully work as colleagues (based on sheer professional skill) alongside the leaders of organizations and the makers of policy in business, government, education, social services, and the American faith community.

Dennis Robert (pseudonym) is associate executive director of personnel for an independent mission-sending organization that has over five hundred workers worldwide.

Copyright © 2009 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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