by Jo Anne Dennett
After serving 12 years as a physician in charge of a mission hospital in a Muslim land, Somalia, I felt that I had faced enough challenges for one lifetime. But God gave me another drastically different one: marriage to an Australian businessman, a widower with two teenage sons. But out of demanding adjustments to both marriage and a new culture, God gave me a counseling ministry with missionaries and candidates.
MISSIONARY CAREER STAGES AND OUR LIFE CYCLE
To break up the huge subject of counseling missionaries into bite-size segments, I shall compare the stages in a missionary’s career to the phases of the human life cycle. First, babies are transported from their secure abode in the womb into an entirely new environment. A flurry of activity surrounds their arrival. This compares to the candidates’ leaving the security they have known among family, friends, and churches. They make extensive preparations to adapt to unfamiliar situations in the future.
Second, during childhood we gain many new skills; we learn to walk, talk, and relate to others. Then, during our awkward adolescence, we strive for autonomy, but we aren’t quite ready for full responsibility. This compares to the first term of missionary service, learning language, customs, and how to relate within a strange culture. They develop their own ministries, but they still need guidelines from wiser, more experienced missionaries.
Third, we advance to adulthood, the longest, most demanding of our lives. We assume new responsibilities and go through changes at work and at home. This compares to the stage of senior missionaries and mission leaders, who care for family, younger missionaries, and local believers. Finally, we retire, and so do missionaries. They turn over their work, cope with failing physical faculties, and learn how to use limited resources.
In working with missionaries, the counseling I do is biblical, based on the prayerful application of scriptural principles and specifics. While using the insights of the behavioral sciences, the biblical counselor should always subject all data to scripture as the final arbiter.
Although missionaries need large doses of encouragement, counselors should facilitate their learning through adversity. Missionaries can deceive themselves and use wrong means to obtain their goals. Therefore, counselors must seek to expose and challenge their wrong attitudes and behavior. Says Crabb, ‘The task of counseling is identical to the task of the church: promoting maturity."
COUNSELING RELEVANT TO EACH STAGE
Although their circumstances and problems will vary according to the various stages of their vocation, all missionaries can mature in Christ as they participate in biblical counseling that offers encouragement and promotes personal growth throughout their careers. Without considering all the implications of that premise, I intend to concentrate on counseling for each stage as follows: Stage One: Candidates. Preventive and preparatory counseling. Stage Two; First-termers. Encouragement and growth counseling. Stage Three: Senior Missionaries and Mission Leaders. Maturity and counseling others. Stage Four: Retired Missionaries. Redeployment counseling.
Stage One: Candidates. Preventive and preparatory counseling. Preventive counseling is appropriate for candidates. Gary Collins describes it as "attempts to prevent problems from happening, to arrest existing problems, and to reduce or eliminate the influence of previous problems."
Several areas need to be explored and dealt with during this period. Psychological testing and subsequent counseling interviews are essential for the adequate handling of personal issues. Some of the crucial matters are: (1) Counseling for self-awareness: personal strengths and weaknesses; emotional stability; flexibility; motivation; defense mechanisms; (2) Counseling in relational areas: marriage harmony and communication; parental roles, including children’s preparation for the field; singleness issues and relationships; (3) Counseling for special needs: those from troubled homes; those who suffered trauma during childhood or teen years; those who have involved in premarital or extramarital sex; referral for therapy in depth of any still suffering the effects; (4) Group counseling: in areas such as community living; working with a team; communication skills; resolution of interpersonal conflicts.
Dr. Marjory Foyle, a British psychiatrist experienced in the care of missionaries, states, "Fifty-two to fifty-four percent of the clients had problems before selection, and had often struggled with them for most of their lives." I recall a woman who seemed to be happily married and well-adjusted in her home culture. However, under the additional pressures of field adjustment, she stressed out and had to return home. As she underwent therapy, she came to terms with the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child and had suppressed all her life.
If we ignore these issues, we do so at the peril of the missionaries and the work as a whole. The attrition rate of missionaries could be reduced with proper screening and attention to these key counseling areas.
Stage Two: First-Termers. Encouragement and growth counseling. The second stage of a missionary’s life brings many changes and difficult adjustments. When we add everything up, it’s obvious that new missionaries face dangerous amounts of stress. A detailed explanation of these stress factors is presented by Loss. He also describes the missionary’s special needs during this time:
It is of extreme importance that the new worker be adequately prepared mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for cross-cultural stress. It is also crucial that he (or she) be given sufficient encouragement during the first years of cross-cultural ministry.
As an illustration, let me recount the case of a couple who during language study became increasingly alienated from the people with whom they planned to share the gospel. They rationalized their own maladjustments by saying, "It’s all their (the locals) fault." Later, they were sent to work alone in a remote area. Within a few months they were back in the capital city, the wife screaming uncontrollably. They had to be sent home for treatment. Counseling during their field orientation, and more sensitive work placement, could have prevented this.
Old personal issues that candidates dealt with may become exacerbated during early adjustments. Interpersonal conflicts often arise, especially when missionaries use defensive and manipulative methods. First-termers should be learners, maintaining inquisitive, teachable attitudes. If pride and self-protective behavior develop, they should be admonished. The idealism of young missionaries can lead to their striving for unrealistic goals. Guilt and low self-esteem result when they can’t their goals. A sensitive counselor can help to resolve these issues.
Political instability, terrorist activities, and demonstrations against foreigners all compound first-term stress. They fear for their own safety and for their children. Counseling can help to allay fears and to defuse anxiety.
End-of-term assessment and preparation for furlough provide an opportune time for counseling. I have devised a Personal Evaluation of Field Experience form on which missionaries grade themselves. They mark the form according to their perception of how they coped in key areas of personal life and ministry. This confidential questionnaire serves as a guide for the counselor in dealing with matters in which the missionary is struggling. This form has been used effectively in a counseling program operating in Australia since 1983. Although a high percentage of missionaries have reported hassles in most key areas discussed, 91 percent indicated that their trials have had a maturing effect on them.
Stage Three: Senior Missionaries and Leaders. Maturity and counseling others. Senior missionaries and mission leaders may become workaholics. They may become authoritarian and neglect their families and colleagues. They sometimes need counseling for their own developing maturity in Christ.
Myron Loss emphasizes their influence: "Veteran missionaries have a decisive influence on the future of new workers. They must set the pace by learning how to handle their own stress and serving Christ with gladness. Good or bad attitudes will usually be passed down to younger missionaries. Veterans must maintain a healthy self-esteem in order to be able to open their hearts and become close friends with their junior fellow workers."
I have heard senior missionaries remark that they had survived culture shock, so why all the fuss about special care for new missionaries? That attitude ignores the scriptural admonitions for the strong to bear with the weak and for elders to be shepherds of God’s flock (Rom. 15:1,2;1 Pet. 5:2).
All missionaries, but especially senior ones, should be more concerned for the welfare of their fellow workers. Scripture abounds with commands to love, accept, admonish, and submit to one another. This enriching ministry is available to every missionary. "Counseling by encouragement can involve every member of the body in meaningful ministry of profoundly helping one another," says Crabb.
Training middle managers, on the field and at home, in counseling skills would greatly enhance their effectiveness. "Counseling by exhortation requires a number of people knowledgeable in Scripture, trained in interactional skills, and able to apply practically the wisdom of the Bible to living situations." Thus equipped administrators could more adequately care for their people and help to resolve interpersonal conflicts among people with different backgrounds, personalities, and ministry styles.
I have counseled several missionaries whose lives were shattered by insensitive administrators. As one such couple slumped onto the couch in my office, their haggard faces disclosed much inner pain. Tearfully, they told me how they had worked hard at adjustments on an Asian field. They had formed good relationships with the local people and with other team members; they enjoyed their ministry. Just before their furlough they were called in by their field leader, with whom they felt they had worked well. In an unexpected tirade, he rejected them and discredited their contribution to the work. He forbade them to talk to anyone about his assessment of them, because, he said, it would hurt team morale.
Stunned, they left the field, unable to redress any of the accusations against them. At home they tried to pick up the pieces, plunged into depression, and in desperation sought counseling. Needless to say, it was only after a long, slow process that they regained a sense of self-worth and significance in God’s purposes. Tragically, they were not the only casualties from that field; others, too, sought counseling because of similar mistreatment.
Professional counselors should be available for referral of missionaries and administrators with protracted problems. The type of counseling required, according to Crabb, is "Counseling by enlightenment (which) demands extensive training, but should equip its practitioner to meet every nonorganic counseling need within the local church."
As a medical doctor, I recommend thorough investigation of missionaries’ problems in order to detect organic causes. The effects of fatigue, disease, certain medications, mental illness, and so on, must be kept in mind in order to arrive at a correct diagnosis and to provide appropriate therapy, whether it be physical, psychological, or spiritual.
Stage Four: Retired Missionaries. Redeployment counseling. For missionaries to leave all that has given them joy and purpose in life for many years is a soul-wrenching experience. Mission societies should give them due recognition for their sacrificial service. Retirees may need counseling to reassure them that their loss of a particular job does not affect their personal worth and identity.
Retirees should be encouraged to think of retirement as a change to another significant ministry, not as giving up Christian service altogether. One obvious ministry still open to them is intercessory prayer. As they struggle with limited energy, retirees can be challenged to mature in Christ in terms of being rather than doing.
Of course, those who must leave the field for health or family reasons face a demanding time of adjustment. This usually happens when they are at the peak of their effectiveness. Even though the decision is a rational one, often these people are overcome with doubt and guilt after they take the step.
Missionaries need much personal encouragement during this time, as well as career counseling about returning to the work force at home. The entire family requires special support during the transition.
We have considered the needs and relevant counseling during each period of missionary life. We have observed throughout that we should be striving toward maturity in Christ. This life-long aim is explained by Crabb:
Maturity is less related to perfection than to a growing awareness of imperfection, an awareness that deepens our appreciation of the cross and drives us toward dependency on Christ for anything good to come out of our lives. Mature people wrestle with their sinfulness, mostly in an intensely private battle fought against the stains that are visible only to those whose standards are intolerably high and whose awareness of self-deception is disturbingly acute. In the midst of ongoing warfare, they find rest in the reality of abounding grace and perfect love.
I would like to extend a challenge to every member of a mission society, and to all involved in the mission enterprise. What are the implications for you of the counseling concepts presented? Policy makers, should you reassess the care your organization is providing? Administrators, are you prepared to implement counseling services for your people? Missionaries, are you willing to share in the struggles of personal growth, both by being helped and in helping others?
May God give us grace to grapple with these vital issues as, "We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect (mature) in Christ" (Col. 1:18).
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