by Marjory Foyle
Difficult relations between a mission’s personnel and its administration are among the problems that introduce stress into the lives of missionaries.
PROBLEMS PEOPLE HAVE WITH ADMINISTRATORS
Difficult relations between a mission’s personnel and its administration are among the problems that introduce stress into the lives of missionaries. As I have studied these conflicts, I have often found poor administrative patterns that lead to profound staff insecurity. The following areas contribute to these tensions:
An inadequate constitution. Some missions do not realize they need to modernize their administrative structures. Their constitutions are dated and reflect conditions that existed many years ago. As such, they undermine confidence, with the result that missionary personnel are insecure, and administrative committees are bogged down in minor details. A major administrative committee may, for instance, waste time making individual decisions about personnel matters that ought to have been covered by personnel policies, which then creates insecurity and frustration for the people who are waiting for decisions to be made. These same people are also sometimes uneasy because they fear decisions about them may be made on the basis of some vague feeling that committee members might have instead of on objective realities.
Poor channels of communication and decision making. "No one listens to me" and "No one tells me anything" are two common complaints that often arise because of poor communications between administrators and personnel. Administrators often have similar complaints-things are happening that they should know about, but no one tells them-and both situations arouse anger and anxiety. They lead to a breakdown of basic trust between administration and personnel, and tensions result.
One mission that recently needed to make an important policy decision communicated the problem to their personnel and asked them to discuss it at their regional conference. The findings were reported and collated, and the decision was then communicated back to personnel. Though there were some individuals who did not agree with the verdict, they were willing to accept it because they had been consulted.
Simple principles of management such as this are too easily overlooked. Leaders either do not ask for opinions-or they do not consider those opinions carefully. As a result, people feel undervalued, and relationships become strained. If a decision is not communicated to personnel, they may feel left out, or up in the air, because they do not know what was decided. In the extreme, splits can occur when one group pits itself against another.
PROBLEMS ADMINISTRATORS HAVE WITH PERSONNEL
The administrator’s task is often thankless, and a leader may become the target of people’s anger. The anger may be justified if an administration is incompetent and unwilling to change, But administrators also must be willing to be the target of displaced anger- from people who are really angry about something else (perhaps their own inadequacies) but who may "handle" it by displacing it onto the administration. (We should, of course, check to see if there is a real problem; anger is not always displaced.)
Few administrators understand that being a displacement object is necessary to their job. Yet our Lord was himself the displacement object for all our sins and infirmities, and he accepted that as part of his redemptive and creative ministry.
Administrators also must sometimes make decisions their personnel do not like, and this too can occasionally lead to a breakdown in communications. A missionary involved in such a decision may feel undervalued, anxious, depressed, or angry, and their reactions are usually related to the length of time the administrator has known and had dialogue with the missionary (though sometimes a reaction may be totally unexpected).
Mission administrators must surely pray daily, "Lord, send me adaptable, willing people."
ADDRESSING ADMINISTRATIVE/PERSONNEL CONFLICTS
The problems described may be addressed in the following ways:
1. Constitutions and personnel policies should be clearly written and reviewed often. All members of a mission should possess a copy of these documents, and preferably in their own language.
2. Rules should leave room for individual decisions. While the nature of their service and ministry often means that missionaries have many decisions made for them, it is dangerous to deny them all decision-making rights: to do so may perpetuate immaturity or lower people’s self-esteem. Personnel policies should be written in such a way that workable alternatives are evident and people’s preferences are respected.
3. Communication channels between administration and personnel should be carefully designed and implemented to allow for free flow in both directions. This is especially important in countries that are politically unstable, or when there are staff changes. Missionaries must know what to do in emergency situations, and they surely need to know the names of new staff members.
4. Personnel should love, cherish, and respect their administrator – which implies that he or she is fit for the job. If that is not the case, the administrator needs to be replaced. Missionaries should remember that their administrators are human beings like them. They too can get amoebic dysentery, and their health should be safeguarded.
Some missions limit the term of office for their leaders, which can be helpful if it is possible to re-elect someone who has done an excellent job.
5. Administrators should have training in management. I have found that new missionaries, who are used to trained management, are increasingly unwilling to be led by administrators who have had no training. Tailor-made courses need to be made available to mission administrators – though unfortunately, these are extremely difficult to find.
Because many of our personal life patterns are based on what we learned in childhood, problems can arise when these patterns differ: we think our own way is the right one. Differences in dress, in manners, in cultural customs, and in religious practices can all cause strained relationships simply because they are different.
I once worked in a hospital whose staff came from nine different countries. One Good Friday, I was horrified to discover that all the men on the hospital building site had come to work. The missionary in charge, in working clothes, was busily getting them organized. I was incensed and became very critical, because in my own background, Good Friday had always been a very special day that Christians spent in a long church service, or in prayer or meditation at home. I thought to myself, He can’t be much of a Christian. Later, God taught me that not only was he a much better person than I, but that in his country Good Friday was not observed in any way.
An incident such as this explains why numerous problems develop between nationals of different countries: we often misunderstand simply because we do not take the trouble to ask.
Problems of interpersonal relationship can arise between expatriates from different countries, or between expatriates and the nationals of the countries in which they are serving. Here are some typical areas of conflict:
Language. English is frequently the language missionaries use to learn the vernacular and to communicate with one another. A person for whom English is not the mother tongue may use words incorrectly and offend someone for whom it is. A Scandinavian nurse once told me that a ward into which I had put a great deal of effort was "revolting." I began to bristle-until God reminded me to ask her what she meant. I discovered she was only trying to say it was a bit dilapidated and needed white-washing!
Furthermore, people who do speak English do not ail speak the same kind. What does a "rain check" mean to a Briton, or "the shops" to an American? Always ask people what they mean instead of trying to guess.
Working patterns. I once worked in a hospital where temperatures were taken in Fahrenheit. Then some Scandinavian nurses joined us, and they took temperatures in centigrade. Consequently, someone had to change. I became all senior doctorish, insisting on Fahrenheit, and the new staff were thoroughly confused. (Later on I learned about a chart in which the figure could be entered in both measures.) Problems like this often do arise, and it is important to find a workable compromise.
Social and cultural customs. It is easy to hurt colleagues from other countries by neglecting their important festival days. Take Christmas: in some countries the big celebration is on Christmas Eve, while in others it is on Christmas Day. Festivals also take on greater importance away from home, and failure to recognize them may be very stressful.
Financial disparity. Not all expatriates have the same allowances, and most national friends believe that missionaries are all at the rich end of the scale. This can be painful, especially if children are involved, for missionaries with less money cannot provide the same things for their children as those who have a greater abundance. Though many young people understand and accept this, a group of missionary kids recently admitted to me that despite their understanding and acceptance, they had real problems in being poor, and they felt demeaned by handouts.
Our national friends are not often willing to discuss this subject openly, but the following areas have been mentioned to me. Undoubtedly there are others of equal or greater importance:
Manners and customs. Usually through ignorance, missionaries may behave in a way that is offensive to nationals. For example, what you do with your feet is very important in parts of Asia. In India, one should never use the foot to indicate something, even if the object is on the floor, and in some areas you should not show the sole of your foot when you are seated in public. Christian nationals often understand that the missionary simply does not know, but others may become upset at what appears to be rudeness or insensitivity. For instance, it is acceptable in some rural areas of India to blow your nose politely with your fingers-but it is a terrible thing to use a handkerchief.
Working concepts. Expatriates do not always understand the pressures that nationals’ families put on them. In countries where women do little by themselves, a child with a toothache must be taken to the dentist by the father. Whatever his work responsibilities, the father takes casual leave for the day; it is a culturally accepted pattern that the needs of the family take priority over those of the work. Westerners with a rigidly work-oriented outlook may develop real resentments.
Also, both national and expatriate single people sometimes feel that married couples with children are unreliable workers. One very experienced Indian nurse told me that single workers in her hospital often felt aggrieved because they could not plead children’s needs in order to go off duty. While the personal lives of the single people were frequently subordinated to the needs of the hospital, this rarely happened to married nurses. At the same time, married workers were frequently under great pressure as they worked at balancing the demands of home, work, and church.
Integration. Most missionaries long to integrate closely with the nationals they have come to serve. To this end, some make external adaptations in language, dress, and food. Though these things are valuable, they are not all there is to true integration. Nationals know whether missionaries sincerely love them. That is of greater value to them than external adaptations, which they regard as matters of common politeness and cultural suitability.
RESOLVING RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS
Here is some practical advice to help solve some of these areas of problem relationships:
1. If you do not understand something, ask. Never act precipitately; first make quite sure that what is understood is what was meant.
2. Discover the meaning of your colleagues’ degrees and the pattern of their educational backgrounds. Training patterns vary from country to country, but it is usually possible to place people in identifiable categories. Others can easily feel that we minimize them if we have not troubled to understand their training.
3. In expatriate-to-expatriate working conflicts, ask the advice of nationals, then follow the custom of the country.
4. Do not make jokes about one another’s accents, dress, or behavior. This may be acceptable once you know each other well, but early on, such teasing may be interpreted as a cultural slur.
5. Try to avoid national stereotypes. Be prepared to accept people as people, and not as citizens of a particular country.
6. Live humbly and genuinely. When you do, national colleagues feel free to relate to missionaries Y´ as human beings and to help them in their integration.
THE PERILS OF MISSIONARY SUBCULTURES
Missionary subcultures are dangerous, but they are rarely discussed. By "subculture" I mean the kind of group behavior and thinking that develops when missionaries live in a small group that is separated from the larger outside group. The living arrangement is not important in itself, but the degree of detachment from, or integration with, the larger outside community is an indication of whether a subculture has developed.
A subculture may provide considerable support; however, it is often more dangerous than beneficial for the following reasons:
1. The subculture becomes increasingly inward directed and loses interest in the outside world. I know of a subculture that remained remarkably uninterested in a serious political crisis in the country in which the people were working. They neither read the paper, heard the local radio, nor discussed what was happening.
2. An overpreoccupation with group concerns develops. When this happens, a group will concentrate almost entirely on its own relationships, spiritual desires, and personal problems. When that happens, common preoccupations emerge-such as demonology, eschatology, or spiritual gifts-to the exclusion of other topics.
3. Subcultural behavior and thought patterns are imposed on new members as the norm. Those who accept these are "suitable"; those who do not are considered "unsuitable" or "unspiritual."
4. Unhealthy emotions may spread. Depression, inferiority, fear of other people’s opinions, or anxiety can sweep through a group. Any who may have remained on the fringe are not usually infected, and they are often puzzled by what is happening
COUNTERING SUBCULTURE MENTALITY
The growth of missionary subcultures can be opposed by taking some practical steps:
1. Maintain a healthy balance between the outside world and the missionary or Christian community, and mix with both worlds within the boundaries of a healthy Christian conscience. Remember, the outside world needs you. I once worked in a remote mission hospital in the early days of Christian enterprise in that area. The wise American doctor in charge taught us a great deal about mixing with the outer world in a healthy manner: we joined the local music group and shared our talents in a most enjoyable way.
2. Maintain the integrity of your own person. You are body, mind, and spirit, and you need to care for each aspect.
Take great care of your body. We are expendable in God’s service, but we should not be stupid about looking after our bodies.
Read as much as you can – books, magazines, papers, when you can obtain them.
Have an interesting (and cheap!) hobby. Birdwatching, for example, is great: once you have bought binoculars and a bird book you do not need to spend any more money.
Move in local society, see how people live, and share their lives wherever it is possible. Keep your mind alert by making notes of what you observe. Who knows, an anthropologist may someday bless you for them!
Be careful to take holidays, combining spiritual refreshment with total relaxation from your job.
Beware of unhealthy overpreoccupations. By this I do not mean the continual preoccupations of the missionary but constant brooding on a particular topic. Periods of intense God-given spiritual preoccupation are usually succeeded by a balanced pattern of thought and life. If that balance does not return, you need to take a break from your work-and possibly have a chat with your doctor.
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