by Jay V. Sensenig
Q: How extensive is the damage to missionary families because of the husband's attitude to his work? A: The word "damage" is rather forceful, but it is accurate. The husband who has unbalanced perceptions of his family and ministry responsibilities does damage his family extensively. The damage does not become evident immediately.
Q: How extensive is the damage to missionary families because of the husband's attitude to his work?
A: The word "damage" is rather forceful, but it is accurate. The husband who has unbalanced perceptions of his family and ministry responsibilities does damage his family extensively. The damage does not become evident immediately. When it does appear, it may be the result of long development. When the family has difficulties and has to leave the field because the children are not doing well in school, or because they have not been able to adjust to certain situations, these are consequences of the father's neglect.
The damage is not necessarily to the missionary's ministry. When the father falls to realize what he can do to help his family develop; when he has no concern for his children as individuals, who need his time and energy; when his wife is not receiving his support, the damage is extensive and severe. A friend once told me that as a missionary child her parents had ''sacrificed" their children for their ministry. That may be an extreme case, but in the study I conducted, I was not looking for extreme cases. I wanted to find out how the missionary husband and father perceives his responsibilities to his family and to his ministry. The results indicated that not all fathers give top priority to their ministry; there are those who do perceive a prior responsibility to develop their marital relationship and their families. On the other hand, there are those whose top priority is their ministry. The damage to their families is quite severe.
Q: Are you saying that some missionaries give top priority to their assignments above their relationships to their wives and children?
A: Yes. They are called by God and are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. They consider that to be the real reason for what they are doing. They consider their families to have joined them in that commitment. Usually, the wife does agree; it is her commitment as well. But, of course, she was not aware that her husband was married to the Great Commission! She thought he was married to her. When she begins to discover that his work and ministry are top priority, she gets frustrated and depressed. These wives question the unbiblical model that their missionary husbands practice in becoming married to their ministries. The woman begins to feel that she is excess baggage. She begins to suffer physical difficulties that are closely related to her emotional difficulties. Although missionary families are not likely to consider divorce, an emotional divorce has already occurred in families like this. Communication between husband and wife breaks down as difficulties increase. The husband escapes to the more rewarding environment of his ministry, where he is really needed and appreciated. Among the 192 missionary fathers, with children 12 years old and younger, who responded to my survey (an 80 percent response), there was a definite dichotomy between their perceptions of their responsibilities to their families and to their ministries. Some were very definitely committed to their ministries above their responsibilities to their families.
Q: What justification do they offer for this?
A: Their justification is based on a theological deduction. Because their relationship to the Lord is first, they believe it includes a commitment to fulfill their ministry to the best of their ability. This takes time, hard work, and long hours. In addition, they face the frustrations of living in a different culture and coping with the little but trying difficulties in the pressures of everyday living. This spurs some fathers to crowd their time in order to forget some of their frustrations. As they launch into a flurry of activity, they begin to lose out in relation to their families. Also, the daily frustrations that the wife is experiencing are those that the husband would rather ignore, or at least not be expected to cope with. Of course, this is not the proper biblical perspective. Scripture clearly teaches the husband's responsibilities to his wife and children. If he is first able to govern his own family well, then he becomes qualified to have a ministry.
Q: Are the husbands aware of this dangerous trap?
A: From my study, it would appear that many of them are not. Although none of the questions were directed specifically to discover the level of such awareness, there were questions directed toward his relationship to his wife, to his children, and to his ministry. I tried to discover what they perceived their responsibilities to be in these three relationships. The questions were developed so that in the analysis of the responses it could be determined whether or not there was any discrepancy between the ideal perception the father had of his responsibility and reality. In other words, there was a discrepancy if he responded positively to a question stated in its ideal form, but responded negatively in response to a question about his performance. Perhaps the most outstanding revelation of such a discrepancy came in answer to the question about his involvement in the moral and spiritual development of his children. Many of the fathers were not aware of the impact that they could have on their children during their preschool years. In fact, some were not aware of how this influence could be most positive. From my survey is it clear that a strong commitment to the Lord and to the Great Commission obscures husbands' responsibilities to their wives and to their children. They tend to spiritualize the issue and view the difficulties of their wives as spiritual problems in relation to the Lord. That they are responsible to help their wives to resolve their difficulties was not readily acknowledged. Even less do they acknowledge that perhaps they are the cause of the difficulty. The same lack of awareness toward their children and their difficulties was evident. If the wife could not work out their problems, then the husband did not consider it his responsibility either.
Q: Are missionary families hiding the problem or even denying that it exists?
A: Yes. Perhaps the most obvious way is for the father to become excessively busy, to become a workaholic. There is no time to be aware that there are difficulties. In the missionary family there is a tendency to manage by crisis. If there is no problem evident, if no child is crying for attention, we assume that all is well. We apply very few preventive measures. We do little to develop positive relationships. It is assumed that all members of the family will always be there. Only when the crisis occurs (and one of the members decides to leave, either physically or emotionally) do we react. The crisis only reveals a long-standing problem that has been ignored, hidden, or perhaps denied. Fathers who are involved in the helping professions face a definite occupational hazard. Because of their investment of time with other people, it is extremely easy for them to ignore and forget the people who are closest to them, their own families. Success in one's ministry is largely determined by how many people are attending the church, by how many students are studying at the Bible school or seminary, by how many meetings one is able to schedule in a given period of time, or by how many committees one is on. This success orientation is another means of covering up family problems. The successful missionary is the busy missionary, we think. His success is not measured by how well his family is developing. Time given to the family is considered by some to be a tremendous waste of time that should more properly be dedicated to the ministry. While the missionary goes out to save the world, he loses his own family.
Q: What can mission organizations do to help the families prepare for the emotional isolation of cross-cultural living?
A: They need to be aware of many programs now available. The James Dobson film series, for example. And many good books. They could require all furlough missionaries and candidates to attend at least one family life seminar. Husbands and wives need to develop skills in coping with stress, in communication, in handling conflict and anger, and in building stable relationships. Candidate secretaries should make sure that all candidates look into their own family backgrounds. They should analyze the types of relationships they had with their parents and brothers and sisters. This information should be used in counseling candidates.
Q: How does teaching about the husband's role, from Ephesians 5, for example, help to correct the problem?
A: It's time to examine not just the mother's role in the family, but the father's as well. From Old Testament times and the formation of the Jewish nation, on through the history of the Jewish people, the father was responsible for the direction and guidance of the family. In the time of Christ and the apostles, this teaching was further emphasized. The order of the development of the family was placed first in the hands of the husband and father. His responsibility is to love his wife even as Christ loved the church. If the mission organizations would give more time to stressing the biblical pattern for husbands and fathers in their responsibilities to their families first, and then to their ministry, the problem could be corrected. The problem would not disappear immediately, because peer pressure and organizational pressure are so strong: the pressure for success based on unbiblical criteria, and the pressure to put commitment to the ministry ahead of the family.
Q: In the United States workaholics neglect their families, often in the name of providing for them. Does the same compulsive characteristic cause missionaries to live like that, in the name of serving the Lord?
A: The compulsive missionary commitment is the same that workaholics have in the United States. In fact, the same escape mechanism is involved. Men in the States with strong materialistic tendencies will work themselves to death, supposedly providing for their families. They are completely unaware that their families would be much more content if they were home more, if the wife had their support in the guidance and direction of the children. Many wives would be content to, live a simpler life if they could have the assurance of their husband's investment of time and energy in the family. Missionaries usually are not motivated materialistically. But because a man has never been shown his responsibility to his family, he assumes that the wife and mother will be responsible for family development. He has more important areas of responsibility. Whether he does it consciously or not, he leaves the family, becomes a phantom father, and the family suffers the consequences, all in the name of serving the Lord.
Q: How could building good family relationships benefit a missionary's effectiveness?
A: If one is involved in the numbers game (how many new converts, how many new students, how many speaking engagements, etc.), then the official ministry would not be more effective. But if effectiveness is based on becoming more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, then the time spent on developing healthy family relationships can enhance the official ministry. A young man I know recently made a profession of faith in Christ. When I asked him what some of the factors were that led him to his decision, he remarked that in his observation of a missionary's family he saw that the husband did not leave his family and its development to chance. He saw positive relationships develop as the parents did things with their children, spending time with them individually and together, and participating in their interests. He realized that they are applying principles that were not of this world, and that these principles were biblical ones. If our concern is to build individuals, to make disciples, to serve as a model as Christ did, then building family relationships will enhance our official ministry.
Q: What clues might a wife be giving her husband about how she feels?
A: Clues come from what she says, her cries of alarm, and moments of anguish. He may consider that he is doing a perfectly good job, if there is food on the table, his family is properly clothed, and they have a comfortable home. But his wife is aware of some areas that need improvement. She may be very patient in presenting these needs. If her suggestions are not heeded, then her pleas become cries of anguish. The husband needs to develop a listening ear to what his wife is really saying.
Q: What clues of insecurity or paternal neglect might the children be giving?
A: Disobedience, hyperactivity, and lack of motivation in school are warning signals to an alert father. I recall a family with a hyperactive child. He had learned to become hyperactive in order to win the attention of his too-busy parents.
Q: If a father's job allows time with his children only when there is an emergency, what does that say to a child about his self-worth?
A: The time I spend with my children doing what they want to do, and doing it with them as individuals, says to them that they have value as unique persons. They have a worth all their own. I consider them valuable enough to spend time with them, to make time for them, to ,prepare time for them if necessary. In this way I enhance their own self-worth. On the contrary, if I have time for them only when there is an emergency, I am really communicating nonverbally that the child really is not important to me.
Q: Is the boarding school the answer for children who need adults to build their self-worth?
A: No. Most children go to boarding school after the formative preschool years have been spent at home. Those first five or six years truly are the formative years, in terms of the personality and its development. What is done during those years determines to a large extent what the child will maintain as a self-image. The boarding schools can only improve on what has been begun. Many of the schools do an admirable job. Some of them do it better than some parents. But in the formative years, the parents already have done much of the personality development. The boarding school can be a complement, if the parents are alert and wise to what the school can do for the child.
Q: Your study finds that the relationship between parent and child is more important than the number of hours they spent together. How can fathers best use limited time with their children, to build the relationship?
A: One hour a week spent with a child, doing something he really likes to do, is one of the valuable ways to develop the self-worth of the child. There are many things to do that do not require a great deal of time. A little imagination and creativity can bring about many interesting changes in the family: an unannounced picnic, lunch out with each of the children, a surprise drive for a special treat. There are many excellent resources that provide suggestions and practical ideas. One that I have used extensively is called Dads Only (3409 Highway 79, Julian, CA 92036). It is filled with articles and suggestions for family activities. Many of the ideas do not require many hours together, but do provide the necessary ingredients for developing family relationships. Family Life Today (Gospel Light, P.O. Box 3875, Ventura, CA 93006) is another valuable resource. Christian literature can provide all the needed guidelines and suggestions. By using them the father is saying that he considers his family to be important enough to plan special activities for them. There is nothing more important to your wife and children than to have your undivided attention for one day a week, when you are together happily engaged in some truly recreating activity.
Q: What misconceptions do fathers have of their input into the lives of preschoolers?
A: The common misconception is that when my child gets older, I will be able to do things with him. However, unless you begin to develop the habit of spending time with the young child, when the child is older you will not do it either. The child will begin to develop relationships with other friends and he will not look to you as a person who can help and encourage him. Significant input must begin from infancy. During the preschool years the father should do things at the child's level and learn how the child thinks and acts. Parents who have worked with their children in the early years find that there is no generation gap later on. The children continue to come back to them for advice and counsel. These children have found their parents to be their best friends. But unless a child senses that he can confide in his parents, and that his parents will never be too busy to hear him out, there will be a generation gap. Children do not create problems, they only reveal them. Problems that surface while the child is in boarding school only reveal longstanding problems that were not treated successfully by the parents in the formative years.
Q: How can a father whose job requires travel still be actively involved with his wife in the guidance and discipline of the children?
A: He can write letters, wire messages, and telephone when possible. When he is home, he can make sure that his time is spent more consistently with his family. He needs to develop a schedule to make sure that when he is home, he will spend at least one day a week with his family. He may be able to take one or two children along on some of his trips. If his family suffers too much from his travels, he will have to change his assignment to ensure a healthier family development.
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