by Ronald Brown
Two open letters, one to missionary candidates and one to mission executives, reflect the changing context of missions.
While our Lord’s commission to disciple all nations has not changed, and the message of the good news has not changed, the context is changing. Many countries are now known as “high security alert nations;” this is the new frontier for bringing the good news. These nations in crisis need a message of hope now more than ever. Unlike in the past, today’s international worker will often move into risky situations and will likely experience personal trauma during his or her time in a foreign land.
In one study, thirty-five missionaries who had experienced the traumas of political evacuations, rape, car-jacking, armed home invasions and robbery were asked to reflect on factors that contributed to their resiliency and longevity on the front lines (Brown 2005). All the missionaries were still ministering cross-culturally. Their reflections are shared by way of the following open letters, one to missionary candidates and one to mission executives.
Dear Missionary Candidate,
Wow! You are actually nearing your departure date after years of preparation. That probably feels pretty good. However, you are probably wondering what your missionary career is going to look like. You are probably uncomfortably aware that the world is a lot less stable than it was even a decade ago. Unfortunately, missionaries you know personally may have experienced robberies, political evacuations and serious medical problems.
Do you ever wonder if you are going to make it? Well, I have some good news for you. Research is suggesting that if you have certain things in order, you could prove to be a very resilient missionary and could well be poised for a long and productive ministry. There are ten factors that enhance resiliency in missionaries.
1. Hear God’s call. You need to know that you are supposed to be in Germany, Venezuela, Senegal, Malaysia or wherever. One missionary said, “Do not step on an airplane until you know this is God’s call.” This is important because there will be days and times when you will question your call and things will go terribly wrong. You will need this certainty of God’s calling to serve as an anchor for your soul.
2. Settle family issues. Missionary trauma survivors who had been surveyed said it was important to settle the issue of bringing children to the field. One person may believe God did not just call her, but that he also calls her children. Another may believe that God is calling him to give back his children to God and leave them behind. Another may ask, “Did God give me these children? Am I prepared to sacrifice them? Can I trust him with them? Do I choose to trust him on this missionary pathway?” One mother said she was glad she brought her family to Africa to grow up as Third Culture Kids (TCKs), learning other cultures and languages. She believed it was important for them to learn that the American way is not the only way.
3. See God at work. The respondents continue in Africa because they see God working in amazing ways. They said it is a thrill to see people coming from darkness to light in the midst of chaotic conditions.
4. Have a developed theology of risk and suffering. Those who came to Asia or Africa with a Western worldview of suffering were shocked when their first trauma happened; those who had already developed a biblical theology of suffering rebounded better from trauma. And these very same biblical foundations were solidified as they experienced various traumas! New candidates must be willing to suffer and to sacrifice. “There needs to be a willingness to die,” said one man who had just buried a colleague. Having experienced the trauma of rape, one young woman said, “Do you know that God will not let anything happen to you that you cannot handle?” During her ordeal she spoke of the “incredible sense of God’s presence.” This woman continues to minister effectively in a war-torn country.
5. Be prepared to learn. One individual said, “God will be with you when you go through fire. You will experience God in ways you never will in the homeland; it is a privilege.” Trauma victims speak of spiritual growth spurts as they find God in the midst of their pain. Their desire is to grow close to God and many missionaries have found this desire fulfilled during and after periods of suffering.
6. Have an open hand. A 25-year veteran who has seen his share of traumas said, “Hold things lightly in an open hand, including possessions, spouse and children.” He suggests that all we have is really a gift from God; we have the privilege of stewarding his gifts for a time.
7. Have field mentors. God has promised in Matthew 28:20 to be with us. For many, that promise came true through experienced missionaries who walked with new recruits during periods of adjustments as well as through times of comfort following their first traumas. Good onsite mentors contribute to longevity.
8. Have good support structures. Those who were resilient after trauma had three things in common: a good prayer support base, good team support and good logistical support. One person advised, “Join an organization that can provide these three.”
9. Settle the fear factor. One survivor said people need to understand the underlying issue of fear. Is it a safety issue or a theological issue? Safety is not so much geography as it is knowing you are where God wants you to be. One person said part of the missionary calling is that bad things will happen; you will get robbed and you will get sick. The consensus is that you will experience trauma. Respondents to the survey advise that you face your fear and count the cost before coming.
10. Find the commitment factor. One respondent referred to Luke 9:23: “Then Jesus said to them all, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” Those surviving trauma had major commitments to God, to the ministry, to their projects and to the relationships that had been established locally. They refused to be driven out of town by the challenges they faced. Like soldiers in an army, they had a sense of duty to stick with the program, and they were obedient to their orders until new orders were given. Both their love of God and a sense of duty were important.
Reflect on these ten factors. Do you already have some of these? Can you see yourself pursuing some of these once you are on-site, living out your apostolic calling? These factors are not just some kind of self-help routine. They are rooted in God’s word and his unchanging character.
—Your colleagues on the frontlines
. . . . . . . . . .
Dear Mission Leader,
Ours is not an easy job, is it? Likely, one of the most difficult things we must do is to walk beside missionaries who have experienced trauma which can shake the faith of even the most seasoned veterans. Recently, some missionaries who had experienced trauma were asked, “What did your mission and your mission leaders do which helped you get through your experiences and continue on in ministry?”
Their responses have been grouped into a list of seven things which leaders can do to ensure that missionaries will successfully deal with trauma.
1. Provide a network of good relationships. The retention factor most often cited by missionaries who had survived trauma was the network of good relationships missionaries enjoyed with each other. Sending agencies which ensured people worked on teams and provided training and coaching to nurture relationships had the pay-off of seeing local team members hold each other up during and after trauma.
A second useful network cited was a regional network used when missionaries evacuated to surrounding countries and found temporary shelter and safety. Agencies which plan regional gatherings are also inadvertently providing for the developing and expanding of a network of relationships which may pay dividends in a person’s enhanced resiliency down the road.
2. Acknowledge the trauma. A missionary can be severely wounded if mission leadership does not acknowledge that he or she has endured suffering. When the worker in Africa is greatly impacted by a trauma, the mission executive in the home office may only have minimal emotion as he or she reads the missionary’s email.
After one very traumatic event a family was back in the homeland for a short time. They spoke in glowing terms of their mission leader who, along with his wife, came to visit them. It was “more than an email message,” the husband said. The action spoke volumes, and the couple felt that the pain they had endured had been validated by the visit of a key leader. This contrasted with another family who, after a very tense and violent robbery, did not hear anything from their leadership. It was “as if they did not care.” The family felt very much on their own and was hurt by the lack of leadership response.
3. Encourage victims to initially stay in the region. Teams which have emergency protocols that include the first level of evacuation being to travel to another country in the region (as opposed to a direct return to the homeland) seem to fare better. Data shows that for purposes of survival and resiliency, what benefits the evacuee most is the loving support of existing relationships. These relationships are often stronger on the field than in the homeland; team members are generally more understanding than loved ones at home since many missionaries are likely to have gone through similar traumas.
4. Speak words of wisdom in love. At crucial junctures in a missionary’s life the careful words of a leader can be most welcome and significant. It is evident from data collected that missionaries are strongly committed; they are not easily dislodged. In fact, leaving or moving can often be self-framed as failure or betrayal of a heavenly mandate and therefore guilt-producing. What can override this false guilt is a well-spoken, timely word by a mission leader who has (1) developed an adequate trust level with the missionary, (2) clearly listened and understood the situation and (3) can, as it were, speak for God.
One woman had worked faithfully for twenty years in her country of service. She had been evacuated once, yet she was committed to returning despite dangers which lingered. During that time other opportunities elsewhere had presented themselves. When her mission leader was onsite and said to her, “You have permission to leave. I think you should take up an assignment in another country,” only then did the burden lift. She no longer felt guilty about abandoning her post and the project.
5. Ensure each missionary has a theology of risk and suffering. The ReMAP 2 study (Taylor 2004) underlined the fact that good practice agencies are those which have good candidate screening systems. Today’s ministry context requires an added component to that screening, namely, the requirement that candidates develop their own position on risk and suffering. It has been standard practice in the past for agencies to require candidates to agree with a doctrinal statement. Often those statements do not include a statement on suffering. As more and more candidates are placed in high security alert nations, it can be safely assumed they will face trauma. They will be robbed, they will get sick and they will be traumatized in other ways. A theology of risk and suffering developed before departure will soften the blow of future trauma, build faith and foster resiliency.
6. Encourage the fostering of a sense of duty. A surprising number of respondents referred to their being raised on a farm as important to learning values such as hard work, finishing a task, duty, perseverance and sticking with a project. A Vietnam veteran had also learned these core values and brought into his missionary career the notion that one stayed at a post until the orders were changed. Many of the respondents had a sense of determination to not be run out of town when trouble came. They were determined to survive trauma, push on and get the task done.
7. Affirm the call. Sending agencies need to continue to grapple with how the concept of the call is expressed today. How is a call developed? If candidates are applying out of a desire to do something good in the world, or because of a set of felt needs, or from a sense of injustice, how does that translate or morph into a strong conviction that holds during troubles and trials? Where do new recruits have a chance to develop their sense of call? Perhaps the deeper question is how God speaks to and calls people today. Whatever the language or semantics, sending agencies assigning people to high security alert nations must feel satisfied and confident through the screening process. Ensuring a firm call at the beginning seems to contribute to resiliency at the other end of the trauma.
Missionaries in West Africa who had experienced traumas such as carjackings, kidnappings and political evacuations pointed to these seven factors when they were pressed to explain how they could endure such hardship and yet emerge healthy and productive on the other end. As mission leaders, we need to examine these responses and seek to implement them to the best of our abilities.
—Ron Brown, Dakar, Senegal
Brown, Ronald. 2005. “Self-identified retention factors by Western Missionaries in Africa Who Have Experienced Traumatic Events.” Doctoral project. Trinity International University.
Taylor, William, ed. 2004. “ReMap 2—Long Term Retention of Mission Personnel.” In Connections. 3, no.2.
Ronald Brown grew up in Central Africa then spent twenty-six years with CMA-Canada working in Africa. He is a missions coach based in Calgary and is a member of the International Governing Board of the Mobile Member Care Team. He has himself experienced three political evacuations.
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