by Kelly and Michele O’Donnell
One way is to do stress assessments at all levels of the organization.
Stress hits all of us; it’s inevitable and normal. Too much of it, though, can sideline even the most robust of missionaries.
In this article – Part 2 of our series of three on member care – we’ll look at some tools to help both missionaries and mission agencies understand and assess different sources of stress. We begin by defining the culprit. What is stress?
Stress is our response to various internal and external demands (stressors). Stress can affect your spirit, emotions, mind, and body. For example, you may be going through doubt, grief, or illness (internal stressors) at the same time you are under heavy demands in your work, financial difficulties, or friction with colleagues (external stressors). Put them all together and you have stress, which may in turn develop into things like insomnia, hypertension, and headaches, as well as irritability, depression, spiritual doubts, and apathy.
RESEARCH ON MISSIONARY STRESS
Missionaries suffer from many different kinds of stress. Cedric Johnson and David Penner in 1981 surveyed 55 North American Protestant mission agencies with over 100 staff overseas. Their respondents included personnel directors, associate directors, and other home office people who were asked to rank the most frequent missionary problems requiring counseling. By far the highest ranked problem was relationships with other missionaries, followed by cultural adjustment, managing stress, and raising children. Other problems included marital difficulties, financial pressures, and loneliness.
Another study by Dorothy Gish in 1983 sought to identify specific stressors equally applicable to all missionaries regardless of age, sex, or marital status. Five hundred and forty-nine missionaries completed a questionnaire consisting of 65 stressors. The greatest stressors, in order, were: confronting others when necessary (especially true for women), communicating across language and culture barriers (especially those doing more front-line work), time and effort needed to maintain donor relationships (especially members of so-called "faith" missions), managing the amount of work, and establishing work priorities. Gish points out that each of these stressors can either be prevented or minimized through better training in conflict resolution and organizational management.
In 1987 Phil Parshall explored different aspects of adjustment and spirituality for a sample of 390 missionaries. The majority regularly face discouragement and frustration, with over 20 percent having taken tranquilizers at some time. The greatest spiritual struggles were: maintaining a successful devotional time, experiencing spiritual victory, and managing feelings of sexual lust.
Taken together, these studies reflect some of the common challenges facing missionaries: cross-cultural adjustment, work pressures, spiritual resiliency, family life, finances, and relationships with colleagues. Individual responses to these stressors will vary, of course, for different missionaries and across different mission settings.
Our experience in counseling mostly Western missionaries suggests that some do experience stressors that can lead to more serious problems. Depression, anxiety, and separation grief, for example, are three problems that we frequently treat.
Generally, the types of problems we have dealt with on the field are quite similar to those among Christians in the United States. These include marital conflict, career change, sexual dysfunction, work frustrations, behavior problems in children, eating disorders, unwanted habits, feeling distant from God, guilt, and longstanding "bruises" stemming from one’s childhood. We have often found that the added elements of cross-cultural adjustment and spiritual warfare can make life more stressful for missionaries, as well as amplify unresolved problems.
This is not to say that missionaries generally are maladjusted. On the contrary, we are impressed with the overall strength of missionaries, their emotional stability, and their spiritual maturity. Relatively few of them require professional consultation and/or care. Missionaries are by no means emotional wimps, but they do need ongoing care-along with an organizational ethos allowing for openness and an acceptance of human weakness-in order to stay healthy and effective. So, let’s take a closer look at this kind of care.
MEMBER CARE SERVICES
By member care we mean the ongoing commitment of resources by the agency to the development of its people. Mission agencies play a key role in helping their people to prepare for, reduce, and handle stress. Here are four basic approaches to member care that mission agencies can provide.
1. Prevention. Prevention seeks to decrease the incidence of potential stressors. The goal is to eliminate problems before they arise. For example, making sure of a good fit between the person and his or her field assignment is likely to decrease work frustrations.
2. Development. Development helps missionaries to acquire and improve certain essential skills so they can better cope with the demands of missionary life. For instance, training in conflict resolution will help team members to work through the inevitable tensions that arise from working together. Or, pre-field training in language-learning techniques will help them more readily to master the new language and thus reduce their stress.
3. Support. Support means direct involvement with people undergoing stress. One example is the group discussion we had with our Amsterdam team. They talked about their straggles and some of their strategies for managing stress. This mutual care giving helped them to affirm each other and to know that they were not alone.
4. Restoration. Restoration reduces the effects of stress and consequent problems. This would mean, for example, sending a crisis intervention team to places where missionaries need immediate care. The team may not be able to undo damage already done, but it could limit the effects of any remaining problems.
How can we manage stress more effectively and prevent more serious problems? How can mission agencies keep abreast of missionaries’ needs? One way is to do a periodic stress assessment for all levels of the organization-individuals, couples, families, teams, departments, bases, regions, and the agency itself.
Stress assessment means first identifying current stressors and then trying to anticipate future ones. Jesus warned his disciples that they would live as sheep among wolves, so they needed to be both shrewd and innocent. This is a strong encouragement for us to appraise and understand various "wolves"-that is, stressors-that can jeopardize, if not destroy one’s service for God.
For missionaries, stress assessment includes at least seven basic items, which we call the CHOPPSS model.
1. Cultural stress: language learning, adjusting to the new culture, getting needs met in new ways, and repatriation.
2. Human stress: conflicts with colleagues, opposition within the host culture, family responsibilities and strains.
3. Organizational stress: job satisfaction, red tape, mission policies, leadership styles, and work pressures.
4. Physical stress: illness, aging, adjustments to a new climate and environment.
5. Psychological stress: unresolved past hurts, inner conflicts, depression, boredom, and mid-life transitions.
6. Support stress: raising money, housing needs, retirement issues, and limited clerical and secretarial help.
7. Spiritual stress: maintaining one’s devotional life, spiritual warfare, and subtle temptations.
The CHOPPSS model can also be expanded to include the four approaches to member care mentioned above. This is an even more effective tool that mission agencies can use to design strategies for managing stress at various levels. The expanded model looks like the chart below.
As an example of how this tool could work, let’s take a 300-member agency that decides to survey randomly 20 percent of its overseas staff. The purpose is to identify sources of stress and to ascertain which pre-field and on-field member care services have been most helpful for them.
The survey shows that almost 25 percent cannot adequately converse in the national language (cultural stressor), 40 percent feel that they do not have adequate access to their leaders (organizational stressor), and 10 percent regularly struggle with apathy (psychological stressor).The prefield seminar on culture and language acquisition, they felt, was not adequate. Opportunities for further training on the field were reported as lacking.
Based on this information, the agency takes action to improve its member care services. First, it extends prefield training (prevention and development). It sends 30 leaders and middle managers to a leadership training workshop (development). It decides to send a pastoral care team to the field to encourage (support) and counsel (restoration) struggling missionaries.
For these member care interventions to work, the agency must meet some conditions. First, there must be an ongoing commitment to assess people’s needs and develop resources to meet them. Second, there must be a climate
TYPES OF MEMBER CARE SERVICES
Prevention Development Support Restoration
that encourages staff-including leaders-to be open about their own needs and to offer mutual support. Third, the missionaries themselves must participate in the development of member care services and feel a sense of ownership for them.
(In our third and final part of this series we will discuss ethical concerns in providing member care services.)
APPENDIX: THE CASE OF JUANITA BONITA
The following fictitious account is a composite picture intended to raise some issues about missionary stress and care. As you read it, note any "red flags" that would alert you to current or possible future problems. We add questions at the end to guide your study.
Juanita is the five-year-old daughter of a middle-aged couple from Latin America. She is of average height, weight, and is in good health. Eduardo, her older brother, seven, sometimes teases her, but basically they get along well. She also has a younger sister Lupita, 18 months old.
Juanita is quite a sight to behold, and to touch, when she walks through the open market with Esther, her mother. The well-meaning people approach her and grasp her long braided hair, smile, and say, "How cute!" This happens time and time again. Juanita liked their attention at first, but now she generally ignores their touches and smiles.
The Bonita family is in its second term of service with an international agency in Southeast Asia. Carlos, the father, is the assistant field director. He often travels to other offices throughout Asia, averaging two trips per month from three to 10 days each. Carlos tends to be introverted and reserved.
Carlos and Esther get about $1,500 per month in support, but they need $1,700 to make ends meet. The extra money usually comes in "miraculously," but not always on time to pay their bills.
When Carlos is home, the family spends lots of time together on weekends. They go to Sunday school and church and stay for a pot-luck meal.
They have a live-in maid who spends time with the children and helps around the house, freeing Esther to do part-time work for the mission.
Carlos believes that God has called his family to live among the poor in the city. They rent a three-bedroom apartment in a low-income housing project. Although the area is not too attractive, it is relatively safe.
The two older children, Eduardo and Juanita, play outside in the street with the other children. Juanita sometimes plays aggressively with her peers and has bruises to show for it. Eduardo, on the other hand, is shy and suffers from allergies. He says he sometimes plays with an invisible friend.
Since their return from furlough a year ago, Juanita has developed tantrums. She refused to go to the local kindergarten and cried and screamed until she was taken home. Concerned about this, her parents consider sending her to a boarding school in a few years. In the meantime, Esther is teaching her at home.
Two weeks ago Esther approached a male friend from church to talk about some of her stress. She has gained weight, feels ineffective as a mother, and worries that Juanita is overly dependent on her. Esther has started to drink a small glass of wine when her husband is not at home, to help her relax before she goes to bed.
1. What stresses are going on for the Bonita family? Consider them in light of the seven CHOPPSS stressors.
2. Where is the locus of the problem? Keep in mind the various levels of the mission system-individual, couple, family, team, department, base, region, and agency.
3. What recommendations would you make? Try to answer this in terms of the member care approaches of prevention, development, support, and restoration.
4. Further issues to probe:
(a) Juanita. How do you understand Juanita’s school tantrums, bruises, her relationship with her siblings, and aggressiveness with peers? Are these her main struggles, or do they reflect more basic, underlying needs?
(b) Eduardo. What do you think of Eduardo’s shyness, invisible friend, and teasing Juanita? Are these signs of problems, or normal developmental experiences?
(c) Carlos. What about Carlos’s travel schedule, family time, and relationship with his wife? Try to identify some of the things he might be feeling.
(d) Esther. How do you see Esther’s "dependency" concerns, use of wine, and work? Is she experiencing normal levels of missionary stress?
(e) Mission agency. What is the agency’s responsibility to this family? Which member care services should it provide?
(f) List any additional information you would need to understand this family better.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 40-45. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.