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Supporting Today’s Global Workers Toward Missional Resilience

EMQ » April–June 2022 » Volume 58 Issue 2

By Geoff and Kristina Whiteman

As the global COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, it is not surprising that so many people are experiencing genuine distress that is impacting vocation. Recent statistics show widespread restlessness: Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 found that 48% of workers are actively looking for new work.[1] Barna found among American pastors, 38% seriously considered quitting full-time ministry within the last year.[2]

Global workers at mission organizations feel the strain, too. Although no statistics are yet available for 2020/21, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that global workers are also questioning their calling and leaving the field or switching organizations. 

Now is the time to intentionally foster resilience for ourselves, for one another, and for our communities. But how can we, within our mission organizations, help (and not hinder) the resilience of our global workers?

About the Study

The Resilient Global Worker Study (RGWS)[3] looks at what it means to be resilient in missions, how global workers become resilient, and who helps them. The 892 participants represented a variety of global workers of different genders, ages, marital status, experience, denomination or church affiliations, and passport nations who serve in 148 countries with organizations of every size.[4] While the RGWS did not focus directly on organizations, 692 people commented in the write-in portions of the questionnaire; these were analyzed for this article.[5]

Global Workers Desire More Training   

The most prevalent concern global workers shared in write-in comments was insufficient training. The 270 people who mentioned training needs identified both content needs (what global workers are asking to be trained in) and process needs (how global workers are asking to be trained).

Content needs were organized into four main categories. In the first, relational skills, global workers asked for training in personal relationships, such as communication, healthy conflict, and establishing and maintaining supportive relationships. They also expressed needs related to professional relationships, such as skills in leadership, coaching, or mentoring skills, and team dynamics.

The next, cultural skills, included culture/ethnography education and language learning, and applying these skills to difficult cultural differences and contextual theology/evangelism/discipleship. Comments on the desire for training in practical living and ministry skills category mentioned hard skills (IT, finances, support raising, security) and soft skills (stress and time management, avoiding dependency), as well as personal skills related to family life and needs of children, reentry/retirement.

In the soul and self-care skills category, participants expressed the desire to be trained in spiritual formation, spiritual warfare, and theology/missiology. In addition to general self-care, many workers mentioned mental health as a need – particularly in dealing with grief and loss, trauma, or anxiety.

Global workers recognized that the training process needs to be more than just knowledge; they want whole-person discipleship that forms their heads, hands, hearts, and health. They are asking for training to be offered by experienced teachers, both within and outside their organizations, in both formal and informal settings, in ways that are both nodal and ongoing, with a focus on application to cross-cultural life.

Furthermore, global workers know that what it takes for them to get to, start up, stay in, lead, and leave the field is radically different – their needs change across the career span. In summary, global workers want training designed for the whole person, delivered across the career span, for sustainable and impactful life and ministry.

Global Workers Need Competent Leadership

While the RGWS did not study organization leadership directly, it is noteworthy that within the write-in comments, just six people recalled positive things about their leadership, compared with 96 who gave negative comments about leadership. These complaints were sorted into three main categories: negligent leadership that misses the good, incompetent leadership that passively harms, and corrupt leadership that actively harms.

The study reveals a clear prevalence of dissatisfaction with the low level of support received from leadership: one out of every four comments on leadership expressed this unmet need. Participants describing negligent leadership mention inadequate support (especially a lack of preemptive care) or insufficient support during moments of crisis or struggle. This category also includes those who feel disempowered in various ways; they lack input into their own professional and personal lives. 

Incompetent leadership moves beyond absent good to an experience of harm. Comments in this category describe actions, attitudes, and organizational culture or structures that do not serve global worker interests. For example, poorly defined roles, unrealistic or unclear expectations, organizational politics, and inadequate oversight are all mentioned. Incompetent leaders also practiced poor financial or change management, or misapplied corporate business strategies to ministry. Without the intention to hurt workers, inadequate leaders nonetheless damage those they supervise.

Finally, corrupt leadership comprised the second most common group of complaints which includes being treated unfairly or badly, and toxic leadership.  Additionally, corrupt leaders may exhibit unrepentant sin (e.g., sexual harassment or spiritual abuse) or unacknowledged woundedness (e.g., mental illness or burnout).

In summary, corrupt or incompetent leadership poses a danger to organizational well-being and to workers’ experience of resilience. It is important to note, however, that the most prevalent complaint of these participants was not the present negative but the absent positive. Beyond mitigating bad, global workers desire enhanced good – they need competent, caring, and collaborative leadership.

Global Workers Want Member Care

Of the comments about receiving supportive care, 92.5% mentioned care from outside formal organizational structures. This happened through turning toward God, for example, through dependence on a relationship with God, spiritual practices, or a sense of calling. Care also came from turning toward others, through friendships with fellow global workers and other expats, support from home/church, or supportive local friends, spouses, or other caring relationships. 

Finally, participants said that they received supportive care by turning toward themselves, by being their own support, and especially by framing adverse experiences as positive preparation for growth and learning.[6] This picture of received support shows that while organizations are essential, they are not sufficient in and of themselves to facilitate the actual support global workers depend upon.

When it comes to care, global workers express specific ways they would like to be cared for by their organizations. These participants want their organizations to facilitate preemptive care that connects with them personally, outside of crisis situations. They also want help connecting with trustworthy mentors/coaches, counselors, mental health support, and spiritual direction.

Workers are highly interested in care events such as retreats, vacations, and debriefing. Participants ask to receive care in person,[7] and they particularly want extra support during seasons of transition, burnout, or crisis.

Furthermore, many global workers long for missional discipleship – for help wrestling with the hard questions cross-cultural ministry invites – such as the paradox of personal abundance in the midst of poverty and the burden of resource scarcity in the midst of overwhelming need.

Finally, many cite conflict with the administration, within the team, or with local churches as a fundamental concern. Additionally, far too often they experience demanding, confusing, or overwhelming expectations. They want help navigating these contentious situations.

In summary, global workers request member care that is individualized for their seasons and circumstances, and that connects them to resources. They want care that is preemptive, responsive, and networked.

Conclusion

If mission organizations can help to support the growth in missional resilience of their global workers, what might that stewardship make possible? However, if mission organizations miss this moment, and fail to recognize and adapt to the changing times, what can they reasonably expect to happen next? How about in a few decades when their current workforce has all retired?

Those of us who have been entrusted to steward our organizations through this season would be wise to listen well to the perspective and the needs of our global workers. We are invited to meet this moment with a spirit of meekness and repentance for the ways we have fallen short and with resolve to listen and respond well in the confidence that it is Jesus Christ whose mission we join, and he has promised he will be with us till the end.

Download the appendix, including reflection and discussion questions and a 4-step implementation plan, from the authors at: bit.ly/EMQ-resilience.


Geoff Whiteman, ThM, LMFT (linktr.ee/geoffwhiteman), and Kristina Whiteman, PhD (ABD) (linktr.ee/krisswhiteman), are passionate about supporting people and communities to connect their life’s purpose with God’s mission in the world. They have been engaged in vocational ministry since 2000, married since 2003, and supporting global workers since 2007.  Connect with their research and resources at ResilientGlobalWorker.org.


[1]. Vipula Gandhi and and Jennifer Robison, “The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Really the ‘Great Discontent’,” Gallup, July 22, 2021, accessed January 9, 2022, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/351545/great-resignation-really-great-discontent.aspx.

[2]. “38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year,” Barna, accessed January 9, 2022, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-well-being/.

[3]. Although COVID-19 has delayed the publication of full results, preliminary results are available: Geoff Whiteman, Emily Edwards, Anna Sevelle, and Kristina Whiteman. “How Do Missionaries Become Resilient?: Preliminary Findings from the Resilient Missionary Study,” in Relentless Love: Living Out Integral Mission to Combat Poverty, Injustice, and Conflict, ed. Graham Joseph Hill (Carlisle, UK: Micah Global, 2020), 65–76. Also available for download at: ResilientGlobalWorker.org.

[4]. Data was collected through a questionnaire and written interviews from September 2017 through March 2018.

[5]. This latest analysis was presented at Missio Nexus 2021 Mission Leader Conference Innovate and sponsored by VALEO.global which offers a breadth of clinical services via telehealth to global workers in 75 countries working with 85 sending agencies annually.

[6]. It is interesting to note that these are the same patterns found in the preliminary analysis of the written interviews.

[7]. Note: this data was gathered pre-pandemic. Future research is needed to determine whether this holds true, and whether workers get as much benefit out of technology-based face-to-face interactions such as video chatting on a regular basis.

EMQ, Volume 58, Issue 2. Copyright © 2022 by Missio Nexus. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from Missio Nexus. Email: EMQ@MissioNexus.org.

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