by Jeri Bidinger
Bidinger shares four stories of how God is using expatriates and professional workers in closed countries to expand his kingdom.
Seventeen people gather in our apartment for a day of silence and prayer. We come from fourteen nations and six continents. A fragrant offering to the Lord. In the evening, twenty-seven more turn up for weekly Bible study and a home-cooked meal. When we break into groups to pray, I find myself with seven others representing six continents.
Every bed in our ample home is full with family and friends who need to be with us for a season, or strangers who need a stopping place.
Slices of a surprising life in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, capital of this Islamic state where only fifteen percent of the population is local, eighty-five percent of us are expatriate guest workers. When we were transferred here six years ago, we wondered if we would need to smuggle our Bibles in brown paper wrappings. Instead, fruit and life spring forth as dislocated people from more than two hundred countries find themselves in the way of God in a very foreign land. Every church overflows its walls.
“What mission board are you with?” It is a frequent question when I’m introduced in a new setting. “One of the biggest!” I respond with confidence. “Our sender is well-financed and places people all over the world!” Eyes widen, and I continue, “Curt is a petroleum engineer employed by a multi-national oil company. It sends believers all over the world all the time—and doesn’t even realize it!”
“And what do you do?” Another frequently asked question. “Oh, me? I’m what they call the ‘trailing spouse.’”
Trailing Spouse? Recognizing Potential…
“What mission agency are you with?” I used to reply, “Oh, we are not missionaries. My husband works for an oil company.” Faces would fall, as though to say, “Oh. You’re not real. A housewife with nothing better to do, you dabble in Christian work.”
In the expatriate professional world, the name for people like me is “trailing spouse,” that appendage that comes along with the employee on foreign assignment. A lackluster dub for women who may care for children, help at school, find work, or travel, shop, play golf, and meet with others like them for coffee or bridge, it is even more biting for men who “trail” their wives.
My answer to the “sending agency” question has evolved. What once shut down conversation now expands it. By means of this article, I hope to expand the conversation further—toward vibrant excitement at the potential, especially in closed countries, of believing expat professionals and unencumbered spouses who, almost unnoticed, gain entry with them. For we arrive well-funded and housed, with documents of legitimacy and time we aren’t sure how we will use. We are well-educated. We have gifts, skills, and experience, both secular and sacred.
Today, the global economy contracts and mission agencies struggle for funds. Every field worker I know faces increasing expenses and diminishing income. Years of ministry are lost while missionaries look for money. At the same time, doors in some nations are closing.
A “closed” country is one where formal mission is not allowed. Christian workers still go, but they enter under pretense of business plans and educational services. Of course, their true agenda is no secret to most, and their disingenuous approach can garner disrespect and resistance to their message. It damages credibility.
Meanwhile in these same nations, professional expats in oil companies, embassies, hospitals, and accounting firms come and go freely. It is the people of God among these who, along with indigenous believers, are positioned to advance the kingdom—or not—when traditional missionaries withdraw.
“I Am a Full-time Christian!”
Curt and I came to Abu Dhabi six years ago. He is seconded to a national company where he supervises an all-Muslim, multi-national team. He is highly valued, respected, even loved in this cultural setting where relationship is imperative to good business and “team” sometimes looks more like “family.” Some at the office call him “the preacher” in affectionate respect for the depth of his grounding and ability to discuss his faith. For, in fact, the prevailing culture does love to talk about matters of faith.
It was Curt who described himself as a “full-time Christian” when he addressed a group of Albanian Bible students. He longs to communicate to a young church the potential impact of professionally-qualified believers, particularly in the more closed regions of the Developing World.
While in Scotland in the early 1990s, Curt and I sensed a new direction from the Lord that amounted to a paradigm shift in our thinking. We were to expect that I would work at some relatively full-time responsibility beyond home-making, but not in a venue that would produce money or “career kudos.”
Since then, I’ve served in legal aid clinics, built affordable housing, taught Bible classes in a variety of venues and countries, and completed a diploma in spiritual direction. Today, I near completion of a book on biblical gender for the Albanian Church and work to renovate our property in southern Turkey for the retreat center Curt and I hope to open when he retires. Our doors in Abu Dhabi are open to the world.
“Can you come to India and speak to Christian businesspeople?” asks Ramesh. “I’m doing a writer’s workshop for Arabic believers in Amman. I’d love to have you join me,” suggests Miriam. The opportunities are endless, too many to say yes to. No, I’m not a “missionary.” These are just a few of the opportunities afforded one “trailing spouse.” And there are a lot of us.
Dr. Jim: “Cast a Vision—and Equip Them!”
Psychotherapist Jim Collins enjoys a flourishing practice in Abu Dhabi, where he sees clients of many nationalities and faiths. Away from American structures which bar him from raising matters of faith, he finds both freedom and fruit in including the spiritual implications of human brokenness and desire. “Here I can ask, ‘Do you have a faith? When you pray, do you get peace inside? That peace that comes from a relationship with Jesus is unique to Christianity.’”
Dr. Jim married Nancy, a career diplomat with the U.S. State Department, when he was 65. A year later, he “trailed” her to Abu Dhabi. Jim had never lived outside of the U.S., and wasn’t sure what he would do with himself.
Nine years and three thousand clients later, he is still here. I know of no more effective evangelists to the prevailing culture than this couple, and they have seen fruit among many other people groups as well. Nancy now serves in Kuwait. Although no longer a trailing spouse, Dr. Jim spends a week each month with his wife, who will soon retire and make Abu Dhabi her base from which she plans to help Developing World ministries discern ways to encourage and support indigenous workers.
Julie: Flexible to Local Need, Cognizant of the Mission Field
With an MS in environmental science and years of experience, Julie brings strong analytic and people skills to all she undertakes. She set aside a career for the births of their three girls, but engaged in significant ministry over time as she perceived God’s call.
Julie’s husband, Murray, is a facilities engineer with an oil major who accepted his first international assignment to Baku, Azerbaijan. Although bereft and grieving separation from the prison ministry where she had enjoyed an ever-widening impact as a developer of program and materials, Julie understood her husband’s transfer as a call to ministry in Baku.
They joined Baku International Fellowship, a growing congregation. Over their five years there, Murray played a key role in church leadership and finance, and they became “home” to the youth group and other church activities. Julie lent her energies, experience, and wisdom to the search for the church’s first pastor. Later, she borrowed from me a pattern of “quiet day” prayer retreats which became a part of the monthly calendar and a key tool of spiritual discernment for their fellowship. But her primary contribution was her distinctive vision and development of a Bible study for expatriate women.
Julie understood her primary call to Baku as an invitation to work among expats—including missionaries. She noticed distance and tension between those who came to Baku for “secular” employers and those there as Christian workers. From one camp emanated a sense of superiority around being “called,” along with a reluctance to be identified with the wealthier “worldly” group.
There was also the reality that the church tended to look first to the missionaries for leadership in its various ministries in ways that compounded their weariness and left them longing for nurture and nourishment. From the other camp came insensitivity, presumption, displays of wealth and emptiness, and ignorance of Azeri life and culture. Julie was intentional in courting and including both groups. She listened and invested in both worlds, and framed a fellowship vehicle for women that would allow them to encounter one another as sisters.
Tammy was one Julie reached. A career missionary, she was hesitant to join the trailing spouses. She expected to find them shallow and frivolous, playing at Bible study. But she was also lonely and in pain. Her husband suffered burn-out and his health was failing. He wanted to leave the field, and Tammy was confused and angry. Her identity and self-worth were tied up in being a missionary.
Through her contact with the group, she came to know trailing spouses who were passionate for Jesus and at least as fruitful in ministry as she was. Tammy repented of her attitude of superiority and publicly acknowledged that she had regarded missionaries as “first-tier” Christians in a hierarchy of God’s approval. Later, she was deeply comforted and empowered as she came to understand the end of their season as missionaries as simply a fresh call from the Lord.
Today, Julie and Murray live in Cairo. A pitfall for globally-transient believers is the idea that what proved fruitful in one venue should define what happens in the next. When Julie moved to Baku, she hoped to work in prisons, but she wisely watched and listened and discerned different needs and call within her passion and gifting.
In Cairo, she again gave time to explore and listen, and now returns to prison ministry to English-speaking expatriates in Egyptian prisons. With the support of ministry leadership, Julie works to develop a team who will visit solely to listen and mentor. She relies on her considerable past experience and wisdom with prison populations.
Her distinctive vision is this: “We will take nothing in—no goods, no network of help with visas or legal matters. Those things are already available; those needs are met. Goods are a barrier to honesty.”
Sharon: Encouraging and Entrepreneurial Spirit
Sharon has lived much of her adult life in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East as trailing spouse of Brad, a high-level executive. A science teacher, Sharon holds an MS from Harvard with a specialty in developing educators. She has worked in a variety of international schools, and both she and Brad have involved themselves in program and leadership in a number of international churches.
“When we were transferred to Abu Dhabi,” Sharon relates, “I realized I needed to do some things differently. Everywhere we’ve been, I ended up with major responsibility for programs. But it was always just filling the box, rather than working in areas for which I had passion and gifting. Sometimes I didn’t even think the programs were very good or necessary, but the church had them and the leaders wanted to keep them going.”
Sharon decided that she would not fall into the same trap again. She would seek to serve the church in areas of her expertise, around program analysis, teacher training, and encouragement—to raise the caliber of children’s ministry.
But the church was not interested. While she was welcome to put her body in existing program slots, her energy and specialized training made her seem like an interloper.
I know the feeling. “We don’t need anyone who can teach the Bible,” I was told bluntly. “Maybe you could help with children. Or bring snacks for the ladies’ study.” I remember a meeting to brainstorm new adult education options. The staff leader who invited us cared only to hear of new video series or workbooks from the U.S. The suggestion that we form a team of experienced lay-people to develop and implement curriculum that would address the cultural and life situations of our predominately Asian and African congregation fell on deaf ears.
For most expat professionals, the primary source of training and mobilization to engage in ministry during their foreign assignments is the church. “The international church is a fascinating combination of mission force and mission field,” says Cam Arensen, senior pastor of Abu Dhabi’s 1,000-member Evangelical Community Church. This is true both in terms of ministry opportunities within the church, where unbelievers turn up to learn English or because they are lonely in a foreign place, and beyond the walls of the church as more mature and gospel-minded lay people are equipped, resourced, and encouraged to reach out into the wider community.
But the church too often ignores its potential as equipper and mobilizer. Staff-driven, it works to perpetuate programs, rather than to prayerfully respond to the gifts and opportunities of those God brings.
Sharon longed for the church to listen and validate her sense of call. She is biblically astute and relationally intelligent and sensitive. But after a season of waiting on the church, she took another job. As a couple, she and Brad open their doors in hospitality to locals and a multi-national community of friends. Their creative gifts in photography have been put to use. They are present and supportive. But it has been frustrating.
International churches experience a constant influx of newcomers who bring a sense of what they have to offer and an agenda of priorities, programs, and ministries. Newcomers can be critical when they don’t find the things they deeply appreciated in prior locations. They lack background and history that can bring wisdom. And they may not stay long.
“The very worst are those who come from other international locations because they think they know all about expatriate settings and effective cross-cultural ministry,” relates Arensen. “Still,” he continues, “we are most effective when we welcome the gifts and ideas of those God brings—when we free them to do what they have vision for until they leave. Then, rather than feeling it necessary to perpetuate the good things they have done, we flex and listen to the ideas and gifts of whoever comes next.” He admits that this vision is increasingly complex to implement as the church gets bigger.
Time is a critical factor for expat professionals. It took two years in Abu Dhabi to earn credibility so that our suggestions were received with interest and joy. A staff member commented recently that Sharon and Brad bring amazing gifts and the church should find ways to utilize them. But their three-year term is nearly over. Just as no called and gifted full-time worker would wait around for two years, a trailing spouse with a sense of call will move on to other opportunities. The international church would be wise to dedicate primary staff attention to recognition and mobilization of those who come ready to serve.
These trailing spouses have been deployed by the Lord. Dr. Jim practices a profession that brings him into intimate engagement with the spectrum of people in UAE. In Baku, Julie worked almost entirely within international church programs to touch the lives of other expatriates. In Egypt, she moves outside the international church, though with its encouragement and support, into the prisons. Sharon pursues secular employment in education and moves socially and Christianly among the elite from various nations. I work in several countries, both within the church and developed ministries, and to develop a new ministry of presence, listening, and spiritual formation where Christ’s name is not yet known.
Twice in the past ten years Curt and I were invited by sending agencies to retire early from secular employment and join them. We were honored to be asked, and both times we started with the assumption that we would go. Both times, after much prayer and counsel, God firmly directed us to stay put. I was awed and full of gratitude when we finally understood that Curt’s professional employment opens doors to us that no sending agency could provide. God himself brings more opportunities to love, witness, and nurture than we can manage in settings few can enter.
This is a wake-up call from the Lord. Perhaps he is inviting a similar awakening in the wider Church—senders, field missionaries, and international churches—to the potential of expat professionals.
Jeri Bidinger lives with her engineer-husband, adult children, and aging father in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She set aside her career as a lawyer in 1991 and has since enjoyed eclectic ministry opportunities from teaching the Bible to building affordable housing to mentoring NGOs to providing spiritual accompaniment in various venues around the world.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 304-310. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.