by Gerald E. Bates
Just as many roads in the third world seem to be constructed solely of potholes, so missionary life and service sometimes seem to be composed of a boundless configuration of problems.
Just as many roads in the third world seem to be constructed solely of potholes, so missionary life and service sometimes seem to be composed of a boundless configuration of problems. There are the obvious problems of existing and surviving in another culture; there are organizational and inter-personal problems; and there are problems that are delivered to us by other people or circumstances which touch our lives.
The standard manner of problem-solving emphasizes defining the problem, collecting relevant information, constructing hypothetical solutions and trying to anticipate the possible outcome of each, then making a decision. Prior to all these, however, is a more fundamental principle and that is deciding which problems are properly (or partially) ours and which are none Of our business. This question, in more formal terms, deals with the ownership of problems.
The classic illustration of the importance of this matter comes from the barber shop scene where a man in the chair, lathered for a shave, is confronted by a breathless messenger who shouts, "Sam, your house is on fire! " Whereupon the man in the chair leaps out the door and tears madly down the street, trailing shaving cream until at the first corner he stops and says, " Hey, wait, my name isn’t Sam." There was a problem, but it wasn’t (at least primarily) his problem.
Recently in an airline office in an African capital I received the news that due to the fact that the local airport was closing for repairs an incoming passenger would not be able to catch the air taxi to his final destination in the interior. The clerk seemed completely unconcerned, shrugging the whole thing off as a regrettable inconvenience, wondering idly what I was going to do about this until . . . remembering that an airline ticket is basically a contract, I said to him, "Look, the airline has a real problem here, the ticket reads to such and such a destination. How are you going to get this person there?"
The whole situation changed. His indifference passed quickly; he called the manager and after a few moments of earnest conversation they came up with an alternate proposal. Had I accepted the problem as mine, it would have been up to me with my resources to try to solve it, but, looking at it a bit more closely, it was not my problem, it was theirs.
THREE KINDS OF PROBLEMS
But determining the ownership of problems is much more than a strategy in inter-personal contests. It is fundamental to real problem -solving, even where problems are shared as they so often are in the missionary context. As examples we can mention three kinds of problems often encountered by "people helpers":
1. There are problems dealing with other individuals. A not infrequent caller found in disadvantaged societies is what I call the "powerless abdicator" who simply checks out and says in one way or another, "I am just putting it all in your hands."
In an area where there are literally millions in roughly similar situations of need, you must compassionately calculate how big your "hands" are, or how many you have at your disposal. It is quite in order to ask in the light of the total situation whose this problem really is, and start from there to determine your share in it.
2. Another kind of missionary problem has to do with organizational relations. These often fall into the cross-cultural area. Church/mission or national /missionary problems can come in assorted shapes and sizes. Many times they have to do with the division or sharing of scarce resources. In most cases we are obligated by our own integrity in belonging to the body of Christ to own a share in these problems. A pertinent question, subject to no fixed formula, is: How large a share is ours?
3. A third kind of problem has to do with the measure of success or failure of our spiritual ministry. We do not want to shrug off our responsibility, but many missionaries tend to accept uncritically the whole load of accountability. Defining the ownership of a problem may reveal a resistant situation where success is practically impossible. In other cases we must volunteer to share a problem with an over-scrupulous colleague.
Always we must remember that we are workers together with God, that the missionary enterprise is first of all his, the church is his, and the problems that we often encounter must – assuming our faithfulness and best efforts – sometimes be recognized as his. The alternative is excessive guilt and sometimes emotional breakdown.
We can sum up in a few statements the advantages of determining the ownership of problems.
1. Realistically, we do not have the time or the energy to address ourselves to every problem available to us. Finding out who has primary ownership of a problem helps us to avoid a selfdefeating scattering of our attention on matters that are peripheral to our gifts and ministry.
2. Determining who owns a problem helps to alleviate the tendency to over-involvement and excessive scrupulosity. Taking on a large emotional load does not generally help in problem-solving. Compassionate sharing in searching for a solution is not the same as accepting the complete ownership of a problem.
3. Assessing the ownership of a problem helps to fix responsibility and in many cases will motivate the primary owner toward a solution (e.g., the airline clerk cited above).
As Christians we are urged to be open, sympathetic and even vulnerable to those with problems. As human organisms we must also recognize our limitations and focus our energies as best we can toward the accomplishment of whatever call God has given us.
As missionaries we are very exposed to all kinds of human need. One of our major temptations may be the "messianic" one – to try to take on the worries of the world. To do so in some cases may be a sin against the law of love by robbing the primary owner of the opportunity to deal with his own problem. At times we may be presuming on God’s prerogatives. Remember Jesus’s rebuke, "What is that to you?" (John 21:22). It is usually enlightening to consider early in any problematic encounter, "Whose really is this problem?"
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