by Marjory Foyle
The important thing to recognize in our relationships is not that we have problems, but rather that we need to understand how to handle these difficulties, and to learn from them.
People care a great deal about their relationships with others. Missionaries, in particular, are concerned that they do not reduce the energy they have available for their work by spending it trying to get along with one another. All of us are concerned about interpersonal relationships, and we think we ought to be able to live together in perfect harmony. We forget that even in the living presence of the Lord Jesus, the disciples quarreled.
The important thing to recognize in our relationships, however, is not that we have problems, but rather that we need to understand how to handle these difficulties, and to learn from them.
Consider James and John. When they asked Jesus for a high position in his coming kingdom, they aroused great indignation among the other disciples. They seemed to ignore the fact that the others had made the same sacrifice they had in leaving all to follow Jesus. In this incident, Jesus gives us an example of how to handle relationship problems.
Notice that he does not cut these two disciples off with a terse, "Certainly not." Neither does he scold them for asking. Instead, he explains the implications of their request and leads them to think about the realities of their demands. Then we see that he puts the request into its administrative context, saying, "It is not for me to grant this." Finally, he calls the entire group together to discuss the matter, and he explains a vital new principle: In the kingdom, the greatest people will be those who are willing to be servants of all. Clearly, this became a profound learning experience for James and John. I wish we knew more about their immediate reactions; I hope they made a handsome apology.
This is a good example, for, in a similar way, we can use our own interpersonal relationship problems as a means of learning, instead of as an irritant that leads us to despair.
I remember one missionary who had been unable to get along with her only colleague. In fact, they did not like each other at all, and there was a great deal of friction between them. "Then we decided to start talking together regularly about the problem," she told me. "As we went on talking, our relationship gradually improved until we came to love and trust each other." She added, "I would never have known the value of communication if I had not had this experience."
Though there are many causes of poor interpersonal relationships among missionaries, a basic cause is that people who are different from us can appear to be a threat. Because we are unfamiliar with others’ differences, those differences become threatening. I want to discuss several problems that are common in missionary relationships. Each has its own pattern, and each requires a different solution.
The effects of physical ills are frequently ignored by missionaries. They forget the influence of amoebic dysentery on the emotions, for example, and they do not allow themselves adequate time for recuperation if they contract a viral infection. Often they add guilt feelings to their physical and emotional problems.
Apart from illness and its results, however, there is a normal variation in physical make-up that is rarely understood. Dr. C. B. Dobson of the School of Psychology, University of Bradford, England, has written a useful book called Stress, the Hidden Adversary. In a section on the physical aspects of stress, he explains that some people are more efficient toward the end of the work week, while others are more productive in the early part.
This also explains some forms of domestic tension. Suppose the wife is a Monday morning person: she gets up bright and early and appears at breakfast dressed, made up, and her hair carefully arranged. But her husband may be a Friday evening person: he comes down on Monday morning grumpy, unshaven, and groaning mildly. At this point, they may get on each other’s nerves, for he cannot cope with her cheerfulness and she thinks he is slovenly. By Friday evening, however, their positions are reversed: she is ready for a quiet evening with television, and he is raring to go out on the town. (This couple, incidentally, would be wise to go out on Wednesday evening, when both are in reasonably good moods!)
Wise missionaries understand how their colleagues and spouses function, and do not pressure them at the wrong time. They learn to compromise. The Monday morning person is gentler in approach, and the Friday person is more understanding of others’ fatigue.
There is another helpful fact that emerges from this research: nervous people have a high incidence of absenteeism from work on Mondays. (Presumably this applies to a different day in Islamic countries-on a Saturday to Friday week-and in other countries where the usual day off is different.) This information is useful to people in leadership positions. Missionaries need to be aware of those persons in their charge who are often absent the day following their day off; it helps in planning and moderating the demands of the whole week. Group meetings, for instance, ought to be conducted in the middle of the week.
People also differ in the pace at which they work. Problems develop when those who work quickly drive slower colleagues beyond their strength. But slower workers can hold back quicker people to the point of screaming frustration. I once served on a committee that had a terribly slow chairperson. He was still slowly and ponderously thinking over a point while the rest of us had not only understood it, but come to a decision.
It is important that we never use physical patterns as an excuse for laziness or carelessness. We can, however, arrange our work load to enable ourselves and others to do the maximum when we are all at our best. If demands are made on us when we have less energy, we must ask for a double portion of heavenly strength. Understanding our colleagues’ and our spouse’s natural patterns goes a long way in helping to promote harmonious relationships.
Friction between old and new workers is a potent cause of poor interpersonal relationships. Several factors are important:
1. Fatigue and compensatory over-rigidity. Older missionaries often have survived prolonged periods of overwork. They have done so by setting up fairly rigid routines that more or less run themselves. Unfortunately, routines get out of date, and an older person may not be aware that this has happened. New, young workers, who are smart and well trained, often see what is wrong very quickly-but instead of trying to understand why things are as they are, and approaching the matter tactfully, they rush in prematurely with suggestions. Older workers take this as personal criticism and become defensive-brushing suggestions off with, "It’s not the culture." As a result, new missionaries become increasingly frustrated and vent this either with direct anger, or by displacing it-onto their digestive systems, or the mission setup, or language study.
2. Professional inferiority. Too many missionaries complain of inferiority when they meet their peers at home on furlough. In reality, they have vast practical experience. Though this is true, it has rarely been examined in valid research or professional papers.
Some mission boards do not consider it important that people keep up to date professionally; they make little or no provision for professional conferences, journals, or books. Others pay great heed to this, and consider it necessary to their Christian witness to provide their professional members the best possible training.
Some missionaries who feel professionally inferior may compensate by being overly dogmatic. In India we call this "the Bara [big] Sahib complex." Such people make life miserable for colleagues, and they may act unwisely in an effort to protect their prestige. I heard complaints not long ago about a doctor whose junior staff felt he was unwilling to teach them anything. They saw this as a protective device, designed to keep him as the "big man" and his juniors as subordinates. Though this may not have been a valid criticism, the fact that it was made at all shows the dangers of such a situation.
3. Poor job description. The common cry of new missionaries is that the job is not what they had been led to expect. Too often job descriptions are glowing, and make little mention of the problems in the work. But senior missionaries deserve some sympathy-it is very difficult to write a job description that really works.
I once tried to prepare another psychiatrist to take over my work. Before he came we had a voluminous correspondence. When I met him and his wife recently, they told me that the preparation had not been adequate, that it did not explain the situation as it was-even though I tried. The shock of finding work so different from one’s expectations can lead to anger, which is a common reaction to insecurity.
4. Conflict between spiritual and secular work. Some missionaries deeply resent their boards or local leaders for "interfering" in their spiritual ministry. They feel they have been so loaded with secular (professional) work that there is neither time nor energy left for spiritual ministries. This is of particular importance in countries that issue visas based on the professional skills of the missionaries. Serious relationship problems can develop for people who function in a spiritual-secular dichotomy. A missionary may feel the whole setup is wrong: his request for more time to devote to language study and directly spiritual ministry are constantly frustrated by the daily professional demands made upon him. He never has time for what he feels is his main ministry, and he may become bitter.
To overcome some of these problems, we must first try to give new workers an honest appraisal of the situation before they come. This demands honesty and self-examination by senior workers, and it is vital that they define both the good and bad points very carefully. The new worker who arrives prepared for certain inadequacies will usually adjust better than someone who expects everything to be perfect.
We should also give new people plenty of talking time, both informally over meals and formally in regular meetings. Older missionaries must be prepared to listen humbly and generously-and new missionaries ought to be equally humble as they learn the realities of the situation. New workers should carefully write down their suggestions, and their advice should be welcomed and considered in future planning.
Furthermore, the spiritual aspects of the work must be carefully protected. Prayer on and for the job, time for personal devotions, and a realistic share in the ministry of the local church or in evangelistic outreach should be closely guarded from encroachment. Though emergencies will always arise, a basic pattern should be established and functioning.
We must also be careful to ensure that specific terms of visas are followed. I once spoke with a man who had had a visa for a special project, and I asked him about publication of the results. He admitted that he had not done the necessary work but concentrated instead on a spiritual ministry. I do not believe this is honorable when governments issue visas and, as in this instance, a financial grant.
Finally, we need to reexamine carefully the secular-spiritual dichotomy. I have personally rejoiced to see my medical work as a vital part of the kingdom ministry. This may not satisfy some professional workers, however. Those people for whom that is true should reexamine their calling. The spiritual ministry must be guarded at all costs.
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