I think I’m just gonna start calling it “Missionary Survivor”

by Richelle Wright on June 10, 2013

We like to watch that reality show Survivor


DVDs of different seasons are oft requested “gifts” for Christmas or birthdays. We’ve been known to spend hours downloading seasons from iTunes or elsewhere on line, hanging out at the Rec Center with its satellite TV hoping to be able to watch it… or reading word for word the synopsis of the most recent episode even when we don’t have access to watch it.

We enjoy the actual surviving stuff… the unique competitions are intriguing… and we find comments about not eating chocolate for three whole weeks downright amusing.

We watch the show as a family and we use it as a teaching tool with our children – a basic intro to many aspects of American culture. It also gives us some amazing and great opportunities to talk about relationships… how what we do, what we say, who we are, the choices we make can all impact immensely how we get along with others and in general, our dealings with other people.

One section of every episode is sure to garner lots of questions and discussion from our tribe: tribal council. One comment repeatedly uttered at my house while viewing the final tribal council of a season is that those people on the jury are making conclusions and judgments about things that they aren’t really qualified to judge… on things that they’ve got no real right to pronounce… and deciding, not for legitimate reasons, but rather based upon knee jerk reactions: “Who do I like better?”

Sometimes, life on the mission field feels like one unending tribal council, especially when some short term folks arrive in a place.

Don’t get me wrong. I see great value in short term – as in non-career – folks coming and serving. Some ministries, like international schools that service TCKs (in other words, kids like mine), would be improbabilities without the contributions of short term workers.  Most of them simply could not continue to function without those who commit to come and serve for a single school year – sometimes more and not infrequently, less. I’ve spent the past 3 years working at one of those schools and I’m thankful for so many who’ve come to fill in for a season and then continued on to the next appointment God had for them. They are often the ones bringing new life, new rededication, new ideas, new energy and lots of excitement – things that those of us who’ve been here battling it out without a break for a while find hard to muster every day, all the time. They are the sprinters… we are the marathoners. And that is perfectly okay because both are needed and, at least in this environment with which I am experienced and familiar, I honestly do not believe that one is more essential than the other.

But sometimes? There are those times that arrive with short termers, personnel often nursing unrealistically high expectations mixed with very little grace – and their own time in a locale serving is just not long enough for them to recognize any need for unquestioning grace. Assuming that an exhausted long-termer has just stayed a few months too long and should have gone home for that needed break instead of remaining another year and “dragging down the positive vibes and energy of a community” may be an accurate assessment. Yet it is also simplistic and fails to recognize any value of stick-to-itiveness and perseverance despite not performing at the highest level. It serves no purpose other than selfish, wimpy whining and instead of motivating positive change, only drags further down at least one member, if not more, of the community.


Such attitudes and even sometimes the corresponding words expressing the “outsider’s” version of what veterans serving in a place should be, how they should act, how much enthusiasm they should exude, how much vulnerability they should offer…  instead of being gently and lovingly offered are instead played like cards in a game. Then it becomes a contest, old versus new. Other times, the short termers make assumptions about the who, the what, the where, the how, the why – and don’t bother to stop, to slow down, to listen, to learn and to try understand the history, and it becomes a battle of wills. What about instances where newcomers barge right through the door of a community, wanting to tell established members of that community they are dysfunctional-doing-it-all-wrong – when clearly, the community was surviving and even thriving before that. As a long-termer, it is hard to swallow the attitude of “the experts have arrived – so take note, listen to knowledge, repent of the error of those old way and by the way, we expect you to make changes immediately.”

The craziest thing is – those short termers may be right. At the very least, they are raising valid concerns, placing disquieting or ignored issues on the table, and prompting good discussion concerning matters that do need to be thought about and perhaps changed. They have a really valuable and good tendency of shaking things up a bit and unsettling the old-timers.

But in my experience, no one wants to listen for potential innovation while feeling like they are sitting in one of those final Survivor tribal councils – being judged, criticized or called to account by someone who doesn’t have the whole picture and who hasn’t walked in my shoes for long enough to at least have developed a few blisters. Even the most graciously teachable (much less your average, every day long term international workers) will find it hard to accept arrogant correction and attitude from someone who hasn’t been there, done that persistently over the long haul… from someone who hasn’t gone through the suffering, sacrifice, cost and hard work of having lived and ministered on the field for repeated years, repeated terms. I don’t want to imply that one is harder than the other, and they share similarities, but they are still different. And no, two weeks of power cuts cannot equate to an understanding of what it is to live like that for months unending; months of power cuts does not equate to an understanding of what it is like to live without the benefit of electricity, ever. Six months without a hug from your grandmother isn’t the same as loving children through the death of their grandma twice… when it happens and then once again when they return back to their passport country and really discover what it means to be there without her there.


So what do we do? How do we learn to work together?

Whether old or new… long or short… How do we learn not just to accept different, but also respect and see the value of the other’s contribution even when we may not like or value all that the other stands for and does?

If you are a short-termer (or a newcomer), how do you avoid becoming critical and closing off the hearts of those old fogies who frustrate you?

As a long-termer, how do you remain teachable and willing to consider innovations and challenges to the comfortable status quo of your community, even when the enthusiastic short-termer (or newcomer) becomes offending?


– Richelle Wright, missionary in Niger, W. Africa

blog:   Our Wright-ing Pad    ministry:   Wright’s Broadcasting Truth to Niger     facebook:  Richelle Wright

(posed photo snapped  by one of my children at  a school banquet)

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|
  • Remain teachable by being willing to listen and when they are becoming offensive, turn around to roll your eyes and extend grace…

    • Richelle Wright

      that turning around and hiding the eye roll – so important, isn’t it? 😉

  • My kids and I really enjoy watching Survivor together, too! So many teachable moments and discussion starters as we watch the competitors outplay, outwit, and outlast. 🙂

    The tie in to our relationships on the mission field brings to light some very real tensions. I wonder if the 12 disciples of Jesus ever secretly hoped that they could have a tribunal to vote off a member who might have been particularly annoying that day. I can hear it now, “Hey Jeff, er, I mean, Jesus… did you see what Judas did this week? I was out fishing, er, I mean serving the thousands their fish and loaves, and he was just laying around camp doing nothing. Surely he has got to go. He’s not really part of my alliance of four so really, why do we keep him around?”

    Thanks for the fun thought experiment, Richelle! Teachable and open to innovation… good word!

    • Richelle Wright

      laughed out loud imagining a disciples’ tribal council. pretty funny idea.

      and so good to hear i’m not the only parent who finds survivor to be a great teaching tool. most people just laugh and roll their eyes like… “there she goes with her outlandish ideas again!” 😉

  • Liz K

    boy! Good thoughts as always Richelle! We are facing some of this. Our mission is set up differently, with no “team” each family is part of a different ministry. And the next newest family has been here 15 years. And then it jumps to 25 years on up. Talk about a gap! We’re struggling through wanting to learn, and yet there is no one wanting to teach us. So we’re praying…as always about how to interact, how to not be the pain in the neck newbes, but also ask the questions that might bring some change.

    • Richelle Wright

      wow… that sounds super hard. i appreciate your desire to be sensitive to those who’ve been around longer, even while seeing the need for change. i think struggling with some of those attitudes and feelings worn on shirt sleeves has been a hugely exhausting part of this most recent year… at least for me.

  • Nathan Wiebe

    I think there may be an equal-and-opposite article to be written here as well. We are just wrapping up our first year of our first two-year term, and I do think that *some* short-termers have indeed come with a humble, flexible, take-it-as-it-comes attitude that extends to interactions with others. Other short-termers… well, maybe not so much.
    And for long-termers, I’m sure it takes loads of humility to repeatedly invest in waves of naive newcomers without making them feel like second-class citizens. Sometimes this grace is obvious; sometimes it may go unnoticed; and sometimes it’s just not there at all.
    I guess it just reminds us that God’s grace is not a ‘give-and-take’ thing; just a ‘give’ thing, regardless of the other person’s disposition. I do hope long-termers continue to gently abide the odd over-confident, graceless short-termer, while at the same time a short-termer really should extend grace to the occasional weary long-termer who seems to have long-since expended their last reserves of kindness and grace.
    As for how to accomplish that – the only idea I have is for short- and long-termers to invest quantity time in each other – to truly understand and walk alongside one other. I don’t feel like this happens very often in our particular field. Sometimes I feel like they are two irreconcilably divergent subcultures. As a short-termer, I feel like long-termers are already 100% invested in a mixture of programs and relationships with locals that we newbies have no one but each other. As a result, we are like the blind leading the blind, and our knowledge of both the local and missionary cultures grows very slowly and with little guidance. And with such a revolving door of short-termers, who could blame long-termers for being hesitant?
    But I wonder – at our missionary school, we invest so much time and emotional energy in guiding the students in our school – why not the equally-helpless new missionaries? Some of us are very eager to learn. Some of us are very aware that the knowledge and perspective you’ve fought for over the years is precious and, if shared, will be valuable long after both of us have left the field.
    (to be fair this year has included everything from wars next door to terrorism to natural disasters, and it has been difficult for everyone, so I don’t want to be too quick to assume my experience this year is the norm)

    • Richelle Wright

      i really appreciate your comment and your commitment to ministry, nathan. it is super great to see you hopping into the conversation here. i totally agree with you that the counterpart to this post needs to be written – maybe you could do so?

      i do agree that the long/short term folks need to invest in each other… it has been a ministry i’ve enjoyed tremendously in the past that has probably blessed me more than i’ve been a blessing to the newcomer/short termer.

      but not all of us are up all at the same time every year – and not much, as a long term person struggling to keep up with commitments and to keep things going and sometimes, in just as desperate of a place to survive as newbies or short termers, hurts worse than to hear someone saying “just go home if you are so stressed out” or other similar sorts of comments from someone who has been there three months. it is hard when someone has knowingly or unknowingly has place this pedestal under your feet – titled “long-term super missionary” (said quite a bit tongue in cheek) that you didn’t ask for and then doesn’t give grace when you can’t measure up – sometimes it is even hard to want to try when you know you will fall short and that failure might just be the straw to break the camel’s back.

      and that, in no way, shape, or form is meant to excuse sinful, ungracious behavior on the part of someone who is struggling.

      in your experience and conversations with other short termers – do they realize that they are there with just as much potential to minister to the long term staff (which is only good for students) as they are to minister to the kids?

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I actually think that some of what you’ve brought up in this piece, is what I struggle the most with here in Haiti. Remember my Penelope post from June 2? So, a new person tells us how something should be done and in my mind I’m like, “Yeah, you have the answer at month one because none of us here have ever thought about it.” It is not gracious (my head). I’d never say that out loud; my mouth is in control. Recently a guy was boasting about making it three years and never quitting. He was telline me and a woman that has been here 26 years — I just bit my lip. Penelope rules my thoughts in these situations. Apparently I need to up the grace quite a bit.

    • Richelle Wright

      i was surprised to see this post referenced, and your comment pop up… and if i’m honest, i was probably in penelope mode, at least a bit, when i wrote this after having finished a challenging year, drowning in the throes of getting ready to move home and then having a short-termer “let me have it” with all of the things that said person had observed me doing poorly or wrongly… sigh… and said person not even able to see the contradictions in his/her accusations… or how said person trapped one of my kids and left them caught in the middle because this person insisted she/he couldn’t work it out with me… yeah, i’m pretty sure i was penelope in the flesh!

      when i look back now, with some space, busyness and much distraction intervening, i wish i would have walked away from that whole situation instead of trying to fix things. because trying to “fix things” as a penelope just doesn’t often work – and what can you say under those circumstances that won’t come across as “penelope?” i struggle with the grace, too… because i’m pretty sure it isn’t really grace i’m extending under those circumstances, but rather the long-suffering, patronizing attitude with which you treat someone who is clearly more immature… know what i mean?

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Ouch. The story of the short termer’s comments made me cringe. :/ I’m sorry for that experience, being criticized like that, especially after a difficult year. I think we all look back at certain circumstances and wish we would have handled them differently — which means grace is not just something we give other people, like you wish you had given to this person, it’s also something we receive ourselves, as in, giving yourself grace for not having acted as you wish you had. Which is something I find really hard to do for myself!
        But to answer the questions posed in the post, I found it quite interesting this whole idea of both sides, older, long term people, and newer, younger, shorter term people, both being arrogant, thinking they have all the answers and not accepting new ideas. I think you hit it though, that is probably the problem — all of us have pride, and when we’re questioned, no matter where we are in our journey, we don’t take to it very kindly. I certainly don’t. But I am thankful for the long term missionaries here — I have learned so much from them, and they inspire me with their perseverance!
        And even after two years here, we still look around and think, what exactly are we doing here? We just don’t have a clue, we’re too new. It’s almost as if we knew what we were doing for 2 years — adjusting, learning language — that WAS the assignment. But now what?? Have to figure out ministry plans, have to execute them, have to “prove” our worth. I think it is NOW that it’s getting hard, in a way we never experienced before. It’s like the hard stuff just began.

        • Richelle Wright

          i always circle around to scriptures like the end of phil 1/beginning of phil 2… col 3… 2 peter – the whole book… and realize i’m not really living those verses at all. and is it extending grace to others if it is from a more or less disguised perspective of “I’m the better person, here… I understand so much more than you do what is going on simply because of my experience…” ? to me, that seems more patronizing and more likely to inflame and irritate than actually help. which leaves me with the walk away, refuse to confront or be confronted.

          sometimes i look at other missos who’ve been there longer than i, served in more challenging circumstances than i – and i’m totally in awe – of their sacrifice, of their perseverance, of their gentle strength, of their patience with people like me, of…. and then as i look deep in my heart, i wonder if part of my reaction to perceived arrogance in newer folks is that i expect them to have that same response (my response) towards me… blech! talk about arrogance, eh? just goes to show how much more i have to learn.

          so yeah – i look back and i can see that i was in penelope mode (although i seriously doubt those with whom i was interacting that prompted this post ever even considered reading it or are aware of it)… i can see that God has brought healing, acceptance and some measure of forgiveness in my own heart towards those others… and i can resolve by God’s grace to better seek to honor Him the next time i’m in a similar circumstance – because i’m pretty confident i will be.

          fwiw – i don’t think most of the veteran missos i worked with felt that newbies had to “prove” themselves. as you said, “NOW that it’s getting hard, in a way… never experienced before…” that is true for all of us. true, some things do tend to become easier – language, culture, adapting to things we never thought we’d have to adapt to… but the challenges of ministering in a way accurately reflects our God and that draws others towards Him? Somehow, i think that will always be an increasingly challenging journey, regardless…

          • Elizabeth Trotter

            Oh Richelle, you are so hard on yourself! Something we have in common I think — I am forever hearing people tell me I’m too hard on myself. But sometimes I think that God is not quite so hard on us as we are on ourselves, because of the very grace we lack, but that He has in abundance. 🙂 I’m glad time and rest and perspective has helped bring closure to what happened last year though.
            And I should probably clarify — I didn’t mean we have to prove ourselves to veteran missionaries, but rather, that we now have to prove ourselves to our supporters back home, which is possibly more difficult. :/

          • Richelle Wright


            thanks for such kind and encouraging words.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      The 3 year comment cracked me up, Tara. I am only at 2 years, so I really have nothing to say here, but I still laughed out loud, especially when you mentioned to whom he said it!

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