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