The Underbelly of Being Radical

by Editor on October 17, 2015

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My husband and I both have college degrees and 4.0 GPA’s (okay, not exactly, he once got an A-, and I once got a B). We like to think we’re pretty talented and could do anything in the world we wanted to do. But instead of staying in the States and raking in tons of money, we decided to move to South Africa so I could work for a community development organization…for free. And we did this because we think that’s what Jesus calls us to– not the American Dream, but the excitement of laying down our stuff and living for Him.

It sounds very noble and sacrificial when we tell our story this way. It’s a story people attribute to us, even when we don’t explicitly tell it that way. This sacrifice story is one I’m hearing a lot from missionaries and people involved in community development work.

Our sacrifice story would go at the bottom of the totem pole, because we were young and just starting out–and quite frankly the job market was terrible anyway, so hey, why not just go to South Africa? Probably at the top of the sacrifice-story totem pole is Jim Elliot, but somewhere close behind is the sacrifice story of a middle-aged couple who quit their jobs as president of a successful company, sell their house, and go start a ministry for sex-trafficking victims in South Sudan.

Oh, and there’s also this version where we say: “This is so not about me, this is all about Jesus” and then proceed to tell it as a story where we sacrifice everything for Jesus.

I’m realizing there’s a real problem if we tell our story this way–to ourselves, or to other people. When we’re used to seeing ourselves as people who have sacrificed, it’s very, very easy to slide into an entitlement attitude. Not about material things (heavens, no!), but about decision-making things. About having control. About holding the reins. And the bigger the sacrifice we’ve made, the more entitled we feel to call the shots when it comes to the way we do ministry.

Not that we’d ever say these thoughts out-loud, but…

“The organization wants me to do accounting for them. Even though I have some experience in that, it is not my gifting– I’m an evangelist. I gave up everything to come preach, and now you’re telling me you want me in a back office crunching numbers?”

“Look, some of my local partners have expressed some discomfort at the way I’m always posting photos of sick HIV patients on Facebook, but that’s what speaks to people back home. People back home need to see the reality over here, and all I care about is getting more people engaged with this work. That’s what I’m all about. Heck, I sold everything and moved half-way across the world for this–of course my intentions in sharing these photos are pure, you can’t question that!”

“A child came to me and is asking for money for food. The local pastor told me that he doesn’t give out food to street children because it encourages them to stay on the streets, but he’s trapped in self-centered thinking. People here don’t have enough compassion for the poor. I sacrificed everything to come over here–the reason I’m here is to help people understand compassion–people here just aren’t caring.”

“They want me to learn the local language, but I’m going to be working with English-speaking university students. I’m already 55, I don’t have time for this. I care about these students–you can’t doubt that, I mean, I came all the way here–but I can’t waste time learning a language I’m never going to use.”

The fact that we’ve sacrificed can be used as a shield in any conflict. We can gain the moral high ground and claim impeachable motives– after all, we came all the way here. We’ve sacrificed. We elevate ourselves above the need to be taught, to be corrected, and to learn from people around us who have been living, and caring, and working here for much longer than we have. It’s always uncomfortable to be confronted about the way we’re doing some aspect of our ministry, but let’s not let the sacrifice-story put us in an untouchable category.

 

How can we re-frame the stories that we tell about ourselves and to ourselves about what we’ve done? Can we actually see ourselves as privileged to be here, as willing learners (and not just say that’s what we are)? 

square faceStephanie Ebert is a TCK from South Africa and America. Married to a Minnesotan, she and her husband David have spent the past three years working in South Africa for the non-profit iThemba Projects. Right now they are experiencing the cultural shock of moving to a small Texas town for David to complete his masters degree. Steph continues to work for iThemba Projects online. She blogs about social justice, missions, race, and finding hope at bridginghope.wordpress.com

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  • Wow, Stephanie. Wow. Thank you for tackling such a tough topic so honestly. “We elevate ourselves above the need to be taught, to be corrected, and to learn from people around us who have been living, and caring, and working here for much longer than we have.” This is exactly the painful story I heard from a national colleague just this week. Heartbreaking.

    • Steph E

      Thank you for taking the time to encourage me with your words, Kay! This is something that I also heard from national colleagues in South Africa. It really caused me to reflect on my own thinking, and prompted me to share this post. It also made me even more aware than ever of the importance of accountability, and the need to have feedback!

  • Casey

    Thank you for tackling this really tough issue, tough in that we all can feel convicted on some level by. =)

    • Steph E

      Thanks so much, Casey!

  • This is a brave, honest, and insightful perspective that is such an important reality for those who live a ‘life of sacrifice’. We’d planned a similar path for ourselves when we were first married, but the grace of God closed those doors for us. The perspective of two decades has helped me realize that our desires to live abroad were laced with damaging attitudes and over-inflated egos that could have ultimately been the un-doing of ourselves and those around us. While I would have thought at the time that we had it ‘all together’, we desperately needed time to mature, heal, and let go of our own agenda. Instead of living a ‘sacrificial life’ in the developing world that I’d envisioned, God sent us instead to a place (you know where!) that brought humility to our souls and taught us daily about persevering amidst the brokenness of humanity and recognizing our need for humility.

    You really hit the nail on the head when you reference the elevation of missionary sacrifice stories like Jim Elliott, etc! I’m continually relearning that my most permanent spiritual growth happens through the mundane instead of the flashy sacrifice. It is the quiet, humble, and plodding honesty-to-God-and-others that fosters the inner change necessary for me to hear the call of hope and reconciliation amidst the world’s deafening din.

    • Steph E

      Thanks so much for your honest encouraging words, Jody! Coming from you, that means so much. 🙂 I love what you said about God teaching us humility through the mundane. I think for everyone, whether overseas or not– that is where God forges us into the shape of Christ. Unfortunately, when we’re living in this “missionary hero” idea, it’s hard for us to submit to those mundane tasks, and to those around us. Something I’m wondering is if we’re trying to let go of this one type of narrative– what’s a new story we can tell instead? How can we better frame what we’re doing? The thing about the sacrifice story is it’s so easy… what stories are available to us that have nuance and tension and show the need to submit to God in the mundane wherever we are?

      • You would likely know more than I, but it feels like I frequently see the narrative of “Super Missionary” damaging in so many ways – both for the missionary themselves as well as their sending churches. It makes me wish the whole word went away sometimes, except when I consider how much good is in the world precisely because of missionaries who don’t live this story…

        I think the sacrifice story is easiest because it’s what the churches here in the US want you to say and there’s a cost if you don’t say it. I think this space is a great place to explore all of these ideas – I’d love to hear what ideas others have for reframing the narrative – or maybe there’s already a post on here like this?

        • A different narrative might be one of privilege: thank you so much to everyone who sacrifices so that I can live this life.

          • Steph E

            Oh, I like this – I’ve thought of it in terms of “I’m privileged to be here doing this work” but I love the way you tie it in to people “back home”, too.

        • I, for one, would love to hear you expound more on this. I would also welcome constructive critism on my blog, to see if others see me doing this. I think there are times when my intent has not been to be the suffering missionary, but rather, to show the privilege, only to have the people back home feeling sorry for me. Other times, I present so well how the Lord is providing that no one thinks they are needed to be His hands and feet and mouthpiece in my life.

          Regarding the mundane ~ It is what is most valuable in ministrering, and yet it is the least of what people want to hear.

          When I came on the mission field full time, the Lord gave me some specific instructions regarding finances. Initially, I thought it was just about trusting Him. Over the past couple of years I have discovered that it is all about trusting Him, but not just regarding provision. The word says that those who preach the gospel should live and get their mainentance by the gospel. Paul said, “If I sow spiritual good among you, it is only right that I reap material good from you.” In the wole of scripture, it’s clear that our primary provision was never intended to come through the hands of those “back home”, but rather from those to whom we minister. The reason I bring this up here, is that a great deal of how we present things tends to be in response to our “supporters back home”. In all honesty, it is a task of manipulation. If I say the thing that will touch your heart, you will be more likely to send me money. This is how we are encouraged to insure our next meal.

          I was always aware that how I word things can be manipulative. I strive to avoid that. In the past few months I have gained a new level of revelation in this area and have much less to say – and no desire to “people please”. Not that I’m not interested in sharing what people are genuinely interested in, but I want to share because they are interested, not so that I can get something out of it. I’m not concerned if sharing the mundane is not of interest to some. There are others that want, and need, to hear the mundane, because they are looking forward to stepping out of the boat themselves. They need to know that the heart of ministry is in the mundane, behind the scenes, in the quiet moments.

          So, all of that to say, “Thank you. I really appreciate your insight.” I pray that we will all humble ourselves and are truly grateful for the opportunity to share Jesus wherever His Spirit has led us.

          • Steph E

            Thanks so much for these thoughtful words! Yes, I think so much of the struggle, as Jody also mentioned, is this pressure we feel to “present” a certain picture to those “back home”. People have certain expectations, and you feel like if you’re not giving them what they want to hear, they won’t support the work. And I totally hear you on trying to communicate one thing, and people just reading what they expect to hear! 🙂 Sometimes theres’ something you think is funny, or beautiful, or significant, or a privilege, and people feel sorry for you. It’s very hard to communicate nuance and tension and the complications of life overseas to those back home! But I think we do need more honest stories (like ones on this blog!) to help counter that. I also would love to see sending churches get a better picture of how to talk about missions… because on the one hand, I know so much of this “sacrifice story” comes from people who urgently want to promote missions, and want people to step out of their comfort zone and hand over everything to Jesus (all good!) but the fall-out from that can be detrimental to home churches and missionaries who go.

  • Debbie Horrocks

    So so true. May we have the grace to clearly see these unhelpful stories we tell ourselves..

    • Steph E

      Thanks Debbie. It truly takes so much self-awareness, though! And that’s something that I’m learning I need (with the help of the Spirit!)

  • drstevehighlander

    Hi Stephanie,

    Your article was forwarded to me – possibly because I am in a situation similar to one you described and I am being rebuked, I am not sure actually. 🙂

    While I think you addressed a significant issue that needs to be addressed, I do have one problem with your thinking. I understand that every message is limited by time and space — either the clock on the sanctuary wall or the words on a page (we bloggers are only limited by the amount of words we can string together intelligently and the short attention span of our readers). Perhaps if we were to sit and chat over a cup of coffee we might find we were on the same page after all.

    The point I disagree with (at least in some cases) is that the organization we are working with/for assumes the role of God. Somehow the organization looms large as the final say in all things. The wisdom of the board or CEO or whoever, trumps what God might be saying to a person, and by categorically saying that someone believes God is leading them to do something different than the “assigned task” is tantamount to rebellion at worst or immaturity and arrogance at best, is just not right.

    Somehow in the corporate mentality of modern missions the idea that the organization is king needs to change. Personally I have seen how “Christian” organizations use their missionary/employees to further their own organizational goals with no regard whatsoever for the individual’s ability, experience and vision.

    I hear a lot of talk about “teamwork.” No sports team in their right mind would place a person in a position that they were not geared toward. Real “team” assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each player and places them were they are most effective. A race team would not put a mechanic in the driver’s seat (unless of course he was also secondarily experienced as a driver) and hope to win. A football team would not put a 300 lb defensive line backer in as quarterback. So why is it okay — and even justified — for a NGO or Christian organization to ignore the strengths (and weaknesses) of a particular team member and push them into a role they are not best suited for. Then, when the team members says, “You know what, I think I could serve the organization better over here,’ they are rebellious or at best arrogant.

    I have found that the “missionary enterprise,” that works on a corporate mindset, misses the organic reality of the Body of Christ and fails to further the true calling of all of its missionary/employees, and thus limits its own effectiveness in the long run — first by limiting real ability,vision and drive and by forcing people to do things they are not best suited for; And second by losing good, qualified staff who get frustrated with the bureaucracy of something that is supposed to be directed by God. Forgive me for saying it, but I think if God spent years training, equipping and developing a person in a specific set of gifts and ministry experience, perhaps He meant for them to do the thing they are prepared for. I can hardly see how this is arrogance, competition, entitlement, and pride (your tags).

    For me, I simply choose to follow my heart and the leading of God. The organization and I no longer have the same calling, or are headed the same direction — which is fine. We are not all called to do the same thing. However,to suggest that to follow the Spirit of God over the dictates of the organization is somehow categorically wrong is wrong in and of itself.

    I do understand that there situations on both sides of the fence. There are those that need to humble themselves and those that need to follow their heart.There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

    Blessings

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