When your team isn’t all you expect it to be

by Editor on January 19, 2016

Our first year of living in China was marked by the expected symptoms of culture stress: frustration, dark thoughts about all Chinese people everywhere, helplessness, hopelessness, tears. And loneliness. So much loneliness. We arrived without any team members, hoping to prepare the way for others to join us, but having no idea if they ever would.

So it is hardly surprising as I look back to realize that a major turning point in my attitude towards China took place when we got an email at the end of that first year. Some old friends of ours, with whom we’d had little contact for years, were inquiring about coming to join us. Within a month, they had committed to coming.

Oh the anticipation! The hope that came with the promise of a community, of friends with the same passions and dreams for making Chinese disciples! I had dreams of vacations our families would take together, relationships with Chinese we would build together, long coffee and prayer dates with the wife, shared babysitting. I grew up on a close-knit missions team and have really been in the missions world my whole life; I have experienced all the best of tightknit relationships among missionaries. To be honest, the desire for the close community of a missions team was one of my major motivations for becoming a missionary. Missionaries are my people; where in North America could I ever find comparable community of people who would really get me?

Our new teammates arrived in September. We cleared our calendars, held off on new ministries, and geared everything towards helping them settle in and easing the emotional ups and downs of culture stress for them. Six months later, I was perhaps in deeper distress than during our first lonely year. The friendship I had been hoping for just wasn’t happening, despite my best efforts. I felt rejected and misunderstood, and lonelier than ever. I dreaded our weekly team meetings. Even worse, and harder for me to admit, I couldn’t stop making comparisons. We were supposed to be on the same team, but I kept running into this ugly competitor within me.

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The crazy thing is that we have never had a single conflict with them, and not even many disagreements. They were a sweet couple with big hearts to serve God, and they did, in fact contribute a great deal to our ministry. They were simply independent and did not have the desire we had for deep intimacy in relationships—perhaps because they had never experienced it. But really, the biggest problems were in my heart, as my hurt feelings and disappointment in our relationship turned into a judgmental, critical, and competitive spirit.

So what have we learned?

  1. God has never promised me deep, soul friendships. It would be perfectly within his right to never provide me with the kind of friend I long for. I am not actually being deprived of anything when I feel lonely. However, God is so gracious that he often does bring along these friends. A year after our team members arrived, I realized I had two other friendships that were moving into the soul-friendship territory—one with another American who had moved to our area and one with a Chinese sister.
  2. A critical spirit is never, ever useful. I like to say that I am discerning, but really, that so-called discernment easily becomes criticism. I feel most critical when I cannot speak openly and honestly with someone about how I’m feeling, as was the case with our teammates. For a period of a few months, almost all of the conversations I had with my husband about our team quickly devolved into complaining sessions, as we picked apart all the ways we felt wronged by them. We are both verbal processors, so it was easy to say, “I just need to get this off my chest….” But were our conversations loving and noble? Were they even true? Rarely. In order not to speak this way, I can’t think this way: I have to stop the criticisms before they get rolling in my head. Instead, by God’s grace, I try to replace them with either deeper sympathy with or praise of our teammates.
  3. Love rejoices in diversity. Though I didn’t want to admit it, I often felt threatened by our teammates when they chose to do things differently than we had. I read their different choices as a criticism of us. It took me a while to realize that, unlike me, they like to forge their own way simply because they enjoy it, not because they think the previous way was wrong. Furthermore, for me to feel threatened and care so deeply to have their approval was revealing the idolatry in my own heart. I idolized my way of doing things and others’ opinions of my way of doing things. And I idolized the kind of relationship I was expecting with our teammates. As I began to repent of these idols, I was able to appreciate our team members’ unique gifts and the ways they complemented us and added greatly to our team.
  4. The Spirit is always at work in believers’ hearts. Part of what I wanted out of a deep friendship with team members was the ability to counsel one another—to ask and be asked the hard, heart-probing questions. But I never got to that level with these particular team members. It was so hard to trust the Spirit’s work in their hearts when I felt I could never catch a glimpse of it, or when the changes I was hoping for (selfishly) weren’t taking place. However, once I was able to let go of my desires for the relationship, I was freer to sit back and see and enjoy the Spirit’s presence both in their lives and in mine. He is working in all our hearts, and how thankful I am that he doesn’t need me at all to work his redemption!
  5. Deep, vulnerable sharing can be manipulative. I had learned in the past that in order to create an environment in which others feel free to open their hearts, it often helps to go first. So early in our team relationship I would share some of what the Spirit was teaching me, trying to include even the ugly stuff in my heart that was being revealed. When that sharing wasn’t reciprocated—when they didn’t share in the same way—I felt myself wanting to disengage, to hold back from sharing my heart. Not that I didn’t feel safe—I trusted them enough to know their discretion—but how could I continue to expose the ugliness in myself to people who didn’t seem to want to share theirs—without beginning to feel like the weakest, most sinful member of the team? Again, this was only exposing my idolatry, not theirs. I realized I was trying to use my sharing as a manipulation tactic. I eventually learned, however, that God is glorified when I tell of his marvelous deeds, including his work in my heart, and our team members truly appreciated hearing of it and sympathized with my emotions. But not everyone is ready or able to share in the same way—perhaps they are not verbal processors, perhaps they don’t analyze themselves as much as I do, perhaps they don’t trust their audience—and that’s okay and not for me to discern. And it’s also okay if I am the weakest, most sinful member of the team—who’s keeping track anyway?

Part of me feels ashamed to give you these lessons I learned through this team experience because the ugliness that was exposed in my soul during that time is still there, still battling for dominion. Only as I turn my attention and desires towards pursuing God and his goodness does his love begin to conquer the fierce competitor in me.

I write this because I suspect disappointment in team relationships is far more common than I ever realized when I was younger and dreaming about my future as a missionary. I also believe that God often brings team members in our lives to refine us, but perhaps not in the positive, warm and fuzzy way we might hope for. Because our team relationships tend to be so much more intense and inescapable—and require so much more interdependence—than our friendships back home, they can also expose a much deeper level of sin and idolatry in ourselves. Painful as that process is, it’s all for the purpose of forming us into more holy ministers of God’s Kingdom. After all, how can I claim to be sharing God’s love with Chinese people if I can’t even share his love with the teammates he’s given me?

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Carrie Smith (not her real name) grew up as an MK in the Philippines and then in the wild jungles of Pennsylvania. After seven years of grad school life, she and her husband made it to China and started the long and arduous journey of learning language and culture while her husband works a full-time job as a university professor. She is passionate about Biblical counseling, reproducible disciple-making, and authentic culture learning — and raising her own little TCKs to be bilingual global citizens who passionately pursue God’s heart for the world. You can communicate with her at cjsinasia@gmail.com.

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  • brooke

    Thanks for sharing this. I have been blessed by a great team to work with most of the years of my ministry. But I have seen times when it wasn’t great. I have seen other teams in the region struggle. I appreciate your lessons learned.
    We can get ourselves into trouble when we lose focus on the ministry at hand and focus only on the team. Sometimes, I think those of us in remote areas depend on our team too much. We crave friendship and don’t have too many other options. It is hard to be co-workers in ministry and family(for that is all we have here) and best friends and counselors. At home we have several layers of relationships for such things.

    • Carrie

      I agree–we need team members for community, and yet my husband and I learned in our first year here that in some ways the ministry can still be effective without a team (maybe sometimes even more effective, as we can be forced to depend on locals more for community). I still struggle with the balance between focusing on our team relationships (now that our team is a little more established and not so fraught with drama), especially as we are the team leaders, but not falling back into them because they are more comfortable than relationships with locals which involve a language and cultural barrier. And team relationships are really such a strange circumstance, as you are forced into a close relationship with people you probably didn’t choose! Thanks for your thoughts!

      -Carrie

  • Anna Wegner

    Thanks for your story. It is so easy to build things up in our heads and then become disappointed when reality doesn’t measure up. Before being overseas, we had good experiences with community in church and with our the group of students in language school with us.
    I had a view of this continuing, and being one big happy family in a mission setting. On arriving at the field, there was very obvious conflict on the team. A good team environment never existed, or Christian fellowship as a team. However, we did have many people we were able to develop good relationships with, and very close friends and colleagues.
    One of the things I learned were that we don’t have to be close, heart baring friends with everyone on the team to work well with them. I had the idea in my head that it would be like that, but there were people I wasn’t that close to, but respected and we could work well together, and I knew that I could call on them for help if I needed to do that.
    I also learned things about myself. The conflict brought out things in me that were’t Godly. I had some wise experienced colleagues in the country who were able to be good examples to me and also challenge me when needed. If I had blissfully sailed along in Christian love and fellowship with all my team members, I doubt I would have learned those lessons and grown in those areas.

    The other thing is that I think I would have turned to my team and bonded with them, and not with our African Christian church. I would have missed out on that.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I think this is such a great approach, Anna, to accept that you don’t have to be best friends with your teammates. You might be, and that’d be great, but you can work together without being besties, if the interpersonal situation won’t allow. Expectations are so important! You read “Expectations and Burnout,” right?

      Also, ouch! I hate that conflict brings my attention to the ungodly parts of myself! It’s so uncomfortable! And I hate discomfort 😉

      But very cool that your situation allowed you to bond so well with the people you were serving 🙂

    • Yes! The not-having-to-be-close-hear-baring-friends part – that is so true and it’s hard because it (seems) like they are what we’ve got so we work with what we have. But this revelation is one that I’m definitely working on coming to terms with – and only hoping my teammates see it as such and not that I’m just being a jerk. 🙂
      It’s also helped us get outside the ‘missionary bubble’ as we call it here. We’ve created great friendships and circles of friends from all different areas because we don’t necessarily feel drawn to be-all-do-all with the team.

  • Ugh. I hate how true this is. Pretty much cause we’re experiencing it to some level ourselves. We’ve been here with a great team for 2.5 years now, and the honeymoon is officially over. Now that we’ve been here so long we’re totally in that “intense and inescapable” part of the relationship. Well written – thanks for sharing “Carrie”!

    • Carrie

      I hope that the relationships that are now painful in their intensity soon become a true blessing to each of you as you learn to see from the others’ perspective and grow individually through the tough times. We were just at a big conference with our organization, and we heard many stories of difficult team relationships that were able to really thrive in the end, so it can happen!

  • Michele

    I really enjoyed this post, as I can identify with the “newbies” you talk about here. We came to the field, joining acquaintances that we had known for several years in the States. Unfortunately, they expected SO MUCH from us during those first few months while we were dealing with learning language, culture shock, and kids who weren’t transitioning well, and we just fell short and couldn’t deliver. They abruptly left the field before we had even been on their team for a year, and we never got a real explanation as to why. It was great to read your perspective because I’m sure they had some of the very same feelings and expectations toward us. Thanks for your honesty!

    • Carrie

      Wow, really interesting to hear your perspective! I’m sorry things fell through so dramatically with your team in so short a time. A wise counselor recently advised me to really pray that God would help me truly understand and feel situations from my team members’ perspectives, especially when misunderstanding is involved–only the Father can really give us that understanding and empathy!

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