Too Much Member Care—Can There Be Such a Thing?

It’s a question I’m reluctant to ask, because I’m a strong proponent of more effort and resources devoted to caring for cross-cultural workers. But here it is: Can there be too much member care?

To help with the answer, I’ll dip once more into the deep well of data from ReMAP and ReMAP II, studies conducted by the World Evangelical Fellowship/World Evangelical Alliance. And more specifically, I’ll consult the analysis of those results by Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, who first asked the question more than twenty years ago. The pair examine the effects of member care on attrition in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, and Blöcher addresses the issue in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention.

Cutting to the chase, here is what they found: An increase in time and money devoted to missionary care, as a proportion of a sending organization’s total resources, tracks with a decrease in “preventable” attrition. That’s true, though, only until a tipping point is reached. Above that percentage, more care actually correlates with more workers leaving the field. While the first finding seems obvious to me, I have to say that the second one doesn’t align with my general assumptions and seems to fly in the face of my advocacy for more and more member care. But I can’t ignore information just because it doesn’t easily fit my personal views.

This requires a closer look, so here are more details: The first ReMAP study, published in 1997, looked at the overall area of “field care and support,” made up of ten items (field leadership, pastoral care, job description, on-the-job training, annual leave, regular field visits, provision for children, team structure, letters or phone calls, and conferences). When considering agencies with 26-200 members (the group giving the “most reliable results”), the study found “a clear and positive relationship” between the percentage of an agency’s overall time and money spent on these kinds of care and lower rates of attrition. But once the percentage reaches 6%, preventable attrition begins to rise. 

Ten years later, ReMAP II asked agencies (in both ReMAP studies, the term agencies also includes individual churches that send out missionaries on their own) to estimate the percentage of their total time devoted to “pastoral” or “member” care. Its findings reinforce those of ReMAP I. When considering potentially preventable causes of attrition for agencies from “Old Sending Countries,” a drop-off in retention occurs when the proportion of member-care staff hours climbs above 10%.

How are we to interpret these results? Following are some questions to consider, gleaned from thoughts presented in Blöcher’s writing:

  • Does too much attention paid to looking for missionary difficulties create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • Could member care interfere with missionaries’ development of resilience and produce attitudes of self-centeredness and entitlement?
  • If an organization is known for its strong member care, might it attract struggling candidates?
  • Could an agency be inclined to accept applicants with obvious issues, assuming that its extensive member care will take care of them after they go abroad?
  • Do professional counselors sometimes too quickly encourage workers to leave the field?
  • When large amounts of  money and time are spent on member care, does that hurt the organization by pulling resources from other priorities?

All of these are interesting questions. Some make more sense to me than others, but I can’t discount any of them out of hand. Having said that, here are a few ideas to add, to help in the discussion.

As we’ve talked about before at A Life Overseas, when surveys are conducted concerning the missions experience, it matters who is queried, as we can expect variations between responses from agency leaders and from field workers. The ReMAP studies consulted agencies, coming up with the results referenced above. But two years ago, when Andrea Sears surveyed former missionaries about their reasons for leaving the field, one of their highest-rated factors was “lack of missionary care.” I wonder if some of this disconnect comes from how we define the terms. “Member care,” “missionary care,” “pastoral care,” “personal care,” “personal support,” and “field care and support” may mean different things to different people. It’s quite possible that agency representatives could be offering what they consider member care while those on the receiving end don’t see it as such. It’s also possible that care may be distributed unevenly or that it’s not adequately reaching those who need it most.

Along the same lines, the giver of the care makes a difference, too. As an example, while an agency leader may make a field visit with the plan to minister to a worker’s spiritual and emotional health, the worker may not feel safe enough, given authority structures, to share openly. Thus, the missionary may interpret the visit in a much different way than the visitor does.

There’s also the factor that not all member care is created equal. As Blöcher points out, the ReMAP surveys could only look at quantity of member care, not quality. Here’s one aspect of this: When extra member care is added, can it become diluted? For instance, if all personnel were tasked with giving 25% of their time to member care, would it really translate into a 25% increase in actual care? Or might it become, in practice, neglected, as in “everyone’s job is no one’s job”?

How do third-party member-care givers fit into this equation? If a cross-cultural worker receives member care above and beyond what is supplied by the agencies—from dedicated member-care organizations and professionals, supporting churches, or informal sources—could that contribute to an even-higher rate of attrition? Or could it be that those outside the agency can provide more of the kind of care that missionaries are desiring? Or is care directly from the agency necessary for the missionaries to see that they are valued by their organizations?

Another issue involving member care from outside the sending organization is that those caregivers may not have the same commitment to retention or length of service that the sending group has. Therefore, they may be quicker to support workers in making the decision to leave. For some, this may lead to a premature exit. But it can also allow for the kind of necessary leaving that is best for all involved. Blöcher acknowledges the need for this type of attrition.

To me, one of the strongest explanations for the connection between excessive member care and higher retention is the recognition of how an increase in member care affects other services offered. For most organizations, allocating dollars and hours is something of a zero-sum game, so adding to one area necessitates subtracting from another. But as Blöcher states, member care should not be considered a replacement for other important components. In fact, he reports that

mission agencies with very intensive [member care] programs gave a significantly lower rating in organisational issues like: Mission statement, Clear goals, Missionaries’ pre-field training (especially in Missiology), Effective orientation of new missionaries in the place of service, Language study, Supervision, Effective administrative support, Sustained and adequate financial support, and Maintenance of spiritual life.

When member care is emphasized, what might be neglected?

We also need to consider that for some organizations, the cause and effect could be reversed, meaning that a high rate of attrition (or in anticipation of such) could be what brings about an extreme commitment to member care. In those cases, the increased care would come as a response to workers leaving the field, and it might take some time for the new and greater devotion to member care to have a positive effect. It’s also possible that, in some cases, the increased proportion of time and money going towards member care is not the result of growth in the number of member-care personnel but rather comes from a decrease in other categories of workers.

The type of member care invested in is also an important factor. When ReMAP II compared preventative care (“strengthening of the missionaries’ personality and spiritual life”) to crisis response and restoration, retention was shown to decrease when too much attention was paid to one over the other. In one subgroup of Old Sending Countries, the best proportion for lowering preventable attrition was 40% preventative care to 60% crisis intervention, while a snapshot of New Sending Country data put the best mix of the two at around half and half.

And if we return to the components making up ReMAP I’s field care and support (listed above), we see that the data show that the presence of all but two of these items correlate with an increase in the preventable attrition rate. Only regular letters or phone calls showed “a clear positive effect,” and on-the-job training showed a “marginal” positive effect. This led Blöcher and Lewis to conclude that

good communication with the missionary may be the single most significant support item in helping lower preventable attrition. It is not likely that the rest of the items in and of themselves actually increase attrition, yet agencies with low attrition rates have invested less into these benefits. This means that support on the field in itself will not keep people in service, unless it has been preceded by careful candidate screening as well as pre-field training and possible other factors.

So what do we do with this information . . . and speculation? First, we shouldn’t forget the correlation between too little member care and higher rates of attrition. But we also can’t ignore the data as member care increases.

Member care is a good thing. Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes. But agencies will need to understand the whys in order to formulate their priorities and policies in this area. And for cross-cultural workers, I would caution against avoiding help for fear that it will do more harm than good. Those who are struggling often tend to be embarrassed by their needs, thinking that they’re at fault and don’t deserve extra attention. Instead, they believe it’s up to them to try harder on their own. This is difficult to figure out when you’re at your weakest and most vulnerable. That’s when it is all the more necessary to have someone skilled, someone trustworthy, someone who can provide empathy and honest feedback to help you see things clearly.

Member care certainly isn’t a cure-all. It has its limitations and, quite possibly, its undesirable effects if relied on too heavily. The solution to problems faced by cross-cultural workers can’t be member care period. It needs to be member care and.

When it comes to member care, what is the best balance, the correct rhythm? That’s something definitely worth looking for.

(Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; Blöcher, “What ReMAP I Said, Did, and Achieved,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, Rob Hay, et al, eds., William Carey, 2007; Blöcher, in “Member Care,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention;   Katie Rowe, “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” A Life Overseas, April 16, 2018)

[photo: “Coffee Beans Falling into a Cup,” by Bryon Lippincott, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Kind of Legacy Will We Leave Behind?

by Beth

We planted a walnut tree in our garden in Central Asia.

As we sat in its meager shade (it’s still a small tree) my husband smiled and said: “Just think, one day our grandchildren will be able to climb this tree and enjoy a view over the whole city!” For a few moments I enjoyed the thought of a huge leafy tree with my grandchildren climbing it and then reality hit. Why did we plant a walnut tree? Our grandchildren will probably never come here for a visit to see it, never mind live in this house!

Why are we investing time and money here when it’s all temporary anyway? Who knows how long we will be allowed to continue living here? And yet God commanded the exiles living in Babylon to plant gardens and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which He carried them into exile (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

When we first left to come to Central Asia, we packed up five suitcases to take with us and then built a shed in my parent’s garden—making sure that it was rain and insect proof—and we stored the rest of our lives in big plastic tubs in that shed. During our second home assignment we once again went through all our precious possessions which were literally being damaged by moth and rust and decided that it would be better for these things to be used rather than grow old waiting in boxes for us to need them someday. What followed were some of the most painful days of my life as we gave away the special gifts we had received at our wedding: our Canadian oak coffee table and so many other treasures that held worth because of the memories stored within them.

Getting rid of our possessions back home and planting trees and living life here has had me mulling over the question: “When we leave Central Asia, what will we leave behind?” We certainly won’t leave behind a shed filled with stuff in somebody’s garden, but what other treasures will we leave?

I love hearing from the local people here about the workers that have gone before us who have now returned to their passport countries. I hear stories like: “She taught me to quilt” or “She gave me this recipe” or “She taught me how to set a table for foreigners” and, of course, the best stories begin: “She taught me about Jesus.” These are the things those who have gone before us have left behind.

What will be left of us after we leave Central Asia? Hopefully there will be people here whose lives have been changed or at least have been affected from having known us and from knowing the One we’ve pointed them to.

And there will be a walnut tree growing in a garden on the outskirts of the city.

Originally published at OM.

Read Beth’s companion piece here.

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Beth is from the global South, and she loves the ocean and cold Christmas dinner on a hot day around the pool. She is married to an adventurer, and they have three wonderfully unique children.

9 Ways MKs Can Navigate Their Grief

by Michèle Phoenix

Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. The answer is simple: they are highly influential emotions experienced by a majority of MKs. A young man named Muki, who recently transitioned back to his passport country, articulated it best:

I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul. I feel like grief has become my love language.

I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see here) and on their relationships (see here). But this article is not a recipe for avoiding grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer cure, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of grief that understanding and growth reside.

So this article is not about circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. It’s about managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.

 

A note for non-MKs:
Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process.

 

A note for MKs:
We’re too often in a hurry to put the Hard behind us so we can get to those more “acceptable” stages of grief, praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.

Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find strategies to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase.

When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.

 

1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.

The truth is that what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world—the intimate home—we’ve lost. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.

 

2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.

When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.

Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.

 

3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.

What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” Picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting lightly on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I can see it. I can hear its whisper. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.

Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.

Note: there may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved” and needs to be addressed immediately. That can sometimes be part of the grief journey too.

 

4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we don’t learn to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.

It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of the person we’re inviting into our sadness. That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.

There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.

Consider professional help as well. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?

Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate him/herself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.

That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.

 

5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.

God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms. His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.

If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.

There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for. He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.

Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.

 

6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.

You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.

It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.

 

7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.

Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.

One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.

 

8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.

The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.

Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.

 

9. Persist.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.

Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that healing is possible and real.

As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.

You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.

Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.

Originally published here.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Thank You For Hosting My Niece

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter two years ago. I have another letter I want to write, but it will make more sense if we read and dissect this letter this month and next month I’ll write the follow-up. No surprise, I have many thoughts to share. HA, but instead of rushing to share them, they will make more sense if we revisit this first letter and discuss it in the comments. Next one will build on these thoughts. I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying! With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

I write this letter to you with egg on my face. Many moons ago I spent a summer in China teaching English for six weeks to English teachers from around Anhui Province. Because it was “long enough to form meaningful relationships,” I maintained an interiorly superior attitude that many one- or two-week summer trips were a waste of time.

At least for us on the field. After I quit my job, packed two suitcases, and moved to China, I was now one of you. My belief that week-long trips were meaningful and useful for those who went on them, but not us, only solidified. I wasn’t like “them,” I really got to know the culture. I didn’t just swoop in and out. I “made a real difference” (even now I roll my eyes at myself. Pride is so ugly). I’d join in the discussion about whether short trips were worth all the time, money, and effort that went into them. Was any real difference being made?

Oh knowing everything can be such a burden, can’t it?

Those questions? They are good questions. They should be asked. We should wrestle with them. But what God has shown me this summer is that the boundary lines of my understanding are significantly smaller than I believe them to be.

Put another way? I think I know more than I do.

And maybe you do too.

If you host summer teams, this is a huge thank you card to you. If I could hire a sky writer? I would. I would fly over you and write, “Thank you! You have no idea what a difference you have made.” Well, maybe all I would actually write in the sky is “Thank You!” But what I mean is, “You have no idea what a difference you have made.”

I have nieces that range in age from 9 to 16. The older ones are starting to go on summer trips. Their church begins the process with trips in town, and then the next summer trips within the US, and then international trips.

I have watched how their church takes months to prepare the participants. How they are intentional about serving instead of having “cool experiences.” How they are joining in the Great Commission.

This was our first summer as a family to have a girl go on an international trip. (Side note, if it has not happened in your family yet, it is a little weird when you are suddenly not the one going on that trip. When you are not the one sharing stories and prayer requests.)

I know, because I’ve been in your shoes, how much work it is to prepare for a team to come in. Even a team who is doing work you desperately need done. There are moments you wonder if it is worth it. There are moments you are sure it is not.

What you might not see, what I had not seen before, was all of the preparation. The preparation of supplies for parties and clubs. The preparation of their hearts. The cultural information they are learning. The ways that those who are coming to you truly want to serve. They want to help you with your calling. They want to work.

What I also had never seen before is that, especially for teen and college kids, you are not just getting one person, you are getting a herd of people. You only saw my niece, but her parents, aunts, grandma, friends, and especially her three younger sisters are now invested in your ministry.

She came home changed.

She knows your name, dear missionary. She has shared the stories you told. Our family now agonizes that children in your village have permanent brain damage because Tylenol isn’t available when they get a fever. The children that she spent a week feeding, playing with, and singing to? We know their names. A place on the globe, the place that is dear to you, is now dear to us.

I understand that this letter is still rather focused on the difference this trip made for her. It is rather “sent one” focused.

I guess what I am trying to say, is thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to her. For sharing your story for the umpteenth time. For putting up with teens who refused to eat the food you worked so hard to provide, eating instead another granola bar (not my niece, but she shared stories of her teammates too!).

Before this summer, I only saw these trips through the lens of how much work they were for me on the field. What I didn’t grasp was how, like the loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed the masses, summer trips can feed the Great Commission. They can feed God’s heart for his people. They feed future generations of missions. That one week will ripple out through the years in ways you and I can’t imagine.

You might not remember my niece’s name because you will see several trips this summer. She’s a quiet girl. She’s the one who will hold the disabled four-year-old for hours and sing to them. She’s the one who now sees the value of learning the language because the quiet cook on your property? She wishes she could have talked to her.

She came home changed by the poverty she saw. She returned and the word she used more than another other to describe the people she served? Joy. She saw how God is not White and American and Well-educated. When the cook started to sing How Great Thou Art in your language and my niece sang it in English? She will carry that for the rest of her days.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. God took the diamond of summer trips and tilted it so I saw more of its beauty than I have before.

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

P.S. I still have opinions about short term trips. But they are a bit fuzzier than before. My overwhelming sense that I really knew what was the right way to “do missions” has been, um, challenged. Love will do that, won’t it? Slow me down enough to keep me really asking the questions and not just spouting off the same answers I have for years. I’m sorry if this letter is a bit all over the place. I’ve reworked it and reworked it. But I feel all over the place, so how can my words not be as well?

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (this is not an ex-patriot or an ex-pat or an ex-patriate). A few years ago an article called this into question, and the conversation is ongoing. The Guardian published Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? I regularly hear from people concerned that I call myself an expatriate. I needed to dig into this.

Is the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated it and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? There are two levels (at least) to this discussion: definitional and experiential.

According to Meriam-Webster:

  • the word Expatriate is a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land.”
  • the word Immigrant is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence.”

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction. Immigrants have an intention to stay, for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

According to Google, an expat is someone residing outside their native/passport country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

That is the dictionary discussion and by definition, I’m an expatirate. What about our experiences?

The most diverse place I know well is the protestant church I attend. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of all of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. I never thought of any of us, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passports and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

But that is just my experience and in different parts of the world, this is very different. Hana Omar commented on my FB page that in Europe there seems to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And, there are related words, much more racially charged, like migrant worker, a person who is actually an expat. Or in other places the term Foreign Domestic Workers is used for people who are also technically expatriates.

Both expatriate and immigrant are beautiful words and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts. And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Three things. One, I am an expatriate, not an immigrant. Two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. Listen, ask questions, hear where they came from and where they are going and don’t jump to conclusions. Three, the ability to use and choose this term is evidence of my privilege and not all expatriates have that ability, being labeled what others perceive them as, often solely on account of skin color. This is deeply problematic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant?

What would you suggest as a new term?

An Open Letter to My Younger Missionary Mom Self

Dear One,

I want to reach my arms across time and gently caress your shoulders. I’ll lift your head to look in my eyes and say, ‘these shoulders were not meant to carry the weight of the world.’ The hands of the God who treasures you were. You feel responsible for everything and everyone. You feel the pressure to feed and clothe and keep smiles on all your people. And yes, it seems it’s up to you to keep them all alive. You want to be the perfect wife—supporting your husband in every way, while somehow finding time to enter the ministry. At any moment, if you let go of all you do as the barometer, the anchor, of the home, you are sure it will fall apart. But, dear one, the aching heart of God is longing for you to let go, because He has something beautiful for you. He has JOY for you. Yet you cannot receive that joy when you are carrying so much else. So, come weary one and take the easy yoke and light burden Jesus is offering with those wide-open arms.

It’s hard to believe, but nothing you do is insignificant. In those months right after you arrive, when you are trying to acclimate, learn the language, become re-acquainted with public transportation, settle in AND you are pregnant, you are incredibly significant. And a few months later, when the baby comes, and you can’t do much of anything but take care of this little life, you are so significant. You don’t need to be worrying about learning the language, driving, discipling, or cooking. You just need to be with your baby and your other children, and yes, your hubby too. Let your family cocoon for a while. I promise you will gain the strength needed to tackle anything that comes—one thing at a time. Your every breath is truly significant. So take some deep ones and enjoy the simple things.

I know. You are a missionary in another culture, so you want to immerse fully. This is important. But it’s okay to lean on the Ex-pat community. Dig deep into life-giving relationships there. Pray and ask the Lord for just what you need as you acclimate to life. He will show you. Trust yourself. If it’s in you to learn the language, you will. Don’t worry that relationships with English speakers will keep you from this. They are likely on the same journey, and you can encourage one another. Just be free to find the relationships you need. You are building for a lifetime, not a year or two where you try to cram in all your learning. So, give yourself tons of grace as you take it all one step at a time.

Gather morsels of wisdom wherever you can. Learn from everyone about everything in life. Interview them. Keep a journal of notes so you don’t forget. Sometimes people don’t remember what it’s like to be new. Don’t let this discourage you. Seek out a mentor and, when you find one, don’t let her go. If at first you struggle to find someone, know that many have been there. Pray and don’t lose heart. She will be found and has much to teach you. She’s got big things for you, like when she wanted to quit and how she worked through this. And she knows little things too–like how when you travel you can never have enough of those flimsy grocery store bags which you never want unless you are on the road. Your life is about the big and the little things. And God has made you to learn from others.

You are the quintessential seed-planter. You are sowing unto a great harvest, one day. That day may not be until Heaven, so don’t grow weary in doing well. As you build relationships with nationals, enjoy the smiles of the flower lady while you learn how to understand ‘your children are adorable.’ And you can reply, ‘thank you so much.’ When you ask the butcher ‘how is your family?’ after you have mastered ‘one pound of ground beef, please,’ this is seed-planting. Then you ride the bus as a family and you befriend the student who gave up her seat for your kids–this is a significant thing. And your kids? Every moment holds the weight of glory. Each time you sit down on the hardwood floor to play Legos or Polly Pockets is the thing which cannot be taken away from you. And the bedtime stories? Priceless. The tiny prayers and the tender holds all form an embrace of security which will grow your children strong.

It can be so hard to connect with the Lord. Life is full and there’s so much to do and learn. But you must find a favorite spot to get away and be with God. Look for a café, or park bench, or fountain, or walking path. Schedule time to go and be away with Jesus. It can all get so confusing. You’ve worked so hard to get to your overseas home. So, of course, you need to do the missionary work of settling in, and developing ministry through church and home. But the full truth is God is more concerned with you, your heart, than anything you will ever do for Him. He has led you halfway around the world to bring you Home. Home to His heart. The God of the Universe is full-on pursuing you. So, don’t let the overwhelming busyness and awkwardness of your missionary life distract you from what’s most important. Please dear one, I don’t say this to condemn you, but to invite you to the luxurious gift of time in His presence. I promise you won’t regret it.

Let go of your fears. God has you in His hands. He is the author of your story and the stories of everyone in your family. You can send your mind into an anxiety-laced swirl thinking about what could happen. Just say ‘no’ to this. You may do it a thousand times a day, but the answer is always the same. Come what may, you will be an overcomer. And dear one, please know, if your great fear of not being able to make it, and for some reason having to return home, comes true, it is ok. Yes, it is ok. Because your life is a golden thread of redemption. There is nothing which could happen that He won’t make completely new and cause to shine brighter and brighter until the full light of day. This is the God He is and the One you want your life to glorify, no matter what.

In the end I want to pour out my heart to you, because you are simply amazing. You have no idea how exquisitely beautiful, truly capable, utterly courageous and fully powerful you are. You doubt yourself, your worth, so much. It breaks my heart and God’s heart. Receive the love which gave up all its heavenly grandeur to become low and so bring you high to where He now reigns. He has placed His life in you. You shine forth His beauty and it is glorious. You are glorious, a wonder who has laid down her life to follow Him. He sees every bit of who you are and declares it gorgeous. You are precious in His eyes and honored and He loves you. He longs to wrap you in the tenderest of embraces. Let Him, dear one.

All my love,

Your Older Self

Even Jesus had a boat.

“Ok, this is what life is like there. You can’t change all the stuff happening around you. So what can you change to help you continue living there?” asked my counselor friend.

I just finished unloading a story about breaking up a racially motivated street fight and chasing my knife wielding friend down the street begging him not to stab anyone. Life was intense and for several years we’d simply been tumbling from one crisis right into the next. I developed a constant twitch in my left eye, would startle at loud noises or if someone came up unexpectedly behind me, and generally lived in a state of high alert. I could not shut off the adrenaline.

No amount of conviction and resolve to stay overseas would save me from the mental, emotional, and health breakdown I was heading for. We needed change, and fast.

Until that conversation, it hadn’t dawned on me that there were things I could change. Wasn’t this just how mission life goes? If I can’t hack it, should I really be here? This is really stupid thinking.

These days we are spending more and taking more breaks than I initially thought we would need. Like everything else, how to live well also needed reframing when we moved overseas.

As the reframing of living well began to take place, doubts and unease were constant. Before coming overseas I filled my mind with stories of missionaries who faced unfathomable suffering and counted it as nothing in the face of what Jesus had done for them. Who was I to ask for relief? Wouldn’t God ultimately work everything together for his good? Wasn’t the sacrifice worth it? Anyway, when I wrote publicly the stories of what we faced I was only ever encouraged to press on. You’re so inspiring! God is using you! Keep your eyes on Christ!

One evening I came to Mark 3:9 in my bible reading:

And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him…

In the margin of my bible I wrote, “Sometimes even Jesus needed to set boundaries in ministry. He had a boat! What do I need?”

Many people told me, “Jesus retreated to the mountain to pray.” as if all I really needed was a better quality quiet time. But up to that point, no amount bible reading and prayer changed the physical signs of stress in my body. How could it? I needed a boat, just like Jesus did. I needed a real, physical place where I could be protected from a very real, physical crushing.

My boat turned out to be a motorbike. Just as Jesus stepped into the boat to continue ministering without being crushed by the crowds, buying a motorbike allowed me to move through and around town without harassment.

 In the years since, we’ve made other changes as well. The stress in our surroundings remains at just the same high level, but we’ve moored other boats along the way. Well placed respites to protect us from being crushed.

The streets are still just as crazy as ever. Only a couple of days ago I pulled my son and daughter close to avoid getting caught in a fight between a mentally ill man stealing breakfast from a cart and the scissors armed cook jabbing at his head. “Come on, let’s go.” I said to the kids and we quickly got on the motorbike and rode away.

This is what a well-placed boat will do. It doesn’t change the difficulties of what we may encounter, but a good boat does keep us from being crushed- in this case a crushing likely from being followed, grabbed, and harassed by a mentally ill man who at some point would probably attempt to steal my bag as well.  

We are not wimps. We are not frivolous with money. We’re in this thing for the long haul. We want to stay and stay well. We just need a boat to do it.

4 Ways to Give Yourself Grace During Re-Entry

by Bernie Anderson

White Subarus and silver Toyotas back out of their respective driveways, plodding their way to respective workplace destinations. I don’t know where. Department stores, manufacturing plants, and office buildings with cubicles.  

I wonder how many of these folks love what they do?

That could be me.

I sit on the borrowed front porch of a friend’s house in suburbia and cry.

My life was college students and events in a country that was not America. Open mic nights with long conversations into the evening about Jesus and music and work and life. Bible studies and food and college kids in my living room, singing songs, laughing, sometimes crying, and always eating. People who were so integrated into our lives they’d pretty much become family.

But no more. That life is now 8000 miles away.

Suburban America is my home again for the first time in nearly a decade. And it’s weird. I don’t like it.

I don’t have a job. I don’t have a place to live. I don’t have a ministry. I don’t have any local friends. Most significantly, I don’t even know who I am right now.

And now my coffee’s cold.

Sure. I know I’m a child of God. My identity is in Christ. I am accepted in the Beloved. But, honestly — that all feels like “blah, blah, blah” on this particular morning, sitting with cold coffee on a borrowed front porch.

We missionaries and ministry-types should always seek our identity in Christ and not our work. We know this. Most of us would even proclaim it from a pulpit when things are going well.  

But it’s super easy for missionaries and ministry-types to cross a line. When you’re off the field or you no longer have the ministry you’ve given so much to, sometimes you don’t know who you are anymore. There’s loss. There’s a hole that used to be full of activity. Activity that was not just busy, unimportant, and impotent things. These were vital activities. World-changing, life-changing, eternal things.  

But it’s gone now.

For missionary me, it’s 8000 miles away. And I am in suburbia with front porches and Subarus and Walmarts and cold coffee.

This was one of the lowest moments of my life.  

When coming off the field, these are the realities many face, with any honest reflection. So much of my identity was tied to that work and to that place. It’s not easy to settle back into the homeland.

Coming home is a process that’s longer than an airplane ride. A process that takes time. Whether you realize it or not, you’re grieving. I was experiencing grief that morning on the borrowed front porch. It was my morning of mourning. I was grieving a significant loss. And grief needs time.  I’m looking at that moment five years later, and it still makes me sad.

Taking on another country as your home changes you. You will not return to your passport country the same person.

Grace and time are keys. Be generous with yourself and your time. Reflect much on the generous grace of God.

Here are four ways to give yourself grace during the transition.

 

1. It’s okay to not be okay
This will be your reality for a while. People will ask how you’re doing, and you’ll say, “fine.”  And that may very well be a lie. It’s okay to not be “fine.” You’re going to have a lot of conflicting emotions. There will be the joy of reunion and the pain of loss all mixed in the same emotional smoothie bowl. You’ll be happy to see folks you love. You’ll also miss a lot of people, places, and memories from your adopted home. You have two homes now. Most people don’t get that. You’re starting all over again, with little understanding of what’s ahead.

Know this will pass. You’re not going to stay in the state of discombobulation forever.

But for this time, it’s not only okay — it’s essential.

 

2. It’s okay to be the conversation dropout sometimes.
For a significant season, I felt like I needed to mention our old home in almost every conversation.  I’m confident it was annoying.

But it was the only thing I knew how to talk about.

Every other conversation was about jobs and yard work and politics and cheeseburgers and all things America. I didn’t know how to enter into those conversations with any sort of knowledge or enthusiasm.  

You have to look for common ground. And for a time you will find very little of that. Give it time. This will pass, as well.

In the meantime, learn to listen well. Take on the job of cultural assimilation using the same intention and the same tools you did when you landed in your field of service. It doesn’t fix your heart. But it helps.

 

3. It’s okay to take a transitory position.
Jobs are abundant in America right now. Jobs that are as satisfying as the one you just left? Probably not. My second language is proprietary to a single part of the world. It’s useless in America. Entering the job market, I assumed my marketable skills were minimal or maybe non-existent. I didn’t want to be a “missions pastor.” My assumption was a future in manual labor or the service industry.

Don’t listen to the lie that you “don’t have marketable skills.” Because of your unique overseas experience, there are important things that only you can do. The ability to navigate cross-culturally requires incredibly valuable soft skills that employers pay a lot of money for. But, you may have to take a transitory job to figure out what those skills are for you.

I threw my resume at the wall like so much spaghetti and took what stuck. I landed a fund-raising position with an international non-profit and learned how to function in the American workplace again. I knew it wasn’t going to be my gig from now until I retire or die. But it was a gig from God. I learned. I grew. And, eventually, I moved on.

 

4. It’s good to get help.
I had a third-party coach who helped me through this transition. Having another voice and another set of eyes is critical and (at least in my opinion) non-negotiable. Making this transition on your own is not healthy. Check with your organization to see if they will help pay for a development coach who will assist you through this process. This person can make all of the difference.

It did for me.

Time is key. Leaving the field is not just leaving a job. It’s leaving a life. Transition off the field is as life-altering as moving to the field. Be ready for this.  

My moment with cold coffee on a borrowed front porch happened five years ago. Time has passed. I’m okay. There will always be residual scar tissue. But grace (with time) does heal all wounds.

So get ready to embrace the discomfort and swim in the beauty of the grace of God. Give yourself time and space to land.

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Bernie and Renee’ just celebrated their 30th year of marriage while residing in Greenville, SC. Their two adult children launched while the whole family resided in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Currently, they serve as the regional leadership couple for Southeast Asia at New International. Bernie is a leadership and non-profit coach and consultant who writes and publishes daily at bernieanderson.com/blog.

What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

Badshahi_Mosque_July_1_2005_pic32_by_Ali_Imran_(1)

By Robynn Bliss & Marilyn Gardner

For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan ended on Monday night. Here in Kurdistan the excitement as the month ended was palpable. Loud chanting at 4:30 in the morning from the mosque next door marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the feast. The piece below was written seven years ago, but in an age where fear rules and friendship is held back for fear of the one who is other, it feels important to republish it.

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As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations that have been going on around the world, our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

  • At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.
  • We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.
  • We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.
  • We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had  birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.
  • We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.
  • We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.
  • We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.
  • We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.
  • We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.
  • We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.
  • We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion.  We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend.  They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!
  • We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste of the Eid celebrations we enjoyed for so many years.  It is the journey of going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of color, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamun. It is color-infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon; bread normally made on a flat dry pan now fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate and invited us into their celebrations. May we do the same during our joyous feasts on Easter and Christmas.

Through the richness of our lives and watching life unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast, we learned more of the creative mystery of the God we continue to love and serve. 

This post was first published by Robynn Bliss and Marilyn Gardner on Communicating Across Boundaries.

God Uses Your Differences

by Ava

“If you go to there, you’ll be the first brown missionary they’ve ever seen,” warned one missionary to me as I prepared to serve God in South Asia. I laughed at those words, not knowing how much they would affect my daily life when I moved to Asia in January 2017.  Being of African descent is already a huge rarity in the “missionary world” and even more so being a Caribbean. I quite frequently hear statements and questions such as:

“You’re from the Caribbean? Is that in Africa?”

“Trinidad? Ahhh… you’re from Canada!”

“Are you from America?”

“I’ve never heard of the Caribbean.”

“You said you’re from the West Indies? Yes, I know the West Indies cricket team.”

Based on past experiences, I’ve learnt that it’s quite common for people from the eastern part of the world to know little, if anything, about the Caribbean. Maybe it’s because they haven’t met many people from that side of the world, or maybe our group of islands are too small and far away to commit to memory. Either way, my nationality is unknown in South Asia, but very known by God as He uses it in creative ways for His glory.

Once I get past the “this is where my country is located” explanation, the next major topic of discussion is my tightly curled, very thick hair, and how my dark skin and physical features are nothing like they’ve seen before.  The hair comments usually go like this:

“Your hair is so beautiful. Is it yours?”

“Which beauty shop did you go to get your hair so curly? It can’t be natural.”

“That’s not her hair. It’s a hat.”

“Can I touch your hair? It looks like a flower.”

“Look at her hair, it’s so short, but so big.”

“If you (insert remedy here), you will get very long and straight hair like mine.”

At first, these encounters were very awkward and uncomfortable for me. Many times, people would touch my hair without asking or try to inspect every curl. Though it was surprising for me, I knew that everything they did was out of curiosity and innocent interest. Every day I was the centre of attention on buses, the streets and almost everywhere I went. As people scanned me up and down, their eyes usually stuck on my hair. This is very funny for me because in the Caribbean and other western countries, my hair is quite normal and doesn’t have much of the “superstar” or “so beautiful” impact like in Asia. It took me awhile to figure out how to explain my physical features and passport country to others because I had never had to explain them before.

Over time, as I became comfortable with the discomfort, I enjoyed explaining my hair to people and how far away my home country is from theirs. I started using the stares and shy smiles as an opportunity to share the Gospel and build relationships. I sit sometimes for one or two hours, at first explaining who I am, before putting the spotlight on God and His amazing grace. Usually people here love hearing about foreign cultures and people, so it’s an easy open door to intentionally know and love them.

I thank God that though we are all different ethnicities and nationalities He uses it all for His glory if we allow Him to. When we chose to put the focus on Him we move away from asking, “Why me?” to asking, “Can you please use me more?” Since I started serving God in a different culture I have learnt that every situation: good, bad or indifferent, is for His glory.

Originally published at OM; reprinted with permission

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Ava, from the Caribbean, hates to write, but loves having written; therefore she is compelled to write and be God’s voice of power through the written word. She loves to plan for the future, while reminiscing on the past, over a hot cup of tea and a delicious meal.

Selfies and the Short Term Mission Trip

by Simon

Is it possible that our Christian service can become, albeit inadvertently, about us, rather than for others? In an era where selfies–often polished to perfection–rule the roost, is our identity rooted in our selves or still immersed in Christ?

How do we avoid the pitfall of making it about us rather than others?

On a recent visit to a rural outpost, I was welcomed to a set of new rules before I even finished exchanging greetings with the host:

“You are no longer permitted to take pictures in this village,” said our host. “You can take pictures of yourselves but not of the locals.”

As someone involved in a ministry that mobilises church leaders for mission, we often take people on exposure trips to various locations. While we do our best to orient and caution people against certain actions, some end up doing it anyway.

On this visit, an allegation was made that previous visitors had profited off pictures depicting the plight of the poor villagers. So “no more pictures” became a solution.

As an outreach team, we agonised over this challenge, but in the end, decided to obey the authorities and go through our business with great meekness. This we did as a sign of respect for the community leaders; and besides, we didn’t want to create a doorway to those who may want to oppose our work. We could have done it anyway, but the work of ministry regularly requires us to put the message before the messenger. In this regard, the words of John the Baptist are rather informative: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

However, we didn’t foresee that some among us would naturally turn to selfies. In fact, the taking of selfies and the request among outreach team members to have one take a picture of another began trending two new words: “Selfiest” and “Selfieds” were invented and introduced into the dictionaries right there in the middle of the village.

“Selfiests” were a category of outreach participants who constantly took pictures of themselves, usually to upload to their social media profiles.

“Selfieds” were people who constantly let others take their pictures for the same or other purposes.

But how do we share the Gospel with people who have, by now, condemned us by questioning our motivation and actions?

Jesus demonstrated that His calling consisted of others, and He ultimately died because He dared to defy religious and political powers as He stood up for others. His preaching centred on the Kingdom of God, rather than Him projecting himself.

We are all called to follow and emulate His example, and it is in keeping with His character and commands that we dedicate our lives to serving in missions. Yet, sometimes our actions can become an offence and an obstacle unto those we want to outreach and serve.

I’m not against taking selfies or normal pictures. If anything, my role as a communications officer is precisely to do the same. But in this case, in the eyes of the ministered, it was perceived to be the main reason why we brought teams in this village.

Perhaps the lesson to learn is, no matter what form our ministry roles take, we need to put Christ in the centre. Our identities are in Jesus, and as Christians, we must desire above all that God’s name–and not our own–is heralded.

After all, He must increase, and we must decrease.

Originally printed at OM; reprinted with permission.

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Simon is a Zimbabwean journalist who is passionate about using research, media, and testimonies to mobilise, excite, and challenge others to pray and get involved in world missions. He serves as OM Zimbabwe’s Media and Communications Officer.