Plans Unfurled, Change the World: A Poem for Cross-Cultural Workers

sandals on pavement

My son asked for a poem for Christmas, so I wrote one for him, on the theme of travel. That was fun, so I thought I’d try it again, this time on working cross culturally. Here it is—

Hear the call
Like St. Paul?
Kneel to pray
Lots to say
Plans unfurled
Change the world!
Ready, set
Not quite yet
Funds to raise
Counting days
Contacts made
Some unswayed
Goal in sight
Pay for flight
Say goodbye
You can cry
Made it there
People stare
Life abroad
Food seems odd
Language class
No free pass
Verbs agree?
“I drinks tea”
Culture, too
So much new
See the needs
Plant some seeds
Do your part
It’s a start
New friends there
Lives to share
Street-side meals
Sidewalk deals
Furlough trips
Travel tips
Team will grow
Ebb and flow
Who will stay?
Hard to say
Who will go?
Hard to know
Wonder who
Maybe you?
Say goodbye
You can cry

[photo: “Sandles,” by midnightcomm, used under a Creative Commons license]

10 Ideas for Your Professional Development

When I was a freshman in college, my university had the in-coming students come a week early for orientation. During that week I attended a campus ministry get-to-know-you event. From the outside there was nothing overtly special about it: picnic in a public park.

But did I mention I was in COLLEGE. I was a COLLEGE student. I was practically an ADULT.

(Did I also mention I chose an out-of-state school and I knew no one in the state. I was awash in new relationships and trying to be cool enough to make friends and the humidity was killing me.)

That picnic is one of my vivid memories. I can remember the covering of the picnic area. I remember how I felt. I remember the cute boy I hoped I’d get to know. But what I remember most is the message the campus minister gave.

He quoted Luke 2:52. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and found favor with man and God. As freshman, Mike encouraged us to be like Jesus who valued growing intellectually, physically, and relationally—with people and God. The seed of intentionality was planted in me.

Fast-forward about ten years when I was in my mid-to-late twenties. I had started my career as a teacher and was on a professional track when I moved overseas for a two-year commitment.

It was assumed (by me, I admit) that just going overseas to teach was professionally enhancing. It was a different era, so I don’t say this with any blame, but the idea of professional development wasn’t a major focus.

But then two years turned into three and five and eight and even I had to admit it looked like a “career.” (Though the free spirit in me resisted this label like I was being chased by an ax murderer.)

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and found favor with man and God.

I am so grateful for A Life Overseas and the articles and comments related to:

  • Taking care of our bodies—the role and importance of food, sleep, exercise, and physical self-care.
  • Taking care of our relationships—with spouses, local friends, children, teammates, and family back home.
  • Taking care of our relationship—with God and tending to our souls.

Here’s the pitfall we can inadvertently create: just by being overseas we are working in “interesting locations” that will professionally enhance us. For a season it is true, but what happens when it turns into a, um, career.

Three points I want to make before moving on:

1. Every adult on the field is a professional. A profession is what you invest the lion’s share of your “work” time and effort into. Let’s not confuse location (inside versus outside of the home) with professional/non-professional in this post and where I want this discussion to go.

2. Many organizations will invest in the professional development of those in public leadership.

3. Every adult on the field needs professional development.


Because I had started off in a professional environment that built professional development into the system, I was used to taking professional development cues from the system. But most agencies or those serving independently do not have a strong professional development track for non-senior level leaders. This is said, not with blame, but neutrally like “the sky is above us.” So what are we to do?

Here are three principles when it comes to professional development:

1. We are to value professional development for ourselves, not expect our organization to provide it for us. How much do you budget per month or annually for professional development? If the answer is “zero,” start to budget a small amount. Be willing to spend time, money, and effort.

2. We need to broaden the idea of professional development. Most of us who live, work, and serve overseas are multi-professional people. We might have our main profession, be that mothering, educating, translating, book keeping, ITing, or any other ways we work. But we also have to be able to communicate our work, improve our people skills, and grow in our understanding of how to use technology.

3. We can view professional development as life-long. You may be with your organization for two years, twenty, or forty, but you are going to be with yourself longer than that. Keep growing.

I was telling a friend yesterday about this post and she asked me, “What about millenials?” Her question confused me. She clarified, “Do you really think millenials will be willing to invest money in this area?”

Hello millenials, I know you’re reading this! I love millenials and without hesitation, I answered, “I do. From my experience, they are hungry to grow. They are open to input.”

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and found favor with man and God.

Professional development is not about a stage of life but a mindset, a willingness to grow, and can take on many faces. Here are ten ideas to professionally develop on the field:

  1. Attend a professional conference.
  2. Read a book a month, a quarter, or a year with an eye for professional development. Yesterday I bought a book about mentoring.
  3. Invest in tools to support your work—cooking is not my part of my profession, it is part of my survival. If you compared my kitchen to others, you could easily see who is professional and who isn’t.
  4. Invest in skills to support your work. Need better photos for your blog or newsletters? Take an online course. Need to improve on public speaking? You can work on that too. Global Trellis offers a new workshop on the first of every month. See this month’s here.
  5. Listen to podcasts. Moms this one is for you. Leader, I love this one. Want to communicate your message better? Listen to this series.
  6. Join or form a private Facebook group — and then participate!
  7. Write down five areas you want to grow in. Find someone you admire for each area and learn from them.
  8. Watch a movie—in part for entertainment—but with an eye for a specific area such as fostering a team, leadership, character development, or perseverance.
  9. Do research—search google, look on pinterest, watch TED talks
  10. View yourself as a multi-professional person.

Lest this post sounds like one big “Work harder, work faster, work is awesome!!!” post, let’s remember where it started. At a picnic. With friends. Having fun.

I write to you what I wish had been said to me many years ago: “You can be responsible for your professional development. Living overseas doesn’t mean this is an area you have to count as part of the cost. Like Jesus, you can grow in wisdom and stature and find favor with man and God. Keep growing. Life is hard. Invest in people. Invest in your profession. Have fun. Jesus delights in you. His delight will never wane. Never. ”

Share in the comments what you do for professional development. Which one of these ideas are you going to try this week?

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

New data confirms that team conflict is one of the primary factors in missionary attrition

by Andrea Sears

Finally, what is certainly the longest of the survey report sections is finished: team factors. (You can explore other results from the missionary attrition survey here, here, and here.) These results confirmed that team conflict is a primary factor for attrition, but it is not the primary factor.

It is important to note that no single agency represented more than 7% of the total sample. 221 mission or sending agencies were represented. 68% of those had only one participant in the study, 27% had 2-9 participants in the study, and only 5% had more than 10 participants in the study. This shows that the survey results represent a broad sample of missionaries with a diverse representation of agencies, and that the sampling from any given agency did not disproportionately influence the results. 

This section of the report measured responses to the following statements:

  • My missionary term was up.
  • There was a conflict on the team.
  • There was a scandal on the team.
  • I struggled to understand my role on the team.
  • I did not have a team.
  • I struggled to balance my role(s) as a spouse/parent with ministry expectations.
  • As a woman, I felt marginalized or devalued, or that men were given more opportunities to lead/contribute.
  • I had insufficient local supervision/accountability.
  • I had too much local supervision/accountability.
  • I received too little missionary care.
  • I did not feel at liberty to pursue my passion and call within the team/agency that I was a part of.
  • I disconnected with the vision of the mission.
  • I had too little administrative support from my home base.
  • I felt that some of my team members/leaders lacked integrity.
  • It was time for me to retire.

Past studies have indicated that conflict with other missionaries has been a frequent or predominant reason for attrition. We wanted to dig into this issue and try to find some clues about the reasons that conflict occurs. We also analyzed the responses of younger missionaries as a subset to see if generational differences exist in expectations about how a team should work.

The strongest factors explored in this section are seen in the areas of team conflict, role confusion, the lack of missionary care, feeling restricted in the pursuit of one’s passion/call, and feeling that other team members lacked integrity. While team conflict does feature in the top factors, it is not THE strongest factor. It is merely on par with the other three top factors in this section. And while many people do leave the field because their term was officially up, there are typically other reasons in the background that explain why they aren’t doing another term, and those are revealed in the strength of their survey responses to certain factors.

We also collected open comments on the following questions:

  • If there was conflict on your team and you feel comfortable sharing, what do you think was the most frequent cause of the conflict?
  • If you are a woman and you felt marginalized or that men were given more opportunities than you, in what ways did you experience this?

Issues that people believed caused conflict on their team tended to fall into 5 general categories: personal sin and dysfunction, poor leadership, differing boundaries, poor communication, and disagreements about how resources should be obtained/used.

Women shared concerns about: 

  • being explicitly excluded from ministry roles, 
  • having to balance full responsibility for the family with a ministry role, 
  • local cultural limitations on women’s roles and ministry engagement, 
  • policies and practices that favor men (such as men not being willing to work with closely with women, or not allowing men to work less than full-time so that their wives can also have a ministry), 
  • being assigned to stereotypically “female” roles (like childcare, hospitality/event management, or administrative work), 
  • being excluded from communications and meeting invitations, 
  • their opinions and roles treated as “less than” in comparison to male counterparts, 
  • being scrutinized more than male counterparts, 
  • being excluded from leadership, and
  • being openly belittled or patronized by male leadership. 

Clearly, there are important lessons for us to learn about caring for missionaries in extremely vulnerable and high-pressured life situations, preventing and navigating conflict well, and better including the 2/3 of our missions workforce who are women.

To learn more and read the full 26-page report, check out this page.

More resources about team conflict:

Power or concerns: Contrasting perspectives on missionary conflict

Let’s Get Real About Missionary Team Chemistry

Humility: The Remedy for Mission Team Conflict

More resources about gender and missions:

The Gender Divide in Missions

Women in Missions: Facing the 21st Century

Why Are Women More Eager Missionaries?


Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

The International Traveler in the Domestic Terminal

*a version of this was first published at Babble, in 2014.

When you are the international traveler in the domestic terminal, you look and smell really bad. Everyone else has just come from home or one other connection. You left home twenty-five hours ago and have already endured three or four airports.

Your kids are screaming or quietly sobbing or simply babbling nonsense. They are laying on the floor, sleeping, and drooling. Or they cheer when you pass McDonalds.

You have no shame. You brush your teeth and do your makeup (if you have the energy) and change clothes in the bathroom. You walk like you’re drunk – swerving as the onslaught of lights beckon and disorient you, as utter exhaustion and instant sensory overload makes your knees buckle. 

You start to cry when it is time to board and they change your gate. It is just the next gate over but at this point, even that is asking just a little too much.

You keep saying biyo or de l’eau when you want water and you notice people look at you funny when you say, “No ice.”

You are dizzy from the overstimulation of understanding the news, the airport announcements, and all the conversations going on around you. You can’t understand, can’t focus, when the flight attendants directly address you even though she is speaking your native language because you weren’t expecting that.

Your kids don’t know what they are supposed to do with that plastic sheet on the toilet seat in the bathroom. Your youngest stops at every single drinking fountain and uses both the short one and the tall one.

You try to pay for a Starbucks lemon poppyseed bread to share with the whole family and can’t find any American coins. You use your credit card because in this country, they accept credit cards! When you say that out loud, the cashier stares at you blankly.

When you eat the lemon poppyseed bread, you find that it tastes like chemicals and is way too sweet. You go to throw it away.

But then you find yourself standing in front of the six different trash bins, confused. You read all the signs on all the bins because who knew there were so many ways to throw things away? What if the thing you want to throw away is a combo product? Even throwing things away becomes stressful. You don’t want someone to snap a photo of you throwing a plastic thing into the paper bin. What if they post it on Instagram and you get social media shamed for destroying the planet? Come to think of it you also used a straw. And you’re flying in a plane. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Your eyes are red and puffy and for crying out loud, the flight you are about to board is just flying from Chicago to Minneapolis. You are in the domestic terminal. Come on, international traveler, pull it together.

You have a headache from the onslaught of culture shock and just want a deep breath of fresh air. Soon. Soon. Unless you’re delayed.

Someone talks about flying from California and mentions the time change and how disoriented they feel and you laugh. If only. The laugh sounds like a croak because you are dehydrated. You also have crusty boogers and some serious gas.

It feels good to be around people who wear blue jeans and tennis shoes. Almost as quickly, it feels uncomfortable to be so conforming. No one is paying attention to you except when you start to cry and your kids drool into the carpet.

Now it is time to board, one more leg until you can leave airports behind. You will be the only ones clapping upon landing. Who claps for a pilot landing a flight after 45 minutes?

Have a good flight and welcome home(?).

(if you’d like to avoid airplane travel altogether, try these options instead, straight from the Bible. A whale, anyone?)

Reasons to fall in love with serving overseas

Last month, I wrote about some of the harder parts of serving overseas. If that post was a downer, this one is all about highs. I’ve fallen in love with serving overseas. Here are some of the reasons why…

You get to live a life most others either can’t or won’t.
A couple years ago, as I tried to explain to a shocked new acquaintance how my life overseas may sound wild, but I’m actually just a really normal person, my dad interrupted and said, “No, Anisha. You are not normal. Normal people don’t do what you do.” And it’s true. There aren’t many of us who can or even want to give up careers, sell our possessions, and plant our families in a foreign culture without any goal of financial gain or advancement. It is precisely this ‘not normalness’ that makes serving overseas so special.

Serving overseas expands your world view.
I am the daughter of an immigrant, my first words were not English, and for most of my growing up years I lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. Even so, I held a very narrow view of the world based exclusively on my own life experiences. It wasn’t until I moved overseas that I met people whose thoughts and view of the world were alien to mine. Moving overseas teaches you that you don’t hold all the facts. What a great lesson to learn! The world could use a lot more humble, open minded people.

You are free to value what is really important.    
We left the rat race. We are not accumulating debt in new vehicles, or a mortgage, or all the gadgets that go with them. We aren’t emotionally weighed down by constantly comparing ourselves to the neighbors (and honestly, when we do it’s quite humbling because many of our neighbors live in one room homes with a dirt floors and grass roofs). By removing ourselves from any pursuit of the American Dream we are free to give ourselves to the things that really matter – family, neighbors, and living lives of service.

 Your heart makes room for friends from all over the world.
America, England, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Spain, Indonesia, Germany, China, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore…When I think of friendships, these are the countries that go with them. Being overseas, it doesn’t take long before you begin racking up friendships from around the world.

You will make significant bucket list progress.
Visit a castle: did it.
Snorkel coral reefs: did it.
Ride an elephant, ride a camel, learn to drive a motorcycle: Yes, yes, yes.
Live on another continent and learn to speak at least two languages: Yep (on my fourth continent) and yep.
Swim with whale sharks – still working on that one.
                Actually, a lot of the cool stuff we’ve done overseas was never on my bucket list. Things like, seeing The Lion King in London’s West End or sledding 8 kilometers down a Swiss mountain at perilous speeds – those things just kind of happen when you live overseas.

For certain, living overseas is not for the faint of heart. There are many tough aspects of this life, but don’t let that overshadow all the rest. There are plenty of reasons to fall in love with serving overseas. I’m smitten.

On Safety and Sanity

“Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

Call the Midwife, Season 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety.

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe?

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next.

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well.

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew?

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving.

Here are a few things that may help:

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth.

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand.

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis.

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity.

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision.

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.”

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn:

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Robynn Bliss

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

White Expat Privilege

So this happens. A lot. I get into a taxi and say “ni hao” (“hello” in Chinese).

The taxi driver’s eyes get wide and he says, “Waaahhh, your Chinese is SO good!”

My daughter, on the other hand, could get in the exact same car, with the exact same driver and say the exact same thing with much better pronunciation and get a much different response. Like “why don’t you speak Chinese?!”

Her experience. Her day to day. Her reality are radically different than mine solely because we look different.

She is ethnically Chinese. I am white.

Consequently, I have access to treatment that she does not.

That is just a small example of something called privilege . . . and I have it.

It’s a hot button topic (you may have noticed). It’s a significant piece of much deeper conversations around things like race, sexuality, gender, equality, appropriation and ultimately human value.

Those are hugely important topics for any culture to wrestle with, but in the heat of the mono-national or monocultural firefight, the nuances of cross-cultural privilege often get missed, overlooked or ignored.

From the perspective of an admittedly privileged, white, expat father who is raising a Chinese daughter and a black son in a foreign context, here are a few thoughts.


1. Privilege is a reality.
Stop. Before you cut loose with the preloaded, self-protective best one-liners, I am NOT calling you (and by default, me) a racist or a bigot or a Nazi. Privilege and racism are NOT the same thing. Racism is rooted in internal decay. Privilege is based on external realities.

(Read I Am Not a Racist: And other things I wish I knew were true.)

My statement is simply this — if you are white, your experience at home OR abroad may give you access to a different experience than people of color.

To dismiss, ignore or even to be unaware of that is to cut yourself off from the realities that other people face.


2. Privilege has nothing to do with your bank account and everything to do with access.
Speaking of preloaded, self-protective one-liners, have you ever heard this one?

“Privilege? Are you kidding? I have black friends who make three times as much as I do.”

Or how about “Hey, I’m white. I sure would like to see some of that privilege everyone keeps telling me I have.”

Singular thinking applied to a plural challenge is a logical fallacy. Privilege comes from the collective reaction of the people around you. So having less cash in your pocket doesn’t change the fact that you may be stereotyped as having more . . . and therefore treated differently.

And if you are treated differently, then the reality of your experience is different.


3. White is not the only privilege.
Every culture has people who have greater access. More influence, more voice, more power.

However, “oh yeah? Well so do you” is not a valid argument for less privilege.

That’s like saying, “I am not sunburned because you are too.”


4. The dials are turned up in a cross-cultural setting.
There are obviously far too many variables globally to make this universal, but in much of the world being Western is perceived as synonymous with being rich, and the clear indicator of being Western . . . is being white.

You may have been born and raised in London, but if you are a person of color the first filter you are perceived through is likely the local stereotype of the place you look like you are from.

Conversely, you may have grown up in poverty, but if you are white, you are also filtered through a stereotype. It’s just a different stereotype.

Every country (privileged or not) has prejudice (sorry UK and USA, you don’t own this one), and while that is clear in your home country, if you are living internationally, you are navigating the unseen prejudice of your host. You may see the impact clearly, but until you feel the history and the backstory, you’ll be in the dark.

Many cultures are unaware and unapologetic of their prejudice. White is Western, Western is rich, and rich is coveted. Everything else . . . not so much. That is simply accepted and communicated as a matter of fact which changes the narrative and ultimately the treatment of people (white and not).

(Read the eye-opening When Does a Person of Color Get to be an Expat?)


5. Relationship is key.
This is where it gets beautiful. Cultural stereotypes are crushed with relationship — and sometimes they are confirmed — but they are crushed or confirmed with real stories, real names, and real personalities instead of a skewed and shortsighted perspective.

Prejudice lives on the surface which, unfortunately, is where the huddled masses choose to hang out — but when you dare to connect deeply across a line, you can’t hold on to the luxury of your incomplete assumptions.


6. Conversation is critical.
Conversation is where truth is discovered.

Crazy truths like, not all French people are romantic,

and not all Chinese people are short,

and not all Americans carry guns,

and not all white people are rich,

and just because they’re nice to you doesn’t mean they like you,

and not all Africans are poor,

and Africa is not a country.

When you bother to build a relationship, you can no longer reduce a culture to a single story. Watch this.


Fair warning: The conversations are hard and awkward and filled with words like, “but I always thought” and “we don’t do it that way.”

The good ones though, end with, “wow, you just blew my mind” and “when can I hear more?”


7. It wouldn’t hurt us to shut up and listen.
Possibly the deepest pitfall of privilege is perceived respect. Culturally mandated hospitality gets mistranslated into admiration, and we are happy to sit on our throne and impart wisdom.

After all, if they just listened, we could fix them.

Stop that.

Ask a question that doesn’t start with, “don’t you always”. Then sit back and genuinely absorb the response. Dig into the heart of their story, what brings them joy and what causes them pain.

(Get a copy of 99 Questions for Global Friends: Quality Conversation Starters For Friends From Different Places.)

Whether you are listening to the people of your host country or other expats who are having a much different experience, you stand to gain and, ironically, have greater impact when you stop talking so much.

(Here is an amazing place to shut up and listen to the stories of expat people of color.)


8. With great privilege comes great responsibility.
Many expats march with the banner of responsibility. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard things like, “THEIR biggest dream is to be like us.”

On one hand that is a presumptuous, misguided arrogant premise. On the other hand, it is probably true.

It is flawed thinking to summarize the desire (or need) of an entire people group to one aspiration with words like “they” or “their.” That bias gets transferred from expat to expat and becomes the lens through which we view individuals. It dictates how we engage and how we interact.

Historically, that hasn’t gone well.

However, what if we broadened the parameters and stereotyped all of humanity?

It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest dreams of most humans to be respected, treated fairly, have opportunities to move forward, and enjoy political and financial security. It is the dream of humans NOT to be perceived and treated as less human than the other humans around them.

So yeah. Maybe they do want to be like you but YOU are not the dream — you are the poster child.

If you’ve never dreamed pessimistically about a world where you might be treated fairly — then you’re probably living in that world already.

And that is a privilege.

The responsibility of the privileged is NOT to show them how they can be more like you — it is to treat them like they already are.


9. I am privileged.
No question about it.

If you have a passport — you too have a privilege that the majority of the world has no access to.

If you are living by choice in a country that is not on your passport — you are privileged.

If you have a voice that is heard, anywhere — you are privileged.

If people look at you and wish that they could experience life the way you do — you are privileged.

That doesn’t make you richer, wiser, more honorable, more ethical, more important, or more human. It is just a reality.

You can spend your time denying your privilege because you feel attacked, or you can try to see yourself through the eyes of the people around you.

Seems like a simple choice.

What about you? Are you privileged and willing to acknowledge it?

Are there privileges that you are cut off from simply because of who you are? What’s your story?

(Originally published here.)

Sex and the Married Missionary

We don’t talk about sex very much. Sure, we might joke about it (the first working title for this article was The Missionary Position), but we don’t actually talk about it very much. Truth is, most folks are scared to death to have an honest, non-joking, realistic talk about sex. Maybe with a good friend, but with their spouse? Gasp. But the truth is, it matters. It’s not the biggest deal, but it’s a real deal.

And it comes up all the time in my role as a pastoral counselor to missionaries.

A healthy, mutually enjoyable sex life is a good thing and is worth pursuing. It won’t make everything rainbows and butterflies, but it is a great mediator for the hard times, making things a little less awful.

That being said, it’s even more important to talk about this in the context of non-satisfying love lives. Turns out, the power of a non-functioning sex life to taint everything is stronger than the power of a healthy sex life to improve everything.

Dr. Barry McCarthy, researcher and writer, says,

“A core concept is the paradoxical role of sexuality in the lives of individuals and couples. Healthy sexuality has a 15-20 percent positive, integral role. Dysfunctional, conflictual or avoidant sexuality has an inordinately powerful negative role. Clinicians underestimate the impact of sexual dysfunction and conflict. Sex needs to be dealt with directly—sexuality is more than a symptom.” [1]

In other words, a healthy, satisfying sex life contributes, at its maximum, to about 20% of a person’s happiness and well-being. But when things aren’t so great, when a couple is “demoralized and alienated,” McCarthy says that “sexuality has a 50-75 percent role of subverting intimacy and threatening marital stability.” [2]

He further clarifies that he’s not talking about a problem that is acute or new, but a problem that’s been festering and has become “chronic and severe.”

It would be great if cross-cultural couples didn’t wait until their sexual issues were chronic and severe. It doesn’t have to be so difficult so often and for so long. But we must be willing to talk about it.

Discussing sex openly and honestly is crucial to having sex openly and honestly.

Writing for The Gottman Institute, Kyle Benson writes:

“Let’s talk about sex, because it turns out the most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”

Elizabeth referenced this statistic in one of her articles, explaining,

“If you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected.”

So let’s talk about married sexuality on the field. Let’s figure out how to have healthier conversations about sex with our partners, conversations that are filled with safety, mutual trust, and deep attunement. Men, consider starting here: 3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife.

But before we go any further, a word to our friends who are single:

Of course, single people are sexual beings too, and we need to talk about Sex and the Single Missionary, and not just in the negative “don’t do this and definitely don’t do that” manner. I hope somebody writes that article, but for now, that’s beyond the scope of this piece. Seriously though, if you write it, send it to me and we’ll see about getting it published here. It needs to be written.

Complicating Factors
Sex is really complex, and the opportunities for it to go sideways are many. Sex in marriage is often a place of deep insecurities, unmet needs, fear, shame, anger, and even grief.

And that’s in your passport country.

For the cross-cultural couple, challenges start before you even arrive. Pre-field training and fundraising might have you traipsing all over, living in spare rooms, sharing space with kids, camping out in hotels, etc. These things do not necessarily lead to a vibrant and exciting sex life. They don’t have to kill it, of course, but they don’t necessarily help.

Once you arrive on the field, you may discover local taboos that impact your marriage (no touching in public, for example) or a climate that’s way too HOT for warm bodies. Sweaty bodies under a mosquito net may look romantic in the movies, but that’s because in the movies you can’t hear the neighbors’ chickens, there aren’t giant lizards (or rats) squirming throughout the ceiling, your kids didn’t just throw up, you’re not in language school, and you don’t smell like this.

You might lack access to regular showers (or water in general) and privacy might be harder to come by; even if no one can see you making love, you might live in a place where people can hear everything. If that’s different than where you came from, chances are it’s not an aphrodisiac.

Conjugating verbs all day might not leave you with enough energy to conjugate anything else.

People often begin their cross-cultural service with a young family, or they start having kids while they’re on the field. Across the board, this is a challenging time for couples, with sexuality necessarily changing. This season always requires a couple’s sexuality to pivot. That doesn’t mean it has to be worse, but it will change. If that change is happening at the same time as all sorts of other stressors, you may not have enough bandwidth to address or deal with things.

I was discussing a draft of this article with my wife, Elizabeth, and she so eloquently put it like this, “Basically, everything in the world is conspiring against your sex life.”

But again, there is hope!

Lots of folks have written about sex, and it’s not all slutty. In fact, much of it is very helpful, and even researched. There is help available!

If this is an area of your life that is not going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and begin talking about it. If this is an area of your life that is going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and keep talking about it!


Talk about it, but not right after it. Analyzing a sexual experience right after you’ve had it risks all sorts of negative things, so DO NOT DO IT. Set aside a time that feels private and safe and talk about it. If you feel like you can’t talk about sex with your spouse, find a trusted and confidential person and begin to explore why talking about it is so hard. This does not mean you shouldn’t talk about sex during sex. In fact, learning how to state your needs and desires clearly (and kindly) during sex is one of the skills many of the books linked below deal with.

Prioritize it. Do you need to schedule it? People think that scheduling sex is not romantic, but we schedule other things that we enjoy or that we think are healthy for us. So why not this? Also, I find this reasoning compelling:

“It could be argued that the importance of spontaneous touching is one of the most overrated aspects of intimate connections, particularly in the context of a long-term relationship. As we have suggested, to have a successful party, one must plan ahead. That doesn’t mean anything about the spontaneity that may happen once the party is underway.” [3]

Plus, if you have kids and you live abroad, NOT scheduling it is nearly the same thing as PLANNING to never do it. Are hotels cheaper where you live? Get a room. Even if you only use it for an afternoon. It’s probably cheaper than dinner and a movie where you come from.

Recognize that women have desire too. If you’re a woman who has a sex drive or whose desire seems stronger and more frequent than your husband’s, you’re not a weirdo or a freak. You’re actually pretty normal. It’s time to put this damaging myth to rest. Elizabeth wrote about this:

The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too.”

Get a Do Not Disturb sign (or a pink thing). Many of us live in places without central air conditioning, meaning the door is closed when the air’s on, whether or not we need privacy. Years ago, we decided to tell our kids that they can knock on our door unless we have “the pink thing” on the door. For us, “the pink thing” is just an old pink hairband; it’s also a fantastic sex aid. We have four kids, and we want them to know they can knock on the door without making us mad or irritated — unless the pink thing’s on the door. When the pink thing’s present, they can only knock if someone’s bleeding or if the house is on fire. It might not seem like a big deal, but having a lock on the door AND the pink thing provides a zone of safety that is very helpful. And if my kids ever read this article, Hi. We also use the pink thing when we just want some privacy to talk or read the news or browse Facebook. It’s not always sexy time, so don’t freak out thinking “Whoa. That thing was ALWAYS on their door!” I mean, sometimes…

Recognize the impact of sexual assault or abuse. If abuse or assault is part of either spouse’s history, and if you feel like there’s any chance that it’s having a negative impact on your sex life, I highly encourage you to figure out a way to talk with a trained therapist who can walk with you through whatever needs to be walked through. I also realize that ongoing sexual harassment is common in some contexts. If that’s the case, again, make sure you are regularly processing with someone who can help bear those stories. You don’t have to hold those experiences alone, and you’re not weak or faithless if they leave a mark.

Deal with porn. Porn use by either spouse will change the sexual relationship. Andy Bruner wrote this:

Recovery is possible. It’s a ton of work, for sure. But it does happen. Kay said for years that when she wrote her memoir, it would be called Pornography Saved My Marriage, because that was our experience: after going through the pain together, after healing together, our marriage was stronger than it had ever been before.”

Read his full article here.


Resources to continue the conversation
Here’s a list of sex books I recommend all the time: On Making Love

Three fantastic articles from Elizabeth:

What I Want to Teach My Daughters About Married Sex

What Christians can Learn from a New York Times Article About Sleeping with Married Men

Women Have Desire Too: The Thing we Overlook When We Talk About the Billy Graham Rule


I know that one article can’t fix anything, but maybe many can. So check these out, read some books, start talking.

A woman with decades of experience in living abroad and serving cross-cultural workers recently said, “Here’s to sexually satisfied and great missionary marriages around the globe!”

 Yup, that’s my prayer too. God bless, and have a fantastic day!

— Jonathan Trotter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia




[1] McCarthy, Barry. Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy (p. 5).

[2] Ibid. (p. 31).

[3] Weiner, Linda, and Constance Avery-Clark. Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy (p.118).

Why I Am I So Surprised When Crisis Strikes?

These days, I’m tired of being in crisis mode. Seriously, enough already.

My husband and I have spent the last two years fretting about visas. We’ve watched our team evaporate, one by one, due to visa issues. A couple of times, my husband got very close to needing to leave the country. For months and months we kept thinking, This is all going to work out, right? Doesn’t it always? And we were surprised to discover that actually, it doesn’t always work out. 

On top of that, the last few months have been some of the most stressful of my life. 2020 came in with a bang, with almost constant crises hitting me from all sides. Thankfully, my family is fine (crisis is different from tragedy), but I’m an administrator at a school where it feels like the next wave of problems comes rolling in before I can finish with the previous ones. Many days I am just gasping for breath. Taking the next step. Focusing on the dozens of tiny fires so that I don’t have to face the inferno that could be looming in the future. 

Anyone else out there feeling like that these days? With the recent trend of countries closing in on themselves and locking out outsiders, travel bans, tensions rising between nations, and well, that little virus that’s affecting an entire continent of billions of people….I’m guessing that many of my fellow overseas workers might be in crisis mode too.

And I sit here and I just want it to go away. Kind of irritated, actually, that God doesn’t just let up. Maybe because I’ve bought into the American dream or maybe because I’m just plain selfish, but I have this ingrained expectation that I deserve a little peace and quiet every once in a while. Like, I’ve met my quota for stress, God; you owe me an easy ride from here on out.

Why are we so often surprised by what’s happening in the world? Nations rising up against nations? Economies collapsing? Epidemics circling the globe? Plagues of fire and floods? 

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, we’re astonished when the crisis hits us. No wonder every generation believes they are living in the End Times. All of us think, Certainly no generation has ever faced what we have! Which means we probably just need to study more history. Or maybe live overseas for a while longer, observing the lives of our non-western brothers and sisters.

Peter wrote, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

We read this, yet still we are surprised. When pressed against the wall, in crisis mode for week after month after year, we think something strange is happening to us. No, God, my life is not supposed to be like this. Not for this long, anyway. Why aren’t you fixing it?

We are surprised because we are forgetful, aren’t we? We forget that Paul was in prison when he told his readers to Rejoice in the Lord always. We forget that Jesus told his disciples that the peace He gives is not dependent on life’s circumstances. We forget that this life is just a blip on the screen of eternity. Yes, one day all things will be made new, but until then, we forget that we aren’t supposed to find Heaven here on earth.  

The chaplain at my school, Sheshi Kaniki, recently exhorted our staff as we are passing through these times of crisis. He told us, “Nothing you experience will ever be worse than what you have already been saved from.”

Amen. Maranatha.  

Passages cited: Ecc. 1:9, I Peter 4:12, Phil. 4:4