The Newbie. In August of 2001, that was me. Standing in the dirty house that was going to be my home, totally overwhelmed by the barrage to my senses–smoke in the air, humidity on my skin, roosters crowing. What on earth was I going to cook? How was I supposed to get anywhere? And what the heck was I supposed to do with the trash? The first meal I attempted was baked potatoes (and only baked potatoes), and I cried in front of my husband because I couldn’t figure out my Celsius oven.
I needed people, someone who could walk me step by step through my life. I was thrust onto a new team, and into a larger missionary community. I knew nothing about these people, and yet I needed them desperately. How should I navigate those relationships?
I’ve lived 11 years in Tanzania since then, and turnover is so high that missionary years are kind of like dog years. Multiply by 7. Somehow, living here 11 years makes me a veteran. I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons in those years, including how to use a Celsius oven. But maybe some of the most important lessons have been in relationships with other missionaries.
At orientation, our mission told us that the number one reason people leave the field is because of relational problems with team members. Let’s work together to reduce that, starting with these tips to Newbies, from an Oldie.
1. Hold back the criticism, and look for ways to learn.
When you first arrive, you will notice about 12 things that your missionary team is doing wrong. Keep your mouth shut. Instead, ask lots of questions. After six months, that list will go down to 6 things. Continue to keep your mouth shut, and ask more questions. After a year, it will dwindle to 3 things. At that point, you can humbly, carefully, start bringing up your ideas.
Don’t give up or give in if change doesn’t happen as quickly as you like. The longer you stay, the more impact you will have on your team, and the more credible your voice will become. As much as Oldies might grunt and groan about Newbie ideas, we really do need your fresh perspective and new vision.
2. Lower your expectations of how Oldies should welcome and guide you.
I had been on several short-term missions trips before arriving in Tanzania. I think one of the dangers of STMs is that when you do arrive long-term, you expect to be treated the same way: The red carpet thrown out, someone who holds your hand everywhere you go, all your meals bought and prepared for you. But when you arrive in a country to live, it won’t look quite like that. If you don’t get the welcome you expect, if there’s not a parade for you at the airport or your house isn’t ready, it’s easy to think that the Oldies don’t really want you there. But that’s not true! Remember that missionaries are almost always overworked and distracted. Plus, a lot of Oldies have just forgotten what it feels like to be a Newbie. If you feel thrown in the deep end, well, you probably are. You will have to learn to fend for yourself quickly and it will definitely be overwhelming. Try to prepare your heart and mind for this ahead of time.
3. You may need to take the initiative in asking Oldies for help.
Even though Oldies might not be able to walk you through every step of the way, there are plenty of us out there who are eager to help. We can be a listening ear; we can commiserate by telling you horror stories of our own adjustment; we can tell you the best place to buy pita bread or how to find a refrigerator mechanic. Most Oldies are happy to answer your questions–but they probably won’t come to you; you’ve got to go to them. There’s a lot of Newbies out there, and it can be hard for us to know how to meet all those needs. You will have to take more initiative in relationships than you realized. That doesn’t mean Oldies aren’t glad to have you around. We couldn’t do this work without you, and many of us are happy to help out if you ask.
4. Remember that missionary communities are eccentric.
If you spent your whole life in one church, you may not have ever interacted with people who are theologically different than you. Welcome to the mission field! You may find missionaries in your community—even your own team–who are all over the theological spectrum. You’ll find that missionaries tend to be strong-willed, Type-A kind of people. (I’ve found that missionaries tend to be a disproportionate number of former Student Body Presidents and Valedictorians.) Put all these people together, stir the pot with some extreme heat or extreme cold and some cultural barriers, and you’ve got yourself a very interesting stew.
Be prepared to have your theological assumptions stretched. Be prepared to be surprised how love for the Gospel and lost people can transcend denominations and petty differences. Listen well and forgive abundantly. Steadfastly determine that there will be very few hills you will allow yourself to die on. Since it’s likely you are one of those Type-A people yourself, this may be tough. Choose humility.
5. Be patient with Oldies who seem relationally distant.
If we hold our emotions away from you, if we seem distant and hard to befriend, please don’t take it personally. Know that it has a lot to do with getting our hearts broken too many times to count. I remember as a Newbie, I was eager to dive into relationships with everyone in our missionary community. We had everyone over for dinner. We wanted to get to know everyone…and we did! Then….people started leaving. And leaving. And leaving. People’s terms ended, emergencies happened, health concerns came up. We stayed, but everyone we loved kept leaving. Choosing an overseas life means choosing a life of saying good-bye.
After a while, it just gets hard to initiate relationships with all the Newbies. If we hold ourselves aloof from you, it’s because of the callouses that have grown on our hearts from so many wonderful friends leaving us. We might not even consciously realize that we are holding ourselves back from you. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to be friends with you. It does mean that it may take more time for Oldies to open up. Please don’t give up on us. We need your optimism and energy as much as you need our experience and advice.
Store up your emotions and experiences being a Newbie. As you become more comfortable, as the years slip by and you become an Oldie yourself, you don’t want to forget what it felt like to just step off the plane and wonder how on earth you bake potatoes in a Celsius oven.
Amy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001. Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality. She and her husband worked many years with TCK’s and now are involved with pastoral training. They also adopted three amazing Tanzanian kids along the way. Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.