4 Resources for Your First Year

I had flown to China before, but that was always with a return ticket. When I moved to China, my ticket was one-way. Back in the day, smoking was allowed on the flights. I was on a Chinese based airline and I began to understand some of the changes I was in for when the flight attendants commandeered the last three rows of the middle section and build a blanket fort.

They took turns going into it for smoking and rest breaks. You can picture the waves of smoke that escaped when someone went in or out.

Do you remember the feeling as you disembarked from the plane? Though late at night and exhausted, the muggy August air smelled . . . like not my home country. I had finally arrived. To this day, if I arrive at an airport late at night and it’s muggy and the wind blows just right, a small wave of exhilaration washes over me. 

Ah, the first year on the field.

Welcome to those of you who have recently arrived on the field or are in the throws of getting ready to move to the field. We’re so glad you’re here!

Though you’ll be going through many transitions and your journey will be unique, you do not need to go it alone.

Do you wish your first year came with a handbook?

I wrote Getting Started: Making the Most of Your First Year in Cross-Cultural Service to be just that. Getting Started enables you to glean from those who have gone before you, to stay close to God, and to grow in cultural knowledge—all the while flourishing in fulfilling your call.

What’s one unexpected pitfall of the first year?

Ironically, it can be staying connected to God. In your passport country you knew how to stay spiritually fed and understood the language spoken at church. With time, you’ll make friends, learn the language, and even start worshipping in another language. But as you’re establishing yourself in your new host culture, stay Connected: Starting Your Overseas Life Spiritually Fed.

Do you have any tips for my first year?

In addition to buying the two books mentioned above, you bet I do! Here an article I wrote with 3 Tips For Your First Year.

What does role deprivation look like?

While it will look different for each person, there tends to be two universal signs you’re experiencing role deprivation in your first year … as uncomfortable as role deprivation is, it’s one of the most tender ways Jesus identifies with us! Here are a few signs of you might be experiencing role deprivation.


A couple of years ago I was going to host a year-long group for those in their first year and we would work our way through Getting Started, but then the pandemic happened and not many people were able to move around the globe. I’ve created a survey to gauge interest in a group running from September 2022 through June 2023 for people early in their missionary journey. Could you either take this survey or share it will people who have been on the field less than two years.

Take the survey here.

We truly are glad you’re here. We need you and your fresh eyes and hearts! Welcome.

And thanks for helping with the survey, Amy

Hiding Abuse Does Not Protect the Mission

The mission. The mission. The mission.

What could be more important to missionaries than the mission?

But talk about the supreme importance of the work of the church can be used to silence those who would expose sin in the church. Russell Moore pointed this out last month, writing in Christianity Today about Guidepost Solution’s investigation into sexual-abuse claims, and allegations of coverup, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Guidepost’s findings include an email sent by the executive vice president and general council of the SBC’s Executive Committee, in which he comments on those bringing accusations against the SBC:

This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.

This line of thinking has played out on the mission field, too, as can be seen in published reports on the treatment of victims of child abuse overseas. For example, in 1997, the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Independent Commission of Inquiry reported on claims of abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, a boarding school in Guinea run by the C&MA from 1950 to 1971. About the students at Mamou, one missionary mother told the commission,

They were never allowed the freedom of expressing their hurts, their problems, their emotions to us. Each week the obligatory letter was not only read but censored, and forced to be rewritten if it appeared at all negative. This destroyed a vital link that could have helped maintain a fragmented family bond. They were repeatedly told not to share adverse happenings either by letter or by word on vacation with parents, lest it upset the parents and interfere with the work they were doing for God. The hidden message to the child was that God was more important, work was more important to the parents that [sic] one’s own child.

The commission summarized the reasoning behind censoring letters as “Children were advised not to upset their parents, lest their ministry to Africans be compromised and Africans left to their pagan ways.”

In 2010, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) reported on its findings concerning New Tribes Mission’s Fanda Missionary School, in Senegal, which boarded children from the mid 1980s to 1997. GRACE states that the MKs living at Fanda

were not allowed to voice concerns or complaints to their parents regarding the conditions at Fanda. They were repeatedly told by those in authority at Fanda that such complaints would hinder their parents’ work and result in Africans going to hell. In some cases, their letters were censored of all bad news in the name of the Lord’s work.

And also in 2010, the Independent Abuse Review Panel of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) filed a report on past claims of offenses among Presbyterian missionaries. Aware that some would rather that those who have been abused or who are aware of abuse “keep such information to themselves,” they refute the following three statements, which they label as myths:

1. The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.
2. The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.
3. What is in the past is best left alone.

Sadly, the reports referenced above do not represent all the investigation summaries written over the years, nor do official reports cover all the wrongs that have occurred. We cannot pretend that abuse, whatever the kind, can be relegated to a certain denomination or organization (that group), place (over there), or time period (back then).

We must be alert. Talking points for conversations with children—and adults—should include that secrets shouldn’t be kept, wrongs shouldn’t be hidden, and complaints shouldn’t be silenced in order to “protect the mission.” That needs to be said out loud over and over again to combat all the times that the opposite has been spoken or inferred.

Abuse in the church hinders the mission, not the exposing of that abuse. Silencing or shunning those who make accusations hinders the mission, not the act of hearing them out.

Again in Christianity Today, Moore returned to this topic last week. In “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain without Swearing,” he states that claiming to speak on behalf of God to shield abusers and to accuse accusers is tantamount to breaking the third commandment:

Sexual abuse, in any context and by any institution, is a grave atrocity. It’s worse when this horror is committed—or covered up—by leveraging personal or institutional trust. But using the very name of Jesus to carry out such wickedness against those he loves and values is a special evil. When sexual abuse happens within a church, violence is added to violence—sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Predators know this power is great, which is why they weaponize even the most beautiful concepts—grace or forgiveness or Matthew 18 or the life of David.

It’s also why institutions seeking to protect themselves will take on the name of Jesus to say that victims, survivors, or whistleblowers are compromising “the mission” or creating “disunity in the body” when they point out horrors.

There’s more to the mission of the church than just going and making disciples. There’s listening to and looking out for the oppressed and the vulnerable. There’s shining the light in dark places. And there’s speaking and acknowledging what is true.

The mission. The mission. The mission. The whole mission.

(Russell More, “This is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse,” Christianity Today, May 22, 2022; Report of the Independent Investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Guidepost Solutions, May 15, 2022; Geoffrey B. Stearns, et. al, Final Report, Independent Commission of Inquiry Regarding Mamou Alliance Academy (C&MA), November 15, 1997; Amended Final Report for the Investigatory Review of Child Abuse at New Tribes and Missionary School, GRACE, August 28, 2010; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010; Moore, “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain without Swearing,” Christianity Today, June 21, 2022)

[photo: “Padlock on Red Door,” by Andy Wright, used under a Creative Commons license]

Dealing With Abuse Overseas is Complicated

What struck me the most were her lifeless eyes. Without emotion, the young teenager related to me disturbing descriptions of abuse in her home. Her father would verbally assault her and yank her hair. He would beat and kick her mother, locking her out of their bedroom for hours.

My horror quickly turned to despair. As a teacher, I knew about mandatory reporting of abuse. But this was not the United States. I had no one to report to.

*******

Amid the wreckage of abuse revealed in recent years, we can rejoice that many organizations now have their eyes wide open. New protocols. New safety standards. Tough policies. If you are serving overseas, hopefully your organization has already required all staff to complete child protection training. (If not, stop what you are doing right now and implore your leadership to get on the ball with this. Right now. Don’t wait. And keep nagging until it happens.)

In developed countries, there is no longer any room for excuses. Basic child safety procedures should be routine: Screen all workers. An adult should never be alone with a child. Doors and curtains should be left open. Workers should be trained to write incident reports. All signs of abuse should immediately be reported to authorities.

Unfortunately, in many countries, this is not so simple. And that’s what we need to talk about.

Standard child safety training (as important as it is), does not take into account the complications of life in a developing country. When I say I had no one to report to in my opening story, that’s exactly what I meant. I was living in a country where Child Protective Services did not exist. Beating a child or a wife was not only socially acceptable, it was ordinary. If I had gone to the police, they would have laughed at me. So what is there to do in this kind of situation? 

Or, let’s say you are in a position to hire or train children’s workers. What should you do if you live in a country that doesn’t do background checks? Or in a place where bribes are so common that you know you can’t trust the system? 

Or, what if you are in over your head with a suicidal or self-harming teenager? You know the protocol should be to pass her on to a professional, yet you are living in a location where there are no mental health professionals available to help. Maybe an ex-pat, English-speaking, or wealthy teenager might find hope in a telehealth option, but that’s not possible for the kid you are working with. What do you do?

I’m not an expert on these kinds of agonizing situations, although I faced them many times in my work overseas as a youth leader, chaplain, teacher, and principal. I had to document the injuries inflicted on a child by his father. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night by the mom of a teen attempting suicide. Not because we were experts, but because there was no one else.

I believe we need to do some hard thinking and praying in these circumstances, preferably in advance. We need help and advice from those who have gone before us so that we are not caught off guard. 

I wish I could say that my husband and I always did the right thing. But we tried the best we could, and we learned many things along the way. Here are a few:

  • In the absence of background checks, we asked for a reference from a pastor or a community leader. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped.
  • We did what we could to enter into families’ lives. We discovered that oftentimes abusive parenting happened not because the parents were evil, but because they knew no other way. When given the option of counseling and parenting advice, they often were willing to receive it. 
  • We educated ourselves. We learned about self-harm, trauma, and eating disorders. And if we couldn’t refer a student to a mental health professional, we could at least get a medical doctor involved. 

If you are looking for more resources on this subject, you can start right here at A Life Overseas:

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right. 

Ask a counselor: What about child abuse? 

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field and the follow up Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Here are some helpful organizations that can provide support, resources, and training:

There are no easy answers here, and this article is just the beginning of the discussion. But I believe that together, we can work for positive change. So I invite you into the conversation. How have you dealt with abuse when serving overseas? What resources would you suggest? What other factors do we need to consider? 

What we can learn from the SBC

I’m currently reading The Soul of Desire; Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community by Curt Thompson, MD. In April I was privileged to hear him speak in person on this topic.

While the neuroscience is fascinating, what stood out was the role of beauty. And all of the ways that we humans can contribute by putting beauty into the world. Though “beauty” may seems small, putting beauty into the world truly is one of the most powerful things we can do, according to Dr. Thompson.

I’m also in the midst of edits on a book I’m writing about the fruit of the Spirit. Last week I was working on a section that very briefly mentioned the shameful past in missions involving our own complete mishandling of abuse and boarding schools. In fairness to my editor, she hasn’t served overseas and her “world” isn’t ours of cross-cultural service, so she wasn’t familiar with this part of our history. She commented to the effect asking if it was necessary to mention the abuse (I was writing about goodness and it seemed out of context).

I’ve left it in because it seems disingenuous to me to highlight goodness without acknowledging that “badness” can exist if we aren’t walking with the Holy Spirit.

This morning I read This Is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse from Christianity Today … which is the polar opposite of beauty. If you haven’t read heard about it, basically the Southern Baptists in the US kept an extensive list of pastors whom they knew were sexual abusers and did not (a) address it, (b) involve the local officials, or (c) support the victims.

Why write about beauty and abuse here? With you? For us?

Because it’s all true … beauty is powerful and unaddressed abuse is powerful. At times we Christians are shameful at the lengths we’ll go to in covering up sin and not addressing it.

As God has “beauty” and “abuse” on my radar, I’ve been mulling how every now and then we need to slow down and affirm a few of the basics. Beauty is powerful. Today let’s each seek one small way to do or say or share something that is beautiful. Abuse is also powerful and not to be tolerated. Today, if you see abuse in some form seek one small way to do something or say something or address it in some way.

You can cultivate beauty. You can! I love that cultivating beauty doesn’t mean you have to become a world-renowned artist. It can be as simple as noticing a person on the outside of a conversation and inviting them in.

Sadly, abuse can also be cultivated when we turn a blind eye, excuse, or downplay it. I believe that we are getting better at addressing abuse. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve become immune to tolerating abuse … too much abuse still exists in the world.

While this is not the most beautiful piece I’ve written, it is the beauty God has nudged me to put into the world today. What is He nudging you to put into the world?

Photo by Marc Schulte on Unsplash

Shining Your Light without Burning Out

“Raise your hands in the air as high as you can,” says the motivational speaker on the stage. Then, looking over the crowd reaching skyward, he says, “Now, reach higher,” and they comply. The lesson? You can always do more, even when you think you’ve done as much as you can.

“I’ll give it 110%,” we say.

“Leave it all on the court,” they tell us.

But pushing ourselves beyond our limits can lead to burnout. When that happens, we can’t function anymore, and that’s not a good thing. And yet, for a cross-cultural worker, being burned out can feel like a respectable reason for leaving the field. I have nothing left to give. I’m spent. I worked too hard.

When my wife and I moved back to the States, I sometimes said it was because we were burned out, and that may very well have been true. But there were other times when I felt I didn’t deserve the label. It seemed that it should be reserved for the ones who’d worked a lot harder than I had.

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” we sing.

According to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, Revision 11, “burn-out” is an “occupational phenomenon” (rather than a medical condition). It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” showing itself in

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy

Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at UC Berkely and co-developer of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, says that while overwork is one of the factors that can lead to burnout, it’s not the only one. In fact, she identifies six mismatches between the work environment and worker that can cause job burnout. In a presentation at a DevOps Enterprise Summit three years ago, she described these as

  • demand overload,
  • lack of control,
  • insufficient reward,
  • breakdown of community,
  • absence of fairness, and
  • value conflicts

When I heard this list, I couldn’t help but think of the topics discussed in Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss’s Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. And even though Maslach is addressing a group of tech leaders, the content of her talk applies to people in other areas, including those working cross-culturally. Across all occupations, burnout, says Maslach, is like the canary in the coal mine. When the canary can’t breath, the solution isn’t to toughen up the bird but instead to find out and fix what’s wrong with the air. To put it another way, she says, prevention is a better strategy than coping.

I would encourage you to watch Maslach’s presentation, whatever your role in cross-cultural work, as leaders or followers. Some of you have a leadership position in your organization or on your team and can influence the situations of those under your authority. Some of you are your own boss. All of you have jobs that include responding to the expectations of others (agencies, sending churches, supporters, team leaders, supervisors, coworkers, and the like). Maslach’s insights are useful to us all.

Of course, serving and living overseas adds extra layers to what we call our “workplace,” and there will be some factors of cross-cultural life that are out of anyone’s control. But when we see the effects of a toxic environment, what of the six problems above can we or others solve or mitigate, working towards turning mismatches into good fits?

What can we do, though, if we’re feeling overwhelmed while waiting for (asking for, hoping for, praying for) circumstances to change? How do we foster personal health in an unhealthy environment? Several years ago, I wrote a post titled “Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?” in which I presented another option for those who are able to survive overseas but for whom thriving seems out of reach. To suggest that we “strive,” though, might sound to some as if I’m saying we need to “try harder,” and that isn’t my intention. If I were to write that post again, I’d insert some advice from Aundi Kolber. It’s to “try softer,” which is the name of a book she’s written. For my purposes, I’d rephrase it as “strive softer.”

Kolber, a licensed professional counselor, writes that it’s not necessary for us to “white-knuckle our way through life.” Instead, we should practice “paying compassionate attention” to ourselves. She describes this as “in a sense, learning to steward for ourselves what God already believes about us—that we’re valuable and loved.”

When we are not paying attention to our inner worlds, we are susceptible to emotional burnout, exhaustion, emotional dysregulation, and chronic pain. Because our brains are shaped around what we notice, it’s important that we become better and more effective at listening—and responding—to what our minds and bodies are telling us. This is the journey of trying softer.

In Try Softer (the book’s subtitle is A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy), Kolber covers a lot of ground, diving deep into such subjects as trauma response, neuroscience, attachment theory, windows of tolerance, and boundaries, helping us learn how to understand ourselves and how we came to be who we are. Then she follows that up with “new practices and rhythms,” practical suggestions to help us try softer. It’s well worth a read. Or if you’d rather just get a short overview of what Kolber has to say, you can follow this link to a 45-minute video interview she had with author and podcaster Nicole Unice.

Striving softer isn’t just for staying on the field. It’s what we should do to continue walking with and serving God, wherever we are. It’s a good way to live life.

Giving anything more than 100% can’t be done.

Leaving it all on the court means your playing days are over.

Burning out isn’t an honor you earn from maximum effort.

And as for “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” I can think of a whole lot of other songs that are more worth singing.

(“Burn-Out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases,” World Health Organization, May 28, 2019; Christina Maslach, Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at DOES19 London, July 1, 2019; Aundi Kolber, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy, Tyndale, 2020)

[photo: “Lights Out,” by Pulpolux !!!, used under a Creative Commons license]

How I Fight Anxiety and Serve as a Missionary Anyway

by Abigail Follows

We were home on our first furlough when my husband, Joshua, asked me to drive. I forced a yawn to hide my dismal forebodings.

“I’m a bit tired.”

“I am, too. But it’s not far.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“But you can, Abby.”

“But I can’t!”

I drove us home, angry. Something in me knew my fear wasn’t logical. But the rest of me was sure I was going to drive my whole family into a tree, off a bridge, or into the side of a Dairy Queen.

That night Joshua and I had a heart-to-heart. That’s when I realized I had a giant bully in my life—anxiety, my own personal Goliath. I knew anxiety was keeping me from more than just driving. Fear was affecting everything in my life, including ministry in India.

Over the ten years since that day, I’ve rounded up an arsenal of “smooth stones” that help me stay brave. Here are nine tools I use to fight anxiety and serve as a missionary anyway.

 

1. Avoid Avoiding
For over a year, I avoided driving like the plague. I thought I was more emotionally stable that way. But my “safety bubble” just kept shrinking. I avoided more and more things until I didn’t even want to leave the house.

According to Emma McAdam, who produces Therapy in a Nutshell, avoidance teaches the brain to be anxious. “You think you have to keep running so that it doesn’t catch you,” she writes. [1]  “But I promise if you sit and let it catch you, you’ll find that you can handle it, and that it’s better than running all the time.”

It wasn’t until I stopped avoiding and started facing my fears that I conquered them. That meant leaving the house to drive, shop, and visit people—even when I wanted to hide.

 

2. Check Your Vitamins
Our bodies and minds are complex and connected. Stress and a lack of dietary nutrients can work together to cause anxiety.

Sarah is a nutritionist and former missionary to Chad, Africa. She found herself dealing with anxiety after returning from the field.

“It started after we came back, surprisingly,” she says. “I experienced a lot of anxiety.” Although Sarah ran a nutrition clinic in Chad, at first she didn’t connect nutritional deficiencies to her own experience. “It lasted for a couple of years,” she says. Finally, Sarah began taking a simple multivitamin. Her anxiety improved dramatically.

Stress increases the body’s need for certain nutrients. But the food supply in a country may lack key nutrients that play a part in mental health—iodine, B12, B6, Omega-3, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D are just a few. Some countries fortify foods like cereal and bread with these and other nutrients. Some don’t. Our whole family tested low on several nutrients after about four years overseas.

Now we take multivitamins. I also take magnesium, a mineral used by the body to calm the stress response, and often found to be depleted in people facing a lot of stress.[2] Talk to your healthcare provider for help determining what supplements you might need.

 

3. Exercise
Exercise was my husband’s first suggestion for fighting fear. At first, my anxious brain was offended. But then I realized he was right—exercise works, and is one way I can practice self-care.

Exercise combats anxiety in many ways.[3] It uses both sides of the body together, which helps the brain communicate with itself. It signals to the amygdala, the part of the brain most involved in anxiety, that you have run away from The Danger. It helps the body use up and burn off stress hormones, and it increases endorphins.

But I haven’t always lived in countries where it’s safe for a woman to go for a jog. As expats, we sometimes have to get creative when weather, space, time, and safety concerns limit exercise opportunities. During the Covid pandemic, my family even used the stairs in our house as “our mountain,” and we gave ourselves a daily stair-climbing challenge.

The number one thing that helped me exercise more is realizing how much better it makes me feel. That was more motivating to me than thinking about how I look or what I “should” do.

 

4. Check Your Circadian Rhythm
Dr. Neil Nedley, MD, has done extensive research on the causes of anxiety and depression. He names an off-balance circadian rhythm as a contributor to both anxiety and depression.[4]

As missionaries, we frequently change time zones. That means we deal with more jet lag than your average person. If you find yourself happier and more alert the later it gets, you might be dealing with a circadian rhythm problem. Some people call this day-night reversal, and it can leave you feeling jumpy, gloomy, and lethargic all at the same time.

Dr. Nedley recommends exposing your eyes to bright light early in the morning, either through a “happy lamp” or light therapy glasses or with the natural morning sunlight. He also recommends avoiding all screens within 1-4 hours of bedtime, since the blue light in screens naturally signals the brain to wake up. Just avoiding screens in the evening has helped me keep my circadian rhythm in a good groove.

 

5. Evaluate Your Relationship with Technology
Take any normal human being and place them far away from friends and family in a totally new environment. Add stress.

Now offer them a way to connect with people, information, and entertainment instantly. Who wouldn’t choose to spend a lot of time on their phone or computer? The problem is, too much technology can be addictive and aggravate anxiety.[5]

Recently, my family came up with a few rules to make sure we have healthy technology boundaries. Among these are no phones before family devotion in the morning and no phones after dinner. We use alternative forms of entertainment and take one day a week as a low-tech day. These simple steps have helped us keep technology in its rightful role as a useful tool instead of a way to escape reality.

 

6. Learn Calming Techniques
Sometimes our bodies get so used to feeling anxious that they signal danger where there is none. Calming techniques are a great tool to lower acute stress—the kind of anxiety that is overwhelming you right this minute.

Calming techniques work by activating the parasympathetic system[6], which regulates the fight-or-flight response. Some techniques include observing your environment, observing the way your own body feels, doing manual tasks such as knitting or washing dishes, playing with your kids, being in nature, and journaling. You can also try “softening your eyes,” which is basically staring at nothing/zoning out.

Slow, deep breathing might seem like something too simple to help, but it’s impossible to breathe in this way and stay scared. Try breathing in for a count of eight, holding it for a count of four, and breathing out for a count of eight. You can even do this through the day when you’re not panicking as a preventative measure.

 

7. Try CBT
Nope, it’s not a supplement. CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Sometimes unhelpful thought patterns are behind anxiety. In CBT, unhelpful thoughts, or “cognitive distortions,” are purposefully challenged and replaced with truer, more helpful thoughts.

When I was first language learning, I sometimes felt paralyzed by social anxiety. Years later, I realized that I often told myself that making mistakes is horrible and that I can’t stand feeling embarrassed. These thoughts were so automatic I barely noticed them—I only noticed their emotional effects. Thinking differently can feel awkward, but after purposefully changing my thoughts, my emotions soon followed. I was able to give myself some grace and learn our host culture’s language, one mistake at a time.

A couple of helpful books for changing your thought patterns are SOS: Help for Emotions, and Telling Yourself the Truth. It can also be helpful to work with a counselor trained in CBT.

 

8. Tackle a Specific Stressor
Is there something specific that is triggering anxiety for you? Try keeping an anxiety log, where you journal a few lines every time you feel anxious. Try to record the situations surrounding the anxiety, as well as the specific anxious thoughts you are having.

Once, when I did this exercise, I realized I felt more anxious (surprise!) when my kids bickered. Now that I knew the specific problem I was facing, I made a plan to tackle it. For me, that meant reading a couple of parenting books, talking to other godly moms, praying about it, and thinking creatively about the problem. Just having a plan gave me hope and helped me feel more capable.

 

9. Be Kind To Yourself
Growth takes time. This is true in our walk with Christ, our effectiveness in ministry, and our emotional intelligence. If you want to win the fight against anxiety, expect to lose a few battles along the way. Failure isn’t a sign that you’re doomed—it’s a sign that you’re trying!

One thing that has helped me is remembering I’m not alone. Christ promises to walk with me, and His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Time and again, anxiety tells me I “just can’t do it.” Maybe I can’t, but Christ in me can! I may not even be willing to fight fear some days, but if I’m willing to be willing, Jesus can work with that.

 

Shrinking Giant
The “Goliath” of anxiety has been a recurring character in the story God is writing of my life. But by God’s grace, that Goliath is shrinking, becoming less and less powerful and important. I’ve learned how to support my body and mind, and I’m learning to trust God with my worries and feelings.

Anxiety is still a bossy bully. But I’m learning to obey Jesus, who will be with me even to the ends of the earth.

As you are ministering to others, don’t forget to let Christ give you hope, strength, and courage in your deepest need.

Even if that deepest need is the Goliath of anxiety.

 

Sources:

[1] https://therapynutshell.com/skill-5-how-avoidance-makes-it-worse/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7761127/
[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5103329/
[5] https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/how-much-is-too-much-technology-screen-time-and-your-mental-health/#:~:text=increasing%20screen%20time%20was%20generally,diagnosed%20with%20anxiety%20or%20depression.%E2%80%9D
[6] https://canyonvista.com/activating-parasympathetic-nervous-system/

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. Despite struggling with anxiety, she has served with God’s help as a cross-cultural missionary since 2010. Abigail believes that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to face fear. She writes about what God can do through brave obedience in her book, Hidden Song of the HimalayasAbigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two energetic children, and cat, Protagonist. You can get to know her at www.abigailfollows.com.

Aging Parents from the Field (Survey)

Last week Global Trellis shared the following post about a survey we are conducting to create resources to help you when you have aging parents and are on the field. We’re surveying those of you who have already walked this path because we want to glean from your wisdom and experiences.

Reading through the responses thus far, I’ve been reminded how heavy phase of life is. How much you love your parents and how every family path will be different. So, thank you in advance if you are able to help with the survey. For all of us, let’s pray for our brothers and sisters walking this path right now. Here’s the brief into, then you can see the questions, and take the survey. We’ll share the results!



I remember the first time I felt the angsty feeling of anticipation coming up the escalator at Denver International Airport. My long trek across the ocean, through customs, and on one last final airport train was nearly over, and I was almost to my people

Over the years, who greeted me changed as sisters may or may not be in town and nieces were born; but the one constant? My parents. It was all I could do not to shove people on the escalator as I craned my neck, hoping for a first glance.

And then one year, as I practically ran towards them, it happened: my parents looked shockingly older than the last time I’d seen them. They began to resemble my grandparents more than my mental picture of my parents. Though still in good health at the time, I had a stronger sense than I’d ever had that my parents would one day, Lord willing, be the old-old and not the young-old. What would be my role in helping them? How would I navigate it with my sisters? Would my parents be a factor in my leaving the field?

If you stay on the field long enough, you will probably wonder similar questions. Last fall, one of you contacted me asking for resources to help with aging parents. I wasn’t aware of many resources outside of anecdotal stories and the fact that when I mention the topic, it was a familiar scenario as cross-cultural workers entered middle age.

With this in mind, Global Trellis decided to tap into the collective wisdom from those who have already walked this path and conduct a survey.

This is where you come in. We need your help.

We’ll take your survey answers and use them to create a resource to help fellow cross-cultural workers. Below, I’ll share the questions on the survey. Please share with those you know who have walked this path.


Aging Parents Survey Intro

Hello friend, this survey is for those who have already walked the path (or are walking it right now) with aging parents. Several people have contacted us wanting help with this significant (and weighty) question: Do you have any resources to help with aging parents for cross-cultural workers?

Thank you for taking the time for this survey. You’ll notice that this survey is rather extensive, so as a thank you, 10 of you will be drawn for a $10 amazon gift card.

We appreciate your time and help. Amy for the Global Trellis Team

The questions:

1. Briefly share your situation with aging parents.

2. What options did you consider for you and/or your parents?

3. What additional factors were involved as you considered your options?

4. What did you do from the field to help your parents (if anything)?

5. How did other people near your parents help you or the situation?

6. What do you wish other people had done?

7. Do you have any tips for communicating and working with your siblings?

8. How did you honor your relationship while on the field? Any suggestions for doing this?

9. How did you navigate the pain around your parents aging and the shift in relationship?

10. If you’re with an organization: How did your organization help you?

11. If you’re with an organization: What do you wish your organization had done?

12. Do you know of any resources for helping with aging parents while on the field?

On behalf of the many you will help, thank you!

Take a Look Ahead (or Behind) through the Lens of Expectations

I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.

We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.

When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.

Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.

Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.

I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.

For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.

They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.

They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.

And the cycle continues.

So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.

What are my expectations?

  1. When will I depart?
  2. What training or orientation will I go through?
  3. What kind of visa will I need?
  4. What will I need to do to get and keep a visa?
  5. What will my official role be in the country?
  6. What will the minimum financial support necessary be for me?
  7. What will my financial support level be?
  8. How long will it take to raise support?
  9. How consistent will my financial support be?
  10. What kind of response will I get from supporters for one-time or special financial requests?
  11. What financial responsibility will I have to my sending agency?
  12. How will I handle previously acquired debt?
  13. What salary (or personal-discretion funds) will I have?
  14. How much control will I have over ministry funds?
  15. What will the cost of living be?
  16. How favorable (or unfavorable) will the exchange rate be?
  17. In what kind of setting will I live (rural, urban, etc.)?
  18. What specific country, area, or city will I live in?
  19. What will be the location of my work?
  20. Will the location of my work change?
  21. What kind of housing will I have?
  22. How close will I live to my teammates?
  23. How often will I move?
  24. Will I have a housekeeper or other domestic helper?
  25. Will team members provide babysitting or other childcare?
  26. How will my home be used for ministry?
  27. What will I use for transportation?
  28. What will my standard of living be?
  29. How much will my education, preparation, training, and past experiences prepare me?
  30. How easily will I embrace the culture?
  31. How much will I fit in to the culture?
  32. How will the local people receive me?
  33. How much will culture shock/stress affect me?
  34. How long will culture shock/stress last?
  35. How easy will it be to get items I’m used to in my home culture?
  36. How will I celebrate holidays?
  37. How will I acclimate to the weather?
  38. How will I adjust to the food?
  39. What will my diet look like?
  40. What kind of food will I eat at home?
  41. How often will I eat out?
  42. How long will it take to develop relationships with local people?
  43. How close will my friendships be with nationals?
  44. Will I have a best friend, and if so, who will it be?
  45. What will my work responsibilities be?
  46. What people group will I work with?
  47. How will I partner with other teams, agencies, or workers from other denominations?
  48. How will I partner with local churches/believers?
  49. What will a new church plant look like?
  50. What role will I and my family play in a church plant?
  51. What methods will I use for outreach?
  52. What kind of work will I do?
  53. What physical needs will I work to alleviate?
  54. What will be my balance between meeting physical and spiritual needs?
  55. How will I integrate aspects of the host culture in presenting the gospel and in developing church practices?
  56. What will my typical day look like?
  57. What will my typical week look like?
  58. How long will it take to complete the projects I have planned?
  59. How will government restrictions affect my work?
  60. What will my supporters, my church, and my sending agency want me to accomplish?
  61. What will be the results of my work?
  62. How fruitful will my work be?
  63. When and to whom will I hand off my work?
  64. How will I define success?
  65. Where will I do language learning?
  66. What method will I use for language learning?
  67. How long will it take to learn the language?
  68. How many languages will I need to learn?
  69. What level of fluency will I achieve?
  70. How difficult will it be for me to learn the language?
  71. What language will I use for my work?
  72. What language will my personal worship be in?
  73. If single, will I date and pursue marriage?
  74. If I have children, how will living overseas affect them?
  75. How will my children’s faith develop?
  76. What involvement will my children have in the ministry?
  77. What kinds of relationships will my children develop?
  78. How will my children be educated?
  79. What relationship/interaction will my children have with my home culture?
  80. What will my children do after graduating from high school?
  81. How will I help my children make the transition to college if they attend?
  82. How large will my family be?
  83. How big will our team be?
  84. How will we go about adding new team members?
  85. What individual roles will different teammates have?
  86. How dependent will team members be on each other?
  87. Will the roles of married and single team members differ, and if so, how?
  88. Will male/female roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  89. Will husband and wife roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  90. How will team decisions be made?
  91. How will we handle team conflict?
  92. Who will oversee my work?
  93. What input will I have in agency decisions?
  94. What kind of personal boundaries/privacy will I be able to maintain?
  95. How much personal autonomy will I have?
  96. How, and how often, will I communicate with supporters?
  97. How openly will I be able to communicate with my supporters?
  98. How many will read my newsletters, prayer emails, etc.?
  99. What kind of prayer support will I have?
  100. How much communication will I get from supporters?
  101. How involved will my home church be?
  102. How often will representatives from my church and agency visit?
  103. What will happen during church/agency visits?
  104. How often will I host short-term teams?
  105. What will short-term-team trips look like (housing, projects, logistics, etc.)?
  106. What steps will I follow to make personal/family decisions?
  107. Will I be able to express any political views?
  108. How will I balance ministry/family/personal time?
  109. How many vacation days will I have?
  110. What will I do when I need to take a break, to rest, or to get away?
  111. What hobbies and personal interests will I engage in?
  112. What opportunities will I have for continuing education?
  113. Will I be able to pursue professional development?
  114. Will there be opportunities for professional advancement?
  115. How will I determine God’s will?
  116. How will God communicate with me?
  117. How often will I experience miracles?
  118. How will I practice my personal spiritual disciplines?
  119. What will my prayer life be like?
  120. How, and with whom, will I have weekly worship?
  121. How will my faith change?
  122. What will spiritual warfare look like?
  123. What risks will I face?
  124. How safe will I be?
  125. What will I, my family, and my team do if threatened with physical persecution or violence?
  126. What sacrifices will I need to make?
  127. What will be my capacity to handle change?
  128. What will be my biggest challenge?
  129. How resilient will I be?
  130. How will my and my family’s health be?
  131. What will local medical care be like?
  132. Will I travel outside the country for health needs?
  133. What member care will I receive?
  134. What self care will I practice?
  135. What will I do if I experience symptoms of depression or other mental illness?
  136. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about my experiencing mental illness?
  137. Who will I be able to share with with complete openness and honesty?
  138. How will I deal with disappointment and failure?
  139. What will I do if I feel overwhelmed?
  140. How will any previous trauma affect my life abroad?
  141. How would I address moral failings in my life?
  142. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about any moral failings in my life?
  143. What temptations will I face?
  144. How will I handle temptations?
  145. What kind of personal accountability will I have?
  146. What rules/practices will I have concerning alcohol and tobacco?
  147. What rules/practices will I have concerning the internet?
  148. How will my family at home respond to my being away overseas?
  149. How will my relationships with family back home be affected?
  150. How often will family from home visit?
  151. What events will happen with my family members back home while I’m away?
  152. Will I be able to travel back home for family events there, such as births, illnesses, funerals, emergencies?
  153. When and for how long will I have home service?
  154. How will reverse culture shock affect me (and my family)?
  155. What kind of send-offs and greetings will I get when traveling?
  156. What opportunities will I have to speak at supporting churches?
  157. How long will I stay abroad?
  158. What would cause me to leave the field?
  159. How will the decision be made for me to leave the field?
  160. What kind of work will I do if I leave the field?
  161. How will I fit in with my home church when I return?
  162. How long will my teammates stay?
  163. How will I prepare for retirement?
  164. How will I change while living overseas?
  165. How will things back home change while I’m away?
  166. What legacy will I leave behind?

[photo: “Mr. W. MacDougall chief Air Observer & Miss J. Grahame spotting,” from State Library of Victoria, used under a Creative Commons license]

It’s the Week Before You Move Overseas. What Are You Feeling?

It’s the week before you move overseas. What are you feeling?

Everything. You are feeling everything. 

Excitement: This is finally happening!

Fear: What was I thinking? I can’t do this!

Guilt: Every time my mom looks at me, she starts crying. How can I do this to her?

Focused: If I put more books in my carry-on, I can squeeze in an extra five pounds of chocolate chips. Let’s do this.

Worried: What if I oversleep and am late to the airport? What if I lose my passport? What if my bags are too heavy at the airport and they make me rearrange everything? What if I throw up? I really might throw up.

Stressed: Fourteen friends stopped by today to say goodbye, but all I can think about is that I need to buy my daughter one more pair of sandals in the next size. Oh, and this suitcase is hovering at 52 pounds. Something’s got to come out, and it might send me over the edge. 

Peaceful: I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I’m fulfilling my calling!

Sad: Every time I look at my mom, I start crying. How can I say goodbye for two years?

Grumpy: My children keep asking for lunch. Don’t they know I have to find room for these chocolate chips? 

Exhausted: I woke up at 5 this morning with a racing heart. After I fell asleep at midnight with a racing heart. 

Overwhelmed: That’s an understatement.

When that country was but a dream in your head, when you went through the application process, raised support, even applied for a visa – it all was hypothetical. But when it gets down to those final weeks and days, this is when it really gets real.

You sell your house and move in with your parents. You put your life’s memories out on the lawn, and you watch strangers carry away your furniture and your wedding presents. You hand over your house key, your work key, your car key, until all you have left is an empty, lonely key ring. You read the church bulletin and realize that you won’t be participating in that upcoming women’s retreat, that prayer meeting, that picnic. Life will go on without you, and suddenly, you feel as empty and lonely as your key ring. 

Pieces of your life crumble away around you as you squish the remnants into four 50-pound suitcases. It feels as if your life has become very small, and the foundation is gone, and you might as well be flying into outer space. 

The reality of leaving the people you love becomes tangible. Whether your family is supportive or not, you’re absorbing their grief. If you have young kids, they may be throwing fits or bedwetting or stuttering or acting more whiny than usual. But your mind isn’t stuffed full of just emotions, but also details. You can’t sit and process your feelings because you’ve got to think about visas, packing, tickets, covid tests. If the intensity feels extreme, it’s because it is. 

Don’t be surprised if you fall apart, finding yourself weeping under the covers. Don’t be surprised if you just go numb, completely overwhelmed to the point of being unable to feel anything. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself overly angry, overly anxious, overly nauseous. 

Having been there many times myself, this is what I want you to remember:

Don’t be surprised. The intensity of the emotions you are experiencing is normal, and will likely continue to intensify until you get on that plane. But it will have an end. Hang in there. It will have an end. 

Breathe. Make lists. Ask for help. 

Ask someone else to occupy your kids, preferably away from the house. The last thing your kids need is to be in the middle of the packing chaos and emotionally charged air. Get someone to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone will be much happier. 

Prioritize who you spend time with. Rank your friends. (See #6 of Jerry Jones’ tips. Actually, all of his tips are great.)

Give yourself grace. Give your kids grace. Give your mom grace. There’s no easy way through this; you just have to plow forward. It doesn’t get easier the second time, either, or any time after that. The only thing that gets easier is that you will know what to expect, and you will know it’s temporary. 

Breathe. God led you this far; He’s going to see you through. 

*Feelings chart by Rebekah Ballagh.

When you’re not sure what to pray for your organization

When I first went to the field I didn’t know how strong my relationship with my organization was going to be. I had no idea I would stay on the field as long as I did and that the next two decades were going to be so formative for the rest of my life.

So, it’s not surprising to hear that in those early days I prayed for my organization . . . sort of. My teammate and I prayed for “leaders” and “decisions they made.” As the years passed and I grew to know the names of the leaders—both on the field and in the home office—I could pray more specifically. But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I prayed as faithfully or as reflectively as I could.

Any organization is clearly made up of more than “leaders” and “decisions they make.”

Whether you’re with an organization or not, we all know of organizations and people who are in organizations. We’re all impacted by organizations—often for the good, sometimes for the less-than-good, and at times for the bad.

Eugene Peterson in On Living Well has this to say about growth (I bet you thought I was going to say prayer! Read what he said and think about how growth and prayer are related):

Christian growth, like any kind of growth, needs to be in continuous touch with the sources of its nourishment. If it develops more activity than its roots can support, it loses productivity. If it initiates activity that has no basis in its roots, it will wither quickly, to be replaced the next week by another cut-flower fad.

What struck me—both for growth and prayer—is the importance of roots. Of course this makes sense, but every now and then it’s good to circle back to the obvious and camp there for a moment.

Your ultimate roots are in God, not an organization you are with or may work with. One of the ways we can do this is through prayer for organizations. A common question for business owners is “do you make time to work on your business or do you only work in it?”

Life can be so full and loud and the urgent is often knocking at the door. If we’re not intentional, we can become like the business owner responds to the needs of the day and works faithfully in and rarely on the calling of her business.

I don’t want to just to just talk about prayer, but give you a few ideas and then time to pray for an organization you love.

1. Is there anything you fuss or worry about in your organization? Since your mind is already ruminating on that area, start there. Instead of pretending it doesn’t annoy you, be honest about it and pour your thoughts, concerns, and grievances out to God. (You just might be surprised how you change in the process too.)

2. This A Life Overseas article Let us pray for each other contains four scriptures to guide your prayer. You can adapt it to praying for your organization.

3. Global Trellis has adapted the Examen to lead you specifically through praying for your organization. You can read the Examen and the adaptation here or download the resource here.

If you’re new to the field, my hope and prayer is that this article will help you pray “better” (is there such a thing?) than I did when I moved to the field. And if you’re further along in your journey on the field that this will be used by the Holy Spirit to nudge you to pray for your organization this week.

May our prayer roots grow deeper. Amen and amen.

Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

Excess Baggage: The Weight of Unmet Expectations

In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of

team members, reported by 62%
community, 58%
relationships back home, 54%
ministry results, 52%
job responsibilities, 50%

And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be

team members, reported by 65%
job responsibilities, 64%,
community, 61%
family life, 56%

These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss (a past contributor to this blog). In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations lately and hope to address it here in the coming months. To start, I’d like to repost my article below, in a slightly edited form. It originally appeared under the title “Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down“:

I remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights—at no extra cost. That meant that when our family of six moved overseas, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.

It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?

There’s also another set of luggage that cross-cultural workers tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our assumptions, our plans, . . . our expectations.

In 2010, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss surveyed 323 female missionaries on how their expectations corresponded to reality on the mission field. The results form the backbone of their excellent book Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. What they found is that our pre-field predictions often don’t measure up to our on-field experiences. (I say “our” because though the book is written for and about women, most of its insights and lessons easily apply to both sexes.)

The authors gave the women a list of 34 expectations and asked them to rate each one on the degree to which it applied to them. Then the respondents went back and evaluated the list against what actually came to be in their lives as missionaries.

In 14 of the areas, the women reported that their expectations exceeded what they found in real life. The 10 with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

75.4% Am fruitful
70.4% Am a prayer warrior
67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
65.8% Continually trust God for everything
57.5% Have a daily quiet time
56.5% Have a successful quiet time
56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
50.9% Embrace my new host culture

The disconnect between expectations and reality often leads to disappointment and guilt. And as the authors point out, this can lead to burnout. It is difficult to move steadily forward when we are dragged down by the weight of our overpacked luggage.

So how can we pack less? How can we lighten our load? Here are some suggestions.

  • Read fewer biographies. Read more people.
    Stories about missionaries can be very inspirational, but when inspiration is the main goal, they can often leave out the flaws and shortcomings. When we assume that real missionaries are superhuman, then we are discouraged when we don’t measure up. That’s why we need to have honest conversations to find out the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. But not everyone will give you the unvarnished truth. It usually takes time to earn someone’s trust. And you’ll need to ask questions that get people rethinking their responses, to speak beyond the safe and familiar answers. Try asking a missionary, “What do you wish you’d known before you moved overseas?” “What have you learned?” “What would you tell yourself as a younger missionary candidate if you could?” “What are some of your unmet expectations?” (For other examples, see the questions asked of missionaries in Eenigenburg and Bliss’s survey, printed in the appendix of their book.)
  • And when you read, read between and outside the lines.
    As Eenigenburg and Bliss discuss, too many books on the lives of past missionaries paint a picture of spiritual perfection. One of the best-known missionary legacies is that of William Carey, who is often called “the father of modern missions.” In 1792, a sermon he delivered gave us the words, “Expect great things; attempt great things.” But I doubt that all of his expectations were met in his later life as a missionary in India. During that time a five-year-old son died; his wife, Dorothy, suffered from severe mental illness, became delusional, and died at the age of 51; his second wife died at 60; and his son Felix, after becoming a missionary himself, suffered tragedy and walked away from God. In Expectations and Burnout, the authors discuss this aspect of Carey, citing James R. Beck’s book, Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. Beck writes that Carey has often been portrayed as “never discouraged and never complaining” but adds that he wrote in his journal, “I don’t love to be always complaining—yet I always complain. The context for “Expect great things; attempt great things” is the life and work of Carey, not a Pinterest board or a poster of a snow-capped mountain range. But just as some books—and missionaries—are only completely positive, some can be entirely negative. Be cautious in drawing conclusions based on either side. But when you hear what sounds like cynicism and despair, be slow to judge. Context is important here, too. Find out the whole story. And don’t say, “That will never happen to me . . . not with my faith, my preparation, and my plans.”

Before you seat out for the field, prepare thoroughly and pack carefully. When it comes to packing your expectations, it isn’t just about seeing how much you can get into a suitcase and still get the zipper closed. It’s also about being discerning and knowing what to leave behind.

But you don’t want to go empty-handed, either. Hopes, dreams, and plans are important. Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And if you’ve got room, you might want to take that swimsuit, too. Just in case.

(Andrea Sears, “Expectations Factors,” The Missions Experience,” October 14, 2021; Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss, Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, William Carey, 2010; “Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things,” Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, D. D. [1761-1834], updated November 22, 2013)

[photo: “Heavy Luggage,” by Maurice Koop, used under a Creative Commons license]

Let’s review being incarnational

Last weekend I taught a two hour seminar to writers on “Becoming an Incarnational Writer.” The point of the workshop is to help writers think about their readers and not just the words they wrote. In my pre-field training we looked at the incarnation as a model for how we could enter into our new host cultures.

It was good stuff! But I thought I knew far more than I actually did. How hard can this incarnational stuff be when you go in the name of Christ and carry good news? Right? (Ha, oh sweet ignorant Amy.)

Incarnation means “was made flesh.” In particular, that God was made flesh and entered humanity as Jesus. Whether you are preparing to go to the field, in your first term, or been on the field for a lifetime, what do you notice about the incarnation from these key phrases from scriptures:

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

“In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Galatians 4:4-5

“Christ came into the world that he might save sinners . . . Christ might display his immense patience as an example.” 1 Timothy 1:15-17

He comes “lowly and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah 9;9

“He humbled himself by becoming obedient, even to the point of death.” Phillpians 2:8




What stood out to you? I was struck again by how integral dwelling and humility are to an incarnational approach . . . and how long they take!

Humility means to “have or show a modest or low estimate of your own importance.” Because this is read in so many locations and by such a wide range of experiences, no one way to be humble exists that is the same for each of us. But the work of having a low estimate of our own importance starts internally and is manifested externally.

It also works not only in your host country, but in your passport country too. Many A Life Overseas readers may not actually be living overseas as you read this. Perhaps COVID or family needs or visa policies have brought you to a land that you do not feel deserves the humble touch. You may be right, I don’t know. But I do know that incarnational living isn’t just for when we go to the field.

Which brings me to the second core concept that stood out to me: dwell. Being incarnational involves dwelling. I found three definitions that helped unpack what true dwelling involves:

—to live in or at a specified place

—to linger on

—to think, speak, or write at length about

What convicted me was not that concept of dwelling, but the focus of my dwelling. Maybe it’s the same for you. What do you linger on in your thoughts? What do you chew on in your conversations like a cow with her cud? Venting is fine! Having real emotions and reactions to hard situations is healthy and good. But choosing to dwell instead of process and move on is perhaps not the patience or obedience of incarnation.

Here are five principles or nuggets I noticed about the incarnation that I hope encourage you:

1. Jesus was a helpless baby. He started out as a baby! We do not have to know everything. Whew :)!

2. Jesus grew at the same rate as everyone. It’s true that he was teaching others at the ripe old age of twelve. You too will have some areas you excel in. But overall being incarnational means that you too will have to “work the program.” You’ll have to grow and achieve step-by-step.

3. Jesus built community. He had family, friends, and co-workers.

4. Jesus communed with God. We know that Jesus pulled away and spent time with God. Building community and spending time with God need to both exist in an incarnational life.

5. Finally, Jesus stayed focused on his “assignment.” Just like us, Jesus had many opportunities vying for his time such as healing the sick, addressing political messes, instructing the masses, building furniture, and on and on. While he did all of those things when the intersected with his God given assignment, they were never out of proportion in his life.

As you’ve read this post and thought about your own incarnational experience, and in particular wherever you happen to be right now, what stood out to you?

Photo by Olivier Chatel on Unsplash