An Appeal – A Life Overseas

Yup! We hate to ask but…!

On November 14, 2012 Laura Parker, co-founder of the A Life Overseas blog and community space posted a “Welcome Video” to the site. That was the beginning of what has now become an online community thousands strong.

We are a diverse group linguistically, culturally and theologically, but we all agree that taking the step to live, work, and raise a family overseas takes our lives to places and into circumstances we could never imagine. In this community, life is definitely far stranger than fiction.

We exist to support those in cross cultural work. Whether you’re a business person, a diplomat, a humanitarian aid worker, an educator or all those above, but you are first of all a Christ-follower this community is for you.

Cross-cultural workers cram a life into a suitcase and begin a journey into foreign places, both geographically and spiritually. Assaulted by cultural stress, ministry challenges, learning a new language, and the trauma of culture shock, these workers long for community– a sense of connection, regardless of if they are the boiling water alone in an African hut or battling public transport in a crowded Indian city. No doubt, living overseas can be brutal — on a family, on a faith, and in a soul. But, there’s no doubt, too, that it can be one of the most depth-giving experiences an individual can embrace. Like all of life, though, our stories are understood best when we have a community to share them with.

About A Life Overseas

We are in a place right now where we need funds to continue the site. We are largely funded through the writers and administrators of this blog, but we need help!

So we ask you to consider making a donation to keep the site going. Five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars – it doesn’t matter. Our leadership team here at ALOS is committed to keeping this going but we need your help!

Through the past eight years, if you have benefited from reading and interacting with A Life Overseas, would you consider helping?

Click this link to make your donation! And thank you!

Thank you for hosting my niece (again)

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter five years ago (?!). At that time my nieces were ages 9 to 16, now they are, 14 to 21. Those younger sisters who were just watching the oldest? This summer all four of them participated in three different trips. I see how that first trip five years ago is still rippling out. I can’t show you exactly how your investment in teens will play out. But as an aunt watching, I can tell you God is using your investment in ways you can’t imagine. I want to write a follow-up letter to this one. But for some context, let’s start here. Again, I say, “Thank you for hosing my niece and nieces! I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying!” With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe you do too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She came home changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

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

Because There Just Aren’t Enough Words to Describe the Overseas Experience, Here Are a Few More for Your Lexicon

airplane wing and clouds

Over the years I’ve created a collection of new terms for old things—things that are common to traveling and living overseas but that haven’t had common labels. Most of them have come to me while I’m in the air, looking out the window or thumbing through an inflight magazine.

I’ve posted these before on my blog, but I’ve yet to hear anyone use a single one in casual conversation, so I’m thinking they need a broader audience. I hope that some of these can make their way into your vocabulary. I’ll keep my ears open.

bait and glitch
You find a cheap plane ticket online and go through all the steps to buy it, double and triple checking all the details, and then when you select “confirm,” you get that encouraging message that says, “The fare you’ve selected is no longer available.” Maybe it’s because the search site wasn’t up to date or because someone else recklessly grabbed the last seat while you were prudently making up your mind. If it’s the latter, it just proves the old standard, “Time flies when you’re choosing flight times” (or something like that).

direct flight to the dog house
This is what you receive after you proudly show the money-saving itinerary—that you just booked—to your spouse, and said spouse points out that it includes a 14-hour layover (also known as a “wayover”) and that you and your four children will need to collect all checked baggage between each of the five connecting flights. Travel to the doghouse does accumulate frequent-flyer miles, but they can only be redeemed for undesirable trips, such as to overnight stays on the living-room couch.

metapacking
Carrying a suitcase in a suitcase so that you can bring back more stuff than you take. This can be as simple as a duffle bag inside another piece of luggage, but in its purest form, it is a checked bag precisely fitting inside another checked bag. The term metapacking can be extended also to encompass using a cheap or broken suitcase to transport items one way and then disposing of that suitcase after you arrive. Seasoned travelers always keep a broken suitcase lying around.

eurekathing
Something you find inside your luggage when you start packing—something you haven’t seen since your last trip. Discovering it brings out such responses as “Oh, that’s where that is,” or “I do have one of those.” A wad of ten-dollar bills is eurekaching, a piece of jewelry, eurekabling.

tetrisness
The feeling of accomplishment one feels after packing every necessary item just right in a suitcase. A landmark study out of the University of Gatwick-Hempstead shows that tetrisness activates the same portion of the brain as when one successfully folds a fitted sheet.

TSAT
The TSAT (pronounced Tee Ess Ay Tee or Tee-Sat) is an oral exam in which family members yell questions and answers from room to room concerning Transportation Security Administration regulations:

Is it the 3-1-1 rule or 1-1-3 . . . or 3-2-1 or 9-1-1? Does deodorant count as a liquid? What about wet wipes? Or snow globes? Or chocolate-covered cherries? Can I take nail clippers in my carry-on? What about tweezers? Duct tape? Scotch tape? Chopsticks? Toothpicks? Javelins?

fortnightlies
Countless requests—for coffee, a get-together, or a meal—made by friends who have just realized that your departure for a long or permanent stay is only. two. weeks. away.

vontrappish
How you feel when you’re ready for bed the night before a morning flight, with all your luggage placed neatly (more or less) next to the door—lined up like the von Trapp family ready to sing “So Long, Farewell.” You may have mixed feelings, and you may or may not sleep. In extreme cases, you hear yourself humming the tune.

flotsam and jetsam and thensam
The abundance of things that people give you and your children right before you leave for the airport or get on the plane. This includes gifts, souvenirs, snacks, word-find and sudoku books, coloring books with a four-pack of crayons, and those faces with metal shavings that you form into a beard with a magnet.

disafearance
Leaving your tightly locked up (?) house thinking you might have left the iron on (even though you don’t remember having done any ironing) is one thing, but watching your hand zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack and then just two minutes later checking to see if it’s actually there because you’re afraid that you didn’t in fact zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack but instead, due to a muscle spasm, may have opened the car window and tossed your passport onto the shoulder of the highway—or what if it just spontaneously combusted, leaving no smoke or ashes? That’s disafearance.

duffling
Upon hearing the counter agent at the airport say that your checked bag is three pounds overweight, you feign frantic action by grabbing zippers, patting your pockets, turning in circles, and saying things such as “I could . . . ,” “Well, I . . . ,” and “What can . . . ,” hoping that the ticket agent will take pity on you and say it’s OK. Be careful that your duffling isn’t too aggressive or the agent will actually let you follow through on solving the problem.

terminal fowliage
Birds that have somehow gotten into an airport and fly around amongst the rafters and indoor trees. Birds stuck inside a place where people come to fly. Sense the irony?

flaggle
A flaggle of tourists is a group of middling to senior travelers, led by a tour guide with a flag and bullhorn. The flag is akin to the kind I and my friends used to bolt onto our banana-seat bikes when we were kids. Oh, if only we’d had megaphones, too. You can tell that the flaggle is on the return leg of their trip when you see them bringing home food and souvenirs packed in large, branded gift bags or boxes with tied-on handles.

making a this-line’s-not-for-you-turn
After standing patiently in an airport line for fifteen minutes and realizing that it doesn’t lead where you need to go, you nonchalantly walk away—as if standing in lines is simply your hobby and you’re now looking for another place to queue up for more pleasant amusement. (Aren’t you glad you came early?)

shuftle
The standing-room-only shuttle bus at some airports that shuffles passengers on the tarmac from plane to airport terminal (or vice versa). This word can also be used as a verb.

Sadow-Plath effect
Happens in the moment when you accidentally kick a pulled carry-on with your heel and it flips onto one wheel and mo.men.tar.i.ly balances before flipping completely over or wobbling back to both wheels. This brief pause at the top of the carry-on’s arc is actually a tiny breach in the space-time continuum, caused by the rapid upturn of the luggage in combination with the forward motion. The effect is named after Bernard D. Sadow, inventor of the wheeled suitcase, and Bob Plath, creator of the rollaboard.

glizing
Glizing is the act of experiencing the wonderfully smooth exponential forward motion as you stride confidently on an airport’s moving walkway. This only happens when you’re not in a hurry, in part because, as studies show, the walkways do little to speed you up, and often slow you down.

BlackNSquare
When you try to describe your piece of luggage at the lost-luggage counter, all you can remember is that it’s part of the BlackNSquare line made by the Yuno company. Question: “What Kind of luggage do you have?” Answer: “Yuno, BlackNSquare.” Yuno also makes the upscale models BlackNSquare with Handle and BlackNSquare with Wheels.

preseating
To sit down, with plenty of time before boarding, able to relax because your bags are checked, you’re definitely at the right gate, and a quick look shows that your passport is right where it’s supposed to be. You take a deep breath and contemplate the hopeful possibilities of your trip. You can charge your phone, read, or people watch. You’re free to walk about and might grab a cup of coffee, browse the bestsellers in the bookstore, or window shop expensive luggage and watches . . . and on the way, you can go glizing.

passenger of imminent domain
This is the person directly in front of you on a plane who, upon sitting down, immediately pushes their seat back as far as it will possibly go. Intuiting that something must be hindering it, they try to force it back farther, again and again. There. Must. Be. Something. Keeping. The. Seat. From. Reclining completely flat (possibly your knees). Finally, leaving the seat fully back, they lean forward to watch a movie.

chipillow
The bag of snacks that you bring from home that bloats up once you reach higher altitudes. With care, it can be used to rest your head on, due to the fact that it’s in the same food group as the neck croissant.

FASL
Flight Attendant Sign Language. Includes such specialized hand maneuvers as indicating the exits by extending the arms to the side, palms forward, pointing with two fingers, Boy Scout style, and mimicking the pulling of life-vest inflation cords using the crook of the thumb and first finger with the other fingers fanned out, subliminally showing that everything will be “OK.”

single-entré seating
The rows in the far back of the plane where you no longer get a choice between the brazed beef medallions over a wild-rice pilaf and the broiled fish and mashed potatoes. You get the fish.

cartnering
This is the act of hovering next to the food cart as it’s making its way down the aisle. Timing a trip to the bathroom with the distribution of meals is truly an art form, and it is best done passive-aggressively (such as by wearing a smile while dancing from one foot to the other).

Silent Gotcha Port
The “SGP” is the small screw hole on the seat armrest that looks as if it must be the place where you plug in your earphones.

Queen Ramona’s Veil
The dark mesh curtain that separates business class from coach. Its main purpose is to protect those in the front of the plane from projectiles thrown by the riotous mob behind, who are known to catapult dinner rolls at each other using slingshots fashioned from their airline-provided sleep masks and who sometimes divide into teams for prolonged games of ultimate Frisbee. In small planes, the curtain, only a few inches across and resting next to the cabin wall, is known as Queen Romana’s Veilette. Its purpose is purely psycho-social.

The term “Queen Ramona’s Veil” comes from the name commonly used for the wood-and-iron gate employed by the overly paranoid and little-known British Queen Ramona II to separate her highness from the filthy hordes sometimes present in the steerage portion of her royal sailing ship. Mention of the barrier is made in the English dirge “The Death of Queen Ramona at the Hands of the Filthy Hordes.” (Can you tell that I rarely get to fly business class?)

seatemic (pronounced see-uh-tehm-ic)
Your connecting flight is delayed and you have no time to spare so when it lands you run as fast as you can (and by “as fast as you can” I mean a combination of running, jogging, speed walking, walking, stopping, and wheezing) across the airport and arrive at your gate just as they’re closing the door and you speed down the gangway and board the plane and force your carryon into something close to an available slot and find your seat and quickly strap in so the plane can take off. . . . Now all you can do is sit still, sweating, with your heart racing and your veins coursing with adrenaline. Your body is in a fight-or-flight response but something tells you this is a different kind of flight. If you are suffering from these symptoms, you are seatemic.

no-watch list
Movies on this list are not allowed to be shown in-flight. The list includes Red EyeAirborneNon-StopFlightplanSnakes on a PlaneQuarantine 2: Terminal, and Plane of the Living Dead. And, yeah, some of these shouldn’t be shown on the ground, either.

altivism
Gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.

post-ping che-klatches
The sound of seatbelt buckles popping open the instant the plane stops at the gate and passengers hear the OK-now-you-can-get-up tone. This allows those in window seats to immediately grab their carryons, put them where they were just sitting, and wait, hunching under the overhead bins.

welwelwel-ke-come
This is the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.

dyslistening
The condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”

visatrig
The act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.

unchewing
The physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of in your host country is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.

[photo: “Fight over Slovenia,” by (Mick Baker)rooster, used under a Creative Commons license]

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.