Taking the Hypocrisy Out of Home Ministry Assignment

by Michèle Phoenix

Hypocrisy is a topic we don’t like to address in the missionary community—perhaps because of the unspoken reality that a little bit of deception has sometimes proven to be good for ministry. (I’m not condoning it, just acknowledging it.) But where does “putting your best foot forward” end and “misrepresenting yourself” begin?

The line is blurred in this world where personal relationships are often financial partnerships too.

If there’s one chapter of ministry that disguises the line even more, it’s HMA.

HMA (Home Ministry Assignment) is a necessary endeavor. It’s a chance for missionaries and their children to reconnect with their passport culture, to visit family and friends they haven’t seen in a while and to check in with churches and individuals who support their work.

Unfortunately, without careful management and execution, HMA can also teach observant children some unintentional lessons about relative honesty and incomplete disclosure.

We MKs learn the tricks of the trade by watching our parents.

We see them responding with a polite smile to people making comments they fiercely disagree with. We see them being more friendly with potential donors than they’d be with the grocer or a relative. We see them saying eloquent prayers in public that they’d never utter at home. We see them laughing with too much vigor or accepting offense with too much willingness—all in what we assume is an attempt to keep everyone happy…and generous.

Note: I don’t think most people set out to misrepresent who they are or what they think. It’s just one of the ways we can go off-track if we let the approval of others or fundraising mandates become the driving force of our HMA efforts.

Many MKs develop a flawed Philosophy of Furlough at an early age:

  • If supporters like us, they’ll support us.
  • If they don’t like us, they’ll stop supporting us.
  • If they stop supporting us, we’ll have to leave the field and Life-As-We-Know-It will come to an end.

Because a common MK trait is taking on the burdens of our world, we assume that the survival of Life-As-We-Know-It depends in great part on us.

So we enter into the HMA experience feeling the pressure to influence the outcome, even if that means being something other than our true selves. We try our hardest to be cute, winsome, talented, polite and well-behaved. We’ll eat the mushrooms we hate so as not to offend our hosts. We’ll recite John 3:16 in four languages any time we’re asked. We’ll do it all because we’re pretty sure we’re the persuasive props brought along for that purpose.

We live out the cynical premise that performance plus schmoozing equals getting to return home at the end of HMA.

Living in that distorted truth can be debilitating.

When I was sixteen, I sat in a service with my parents after a pre-church morning that had bristled with marital tension. I listened to my dad giving a heartfelt sermon while my mom still fumed in the pew beside me. I braced myself to sing the song that, in my mind, was supposed to “seal the deal” and ensure continued support. The responsibility was an anvil in my stomach as I got up to sing “There is a Savior” with sweet, practiced conviction. A couple ladies pulled out their Kleenexes as I finished and I felt a thrill of victory. My parents got up to make a final statement, standing close and smiling. The church applauded. Successful performance. Life-As-I-Knew-It had been preserved.

So wrong. So un-Christlike.

This mode of influence can be easily normalized in any field where image yields profit. In ministry, however, it takes on spiritual overtones…as if God Himself required it of us. When hypocrisy is attributed to God’s expectations for the sake of his work, it becomes even more sinister and destructive.

Marriage trouble? Don’t ever mention it. Missionary discord? Never refer to it. Ministry discouragement and attrition? Not something we discuss. Problems with lust, money-mismanagement, unethical behaviors? Nobody needs to know. Why? Because even we have bought into the myth that ministry requires that we present a certain image in order to fund our work.

The repercussions of this perspective on honesty and truth can be far-reaching.

If MKs have spent their childhood observing relationships in which approval (and its payoff) is obtained through something that looks like insincerity—or at the very least, careful image management—should we not be concerned about the honesty they’ll bring to the rest of their relationships? How will they find the courage and confidence to risk showing their flaws? And who will they lose to their inability to do so?

In my work with Missionaries’ Kids, I’ve encountered far too many who return to their passport culture to live long-term, believing that relationships will only be achieved through the same kind of selective self-revelation they saw in their parents on HMA. It’s a subconscious tendency that can lead to relational failure.

Early exposure to hypocrisy can affect our ability to be real with ourselves too.

We so keenly feel the pressure to live up to the expectations of others that some of us resort to hiding behind strategically crafted masks, berating ourselves when we let them slip.

We become fierce in our fakeness. Fearful too. And the habit can get so ingrained that we’re not even aware we’re living according to a destructive mandate to be something other than ourselves. It can prevent us from seeking help, maturing and finding an identity born of integrity.

At its worst, our hypocrisy—even just perceived hypocrisy—can eventually cause MKs to dismiss God, Christians and faith itself.

When the God of Truth is represented by envoys who rely on untruth to “get the job done,” it can cause a destabilizing disconnect that skews one’s outlook on all spiritual things. I’ve seen it happen. It is heart-wrenchingly tragic when it does.

How can we begin to reverse this trend? I’ll offer a handful of suggestions below, but please contribute yours too in the comments space beneath this post.

Change must begin with parents—they’re the ones who demonstrate authenticity and set the tone for HMA.

In everyday life:

  • Be real and vulnerable with people you can trust…especially in public. (Dare to defy the unspoken “be perfect or pretend” missionary motto.)
  • Demonstrate how honesty and vulnerability are healthy, especially when they lead to help, healing, and wholeness.
  • Set God’s expectations and grace as a standard, not a church’s or supporter’s approval.

During HMA:

  • Make sure your MKs know that you’re the adult, you’re the public persona, you’re the one shouldering the burden, the effort and the outcome.
  • Relieve your children of any responsibility for the results of your fundraising.
  • Tell your children what your financial situation really is, in terms they understand, so they don’t live in fear of immediate bankruptcy.
  • Validate your kids’ talents, but don’t use them as mere strategies and fundraising tools.
  • Give them the option not to participate in your HMA meetings or attend youth classes. They need to know that they have some degree of control over their part of your furlough. (You may need to clearly express this to supporters and church leaders too, if they pressure your children to be more involved than they want to be.)
  • Make sure your MKs know that you don’t expect them to change in order to be liked by potential donors. The same behavioral rules that apply behind closed doors apply on HMA.
  • Demonstrate Who and what really motivates your exchanges with the people you interact with—God and relationship, not dollar signs.

I’d be remiss not to mention the role of The church in addressing this issue.

Missionaries who have dared to be real in public settings have sometimes been met with judgment and disapproval by people who think they should be paragons of strength, resilience, virtue and unblemished character. Expressing concerns about team discord or personal challenges on the field has too often been interpreted as being unsuited for ministry rather than prompting a collaborative pursuit of solutions and healing.

In order for missionaries to be real, churches need to allow them to be fully human. The following is an incomplete list of suggestions. Again—please add yours in the comments at the end of this post.

  • Give missionaries permission to experience struggles. (You’re supporting real people who are just as susceptible to sin and weakness as anyone else.)
  • Out of relationship, ask personal questions with loving intentions.
  • Offer a safe place in which they can voice their failures and find compassionate help.
  • When they visit you with their MKs, demand nothing from the children except that they be children accompanying Mom and Dad. Let the family decide how much they’ll be involved.

I can’t end without saying that I’ve seen countless missionary families who have lived authentically on HMA! I’d go so far as to say that a majority of them do, sometimes at the cost of being misunderstood. It takes courage to be real in the face of unreasonable expectations. Let’s affirm and support each other toward that goal for the sake of the children who are watching and learning.

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

Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed

When I’m overseas, I dream about Target.  Everything I need, all in one place, at reasonable prices!  So when our furlough started a month ago, I visited Target the day after I arrived.

We’ve been missionaries for 13 years, so I should know better by now.  Target’s awesomeness can be a little too much to take in just 48 hours after leaving East Africa.  I was instantly bombarded with hordes of conflicting emotions.  Wow, it’s all so amazing!  Look at all this stuff!  Yeah, what’s wrong with Americans?  Why are they so materialistic?  That one pair of shoes could feed a family for a week in Tanzania.  And in just a couple of years, all these clothes will be cast off and end up in some market in Africa.  So why should I even bother shopping for them now?  Oooohhh….but I really like that blouse.

Emotional whiplash.  I couldn’t keep up.

And then when I finally did finish shopping, I felt like an idiot as the clerk tried to help me use the chip card machine.  Shoot, I thought I was doing well by just remembering how to use a credit card, and then they go and change all the rules on me!  “Sorry,” I mumbled to her.  “I’ve been living overseas a really long time.”

Ah, going home.  We dream about it.  We long for it.  We count the days until take off.  But when it finally arrives, the reality just doesn’t match up.  And we find ourselves in the midst of adjusting, all over again, to a place that we thought would feel like home.  We find ourselves struggling with disillusionment and discouragement.

So why can visiting home feel so hard?  Here are some thoughts.

People move on.  When you leave home for a just a few weeks or months, it’s easy to slip back into the same routines of life.  Friends, social events, and jobs all come back together just as they were before—just with more stories to tell.  But when you leave for years, life goes on without you.  In your mind, time stood still back at home, but in reality, your friends have gone through hard stuff and happy stuff, and you were not there to experience with them.  And all those people who sent you overseas with much fanfare?  They are a lot busier now, and might forget to roll out that red carpet you expected.

You are a different person.  Spending years in a different country changes you.  You’ve adapted to new ways of speaking, interacting, shopping, sleeping, and raising kids.  There are literally new pathways in your brain.  It’s not so easy to just drop all of that on a 14 hour flight and expect to become the same person you once were when you get back home.  You are not going to see the world the same way ever again.

Which leads to the next point:  You won’t be treated the same way you were before.  You’re in a different category, and even close friends might not know how to relate to you.  People often won’t be able to understand your life overseas, they don’t know what questions to ask, and you’ve entered a spiritual plane that is intimidating.

Your home country will not look the same.  You might go out to dinner, and find yourself feeling guilty about how differently that money could be used in your host country.  The people around you might appear more fickle than they did before you left, and you might feel a lot more critical of your home culture.  The barrage of new emotions can be disconcerting and disorienting.

And to top it off, Furlough never looks like real life.  During all those years overseas, you day-dreamed about your life back at home.  You imagined yourself back in your happiest of memories:  Christmases by the fire, family movie nights, Sunday lunches with grandma.  And though you may get to re-experience a lot of those things on your furloughs back home, you quickly come to realize that furlough life is nothing like your old life.  You are living in strange places out of suitcases, you travel constantly, you have to be an extrovert even if you aren’t one.  You get glimpses of your old life, but it’s never really the same.

But.  Before you despair, let me encourage you with this:

There truly are a lot of wonderful things about visiting home.  Absolutely.  You will certainly find an abundance of joy in reuniting with the people, the churches, and the food you have missed for so long.  And even Target, of course.  But adjust your expectations.  Don’t get your feelings hurt by people who have moved on.  Don’t expect the red carpet rolled out for you.  Don’t be surprised by bombarding emotions and know that not all of them will be happy feelings.  And do expect that the feelings of estrangement and isolation will increase with every progressive furlough.  Enjoy the wonderful parts of visiting home, but don’t be surprised when it’s not everything you hoped it would be.

Also, learn be content with where you are.  Don’t spend your entire time in your host country dreaming about life back at home.  Work hard to be all there, to fully immerse your mind and your heart completely in your new country.  Remind yourself that as much as you miss life back at home, that it was never perfect, and you’ll find that it’s even less perfect than you remember.

When a country is etched into your soul

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When I’m in Cambodia, I assume that I think like an American and that I act like one too — because in many ways I do. But then I return to America and discover I’ve forgotten some key facts about the way Americans live in America. Things like:

  1. Americans don’t throw their toilet paper in the trash can. (Oops.)
  2. Americans pump their own gas. (You expect me to do what?!)
  3. Americans give and receive objects with one hand, not two. (Still working on that one.)
  4. Americans inherently know how to use shower curtains. (Unlike my children.)
  5. Americans don’t point with their middle fingers. (Also unlike my children.)
  6. Americans don’t get offended if you motion them to “come here” with your palms and fingers pointed up. (I, however, now am offended by palms-up gestures. Even in movies.)
  7. On the other hand, Americans may very well be offended if you ask them their age. (Oops again.)
  8. Americans in America don’t worry over torn or ripped dollar bills and will use them even if they’re not in pristine condition. (Which is one less thing to worry about at the ATM.)
  9. Americans (in Suburbia) don’t lock doors and windows obsessively like I do.
  10. Americans don’t worry about shoes in the house. (Is it because of the vacuum cleaners??)

Much more deeply than these surface-level customs, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Cambodia has been etched into my soul. I’ve encountered God so fiercely, so intimately, and so many times in Cambodia that it’s been written into my heart.

In prayer, in Bible study, in worship, and in fellowship with other believers, Cambodia has marked me. It has been for me Bethel, the house of God, a gateway to heaven. It has been for me Beer-lahai-roi, the well of the Living One who sees me.*

It’s where I’ve found purpose and calling in writing and encouraging fellow sojourners. It’s where I’ve fallen deeper in love with God and with His church. How can I not love Cambodia??

Sometimes I love God so much in Cambodia that I forget He’s also in America. My first home assignment was really spiritually dry. Almost like a desert, in fact. It made me want to hurry back to Cambodia. It also made me nervous about returning to the States a second time.

And sure enough, one morning early in this current visit, I was out on my parents’ deck, discouraged and feeling sorry for myself. God, where are you? Why are you so hard to find in America?

In the midst of my pity party, Jonathan walked out. He listened to me complain about my circumstances. Then he told me, “Remember, if you can find God in Cambodia, then you can find Him here.”

Ouch! Exhortation received, dear husband. And thankfully, I’m here to say it’s true. This time, I’m finding Him here. I’m seeing Him and I’m hearing Him. He’s not silent. He’s not far away.  He is present. And He is good.

I miss my raggedy red couch in Cambodia; it’s true. I miss my palm trees and my early morning meetings with God, drinking my cheap coffee in a room thick with heat, street noise, and river dust.

I relish the comforts of first world living — the plush carpets and the comfy furniture. And I delight in the joy of meeting old friends. But I miss the pressure cooker of God’s love and the fellowship of like minds that I’ve found overseas.

I also know that in two months’ time, I’ll slide right back into my old, familiar routines. I’ll rise on the wings of the dawn and fly straight back to Bethel, back to Beer-lahai-roi. For the present, however, I’ll continue to meet God wherever and however He shows up.

*Genesis 16:14

How has your host country been etched into your soul?

Do have difficulty finding God when you visit your passport country? How do you deal with it?

6 Reasons Furloughs are Awesome (sort of)

6. A furlough is one of the best “weight-gain” plans out there. It’s sort of like pregnancy, but with furlough, the cravings occur every-mester. During furlough, scales become toxic and should be avoided at all cost. No worries, though, ’cause if you’re wondering whether or not you’ve gained weight, just get back on the plane and return to the foreign field. Your neighbors will poke your belly, tell you you’re much fatter than before, and smile. God bless ’em.
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5. A furlough is great practice for dying. No, really. You get the unique chance to look back on your life (or term) and justify your existence to anyone who wants to listen (or send you money). You get all things “in order” for your departure, making sure all will go well during your absence. You make sure pets are taken care of. You make sure all the important documents are up to date and easily findable. You prepare yourself and your loved ones for “a long journey” that will be worth it because, at the end of it all, there will be Chick-Fil-A. And grandma.
 
rfa1
4. A furlough’s like a really long vacation. Who else gets to take months off at a time? Actually, on furlough, you’re sort of like a backpacker, but without the dreadlocks. Or the pot.
 
3. Potable water (which, it should be noted, has nothing to do with the aforementioned pot). Clean drinking water is in the pipes, people! What kind of alternate universe are we in? On our first furlough, my son took a break at the public park, stating he was thirsty. When I pointed him to the water fountain, he looked at me incredulously and said, “Is it safe?” “Yup.” “For real? And it’s free?” “Yup.” “WOW! That is so nice!” I won’t tell you what he said about the toilet.
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2. You get to trade in friend-sets. With a furlough, it’s sort of like you get to have two lives, but without all the complications (and secrets, which make for great TV but bad newsletters). Want to reboot your friend-set to a prior decade of life? Simply hitch a ride on a big metal tube with movies and free toothbrushes and you’ll be on your way. But be warned, as with all time travel, weird things (like Miley Cyrus and self-checkout lines) happen.
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(And now for a serious one to justify the time you just wasted reading this list. Unless you’re reading this while on vacation, I mean, furlough.)
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1. You get to share (and listen to) the Story of Stories in your own heart language. Yes, the Gospel is amazing in any language, but when it’s your language, when those are the actual words you first heard when you first heard Jesus, something magical happens. The Gospel is omni-cultural, for sure, but it’s also inherently personal. And the honor of serving in the churches that birthed you, that sent you, that love you, well that’s something to write home about.
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Since I’m currently on vacation, er, furlough, I took
the liberty of adapting an old post from trotters41.com.

5 Thoughts for the Local Church

The local church and missionaries on the field should be on the same team, but often a wedge of misunderstanding is driven between the two.

There is a danger when missionaries feel entitled to the support of a local body. Many dig their own grave in destroying relationships with their sending churches.

Equally, misunderstanding can come within the body of Christ and be directed towards those on the field.

As a veteran of missions for over 23 years, here is my encouragement for the body of Christ about their care of missionaries.

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5 Ways the Local Church can Serve a Missionary:

1. Communicate
There are two forms of communication which are essential. Communication to us, and communication for us

Please communicate to us because it is often lonely on the mission field. I remember calling home collect in the middle of the night when I happened to find a phone. Now with technology, we literally are always available.

While it is primarily the responsibility of the missionary to maintain communication, a call or email from home asking how things are going or even updating us on church life is fantastic.

When we do return, please communicate favorably for us and about us. I recently sat in a church service where the phrase “deepest, darkest Africa” was used several times. This does not create a love for the nations, but a fear of them! Language like this makes us strange and difficult to relate to (not to mention what it says of the precious people in “deepest and darkest…”).

2.  Help us connect
Returning to your church after months or years away can be daunting. Times and people change quickly. Any assistance you can provide to help us plug-in and meet new people through small groups or BBQ’s would be welcome.

These connections do not need to be ministry oriented; allowing us to “share.” Relationships are what make home, feel like home.

3. Engage us when we return
A one word answer satisfies many people as to how things are going. It can be demoralizing to sum up your entire ministry with responses of “good” or “really well”.

While this conversation is the norm, please provide someone who can celebrate our successes and empathize with the struggles we face. Nothing beats a face to face with someone else in ministry. Even better, would be a conversation with someone who is familiar with the work we are doing.

A simple service to a missionary would be having a person who “understands us.”

4. Ask us the hard questions
Many meetings with the pastors involve recaps of our ministry. This is valid and necessary. But we desire and need more.

Please engage us on a deeper level about our ministry and our personal lives. Ask questions like:
– Have you maintained freshness in your vision?
– How is your walk with God?
– Are you dealing with the stress of missions in your marriage?
How are your kids responding to life in a foreign country?
– Are you making it financially? Can you set aside some money for the future?
– Do you rest regularly?

As a leader or missionary overseas, we may not have peers in our life asking these questions. Please make us uncomfortable for the sake of our long-term success!

5. Let us rest
Trips home are often busier than ordinary life. We are living in a house which is not our own, visiting all kinds of people, all while trying to bang the drum for generating support.

It is exhausting. And worse, our co-workers on the field think we are on holiday!

While still engaging us, please don’t run us ragged!

My church has often gone the extra mile by providing opportunities for fun, or even simple assistance such as a car or a bit of pocket cash for shopping.

This post is not designed to take any shots at our supporting churches. (Ours are fantastic!) My hope is to bring awareness from a missionary’s perspective and to engage us in a dialogue.

I invite pastors, missions boards, or people who support missionaries to comment.

What would you add to the discussion?

What are your pet peeves in the way missionaries respond or act entitled?

What other suggestions do you have to assist in the relationship between the church and a missionary?

What does a missionary need to know about the local church?

Let’s discuss!

Photo credit: In the Shadow of the Cross St Martha – paint via photopin (license)

When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…

When you start to pick your nose in public, you might be too cheap for Kleenex. Or you might live in a really dry, dusty place and need to dig that one out before it makes you bleed. Or you might be overdue for a break.

When you (if a native English speaker) start to say things like, “There is no being upsetness in playing video games,” and think that is perfectly good English, you might be a really bad English teacher. Or you might be dizzy and dehydrated from the rising summer temperatures. Or you might be overdue for a break.

when this starts to look like a darn good beach shade…

How do you know when your time to step out of the host culture has come? I knew it when I would catch a side glimpse of myself in a mirror and only then, notice that my shoulders hunched forward, only then, realize I was too exhausted to even walk upright.

Living overseas is expanding and exhilarating and inspiring. And draining. At least for some. Our daughter asked why we were going to Minnesota for a year in 2011 and I said, “Daddy is working on his PhD and mommy needs a break from Djibouti.” She said, “Why? What do you need a break from?” To her this sounded like, “Mommy needs a break from life.”

And that’s what furlough, R ‘n R, can feel like, which is probably why a lot of expats shun the notion until they are walking like one hundred-year old women, shuffling around like the hunchback Jesus healed, eyes on the dirt and the dirty feet and not looking up into the face of our Healer. But that’s not true. Time away from the host country is not a break from life. It’s a break from specific things about expat life that strain.

Everyone encounters stress, another excuse for expats to forgo the rest time. Why should we remove ourselves from our work and friends and expat home life when others aren’t allowed that option? Because expat stress isn’t just the stress of a job or of a difficult relationship. Expat stress affects every single aspect of our lives from seemingly minor things like clothes and food to deep things like how we practice our faith and how often we relocate. The stresses strike at our sense of identity and are often far beyond our ability to control, let alone comprehend.

*holidays away from family

*speaking multiple foreign languages all day, every day

*excessive heat or cold or dust

*loneliness

*the stress of never fully comprehending the surroundings

*inability to make quick, confident choices

*lack of spiritual fellowship, input, and accountability

*lack of vocational training or development

The list could go on as long as there are expats

Furloughs are not a break from life because life continues, we take living with us. On either side of the ocean there will still be meetings and proposal-writing, diapers and school lunches, laundry and car repairs, relationships and labor. But for a brief time, there will also be green grass to roll in and Grandma’s caramel rolls for Christmas breakfast. There will be the intrinsic knowledge of how to dress, how much things should cost, how to respond when your kid is bullied at school. You will know exactly, without a second thought, how to stand in a line at the store, how to speak English, and how you like your coffee.

sometimes you need to step away

I’m not saying that assimilation is wrong, it’s good. It’s important to learn how to elbow your way to the counter at the corner store, if that’s how your host country does it. Important to learn how to farmer blow inside restaurants, if that’s how your host country does it. It is important to appreciate and use idioms and grammar in the local language.

But there are times when the stresses of the stripping, of behaving chameleon-like, become too heavy and we start to lose ourselves, lose focus, lose energy, lose any joy in the work or the friendships, even lose faith. And then it is time for that break, probably past time for that break. Then, it is time to remember how, in your passport culture, to appropriately deal with those pesky nose boogers.

 

Do you pick your nose in public? Just kidding.

Real questions: How do you know it is time for a break? Have you ever over-stayed?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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