5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)

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The Newbie. In August of 2001, that was me. Standing in the dirty house that was going to be my home, totally overwhelmed by the barrage to my senses–smoke in the air, humidity on my skin, roosters crowing. What on earth was I going to cook? How was I supposed to get anywhere? And what the heck was I supposed to do with the trash?  The first meal I attempted was baked potatoes (and only baked potatoes), and I cried in front of my husband because I couldn’t figure out my Celsius oven.

I needed people, someone who could walk me step by step through my life.  I was thrust onto a new team, and into a larger missionary community.  I knew nothing about these people, and yet I needed them desperately.  How should I navigate those relationships?

I’ve lived 11 years in Tanzania since then, and turnover is so high that missionary years are kind of like dog years. Multiply by 7.  Somehow, living here 11 years makes me a veteran.  I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons in those years, including how to use a Celsius oven.  But maybe some of the most important lessons have been in relationships with other missionaries.

At orientation, our mission told us that the number one reason people leave the field is because of relational problems with team members.  Let’s work together to reduce that, starting with these tips to Newbies, from an Oldie.

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1. Hold back the criticism, and look for ways to learn.

When you first arrive, you will notice about 12 things that your missionary team is doing wrong.  Keep your mouth shut.  Instead, ask lots of questions.  After six months, that list will go down to 6 things.  Continue to keep your mouth shut, and ask more questions.  After a year, it will dwindle to 3 things.  At that point, you can humbly, carefully, start bringing up your ideas.

Don’t give up or give in if change doesn’t happen as quickly as you like.  The longer you stay, the more impact you will have on your team, and the more credible your voice will become.  As much as Oldies might grunt and groan about Newbie ideas, we really do need your fresh perspective and new vision.

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2. Lower your expectations of how Oldies should welcome and guide you.

I had been on several short-term missions trips before arriving in Tanzania. I think one of the dangers of STMs is that when you do arrive long-term, you expect to be treated the same way: The red carpet thrown out, someone who holds your hand everywhere you go, all your meals bought and prepared for you.  But when you arrive in a country to live, it won’t look quite like that.  If you don’t get the welcome you expect, if there’s not a parade for you at the airport or your house isn’t ready, it’s easy to think that the Oldies don’t really want you there.  But that’s not true!  Remember that missionaries are almost always overworked and distracted.  Plus, a lot of Oldies have just forgotten what it feels like to be a Newbie.  If you feel thrown in the deep end, well, you probably are.  You will have to learn to fend for yourself quickly and it will definitely be overwhelming.  Try to prepare your heart and mind for this ahead of time.

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3. You may need to take the initiative in asking Oldies for help.

Even though Oldies might not be able to walk you through every step of the way, there are plenty of us out there who are eager to help.  We can be a listening ear; we can commiserate by telling you horror stories of our own adjustment; we can tell you the best place to buy pita bread or how to find a refrigerator mechanic.  Most Oldies are happy to answer your questions–but they probably won’t come to you; you’ve got to go to them.  There’s a lot of Newbies out there, and it can be hard for us to know how to meet all those needs. You will have to take more initiative in relationships than you realized.  That doesn’t mean Oldies aren’t glad to have you around. We couldn’t do this work without you, and many of us are happy to help out if you ask.

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4. Remember that missionary communities are eccentric.

If you spent your whole life in one church, you may not have ever interacted with people who are theologically different than you.  Welcome to the mission field!  You may find missionaries in your community—even your own team–who are all over the theological spectrum. You’ll find that missionaries tend to be strong-willed, Type-A kind of people. (I’ve found that missionaries tend to be a disproportionate number of former Student Body Presidents and Valedictorians.) Put all these people together, stir the pot with some extreme heat or extreme cold and some cultural barriers, and you’ve got yourself a very interesting stew.

Be prepared to have your theological assumptions stretched.  Be prepared to be surprised how love for the Gospel and lost people can transcend denominations and petty differences.  Listen well and forgive abundantly.  Steadfastly determine that there will be very few hills you will allow yourself to die on.  Since it’s likely you are one of those Type-A people yourself, this may be tough.  Choose humility.

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5. Be patient with Oldies who seem relationally distant.

If we hold our emotions away from you, if we seem distant and hard to befriend, please don’t take it personally. Know that it has a lot to do with getting our hearts broken too many times to count.   I remember as a Newbie, I was eager to dive into relationships with everyone in our missionary community.  We had everyone over for dinner.  We wanted to get to know everyone…and we did!  Then….people started leaving.  And leaving.  And leaving.   People’s terms ended, emergencies happened, health concerns came up.  We stayed, but everyone we loved kept leaving.  Choosing an overseas life means choosing a life of saying good-bye.

After a while, it just gets hard to initiate relationships with all the Newbies.  If we hold ourselves aloof from you, it’s because of the callouses that have grown on our hearts from so many wonderful friends leaving us.  We might not even consciously realize that we are holding ourselves back from you.  This doesn’t mean we don’t want to be friends with you.  It does mean that it may take more time for Oldies to open up.  Please don’t give up on us.  We need your optimism and energy as much as you need our experience and advice.

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Store up your emotions and experiences being a Newbie.  As you become more comfortable, as the years slip by and you become an Oldie yourself, you don’t want to forget what it felt like to just step off the plane and wonder how on earth you bake potatoes in a Celsius oven.

 

Photo credit

 

amhAmy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001.  Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality.  She and her husband worked many years with TCK’s and now are involved with pastoral training.  They also adopted three amazing Tanzanian kids along the way.  Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.

Banished from Bolivia

We messed up. Most times I want to end that sentence with a question mark. We messed up? Truth is, we all mess up, sooner or later.

  • Thomas Edison – scores of failures before the light bulb
  • Abraham Lincoln – lost dozens of elections
  • Albert Einstein – expelled from school because he was a dunce who asked too many questions

Blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. The quantity of motivational pep talks in no way compares to the quantity of embarrassment one feels after a failure. Call it what you will — mess ups, screw ups, failures, errors in judgment, inexperience, sin — it still hurts.

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We came to Bolivia after my husband got his Business Administration degree and after we attended one year of mission school. With a ten week old baby strapped to my chest and my hands clasping the toddler fingers of our two-year-old and our three-year-old we stepped onto Bolivian soil with high hopes for our internship. The mission school program required two years: one year of classes, three months in Mexico with an affiliated missionary, and then back to the States to finish the year with classes. We did the first year of classes. We knew we wanted to serve in Bolivia. We knew that a missionary couple affiliated with the school had been in Bolivia for seven years. We asked for a modification to the program. Considering the ages of our kids and the fact that we knew we wanted to serve in Bolivia we asked about a year long internship serving at this ministry as the second year of the program. They approved our request.

We stayed the year in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (11-01 to 12-02). Then we went back to the States for a few weeks to visit family and supporters. Before that first trip back we decided we wanted to do one more year with this ministry. They agreed to that. We came back and worked even harder.

During those two years we: started 64 bible schools, oversaw an outreach program that facilitated the bible school students teaching moral formation to 50,000 public school students, taught two classes each at the local bible school, ran the children’s ministry at the church, participated in the G-12 discipleship system of the church, and traveled extensively throughout Bolivia doing conferences for pastors and church leaders. We were also intensively learning Spanish. Did I mention we had three small children as well?

In our non-denominational, independent circles people applauded our fervor and passion. Our time commitment was coming to a close and we began to discuss what came next. Tensions had been building and we felt like some things would need to change if we were going to continue with this ministry.

The discussions became muddled and personal. Many hurtful things were said. They told us they would like us to connect with their ministry and come under their covering. We decided it would be best to tell them that we would no longer be working with them.

That’s when the proverbial fecal matter hit the gyrating, bladed appliance.

We were:

  • told the operations in our charge had grown too fast and things were unbalanced.
  • told to relinquish all our financial partners’ information.
  • accused of owing thousands of dollars to the ministry.
  • visited by lawyers threatening to take us to prison.
  • immediately removed from every position and our keys were taken away.
  • slandered and the church members were told to stay away from us.
  • told to leave Bolivia and never return.

I was stunned. I knew things had become tense. We had seen things we didn’t agree with. That is why we were stepping away. We turned in our official letter of resignation from the volunteer positions we had assumed as interns. It was shoved back across the desk, rejected.

I was baffled. We didn’t receive a paycheck from them. The people who partnered with us funded the operations and covered our family budget. They had asked us to consider staying on with them. We decided not to. So why didn’t they just let us go? Why did they have to make life so difficult for us?

Why did they banish us from Bolivia?

We messed up? Yes? No?

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Our options for how to respond dizzied me. We could: cower, blame, defend, reason, negotiate, formulate excuses, quit, throw a fit, accuse, cry, shrink back, play the victim, bend under the oppression, fight, etc.

Through many tears and prayers and the advice of our home pastor back in the States we decided that it was not necessary to leave Bolivia, but that we would start out afresh in another city. We liked Cochabamba best of all the cities we had visited. We moved.

—  —  —  That was ten years ago. This November marks 12 years for us in Bolivia. —  —  —

In my mind I replay scenes from those first two years as missionaries. I want to say that all has been redeemed; some has, not all. I wish it never happened the way it did; but it did. I would like to have a better starting out story; but we don’t.

The regret tally marks scratched on my soul still burn. What could we have done differently? In retrospect the list is enormous. At the time, though, I believe we did the best we could with what we knew.

I would like to dress this up with a bow and a pretty ending. We could compare the numbers from our first two years and the following ten. Since our move to Cochabamba we: started a K-12 Christian school, pastor a church of 100+ people, help thousands of pastors throughout the Spanish speaking world with conferences and online resources, have provided care to 53 orphans, published a more than a dozen books, employ more than 60 Bolivians, mentored 3 career missionaries, and own the only bowling alley in town.

The balance of numbers feels superficial. We are not newbies any more, but we are nowhere near done with life. I am 37 and my husband is 38. Who knows how this thing will finish?

Does it do you any good to know we messed up? That we feel wronged? That regrets loom over my head like ominous vultures circling a bleeding carcass? That my dutiful dedication to the works of the ministry often find their motivation in paying a penance or seeking validation?

If there can be any good sucked from hearing our tale of woe it will not have been told in vain. Maybe the good comes from knowing we made it through. We are still serving as missionaries. Bitterness didn’t beat us.

I fear my words will be interpreted as complaining or moaning. I worry you will feel sorry for me – which I want none of, for it does no good to wallow.

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Hurts come. Each situation is unique. I feel unqualified to advise anybody walking through relational struggles. I can only speak of character and say:

  • Keep a tender heart before the Lord
  • Forgive Forgive Forgive
  • Learn and grow in spite of the pain
  • Pray Pray Pray
  • Love people

The words of Maya Angelou might give you solace.

“Do what you know to do. When you know better; do better.”

Pray with me this prayer attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

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– Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie  facebook: atangie

Do you find yourself disillusioned, discouraged, disheartened, defeated, or destroyed?

What are you doing to keep yourself moving through this valley?

Who can you trust at this crucial time?

Plays well with others

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Plays well with others

Follows directions

Shows respect

 

In elementary school, they used to have a pretty simple way of letting us know how we were doing in life, at least according to their limited observations in a few key categories. They graded us fairly simply; we were either satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

When I was a kid, before the part where we got in deep trouble, my Dad used to tease my sister and I.  Whenever we would ignore an assigned task or disobey him, he’d say, in a long drawn out way, “fooooolllllowwws dirrrrections”.

As we get older we all seem to learn to what level we must follow directions. We develop into rule followers or rule pushers and we inch our way toward maturity falling in line or leaning hard on the limits. Either way, we are most often striving to find our way to a “satisfactory” rating.

Most of us find it far more difficult to ‘play well with others.’  I’ve been wondering lately, what would our first grade teachers say on our report cards today?

Eight years ago, as we prepared to move our family abroad, we were told “the number one reason people leave ministry abroad is that they cannot work well with others within their organization or community.”  We gave that statement the side-eye. What? Grown up Jesus-loving people cannot get along, cannot “play well with others”?  That hardly seemed possible.

Two and half years into our time in Haiti, we split up with the organization we’d come to serve.  We couldn’t see eye to eye with our boss-people.  They were happy to see us go. We disagreed on far too many things to continue on together. It was a painful and discouraging break-up.

If we have heard it once, we have heard it a hundred times. “We are leaving our organization to start our own thing. We just can’t work well together with our leadership.”

In all working relationships there are times of disagreement, times of disappointment or frustration. It happens between equals, between leaders and their support team, between friends.

My husband recently shared something his buddy said.  This friend had spent many years watching people come and go in Haiti. He believes one of the biggest problems in smaller organizations is that most organizations lack a committed and loyal “number two”. He further stated that he had seen over and over how great working relationships break down and the person in the number two role chooses to move on to start something alone when their interpersonal relationships with leaders and/or co-laborers get challenging.

Paul says, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts,” and none of the parts are the same but they compliment each other.

I am not leading an organization, but I am part of the body. I am in my place and one of my roles is to compliment the people I work with each day. It’s not all that glamorous, and it is not always fun, but it is a role that needs playing.

I’m learning as I age that not every hill is a hill to die on. When my life is over it would devastate me to hear the people I worked with say, “She always had to win. She did not compromise.”  When disagreements come and compromise seems improbable, I have an opportunity to ask myself, “Do I want to win, or do I want to be part of a body doing my part.” “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be the church?”  This is not to say we should not share or shape the culture of our organizations by speaking up when we feel God’s prompting to do so, but it is to say that there are ways to differ in opinion in a gracious, humble, and respectful manner.

Perhaps there are those of us doing work abroad that are not necessarily called to “start our own thing” or to act in the head leadership role. Maybe, like my husband’s friend said, what is most needed are loyal and faithful “number twos” that can recognize how easily the devil comes to destroy relationships, plant doubt, and stir discontent among us. It could be time to try harder to play well with others.

What about you? Are relationships in your work abroad causing more stress than the work itself?  Are you called to a number two position? Do you play well with others?

 Tara Livesay – works in Maternal Health in Port au Prince, Haiti

Blog: Livesayhaiti.com    Twitter: @TroyLivesay