What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Trauma. What does this word make you think of? Does it worry you, even scare you? Does it bring to mind certain events from your own life? Have you seen it used so often that it’s beginning to lose meaning for you? 

I found the definition of trauma Shonna Ingram shared in her post The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does very helpful:

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Over the years, A Life Overseas has not shied away from difficult topics – including trauma on the mission field and how it impacts missionaries and their children. Together we have written about how to understand trauma and heal from it; specific experiences of trauma and how to process them; the long-term impact of trauma on the field, including on mental health; theology of risk; toxic positivity; moral injury; and more. I have also shared research insights from my work with TCK Training, looking at the experiences of missionary kids and their families over time.

Today I come with new data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) together with the collected wisdom of A Life Overseas’ authors. I’ll discuss data on potentially traumatic events witnessed by TCKs and reference excellent articles from the A Life Overseas (ALO) library. I’ll list these resources at the end.

Why do we need to talk about trauma?

In TCK Training’s research, which involved over 1,000 missionary kids (MKs), exposure to potentially traumatic events was one of two key risk factors linked to high ACE scores. High ACE scores in turn are linked with increased risk of a range of negative outcomes in adulthood. (The other key risk factor was high mobility, which I wrote about in Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help.)

It’s important to start by recognizing that trauma can, and does, happen everywhere all over the world. Staying in your passport country does not make you immune to trauma, and leaving for the mission field does not guarantee a traumatic outcome. Abigail Follows explained this nicely in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, where she wrote that “disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere.”

In addition, there is a difference between potential trauma and actual trauma. Witnessing a potentially traumatic event does not mean an individual will necessarily experience it as traumatic.

As Kay Bruner wrote in Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma, “The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.” 

In fact, lack of control means that sometimes children feel a deeper sense of trauma from an event than an adult might in that situation. In other cases, not understanding the full impact of what is happening might mean a child is less impacted. The important point is that we cannot know how each individual will respond, so assumptions are unhelpful.

As we start to look at some difficult numbers together, let’s keep in mind these two pieces of wisdom:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

Witnessing Potentially Traumatic Events

The 1,904 ATCKs who took our survey were asked both if they had witnessed a certain type of event at all, and if they had witnessed this ‘regularly.’ The events we asked about included:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Serious traffic accident
  • Armed conflict
  • Traumatic death (human)
  • Traumatic death (animal)
  • Physical violence

86% of missionary kids witnessed at least one of these potentially traumatic events; more than half of missionary kids witnessed potentially traumatic events regularly (53%).

Extreme Poverty

77% of missionary kids reported they had witnessed extreme poverty at least once, and 61% said they witnessed this regularly. Living among those experiencing extreme poverty and knowing you cannot fix it can lead to what Rachel Pieh Jones labelled ‘moral injury.’

In her article on the topic, she writes: “All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit. And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.”

Witnessing extreme poverty was the only item on the above list not linked to higher-than-average risk. That is, MKs who only witnessed extreme poverty (18% of the group) had an ACE risk similar to that seen in the general TCK population.

Serious Traffic Accident

In some countries traffic accidents are more common, and where cars regularly share badly maintained roads with motorcycles (and helmets are not worn), accidents can be particularly traumatic to witness. As Anna Glenn writes in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries, “[When] you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.” 

Three out of every five missionary kids (40%) had witnessed a serious traffic accident by age 18. Nearly a quarter of those (9% of all missionary kids) witnessed serious accidents regularly. 

When originally crafting this survey, we made sure to ask about serious traffic accidents because we’ve seen the impact of ongoing struggles related to witnessed accidents, even when TCKs were not directly involved in the accident themselves. A variety of reactions, including fear, anxiety, nightmares, reluctance to drive/learn to drive, and PTSD, can be involved. 

Witnessing Violence

More than half of missionary kids (59%) witnessed one of the final four types of potentially traumatic events we listed: 

  1. armed conflict
  2. human death
  3. traumatic animal death
  4. physical violence

For the purpose of our survey, we defined armed conflict as “two groups fighting with weapons.” We found that 20% of missionary kids had witnessed armed conflict.

One quarter of missionary kids had witnessed the traumatic death of a person (24%), including 4% who witnessed a murder. They had the same increased ACE risk as those who witnessed armed conflict (28% of the group had high-risk ACE scores). The risk was higher again for MKs who regularly witnessed any kind of human death, with one third of this group having a high ACE score (33%), nearly double the rate for MKs overall. 

In our work with adult TCKs, we have often found that animal death comes up as an event requiring debriefing as it had not been processed effectively at the time it occurred. More than one third of missionary kids (35%) reported witnessing the traumatic death of an animal. Witnessing animal death came with an increased ACE risk, especially when it happened regularly. The risk associated with regularly witnessing traumatic animal death was the same as the risk associated with regularly witnessing human death.

What do we do about this?

Based on the research around trauma, including the data we have on what MKs are experiencing, I have four suggestions about what we should do next. In my next article, I expand on these four ideas with practical suggestions and more quotes from the ALO library: 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

The Good News

Not all TCKs, and not all missionary kids, witnessed these types of potentially traumatic events. When we review the data on those who were not exposed, we find some wonderful news!

Looking at the missionary kids who did not regularly witness traumatic events, only 9% had a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score (4 or more out of 10), compared to 12.5% of Americans and 17% of MKs overall.

Looking then at missionary kids who did not witness ANY potentially traumatic events, only 6% of recorded 4 or more ACEs – lower than seen in any study we could find in any country using the same question framing.

This is really good news. It suggests that when MKs grow up in environments where they are not witnessing these types of potentially traumatic events, their families are healthier overall. 

Read part two: What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Resources referenced:

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (TCK Training)

Moral Injury

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Photo by Nimrod Persson on Unsplash

 

How many years abroad is safe for kids?

“How many years abroad is safe for kids?”

This is a question we have been asked many times at TCK Training. I have also heard similar questions from missionary organizations – at what point do families need transition prep and repatriation support? How many years overseas is safe? At what point does it become dangerous?

I only lived outside my passport country for two years as a teenager. Speaking from personal experience, I had a rocky entry to life there and a rocky re-entry to my passport country. But I can’t speak for everyone. So when TCK Training did our survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences among globally mobile TCKs, one of the questions we asked was “How many years did you live outside your passport country?” And now we have some answers.

Our latest white paper was just published: Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods: Providing Individualized Support to Increase Positive Outcomes for Higher Risk Families (released October 26). It contains ten ‘mini-papers’ looking at different factors in the lives of TCKs and how they impacted Adverse Childhood Experiences. The first factor we looked at was length of time lived abroad. 

As we analyzed the data, something quickly became clear. Those who spent the least time outside their passport countries had the highest ACE scores. That is to say, living a shorter period of time abroad was associated with higher levels of abuse and neglect.

  • 19% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years were physically abused at home, compared to 12% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 13% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported physical neglect, compared to only 6% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 45% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported emotional neglect, compared to 30% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years. 
  • 44% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years reported that an adult in their childhood home experienced mental illness, compared to 28% of those who lived abroad 16-18 years.
  • 21% of missionary kids who lived abroad 0-3 years had a high-risk ACE score, compared to only 7.5% of missionary kids who lived abroad 16-18 years. 

What does this mean?

These numbers demonstrate correlation, not causation. We cannot look at this and say that staying overseas a long time causes healthy families. But we can say that a higher percentage of families who lived overseas a long time were healthier. In the rest of this post we will look at three potential factors related to this, as well as what we can do about it.

Transition is hard

Every location move is a big transition and a disruption to both family life and peer relationships. We previously noted a correlation between high mobility and high-risk ACE scores (see our paper Caution and Hope for more on this). Those who spend a short time overseas are likely to have made two international moves in a short period of time – a high level of transition and disruption. These ‘short term’ families are therefore in more need of transition and repatriation support, not less!

Expat life brings out the hard stuff

Good expat preparation tells individuals and couples to prepare for the hardest parts of their personal lives to go into overdrive due to the stress of transition and intercultural living. Some families discover that the stress of this life is not good for them and choose to return to their passport countries. TCKs who lived their entire lives outside their passport countries are more likely to belong to healthy families, as these families are more likely to choose to stay abroad. 

In order to stay healthy, parents need mental health support. The level of mental illness seen in families who spend shorter times abroad show that this is a big problem in need of addressing.

We can’t blame it on external trauma

Another reason that families may not spend their children’s whole childhood abroad is if a traumatic event takes place. Yet TCKs who lived abroad 13-18 years were more likely to report experiencing or being impacted by a violent event than those who spent 0-6 years abroad. 

Our hypothesis here is that when families have strong communities in which they are supported, giving them personal support to parent well and family support through difficult situations, they are healthier overall. This is better for the family long term than going through an additional transition (with accompanying dislocation and disruption) to receive care elsewhere.

What does ‘safe’ look like? 

This data shatters the myth that there is a ‘safe’ number of years for a family to live abroad. A shorter time abroad may mean a child is less likely to have deep identity and belonging struggles, but that is not true for all TCKs. A shorter time abroad definitely does not mean a family will not struggle with culture shock and reverse culture shock. All families making an international move should receive transition training and repatriation support, no matter how long or short their time abroad. 

If ‘safe’ is not about time, what is it about? I contend that ‘safe’ is all about family health. If parents are emotionally healthy, including mental health supports that enable them to keep their stress levels manageable, they can parent well and be emotionally available to their children. Healthy families have strong parent-child connectedness, so that children feel their parents’ love. This is a key factor in providing safety to children as they transition and grow.

Instead of asking “How many years abroad is safe for kids?” let us start asking “How do we make our homes, families, and communities safe for kids?” We can protect missionary kids by providing emotional safety for them. We can protect missionary kids by caring well for their parents, including mental health support and parenting education. We can protect missionary kids by creating supportive communities that include them and their families. There’s no ‘safe’ number of years abroad for every family, but together we can work to provide every family with the level of care they need to thrive on the field.

 

For more information:

TCK Training’s research. This includes free access to all three white papers, along with blog posts about specific groups, such as missionary kids. 

Free PCEs miniseries. PCEs are Positive Childhood Experiences. This miniseries offers information on providing emotional safety and protection to children as they grow up abroad.

Self-Guided Transitions Course, with videos, exercises, and more. This course is designed to support families (and inform caregivers) through all stages and types of transitions.

Photo by Steven Coffey on Unsplash

African Americans to Missions: “I Want to Join. But First, Change.” (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 3)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on the Future of Missions. Part 2 discussed deconstruction of missions’ past. Today we talk about the movement within the African American community to join missions—and call for reform.  

Less than 1 percent of American missionaries are black, by some reports, but that may be about to change. Or if you consider some little-known parts of history, it may go back to how modern missions began with African Americans playing a key part.

Young African American Christians are now more likely to decide to be missionaries than their white counterparts (61 percent versus 48 percent), according to the latest Barna research. The most recent (and first virtual) National African American Missions Conference drew almost five times the number of regular attendees, up from 500 to 2,300. And almost one-third of them were Caucasians interested in learning how to better include African Americans in their white-majority mission organizations. 

“Increased this year is a sincere cry from white congregations and predominantly white (mission organizations) wanting to understand institutional racism,” said NAAMC organizer and Pastor Adrian Reeves.

While young black Christians are interested in missions, they have reservations about its past. The Barna research shows that:

  • Fewer black young adults than whites (62 percent vs 73 percent) say they value missionaries’ work. 
  • Young adult black Christians are more likely than whites to believe that “In the past missions work has been unethical” (40 percent versus 33 percent) and that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism” (48 percent versus 39 percent).
  • 35 percent of young black Christians plan to give to missions (versus 56 percent of whites); however, more of them would support a missionary (65 percent versus 58 percent of whites). 

“A key takeaway, especially with our ethnic minority young adults, let’s not be afraid to have these hard conversations,” said Savannah Kimberlin, Barna’s director of published research.

Some majority-white mission organizations are starting to do just that. Webinars, conferences and podcasts on the topic of mobilizing African Americans have recently talked about fund-raising models, culturally appropriate ways to engage black pastors, and the opportunities African Americans have to reach the world in unique ways because of the trauma and oppression they’ve experienced as a community. 

“We can pour into others and say, we understand your trauma,” said Star Nelson, co-founder of Sowing Seeds of Joy, during a Sixteen:Fifteen Webinar. “And this is how you can be healed and only Jesus can do that.”

Majority-white organizations are also assessing their own cultures. 

“I’ve been asked….and am going through a process to join a white agency that really is trying to work through their race issues and wants to bring on board members who will challenge them in that way,” Reeves said. “I think we are open to hearing the hard truth and having those crucial conversations.”

Some things in missions culture may need to change in order to involve young black Christians, Reeves said. The definition of “unreached people group” may need to include people who don’t feel comfortable joining the established church in their town because of past church oppression of their ethnicity, for instance. Fund-raising models may need to change, as African Americans struggle to raise support in the traditional model. Reeves also sees that young black Christians are more interested in helping with shorter-term, defined projects versus longer-established programs. 

But also, African Americans can know, with confidence, that their culture has always played a part in modern missions, Reeves said. Some of the earliest modern missionaries from the States—Betsey Stockton, George Liele, William Henry Sheppard—were black. 

“We have a unique story that should be told,” Reeves said. 

With everyone reimagining so many aspects of life this year, this is a hopeful time for the church and missions, he said.

“I do see a genuine desire to come together, to work through this race thing together,” he said. “I’m very hopeful. We’re looking at how we can do missions differently.”

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

What’s Wrong with Missions. . . .and Why It’s Still Right (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 2)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on The Future of Missions. Today we talk to Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus on the current trend of deconstruction of missions.

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If you want to get people excited about joining missions, you may need to have a conversation about its past—the questionable parts.

“When we look generationally about concerns about missions’ past and specifically about colonialism, young adults are more inclined to say, ‘yeah, that’s something I want to talk through. I want to wrestle through that if that’s something I’m considering giving my life to,’” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research, to a group of CEOs and recruiters for Christian nonprofits during a recent online presentation of Barna’s The Future of Missions study.

She told the group that this reality has really both “rocked the boat” in previous presentations and resonated with people. 

“I want to make sure I don’t miss this moment,” she said. “Let’s not ignore the past. Let’s have conversations about it.”

The Barna research shows that: 

  • 34 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 34 years) agree with the statement “in the past, mission work has been unethical.” Just 22 percent of older Christians believe that.
  • 42 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 35 years)  agree that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism.” Just 29 percent of older adults agree with that. 
  • Young African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities are particularly concerned about both statements. 

The trend of deconstructing missions has been on the radar of Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus, a network of 360 Christian nonprofits and churches which have 30,000 people serving all over the world.  Before Missio Nexus’s annual leadership conference this year was cancelled for a virtual 40-day time of prayer, deconstruction in missions was its main topic. 

“I would say that missions is like any other human endeavor—it’s trapped in its time and its era,” Esler said in a recent interview.

But while younger generations are hungry for conversations about missions’ past and its ethics, Esler is still confident in its foundations. 

“We’re deconstructing everything by today’s standards, not realizing that people were working in a different era,” he said. “I’m not arguing that the model of missions we’re using is sacrosanct, but the concept of missions is valid. Things will change, but this will be weathered. Missions to me is transcendent over our current historical situation.”  

Mission pioneers who are now considered regressive were actually progressive in their time, he argued. For example, William Carey, considered the father of modern missions, sought to abolish the practice of widow burning in India, despite even his own country of Britain’s initial acceptance of the practice in its colony. 

“So, is he a colonist dude?” Esler asked. “I guess he is. He was a Brit who went to India as a missionary. But in relationship to what was going on around him, he was progressive.”

Modern Americans are, in general, less enthusiastic about religion and Christianity, Barna research has shown. But deconstruction could create an advantage in missions, Kimberlin said.

“It is actually a beautiful gift because we are getting to reset our clocks with Gen Z,” Kimberlin said. “We have deconstructed all the way down to a generation now who are not carrying baggage of religious hurts, or dos and don’ts about how to be good Christians. They don’t want to play that game. What a beautiful moment to reset the clocks and teach a generation about authentic, life-changing Christianity that really transforms hearts and minds and is life-giving.”

Esler also urged the “near record number of attendees” of Kimberlin’s presentation to continue to listen to welcome “God’s heart” for the younger generations. 

“The next generation is going to be coming along and doing some things different,” he said to the attendees of the virtual presentation. “My challenge for you today is that you would see things in light of God’s heart for every generation. There might be things that frustrate you, but let’s try to see the positives as we go through this presentation today.”

Relationships between current missionaries and younger generations are key, the study shows.

Younger Christians who personally know a missionary are:

  • More likely to give to missions (58 percent vs. 46 percent)
  • Pray for global workers (54 percent vs. 45 percent) 
  • Go on a short-term missions trip (40 percent vs. 30 percent)
  • Go on longer-term missions (22 percent vs. 9 percent)

But younger Christians who know missionaries also are more likely (16 percent vs. 7 percent) to believe that mission work, if not done properly, can create unhealthy dependence. They also are more likely (17 percent vs. 10 percent) to believe that “Christianity should fix its reputation before doing more missions.”

That’s all the more reason to meet them with conversation in their concerns, Kimberlin said.

“We need to take steps to do as much as we can to break down those barriers and those walls,” Kimberlin said. “As these young people are wrestling through their concerns and their questions about who they’re going to be, if they can see and speak with someone who can represent what they’re aiming for and what they’re considering being, then their likelihood to consider going on missions themselves jumps.”

One particular group that is especially concerned about missions’ past is African Americans—which also happens to be one of the most willing to serve overseas in the future. More on this tension—and possibility—in Part 3 of the Future of Missions. 

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

Please Don’t Make Me “Win Souls” (a look at Barna’s latest research)

by Rebecca Hopkins

A note about this series: Barna recently released The Future of Missions, a 100-page report about trends in American missions. Some of the findings indicate that in the future, Americans may choose to stop referring to themselves as missionaries who “convert” and “make disciples,” out of principle. The data indicates that younger generations of Americans will need to find ways to make peace with—and perhaps call out—practices of the past in order to serve. It also predicts that African Americans may be, proportionately, more likely to sign up to serve overseas than whites will.

Starting today, A Life Overseas will cover Barna’s basic findings. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll bring Ted Esler, Missio Nexus president, into the conversation about deconstruction and missions. Part 3 will publish on Monday and will cover the data on African Americans and missions and the conversations happening around mobilizing them into overseas work. 

Who will be the major players in the future of missions? They’ve got a name—“supportive skeptics.”

Younger generations want to make a difference—especially in areas of social justice. But they need some things to change in overseas mission work in order to join. This mixture of conviction and concern was a main finding of Barna’s latest research. 

“Millennials are giving themselves permission to wrestle with things and giving themselves permission to ask the hard questions,” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research at Barna. “Their religious practice is not just tied to a way of life that you were told that you needed to adopt.” 

And those characteristics likely won’t go away when they get older. 

“This is a generational thing, not a life stage,” she said. “What we’re seeing in the data is that there are certain environmental factors that really do impact generations and change them in a way that’s not just a life stage factor but is having a large impact.”

The International Mission Board commissioned the study that surveyed Christians: 600 teens (ages 13-17), 1,000 young adults (ages 18-34); and, by comparison, 1,500 older adults (ages 35 and up). They also included surveys of 500 parents of teens and young adults. 

Foundationally, younger American Christians continue to care about global Christian service. Young adults—72 percent—consider mission work “very valuable.” And while only 62 percent of young adult black Americans consider the work “very valuable,” they’re also more likely than whites to go on mission. And younger generations are the best qualified for missions.

“We’re consistently seeing that the up and coming generations care very deeply about social justice,” Kimberlin said. “They’re moved by this. Are we communicating to these young people that addressing injustices is a large part of what it takes to do missions?”

But while they support much of the work of missions, they question the “why” and “how” of it. 

Some key findings:

  • One-fourth of engaged Christians aged 18 to 34 is a “supportive skeptic.” They have given to missions, volunteer in their church, and believe that “sharing the Gospel with non-Christians” is an important part of the work. But they have concerns. They either believe missions creates unhealthy dependency, missions was too linked with colonialism in the past, missions hurts the local economy, or missions needs to repair its reputation. This group also includes a large percentage of minorities.
  • One in three of young adult Christians believe “in the past, missions work has been unethical.” Just one-fourth of adults 35 and older agree with that statement.
  • Christians of all ages strongly prefer the term “sharing faith” over terms like “convert,” “evangelism,” “making disciples” and “winning souls.” 
  • Aid edges out evangelism for its importance in missions in some of the survey results among the more skeptical of younger Christians.
  • “Show God’s love” is the top responsibility missionaries should do, most young Christians say.
  • Younger Christians are more likely (29 percent) than older Christians (23 percent) to believe that the role of missionary is similar to “someone else who does work to fight poverty and injustice,” showing their strong value of social justice work. 
  • Short-term missions, accountability, and traditional fund-raising models were some things younger Christians would change. Business-as-missions models also raised some concerns. The concern of “Tent-faking” was mentioned in interviews, for instance. 
  • Younger Christians are less likely (50 percent) to pray for missionaries in the future than older Christians (63 percent).

The report poses 10 questions that the church must answer about global ministry along with the next generation. The questions center around language, fundraising, history, accountability, aid vs. evangelism, new kinds of missionaries, parents as potential barriers, and how to prepare the next generation for missions. 

“I think we need to approach Gen Z in a way that we understand that they are skeptical and all that they’re really craving is humility, teachability and authenticity from the leaders,” Kimberlin said. “Show them that we don’t have it all together, but we’ve got passion and we’ve got drive and we’ve got the Great Commission on our side. And we love what we do.”

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

When Your Story Gets in the Way

by Rebecca

We are our stories. Psychologists like Dan McAdams have been telling us we all have a narrative identity by which we come to terms with society, our past and our future. Missionaries also have a public story we use as we speak at churches, send out newsletters or maintain a blog.  We share who we are, the need we see, and our heart or gifting to serve. Our organisations also have story, a history and a vision for the future.

I have spent the last six months interviewing more than twenty leaders at all levels across five different mission and ministry organizations. I heard a lot of positive things about the place of story and narrative identity in each organization, but again and again I was presented with two interesting impacts individual stories have: reluctant leaders who felt accepting a leadership role would be to give up on the story they have been telling and reluctant followers who felt submitting to leadership might force them to limit their story or abandon the vision they have told to supporters.

Daniel Kahneman says, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story with a decent hero” (Thinking, Fast and Slow). As Christians however, we have a true narrative identity that reflects our status as image bearers of God. We are made for relationship with God and our sense of purpose as workers in the harvest only truly makes sense in relation to the work God is doing as the great gardener. 

For support-raised Christian workers, our relationship with our stories can be particularly problematic. So much of the impetus to support missionaries comes from an emphasis on an individual’s heart or giftedness. Even organizational stories are normally built on the stories of the lives of brave founders. These stories of heroic individualism form the origin story of many support-raised organizations but as organizations grow and diversify it becomes challenging for leadership to make space for the stories of each individual member.

In To Make a Change at Work, Tell Yourself a Different Story the authors suggest: “Once you’ve unearthed a story and dusted it off, the next step is to consider how it affects you. Is it constraining or liberating?” Often the stories we tell are motivating and help us persevere in challenging situations. For me, knowing I had a community of supporters who heard our story and wanted to partner by praying and giving was so helpful when a ministry initiative faltered or there was conflict on our team. But organizationally the stories can be constraining. They can make us reluctant or conflicted leaders and even worse followers.

I talked to many leaders who love the people they lead and serve; they feel humbled by their vision and their self-sacrifice but frustrated either by the distractions of leadership or the unwillingness of people to put team goals first. When asked to take on roles or responsibilities for the sake of the team, people have responded with “I’m not gifted at that” or “that’s not what I came to do”. Most often those are things like administration, management or leadership, things necessary for functioning organizations that are able to support them.

There is a sense that churches or individuals have financially supported them to do something very difficult in a difficult place that they are particularly gifted or equipped for it; like church-planting among an unreached group, evangelism among refugees or health care for people on society’s margins. They fear people won’t keep supporting them if the story changes, if suddenly they are in an office making it possible for other people to go rather than being on the frontline themselves. 

I heard so much wisdom from people I interviewed. An International Director explained that most powerful stories, the ones that develop leadership character, were the ones that were “told from a position of humility, a desire to continue to learn and grow and a recognition that every person or character within the story contributed something into that story to enhance the work or enable it to happen.” He said: “That kind of story not only grows people but it strengthens organizations.”

A senior leader responsible for leadership development lamented that workers from non-Western contexts felt the need to copycat Western missionary stories that were individualistic and reflecting a linear arc of progress. Collectivistic cultures tend to have different kinds of stories, less neat and straightforward, more collaborative, more cyclical. She encouraged organizations to give those workers the space to tell stories that really reflected their cultural orientation and brought diversity to the overall vision.

Support-raised organizations have always been driven by individual stories, and we don’t want to lose that beauty and that power. However, individual workers should be constantly reexamining their stories and making sense of them within a greater organizational story. The leader of a student ministry saw particular benefits to this as people transitioned into roles leading and training others rather than doing evangelism every day. 

Even more importantly we need to be connecting our individual and organizational stories to God’s big story. As Chuck De Groat reminds us “Today’s best thinkers are rediscovering the fact that we are relational to our core — storied beings whose narratives are meant to reflect God’s master narrative.” (Toughest People to Love

God’s grand narrative is more powerful and compelling than anything we could conceive on our own, and ultimately our calling is not to go and do a hard thing in a hard place, but first and foremost to a relationship with God and sanctification by him. The story about our vocation, our stewardship of the gifts God has given us, should only be secondary to that calling. This can only help us have a narrative identity that is more oriented to growth and collaboration; that holds space for other stories allowing us to be more generous with how we lead and follow. Lets keep asking if our storied selves reflect God’s narrative? This is a liberating way to construct our story, one that emphasizes our dependence on God and on each other.

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Rebecca has been serving cross-culturally since 2012 and is a 2020 Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries researching leadership development in mission and support-raised ministry organizations. Her research is published at www.entrustedwiththesent.com.