by Christine Paterson
At FieldPartner International, we believe that anybody who serves in the field cross-culturally should be properly trained, well-resourced, and wholeheartedly supported by their sending church. In 2023 we ran a survey to gain insight into the challenges and needs of cross-cultural workers worldwide.
We heard from 137 respondents from 21 different countries who have served in 40 different countries or regions globally. Our survey questions were targeted to individuals at each stage of the cross-cultural journey, from pre- to post-field, plus those sending.
We were excited to find that the breadth and quality of the responses we received to the survey reflect that both field workers and senders are serious and passionate about their work and consider Jesus’ mandate to the Great Commission as a joint effort between both of them. But it also uncovered some areas of challenge and concern.
Overall Effects of Training
We take encouragement from progress in the recommendations highlighted by the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project (ReMAP) in 1997. These were:
- A good candidate process (proper screening and supporting at the pre-field stage by agencies and supporting churches).
- Adequate pre-field training (at FieldPartner we stress the need for that to be practical cross-cultural training, as well as theological and professional).
- Adequate ongoing support and training for those on the field throughout their career. (On this point, our respondents gave a long list of areas where they desire ongoing training even after going to the field – presumably seeing the need after the event and calling for help to fill those gaps.)
Despite some encouragement, there is still a long way to go. Our findings, in our much smaller survey, show that too many are still going out without sufficient training and support. With so many attesting to experiencing challenges that they had not anticipated, to me that speaks to the need for pre-field training to be truly practical and down-to-earth.
Whilst a high proportion of those working cross-culturally experience ‘more challenges than anticipated’, as well as ‘moderate to severe culture shock’ on the field, we found that those who had ‘adequate’ training and ongoing support from home found themselves more able to press through the challenges and make it for the long haul.
On the other hand, those who lacked sufficient training and felt ‘isolated’ and ‘lonely’ on the field were much less resilient; some (as attested by about a quarter of our respondents in the post-field category) even left the field prematurely for preventable reasons. (You can explore the main reasons given for this on page 16 of the report.)
Those planning to go out need to be able to sit down and ‘count the cost,’ as Jesus said, with their eyes wide open as to what the challenges are likely to be. Of course, it is impossible to mitigate every challenge by being forewarned, and there will still be those that take us completely unawares (also spiritual warfare is real). But many can be foreseen, and for those we should be forearmed.
In addition to targeted training, it was greatly encouraging to find that so many (80%) of our post-field respondents stated a willingness to become mentors for new recruits coming through – a truly heart-warming finding. Mentoring was a stated need of our on-field respondents, particularly in the early years. Returnees are a resource that fieldworkers and senders alike can make good use of – so much experience to benefit from.
More Training Needed in These Areas
Speaking to ReMAP point 3 above, it was interesting to note the number and variation of the topics raised where ongoing training on the field would be appreciated (see page 15 of the report). Clearly these are felt needs, which fieldworkers only became aware of through the challenges they faced.
These included: more language and culture training, conflict resolution, parenting, accounting and support-raising, intercultural team building, counselling, member care issues (including preparation for re-entry), and understanding the history and religion of the host country.
Taking the recommendation of ReMAP seriously would mean that senders (both agency and church) would need to facilitate and possibly help finance ongoing training, allowing time off for study and applauding the results when they came. For those of us who produce content online, the challenge is there for us to respond to this need by creating resources that address those specific needs, enabling more fieldworkers to remain at their post while still being able to sharpen their skills.
Nurturing Relationships with Senders and Supporters
Senders (in this case supporting individuals as well as leaders in the sending churches) do not yet seem to understand how crucial their role is in fostering the longevity of those they send to the field. The data seems to suggest a tentative approach and not enough hands-on engagement to know what the real needs are at the field end.
There is a fear expressed that they are ‘putting too much pressure’ on the fieldworkers by their expectations, whereas at the field end, the converse seems to be the case. Where senders are engaged, their interest seems rather to be experienced as support, not pressure (page 20). And the value of that cannot be overestimated. It is the absence of any tangible support or encouragement from home that leaves field workers feeling demoralised and unappreciated.
So the message to senders is “keep engaged,” whatever it takes. Maybe even take part in some of the pre-field training yourselves so that you can have greater understanding of what your field worker is going through and can better support them through the challenges.
Importance of ‘Safety’ in What is Shared
The data about feeling able to be ‘honest’ with colleagues on the field and supporters back home plays in greatly as well. If honesty is not experienced as ‘safe,’ then the danger is that struggles that badly need to be shared and prayed through will be repressed and hidden, with possible grave consequences.
When those who go are encouraged to build personal support teams, the chances of feeling safe to share the realities of life on the field are greatly enhanced. With that comes a sense of feeling truly seen and cared for.
And at the post-field stage, the support team can help greatly with confronting re-entry stress, which famously can be even more challenging than the original culture shock experienced on the field. Importantly, only 14% of returnees said they had received debriefing, and most would still welcome that even long after the event.
Added Layers of Impact from Covid-19
In view of how recently life has returned to ‘normal’ (or adapted to a ‘new normal’) after the pandemic, we decided to tag on some questions about how Covid-19 had impacted the field workers and their senders. You can read the responses in Section 5 of the report (pages 21 and 22).
For those on the field, Covid carried inevitable extra stress – lockdowns that left mission workers with little support, loss of funding, local co-workers being forced to do other work to support their families, churches, schools and offices being closed, resulting in isolation and huge mental health challenges. In addition, many had to face fear from local people that they, as foreigners, were somehow responsible for the pandemic.
In view of these and other challenges, some were forced, with little warning or preparation, to leave their place of service and return home for an indefinite period. As time went by, many of those temporary moves became permanent, with all the fallout of an unplanned relocation and compounded re-entry stress.
In the post-pandemic landscape, many have still not been able to return to their place of service, and those remaining on the field have had to face continuing gaps in the team and a greater share of the workload. Everyone has had to face the challenge of travel being exponentially more expensive now, meaning that short-term teams are not as practical or popular as they once were.
Senders are turning to local diaspora communities for giving cross-cultural exposure to pre-field trainees. This is a good result in itself, but missionaries might end up receiving fewer field visits, which could have negative consequences.
Then there is the unknown quantity of how badly mental health has been impacted across the board, with less access in a field context to the kinds of specialist help that are needed. Field workers are resilient people — they need to be to survive the extra challenges they face — but facing Covid lockdowns on the field was inevitably even harder than doing so at home.
What can we take away from all the above? For me, the lessons are clear. As a global missions community, we need to pull together to provide what is needed. We can no longer afford to live in our silos and only serve our own people. We must be vigilant for opportunities to serve one another, share resources, and continue to innovate in our approach to member care in its broadest sense.
We need to use the internet for on-field as well as pre-field training, for supportive community, and potentially as a first response to crises as they arise. As far as possible, keeping security in mind, we need to be generous with our means across cultures and organisations, pointing people to where help can be found. Sending churches will serve their workers better if they can learn what good sending and supporting looks like, so that those they send out feel seen, heard, and appreciated throughout their terms of service and beyond.
Finally, we need to value our returning missionaries, even the wounded ones! Let’s welcome them home, celebrate their stories, help them heal, and then make best use of their experience and expertise for mentoring a new generation of fieldworkers preparing to go out.
An earlier version of this article appeared on OSCAR as “Crossing Cultures Survey.” It has been expanded for the A Life Overseas community and has been reprinted with permission.
Christine Paterson, together with her husband Ross, has served in the Chinese world over many decades. Ross first went to Asia in 1969. Over the years they have been involved in campus ministry, literature and radio work, placing of professionals across China, humanitarian projects in minority areas, and recently in cross-cultural training. Christine has a degree in linguistics, a diploma in theology, and is certified as an intercultural coach. Her passion is to see those who serve in other cultures thrive and be resilient for the long haul. Ross and Christine have five daughters and eight grandchildren. You can contact her with comments and suggestions at email@example.com.