Our first year of living in China was marked by the expected symptoms of culture stress: frustration, dark thoughts about all Chinese people everywhere, helplessness, hopelessness, tears. And loneliness. So much loneliness. We arrived without any team members, hoping to prepare the way for others to join us, but having no idea if they ever would.
So it is hardly surprising as I look back to realize that a major turning point in my attitude towards China took place when we got an email at the end of that first year. Some old friends of ours, with whom we’d had little contact for years, were inquiring about coming to join us. Within a month, they had committed to coming.
Oh the anticipation! The hope that came with the promise of a community, of friends with the same passions and dreams for making Chinese disciples! I had dreams of vacations our families would take together, relationships with Chinese we would build together, long coffee and prayer dates with the wife, shared babysitting. I grew up on a close-knit missions team and have really been in the missions world my whole life; I have experienced all the best of tightknit relationships among missionaries. To be honest, the desire for the close community of a missions team was one of my major motivations for becoming a missionary. Missionaries are my people; where in North America could I ever find comparable community of people who would really get me?
Our new teammates arrived in September. We cleared our calendars, held off on new ministries, and geared everything towards helping them settle in and easing the emotional ups and downs of culture stress for them. Six months later, I was perhaps in deeper distress than during our first lonely year. The friendship I had been hoping for just wasn’t happening, despite my best efforts. I felt rejected and misunderstood, and lonelier than ever. I dreaded our weekly team meetings. Even worse, and harder for me to admit, I couldn’t stop making comparisons. We were supposed to be on the same team, but I kept running into this ugly competitor within me.
The crazy thing is that we have never had a single conflict with them, and not even many disagreements. They were a sweet couple with big hearts to serve God, and they did, in fact contribute a great deal to our ministry. They were simply independent and did not have the desire we had for deep intimacy in relationships—perhaps because they had never experienced it. But really, the biggest problems were in my heart, as my hurt feelings and disappointment in our relationship turned into a judgmental, critical, and competitive spirit.
So what have we learned?
- God has never promised me deep, soul friendships. It would be perfectly within his right to never provide me with the kind of friend I long for. I am not actually being deprived of anything when I feel lonely. However, God is so gracious that he often does bring along these friends. A year after our team members arrived, I realized I had two other friendships that were moving into the soul-friendship territory—one with another American who had moved to our area and one with a Chinese sister.
- A critical spirit is never, ever useful. I like to say that I am discerning, but really, that so-called discernment easily becomes criticism. I feel most critical when I cannot speak openly and honestly with someone about how I’m feeling, as was the case with our teammates. For a period of a few months, almost all of the conversations I had with my husband about our team quickly devolved into complaining sessions, as we picked apart all the ways we felt wronged by them. We are both verbal processors, so it was easy to say, “I just need to get this off my chest….” But were our conversations loving and noble? Were they even true? Rarely. In order not to speak this way, I can’t think this way: I have to stop the criticisms before they get rolling in my head. Instead, by God’s grace, I try to replace them with either deeper sympathy with or praise of our teammates.
- Love rejoices in diversity. Though I didn’t want to admit it, I often felt threatened by our teammates when they chose to do things differently than we had. I read their different choices as a criticism of us. It took me a while to realize that, unlike me, they like to forge their own way simply because they enjoy it, not because they think the previous way was wrong. Furthermore, for me to feel threatened and care so deeply to have their approval was revealing the idolatry in my own heart. I idolized my way of doing things and others’ opinions of my way of doing things. And I idolized the kind of relationship I was expecting with our teammates. As I began to repent of these idols, I was able to appreciate our team members’ unique gifts and the ways they complemented us and added greatly to our team.
- The Spirit is always at work in believers’ hearts. Part of what I wanted out of a deep friendship with team members was the ability to counsel one another—to ask and be asked the hard, heart-probing questions. But I never got to that level with these particular team members. It was so hard to trust the Spirit’s work in their hearts when I felt I could never catch a glimpse of it, or when the changes I was hoping for (selfishly) weren’t taking place. However, once I was able to let go of my desires for the relationship, I was freer to sit back and see and enjoy the Spirit’s presence both in their lives and in mine. He is working in all our hearts, and how thankful I am that he doesn’t need me at all to work his redemption!
- Deep, vulnerable sharing can be manipulative. I had learned in the past that in order to create an environment in which others feel free to open their hearts, it often helps to go first. So early in our team relationship I would share some of what the Spirit was teaching me, trying to include even the ugly stuff in my heart that was being revealed. When that sharing wasn’t reciprocated—when they didn’t share in the same way—I felt myself wanting to disengage, to hold back from sharing my heart. Not that I didn’t feel safe—I trusted them enough to know their discretion—but how could I continue to expose the ugliness in myself to people who didn’t seem to want to share theirs—without beginning to feel like the weakest, most sinful member of the team? Again, this was only exposing my idolatry, not theirs. I realized I was trying to use my sharing as a manipulation tactic. I eventually learned, however, that God is glorified when I tell of his marvelous deeds, including his work in my heart, and our team members truly appreciated hearing of it and sympathized with my emotions. But not everyone is ready or able to share in the same way—perhaps they are not verbal processors, perhaps they don’t analyze themselves as much as I do, perhaps they don’t trust their audience—and that’s okay and not for me to discern. And it’s also okay if I am the weakest, most sinful member of the team—who’s keeping track anyway?
Part of me feels ashamed to give you these lessons I learned through this team experience because the ugliness that was exposed in my soul during that time is still there, still battling for dominion. Only as I turn my attention and desires towards pursuing God and his goodness does his love begin to conquer the fierce competitor in me.
I write this because I suspect disappointment in team relationships is far more common than I ever realized when I was younger and dreaming about my future as a missionary. I also believe that God often brings team members in our lives to refine us, but perhaps not in the positive, warm and fuzzy way we might hope for. Because our team relationships tend to be so much more intense and inescapable—and require so much more interdependence—than our friendships back home, they can also expose a much deeper level of sin and idolatry in ourselves. Painful as that process is, it’s all for the purpose of forming us into more holy ministers of God’s Kingdom. After all, how can I claim to be sharing God’s love with Chinese people if I can’t even share his love with the teammates he’s given me?
Carrie Smith (not her real name) grew up as an MK in the Philippines and then in the wild jungles of Pennsylvania. After seven years of grad school life, she and her husband made it to China and started the long and arduous journey of learning language and culture while her husband works a full-time job as a university professor. She is passionate about Biblical counseling, reproducible disciple-making, and authentic culture learning — and raising her own little TCKs to be bilingual global citizens who passionately pursue God’s heart for the world. You can communicate with her at email@example.com.