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The Critical Journey

In the July article “Hartmut Wacker: When vocation gets into a crisis…“, we were presented with some “food for thoughts” on the theme of suffering – or rather how we process and cope with suffering.

The short summary of a survey where missionaries share resources that helped them to cope, inspired me to reflect on my own experience and the experience that many missionaries and missionary candidates go through these days. At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak many were told to leave their place of service. For some, the time since then has been a prolonged period of uncertainty, unfulfilled dreams and expectations, a high degree of ambiguity: Can I go back or not? When can it happen? What to do in the meantime? Others have had similar problems like waiting for delayed papers, facing new visa restrictions, health problems or sudden development of conflict, like the Afghan crises.

Earlier this summer I discovered a book called “The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith” by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich.

In this book, a third stage is described as “the doing” stage. It is a time in life when we are working for God, being productive in his service. It is usually a very active phase on our faith journey. It is a time of responsibility, authority, recognition, titles, and often praise from others. Several of the missionaries who were sent back were probably in this productive stage of life. A good place to be. But then in the next stage we may experience external events or internal conflicts that lead us out of this productive place, and into a time of questioning and doubt. The focus is no longer our service for God, but God himself and our relationship with him. This is a battle between God and the individual, an inner journey when we struggle with questions to God and about God, as well as inner struggles with our own hurt and disappointments. It is a struggle that God allows for a purpose.

In the July article Hartmut Wacker describes this as a time of ambiguity, a time when we experience the tension between faith and doubt, trust and disappointment. It was pointed out that how we view God is a crucial factor at this stage of our faith journey. The struggle can lead to a time of spiritual failure, of giving up, but it can also become “the breeding ground for spiritual growth”. The strongest resilience factor was to be able to trust that God is in control, that He is a faithful, loving and caring God even when we do not feel like it or do not get the answers we are longing for. Experiencing His love and care in the midst of difficulties is not something we can learn academically; it is learned through real life experience.

In the survey, some missionaries pointed to the importance of “extraordinary spiritual experiences” they’ve experienced before, during or after the traumatic event. It is a personal experience when we just know that God is there, that He is real and cares for us personally and intimately.

This has also been my personal experience. Hearing God speak, recognizing His inner dealings, receiving words of knowledge through others, was the deepest and most helpful support to me at a time when I had to leave the place of service because of illness and through a prolonged time of recovery. When God and His goodness and kindness become the center, it is easier to accept His direction even if it means redirection for us. Because we trust Him and His power, we can look to the future with hope and expectation. And – as described in The Critical Journey – our service may be more fruitful because we learn to serve in dependence on Him, under His direction, rather than for Him.

 

Reidun Haugen Dalseth is a board member of Member Care Europe and of mission boards in Norway. She is thankful for the opportunity to mentor/coach missionaries serving in many countries through different net-based platforms.

When vocation gets into a crisis…

In October 2020, German member care had their meeting online. The main topic was to discuss why young people return from the mission field before their term is over or will not return to the mission field after furlough.

Hartmut Wacker, who is on the German core team, allowed me to share his presentation.

Case study

A young family moves to an African country with the goal of working in church ministry there for an extended period of time. They had independently received the call to missionary service and met each other during their Bible school education. After marriage and intensive preparation, they left the country. In the first months after their arrival, the country went through a tumultuous political period – presidential elections were coming up. The everyday life of the foreigners was restricted. During this time, they had a traumatic experience when they unexpectedly got caught in a violent demonstration. They remained outwardly unharmed, but the woman suffered a great loss of confidence in the local community. During the years of the first term, the husband experienced fulfilment in his service while his wife repeatedly struggled with health problems. After the first term, medical examinations in Germany revealed that, unfortunately, leaving the country again was out of the question.

External circumstances played a role here, as did personal factors in one of the partners. This triggered an intense struggle with God about the question of vocation, but also a struggle with themselves and their partner.

We cannot point out all the areas that belong to the holistic coming to terms with this particular form of suffering experience today. I would like to focus my attention on the theological “beliefs”, that have been shaken by the experience and look for reorientation.

The question before us is: how can we provide assistance in this particular crisis, and how can new missionaries be prepared for such particular situations of suffering during their preparation time?

There are no ready-made solutions. Rather, from the wealth of experience of missionaries who have lived through different experiences of suffering, I would like to offer various food for thought for discussion, which – in my view – can be helpful for a personal (re)formulation of a theology of suffering.

Initiating a discussion for a theology of suffering

An empirical study of mine, which dealt with the resources of missionaries in coping with experiences of suffering, has led to interesting results. I describe them as perspectives from which individual aspects of their personal journey have been interpreted and processed.

The perspective of the inevitability of suffering

No one expected Christians to live a life free of suffering and pain. In some cases, their own suffering was even relativized in comparison to the suffering of others in the host culture. Or the view turned to the question of whether good could not also come from one’s own suffering. The most serious conflicts with God were among those whose service and calling were called into question by the event. Suffering yes, but why did it have to lead to the termination of ministry?

The perspective of a God who has all situations in his hands

This reflects faith in the omnipotence of God. Nothing happens where he does not have control. This comes across as comforting rather than threatening: “My life is in his hands, even though he has led me into this situation of suffering.”

The perspective of God’s love and care

A great trust in God’s love and care “for better or for worse” proved to be the strongest resilience factor in the crisis. This trust was formed in childhood and adolescence through credible role models in the parental home or in the community. But also previously experienced and survived crises in one’s own biography were found to be particularly helpful. Sermons or one’s own Bible school education were cited as less helpful or not helpful at all.

The perspective of ambiguity

This perspective refers to the ability to bear the tension between faith and doubt, between trust and disappointment. God’s actions are not always understandable from our perspective, but are sometimes even contradictory. Not only enduring such situations passively over a longer period of time, but also actively dealing with these questions can be the breeding ground for spiritual growth, but also spiritual failure.

The perspective of growing in times of suffering

All report their own spiritual growth, albeit in very different degrees and in different areas of life. The practical help from many known and unknown Christians, for example, strengthened the appreciation for the uniqueness of the worldwide church of Jesus.

The perspective of extraordinary spiritual experience

The survey brought to light another interesting resource. It refers to experiences described by a part of the respondents as “extraordinary spiritual experiences” that they experienced before, during or after the traumatic event.  This event was perceived as an immediate support by the Holy Spirit. When faced with difficult situations, Christians must not only count on their own personal resources and the support of other people, but they can count on the powerful presence of God, who can bring light and hope to a crisis situation in an extraordinary way.

 

Renate is a member of the board of Member Care Europe and works for the Association of Evangelical missions in Germany that hosts among other conferences, the German Member Care meetings. She is assistant to the CEO.

How bridges relate to Member Care

During the difficult lockdown days that many countries (especially in Europe) continued to endure this spring, my organization required us to take at least a half-day retreat somewhere in our city, find a bridge and reflect on its significance.

As I found my bridge in a beautiful park in my city of Genova, Italy, I made the following observations about bridges:

  • Bridges are often used to cross or overcome an obstacle
  • Are often the fastest means to get from point A to point B
  • To cross a bridge can often be scary (water, fear of heights, high winds, instability, etc.)
  • Crossing a bridge also involves trust, not only in the engineering, but also in the foundation
  • Bridges require maintenance and attention
  • Bridges can be diverse and innovative
  • And finally, bridges add perspective, allowing one to see things from a different point of view

So how do bridges relate to Member Care?

In the past year, I have debriefed numerous people working in dynamic and often volatile teams of both married and single people. The thing that everyone had in common was that first of all, they all have struggled in some way or another during the Covid-19 pandemic, and second, all felt that others on the team have failed to understand or acknowledge their life situations.

Some who are single talked about feelings of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic and frustration that their organizations and teams didn’t offer more support during difficult lockdown days. In contrast, other singles felt that because they are used to managing on their own, they were better equipped not only to deal with government restrictions and quarantine, but also available to offer support and care to those who needed it the most during lockdown. But what the singles DID have in common was that all felt that their married colleagues need to learn more about how to be sensitive to the needs and struggles of singles.

One young single woman (permission granted to share her story) serving in a closed-access country offered an interesting example of the conflict and misunderstandings that can occur between single and married colleagues. During a mandatory hostage training course that her team participated in, her team went through a simulation in which kidnappers asked for a person to be offered as ransom. This particular woman was both hurt and shocked that her team said she should offer herself up as ransom in order to save the other members of the team because she is not married and doesn’t have to look out for a family. Moreover, she was shamed into thinking she was selfish for not offering herself voluntarily. Clearly her team had a lot to unpack, debrief, and reconcile.

Other single inter-cultural workers have often talked about how their married counterparts often ask them to babysit because “obviously being single means you have more time on your hand,” or “don’t lose heart, God is your husband,” to which a close friend of mine says, “No, God is not my husband, He is my Lord and Saviour!” And finally, singles often hear not only from teammates, but also supporters and churches, “we are praying for you to find a spouse,” to which singles might say, “that’s funny, I never asked for you to pray about that.”

But what about teammates who are married? Many married people have shared that this past year added a whole new level of stress on their marriage. Why? Because they were forced to spend 24 hours a day together with no break. I have heard one married person say, “Although I love my wife, I envy those who are single during Covid who at least get some time to themselves.” Cases of domestic abuse have also been on the rise during the pandemic due to added stress and married people feeling that they are living on top of each other at times.

I have also heard married people express that single people often fail to recognize the individuality and/or unique personality of each spouse. Simply put, Sarah and Abraham, while a unit, are clearly also two different people and personalities.

Interestingly, I have heard singles and married people both complain about a particular rule married people may have, albeit from different perspectives.  Many of us know of married couples who have a rule not to ever be in a room together alone with someone of the opposite sex.  I have heard married cross-cultural workers complain about their single teammates who they feel have not respected or perhaps have interfered in this rule.  However, I have heard singles address this same rule by saying, “married teammates who have this rule need to understand how such a rule inadvertently affects single people.”

Perspective!

Finally, I personally have seen both sides of the bridge, so to speak, because both my wife and I spent half of our adult cross-cultural life as both single and married.  We both have heard teammates and other Christian workers say to us AFTER we got married, “you have finally arrived” or “your spouse really completes you.”  It makes one think, geesh, what did they really think of me when I was single?  And no, it is not correct to say “My better-half, or my husband or wife completes me.” We need to all think about what our words mean and their impact, and even more so, their theological ramifications. No, our spouses don’t complete us (though they certainly can and should complement us); we are ALL COMPLETE in Christ.

What is needed and what is the Member Care lesson? Build a bridge, cross the bridge, and look at life, experiences, and the view from the other side. Building and crossing that bridge involves trust, innovation, creativity but offers our teams stability, perspective and efficiency. Both married and single teammates suffer from loneliness, being misunderstood, and feeling frustrated. But if they are willing to build a bridge and work together, beautiful things can be done collectively for the Kingdom!

*Recommended Reading:

  1. Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life by Barry Danylak
  2. Single Mission by Debbie Hawker & Tim Herbert
  3. Married in Mission: A Handbook for Couples in Cross-Cultural Service by Alexis C. Kenny

 

Mihai Lundell is a member of the board of Member Care Europe and a mission worker providing member care in Italy with OCI.

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