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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.

Contributions to mission worker resilience during Covid-19

As we are now well over a year into Covid-19 and for some of us the disruption and turmoil seem no closer to ending, I’d like to share some observations on our joint experience.

It seems to me (to make a subjective observation that is not robust or scientifically-based) that mission workers have, on the whole, coped with the challenges of the last 15 months with less obvious trauma than the average Christian, despite the difficulties of often being away from home for extended periods, not being in the same country as their children, or grappling with the fact that our comparative wealth gives us more options than the local people we work with.

If we have fared better throughout this crisis, what are some of the reasons?

Mission workers are already accustomed to change and turmoil.  Many of us will previously have had to move country rapidly for security or visa reasons; some of us live with an evacuation bag already packed.  We’re used to not seeing loved ones in person sometimes for years at a time.  And some of the challenges faced by the rest of the population, like home schooling or working from home, may be things we are doing already.

We have a sense of vocation which pulls us through difficult times.  Our activities may have been disrupted but we still have a sense of calling to a particular place, people group or activity which provides us with a sense of purpose and direction in difficult times.

We expect life to bring challenges.  Whether we were trained to expect difficulties, or have simply got used to dealing with them along the way, we have a theology of suffering.  We have experienced the doors closed to mission and know first-hand the risks of international mission.  So when we encounter another major challenge, it’s more like a huge pothole than the road ahead being completely destroyed.

We have good support mechanisms.  Most Christians do not have their own support groups, churches praying for them regularly, or prayer groups.  Most people don’t circulate a monthly prayer letter.  They don’t have a member care department checking in with them regularly.  We are blessed to have so many people actively praying for, supporting and encouraging each of us.

We have constructive working relationships (most of the time!)  Part of our role in being a ‘professional’ Christian is that we pray with our co-workers, expect discussion of our spiritual life to be normal, and regularly study the Bible or discuss theology as part of our work or fellowship.  This means we are constantly engaging with God, or with others about God, in our daily lives.  Our leadership is expected to take an interest in our spiritual wellbeing and may even be proactive in supporting us or holding us accountable.

It’s easy for us to forget that most Christians live and work in a largely secular context devoid of the sort of support and encouragement that we receive.  So how do we, who continue to receive so much in the midst of the current difficulties, help the rest of the church benefit from the structures, supports and relationships that are so important for helping us thrive through the adversities we experience?

It would be helpful to have feedback from our readers who are mission workers, to know what has worked to help you during Covid-19, or what help you would have liked but didn’t receive.  Email us on webmaster@membercare.eu or engage with us through social media links.

 

Tim Herbert is the founder of Syzygy Missions Support Network and provides practical and pastoral support to mission workers.  This blog originally appeared on the Syzygy website as part of a series on issues thrown up by Covid-19 and is reproduced here with permission.

 

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