09 June 2015

Granting permission to missionaries; an article by Michele Phoenix

Permission to be Confused
It’s okay for missionaries to get frustrated. It’s okay for them to question. It’s okay for them to feel let down by the One who called them and not understand what his purpose is in the challenges they’re facing.

It’s okay for missionaries to be confused.

But their doubts must be accepted and their vulnerability honored. If you want to support your missionaries, be affirming. Pray for miracles and have faith when theirs wanes.

Acknowledge the emotional toll of disappointment and the spiritual confusion it can cause. Give missionaries permission to question and feel defeated, if only for a time. It isn’t weakness—it’s a natural response to unmet expectations and to what feels like broken promises.

Permission to be Flawed
Missionaries aren’t perfect. Some of us struggle to get organized. Some of us battle temptation, carry the burden of depression, have trouble setting boundaries or suffer from anxiety. Some of us lie, gossip, overeat, misrepresent or exaggerate.

The missionaries you see standing at that mic on Sunday mornings have chosen a life that may different from yours, but they’re just as human, just as frail and just as fallible as anyone else.

Unfortunately, there have generally been only two options available to missionaries facing challenges: to be released from service by their sending agency or to keep their struggles private. In order for missionaries to feel safe revealing their flaws, we need to institute systems that will help them to work through their challenges without the all-or-nothing threat that has inhibited disclosure.

It’s a messy proposal, one that would require time and personnel many missions don’t have—following overseas workers personally and intimately, allowing for honest, bared-soul reporting in a safe context.

Imagine how Permission To Be Flawed (from friends, churches, mission boards and colleagues) and strategies/personnel in place to address the problems when they occur might change the experience and reporting of struggling missionaries.

Permission to Rest
For some missionaries, the nature of ministry can take a personal and relational toll. In some cases, it becomes physical too—when the body can no longer sustain the strain of an all-encompassing, all-demanding work. The pace can be relentless.

The problem, when missionaries report periods of rest, is that it often comes without context.
Because they try so hard to sound positive about the work they’re doing, you won’t hear the fatigue, discouragement or urgency in their communication.

Taking a Sunday afternoon nap, doing coffee with a friend or snuggling in for a movie night shouldn’t be guilt-inducing, yet too often it is.

Missionaries may be doing God’s work, but they’re doing it in human bodies. If Jesus needed to get away during his time on earth, surely we can grant permission to those who work in his name today to find appropriate respite from the rigors of their ministry.

Rest isn’t a luxury. It’s a God-mandated necessity.

Permission to Spend 
We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to their status and to the giver’s sacrifice. We honor self-sacrifice and deem it a cornerstone of missionary endeavors. And indeed it is. Leaving loved ones. Choosing a non-traditional life in another culture.

Missionaries sacrifice willingly. And sometimes, out of a misplaced effort to be good stewards of donations, they sacrifice too much. I call it “misallocation of emotional energy.” Living precariously, making life more complicated than it needs to be, forces missionaries to invest their finite supply of emotional energy in coping with unnecessary duress.

Attrition numbers on the mission field are rising. In many of the interactions I’ve had with missionaries who have left their work, there’s been a common thread of just not being “able to handle it anymore”—people who have given it all up, even small material comforts, in an effort to prove full devotion through extreme deprivation. And they can’t sustain the effort long-term.

I’m not advocating for reckless spending or luxurious living. I’m advocating for supporters who understand that they’re funding the whole person, and that her quality of life will be a crucial factor in the longevity of the ministry.

If there is a way to remedy a debilitating “lack,” however trivial it may seem, so the missionary can focus on more important things, isn’t it healthy for her to do so?

Even when given permission to spend, missionaries will need to grant themselves the license to identify what is causing a misallocation of emotional energy and find ways to reduce the stress it’s causing.

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The Permission Challenge
Extending these permissions might reduce the pressure that becomes toxic to missionaries. Sometimes that pressure is self-inflicted, derived from the unachievable standards they levy on themselves. And sometimes it’s imposed by supporters and churches who mean well, but fail to measure the human toll of a life in ministry.

The onus of responsibility is twofold:
  • on the missionaries who self-blame and self-shame 
  • on the networks that back them, sometimes piling unreasonable expectations on people who work in circumstances they can’t fully fathom
If churches and supporters want to encourage missionaries to live in these permissions, they’ll need to exhibit a culture of personal interest, non-judgmental inquisitiveness and generous understanding.
  • Ask questions that show sincere concern. 
  • Acknowledging the flaws of humanness and the stresses of ministry. 
  • Validate the person.
  • Exercise compassionate discernment.
For missionaries to give themselves permission to be confused and flawed, to rest and to spend, a shift in priorities will have to occur, one in which their health - physical, spiritual, emotional and relational — is just as valued as the work they do, regardless of the pressure to put themselves last.

Excerpts from Permissions Missionaries Need, by Michele Phoenix (an MK/TCK advocate and author)

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