Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Missionaries: Super Saints or Super-Stressed?

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This article, slightly condensed, was reprinted with permission from the May/June issue of Faith Today.

Stress back "home"
Although air travel brings missionaries back to Canada in a few hours, it may take months or years to feel "at home" again. Many feel as if they've landed on another planet. Ironically, the better they have performed as missionaries-the more they've integrated into the foreign community, the more they've bonded and identified with the people they were sent to serve-the harder they find the transition back into Canadian society. The stress of re-entering the home culture often has been covered up, maintains Major Margaret Burt, because missionaries fear insulting their supporters or admitting "they're not as strong and saintly" as their image demands. Burt, who completed post-graduate studies in cross-cultural re-entry after spending nine years in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, says missionaries who risk vulnerability by sharing their confused feelings can be criticized for lacking faith or "not getting on with their lives." Burt, currently based in Toronto, specializes in leadership development for the national education department of the Salvation Army-Canada and Bermuda territory. She co-edited Crossing Cultures: How to Manage the Stress of Re-Entry. The book contends that reverse culture shock caused by returning home is a stressful life event, on par with a significant loss. The stress alters roles, relationships, routines and assumptions.

Changed values: Traveling abroad and living in another culture have stretched missionaries' thinking and given them a more global outlook. New experiences have subconsciously changed their values, attitudes and perceptions. Suddenly, returnees discover they have little in common with family members, old friends and fellow Christians. They presumed they were returning to a familiar setting. But they feel out-of-step with society and on a different wave length than the very people who sent them to the field, contends the book.

Offensive attitudes: Contributors to Crossing Cultures write that former missionaries often struggle with anger at attitudes and behavior they encounter in the church. Missionaries may perceive some fellow congregants to be materialistic, wasteful, parochial, intolerant or racist. Returnees may be outraged at misconceptions that the field posting was a backwater of civilization, or that North American Christianity is normative and superior.

Lost identity: In some cases, returning missionaries lose their sense of identity. They may have filled demanding leadership positions in the field or developed a flexible range of skills and accomplishments such as relationship-building or managing finances on a small budget, Burt says. But this expertise may prove irrelevant in landing a job in Canada.

Lack of interest: Most disillusioning to returnees is the fact that busy Canadians may show little more than superficial interest in hearing about the missionary's experiences and discoveries overseas. "It can be devastating to find out that your support system isn't there for you anymore. Friends have changed and they really don't comprehend the sense of loss and pain you're going through," Burt commented. "So just when you're really hurting, when you're physically and emotionally exhausted, you have to start again to find kindred spirits and empathetic listeners."

Children of missionaries also face tough transitions in coming back to Canada. Younger children generally adapt to new circumstances, but adolescents often undergo a rocky adjustment period. Seminars or camps with other children of missionaries provide a sense of camaraderie and relief that they are not alone in their feelings. Many missionary children nurture idealized memories of "home" (the field posting), are most comfortable with international students, and become world citizens who feel "at home anywhere, but nowhere in particular."

For all age groups, the challenge for returnees is to integrate the best of both worlds and develop a new identity as a bi-cultural person, Burt says. "You're never the same after you've experienced a cross-cultural ministry. Family and friends may find it difficult to understand that you love and appreciate the people you left behind and their seemingly strange lifestyles. But by retaining the values and standards which have enriched you, you have some deeper insights to offer back in your home culture," she advises.

Care programs
Both Taylor and Dueck contend that mission organizations need to take better care of their people and provide a continuous "flow of care" before, during and after the missionaries' field placements. Missionaries undergoing stress in the field should be able to access resources for help, whether regular on-site visits from agency administrators and mental health professionals, or long-distance telephone and e-mail crisis counselling sessions. Dueck urges development of an international network of therapists, pastors and spiritual directors who would be able to provide emotional support, assessment of psychological states, crisis intervention, education and tools for preventative measures.

Despite legends of missionary-warriors, stress-induced psychological problems in the mission field are neither new nor uncommon. A study by Andrews and Tucker cited in Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization revealed that missionary icons David Brainerd, Hudson Taylor and A. B. Simpson all wrestled with deep depression.

A missionary calling is divine-and it is hard.

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