Pastoral Care and the Missionary


English: Reverend James Chalmers, missionary.

English: Reverend James Chalmers, missionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am scheduled to teach a two-week course at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (www.pbts.net.ph) this April as part of its Summer Institute. Basically, it is an 8-week course shoved into two weeks. I am not sure that “Pastoral Care and the Missionary” is the name the course will finally settle on, but I like it. There is a course at PBTS that deals with “Missionary Member Care” but traditionally it has focused more on logistical issues and relational issues (relationships with supporters, mission board, hosts, etc.).  This is all good, but as someone involved in missions, and one who serves as the administrator of Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center (www.bukallife.org), I wanted to focus more on the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects of missions.

But let’s ask an obvious question. Why have a question that focuses on pastoral care for one profession? I used to be a mechanical engineer… would it make sense to have a class entitled “Pastoral Care and the Engineer?” <Hmmm…. that’s got me thinking…>

This is not a hugely well thought out post… hopefully by the time I finish prepping for the class I will have a clearer view. But here are some reasons to consider:

1.  Cross-cultural Immersion. Most (classic) missionaries are raised in one culture, yet are expected to live and thrive in a new culture. Yet missionaries aren’t typically meant to “go native”… to become become completely enculturated in their new culture. There are a couple of reasons. Missionaries are supported by people from their home culture, and they still be able to relate to them. Additionally, missionaries aren’t supposed to simply become part of a new culture, but to connect counter-culturally, adapting to the culture while also challenging it.

Missionaries often feel “culture shock” as they enter a new culture. Yet, they never truly fit in. This feeling (conscious or unconscious) of being a “stranger in a strange land” provides considerable stress that must be recognized, understood, and dealt with.

2.  Bomb in the Suitcase. I did not create this term… IMB has used it before, but I am not sure if they developed the term either. The idea is that when a missionary goes overseas, he (or she or they of course) carries baggage with him. Yet some of the baggage he carries he is not fully aware of. And that baggage has the potential of “blowing up” overseas.  Here are a few items:

a.  Anger. If a missionary has a bit of an anger problem in his home culture… he can probably deal with it because he has had decades to make his behavior culturally acceptable. But in a new culture, there will be things done differently that are very irritating (driving, food, the lack of privacy, whatever). Also, that which is culturally acceptable is different. Anger that could be dealt with at home may blow up on the field.

b.  Sex.  Family, friends, church, accountability partners at home may keep sexual problems under control. But in the field, much of that support network is gone. Additionally, the cultural landscape may be more relaxed sexually than home, and even where the culture is more conservative there are often things permitted that the missionary has not had to deal with before. It is easy to develop an attitude that “whatever happens in the field, stays in the field.” On the other hand, home supporter expectations may also cause problems. A single missionary at home may be encouraged to marry, but a single missionary in the field may be discouraged from this due to ethnic prejudices or mission board policies.

c.  Financial Mismanagement or Laziness. Problems with money or time or work may not be too much of a problem in a company or organization with a great deal of oversight… where one’s boss’s office is just a few feet away from one’s cubicle. But when management is distant, work problems can flare up.

There are many more potential bombs but you get the idea.

3.  Unreliability and Unrealistic Expectations of Partners. Missionaries are expected to be reliable, but sponsors and agencies are often less reliable. Missionaries often don’t know from month to month (certainly year to year) whether their support will continue to come in. Local hosts on the other hand may see missionaries as a cash cow. Supporters want to hear about victories more than struggles, big numbers over gradual transformation. Some supporters expect missionaries to suffer, Missionaries often are asked to host short-term missionaries… many of whom are great, but some are more like demanding and judgmental religious tourists. Many a missionary has gone home to be cut off financially, or to retire without a support system. Missionaries aren’t expected to have emotional or (especially) spiritual problems. And if they do… who can they go to? In some cases, there is no one to go to.

4.  Failure.  Missionaries are supposed to succeed. But success is often hard to recognize. Partnership failure, organizational or ministry failure, physical or emotional breakdown happens. These can happen with anyone… but the situation of many missionaries makes it difficult to handle these… especially if they have not been prepared for the vicissitudes of mission work.

5.  Special Family Issues.  Missionaries don’t just do their work and then join their family at home. Their family is also intimately involved with the mission work in the mission field culture. Children must be bicultural typically and educated to be able to function effectively in two different cultures. Many do no not have the flexibility and resilience for this. Additionally, missionaries cannot care for aged parents well from a distance. Yet, missionaries can’t (or at least should not) dump their family concerns on God… they are responsible for their family.

6.  Adaptation.  I have said that the two major characteristics of missionaries is Willingness and Flexibility. Spirituality is important, but often not the sort of spirituality that is appreciated by supporters. Spirituality is often shown in flexibility… adjusting to different ministry work, schedules, partnerships, locations, and so forth. Most people don’t deal well with changing schedules… most like a certain amount of routine. Even for those who like variety and change… it is still a source of stress. Burnout is easy… especially when willingness is not tempered by one’s own limitation.

7.  Spiritual Warfare.  Okay, I have to admit that I often don’t take spiritual warfare as seriously as I should (covering this more on a future post) but I do recognize that missionaries are in the front-lines of a battlefield that few people understand or are prepared for.

I will stop here. Anyway, I am looking forward to this class. The Philippines is an up-and-coming mission-sending country. But missionary care here is almost non-existent. Worse, it seems as if (sometimes) the senders seek to make the missionaries suffer more. That could be a mistaken impression on my part… but I do believe there is GREAT room for improvement.

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