When You Won’t Be Home for the Holidays

Reading Time: 4 minutes

home for the holidays

It was December 24th, but I was the only person out shopping that night thinking about stocking stuffers. I ran down to purchase a few last-minute items, missing my extended family and the unintended tradition of wrapping gifts in a crazy flurry on Christmas Eve.

It wasn’t Christmas Eve for most of the people in Egypt. I was one more person out shopping on a normal night. I was homesick and worried I wouldn’t be able to make the holiday special for my family. read more

Finding My Place in the (New, Again) Space

Reading Time: 5 minutes

finding my place

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Rebecca Hopkins’ blog, Borneo Wife, when she and her husband served in Indonesia. Her pieces have appeared in Christianity Today and A Life Overseas. She currently blogs from her new American home at rebeccahopkins.org.

I walked past the stack of empty, folded boxes on my front porch, out the gate onto my quiet street, tried not to think about how much was left to unpack. read more

How to jump in cross-culturally (without drowning)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

jump in cross-culturallyWhen my kids were learning to swim, they loved the thrill of jumping from the edge of the pool into my waiting arms.

I cautioned them over and over that they should make sure I knew they were jumping before plunging in. If I wasn’t ready, they would go under.

Inevitably that would happen at least once with each child. I would always manage to grab them before the situation turned remotely serious, but they did not enjoy the surprise of floundering on their own. read more

Loneliness Overseas: 12+ Ways to Deal

Reading Time: 5 minutes

loneliness overseas

I watched her eyes redden, moisture collecting at their edges. “No one told me how lonely this would be,” she shrugged.

She’s a global worker, but despite her training and passion, hadn’t counted on the excitement of the Great Commission dissolving in potent alienation.

If you don’t treat loneliness overseas as an issue to be dealt with, it’s possible it might shorten your shelf life in your host nation.

First, this

Maybe this sounds ironic–but how deeply do you feel your need for other people? (Why?)

And how much do you believe your ministry needs others?

Ever feel it’s easier to be alone because relationships take so much work–or pain?

Jesus said others would know we’re Christians by how we love each other (John 13:35)–and as we look at the Trinity, presumably, this is not just a one-way love.

And that echoes Genesis 2, right? It’s not good for any of us to lack community (v. 18), even if we walk with God himself (3:8).

Then there’s this: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you'” (1 Corinthians 12:21).

Before you only believe loneliness overseas comes from lack of availability of people who understand, spend time asking God about other reasons you might be lonely.

What might he have you do to overcome what’s in front of you?

We’ve got a few ideas to help you deal.

12+ WAYS TO DEAL WITH LONELINESS OVERSEAS

Reject some key Western ways.

  • Decide to walk wherever you can.
  • Get comfortable with people knocking at your door without calling first. (Though feel free to take a Sabbath from this.)
  • Depending on the culture of your area, consider greeting others at the grocery store or who serve you, say, as cashiers. Challenge yourself to get to know their names and bits of their stories.
  • When you can, gain one degree of proximity: If you were going to text, call. If you were going to call, walk over.
  • Host dinner “unplugged”, inviting guests to stay a bit longer, even if you’re only having a chopped salad or rice and beans, and even if the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned. Invite people of all social classes, treating them with easy dignity and respect. 
  • Buy local, even if it means paying a little more, or going to three shops, or having to wash your produce twice.

Westerners aren’t always great at building their community at large, but in a different way than long, thoughtful talks, having a place “where everybody knows your name” makes a place feel more like home.

With that in mind–

Plan margin.

Many overseas cultures value the time to chat, even if the stories are meandering and you’re not sure if either of you got to know each other better. At all.

Part of stifling loneliness overseas may be communicating your availability, your willingness to stop and shoot the breeze, your desire to sit down and people-watch with a neighbor, even if you have some place to go.

See, people are unlikely to talk about what’s meaningful to them, including religion, if they don’t trust you. Trust, especially of foreigners, takes time.

And if your personal agenda or your penthouse apartment means a slower-paced culture never sees you?

Those conversations will get hard.

BANISH LONELINESS OVERSEAS BY ShowING trust.

I’ve known some global workers skeptical of nationals at every turn. And if you’re in a culture that frequently lies or cheats, I do get it. I’ve been swindled and conned, even mugged.

But let me ask you this.

If you were working for someone or hanging around someone who never believed the best about you, how would that affect your sense of self around that person? How would that affect your relationship?  

Would you virtuously strive to become more trustworthy, or would you just slip on a better mask?

Part of generating that trust you seek also means offering trust.

No, I’m not saying be a doormat, or be unwise. Jesus commanded us to be wise as serpents, gentle as doves. Genuine relationships that could defeat loneliness overseas aren’t built on us rolling over for evil. Jesus didn’t allow others to take his life; he gave it up when it was time (John 10:18).

But overcoming evil with good? That’s biblical. Cheritable judgments, especially those duly-earned, go far in any culture.

And statistically, any of us is more likely to trust others when we are trusted.

When you find a person who gets it, ask, “Can we do this more often?”

  • This might be a video call with your mentor from back home, or even a friend who’s never lived overseas, but is willing to keep up with how much you’re going through, how much you’re changing.
  • Maybe it’s coffee at ten on Wednesdays. Maybe it’s trading video chats on Marco Polo (a free app).
  • See if the two of you can take a road trip.

tell someone From your passport country your story. (even if you don’t think they’ll get it)

When I was involved in a fatal accident overseas, my fear, loss, and questions felt overwhelming.

We soon went on home assignment. And my husband advised me to trust one friend with the whole story of the accident: not just the facts, but the implications on me, the unresolved questions about God, the ugly-crying.

I still remember crying in a friend’s car in her driveway on a rainy day. But trusting her–a trust of which she proved so worthy!–may have helped us stay overseas.

We’re always relating stories others may not understand to varying degrees. Maybe single friends don’t understand marriage–but maybe married people don’t understand singleness. Maybe your spouse doesn’t understand what it’s like to be pregnant–but are you really not going to relate what’s going on inside your body?

No, don’t be willy-nilly about who you trust with what’s sacred to you.

But some friends would love to know about your world.

Find a cultural liaison.

Who’s that national who serves as a bridge between you and your host culture? Can you invite them over for dinner to appreciate them more often? Can you buy them coffee or invite them over for tea, to continue to generate closeness?

BE GENEROUS.

At three in the afternoon, neighborhood kids would start shimmying over our walls (built for “security” and obviously oh-so-effective) and knocking at the gate.

They knew that’s when my kids were done with homeschooling. And we had bikes and Nerf weapons and outside games in abundance for everyone to use.

Yes, this meant our bikes wore out a lot faster. Yes, this meant we paid to have our minivan touched up with paint before we sold it, to cover all the handlebar-level scratches.

But it also meant my kids felt at home, and that neighbors got the idea we weren’t just walled-in Westerners. I hope they got the idea we were available.

No, those kids didn’t meet my deep need to be understood. No, loneliness overseas didn’t suddenly evaporate.

But it meant where we lived felt like home, and people knew us. It meant they called our names in the supermarket.

And maybe, it was a step away from lonely.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to missionary women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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Betrayal in Ministry

Reading Time: 7 minutes

. betrayal in ministry

By Anonymous

Perhaps in moving overseas, even possibly working with Christians for the first time, hope fills your sails. Won’t it be great working with people who share your vision, who you can trust?

But so often–too often–even as Christians, we inflict deep pain on one another.

Personally, in my spouse’s and my decades as missionaries, we have had that “betrayal” feeling an uncomfortable number of times. So many times, you’ll see, you might wonder if the problem is me!

(I wonder that, too.) 

But instead, human nature acts as the common denominator, piled directly with our carry-ons onto a plane.

In hopes of helping you encounter your own possible future betrayal in ministry, I’ll seek to be honest here.

And perhaps you’ll witness the absolute necessity of emotional health on the field, both in yourself and the agency you serve. (Our emotions, Peter Scazzero writes, are a discipleship issue.)

Because it does influence the Gospel we display to others.

Rather than some veiled revenge or chance to tell “my side of the story,” I hope instead you see the question marks still bouncing around in my soul even now.

As someone who’s served in leadership, I can tell you as well as anyone that there are always two sides, always explanations on both sides that feel legitimate. 

It won’t be pretty. But even in the Bible, God doesn’t spare telling the truth about how weak we still are, as Christians.

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #1: “People like you fail”

We were in the internship program–a good one–for our mission when our leaders told us a fellow intern had cautioned we were similar to “a couple they knew who went overseas and failed almost immediately.” 

The leaders wouldn’t tell us who it was, of course, but it raised red flags with them, they said. And they made a point of mentioning it to us. To their credit, a couple later told us they’d been the source.

The plot thickens: That couple reported to the same field with us. (As time would have it, two years later, they were off of the field and we were just arriving.)

I still scratch my head over that one.

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #2: Wait. We were on Probation?

Our next hard-to-swallow “betrayal” in ministry came a year later as we sat down with our agency’s personnel committee to confirm our field assignment and set a date for departure.

During the discussion, a comment was made about us having been on probation the past year.

Puzzled, I turned to my wife. “Am I forgetting something?” 

Neither of us could remember ever being told we were on probation.

The committee scrambled to change the topic. The committee offered no further comments about our probation, the reasoning behind it, or how our sending organization felt about us now.   

My thoughts ricocheted for weeks.

Was it because I had questioned some things that happened in the internship program? The gentleman in charge, I knew, was of a culture where questioning authority was frowned upon. Was this a clash of cultural norms before we even arrived?  

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #3: “I am so sorry you got bumped out the door”

After arriving, the conflict grew more complex.

The national team leader was vocally committed…to a ministry opposite to everything we had been told our mission organization did. And we were the only international couple serving beneath him.

Needless to say, we felt caught between significant organizational disparity–all while political tensions in our host nation’s government also rose. 

When betrayal means tears

Perhaps you’re seeing this one coming. In the name of legitimate political strife, our family was bumped out of the country. (Which is a nicer way to speak of the upheaval of one’s family.)

Curiously, at the same time, other missions agencies were plucking their global workers from the countryside, the front lines of the political strife…to place them in our neighborhood.

That one ended up being a heartbreaker. We had planned to stay there many years.

Our whole family, including our three kids, shed tears on our way to the airport in a nation to which we would never return. It would be two years before we felt we could open our hearts to a new people in a new country.

This particular betrayal in ministry, of course, wasn’t about the leaving itself. People leave the mission field nearly every day of the year. We felt pain simply in the manner in which we both entered and were removed–as if the deck were stacked against our being there, and without us being consulted.

Our removal was supposed to be temporary, but ended up being permanent. It was as if the pieces were arranged to bump us out the door while allowing leadership to say, “Oh, my goodness. How did that happen? We feel bad for you.”

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #4: Confidences betrayed

After a particular term on the field, we returned to our passport nation on home assignment. During a visit to the home office, they debriefed us and asked a number of questions about the field, our relationship with our team leader and the ministry. We were open in our answers.

Unbeknownst to us, the committee shared back that information to the field leader in our new host nation.

He was not happy. When we returned to the field, he sat us down and essentially rebuked us for how we felt and told us his expectations for us.

I think he meant well. But this did nothing to build team relations. Further, we knew now we should never share openly with the debriefing committee in the future.

Yes, we relayed to the debrief committee about our trip to the proverbial woodshed. It was a case of good intentions, but harmful results and permanent caution.

To their credit–and perhaps because others had similarly been burned–the debrief committee modified how they shared information after that. 

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #5: “Let me take your team” …behind your back

For about eight years, my family and I served on one of our organization’s two in-country teams. The other team’s director–who was also the field director–came to visit and catch up on how things were going.

While I was out of the room for a half hour making arrangements for our lunch that day, he presented a proposal to the rest of my team. Why didn’t they all move to the capitol city, where his team resided, and eliminate us as a separate team?

That idea had never come up in conversation before. I had no idea he was thinking this. And I was reeling.

The longer I live, the more I realize these types of interactions can become par for the course when in leadership in any organization. Missions agencies are not exempt.

BETRAYAL IN MINISTRY, SCENARIO #6: “I can do better than you, friend” 

Upon returning to our passport country, we started a website service for those entering missions. 

Yet just as it was getting off the ground, a trusted friend purchased a competing domain name to start a similar service in direct competition, but with far greater resources.

That day we murmured in resignation, “Well, Lord, tell us when to stop. The handwriting on the wall is fairly obvious about where our website can hope to be in comparison.”

My disappointment crashed in waves.

In this case, we waited and waited, but nothing came of it. For whatever reason, the friend never proceeded with their plans. And in fact, their organization later handed us the competing domain name..

God works in odd ways. Yet the wounds of friends do hurt the most.

REFLECTIONS ON PAIN AND LOSS  

Was I betrayed by my teammates and leaders? Or was this a case of imperfect people making imperfect decisions?

I can see it being both.

Did they know what I knew about the situation? Or could they have been forming decisions based upon uninformed opinions? 

Were they choosing a course of action because of the facts–or doing the best they could, based on a previous “somewhat similar” situation?

I’m not sure I would say these kinds of events are “normal,” but they are common.

Looking back, I would say we sinful human beings hurt one another for lack of better interpersonal skills–skills that help us love each other–or even because of malicious motives.

As I mentioned, you can see how emotionally-healthy missions and ministry can make all the difference in the kind of Gospel we experience and pass on to others.

Hurts coming from those you expect to be your partners in ministry cause the most pain. And you least expect them.

The Log in My Eye

But apparent betrayal in ministry is also a painful reminder of what I do and say as well.

We often don’t realize the hurt we have caused other. We simply can’t see the harm or misunderstanding we caused, nor its profound impact.

Or we are convinced we did the right thing, even we didn’t do so in the best manner.

Later in reflection, I realized I was slow to initiate conversations with those over me to work through difficult questionsI tended to downplay the difficulty, or assume they knew, or that I knew their answer already. Of course, being the new man on the field for some of them didn’t add much credibility to my perspective, as you might guess.

With time, I also realized I needed to have pushed back more and talked more about what I saw happening. I was the person who was going to be most affected by the situation and its implemented resolution. So I also was often the person who had thought the most about the various aspects of the situation and some possible responses.

As part of the Body of Christ, I needed to be honest with my perspective and thoughts even if they didn’t seem receptive to them.

Mine, too, is a cautionary tale of good intentions but harmful results.

And on both sides? When any of us sins or is sinned against, we must seek reconciliation, recall who called us…

…and keep going. Because–like Jesus’ own example in betrayal–our reconciliation, and the Kingdom it represents, is worth our steadfastness.

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When You’re Scared of Moving Your Family Overseas

Reading Time: 4 minutes

scared of moving overseas

Recently, someone asked me about our move to Uganda. Did we have all our kids over there? they wondered.

“No, we moved over when our youngest”–of our four kids–“was two.”

“Oh. …Wow.”

Even just that little exclamation was somehow validating.

As in, maybe I wasn’t imagining the tsunami of stress of carting four kids under seven to Africa. Maybe it would have been a bit of an overwhelming endeavor for other people, too. Maybe other people would be scared of moving overseas, taking this show on the road.

“You realize you’re on the crazy train, right?”

I recall retrieving some medicine from the pharmacy; yes, in the middle of that hurricane, my kindergartener had been diagnosed with ADHD.

My kids were bouncing up and down like little pogo sticks. “We’re moving to Uganda!” one of them brightly announced to the pharmacist.

The tidy Caucasian woman, tucked in her clean little booth where everything could be counted and qualified, maybe thought something like, What a nice story. Where did you hear about that place? Isn’t that in South America?

So I offered a lopsided grin. “Yeah, they’re telling the truth. We’re moving overseas. We’re headed to Africa.”

She looked at me, then the kids currently using me as a maypole. Her eyebrows lifted.

“Are y’all nuts?”

Good grief. I didn’t even have all my kids with me.

During that season, my hairstylist–in one of those moments where I surrendered to the fact my hair would never be cut unless I actually scheduled it–noticed my hair was falling out. “Are you under some stress?” she blinked politely.

How does one even answer that?

I mean, how many spreadsheets were we corralling, organizing our tasks for departure? How many support appointments had we held? How many versions of passport photos had we taken? I do know we didn’t have to sell our minivan, because it had been totaled not once, but twice, from people hitting us during that time period.

“Stress” didn’t even begin to cover it, people.

And that was less than the sheer fear I was stepping over–for my kids’ lives, for the dangers of malaria, for wondering if yes, we should really quit our jobs and move to the developing world.

No place like…

But yesterday evening, my 15-year-old daughter and I sat on the sofa here in Colorado, five years after we’ve returned to this place. She was four during that trip to the pharmacy. We now look out the window onto pines rather than palms, balsams rather than bananas.

Because my husband now works in upper-level management for that same missions organization (Engineering Ministries International), he was recently asked to return to our Uganda office for a trip.

My daughter was reflecting that so many of the items she’d brought back were for herself as a child–and she wondered if her dad would pick up a few things she could hold onto as an adult.

“I miss the smell,” she said. And then the tears started to roll for both of us as we recounted how we missed the bougainvillea in the backyard, the scritch of stick brooms on the sidewalk, the orange sweetness of mangoes dripping from our chins.

She used to chew the basil from the huge plant outside our door, pretending it was tobacco, she laughed. I missed the Friday afternoons with other homeschoolers, and the sweaty Thursdays at the refugee center, laughing with students. I missed the cool of the tile beneath our feet and the calm pace of mornings as sunlight broke, the sounds of livestock spilling over the compound walls. She spoke thoughtfully of the trips to the corner grocery store where everyone knew her name.

I say this to tell you that, if your experience is anything like mine, your fear may morph over time. Perhaps you’ll learn, as I did, that diseases can largely be anticipated and treated if you know what to look for. You’ll learn how to drive in the heart-clenching traffic, say, but learn to fear something else.

But if God is beckoning you overseas, he’s also drawing you to a home–a new tent here on planet earth.

WHEN YOU’RE SCARED OF MOVING OVERSEAS: REMEMBER Your Someday

And by nature–demonstrated by the Cross and the Resurrection–he always gives more than he takes.

Someday, perhaps you’ll find yourself grieving the loss of this place you legitimately feared.

(Maybe it’s a bit like a good marriage in that way: Saying your vows may find you on the edge of terror. But perhaps the older version of you wishes you could tap that kid on the shoulder: Yes, this is going to be tougher than you thought.

But don’t worry. This is one of the best decisions you’ll ever make. Like, ever.)

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Janel’s Story: When Helping Hurts (You)

Reading Time: 4 minutes

namuwongo family

The phone connection sounded a bit like Oliver, one of my closest Ugandan friends, was crushing newspapers on the other end. I held the phone an inch from my ear.

But I didn’t miss what made my hand fly to my chest: “Aisha…she passed. It was just too late. Things were already too bad.”

Aisha. I had snapped the above photo of her from my phone two and a half months prior, outside a mud hut in the slums of Namuwongo, deep in Kampala, Uganda.

She was the young mother of four kids. A twenty-something.

Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to photograph her family. As a rule, I believe photos of the impoverished shouldn’t whiff of the slightest emotional manipulation, of despair. Taking cues from other nonprofits’ policies, I want what I convey about the poor to show that they have hopes; dreams.

But asking for a smile from Aisha—who minutes ago, had been literally wailing in Luganda about the abuse of her children from her husband’s alcoholism, about them starving—would have been equally manipulative.

And I didn’t want to forget.

The help that changes us

As I held the horrifyingly light youngest girl, the heat of her fever soaked into my skin. Her breath felt alarmingly shallow.

I had never been so fearful a child would die in my arms.

I couldn’t stop myself near-chanting over and over: We need to get her to a hospital. Like, now-now.

Through group efforts, the family not only received food, charcoal, and clean water that day—they were all brought to the hospital the following day.

Aisha and the baby tested positive for tuberculosis. The baby was in the hospital for more than a month. The other children were sent to relatives.

Tuberculosis, while treatable and curable, still leaves scar tissue on the lungs. Remember “consumption” from history? Same thing. I recall one novelist describing it as coughing up razor blades.

Aisha’s lungs—in my very limited understanding—were already too lashed by scar tissue, their reserves of nutrition and stamina already overtaxed from months of starvation.

Aisha probably did not expect that on her death, an American woman would be bent over a granite countertop in a well-appointed kitchen a hemisphere away, crying.

The stories we tell ourselves

And this is where I have to choose between two versions of the story.

Version 1:

American woman returns to America. Aisha dies because we did not get there in time, and because the American woman (me) was not there, advocating for her health.

Version 2:

American woman returns to America after working diligently with Ugandans before leaving to ensure Aisha’s family is on the upswing. Baby is gaining weight and health. Other community members are seeking to help rehabilitate father, find solutions for family. God has numbered Aisha’s days. She dies knowing for a little while that people who love Jesus loved her family.

Doesn’t so much change with the stories we tell ourselves?

Aisha’s death sat in my chest like a stone that day. I felt the vise of survivor’s guilt as I enjoyed Greek pitas with my family, no danger of starvation near.

Every now and then I weighed whether it would be appropriate to bring up in conversation the bulky presence that had propped its feet up in the corner of my mind. God, I knew, was mourning this loss so few had seen or grieved.

Why didn’t we get there earlier? It’s a question sinking into that mental basket of mine labeled Painful Mysteries God May Illuminate Someday.

Salvation belongs to…

But this is what I came to know, which is so critical for those of us in helping lifestyles or professions: This work is urgent. The night is dark. Yet I am not savior.

I am responsible to play my role fully in the Body of Christ, with godward trust and tenacity.

Yet it’s tempting to maneuver my way into a role that feels critical. To hold just a little too tightly a grip on a national or a student or a client, perhaps, in a way that is just a little less than empowering; to overestimate my importance.

The need to feel needed and vital—on the mission field included—is more powerful than any of us like to admit.

Then when you’re expected to report progress on this nebulous, often intangible work, we’re all hoping the slideshow or newsletter or summary compacts our “results” into something that sounds compelling enough to donate toward, maintain employment, inspire hope. Or perhaps justify why we’re so exhausted.

Maybe that’s why missionaries are tempted to stretch the truth a bit on statistics. (…True story.)

What looks like failure

Poverty relief, development, and discipleship around the world are S-L-O-W. It is a series of small and large griefs, losses, and tragedies, each precious and overwhelming in their own right. They are fraught with what looks like failure. (Don’t miss What happens if overseas = failure?)

Yet God is still moving. Babies like the one I cradled have a different quality of life. Muslims are coming to Christ.

Perhaps it feels less often like God dividing the Red Sea, and rather like a glacier transforming the landscape with its own steady, sometimes imperceptible pace, yet undeniable power.

But development work has hardened in me a “Big God” perspective more than ever, and eroded my own all-important role. My faith has increased not only as I see God move through me—but as I see God move without me.

That week, I grieved with God over the loss of Aisha. Her death reminds me both of the urgency of this work, and how much it is removed from my hands.

 

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to missionary women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

A version of this post initially appeared on the author’s blog, and is used with permission.

10 Ways to Make Sure Conflict Pulls You off the Field

Reading Time: 8 minutes

steam conflict

Near the end of my second short-term missions trip, I–a lowly teenager–was surprised to find that conflict with other global workers was a serious difficulty for those I was staying with.

Now, as the spouse of someone aiding conflict resolution in the field, this surprises me not one iota.

Personal conflict is a notorious bad actor splintering great work being done overseas. Too often, it lands once-starry-eyed global workers back in their home countries…wounded, bewildered, and even angry.

No one sets out on the field anticipating that broken relationships will take us under. But for a lot of global workers?

It’s real.

Rethinking What’s Natural in Conflict

Truth: Godly responses to conflict are pretty much all counter-natural–or more specifically, super-natural.

God’s ways in conflict beg an overhaul of what I typically want to do: You know, stuff like

  • Hand someone the silent treatment they have so justly deserved.
  • Eloquently let someone (and possibly the neighbors) know exactly how they have trodden on my kingdom. Even though I may put God’s unauthorized signature on it. (Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)
  • Burn a bridge that isn’t that important to me anyway, I’ve decided.

Your Open Door

Conflicts are full of such…loss.

But would you believe me if I told you they’re an opportunity?

Conflict is a horizontal outworking of something God’s doing in me vertically. Or conversely, it often exposes what’s amiss in my own relationship with God. As Paul David Tripp writes, “relationships are first fixed vertically before they are ever fixed horizontally.”

Conflict, more specifically God’s conflict, is at the center of why God sent Jesus. And how we respond to the breaking of relationship replays all over again what he did.

It’s why, as we make disciples, how we handle messy relationships matters. It’s a chance to honor God, to love others well, to grow more like Jesus, and to just find some practical solutions.

I’m thankful for a God who cared enough to get dirty for me, to absorb my guilt when I’d positioned myself as enemy.

10 Ways to Make Sure Conflict Pulls You off the Field

Here are 10 easy ways conflict could fracture your work overseas and possibly even tank the good thing you’ve got going. (Thanks to Peacemakers and Relational Wisdom 360 for many of these principles.)

1. Confronting or responding through any written word.

My husband, a trained mediator, describes the hazards of text-only communication by explaining that a significant portion (some estimate 70%) is nonverbal.

Imagine how much can be misunderstood by subtracting 70%! Even if you’re a gifted communicator, words are never the same as seeing someone before your eyes, communicating the emotion and value that only physical presence can afford (no matter how many emoticons you’ve got at your disposal).

God handled His own conflict with us by sending Himself into our mess, in the flesh (see John 1:14).

Move as close as you can to face-to-face conflict. If it’s with someone a distance away, go for video chat. Relational context reminds the person of your genuine care, concern, and compassion.

2. Using social media as a platform for conflict.

And as a policy, keep a conflict as private as possible for as long as possible (see Matthew 18:15-20).

Social media is a nifty tool for sudden, sweeping revenge…and an excellent slash-and-burn tool to take someone and their reputation under. It adds humiliation and public shame, using anger as a grenade rather than a scalpel for sin.

(Speaking honestly, it’s also not loving your neighbor as yourself: “Please broadcast my weaknesses”. Said no one ever.

It leans toward the immature, tacky, and a possible reason for getting fired.)

If your anger and hurt against someone are real, they’re much less likely to own the conviction to which you wish them to come if they’re publically burned. Fear may be effective to create outward change, but it’s God’s kindness that leads to true repentance (Romans 2:4).

3. Assuming the worst.

There’s a social psychological principle stating that when we mess up, we tend to attribute it to our circumstances.

But when other people mess up, we tend to attribute it to their character. That’s just the kind of person she is.

But that’s only part of how our assumptions sabotage us. People have malicious intent much less often than we give them credit for! Don’t miss this article from The Gospel Coalition on Critical Judgments vs. Charitable Judgments.

Gently asking questions about others’ motivations rather than assuming they meant harm can save us tremendous misunderstanding.

Psychologist and author Brene Brown notices there’s a generosity in this when we’re “Extending the most generous interpretation to the intentions, words, and actions of others.”

Having been on both painful ends of mistaken assumptions, I am slowly learning all I don’t know—and beginning to treat my relationships with the dignity they deserve of gently asking when I wonder about someone’s motives.

 

4. Posing [for peace].

On the Relational Wisdom 360 spectrum of “peace-breakers,” “peace-makers”, and “peace-fakers”, my weaknesses definitely tend toward the latter.

I’m indifferent enough to the relationship or person to dive deeper into the opportunity that is conflict. I prefer my comfort, thank you. Or at least looking loftily like the one who’s right.

I’m not truly overlooking and graciously forgiving; I am hardening and distancing.

God didn’t fake the severity of my conflict with him, but chose to change me and honor himself through it.  He valued me enough to care about my holiness.

Am I really extending grace, really overlooking?

Or am I glossing over? Denying? Stuffing deeper?

5. Cleaning the surface.

When we address only the presenting problem of the conflict and not the true interests and hurts and questions beneath it, it can be like slapping a Band-Aid on an infected wound and calling it good.

Sometimes it may go away—but a lot of times it gets worse and/or repeats itself in another avatar.

Bonus: Often, when you move beyond the presenting issue in a conflict, you may share much more than you disagree upon. Understand the other party’s underlying interest in the conflict (“I’m afraid of losing precious time”/”I don’t feel valued in how this process is going”/etc.), and it could be easier to come to a mutually fulfilling conclusion than you think!

6. Venting—to people who aren’t part of the solution.

Widening the circle of knowledge about a conflict sometimes includes people who aren’t going to lead you toward reconciling or problem-solving.

That can put a label of “authenticity” on damaging another person’s reputation and their relationship with the other party. It furthers resentment, discord, and emotional distance (remember, our own words change us).

In short, this kind of venting (aka gossip) isn’t encouraging us toward unity and wise problem-solving.

It’s cementing and spreading isolation.

Be choosy about who you open up to about your conflicts. Protect your relationship and the person you’re in conflict with (returning a blessing for an insult)—just like you’d like them to be choosy in whom they talk with.

(P.S. When you do wrap up a conflict with a friend, let the people you talked to know about how it turned out, so their frustration can be resolved, too.)

conflict

7. Letting “I want” become “I must have”.

Take time to get down to the fears, values, and hurts that are driving your anger—which, remember, is a secondary emotion (the primary emotions often being fear, hurt, or embarrassment).

RW360.org explains,

When faced with conflict, we tend to focus passionately on what our opponent has done wrong or should do to make things right. In contrast, God always calls us to focus on what is going on in our own hearts when we are at odds with others.  Why? Because our heart is the wellspring of all our thoughts, words, and actions, and therefore the source of our conflicts.

James puts it even more starkly: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (4:1). Our desires that morph to become more important than people, replacing what only God is to satisfy in us.

Desires morph into demands, which becomes judgment—and all idols deserve sacrifices. We put our relationships on the chopping block for what we crave.

This can only find true resolution by being satisfied by what our soul truly longs for: satisfaction in the one Person who won’t disappoint us, with whom we are finally satisfied.

Getting honest about the core needs fueling our frustration can help us treat it, beginning at the source.

8. Mistaking honesty for love.

Truth and love aren’t mutually exclusive. Telling someone “I’m just telling the truth” or “I’m just being honest” can often give us a lame excuse for not speaking the truth in love.

Directness is fine. But make sure you check your kindness and gentleness, too.

Are you creating an environment where a person feels the security and care to eventually want to change—or where they feel ambushed and defensive?

 

9. Not seeing the signs.

Are you setting your conflict up for success in light of all the other stressors in that person’s life? How much do you know and compassionately internalize about the other person’s story, past and present?

See the other party for more than just what’s affecting you. That’s what it looks like to love the human in front of us, looking not only to our own interests (Philippians 2:4).

(Meditating on Philippians 2:1-11 is a great way to pray through your conflict before approaching someone.)

Interrupting a meeting or erupting after weeks of bottled frustration—all the “hows” of your approach—may keep you from the “who” and the “whats” that are precious to you.

 

10. Going up the food chain.

Involving people above that person in authority (bosses, pastors, etc.) before going to them first (as per Matthew 18) is a fantstic way…to invite shame into your conflict.

And in that, to add an extra layer of protectiveness around someone’s issue, rather than creating a vulnerable, supportive environment where a person can find healing and help to change: 

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)

Though in some circumstances it’s appropriate to go to a supervisor first (involving deceit, egregious sin, etc.), true resolution and change is often helped by a person not feeling like they’re sacrificing their dignity.

Rather than someone closing up to protect themselves, you show them honor and dignity by approaching them first.

 

Conflict doesn’t have to pull you off the field. In fact, it can empower you both, shaping you to be more unified from the soul-out, and more like the face and heart of God.

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