Choosing an Emotionally Healthy Missions Organization

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emotionally healthy

Missed our last post on Emotionally Healthy Missions? Grab it here!

When you’re headed overseas, it’s easy to underestimate the effects your organization’s health could have on the ability to thrive overseas.

As I type, I think of the friend who called me recently, voice throaty with tears, as she discussed their lack of ability to care for her after stepping off the field.

Or I remember my conversation with the missionary couple who felt they had no option but to leave their organization once they’re on the field.

I think of a young mom who felt her agency had far more interest in “the mission” than they did in the missionaries themselves.

I remember the friend that arrived with her family of five in-country for the first time, but were simply dropped at a boarding house with no cash, no meals for the first night. The whole family went to sleep on an empty stomach.

Feel Free to Date Around

Unfortunately, looking for an organization is a bit like dating. Everyone’s got their best foot forward–and is often unable to see the friction inevitable in a future “marriage”. 

And keep in mind–there’s no perfect partner on either side. The trick is to go in with eyes wide open.

How can you set yourself up for a wiser partnership when it comes to the emotional health of an organization?

1. Think bigger than a shared mission–and get intuitive.

Finding a good organizational fit can’t only be about a similar mission and proper theology–because no one wants to share a mission, but deal with unhealthy conflict management, possess few resources to care for trauma, or feel like their org doesn’t really listen.

When dating, I remember looking at the guy’s clothes, observing how he carried on a conversation (do I have to drive the convo constantly? And is he genuinely interested in me?). I watched how he tipped, how he treated the wait staff.

Bring that kind of intuition into your interactions with your missions organization. Chances are, the person who’s interviewing you or answering your questions won’t be the same person managing you or living down the street when you’re overseas.

Gather as much intuitive information as you can, sorting out how each individual changes the dynamic of your interactions and your impression of the agency.

2. To find an emotionally healthy agency, Ask Good Questions.

Consider asking questions like these to narrow down your choices to an agency that’s more emotionally healthy.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How much does this organization value appearances over authenticity?
  2. Do their rhythms and expectations allow great margin for missionaries to replenish and serve from the inside out?
  3. How do I anticipate resting, finding community, being personally discipled, finding personal enjoyment, and otherwise creating an emotionally healthy environment that helps me stay as long and as emotionally healthy as possible?
  4. Who are this organization’s heroes? Of whom do they speak more negatively? (What does this tell me about their values?)
  5. How truthful and realistic does this organization seem?
  6. Do I agree with their approaches to evangelism?
  7. What do I identify with about this organization? What turns me off?

Questions to ask the organization

  1. What infrastructures are already in place for
    • training
    • on-boarding once you arrive
    • debriefing
    • member care
    • trauma care
    • emergency evacuation (physically, but also emotionally)
    • holding staff accountable
    • manager training (Pro tip: healthy management is often taken for granted…until it isn’t there)?

    2. How has your organization and its goals changed to respond to the changing face and theology of missions? (How are you doing missions differently now than you used to?)

    3. How have you dealt with burned-out missionaries in the past?

    4. How do you work to increasingly partner with nationals?

    5. What’s the missionary community like in the area(s) we’re considering? Are there children our kids’ ages? What are the educational possibilities?

    6. Can you offer us any anonymous examples of how you’ve dealt with conflict or missionaries’ “red flags” (porn addiction, severe anxiety, depression, etc.) while on field?

    7. What are your expectations for emotionally healthy home assignments, including

    • timing
    • how we would spend our time while in our passport country
    • ways to replenish ourselves and address needs harder to meet on the field (counseling, etc.)?

    8. What ways do you help missionaries succeed cross-culturally? Who will introduce us to the country cross-culturally?

    9. How do you partner with other organizations interdependently?

    10. What options will be available to us if we need counseling?

    11. For what matters (e.g. with extended family) do you encourage missionaries to return to their home countries temporarily or long-term?

    12. Describe your prayer support system.

    3. Consider your singleness, gender, and unique family structure.

    Questions for Singles

    Elizabeth, a missionary with SEND International for over 37 years, advises these questions for singles:

    1. How are singles, especially single women, viewed in your organization? Can they hold ministry leadership positions?
    2. If singles are part of a team, is there a good balance of singles and married couples?
    3. How is the support structured for singles? Is it assumed they will live with another single or do they have the freedom to live alone?
    4. What are your policies for a single marrying someone from their country of ministry?
    5. Is a single woman treated at all differently than a single man? What is the difference?

    Also, if you are dating or engaged, how does this affect you joining that agency?

    Questions for Families

    Families might also consider questions like these:

    • Jesus sent his disciples out in a minimum of twos. How do I see our family connecting with other like-minded families in the area we hope to go?
    • What are expectations for standards of living, e.g. appropriate and inappropriate levels of comfort?
    • If my marriage or a child needs immediate help with emotional issues, what are our options?
    • What’s the expectation of involvement for missionary spouses?

    Find even more questions to ask of agencies here and here.

    We want to hear from you.

    What questions do you find it critical to ask to find an emotionally healthy missions agency?

    Comment below!

Emotionally-Healthy Missions: Could It Save Your Ministry?

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emotionally-healthy missionsWould you believe me if I said emotionally-healthy missions could determine how long you stay overseas? If I said it was a predictable gauge of the longevity and success of your ministry?

You will meet them. I promise: Emotionally-unhealthy missionaries. I wish I could tell you this is a category of people, offering you a litmus test. But in reality, our level of emotional health links closely to our sin.

Sometimes their emotional lack of health pulls them off the field. Other times, it simply creates a toxic environment for disciple-making.

As pastor and author Peter Scazzero observes, it’s impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.

And this means none of us falls squarely in the category of emotionally-healthy missions.

Here’s the deal. It’s the little “emotionally-healthy missions” moments that define your ministry. On his last night before his crucifixion, Jesus illuminates a golden principle of disciple-making: By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

And we can assume the “if” we love bleeds into a “how” we love. And emotionally-healthy missions is about loving each other well. Not in a general, this-is-probably-good way. But acknowledging the complexity inherent in wisdom: “Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7; see also 16:11).

What Does Emotionally-Healthy Missions Even Look Like? 17 indicators

Emotional health is pretty hard to encapsulate in bullet points. But consider traits like these:

  1. humility; avoidance of actions for appearances only (see more here on humility); transparency with our own sin and weakness, and openly repentant
  2. healthy rhythms that nurture our souls, encouraging solitude and stillness before God, rather than the idolatry of value in what we do (self-righteousness); maintaining healthy boundaries
  3. merciful rather than judgmental (see Amos 7:9); listens well and holistically receives others’ burdens
  4. embracing and examining the past as part of God’s story in our lives
  5. appropriate flexibility in thinking, particularly in cross-cultural contexts
  6. continuing to seek the heart of matters, digging beneath the surface
  7. when encountering difficulty, pressing into grief, loss, and pain, rather than shellacking over it with faux “joy”
  8. pursuing self-knowledge for the sake of knowing God (John Calvin wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God”)
  9. expressing negative emotion with an inner attitude of trust in God rather than entitlement, complaining, or blaming; consistently, intentionally grateful
  10. informed by emotion, but not managed by it
  11. self-controlled, delaying gratification
  12. persevering amidst difficulty; “go the distance” in relationships
  13. eschewing hypersensitivity; consistently returning a blessing for an insult; gracious
  14. not hinging oneself on flattery or criticism; not a people-pleaser
  15. consistently honoring others above self (Philippians 2:3)
  16. interdependent on others; working against isolation (1 Corinthians 12:21)
  17. constructive in handling conflict; seeing conflict as an opportunity to grow and glorify God, rather than faking or breaking peace

emotionally healthy missions

What Could Have Happened?

Studying Acts 18 recently, I stumbled over a biblical example love of emotionally-healthy missions.

First, I see Paul leaving his ministry in Ephesus in the hands of his coworkers, Priscilla and Aquila. He’s okay with stepping away when it’s time, “entrust[ing] to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

But watch the emotional savvy of this couple. Apollos is there, teaching in Ephesus. He’s described this way:
=&0=&start with resources like these.

In praise of Sabbath: On letting go

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Sabbath restMy family wrangled our carry-ons into that taupe-colored hum of a 757, bound for six months stateside. (After the lunacy of the week before, preparing to abscond for six entire months, I was just grateful to make it to the plane.)

I felt conflicted.

There was of course the sizeable slab of me that couldn’t wait to throw my arms around my parents, watch my kids grab the hands of with my nieces and nephews again. I was geared up to sit around a table with the people I’ve loved for a lifetime, just like that. Perhaps I would carry a dish of corn on the cob, say, to laugh at my sister’s jokes in crazy-easy normalcy. I hoped to devour a slightly unhealthy amount of blueberries and bing cherries in those months; to close my eyes over the quiet purr of a road devoid of potholes; to throw a few dishes in the dishwasher just because I could.

But I was going home a little heart-sore. I said goodbye to no less than three close friends/family units who would no longer be serving in Uganda when I returned. A trip to the slums was still sticking to my ribs, though the family who was starving was on the mend. After some unnerving elections, a robbery, and heart-rending stories of refugees, my shoulders were slumping a bit as I zipped up our bags.

And there was of course the fact that I would be far from my home in Uganda——home being the complicated topic it is. 

O-bla-dee, O-bla-dah

EMI would continue designing for the poor whether my husband contributed from Uganda or Colorado. The refugee center would continue changing lives without me. A project involving women in the slums would continue under my friend’s faithful supervision. God would continued working in astonishing measures no matter where our little family hung our hats.

As my wise friend had said, No matter who we are, when we take our hand out of the sand, the hole fills in.

But perhaps the underlying truth of expat life—of the Christian life, it could be argued—is to be longing for elsewhere.

Like any good American, I tend to find my identity deeply in usefulness and purpose and work. So I likened this time away to a Sabbath.

It was a general release of much of my work for a time. (Whether home assignments are actually restful for global workers is another complex question for another post.)

Sometimes, as Pete Scazzero suggests for church workers, “The soil needs to be replenished and to lie dormant for a season.”

sabbath rest

When You Can’t Get Away…Or are Made To

I found this, too, when I was suddenly laid off several years ago, and my identity floated around me, bereft and unmoored. Sabbaths…aren’t always what we would choose.

The work can feel too pressing; too necessary. And sometimes I need to be needed.

The older I grow, the more my gratitude heightens for the rhythms of God.

sabbath rest

Once a young African friend in university had sat exhausted across from me months before, her eyes a little more distant from me as we enjoyed lunch. It wasn’t that long before I figured out that she wasn’t taking a day off in her week. I just can’t, she reasoned.

Funny enough, I convinced her I think that’s what Sabbaths are all about: Admitting we can’t.

Perhaps especially as a mom of young kids, when the house would plummet into utter squalor if I stepped away from cleaning up after eight pattering little feet, I found the Sabbath to be a rich act of faith and humility. It’s the paradox the Sabbath that in doing nothing, everything else exponentially blooms in joy and even productivity.

(Interestingly, a 10-day week, the French Republican calendar, was attempted in the Enlightenment to assist abolishing religious activity, but was overturned in part because the single rest day in 10 became overwhelming.)

No Longer Slaves

A friend recently reminded me of God’s reasoning for the Sabbath as described in Deuteronomy 5:

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath is a sign of our freedom; that we are more than worker bees, but rather cherished, fought-for children. Author Mark Buchanan writes,

[The Sabbath] was designed to protect us, pay tribute to us, coddle us, in all our created frailty and God-imprinted beauty and hard-won liberty, in our status as men and women whom God made in his own image and freed by his own hand and own blood. It is a father’s gift to indulge his children.

Sabbath = Trust

So that time of stepping away for me—though periods of rest in that actual furlough were intermittent, and my husband and I were both still be working/schooling for several of those months—was a faith-filled release.

Our Western Christianity, often so intertwined with achievement and appearance and ambition, must listen to the heartbeat of the Gospel. We must start from the place of God’s acceptance, and work out of that love–rather than working for that love and acceptance.

It was trusting that in my doing less, He does more, multiplying loaves and fishes. It is an intentional loosening from the purpose of productivity, into the downy acceptance of accepting God’s seasons.

We’re communicating to ourselves and those around us nothing short of the Gospel: an ability to rest from our work and trust God to do his.

When my previously exhausted young friend returned to sit on my porch six months later, she was…sparkling. (The Sabbath can do that to a girl.) God’s rhythms, she told me, had changed her.

They certainly change me.

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Why to Consider Counseling Before You Head Overseas

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Did you know Amazon sold 300,000 InstaPots on Prime Day this year?

True story. Maybe it feels like everyone you know has one.

If you don’t have one, maybe you wonder what the big deal is. Well, pressure cookers 101 will tell you that under high pressure, things cook a lot faster. Flavors within intensify.

Lest you wonder where I’m going with this: Consider this a bit of a metaphor for going overseas.

Welcome to the pressure cooker.

What Comes Out

Friends and I sat around a meal of stuffed peppers the other night, reminiscing on our time overseas–theirs in North Africa, ours in East Africa. “Being a missionary is just hard,” my friend remarked. “And it’s hard on your marriage.” 

And someone else last week actually remarked to me that they thought they knew more unhealthy missionaries than healthy ones (ouch).

It’s good, see, if the flavors in the dish of your life are just the spices you want, in just the right amounts. But if there are unresolved issues in your past or your heart, the bitter or acidic flavors make themselves known, too. That abuse, that destructive relationship with a relative, that tendency to ignore, deny, and avoid? Any one of those can lead to replicating, corrosive patterns in the constant low-level thrum of stress overseas.

What we were once able to conceal or deal with, within the context of modern-day conveniences and cultures we understood and justice systems we trusted? They can tend to reveal themselves as they are when we’re dealing with the battles of daily life there.

Whether it’s anxiety or control issues, unaddressed abuse, a fractured marriage, a mild depression: Living cross-culturally, you’re now more often in the stressed version of yourself (see this post for more ideas of what the stressed version of yourself might look like==including these on the stressed version of your marriage and the stressed version of your parenting). Many sending agencies now require mental health evaluations before you head overseas for these very reasons, and several more.

What We Sign Up For

A friend of mine and her husband once traveled to Africa to finalize the adoption of their little girl, and at last bring her home. It should last three months, tops, they thought.

It stretched out to nearly a year.

My friends felt convicted that paying bribes contributed to corruption, and corruption was taking Africa under, furthering poverty. (I have to agree with them on that one.) Plus, they decided to expose a corrupt children’s home–which had been funneling money from well-meaning patrons in the U.S. So the director phoned in a few favors in order to make their adoption process a living you-know-what.

I saw her in a craft market one Friday morning. As I sympathized with her, she shrugged. This was what the poor dealt with all the time–and they had no inimitable blue passport, shielding them from some of the more grim realities.

I tell you this because for those of you going to developed countries, the closer you are to the poor, the more you experience their hardship and heartache. Your probability of trauma skyrockets; a healthy percentage of the global workers I’d encountered had been broken into, and we soon joined their ranks.

Though we are undoubtedly safest in the center of God’s will (with a morphing definition of safety!)–we’re simply more likely to experience stressful events overseas. (Don’t miss Rachel Pieh Jones’ brilliant thoughts here in I’m Not Called to Keep My Kids from Danger),

Make no mistake: God will triumph through your darkest days overseas. But starting from a place of health, with a number of robust coping mechanisms in place, means you can stay longer and stronger overseas, without the wave of trauma capitulating you as easily.

What we Reproduce

But wait, there’s more!

Remember that when you’re sharing the gospel or even performing tasks of social justice, you’re reproducing your faith DNA. You’re saying in essence what Paul did: Follow me as I follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

It would be stellar if we were all “making disciples” only of the purest version of Jesus Christ. But–similar to the discipleship of parenting–we’re Xeroxing not only our spiritual strengths, but also our weaknesses. Our priorities (or lack thereof) become theirs. Our undetected but errant theology reproduces itself.

No, I’m not saying a church is only as strong as its pastor. The Holy Spirit is so much stronger than our weaknesses, where we know his power is made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)! Remember: God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).

But this is yet another reason to forego operating in a silo or as a lone ranger, but instead, to link arms with other global workers, functioning as a community, a Body: “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:19).

What You Could Be

If you’ve managed to hang in here through all the bad news–I want to extend you a happy reason to pursue healing (possibly with a counselor) before, during, and after you go overseas.

I can’t count those around me who’ve chosen to participate in counseling–some who I’d never thought would go for it. (And if you fear finding the right one, think of counseling a little like dating: It’s okay to shop around a bit so you can find a good “click”–the right fit.) Here’s the awesome benefit: All of their relationships benefit from their emotional health. 

So then the answer becomes…why not? (If finances are an issue or you’re longing for care specific to global workers, don’t miss this list.)

Sin is blinding. (Okay, I lied. That was one more piece of bad news.) It’s unquestionably helpful to have someone understand how it’s infiltrated our souls–or how others‘ sin has weaseled its way in there, too. (If you’re wondering whether and/or when to see a counselor, this post from A Life Overseas may help you.)

Emotional health is one way to conquer its death, this grave within us, and say that it stops here–from the most intimate parts of our soul outward. As Peter Scazzero relates in his (highly-recommended!) Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, it’s impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.

The great news? Pressure cookers make some of the most nuanced food with complex flavors. God uses stress–aka trials, suffering–to develop endurance, character, hope that never puts us to shame (Romans 5:1-5). So take the time now to invest in your emotional heath, so that any stress you encounter contributes to the beauty of Christ in you.

What new life could be waiting for you on the other side? 


Editor’s Note: A few helpful posts for those interested:

A Life Overseas: Ask A Counselor: A Personal Emotional Development Library and Three Dysfunctional Missionary Marriage Patterns

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He Said/She Said. You Say? “What do you wish you’d known before you went?” Part I and Part II