Category: member care

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Why don’t we talk about missionaries and mental health?

Traditionally, depression and anxiety have been seen as hard topics to talk about for missionaries and others involved in full-time ministry.

Actually, they are hard topics for any Christian. If a person believes that they have a loving God who is with them all the time, and who has a wonderful future for them in heaven, how can they be depressed, or anxious? And aren’t missionaries those who have even more faith and courage than other Christians? (er…not really!) And surely missionaries and ministers must know the added joy of living out their calling in their everyday lives? (Well yes… but this can actually add extra nasty layers of guilt and self-doubt…)

Because of these kinds of expectations, it has been easier for missionaries to avoid mentioning doubts and leanings towards depression in their prayer letters. How can it be that if a missionary expresses their negative feelings in a supporter update they can be criticised rather than sympathised with? (If you find this surprising, read some of the comments underneath a recent article in which Matt Redman admitted to his inner struggles.)

In the secular world, mental health issues are beginning to be talked about more openly and the traditional stigma is being challenged, not before time. The same needs to happen in the world of mission and ministry.

I was prompted to think about this having just finished an excellent book called Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Funny, sad, revealing, and ultimately positive about human life, it contains vivid descriptions of what depression and anxiety felt like to the author. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand them better. One endorsement on the cover says, “This book could save lives.” That struck me, though, because Haig is not a Christian. He doesn’t talk about any kind of religious faith. I understand that the phrase on the cover was intended to mean, “This book could prevent someone from killing themselves.” And it could, I suppose. But to me, with years of Christian life behind me, language about saving lives has another layer of meaning – it is what the gospel does, and it leads to eternal life, not just a few more years of earthly life in our mortal bodies. Jesus saves lives.

But what are Christians saying to those suffering depression and anxiety? We seem to be saying, “You shouldn’t be depressed, and if you are, you certainly shouldn’t admit to it.” And all the more so if someone is in any kind of leadership or ministry role.

But the truth is that missionaries and those in ministry are just as vulnerable to depression and anxiety as anyone else – and further, there may be particular factors in these kinds of work that cause or exacerbate them. Prevention is obviously the best option; but if they do begin to appear, recognising and responding to them as early as possible is essential  – and this means talking about them.

Some writing has been done about missionaries and depression. Marjorie Foyle’s book Honourably Wounded (Monarch, most recent edition 2009) is a well-known resource for missionaries dealing with such issues, and is very helpful. Foyle’s PhD, written in 1999, was entitled Expatriate Mental Health (PhD Thesis, University of London, 1999). She found that whilst some people who suffered on the field had pre-existing factors, others developed depression due to factors on the field.  Her findings included recommendations for better selection and also better care on the field. But it seems as though the time is ripe for a more current study in this area.

The practice of and research into Member Care (pastoral care for missionaries) has grown a great deal over the twenty or so years since Foyle’s 1999 thesis. Much recent thinking has been done in the area of resilience (commonly defined as the ability to overcome and bounce back from adversity). A part of resilience is the ability to recognise early symptoms of stress or anxiety in oneself, and knowing the steps to take to maintain or restore wellbeing, before a plunge into depression happens. Member Care research has shown that whilst you might think of resilience as an inborn trait, it is also a learned skill. Recent Redcliffe graduate Duncan Watts urged in his dissertation the responsibility of the mission agency to help build resilience in their workers, saying

Mission organisations can no longer ignore the physical, emotional and psychological needs of their staff and trust that all will be well.

Alongside this, there has been a growing realisation of the importance of self-care for missionaries, and Member Care providers see part of their role as making sure their people are practising it. Self-care includes eating healthily, exercising, getting sufficient sleep, knowing how to relax, and taking holidays (again, there may be barriers of expectation in place: as in the old-fashioned view that missionaries shouldn’t need to take costly holidays or regular time off).

Another related area of recent exploration has been into the key role lamentation can play in aiding people to process and express grief, disappointment, or frustration. A healthy outpouring to God of negative emotions (as we see for example in some of the Psalms) is a valid part of prayer.

Finally, when a missionary or person in ministry is experiencing depression or anxiety, there should be avenues for expressing this without any judgment, and a ready willingness among supporters and the mission agency to help, support, and love them, and to provide the means for treatment, rest and recovery. Member Care providers have an important part to play in normalising this.

BOOKS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

Former missionary, minister and writer Mark Meynell, has written a book about this topic which promises to be excellent: When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: reflections on life and ministry with depression, IVP, available May 2018.

Duncan Watts’ MA Thesis Defining, assessing and enhancing resilience in cross-cultural mission workers: lessons member care providers can learn from the wider field of resilience research, Redcliffe College (2016), will also shortly be published: look out for publicity on the Redcliffe social media sites.

 


Rosie is the Course Facilitator of Redcliffe’s MA in Member Care. This course is designed for you if you’re involved in any way in caring for and supporting mission workers and those in ministry. It is the only course of its kind, helping students develop organisational support structures that help their people to thrive, wherever they are.

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Wake up call – what are we doing about refugees?

The Calais Jungle is gone. The pre-Brexit threat of France opening the border which would move the camp right across the Channel to Dover has fizzled away. The Dubs Amendment which required the UK to take more unaccompanied minors already in Europe has been discontinued. Are the British people, even Christians, breathing the smallest sigh of relief – the flood never quite came our way?

I hope not but I do fear so. Thankfully, there are many organisations, both Christian and otherwise, in Britain and across Europe who are pitching in to give help and welcome to the thousands of refugees who are on the move, looking for a place to settle and call home.

I was recently at a conference in Budapest run by the Refugee Highway Partnership, where I met many such people working with refugees. The keynote speaker, Patrick Johnstone (Operation World author) predicted that this recent flood will be followed by more and more floods over the years to come, and we need to learn, as the church, how to respond. The focus of the whole conference was: if we as Christians don’t welcome and love the refugees, who will? And if we don’t, we have simply forgotten how the God of the Bible loved and shepherded displaced peoples, from the third chapter of Genesis to the end of the New Testament.

One hundred and fifty Christians from all over Europe shared stories of the work they are doing in all sorts of ways with refugees. Some are visiting camps, giving out clothes and phones, some are working with resettlement agencies, giving practical help, or language lessons, some are going into camps equipped with Bible stories in middle eastern languages, sharing the gospel with everybody they meet.

One of many excellent seminars, led by Rachel Uthmann of International Action For Refugees (IAFR) focussed on the ethics of evangelising refugees. Whilst everyone there would agree that we want to share the gospel with refugees – and indeed it has been said over and over that here is actually an opportunity for thousands fleeing from closed countries to hear the gospel – Uthmann raised the question of the power relationship between the refugee and the Christian helper – who offers food, shelter, community at the same time as, and maybe even conditional upon, preaching a gospel message. This could bring us all the way back to the holistic mission discussion. Mission practitioners today have well understood the need to follow Jesus’ example in showing God’s love for the whole person, offering healing, help and acceptance as well as showing the way to salvation. But Uthmann’s point was that we must avoid the trap of unintentionally manipulating people into hearing the gospel – we must find ways that enable the power balance between helper and receiver to be corrected, and then offer the gospel from a more even platform.

People at the conference held differing views on what we should be doing and the ways we should be doing it, leading to interesting conversations over lunches about the rights and wrongs of different approaches.  But the message I came away with was: we should all be doing something!

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus told his listeners in Luke 6:31. If I were a refugee, wouldn’t I wish that someone would offer me help, hope and a future?

Redcliffe is running training days for people working with refugees, focussing mainly on the Member Care aspect of building resilience in refugee workers.

Several current Redcliffe students are directly involved in refugee work, and some are writing dissertations in this area. Redcliffe also has a research project on the go, about how churches can be more involved with helping Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC).

What do you think about this complex issue? Where does evangelism fit in, and how do we point the way to Jesus in a caring manner, without taking advantage of the vulnerable and displaced? What lessons have you learned throughout this ‘Refugee Crisis,’ and what role would you like to see Christians play in meeting these great needs?


If you want to wrestle with the complex themes of migration, refugee issues, ethics and evangelism, sign up for our MA in Contemporary Missiology. You can even specialise your degree to recognise your skills and passions in Justice, Advocacy and Reconciliation.

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Father Forgive

A friend of mine was killed by a terrorist. After becoming a Christian, he was abused and beaten by neighbours and family. This settled down, but just before Easter last year, he was killed. 

Terror targeting is not confined to overseas. Last week, Martin McGuinness passed away with many people remembering all the ambiguity of his life and actions. He was almost certainly complicit in violent deaths as well as later working for peace. Then later in the week, we had incidents in London with a shooting, and a motor vehicle used as a weapon.  

In the face of this, what is the role of forgiveness? Is it right to forgive people who haven’t shown any remorse?  Should we join Norman Tebbitt in wishing that such people be “parked in an unpleasant corner of hell?”

To unpack this, we need to look at what forgiveness is, and isn’t. Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. We don’t “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is not excusing. Forgiveness is not saying “it doesn’t matter.” Nor is forgiveness about giving permission to continue hurtful behaviours nor is it condoning the behaviour in the past or in the future.

Forgiveness, following the Bible’s understanding, means “to let go,” as when a person does not demand payment for a debt. Jesus made this comparison when he taught us to pray:

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is in debt to us.” (Luke 11:4)

Similarly, in the parable of the unmerciful worker, Jesus showed forgiveness was like cancelling a debt (Matthew 18:23-35).

We forgive others when we let go of resentment and let go of any claim to be compensated. Forgiveness is a decision to release. It’s letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment. 

Forgiveness frees a captive. In this, it’s important to note that the main captive is ourselves. Forgiveness frees us from the repetition of anger. If we harbour resentment, then what sets sail from that harbour is polluting to us who harbour it. Holding on to bitterness brews our hearts with bitterness.  Forgiving means that we are released. 

 As the family of Kurt Cochran, killed in London’s recent car attack, have said,

“[Kurt] wouldn’t bear ill feelings towards anyone and we can draw strength as a family from that… His whole life was an example of focusing on the positive. Not pretending that negative things don’t exist but not living our life in the negative – that’s what we choose to do.” — (link)

Forgiveness also releases the perpetrator.  It doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenged and held to account. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t faced up with the evil of their actions, but this is done so that they can change rather than from a desire for revenge. Forgiveness replaces bitterness with the wish that the person be faced up to, and changed for the better.  We wish good upon the person, not a place in hell.

At Easter, we remember Jesus praying “Father forgive.” That is both an example and an imperative. It’s both a model and a command in mission as much as anywhere else. In our mission situations we will see and share in some awful situations. My friend, in recounting the times of persecution, said that his heart was that he joined with Jesus in praying “Father forgive.”  I know that would be his response to those that killed him.  This is both an example and a call as we do mission.


If you want to look deeper into the way theology impacts the way we do mission with one another, why not consider an MA in Contemporary Missiology with Redcliffe? Apply deep reflection to real-life situations, and study as you work with part-time blended learning. What’s more, Colin is the course leader! Contact us today to have an initial conversation.