“Raise your hands in the air as high as you can,” says the motivational speaker on the stage. Then, looking over the crowd reaching skyward, he says, “Now, reach higher,” and they comply. The lesson? You can always do more, even when you think you’ve done as much as you can.
“I’ll give it 110%,” we say.
“Leave it all on the court,” they tell us.
But pushing ourselves beyond our limits can lead to burnout. When that happens, we can’t function anymore, and that’s not a good thing. And yet, for a cross-cultural worker, being burned out can feel like a respectable reason for leaving the field. I have nothing left to give. I’m spent. I worked too hard.
When my wife and I moved back to the States, I sometimes said it was because we were burned out, and that may very well have been true. But there were other times when I felt I didn’t deserve the label. It seemed that it should be reserved for the ones who’d worked a lot harder than I had.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” we sing.
According to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, Revision 11, “burn-out” is an “occupational phenomenon” (rather than a medical condition). It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” showing itself in
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.
We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.
When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.
Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.
Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.
I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.
For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.
They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.
They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.
And the cycle continues.
So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.
In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of
team members, reported by 62% community, 58% relationships back home, 54% ministry results, 52% job responsibilities, 50%
And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be
team members, reported by 65% job responsibilities, 64%, community, 61% family life, 56%
These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss (a past contributor to this blog). In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.
I remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights—at no extra cost. That meant that when our family of six moved overseas, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.
It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?
There’s also another set of luggage that cross-cultural workers tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our assumptions, our plans, . . . our expectations.
A friend of mine once joked that if you listen to prayer requests in church long enough, you’ll come to the conclusion that traveling is the most dangerous endeavor known to Christians. Whether it’s for a drive across the state or a plane ride to another country (with an occasional cruise thrown in), we long for God’s blessing of safety, or, as it’s often phrased, “travel mercies.”
Where does that come from? Not the desire for safety. I get that, though I don’t understand why a four-hour trip to St. Louis seems so risky. Maybe it’s a testament to just how safe we are otherwise in our daily lives.
No, I’m referring to the phrase travel mercies itself. A quick Google search shows that some link it back to Southern Baptists, but a more thorough search shows that it (or a similar phrase) predates the establishment of that group. Others tie it to early Protestant missionaries, but it predates them as well.
The first usage I can find for travel mercies is from 1914, in John Faris’s Book of Answered Prayer (published by Hodder & Stoughton). Actually, what I found was an ad in The Herald & Presbyter, stating that in the book (sold by the Presbyterian Board of Publication for $1) the author “gives simply and without argument seventy striking instances of answers. These have been gathered from both home and foreign sources.” “Travel Mercies” is listed as one of the book’s ten chapter headings.
Some twenty years earlier, the similar phrase traveling mercies appeared in the Minutes of the Second Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In their meeting on the morning of October 17, 1893, the group held a memorial service for Mary Allen West, their former “round-the-world missionary to Japan,” who had died in Japan there promoting temperance. Chika Sakurai spoke during the service, saying,
My Dear Sisters: You cannot tell with what joy I meet you this morning, and as I look upon you I feel that we are friends and not foreigners. (This is my first journey from my native land, and it is no easy matter for one to leave the scene of her childhood days, and the many friends and loved ones. But one always feels that leaving home, friends and beloved ones to work for God is no loss). I feel thankful to God for his goodness and mercy to me. He has blessed me with traveling mercies and allowed me to come here to try to do something for him. I trust my efforts will be blessed by God.
And before that? Well, we’ll need to expand the search to include travelling, with two Ls, the way the British spell it. That led me to a result from 1770, when British philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard wrote it in his journal, while en route from Holland to Paris:
I would acknowledge it is thro’ the goodness of God alone that I enjoy so many travelling Mercies, such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.—
Howard knew something of the need for God’s help during travels. In 1756, while sailing to Portugal, he was captured as a prisoner of war by a French privateer.
Today, I’m not sure which is more popular in the lexicon of prayer groups, travel mercies or traveling mercies (with either spelling), though travel mercies is what I hear more often in my part of the world. But traveling mercies might have a PR advantage, as it’s the title of a memoir by the best-selling author Anne Lamott. As the book’s full title suggests —Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith—the journey that Lamott recounts is not a road trip but a spiritual pilgrimage as she works out her belief in God (with a capital G). She writes that she started out as an unbelieving daughter of an unbelieving missionary kid:
My father’s folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians “God’s frozen people.” My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God—it was like we’d all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father. I lived for him. He was my first god.
Fast forwarding to Lamott as an adult attending St. Andrew Presbyterian, we come to the place where she shares what became the inspiration for her book’s title, writing about a time when the church’s preacher went on a vacation:
“Traveling Mercies,” the old people at our church said to her when she left. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.
So for whatever trek you are on, I leave you with the following benediction, a combining of the old and the new:
May you have “such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.”
“Love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”
“British missionary William Carey is often called the father of modern missions,” writes Rebecca Hopkins in Christianity Today. “Adoniram Judson has been titled the first American missionary to travel overseas.”
And for many of us, that pretty much sums up the origin of missions in the West. But Rebecca has more to tell us in “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” as she adds in Rebecca Protten and George Liele. Why are they notable? Because both left America and planted churches before Carey or Judson went out—Protten to St. Thomas and later present-day Ghana, and Liele to Jamaica—and both were former slaves.
If Protten’s and Liele’s names are new to you, grab the January/February issue of CT to read their stories, stories that, as Rebecca writes, “add depth and complication to the sometimes too-simple narrative of missions history.” Depth, because of the inclusion of Black Christians that sit outside the traditional narrative of the White American church. Complication, because Protten and Liele were not “commissioned” and “sent out” in the traditional sense, and because questions remain as to how complicit they were in the evils of their day—Protten in regards to “cultural genocide” and Liele in regards to slavery.
I like the phrase “depth and complication.” Too often we Christians find comfort in our “too-simple narratives,” leaving out difficult details, and leaving out people, as well.
Rebecca’s article and that phrase were in the back of my mind a few weeks ago (pardon me while I go on a stream-of-consciousness trek here) when I heard on the radio the end of an interview with the African-American composer Thomas Dorsey. I looked up more on Dorsey, known as the “Father of Soul Music,” and here’s what I found.
The son of a Baptist preacher and church organist, Dorsey started his musical career as a blues piano player, often performing in bars and brothels, and later toured with the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Then in 1921, after attending the National Baptist Convention, he committed himself to writing gospel music. But it wasn’t a full commitment, as he didn’t completely turn his back on the blues culture of the time, which included “dirty blues,” risqué songs filled with double entendres. It was in this genre that he cowrote his most popular blues piece, the hit “It’s Tight like That.” As Dorsey tried to introduce his bluesy gospel songs in churches, his mixing of the secular and holy rankled many preachers. And as Dorsey tells Steven Kaplan in Horizon, he believed preachers felt upstaged by his music. “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in town,” he says.
He found a better welcome in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, in 1931, he helped establish the first gospel choir. But it was the next year when his life truly changed, resulting in his writing the classic gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Following is the story, told by Dorsey in the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody. It takes place after he had travelled to St. Louis, while his wife remained in South Chicago. . . .
Continue reading, for more about Thomas Dorsey, Horatio and Anna Spafford, and Lilias Trotter, at A Life Overseas.
How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?
I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?
The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)
Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI showed me I’m an ENTP, and my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. Then it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs. . . .
“’BOXES’ is a short film shot inside ‘Villa Letizia’ a therapeutic community in Sicily, to highlight the impact of lock-down and COVID19 pandemic on individuals with mental illness.”
“Global Corrugated Boxes Market Increasing at a Remarkable Pace to Reach around USD 107.02 Billion by 2028—Zion Market Research”
According to [a Zion Market Research] report, the global Corrugated Boxes market accounted for USD 74.68 Billion in 2020 and is expected to reach USD 107.02 Billion by 2028. . . .
. . . .
The industry did not suffer a loss as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak because corrugated boxes are the backbone of the supply chain. According to the Fibre Box Association, these boxes are extremely important in India, the United States, China, and Germany in 2019. The increasing use of these boxes for the supply of supplies to hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets, and grocery stores has resulted in a large increase in demand for these boxes.
. . . .
The market has been divided into recycled fiber and virgin fiber segments based on material form. The recycled fiber segment holds the largest market share and is expected to rise over the forecast period. Because of its properties such as being lightweight, recyclable, and protecting fragile items, recycled fiber is in high demand. These characteristics are driving up demand for recycled fiber in corrugated box manufacturing. Furthermore, widespread use in the packaging of lightweight products such as electronics, fast moving consumer goods, and cosmetics would propel this segment forward in the coming years.
I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’sRise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.
Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.
Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,
There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.
In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.
One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.
And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill. . . .