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Thriving or Surviving

Imagine that you are a well-adjusted adult, happy and well-trained in your career, surrounded by friends and family who understand and love you, and involved in a church where you can both give and receive.  That's not hard to imagine, right, because that describes you!

Now imagine that God has called you to be a missionary, to live cross-culturally in a country where you've never been.  Life will be exciting, challenging, and meaningful.

And then you get to that new country.  Everything is new.  You can't understand a word people are saying and they can't understand you.  And that in spite of having spent a year of your life in language study.  You haven't got a clue where to go shopping and when you do go you don't recognize any of the food products on the store.  Not to mention that when you get it home, the stove is like nothing you've ever seen before.  Nothing is done the same as "back home".  Why, for example, can't the car insurance company send you a reminder that your insurance is due?  And what's with buying little cards to put credit on your phone so you can continue to make calls?  And that's not even talking about this brand new culture you've landed in.  All of a sudden you don't know what to do at weddings, with new babies, or in a room full of talkative women.  Church feels a little more comfortable because the service is conducted in much the same way as back home.  But then you can't follow or understand the message, all the songs are new to you, and you don't know how to get involved because, yeah, that language problem again.  And even as a professional, suddenly everything is done differently and there's a steep learning curve.

You've just gone from feeling like a competent, well-educated, well-loved, involved individual to feeling like a two year old who can't speak, communicate, or understand.  You feel like a nobody and it's not a very comfortable feeling.  In fact, you're not very sure you like it here or that this is really what God wanted you to do after all.  And where do you go to buy a ticket home?

Working in personnel, part of my job is to help people through this very uncomfortable adjustment phase.  John works with me a lot in this area as well.  So how do we walk beside new missionaries and help them to adjust and not to just survive, but to thrive in their new location, in their new ministry?

First of all, it takes an attitude of being willing to learn.  If a new arrival just wants to be the way they've always been and can't get over being an American or a Brit or a Korean, they probably won't go very far in adapting.  Thankfully the greatest majority of missionaries arriving on the field are adaptable and are learners. (As one missionary says, "Flex and obey, for there's no other way, to be happy in missions, but to flex and obey.")

Secondly, it takes team-work.  John, Crystal (who works with me specifically with short-termers), Regional Directors, and I don't have time to spend dedicated time with each new arrival and make sure they are ok.  That's where other experienced missionaries come in.   We've been asking missionaries with some experience to come aside new arrivals and mentor them.  Mentoring new arrivals takes involvement in their lives, giving them a chance to ask questions, sharing what you've already learned, and praying with them.  Mostly it takes time.  It's not a glory job, that's for sure.  Regi Campbell in Mentoring Like Jesus, says, "The selflessness of a good mentor is obvious.  There's a willingness to invest time in others when there is no return on investment for yourself, at least nothing tangible."  And later, "This is a one-way street ... from mentor to mentoree.  No payback.  No quid pro quo.  Just selfless giving.  And it's wonderful."

Thirdly, the personnel team does some very intentional orientation.  Within a few days after arrival on the field, we invite new arrivals to the office to meet the staff there, to get them started on getting driver's licenses, permanent visas, etc., and to fill out the ever-necessary paperwork.  Hopefully in this initial visit they at least get an idea of where they can go with their questions. We tell them a few things about living in Niger, but unfortunately in their jet-lagged state, information we feed them that first week pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.   So twice a year we do a two-day orientation when we focus on some important topics in more depth.  These include handling stress, language learning, understanding Islam in this context, and the history of the church in Niger.  

But this year we added another facet to our orientation, at least for those living in Niamey.  We actually got this idea from another of our missionary centers here in the country.  We get a large influx of new arrivals every summer, so we decided that during the month of August we will ask them to meet with us every Saturday evening in the month.  We have made it a potluck and decided to meet at the home of the family that has small children to make it less disruptive to their bedtime routine.  After eating together, we sit down and discuss some of their frustrations, challenges, and blessings from the week.  Then we talk about a specific topic (they chose the topics).  We end by spending time praying for each other.

I think this has gone really well.  The disadvantage, of course, is that people arrive in the country at odd times of the year and never get to be part of the group.  For example, we have two Sahel staff members who couldn't arrive before school started, so they completely missed out on this.  Overall, I think we could make improvements and we have some ideas on how to do that.

The main thing, though, is that everybody in the group seems to have enjoyed it.  It's been good to get to know others who are experiencing the same things you are, others who also feel like two year olds.  Sitting around a living room with a plate full of food is more conducive to a good discussion than sitting in my office or in a classroom.  And at the end of the evening, everybody continues to sit around and talk and aren't in a big rush to go.  So this will definitely become a part of our orientation and mentoring program.

Yes, adjusting to a new environment, a new culture, a new climate, new friends, a new church, and a new job is hard work.  But we hope that spending time in mentoring situations will help each person to thrive, not just survive.  


Georgene G. said…
You did a wonderful job of describing life as a new missionary! I never considered how difficult it might be. How blessed your new missionaries are to find Koinonia with others in your group.

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