SEND U blog

Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Suffering and resilience
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Suffering: God’s method of developing resilience

For several months now, I have been thinking about this topic of resilience in cross-cultural workers. I admit that I have been somewhat troubled by what the Scriptures tell me about God’s method of using suffering to develop resilience. As I have said in previous posts on this topic, the Scriptures do not use the word “resilience”. But the word “perseverance”1 in the Greek, “hupomone” is found repeatedly in Holy Writ. It seems to capture the idea of resilience.

So what do I find troubling in Scripture? In my thinking, the logical way to strengthen a missionary’s resilience is to:

  1. provide them with good training to prepare them for hard times
  2. ensure that they have excellent member care when they go through hard times.

From a human perspective, I struggle to see how suffering in any way contributes to the development of resilience. Isn’t our goal here to minimize the suffering?

Resilience comes from suffering

But what do the Scriptures say about how God produces perseverance in the believer? Look at what Paul says in Romans chapter 5.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3–4
Jesus' resilience
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The inspiration for resilience

This year, as I have thought about planning my growth and development, I have decided that I want to read more biographies. In his great book, Resilient Life, Gordon MacDonald says “deliberating exposing oneself to people who are better and smarter” than we are is part of the process of disciplining our minds and learning resilience. Definitely, we can find amazing and inspiring examples of perseverance and resilience in biographies such as Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Imam’s Daughter by Hannah Shah. But the greatest example of perseverance and resilience is found in the Gospels. If we are looking for heroes to emulate in the character quality of resilience, we start with Jesus.

Inspiring them to persevere

In a previous post, I talked about the discouragement and fatigue of the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. These believers were growing weary under the strain of the ongoing opposition and rejection that they faced as followers of Jesus. This was tempting them to lose heart and to give up. So the author of Hebrews encourages them to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Perseverance is another word for resilience. How does he inspire them to persevere? By pointing to Jesus.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Hebrews 12:2-3 from “the Message” paraphrase

The writer to the Hebrews asks his readers to consider Jesus as a paragon of resilience from three different perspectives. We need to look back at Jesus’ example of resilience. Then we need to look up to him for his help and grace. Thirdly, we need to look forward with him to his coming reward.

the hope of glory
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The End of Retirement: Dying and the Hope of Glory

This is the last day of the year. It is also my final post in this series on finishing well in retirement. Appropriately, I want to end by focusing on the end of retirement. Every retirement ends with death. Yet, for the Christian, the end of retirement is not just about dying. Most significantly, it includes the hope of glory.

I am just starting my retirement. Last month I spoke with a dear friend who was ending his retirement. Notably, he was so excited about seeing Christ in all his glory. Although he was experiencing significant pain, he was finishing well, with his hope of glory clearly visible. My friend modeled the key to finishing retirement well: facing the reality of death with the hope of glory.

The Reality of Death

North American culture avoids talking about death. In fact, it is considered impolite to mention it at the table. We tend to ignore it and pretend it won’t happen. As the chorus of a Simon and Garfunkel song from 1966 so aptly says,

So, I’ll continue to continue to pretend my life will never end and flowers never bend with the rainfall.

Simon and Garfunkel, Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall.

This pretending does not lead to finishing well. In contrast, the psalmist asks God to teach us to number our days so we gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). Facing the reality of death opens the door for us to cherish the hope of glory. Matthew McCullough writes,

resilience and grace
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The source of resilience – grace

What is missional resilience? In a nutshell, it’s grace not grit. We must receive Jesus’ resilience to join him in his mission as we turn toward the triune God, others, and ourselves for loving support.

Geoff Whiteman, Resilient Global Worker Study: Persevering with Joy, March 2021.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the need for resilience in cross-cultural work and particularly now in the pandemic. I mentioned Geoff Whiteman’s research. He surveyed more than 1000 missionaries to find out what contributes to making global workers more resilient. What was his overall conclusion? It can be found in the quote above – resilience in mission work is rooted in God’s grace.

In a workshop at the 2021 Missio Nexus Mission Leaders Conference, Whiteman presented various recommendations for mission organizations to support missional resilience. Based on his research, he talked about the type of training, leadership, and caring that would help global workers become and stay resilient. Whiteman’s research demonstrated that mission organizations have much to learn and many ways in which they can improve. Nevertheless, Whiteman still concludes that resilience is first and foremost a gift of God’s grace.

The witness of Scripture

This echoes the witness of the Scriptures. Repeatedly we find that the Word of God promises the grace of resilience to those who cannot endure in their own strength. Here are a couple of examples.

Learning in retirement
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Lifelong Learning in Retirement

We are continuing our blog series on finishing well, focusing particularly on retirement after a life of missionary service. Finishing well does not mean that we finish learning. Lifelong learning ought to continue in retirement. After all, we are still alive!

Interestingly, opportunities for learning in retirement have grown as more baby boomers retire. In fact, my Google search for “learning in retirement” produced 332 million results. Many of these were courses offered by colleges and universities. There were also travel packages with onsite lectures covering secular and biblical history. Indeed, continuing lifelong learning in retirement is popular today. Yet, why should it be a priority for a retiring missionary?

Lifelong Learning is a Christian Calling

J. I Packer writes,

Lifelong learning, both of the truths by which Christians are to live and of the way to live by them – also of how these things are taught in Scripture and how they are misstated, misunderstood, and misapplied in the modern world – is every Christian’s calling.

-J. I. Packer, Finishing Our Course with Joy, p. 65.

Likewise, Paul D. Stanley and J. Robert Clinton note that one of the characteristics of leaders who finish well is “they maintain a positive learning attitude all their lives.” 1Stanley and Clinton, Connecting: the Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed in Life, Nav Press, 1992, p. 215.

Packer identifies neglecting to learn in retirement as worldliness,

need for resilience
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Resilience: the need

Resilience is a critical topic

How do Christian global workers become resilient? This is the question that Geoff Whiteman posed to over 1000 missionaries.1 See ResilientGlobalWorker.org for information about this survey. It is a question that concerns anyone involved with member care for global workers. To illustrate, the title of Laura Mae Gardner’s highly-recommended book on member care is “Healthy, Resilient, & Effective in Cross-Cultural Ministry.” From the title itself, one can see the central and crucial role of resilience in productive mission workers. Kelly O’Donnell, CEO of Member Care Associates also highlights the importance of resilience in his book on global member care.

Member care, I have learned over and over again, is not about creating a comfortable lifestyle. Nor is it about trusting people instead of trusting God. Rather, it is about further developing the resiliency to do our work well which includes our character, competencies, and social support. It is also about developing relational resiliency, which includes working through the inevitable differences and impasses with international and local fellow-workers.

O’Donnell, Kelly. Global Member Care: Volume One: The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice. William Carey Library. Kindle Edition, Loc. 459.

Why do we need to understand resilience?

In this blog series, I want to share what I have been learning about missionary resilience. I will be unpacking what I have read about resilience from contemporary authors and in the Scriptures.

Understanding resilience is not only important so that we can minimize attrition. In other words, our goal is not simply to prevent missionaries from returning to their sending countries prematurely. We want our colleagues and ourselves to thrive. Our desire is that they bear much fruit, and grow and develop in their ministry gifts and skills. We want our children to reflect positively on their experience as TCKs.2 Third-culture kids.

restart
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Planning to Restart

Recently I mentioned to a friend that my wife and I will begin our retirement with a sabbatical. He looked at me oddly saying that sabbaticals are usually followed by a return to work. My response was that Christ still has good works for us to do in our retirement (Eph 2:10). In other words, a retirement sabbatical is a time to rest, reflect on past ministry, and discern God’s calling for our remaining years. Indeed, we are called to be a people zealous for good works (Titus 2:13-14). And there is no expiration date on that calling!

Essentially, a retirement sabbatical prepares us for a restart. The nine practices mentioned in the previous post can launch us into a fulfilling retirement. Moreover, they help us find meaning and purpose in our later years. A retirement sabbatical is an antidote to the boredom of endless vacation.1 See my first blog post in this series.

Restart

Restarting after our retirement sabbatical is a renewed expression of our identity and calling as we seek to finish well. Indeed, “calling is central to the challenge and privilege of finishing well in life (Os Guinness, The Call, p. 227). Guinness defines calling as:

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