04 December, 2014

Stress and missionaries

I've been writing an article about stress and missionaries. In the midst of my research I found this noteworthy article. It was presented at the American Association of Christian Counsellors World Congress in 1997. And I quote here from it:
This is our house on the left and our
neighbour's on the right. One small part
of the stress we face is neighbours so
very close.

We have used a modified version of the Holmes-Rahe stress scale* to illustrate the amount of stress usually experienced in cross-cultural work. We have found that on the average, using this scale which is not comprehensive, cross-cultural workers experience about 600 points of stress per year. The level may peak as high as 1500 points in some circumstances, and drop to merely “normal” for people who are in long-term, stable situations.**
* On this scale the average stress for a person in the US is 100 points.

** The original study revealed that 200 points of stressful life events caused 50 percent of people to become seriously ill (cancer, heart attack) within the subsequent two years. With 300 points, 90 percent became ill. 

Ouch. We encounter that much stress?

When I have people question what we're doing for such a long period as 12 months in Australia (and it's happened at each of the last two churches we've visited), I want to grab them and show them this graph. We're under stress in our "profession". Is it wrong to have time away from our country of service to recharge a little? Noting that the time here is not 100% holiday, not even close.

The introductory paragraph to the above article sums up the challenges of this life well:
Ministry is a hazardous occupation! It exposes one to the deepest needs of humanity, many of which seemingly can never be met. Along with sharing in many life joys, a person in ministry also gains the dubious privilege of dealing with all the “uglies” of human nature, the muck of erring and sinning disciples, the heartbreaking consequences and crises of God's law broken. The values inherent in ministry are for self-giving, sacrifice, working for change in the self, others, and the social context. In a sense, these are dangerous values, “setting up” the opportunities for failure and burnout. One's work in ministry is never done; there is no end to the possibilities to influence persons and the nature of life in one's context. There is no handy cut-off time to show when you have done enough. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to measure one's success in bringing about change.
So, not only is it a challenging occupation, it is hard to take breaks from it. The phrase, "There is no handy cut-off time".

The article also mentions the "uglies" of our job. Though we don't have so much of those ourselves, working in wealthy Japan and in roles that don't come close to the ugliness (war, poverty, instability, sin) that many missionaries find, we find just the crowdedness of the city of Tokyo to be wearying. This year in Australia we nickname our "space therapy".

There are a number of other stressors mentioned, that you may not think about, like: 
Additional spiritual stresses sometimes include being isolated from spiritual peers, from a body of believers who share our perspectives and beliefs. One may be deprived of the nurture of the body of Christ or Christian observances because of working in isolation or anti- Christian cultures. One may lack accountability and thus drift away from the anchors of faith, gradually slipping into habits or practices counterproductive to ministry.
superhuman expectations.
But possibly the most amazing thing, in light of all this is:
. . . that most missionaries DO adapt and work effectively in spite of killing levels of stress. Other researchers have found this too. Secondly, most cross-cultural workers adapt and cope, becoming used to and remaining effective under loads of stress that would land more “regular” people in the hospital.
Praise God, for He's the only explanation I have for that outcome.


Jeanette said...

This morning at some very early hour just after the sun rose (while feeding Rebecca) I watched the ABC big ideas on "Real Boys don't cry". It was talking about PTSD - and how important it is for them to get treatment. They are exposed to some of the very "ugly" side of human nature. What stressful times our combat forces go through. I was thankful to watch the program as it made me appreciate what they do all the more. So for missionaries to be on the scale of 600 as you mentioned Wendy, (though some of the stresses might be quite different) it sounds like it is important to be able to seek assistance periodically from trained people who have gone through some of the things that cross-cultural missionaries go through.

-J said...

Well said! And to follow up on Jeanette's comment above, I personally have benefited from (and recommended to others) a ministry that provides "tune-ups" for missionaries and others in ministry. You can read more at alongsidecares dot net. I think it's a small but growing field of helping the helpers.

-J said...

Well said! And to follow up on Jeanette's comment above, I personally have benefited from (and recommended to others) a ministry that provides "tune-ups" for missionaries and others in ministry. You can read more at alongsidecares dot net. I think it's a small but growing field of helping the helpers.

Wendy said...

Thanks J and J! The need for tune-ups, de-briefs and general member care for missionaries is being recognised more and more these days. On a practical side, though, it isn't so easy as an Aussie (see below).

The thing that frustrates me about missions and various supports (be it TCK support, or ministries like you've mentioned above J), they are US centric. They happen in the US and their resources assume an American audience. As an Aussie who's never been there I feel a little out of it. And what about those who are on the field and with a little bit of help will be able to stay there, but it would be best if the help was field-based, rather than the disruption of moving state-side for help.

Thankfully our family has come through fairly unscathed so far, not needing much in the way of services like these, although who knows how beneficial they may have been to us at various points (like in our first HA)?