A few months ago, I wrote a letter to the mission’s organization I was overseas with for more than 6 years. This letter, which you can read the gist of here, detailed what I felt were institutional failures that led to my being sick and burned out, and, ultimately, what took me off the field and away from what I thought I’d be doing vocationally my whole life.
They responded. They didn’t have to but they did and I’m very grateful. This was more than I’d even hoped for, to be honest, and I was very pleased and also nervous when I opened it to read their response.
They started out by thanking me for the spirit in which my letter was written. I very intentionally wrote the letter from a place of graciousness and not out of anger, and I’m glad they noticed. I’m dealing with many emotions about all that’s happened the last several years, and to be sure, anger is a part of that – sometimes I’m extremely angry. But writing from that place won’t help with meaningful dialogue. There can’t be much progress if I only share from a place of anger. I’m glad they picked up on the tone. The letter I wrote to them went through lots of rounds of edits to get there. So, while my other feelings are real and valid, I wanted to write from a constructive outlook because I love many of the people at the organization and I’d like to see it be better.
Their response was gentle and heartfelt and I don’t doubt that it was sincere. It’s very clear that the language in the letter is worded in a very exacting way. Some of the language is extremely legally correct and noncommittal and I get it. They need to be careful about being sued. They can’t accept responsibility in writing for anything that happened to me. I mean, I get it.
It talked in vague terms about changes they’re making to up the ratio of leaders to members on the field, as well as quality of trainings and protocols for field leadership, and how they’re working to increase the member care team.
It’s good. That’s good. I’m so grateful that not only did they take the time to read my words and respond to them, they actually believe what I’m saying. This is not a small thing. Institutions, and even Christian ones, aren’t known for responding well to criticism or even taking the time to address any criticisms, much less take it seriously and then attempt to make changes. This is huge. I am touched and thankful to be listened to.
But after explaining some changes that are being made, it was pointed out that the Bible tells us to expect hardship. “While praying for God’s protection for all our workers around the world, we are conscious of our presence as sheep among wolves.” They identify the tension there is in the arena “as we get the gospel out to difficult places.”
I’d laid out as gently and kindly as I could muster how I felt their institutional failures wrecked my health, career trajectory, lifelong dreams, and our savings. And this response kind of felt like “Yes, but what can we do? These things happen. The Bible says so.”
I have an extremely hard time accepting as an excuse that the Bible tells us there will be hardship. I did expect hardship going out. And I found it! But the hardship I faced — expulsion, interrogation, war, evacuation… – wasn’t the issue. It was the lack of proper support from the organization to deal with the fallout and to see to it that I had proper care after the fact. What happened to me after the fact wasn’t unavoidable collateral damage. It wasn’t unavoidable hardship. My health started failing because the organization didn’t ensure I received the treatment for trauma and PTSD that I needed as a result of the hardship. Because the measures they had in place broke down for us. I believe the failing of my health – or at least its severity – was avoidable. Problems that have solutions can never be fixed if we choose to view what is amendable as the unavoidable hardship there is when following God. Believing this is so can lead to very little self-reflection. It can keep the door open for allowing these sort of things to continue happening.
One of the points in my letter was that at no point did anyone encourage or follow-up with me about find a trauma counselor or talk to me about trauma therapies like EMDR near my home. (I’ll write more about EMDR in the future – but just to say it’s the first thing in years that has actually helped my health and wellbeing to start to improve. And I’m baffled as to why no one talked to me about this treatment sooner.)
What was recommended to me, to the best of my recollection, was more time at the organizations base which is many states away from my own home base, or to go to expensive counseling retreats that were even more states away. These were retreat centers we could not afford, and, as I pointed out in my original letter, we were utterly exhausted and broken, plus my health was falling apart. I needed to see doctors. I needed tests. Why did no one tell me I could find a trauma therapist near where my family was? Why didn’t anyone in the member care department know about EMDR – one of the most helpful therapies for people with PTSD?
The director who wrote the letter said how a specific counseling center that was recommended to me by member care had been helpful to him and his family in the past. That’s great. But it’s not helpful. It didn’t change the fact that we couldn’t afford it and I desperately needed to stay put for medical answers and treatment.
There was even an apology…sort of. “I am truly sorry for how alone you felt in Egypt…” (Italics added for emphasis) Yes, thank you, but we didn’t feel alone in Egypt. We were, for all practical intents and purposes, alone in Egypt in terms of any leadership, support, or guidance from our organization.
And at the end there is a second apology – “I am sorry for the ways in which [the organization] family, structure, or process has been a disappointment to you.” Again – I appreciate the attempt at a sincere apology. I do. And I understand legally why they can’t say more if they wished to. But, honestly, it’s more than disappointment. Not to harp on it again – but I’ve lost my health, my dream and vocation, and what has felt like years of my life, among other things. While I am perhaps also disappointed, I am mostly heartbroken and incredibly sad. And years later I’m still picking up the pieces. These things could very well affect the rest of my life. While I appreciate the attempt, it does feel as though my pain and tremendous losses were being minimized to be summed up only as disappointment. Especially when the structural changes or improvements they are making are shared in only vague ways. It’s difficult to feel like I was taken seriously if no real changes are actually being implemented.
The author of the letter also commented on God’s wonderful provision to me in providing my husband in my life, who I met while on the field. While, obviously, my husband is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, had the letter been written to my husband or another male, I sincerely doubt the same sort of sentiment would have been included in that response. To be blunt, I am very well aware of the circumstances that led to meeting my husband and I am incredibly thankful for him. But pointing out for me in my life the good that has happened in the midst of a lot of bad, especially while I am still very much dealing with the fallout, is not appreciated – especially if it is being pointed by those to whom I’m addressing about their responsibility in some of the bad. While I doubt that was their intention, I can’t help but feel a little patronized. God was so gracious to us, so good, providing for us in a multiplicity of miraculous ways, but it is not justified by the fact that I was able to meet my husband.
I knew with writing and sending that letter it would end up being seen by people I really like and respect who work for the organization. This includes the couple who were in charge of member care for me the entirety of my time overseas. I waffled a bit on sending the letter because of that. I really like them. They’re good, caring people. They sat with me while I cried, and even cried with me many of those times. They’re very good in person, when I saw them at area retreats or at the headquarters. But not so much from far away. I remember telling my husband while writing the letter, “It’s not their fault, they’re just in charge of member care for too many people.” But as I said it I also realized “but that was true for 7 years.” It can be an excuse at some stages, at some intersections and transitions. But not for 7 years. Again. An institutional failure. By an institution full of nice people. But a failure.
The director did end it by saying they are praying for a healing touch for me in coming days, and asking me to keep lifting up the organization, as well as to “rest assured of our appreciation for your service…”
My service. There is still much I’m still hashing out and chewing on about my service, about missions, about if I could have done anything differently. Am I the only one this has happened to? Has my view of missions/organizations changed? Where does that leave me now? I’ll be addressing these and others questions in Part 3 of this series. Stay tuned!
Emma · August 14, 2018 at 6:38 am
I read all your posts but am a little to shy to comment usually… I just have to say, I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it at times but you are SO strong and have such courage! I can’t even begin to imagine all you’ve faced and will have to face over the coming years, yet you still have space in your heart to care about others and worry that you have not done enough. You have. And you are an inspiration. I really hope you find the rest and healing you need.
Andrea · August 22, 2018 at 11:46 am
Thank you for your very honest letter and response. I really believe that agencies should provide psychological support or counselling for staff who need it, even if that time is when they return home. So much of what you wrote is disappointing, yet too common. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading your next part. Andrea
Beth Watkins · August 22, 2018 at 3:03 pm
Thank you, Andrea! And, yes, I’m learning as well that it is all too common. All best!
Missions Organizations Have Cracks [Part 3]: Are We Asking the Right Questions? – Beth Watkins · August 27, 2018 at 2:55 pm
[…] what I felt were institutional failures that led to the chronic health problems I now have, and Part 2 where I respond to their response to my […]
Missons Organizations Have Cracks [Part 4] – Do I Regret Going? – Beth Watkins · September 13, 2018 at 5:53 pm
[…] detailing what I feel were structural breakdowns that led to my chronic health issues. In part 2 I share my response to their response to my letter. In part 3 I pose some difficult questions to […]