This is Part 3 of the miniseries Missions Organizations Have Cracks. To frame the context of this post a bit better feel free to check out Part 1 where I share the gist of a letter I wrote to my former missions organization highlighting 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 letter.
When I wrote Part 1 of “Missions Organizations Have Cracks,” I got several responses. One was from a person from my same organization that I’d met only briefly after I’d been on the field for 2 years. In this person’s email to me (and with their permission to share) they said:
“I’ve had more than a decade of experience working in some of the hardest places and it didn’t seem like [the organization] wanted to invest to help us recover or reengage. We continued to get emails about them building new buildings, launching fundraising campaigns, or having new candidates, but when we wrote asking for assistance our emails would sit unanswered for weeks or months if not permanently. In our resignation letter we specifically mentioned that there was a major disconnect between the amount of investment they put into recruiting new people and the attention they give to retaining and caring for people who are battle tested and willing to serve but need some TLC and support. We did get a reply that was nice but it didn’t address any of our concerns.”
Over the last year or so, and as I’ve worked on these posts, I’ve wondered – how many others have fallen through the cracks? Not just with my previous organization (the same one as the writer above) but in all of missions? Are there statistics for that? How many traumas? How many long term chronic illnesses? How many other people whose bodies and capacities will never be the same? How many dreams and vocations ended, and how many lives completely uprooted? Do we know? Do we even care?
A knowledgeable friend told me recently she’s learned if Member Care isn’t in the actual stated core values of an organization then it’s not something an organization actually cares deeply about investing the necessary resources in. These are the ones that will keep working to seal over the cracks, instead of accepting them as an unfortunate necessary part of missions.
At board meetings and stakeholder meetings do they talk about these numbers? If they even talk about them in the abstract, do they know why they left and why the resigned and why? Do they know the names of those who burnt out?
If they do know the numbers, and the names, and the costs – what do they say about those who have left? Do they skirt over the stories, or take a long hard look at the individual circumstances? Do they want to understand the stories and search for lessons learned, or do they just want to make sure their own liabilities are limited? Do they think these individuals were truly called, or just got burnt out, or just couldn’t hack it? Do they feel a pastoral responsibility for us, even if they couldn’t admit to a corporate liability?
I care about whether they feel as though they have any responsibility at all for what happened to me or not, but I’d really like to know if those on the board, the stakeholders, and especially the people they are newly christening and sending out – do they even know about people like me? The more I talk to people about this the more apparent it is that our numbers are many, not few.
I’m reading and wrestling and I don’t have the answers for this now. I’m not sure I ever will. People are complex and faulty. So are our organizations. So is the church. And, so, therefore, is our attempts at missions and missional living.
We tell people to count the cost but seem to have no idea what we’re sending them into, what the costs might be. And seem slightly more unconcerned than we should about the terrible things that happen to some of us in the process. I’ll cede that my former organization did way more than shrug when (some of) the very difficult circumstances happened to me and to us. But there seemed to be no “What are we doing? Why? How should we be advising this girl differently? Does she have to keep counting the cost?”
Because people define purposeful terms like Missions and The Kingdom differently, our goals of these terms and the acceptable costs for them are different. This is where the ground gets fuzzy. What’s enough? Who gets to decide this? We can live sacrificially toward the Kingdom of God without continuing to harm ourselves, or allowing others to be.
I have been wondering lately if they were ever going to tell me to stop. Were they ever going to pull me off? Would I have been left to wither completely under their tutelage? Would it all have gone under the blanket as the sort of stuff that happens as we go out as sheep among wolves? I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to.
While I’m acutely aware of how my life has been affected by my time in missions, I’m mostly unaware of my effect in the lives of others. While I hope some of it was good, and I do believe this is so, some of it wasn’t. It troubles me that I will probably never know the extent to which my life and influence wasn’t a positive one. It is extremely mixed.
I loved the girls I lived with in South Sudan – I was an intense part of their lives for a short amount of time. During this time, I offered support, friendship, skills. But I also left. They loved me and I left. People who do this aid attachment disorders in kids who already have difficult lives. I still get messages from them asking when I’m coming back. I’m not. I’m one of many caretakers they learned to love who left them.
When I left Cairo my job was filled by a local. I’d done well in my role, tripled our adult education program, made important changes, supported my team. My work there was mostly good, and we’re still supporting some of our friends there. But was I taking a job from a local the whole time? Were there things I was doing wrong that my team wasn’t sharing with me?
Was there measurable good? Yes. Was there damage? Maybe. I don’t know for sure. History, as far as missions goes, says yes. There are regularly unintentional consequences among places we hope to do good, even if lots of seemingly measurable good was accomplished.
God is gracious even in our most pitiful of efforts. Though this does not excuse us to keep being pitiful in our efforts. It shouldn’t leave us satisfied with ‘good enough’ if people are still being harmed by our practices. (And shouldn’t encourage us to slink away from asking these questions with honesty.) I say this not only for me in my situation, but also the damage that sincere attempts at missions has wreaked the world over.
We must keep looking back and learning and keep trying to do better. If our efforts harm others we don’t get to absolve ourselves. We don’t get to decide what justifies good. The ones we’ve harmed do. That’s why I insist on talking about these things from both sides – as one who was harmed in missions and as one who certainly is guilty of harming others, however accidentally, while I was in missions.
I’d like see missions and mission’s organizations continue to make sure they are weeding out the seeds of colonialism in which many mission’s organizations were founded, as well as the reasons that drive those from affluent countries to go serve in other places. (This is mostly another topic for another day, but for further reading I highly recommend these two books – A Smoldering Wick & From The Inside Out.)
I’d like honest conversations about the places we’re sending people into, and with them about what the risks and dangers are, with actual stories, statistics, and information. And when the unthinkable does happen, I’d like to see mental health professionals – along with the spiritual counselors and support – called in, referred to, and available to help pick up the pieces. I’d like Member Care teams to know what is possible and available in terms of trauma treatment and therapies, be able to recognize and deal with PTSD in their field members. I’d like to see organizations have honest conversations about those they’re recruiting and sending out about the costs there might be, and also about how they will come alongside when the unthinkable does happen. And then actually do it. Take responsibility for their members when they succeed, and also be there, responsible, when they fall.
I feel like missions could use some reevaluation. Some introspective questions (and, always, involving those we go to work with in those conversations), and some damage control and damage assessment.
I’d like to see them really dig in and study what is happening to the people going out under their cover, and follow up with the ones who left the work. As well as making sure we’re keeping a close eye on the places we’re serving, making sure our presence is for the good of those we go to serve. We don’t get to decide that for others, and our organizations don’t get to decide for us that the costs we counted were necessary or worth it.
Which leads me to – Do I regret going?
I was hoping to cover that in this post, but I’m extending one last installment of the series. Part 4 and (very likely!) the final installment of this series. Do I regret going? Coming soon!