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Missions: Through the Looking Glass

Have you ever had a moment when everything goes sideways and you can’t make sense of what you’re experiencing because it doesn’t follow the rules of the universe you belong to?


Yeah?


Me too.


I, like many 20-something Christian women before me, found myself with a passion and calling to do what I could to take the gospel message to people who hadn’t heard it before. To international missions.


I began where most would-be missionaries do, with a search for a missions sending agency. After all, a heart full of passion doesn’t buy plane tickets or provide housing. There were so many to choose from. They all had a different part of the task in mind, different ways of accomplishing their goals, different levels and types of support for their people, and sought out different skill sets and personality types. Eventually I landed on one that seemed like a good fit and entered the application process.


I knew applying wouldn’t be easy, but I was definitely not prepared for all that came with it. I had never been asked so many detailed questions about EVERY aspect of my life, faith, and health. Then came the requirements I’d be agreeing to. So. Many. Rules. Standards for belief, behavior, responsibilities, finances, relationships, and physical fitness. All of this was framed as the agency being good stewards of their resources. Only sending the best of the best. The cream of the crop. Some of it made good sense in light of the task I was signing up for, but some felt really invasive and controlling in ways that weren’t quite biblical. I told myself it was fine… that I didn’t mind holding myself to that higher standard if it meant I’d have the privilege of doing missions with this agency.


Eventually the fantastic and terrifying news came that I had been accepted with the agency and to the specific job that I had requested! I was put in contact with the people on the field team I’d be joining. They told me how they didn’t know me yet but that they loved me and wanted me there with them. That they were thrilled I’d be joining their team. That I’d make such a difference there.


My first few weeks in my new home were an introduction to the team, the city, the language, the culture, the food, and the job. It was a whirlwind of jet lagged excitement. Everyone said they would continue to be around and would help me remember what I needed later; that they knew I couldn’t possibly learn it all up front. I became “auntie” and “big/little sister” to my teammates and their children. My job was tricky, but I felt that my prior work experience prepared me well for it. Language learning took a lot of work, but I picked it up quickly and got compliments on my speaking ability from most of the locals I interacted with. I learned where the important places were, how to use public transit, and how to buy groceries. For the most part, I could function as an independent adult within a couple of months!


I was living the dream. Except pretty early on I started noticing some things in my team that were not as I had expected them to be. Their interactions with each other were clipped, tense, and had a hint of harsh judgment in them. But I was new. Surely I was misunderstanding. Surely I was wrong. Maybe they were just having a bad day? Week? Month?


But I wasn’t wrong. Turns out there was a years-long relational rift between them, and everyone had had a very difficult few years with lots of upheaval and political change within the country. It was to the point that while they met together as a team, they were openly antagonistic toward one another. You could feel the tension in the room during the meetings that were intended for prayer and camaraderie. The leaders were harsh and demeaning in their words toward others, and eventually toward me. I learned that part of what they hoped bringing me in would do was provide a buffer between them. They wanted me to make things better for everyone. To be a friend, a counselor, a load sharer, an auntie and babysitter for their kids. None of this was in the mission's brochures. It wasn’t in my job description either. When it came to my actual job, I was expected to be “on” at all times. I was pushed to respond to detailed business questions, even during church or social times. If I pushed back, their reactions were swift, fierce, and sometimes public. They were glad someone was doing the task, but were very harshly critical of my performance.


Even so, I wanted to do and be all of it for them. To be the savior of the team. But God never intended human beings to be each other’s saviors. My best was never enough. I was never enough. Their attitude toward me grew quite cold. I was rarely invited to spend non-work time with them, and if I asked for time I was made to feel unwelcome. Despite the fact that my non-team clients, co-workers and supervisors had only good things to say about my job performance and its positive impact, my team supervisors remained unimpressed.


I was a mid-20s single woman with limited language ability in a very patriarchal country. As competent as I was, I did still need help with some things. When I reached out for it, all of the support they said they’d provide … all of the words about being loved and wanted… they fell completely flat. I was told to ask someone else or figure it out myself. That assisting me was not their responsibility. When something was wrong in my house, I was told to be thankful I had such a nice place. It got to the point that when I didn't have heat in the middle of winter, I didn’t bother saying anything. I just wore multiple layers of clothes under my coat in the house and slept under every blanket and thick floor mat I owned to keep warm.


It was SO confusing. So frustrating! So many sleepless nights calling out to God for help, trying to understand, blaming myself, ranting in the dark of my empty house. So many conversations with them trying to point them to Jesus, to be that buffer they wanted me to be, to nudge toward change. But it never did any good. These people were missionaries for goodness sake! They were supposed to love others! They were there with the same agency that so carefully vetted me. They went to the same training I did and agreed to the same standards of behavior I did. This was wrong. Their treatment of each other and me was wrong! Certainly the agency didn’t know what was going on here. If they did, they'd do something about it, right?

They’d send help?


Except they didn’t.


I eventually reached out to the support team. The part of the agency whose sole purpose was to provide supportive care for people on the field. People in a position to require change. I explained what was going on with the full expectation that they’d be appalled and act based on that information. But their response was to commiserate with me on the difficulty of the situation and encourage me to just hang on until the end of their term… a year from then. I was told that they weren’t going to intervene or send help. Visas were hard to get, my leaders had an established ministry, they were friends with their own field leadership. Yes, they understood that their behavior was wrong, harmful, and against policy. No, they were not going to address it.


So, I did what was asked of me and endured until the end of their term, and then mine. I went home feeling like I had given it everything I was, and it wasn’t enough. I had failed. My team was still a mess. My task felt incomplete. I had set out to bring hope to the hopeless. Truth to the nations. Yet my missionary team was given implicit permission to break me. My heart was broken for myself and the gospel opportunities that never came because the team was so focused on each other. I had never seen, much less experienced, such rampant destruction within Christian circles.


Once back in the U.S., I felt lost. Raw. Like my soul had been scrubbed with sandpaper. People expected adventurous tales of exotic faraway places, nationals coming to Jesus in droves, funny language or cultural mishaps. No one knew what had been going on. Unhealthy team dynamics, abusive field leadership, and institutional policies that allow it aren’t exactly the kinds of things you put in your missionary newsletters. The agency had also encouraged us to distance ourselves from people back home so we could focus better on the task at hand. Ultimately though, I just had no idea how to understand, much less describe what I had experienced. How do you tell a story you don’t have words for? How do you say that it all happened within a well respected missions agency … and with their full knowledge? It sounded so far-fetched and unlikely.


I still wanted people to know Jesus. Somehow I still believed the agency was good and effective. That I had simply had a bad team experience. There were certainly great people in other locations. I had met many of them over the course of my term. Maybe if I got more and better training and went back somewhere else. If I vetted my team better before joining them. Maybe then I’d be the triumphant, sold-out-for-Jesus missionary everyone expected. It could work… Right?


Eventually I came to understand that even well respected, theologically sound, agencies like this one can and do employ harmful and abusive, organizational policies and people. They can be amazing at their task of sending missionaries out to the far corners of the globe. They can have carefully thought out strategies for reaching the nations. They can thoroughly vet candidates, have strict regulations, and set up all manner of support systems. But if they are unwilling to consider that their own policies could cause harm, or address the abusive practices of field personnel, they become complicit in the abuse of their own people.


This goes against the very heart of God. The Bible repeatedly points out God’s kindness and compassion to his people and commands us to be kind and compassionate in our dealings with one another. To do to each other what we would want done to us (Matt 7:12). To humbly consider others above ourselves and look out for their interests (Phil 2:3-4). To show our faith in our actions (James 2:14-17) To love as he has loved us (1 John 4:7-8). When sending agencies refuse to change their abusive policies or act on reports of abusive personnel, they fail at their most basic task as Christians… to love as God loves.

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