I asked the Roundup readership community the following question last week:
What are the biggest challenges and problems faced, and mistakes made, by new long-term workers (of any nationality) in the first 30 to 90 days on the field?
Here are their answers:
We were trained to be prepared for culture shock but missionary shock took us by surprise. Our first months... up to almost a year made us realize that we need to prepare new missionaries, not only for the culture of the new country, but the also the culture of those from other countries that they’ll be working with. Also, more recently, new missionaries need to understand the commitment involved isn’t just for a term or two. The biggest challenge is to keep them at task... making disciples has no short cut. We won’t know what we have in a new church plant until we see the second or third generation of believers.
It's a good thing not to take oneself too seriously at first. Enjoy, explore, eat... there's plenty of time for language learning and finding furniture another day. Be a tourist; write about and take pictures of your experiences and the sites. Nothing will ever seem so abnormal again. Plus the locals are going to ask, ‘Have you been here? Have you tried this food?’ It's great to be able to tell them right off how much you love their country…. Similarly I used to pray for this country as I flew in and saw dozens and dozens of minarets scattered over the landscape... now I breathe a sigh of relief and think, ‘Praise God, I'm finally home!’
1. Over confidence
2. No confidence
3. Not paying attention to spouses needs emotionally
One mistake we have observed is people thinking that they will get off the plane and be hit by a 'Holy Spirit lightning bolt' that will turn them into the Apostle Paul. Now, mobilizing as a pastor and training in our unofficial phase 1 hub, we tell people that if you don't do it here (e.g. obey Jesus regardless of the consequence, share your faith, pray, seek God, etc), then you won't do it there!
I think it is not listening, learning and watching long enough. Most come with high ideals and the danger is to launch with their own agenda and excitement without taking the necessary time to learn and understand. Most begin to question and then criticize. A wise person has said ‘Don't speak into a culture until you have been there long enough to come to love its people.’
Learn the language is the initial problem for a new missionary.
Biggest challenge is the adjustment to daily life; groceries, driving (do these lines on the road mean anything), money (what is reasonable to pay for a bunch of carrots in local currency), niceties (how to greet someone, what words and gestures - handshake or no touching), then throw in a different language. Help! Even if we are "prepared" these things can be brutal.
I believe the biggest problem is the expectation (held by either them or those supporting them) that they have to ‘hit the ground running’ (i.e. know exactly what they are needing to do, what their long-term strategy is, etc.). They should, instead, hit the ground waiting, learning, praying, seeking God for direction (which can be done as they do the other things - culture, language, etc. I understand many places, especially in secure areas, force you to have some sort of plan just to get a visa, but I have seen over and over again individuals and teams going off in a direction only for that to blow up in there face and they have to either backtrack and start over or they end up losing the mission there altogether.
One of the biggest challenges is often ‘friendly-fire.’ So many go to an area expecting the challenges of culture and language acquisition, etc. but many are not prepared for the challenges of other believers there either not helping or, sometimes, actively working against them because they: 1) don’t agree with their mission methods, 2) jealous of the ‘new energy’ they are bringing in, 3) tired of new folks coming in making mistakes that hurt their work, 4) disagree with their theology or doctrine.
Leaving the people and place they came from and identifying as best they can with the people and place where they now are.
The inability to assess the situation on the ground from various perspectives that allow for new thinking about the challenges and new solutions to be considered.
I remember hearing George Patterson say, ‘The two big mistakes older mission organizations make with teams are 1) they bond with each other and 2) the average organization doesn't know how to mobilize tentmakers. Regarding the first item, this is not new. Brewster and Brewster spoke to it in their Bonding article. But it is still important to keep in mind when helping new workers join the field.
From more personal experience, in her ‘debrief’ with me as she transitioned out of […], a former field worker shared how her team leader expected her to jump into the very busy pace of ministry with lots of travel. There was very little (if any) time or process for becoming a team or onboarding the new member to the team. The note I have here about that says, ‘Find ways to help new people start well. They NEED the team or field person to slow down, make time to coach/mentor and build relationship.’ The failure of this particular team leader to make time to bring this lady on board, hurt the local team (the lady left) and potentially hurt the organization as a whole (the lady's church is a big time sending church that we'd love to cultivate a more positive relationship with).
We also saw this when we coordinated the internship program. The placements where the field host/team leader was too busy to invest in helping the new worker get started on the right foot, were the placements where the interns struggled the most.
Clear expectations and roles are huge, not just in the first 1-3 months, but all along.
There's a tension between ‘hand holding’, i.e. doing too much for new field workers, and not doing enough. I feel like […] have found a good balance. The get together once a week with people for fellowship or fun, and once a week for coaching/mentoring. The rest of the time, the new people are learning how to live in that culture and language, but know they can call on […] if a need arises.
Being too plugged into the US (e.g. talking to family and friends, checking and updating social media, sending prayer requests to supporters [people go into to much detail therefor too much time])
We now recommend 3-5 days to go somewhere to transition from leaving the US to moving to new location. Many people are so exhausted raising support and saying goodbye that they need time to close one chapter before they open a new chapter.
But, after they have this rest time, they should jump into learning language, so the mistake is easing into language learning.
Comparing everything to the US.
Afraid to make mistakes
Talking too much. Observing and listening too little.
Not praying enough.
Spending too much time with other expatriates on the field or chatting with friends back home, thereby missing their very best opportunity to connect deeply (bond) with the people, language and culture of the host country.
You can subscribe to the Roundup: it comes out weekly, and it’s free. I’ll be incorporating more survey questions in the future. You can also join my (very small but possibly growing) Slack community, where I’ll post questions like this in the future. Send me an email if you’d like an invite.