Resilience

Missionary psychologists say that one of the most desired qualities in a missionary is resilience. Resilient people harness inner strengths and tend to rebound more quickly from setbacks or challenges. “Good [missionary] member care helps to develop resiliency, and the resiliency that workers and teams have will likely be reproduced in the people they are serving.” writes Kelly O’Donnell. (O’Donnell)

Resilience is the process of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. Resilient people overcome adversity, bounce back from setbacks, and can thrive under extreme, ongoing pressure without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways. On the other hand, people who are less resilient may dwell on problems, feel victimized or become overwhelmed and turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including addictive behaviors such as drugs, alcohol and pornography.

A study was made of resiliency and retention of missionaries in Africa who had gone through traumatic events yet continued to serve. Factors which contributed to their resilience and that were already demonstrated in their lives before the traumatic event included a strong personal call to be where they were, words from God and sturdy relationships. Following the trauma, these people experienced the ‘keeper side’ of God, and heard supportive words from their leaders who acknowledged the event and actively worked to find out how the worker was coping. One of the unexpected results from the trauma included embracing sudden transitions as doors to new ministries. (Brown, Mobile Member Care Team)

In Japan one can see the gaman spirit—where perseverance is highly valued. It is possible for missionaries in Japan to gaman, but not be resilient. Sue Takamoto wrote of a transformation that takes place in successfully adapted missionaries—“a move from black and white, egocentric thinking to an ability to become more flexible and open.” (Takamoto)

Some people seem to be more naturally resilient than others, but the literature emphasizes that resiliency is something that can be learned. Make a practice of healthy self-care—physically, emotionally and spiritually. Develop good interpersonal relationships since resilient people are not “lone rangers.” In times of difficulty, a resilient person benefits from a network of friends. Cultivate a thankful heart. Practice and give forgiveness. Use humor and laughter—remaining positive or finding humor in distressing or stressful situations doesn’t mean you’re in denial, but is a helpful coping mechanism. A missionary working in a crisis situation was advised to make time every day to read a chapter of a novel—he called it his island of comfort in the midst of the difficulty.

A significant feature of resilient people is that they expect things to work out. They accept and anticipate change. The struggle to bounce back and recover from setbacks can lead to developing strengths and abilities they didn’t know they have. They learn good lessons from bad experiences. In James we are reminded that the testing of our faith develops perseverance, which must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And the one who perseveres is called blessed. (James 1:3, 4, 12)

O’Donnell writes “In my experience, both surviving and thriving are realities for Christian workers … There is an uneven flow to life, and resiliency, like the ability to thrive, is developed through hard times.”
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O’Donnell, Kelly, “12 Treasures—Future Directions for Member Care,” http://www.momentum-mag.org/200605/200605-article10.pdf

Brown, Ronald, “Resilience in Ministry Despite Trauma,” http://www.mmct.org/resilience.php

Takamoto, Susan, Dissertation: “Liminality and the North American Missionary Adjustment Process in Japan” P. 266

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About Faith

I lived and worked in Japan for nearly 30 years as a missionary with Asian Access. Since 2000, I have devoted myself to championing spiritual, emotional and physical vitality in the life of missionaries as they work out the call of God in their places of service. I recently relocated to the US, where I serve with SIM USA as their Director of Member Care.
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