Themes in the stories of those returning

“But the story that you tell is the story that you believe.  And the story that you believe is the story that you begin to live.  It is important that you discover the real story – accepting the good and the bad of where you just were and are now – so that you can live the real story you are being given.”

Last week I ran across this blog on VelvetAshes recounting the themes that the author heard repeated in listening to the stories of people returning from their lives overseas. If you’ve recently returned, or even if it’s been awhile, this is a very helpful compilation of experiences that may assure you that you’re right in there with the rest of us!

I Have Listened to your Stories

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Jonathan Trotter writes at A Life Overseas about the grief that we missionaries may not feel we can or should experience:

Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned.  You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.

But then it got heavy.  Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away.  Far away.  Like other continents away.   And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.

Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye.  Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.

Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad. 

And you realize there are just some things Skype cannot fix.

Read the whole blog here:  Outlawed Grief, A Curse Disguised

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Community and Missions

I recently started reading Community and Growth by Jean Vanier.  Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche community for the mentally handicapped and their helpers shares a number of reflections on aspects of life in community.

While still in the first chapter, One Heart, One Soul, One Spirit, I saw several applications to missionaries, relationships and personal growth.  While we have chosen to affiliate with our sending organization, we have not necessarily chosen to be with the specific individuals on our team. Indeed, we may come from very different cultures, countries, theological perspectives.

Quite possibly, we would not have become “friends”with our coworkers if we met them in different settings. Yet because of our circumstances, we need to become community. As Vanier states, If we enter community because of our own choice, we will stay there only if we become more aware that it was in fact God who chose us for this community. It is only then that we will find the inner strength to live through times of turmoil. (p. 44, emphasis mine)

Community is the breaking down of barriers that close us off from one another and an embracing of others different from us while growing in love, compassion and humility.We bring our own history of being accepted or rejected, our own past histories and inner pain. Each of us is different, but in each one there is a yearning for communion and belonging, but at the same time a fear of it.  Love is what we most want, yet it is what we fear the most. (p. 14)

A healthy community cares not just for the “whole” but for the individuals, the people within the community. It is within this structure that we see personal growth. People in healthy community can be vulnerable and humble, growing in love because they are listening to one another and to God. I appreciated that he pointed out that even in a context of transparency and vulnerability it is still possible (and wise, in some cases) to keep our deepest personal secrets and experience the ongoing work of God in our individual lives.

Community reveals where we are weak, difficult to get along with others, have emotional and mental blocks, appetites for things not good, and our frustrations, jealousies, hatred.  While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are. (p.26) The wounds we carry inside of us can become the place of meeting with God and with our brothers and sisters. Community life with all its difficulties is a special place of growth.

Vanier talks about there always being people within communities with whom we won’t agree, who block us, who contradict us, who stifle us. There will be people who always seem to bring out the worst behavior in us. But in community we are called to discover that the ‘enemy’ is a person in pain and that through the ‘enemy’ we are being asked to become aware of our own weakness, lack of maturity and inner poverty. Perhaps it is this we refuse to look at. The faults we criticize in others are often the ones we refuse to face in ourselves. (p. 34, emphasis mine) With “interpersonal relationship issues” being a major factor in missionary attrition, I look forward to reading more in the book for his suggestions on how to work through this.

Along with community revealing the enemy inside us, we also see that when we accept our own weaknesses and receive the forgiveness of God and are growing in our inner selves, we can accept the weaknesses and flaws of others. They are also forgiven by God and are growing in their journey. Life in community implies a cross, a constant effort, an acceptance which is daily, and mutual forgiveness. …  To forgive is also to understand the cry behind the behavior. (p. 37)

Community is not about perfect people. It is a people who are committed to one another , each of whom is a mixture of  good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate. It is a place where each one can grow as they experience forgiveness, and that doesn’t happen unless they are free to be who they actually are.  I love this quote from Therese of Lisieux:

perfect love means putting up with other people’s short comings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them. (quoted on p. 43)

Vanier strongly stated we should stop looking for the ideal community. Instead  we should give ourselves where we are. Ask how you can better love your brothers an sisters. Then you will find peace…Stop seeing flaws and thank God there are some! Look rather at your own defects and know you are forgiven and can, in your turn, forgive others and today enter into the conversion of love, and remember, pray always. (p. 46, 47)

Community is a living body. We have read the Apostle Paul’s teaching on us being many members in one body, having different roles to play, and different gifts to use (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). Vanier says that if we are not faithful to use our gifts, we are harming the community.  He states that communities that try to make their members look all alike deform them. Instead, as each person grows in the gifts they’ve been given to build the community, they make it more beautiful, more radiant, a clearer sign of the Kingdom. (p. 51)

As Vanier closes the first chapter, he reminds us that Jesus prayed that his people be one as he and his Father are one. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23  Each community should be working towards this union. But it can only reach it in and through the Holy Spirit. As long as we live, all we can do is walk humbly towards it. (p. 57, emphasis mine)

This has been a good reminder of the grace and mercy of God as expressed in the lives of his people who are growing to reflect him through the process of living in community together. As a Member Care provider, I hope I encourage others to look at widely at where God has placed them and see where he is showing them his great love in the middle of challenges of life.

I especially appreciated that in the midst of all this talk of loving others and accepting them for who they are, Vanier included this great description of the importance of self-care!

But to be good instruments of God’s love we must avoid being over-tired, burnt-out, stressed, aggressive, fragmented or closed up. We need to be rested, centered, peaceful, aware of the needs of our body, our heart and our spirit. Jesus says that there is no greater love than to give our lives, but let us not give over-tired, stressed and aggressive lives. Let us, rather, give joyful ones! (p. 47)

(c) 2013. Faith De La Cour

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Preparing for Retirement

Many of us look at being a missionary as an ongoing expression of the lifelong call of God.  Even within this context we need to be thinking and begin preparing for the time we retire from the mission field.

Be prepared financially

We may have well-structured retirement savings plans or we may not have saved and are fearful as we face the future.  It is wise to be educated and plan for your financial future. Exploring this while you are still young is helpful, and certainly if you are near retirement you need to know. Your mission may have financial advisers to help you review your situation and there are online resources designed to help you estimate retirement income based on what you’ve saved thus far.

If you are expecting churches to continue to send you support to you through retirement, check on their current policies. You may be surprised to discover that many churches no longer give support to retired missionaries.

Be prepared emotionally

Preparing for retirement is more than finances. Because of our missionary lifestyle, some of the planning will require imagining and investigating options well in advance, taking advantage of home assignment experiences to narrow down answers to some of these questions.


  • What will I do when I retire?  Retirement offers opportunities to reinvent yourself through an “encore career,” volunteer work, developing a hobby, mentoring or coaching.  You might choose to “test-drive” some these options while you are still in full-time ministry through seminars, courses, and vacations with a purpose.
  • How does my spouse feel about our future? Explore together what you want to do in the retirement years.  If there are fractures in your marriage relationship, work at mending them or they will probably only grow wider when you retire.
  • What do I need to do to finish well here? Ask God to guide you to a transition plan including people to train and mentor, as well as relationships to mend.  Begin down-sizing your personal belongings.
  • Where will I live? After years away you may return to your home country with fewer ties to one geographic location. Adult children may be scattered across the world, and transient. Housing costs may make some places unaffordable. Some settle in missionary retirement communities.
  • Who will be my community? Make efforts now to cultivate friendships through spending time in your target retirement area on a home assignment prior to your transition.
  • How will I readjust to life in my home country? One study labels the year following retirement as “Realization.” Making a cross-cultural move back to your home country may extend the time of that first season to 5 or more years.  Expect and accept this.

What if I don’t have a mandatory retirement date? Establish benchmarks to help you recognize when the time is right for you. It is better to choose to retire before you have no choice but to do so. Consider your physical, spiritual, relational, emotional and mental health status.  Increased levels of dependency on others for help with day-to-day activities and crisis should be a red flag.

Retirement doesn’t change the call of God on our lives—but we are responsible to make decisions that enable us to finish the race well.

(c) 2013. Faith De La Cour

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Needs Assessments while developing a Member Care Program

Perhaps you have been tasked by your organization to develop a member care program.  How do you figure out what is needed?

Dr. Laurie Gardner of Wycliffe wrote “A Proposal for Member Care in Missions” in 1998 that has served as a template for many who are putting together a Member Care Plan.  She has generously made her work available to non-profit organizations to use.

Needs Assessment

Gardner suggests that a “Five-By-Five Plan” serves as a place to begin.  These are five questions each requires five answers:

  1. What are the five greatest needs of our organization?
  2. What are the five most vulnerable populations within our organization?
  3. What are the five most likely events to happen to some of our members within the next year?
  4. What are the five best strategies to begin to meet some of these needs?
  5. What are the five most basic resources we need in order to begin to care well for our members?

The answers are discovered through use of extensive questionnaires (including a “Continuum of Care” and “Member Care Assessment Tool” which are available upon request) and personal interviews with current members of your organization.

Organizational Decisions

Once the needs assessment is completed, you need to define what your organization is capable of offering. What are the appropriate, legitimate needs of support that can be placed on the resources of our mission? Who do you have on the field with skills and experience that could be trained to serve as a Member Care Facilitator (MCF)? Will this role be filled by one or more persons? What outside resources can you utilize to meet some of the needs?

Decisions need to be made about information management and confidentiality issues. Where will this person be placed in the mission, and to whom does the Member Care Facilitator report?  How will this position be funded? Will there be money for travel to visit field missionaries?  Will there be funds available for training for the MCF?

Start Small and be Proactive

It is tempting to want to develop a big program that meets all the needs that have been discovered through the needs assessment process—but that would be a recipe for failure. As you understand what you able to offer and what your organization can afford, choose prayerfully the one or two issues that you can address within your capacity.

Member Care isn’t always addressing problems.  Some of the best Member Care services are those that help encourage spiritual vitality, emotional stability and lifelong development so that your missionary personnel are able to thrive in life and effectively participate in the stated mission of your organization.

An abbreviated selection of Foundational Books that help shape a Member Care Program

Missionary Care, Counting the Cost for World Evangelization, Kelly O’Donnell, ed.; Pasadena, CA, William Carey Library.    1998 *

Doing Member Care Well, Kelly O’Donnell ed.; Pasadena, CA, William Carey Library.    2002 *

Enhancing Missionary Vitality, J. Powell, J. M. Bowers, ed.; Palmer Lake, CO, Mission Training International.    2002

Global Servants: Cross-Cultural Humanitarian Heroes Volume I. Formation and Development of These Heroes and Volume II. 12 Factors in Effectiveness and Longevity,  Drs L. Dodds, L. Gardner; Fresno, CA, Condeo Press, 2010 **


*free downloadable versions or excerpts can be found online

** downloadable versions are found at, and kindle versions are available from

Training programs for MC Facilitators

In addition to a few graduate programs in Member Care, there are several training programs available for Member Care Facilitators. Among them are:

Heartstream Resources<> offers a two-week training program  on the foundations of Member Care and implementing Member Care in Pennsylvania.

Narramore Christian Foundation “Counseling and Member Care Seminar” is offered in Thailand in October of each year.

(c) 2102. Faith De La Cour

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What is Member Care?

What is Member Care?

The WEA Global Member Care Network wrote this is definition of Member Care in March, 2008:

Member Care is…the ongoing preparation, equipping and empowering of missionaries for effective and sustainable life, ministry and work.

An older but comprehensive definition was written by Dr. Laura Mae Gardner and Richard Gardner of Wycliffe Bible Translators:

Member Care is an organizational ethos, a pervasive awareness of and commitment to care for one another, a commitment that impacts time use, interpersonal relationships, policies and legislation, proportion of funds and services—care of members and children, employees, visitors and short-term helpers—so human need is acknowledged while at the same time accountable and responsible attention is given to task, product and goals.

Both definitions paint a broad picture of Member Care as encompassing not just the time a person is on the field, but including care given from the sending office beginning with screening and pre-field training through end of service or retirement. The ultimate outcome is effectiveness in life and ministry, while achieving the goals of the organization.

A Model for Member Care

A comprehensive model for member care is found in Doing Member Care Well edited by Kelly O’Donnell. The flow of care is initiated by both oneself and others, and it is always a two-way street. It is not something that the mission organization does FOR me, without my participation.


The “heart” of member care is an individual’s relationship with the Lord. Care for oneself and one another within our mission community forms the “backbone” of member care. An important question to ask within your organization is “how do we demonstrate care for each other?” If there isn’t an ethos of commitment toward one another, organization member care services will be harder to implement.


Sending organizations (both churches and mission agencies) sustain member care by making a commitment to care for their missionaries from recruitment through retirement. This is done through the appointment of on-field Member Care Facilitators, a task force or team, or an entire department of specially trained personnel. Rarely are these filled by professional counselors, however, training programs are available to learn the skills used in these positions.


There are times when specialist care is needed. This can be provided by qualified pastoral care givers, medical professionals, team building and interpersonal care trainers, advisors for families and third-culture kids (TCK’s), financial, logistical, crisis and contingency specialists, and trained counselors and psychologists. The work of specialists encompasses prevention, development, support, and restoration. Sometimes this care is provided by persons within an organization, but often it is contracted from the outside.


There are member care networks that serve as catalysts, consultants, resources and service providers. In April, 2012 thethe First Global Member Care Network was held on the theme: “Global Voices on Global Challenges” in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The presenters were a “who’s who” of the Member Care world. More information can be found at


If you have been tasked with starting member care in your organization, spend some time looking at what is happening currently in your field missionaries. How is their relationship with the Lord? How are people caring for themselves? How are people demonstrating care for one another? What are some ways you all can grow in self-care and mutual care?

In another blog we’ll look at assessment questions that can help to focus next steps for your member care program.

(c) 2012. Faith De La Cour
Kelly O’Donnell, ed., Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from Around the World. (Pasadena, CA, USA: William Carey Library 2002)

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Burn Out

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Over the previous two years we had moved twice, experienced the death of parents, and continued to deal with some chronic family issues.  I also took on extra responsibilities in our mission, and started a graduate program. But in the days following the March 11, 2011 earthquake, while I felt I should be part of the first-responder team, I was overwhelmed with a sense of paralysis and a desire to withdraw.

I was confused at my reaction, until I read an article on Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.  The first question in their list was, “what was going on in your life emotionally before this event?”  The build-up of transition, loss, and emotional exhaustion, along with unrealistic expectations of myself was tipping me toward burnout.  I’m guessing that I wasn’t alone among my missionary colleagues here in Japan. Burnout is not uncommon in ministry professions. “The values inherent in ministry are for self-giving, sacrifice, working for change in the self, others and the social context. In a sense, these are dangerous values, ‘setting up’ the opportunities for failure and burnout” (Dodds)

Dr. Archibald Hart writes that a pattern of emotional overload with little reward or appreciation in the context of feelings helpless is at the heart of the burnout syndrome. This is sometimes called compassion fatigue. We discover that we have limits, and when those are exceeded, the price is “burnout.”  Rather than seeing this as a sign of failure in ourselves, we need to see it as a warning signal that we are over-extended.

Many of us experienced stress living in the post-earthquake and tsunami time.  Some of us were heading toward “burnout.”  What is the difference?  Dr. Archibald Hart, in his article, “Burnout: Prevention and Cure” describes the essential difference between these two.


Characterized by disengagement Emotions become blunted
Emotional damage is primary
Exhaustion affects motivation and drive
Produces demoralization
Best understood as loss of ideals and hope
Related depression caused by grief of lost ideals and hope
Produces a sense of helplessness and hopelessness
Produces paranoia, de-personalization and detachment
May never kill you, but your long life may not seem worth living


Characterized by over engagement Emotions become over-reactive
Physical damage is primary
Exhaustion affects physical energy
Produces disintegration
Best understood as a loss of fuel and energy
Related depression caused by adrenal exhaustion and the body’s need for self-protection and conservation of energy
Produces a sense of urgency and hyperactivity
Produces panic, phobia and anxiety-type disorders.
May kill you prematurely and you won’t finish what you started.

      Ron Koteskey says that burnout is the result of continual stress over a long period of time rather than great stress over a short one.  He also says that missionaries who burn out to the point that they actually leave the field are unlikely to return.  So becoming aware of burnout before it gets to that stage is important!

Acknowledging the problem is the best place to start.  Dr. Hart tells us not fear the cure of our burnout, but to pray for the wisdom and courage we need to align our life with God’s purpose and plan.  Learning some coping techniques to make changes in the circumstances of the burnout are helpful.  Set realistic goals for ministry, and clarify the expectations others have of us.  Focus our roles.  Learn to relax, get exercise and proper rest.  Slow down. Learn constructive ways of dealing with your anger.  He says wherever possible, we shouldn’t hesitate to seek  the counsel of a competent professional.

Koteskey urges us to take breaks, take a Sabbath, and take vacations.  He also encourages us not to take things personally, leave our work at work, learn to laugh at ourselves, and have a support group.

Burnout has the potential to be traumatic and devastating, but it is also a tool that God uses to mold us and transform us into the likeness of Christ.  For some of us, it may be the only way that God can get our attention!

©2012 Faith De La Cour.

A version of this article appeared in the Japan Harvest Magazine, Spring, 2011


“Burnout: Prevention and Cure” Dr. Archibald D. Hart (undated) Retrieved March 11, 2011, from

“What Missionaries Ought to Know about Burnout” Ronald L. Koteskey (undated) Retrieved March 11, 2011 from

“Stressed from Core to Cosmos: Issues and needs arising from cross-cultural ministry” Larry A. Dodds and Lois E Dodds. (1997) Retrieved March 11, 2011 from

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