‘I can’t plan due to all the uncertainty! I don’t know if and when we can return to Peru’, exclaimed Simone*, who is talking to Liz*, her member care worker. Simone, her husband and their four children, have been back in Australia for over a year and were due for return to Peru months ago.
How would you respond?
Liz is currently meeting with many other cross-cultural workers who are also struggling with significant uncertainty. Some are overseas and don’t know if and when they can return to Australia. Others like Simone and her family, are stuck in Australia and don’t know if and when they can get to location. Some cope but others don’t cope well.
Many cross-cultural workers are living with significant uncertainty and a loss of a sense of control due to the effects of the COVID pandemic. Often cross-cultural workers’ plans have been changed multiple times due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, requiring much pivoting. This pivoting is tiring. Grief about thwarted plans is real.
Often cross-cultural workers are facing multiple challenges all at once, which can feel overwhelming. When people feel overwhelmed it can cause inertia. At such times, coping and finding solutions feels more difficult.
Why do some cross-cultural workers cope better than others?
Implementing healthy self-care and stress management strategies is important during times of adversity. However, as Dyer points out, simply ramping these up isn’t enough. What is required is resilience!
Resilience has a variety of definitions, each bringing a different perspective. Timmins (2017: 26) defines resilience as ‘the ability to make the best of any situation’. O’Donnell and O’Donnell (2013) state that resilient people have ‘the ability to face reality: to engage with and grow through life’s challenges and adversities via inner strength, social support, coping skills, and core beliefs/values including life purpose and spiritual meaning’. Carr’s description is specifically Christian.
Resilience is having strength to fulfil the call God has given us, even when it will be painful and difficult. Resilience is staying fixed on a higher purpose, motivated by love of God, our neighbour, and the world, and supported by friends while others let us down, we are carried by the one who called us.Carr (2012: 93)
What about cross-cultural workers who aren’t very resilient? Can they improve their resilience?
Resilience can be learned and developed. Evans (2016: 3) states that ‘resilience is both an innate quality and a learned skill’. Hawker (2019: 8) argues that resilience is not static throughout our lifetime; ‘it can be depleted, but it can also be maintained, developed and enhanced’.
Is Simone living with a sense of meaning and purpose?
A sense of meaning and purpose is vital for resilience. Dyer (2020) writes, ‘One of the primary elements of resilience is for a person to maintain a deep sense of identity and purpose when this is challenged by adversity’. It is important that cross-cultural workers have a clear sense of purpose when many aspects of their life and work have changed. Core values, beliefs viewed as being of central importance, bring about this sense of meaning and purpose.
Understanding what is most important to you – your core values – keeps you from losing your way in the process of change. Change can quickly lead you in the wrong direction if you let it pull you away from these values… Being intentionally adaptable means reinventing yourself on your own terms.Brown (2021)
It is easy for cross-cultural workers to drift from living according to their core values when many changes have occurred to their life and work. I am reminded of a friend’s story of his sister-in-law who was learning to windsurf during a beach holiday. She was so focused on pulling the sail out of the water, balancing, falling in the water and then getting herself on the board again, she didn’t notice that she’d drifted some distance from the shore. She had to be rescued! Drifting from our core values causes dis-alignment with identity and can lead to a lack of clarity and fulfilment.
What are Simone’s core values? What gives her life meaning and purpose?
It is important that cross-cultural workers identify their core values. As Christians, these come from our relationship with God.
True spirituality is a live, continuous, personal relationship with the creator God that fulfils my deepest human longings for inward and outward peace and gives me meaning and purpose for everyday life… True spirituality is discovered in human relationships built on the foundation of a relationship with God.Amalraj (2018)
A sense of call, or partnership with God in service, provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Research has demonstrated the importance of a sense of call for resilience in cross-cultural workers (Brown, 2006). While there are different theological understandings of calling, Dallman’s (2021: 45) research among cross-cultural workers in Japan confirms that ‘knowing you are where God wants you to be and doing what God wants you to do’ is important for resilience. Whatever their theology is, all Christians are called to ‘trust in God and to partner with God in serving him, his kingdom and his people… even though lots of the context for this might be in flux or under threat’ (Dyer, 2020).
For cross-cultural workers, the call to be a servant of others with whatever gifts and skills God has given them, holds them steady (Dyer, 2020).
Our relationship with God is foundational for resilience. Hay et al. (2007: 24-5), who surveyed thousands of cross-cultural workers worldwide, found that a good spiritual life is amongst the top three retention factors. Meek (2003: 344) found that resilient pastors spoke about the importance of a daily connection with God through spiritual practices and ‘their utter reliance on the power and presence of God to fulfil their responsibilities’. Spiritual practices, including daily thankfulness, enable cross-cultural workers to nurture their relationship with God (more practices are set out in the Dried up blog post).
As well as the dangers of drifting, the way cross-cultural workers tackle challenges is also important.
Is Simone cultivating a positive challenge orientation?
One feature common to resilient cross-cultural workers is a positive challenge orientation. Marjorie Foyle (2001: 28, 279) writes that workers with this orientation view stressful situations as both a challenge and an opportunity, rather than as a threat. An important aspect of coping during adversity is to focus on the helpful things that can be done, or sources of assistance, rather than on how bad, unfair and disappointing the multiple problems are (This Way Up – Focusing On Solutions, 2020). Dyer (2020) writes that resilient workers believe that God can help them to overcome obstacles and blockages, as well as, that gains may be achieved through the crisis. Adversity brings opportunity for personal growth.
Innovation often emerges during adversity. A cross-cultural worker’s reinvention of themselves may produce beneficial results in the long-term, continuing after the pandemic ends. For example, Ma (2021: 17) argues that some evacuated cross-cultural workers pivoted to continue their work online, providing greater scope for serving in their previous location.
What are the unexpected opportunities emerging in the current adversity? What can be gained in the long-term from embracing these?
Is Simone exercising control?
A sense of control is important for resilience. Foyle (2001: 28) writes that situations in which we lack personal control are much more stressful than those in which we have some control. Dyer (2020) writes that ‘resilience is associated with the ability to establish structure, systematically plan and execute a course of action’. This skill can be learned and continue to be developed. The COVID pandemic has provided much challenge to cross-cultural workers’ established structures, plans and execution of them; and adversely affected their sense of control.
Resilient people can identify what aspects of a situation are within their control and those that are not. Once this is achieved, they can schedule a plan which will make a positive difference in their situation.
Routines are important during adversity. Wright (This Way Up – Routines, 2020) argues that routines can help people cope when life is uncertain; they can help people feel more in control when life seems rather out of control. Dyer (2020) also writes that ‘redeveloping a routine, both daily and weekly, provides structure to life and will provide greater resilience in the midst of adversity’.
If these routines include plans to create opportunities to experience positive emotions, even for only a few minutes, more to the good (This Way Up – Tips, 2020). Psychologists recommend planning at least one activity that is fun, pleasurable or relaxing everyday, as well as, one that gives you a sense of productivity, achievement, meaning or satisfaction (This Way Up – Tips, 2020).
Is Simone planning fun and productive activities each day?
Does Simone have supportive relationships? Is she tackling challenges step-by-step?
Resilient people have a supportive community. A clearly identified aspect of resilience is that ‘people gain emotional support and valuable ideas from discussing and reflecting with others’ (Dyer, 2020). Dallman (2021: 51) also found that community is important for resilience in cross-cultural workers in Japan.
One way to manage how we feel is to practice shifting our minds away from every problem that might need our attention (both now and in the future) and to focus on tackling one issue at a time.This Way Up – Tips… (2020)
Many cross-cultural workers are feeling overwhelmed. Dyer (2020) suggests lowering expectations, and planning a couple of small achievable goals each day, during adversity.
It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding. (Read more about our use of the Bible in the Theological Reflection Cycle blog post.)
A story to consider
Nehemiah, part of the exilic community, is the wine taster for King Artaxerxes. In Jerusalem, the temple has been rebuilt, but the towns walls are broken and the gates have been burned (Nehemiah 1:3). When Nehemiah hears the news of this threat to the community in Judah, he is greatly distressed. He pours out his grief to God and concludes his prayer by asking God to grant him success in his request to King Artaxerxes to be part of the solution. He asks King Artaxerxes:
Let me go to the city of Jerusalem. That’s where my people are buried. I want to rebuild it.Nehemiah 2:5
Nehemiah demonstrates a sense of identity as one of God’s people, as well as a sense of purpose and meaning as the leader of the project to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.
Once he arrives in Jerusalem, he assesses the situation and then speaks to the community.
“You can see the trouble we’re in. Jerusalem has been destroyed. Fire has burned up its gates. Come on. Let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Then people won’t be ashamed anymore.” I also told them how my gracious God was helping me…
They replied, “Let’s start rebuilding.” So they began that good work.Nehemiah 2:17-18
Gates are built one by one, and the walls are built section by section. Little by little progress is made. However, during the building project opposition kept coming in waves. After one such wave, Nehemiah reassesses the situation:
I looked things over. Then I stood up and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people. I said, “Don’t be afraid of your enemies. Remember the Lord. He is great and powerful…”
Our enemies heard that we knew what they were trying to do. They heard that God had blocked their evil plans. So all of us returned to the wall. Each of us did our own work.
From that day on, half of my men did the work. The other half were given spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers stationed themselves behind all the people of Judah. The people continued to build the wall. The people who carried supplies did their work with one hand. They held a weapon in the other hand. Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who blew the trumpet stayed with me.
Then I spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people. I said, “This is a big job. It covers a lot of territory. We’re separated too far from one another along the wall. When you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us at that location. Our God will fight for us!”
So we continued the work…Nehemiah 4:16-21
Despite repeated opposition and distractions, Nehemiah kept focus on his main purpose, building the wall.
Nehemiah pivots, remains flexible and adapts his plans to face the new challenges. He exercises control as able, organising a schedule to provide defence against an imminent attack.
Nehemiah relies on God when threatened from within and without. He prays when there is exploitation within the community (5:19) and when there are threats from outside (2:2-4; 4:4-5). Finally, the wall is completed (6:15).
What happened? How could Simone be cared for?
Significant listening is always vital in member care encounters (read more about good listening in the Listening well blog post). In addition, Liz could provide validation, normalisation and reassurance to Simone.
Validation enables people to feel heard and understood. Validation involves listening to the person and ‘acknowledging how that person’s emotions or responses make sense given what’s going on for them’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). For example, Liz could say, ‘I totally get why you’re feeling frustrated’. Validation is one of the most effective ways to support another person (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Validation doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with the person or that you would feel the same in their situation; it is about ‘acknowledging that their emotions are logical, reasonable, and valid for them – that they make sense in the context in which they are felt’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Validation is similar to normalisation which was focused on in The New Normal blog post.
Normalisation refers to ‘an activity in which something in the interaction is made normal by labelling it ‘normal’ or ‘commonplace’ (Svinhufvud et al., 2017: 196). While the purpose of validation ‘is to honor the client’s perspective as appropriate for the client’, normalising can be ‘useful in instances when the client considers his or her condition or symptoms as unique, atypical, or perhaps distressingly abnormal’ (Knapp, 2015: 99). If Simone expressed any sense of feeling abnormal, Liz could say, “That sounds perfectly normal to me, given your situation!”
Reassurance, or helping someone ease their doubts and fears also provides effective member care. It can involve facilitating a cross-cultural worker to view their situation from a different point of view – perhaps a more realistic or positive perspective, or reminding them of their strengths (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9). In this case, a more realistic or positive perspective on Simone’s situation might be offered, or Simone could be reminded of her strengths.
It is important to be wary of rushing this process of validation, normalisation and ressurance. If member care workers are in a rush to help cross-cultural workers feel better, this can come across as if they aren’t being listening to (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9). Psychologists recommend that we try to avoid cheering people up too soon and instead, try to empathise with them. It often helps to imagine what you’d like to hear, if you were in their shoes.
After listening and any validation, normalisation and reassurance that was appropriate, Liz could ask Simone, “What are your core values? What gives your life meaning and purpose?”
If there is a lack of clarity, Liz could suggest that Simone utilise prayer, journaling and discussion with supportive friends, to facilitate reflection on her core values. Achieving clarity may facilitate Simone keeping focus and reinventing herself in line with those values, just as Nehemiah did.
Other possible questions include:
- How can you serve others in the situation you find yourself in?
- What benefits have emerged during this adversity?
- What routines have you implemented? Have you included fun activities, as well as ones that provide a sense of productivity?
- What social supports do you have?
Liz might gently ask “Where is God in all this?“
If it were appropriate, she might suggest that Simone try out some new spiritual habits for spiritual refreshment and to encourage Simone to rely on God, just as Nehemiah did (further ideas are set out in the Dried up blog post). Liz could recommend the Serenity Prayer as a devotional tool (below). Praying and meditating on this prayer can be fruitful during adversity. Focusing on one line per month can give even greater traction.
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Dyer, T. (2020) ‘10 components of resilience in ministry as we face COVID19’, Australian Christian Mentoring Network, 17 April. Available at: http://www.mentoringnetwork.org.au/2020/04/17/10-components-of-resilience-in-ministry-as-we-face-covid19/#more-3561.
Amalraj, K.J. (2018) ‘What Shapes Our Spirituality in Missions?’, in Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series).
Brown, G.S. (2021) ‘The Secret to Better Flexibility in Every Area of Your Life’, Australian Men’s Health, 11 October.
Brown, R. (2006) ‘Preparing for the Realities of Missions in a Changing World’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 42(4).
Carr, K. (2012) ‘Personal Resilience’, in Schaefer, F. and Schaefer, C. (eds) Trauma and Resilience. Condeo.
Dallman, J. (2021) Staying Well: Highlighting Hazards, Highlighting Health for Missionaries in Japan.
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Foyle, M.F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.
Hay, R. et al. (2007) Worth Keeping:Global Perspectives on Best Practices in Missionary Retention. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.
Horshall, T. and Hawker, D. (2019) Resilience in Life and Faith: Finding Your Strength in God. Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship.
How Routines Can Positively Affect Your Mental Health (2021) This Way Up. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/how-routines-can-positively-affect-your-mental-health/.
‘Knowing What to Say: During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Knowing-What-to-Say.pdf.
Ma, J. (2021) ‘When Missionaries Are Locked Out of Their Fields’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 57(3), pp. 16–18.
Meek, K.R. et al. (2003) ‘Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned from Evangelical Protestant Clergy’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31(4), pp. 339–347.
O’Donnell, K. and O’Donnell, M.L. (eds) (2013) ‘Resilience, Risk and Responsibility’, in Global Member Care: Crossing Sectors for Serving Humanity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, pp. 335–344.
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Timmins, S. (2017) Developing Resilience in Young People with Autism using Social Stories. London: Jessica Kingsley.
‘Tips for Getting Through: The COVID-19 Marathon’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Tips-for-Getting-Through-the-COVID-19-Marathon.pdf.