The Blame game

Looking under the surface

Imagine if your husband’s burning desire all his life was to be a missionary! What if, because you became unwell – your whole family had to return to Australia? How would you deal with that?

Who is to blame? How can we as member care workers care for them?

John* had always wanted to be a missionary.  He was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Ethiopia* where his parents had served.   John married Tanya* and then they both prepared to serve long-term by acquiring qualifications and professional experience that could be readily applied in developing countries.  They also attended Bible college and had a couple of children.  An opening for a position in Ethiopia came up and they were super excited to be returning to John’s childhood location.  As they set off, the family enjoyed the enthusiastic endorsement and support of their church community.  Despite this promising beginning, they returned to Australia prematurely. 

Ethiopia is a poor and unstable country.   John found serving cross culturally was not as straightforward as he had hoped and imagined.  His national colleagues found him to be patient and considerate.  After settling in the family, Tanya began working in her profession part-time. Visitors reported that the children weren’t doing all that well, with one hypothesising that this was because they stood out like a sore thumb as ‘blondies’.  After a few years in Ethiopia, Tanya became anxious and depressed. For her sake their missionary career was brought to an end.

After their return to Australia, John was careful to shield Tanya from criticism and never blamed her. However, Tanya blamed herself for ruining John’s dreams. There was no escaping the narrative that she was the ‘weak link’ who had cracked up and been responsible for their return.  People in their community were saying,  “Isn’t it a pity he married the wrong person?” 


A group of member care workers discussed the family…

Tanya may have had a tendency towards anxiety and depression

Tanya may have been overworked or too busy

Tanya may have been too busy entertaining visitors

It can’t be John’s fault because he’s really supportive of Tanya

Member Care Workers’ suggestions, 2019

What expectations did they have when they arrived in Ethiopia?

Realistic expectations about what will be encountered are the most important factors in adaptation. The closer the sojourners’ expectations about all aspects of their new life and job (social, economic, personal) approximate to reality, the happier they will be and the easier the adjustment.

Furnham, 2019

It seems that there were unmet expectations for John.  He may have had a romanticised view of mission work.  Maybe he had expectations arising from his childhood experience?  The context may have changed significantly since he was there as a child.  He may have idealised his childhood experience, or his experience may just be different as an adult.  A child’s experience of a culture often differs significantly from an adult’s experience. Children can be protected from exposure to certain elements of the culture by their parents or by society at large.

Unmet expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration or anger. When there is a gap between the imagined and the reality, this will inevitably produce an effect.  However, colleagues found him to be patient and considerate, so, his frustration was not being expressed at work.  Where was it expressed?

Root cause

A system is represented by a circle. In this case the system problem resulted in a volcanic eruption…


A system is an entity … made up of a set of units (a group of people) and the interrelationships between them … In a healthy system, perceived failure in one person is accepted as a systems responsibility, which may be pointing to a systems failure. 

Donovan and Myors, 2002

Member care workers need a systems approach when caring for cross-cultural workers. Just as a fire alarm indicates the presence of a fire, so too can one member of a family with a ‘problem’ be an expression of a broader problem within the family. Therefore, when a family has a child who is self-harming, we need to focus on the whole family, not just the child. Bowen Family Systems Theory is a significant influence in family therapy. It focuses

on patterns that develop in families in order to defuse anxiety…  The degree of anxiety in any one family will be determined by the current levels of external stress and the sensitivities to particular themes that have been transmitted down the generations. If family members do not have the capacity to think through their responses to relationship dilemmas, but rather react anxiously to perceived emotional demands, a state of chronic anxiety or reactivity may be set in place.    

Brown, 1999

Since a perceived ‘failure’ of one member of the family is understood as a family system ‘failure’, it is important to resist the tendency to focus on the individual with ‘the problem’. 

If we are from a culture which has more of an individualistic cultural orientation, it is particularly challenging to step out of our individualistic approach and focus on the family as a community. Many Western societies have more of an individualistic cultural orientation and thus, Western member care workers tend to focus on the individual with ‘the problem’ within a system (Hofstede, 2010). Cultures with a more collectivist cultural orientation are societies in which people are more strongly integrated into groups. Member care workers with more of a collectivist cultural orientation may function more easily using a systems approach (Hofstede, 2011).

Sending and partner organisations will also be more effective in their member care provision if they work with the whole system, rather than focusing on the ‘problem’ person.

… when a missionary leaves field ministry before the expected time, how do organisations respond? How much attention, in fact, is given to the possibility of failure on the part of the organisation? Often… rather than evaluate and admit our organisational guilt or ineptitude, we mission leaders abdicate our responsibility and too easily write off the individual as somehow not having measured up.

Donovan and Myors, 2002

Inadequate training, screening and inappropriate job allocation, inadequate support including mentoring and evaluation, are all common examples of systemic abuse. Donovan and Myors propose that misuse of missionaries or systemic abuse, is a common cause of attrition.

There are elements of the selection process and training of Tanya and John that might have assisted to prevent this scenario occurring, or at least have reduced its impact.  As agencies and churches, we can care for cross-cultural workers and families by asking about their expectations when we recruit them.  Cross-cultural workers need training to encourage the development of more realistic expectations, particularly if they are significantly unrealistic (Koteskey, 2020).

Member care workers visiting families in location could ask cross-cultural workers about their unmet expectations. If this occurs, problems may be nipped in the bud.

It is worth the member care worker asking, “Is there emotional or other types of abuse occurring in this relationship?” It is difficult for the victim, the member care workers and even the perpetrator, to identify emotional abuse. However, a psychologist, or counsellor, with appropriate training can identify whether this is an issue. More information about this issue can be found at

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

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’

Genesis 45:4-11

Joseph had many difficult experiences after his brothers sold him into slavery, including imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit.   And yet, here Joseph firmly proclaims God’s control over all aspects of his life in Egypt and prior to.  For those doubting God’s sovereignty, the story of Joseph, with all its ups and downs, can be a great comfort. 

What happened? How was this family cared for?

The significant impact of John’s frustration went undetected because the member care workers focused on Tanya. By focusing on caring for Tanya, they may have inadvertently increased Tanya’s sense of being the ‘weak link’.

How was this family cared for?

In addition to the usual followup provided by their church and agency during re-entry, this couple needed professional help. Tanya and John were encouraged by Jane (their member care worker) to go to a psychologist or counsellor with appropriate experience and this needed to be funded by the agency or church. Jane also organised appropriate support for the children.

Fortunately, there was no abuse identified when the psychologist worked with Tanya and John.  It seemed that John’s work stresses had been expressed at home through lengthy complaining to Tanya about his workplace frustrations.  Tanya had listened patiently to John which alleviated his stress, but she in turn, didn’t have an outlet to express hers.

The psychologist and Jane sought to bring relief to Tanya by facilitating her understanding that an individual with a problem is often an expression of a systemic issue, whether family, or organisational, or both.  A new perspective may mean that Tanya can stop blaming herself.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty could be also be helpful.  At an appropriate time, Jane suggested to Tanya and John that they might find the story of Joseph a comfort.

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.


Thank you to Megan Withers for her editorial assistance in writing this blog post.


Brown, J. (1999) ‘Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Critique’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 20(2). Available at:

Donovan, K. and Myors, R. (2002) ‘Reinventing Missionary Committment’, in O’Donnell, K. (ed.) Doing Member Care Well: Perspectves and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey (Globalization of Mission Series).

Goldenberg, I., Stanton, M. and Goldenberg, H. (2016) Family therapy: An overview. 9th edn. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Hofstede, G. (2011) Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context, Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, Unit 2. Available at:

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J. and Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

Koteskey, R. L. (2020) What Missionaries Ought to know about Expectations, Missionary Care: Missions and Mental Health Resources from Ron and Bonnie Koteskey. Available at:

McKaughan, P. (1997) ‘Missionary attrition: Defining the problem’, in Taylor, W. (ed.) Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, pp. 15–24.