Last month I attended the Second South Pacific Membercare Conference. A conference for all those involved in missionary care in Australia, New Zealand and across the pacific. I have spent a lot of time over the last 7 years reflecting on member care and I was somewhat disappointed at the level of conversation and engagement at the conference. There were a number of conversations that I thought we should have been having (after all we only get together once ever two years!), that didn’t happen. Conversations about the vision for the future of member care, conversations about the challenges ahead and where member care workers and indeed member care as a profession needs to step up, to up skill and to develop further as a profession.
For New Zealand to lead the way in member care there are six core conversations that we need to hold. This week we look at the second conversation, a conversation about becoming proactive.
Membercare came into existence because there was an awareness that mission work and cross-cultural living is difficult and stressful and that our workers needed extra support and help to cope with those struggles. That is all true and it is a very good thing that member care was formed. Support, counselling and care were and are much needed and are good things for us to be doing.
However, it means that the very origins of member care formed the work as primarily responsive. It seems that as we think about the future for member care we think the answer to all challenges is to have more member care workers and to have more member care workers closer to where our missionaries are serving. This, however, isn’t the whole answer part of the answer must be to move out of a continually responsive mode and move into taking a more proactive stance in promoting worker wellness. Of course, we still need to be there to provide care and support to those who struggle. But we also need to add to our member care repertoire proactive practices that increase the flourishing of missionaries. In small organisations where the training team members work closely with (or are) the member carers. There is some attention being paid to what individuals can do to increase their wellbeing, and some training to help people set up for coping well. I feel we need to put much more effort, attention and skill into this area. I was surprised at the recent member care conference at how the most basic information about resilience was new to a lot of member care workers. Resilience, well-being, thriving, emotional intelligence, mental wellness, spiritual formation, these are all things that member care workers should be familiar with and work to inform and assist our cross-cultural workers to put into practice.
We need to to take this one step further and begin to look at how our organisations can be proactive. We need to look at our systems, procedures, rules, guidelines and team cultures. Individuals do not operate in a vacuum they are affected and influenced by the organisation in which they are placed. We need to start conversations about how we lead and how we create systems and structures that support people to thrive. Leaders and bosses have a huge impact on their team members wellbeing, do we talk about this in our organisations? Our team leaders need to be aware of their influence on their team’s wellbeing. Rigidity in how mission should be done, in how and where you should take holidays or do language learning are examples of organisational procedures that do not see people as individuals and support them to grow and thrive. Teams that are dominated by one culture or theological position can be oppressive and unhealthy for those that are in the minority, we need to be on the lookout for teams that may be like this. There are many factors within an organisation and position that contribute to burnout in individuals, and yet we seem in Christian ministry to still focus on burnout as a personal, individual issue. Part of taking a proactive stance is looking at the organisation as a whole and understanding how it can be crafted to allow and support people to function at their best.
An ability to see our organisation as a system is essential if we are to integrate and care for people from collectivist cultures well. They are instinctively aware of the interconnectedness and belonging issues that occur within an organisation. We also need to acknowledge, understand and support our missionaries as they work within other systems that influence their well-being such as their churches and their families.
Conversations around shaping a proactive approach would also consider what training and support missionaries need not to just survive but to develop and grow. If we have a focus solely on caring for individual care, we often neglect to have the tough conversations that we need to have to enable further growth in our workers. Just as we encourage our children to grow in their own ability to care for themselves as part of our care and love for them, we also need to be supporting growth and independence in our missionaries. Care doesn’t necessarily just mean offering support when they have a crisis or need, care can also involve challenge and calls for growth, and to take responsibility for their own self-care.
Another reason for increasing the proactivity of what we do is that the original model of member care assumed that we sent out people who were thriving. They would then struggle in ministry, cross-cultural living, or during the transition back to their passport country, then they would need care and support. This is a model that no longer exists. The diversity of experiences and backgrounds of the people we are sending and the rise of mental health struggles among the population means that we are now more likely to be sending people who have already faced challenges to their well-being. We need to be considering what proactive measures we need to take to support them from the beginning of their engagement with an agency and what extra wrap-around support systems we need to develop that allow them to function, flourish and grow in ministry settings.
Let’s strive to create a member care that is proactive and system oriented. Next time we will have a conversation about member care that is both local and global.
Let’s start conversations about becoming proactive…