The ministry pedestal… that terrible place that many in ministry are placed, yet many hate being there. That place where many missionaries find themselves suddenly thrust from just-another-Joe in my bible study group to Superman Missionary who hacks through jungles and saves entire populations, who has all the answers and is a super genius in all things Bible. And we all live with the knowledge that WE AREN’T THAT GUY! We aren’t super human. We aren’t perfect. We don’t have all the answers. Why does everyone think that about me?
On most days, we feel pretty much like normal folks. We struggle just like the rest of the world. We have kids who aren’t perfect. WE aren’t perfect. We burn the dinner rolls. We forget to pack our kid’s lunch. We scramble to find answers during Bible study. Heck, we have even been known to lose our religion trying to get our family out the door and to church on time (or anywhere, for that matter).
Yet, in our newsletters and prayer updates, we are faced with the everlasting question… “What do we share this month? How will it be read and understood? Will our funding be effected if we share our struggles and failures?” Living the missionary life (or ministry life) for many of us is walking a tightrope of trying to live up to what others think of us, trying to not fall off the pedestal we have been placed on, but knowing that we are broken and struggling and ‘normal’ and we need help and prayers and understanding.
Which brings us to the C-word. After our first term (5 years) in mission service, we were burned and bruised and battered and very broken. Don’t get me wrong, it was also wonderful and I wouldn’t trade it for the world! And that is part of the problem… how can you be broken and dying inside, and at the same time be so stinkin’ fulfilled? I just didn’t even know what to do with all of those emotions! I wore the good emotions on the outside, and hid the yucky ones – because no one wants to see your yuck, right? Well, newsflash… you can only wear that mask for so long before you die from the inside out and everyone starts to see the truth.
In my case, it started with lots of unexplained health stuff. Toward the end of our first term, I was just plagued with one little illness after the other. As soon as one would get better, another one would get me. I just couldn’t seem to get away from it. And then there were the muscular things. I had constant back pain for the entire last year of that first term. Then I had a mysterious shoulder problem that even doctors and physical therapists couldn’t understand. Then, the dreaded shingles… a derivative of the chicken pox virus that lays dormant in your nerve endings and is brought to life via stress. I loved the day that my doctor said, “you have to get rid of stress in your life – you just have to”. Was this woman an alien? Did she know what my life looked like? How on earth was I going to get rid of stress?! At that point, I was in the middle of a transition from the first mission term to a second one – one that was taking us to a new role and a new country, even further away than the first one. HA! Get rid of stress…
Well, folks, it didn’t get better. It got worse. The more I was sick or injured, the more depressed I got. I’m not a good patient, nor am I good at being dependent or quiet or still. And the more I was knocked down, the more stressed and upset I got. We moved to our new locale. It wasn’t an easy transition – more stress. Then I ruptured a calf muscle. Great!
Stress on top of stress.
I know… you’re still wondering what the C-word is…
What!?!? Missionaries need counseling?
Not only do we need counseling, but we need specialized counseling. We need counseling from folks who get us. Who get what it is that we do. Who get what it means to live on that pedestal. Who get what it means to live in another culture and try to keep some semblance of life and normalcy. Who get our special intricacies and who aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions and love us through the answers.
I’ve had several different counselors during my missionary service, different ones for different reasons. One helped my hubby and I with transition issues. One helped us both with grief issues from leaving our first term and host country. One helped us walk through what it means to daily deal with being a family split apart by an ocean and living on two continents. And one helped me personally to deal with my own self-esteem and the effects that external life has on my internal thoughts about myself. Did I mention that missionaries aren’t perfect?
Just some quick statistics from a recent survey of mission workers in Europe and Asia… Top reasons missionaries have received counseling:
- Depression 73%
- Stress 64%
- Anxiety 55%
- Marital issues 46%
- Life transition and career transition 36%
- Fear / trauma / PTSD / team dysfunction 27%
Other reasons… emotional and behavioral issues in children, family therapy, anger management, grief and loss therapy, loneliness, eating disorders, cross-cultural adjustment, health problems.
As the statistics suggest, many of us are in the same boat. If you are ‘normal’, you are probably in the I-need-help- I’m sinking category. Don’t suffer alone and think that you are the only one. That pedestal is pretty shaky and a pretty lonely place to be. Why don’t you come down and breathe, then get some of the C-word… without shame or dishonor. There are special counselors just for you, who have a heart for loving cross-cultural witnesses / missionaries.
PS… after 3 sessions and some good counseling, much of my stress started to melt away. My mystery illnesses ALL went away! I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I have tools to help me manage stress now. And I continue to find help and a listening ear when I’m feeling a little shaky.
So, do you think that maybe you could benefit from talking to a counselor? Shoot me a private email for references to some great mission counselors. Many of these folks do this as a ministry to YOU and do it at greatly reduced (sometimes nearly free) rates! I’m happy to share resources!