Ministry is a hazardous occupation! It exposes women to the deepest needs of humanity, many of which seemingly can never be met. Along with sharing in many life joys, a woman in ministry also gains the dubious privilege of dealing with all the “uglies” of human nature: the muck of erring and sinning disciples and the heartbreaking consequences and crises of God’s law broken. 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. A woman’s work in ministry is never done; there is no end to the possibilities to influence persons and the nature of life in her new culture. There is no cut-off time to show when you have done enough. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to measure your success in bringing about change.
To be in ministry is a “high calling” and a grave responsibility – and therein lies much of the stress and struggle which makes it so hazardous.
Anyone who chooses a role in ministry across cultures compounds the hazards almost geometrically. In addition to the hazards of ministry itself, going cross-cultural means adding layer upon layer of complexity. A woman steps out of her own culture, exchanging it for a whole new set of struggles and challenges. Change of culture brings with it changes of language, value systems, climate, geography, social systems, role definitions and a host of other life elements. Usually a life of ministry across cultures places her in a position to experience perpetual high levels of stress, as almost everything about herself and her life must adapt to new realities.
We can categorize the predominant needs and issues arising from cross-cultural work by relating them to these three areas of adaptation: 1) the self 2) the external stress factors lying between the self and the cosmos, and 3) the spiritual world, including the nature of God and relationship with Him. In this issue and the following two issue of WOTH, Dr. Lois Dodds, a global worker with Wycliffe for over 25 years, will be addressing these three areas. We begin with the adaptation of the self.
Challenges to The Self
- Identity issues: Inherent in going across cultures is the need to adapt the self. Both deep and superficial aspects of the self must change in order to become effective in the new culture. Changing most everything in a woman’s life simultaneously demands an overwhelming amount of adaptation, and adapting successfully means forging a new identity. This process is an exhausting one, requiring enormous energy.
A woman’s whole life pattern needs re-working because of simultaneously changing multiple life elements. Overnight, the woman entering cross-cultural ministry changes her cultural context, her actual job or role, and her place/standing in society. She leaves behind all of her family, friends and acquaintances. These are profound losses. Even the seemingly superficial things such as climate, clothing, foods, etc., are real and costly in terms of energy. They, too, press the self to change.
A central factor in the change in identity is the loss of her reference group or groups. Those familiar people who provide both subtle and overt feedback about who we are and how we are perceived, suddenly disappear. The people who become new sources of feedback, especially those not from our own culture and language, may give us very different messages about the self. Without anyone around who actually know us, over time, we have to start fresh in being known to the degree that we could again receive positive feedback about ourselves. That takes time. In the meantime, we are starved for the kind of affirmation which keeps one emotionally nurtured. (Suggestions conclude this article.)
Over time, if she is successfully adapting to the new, she achieves an altered sense of self, a new identity, incorporating some of the old and some of new. This is not easy or quick, as it means letting go of parts of her former self. This is in fact a painful process as we seek to determine which aspects of the self are negotiable and which aspects we cannot change if we are to keep our sense of integrity. I had the goal of becoming “really Peruvian” when we first went to Peru. Soon, however, I discovered that this meant accepting certain attitudes and habits which were in conflict with who I perceived myself to be—most notably attitudes towards others and issues such as honesty. To fit the new, I would have to change to a degree that I would no longer fit the “me” I knew or my own Christian sub-culture. To stay the same meant I would be miserable as well as ineffective in the new. I had to find a middle ground of change so that I would in fact never again fit my own culture and would never be fully a member of the other, new culture—I had to forge a new self. In a sense, I had to become a bridge between two worlds, connecting what could never be fused. I had to give up my goal of total assimilation and acculturation and settle for a functional level of adaptation. (use as a pull-quote if there is space!!!)
At home in the U.S., I had created an orderly and satisfying life, as a wife, a mother, a creative person serving the church and a nurturer of the extended family. With our move to the Amazon, it seemed like my carefully constructed life was suddenly thrown into the air, coming down like a jig-saw puzzle, unable to hang together. Re-building and re-ordering life in the new culture meant I had to re-form myself as well.
- Self-esteem: Most of the changes resulting from cross-cultural work, are assaults to self-esteem in some way. The culture cues about our adequacy (or likely inadequacy) will often be radically different, perhaps even unrecognizable. It becomes hard to answer, “How am I doing?” The means of feedback, as well as the actual messages, differ because of the loss of familiar reference groups, making it difficult to measure our appropriateness or progress in the new. Expectations for us likely vary in significant ways, most often unknown to us. We have to ferret out what is expected and what will gain approval. Women, especially, can feel this kind of uncertainty. We often tend to be unsure of what is expected from our own self, our husband, our colleagues, the indigenous people with whom we are working, our global work and our church.
Even when a woman goes away to do the same job, such as pastoring or teaching or being a wife and mother, it is not likely practiced in the same way, with the same values and attitudes, using the same resources. She may have to let go of exercising important gifts or areas of training which contribute to a sense of competency. Loss of resources and compromise to our internal standards of practice can undermine self-esteem, leading to doubt about our own integrity and adequacy. Our usual tools, standards and criteria for performance may be absent. The new peer group may conceptualize the profession or job we have in a radically different way. The new culture may place our profession or role in a different place in the social hierarchy. All these require adaptation and sorting out: what is most essential, what can we give up or compromise, what must we cling to in order to remain ourselves? It becomes hard to see one’s self as coping and adaptable give the multiplicity and rapid rate of change.
One area of special difficulty relates to language acquisition. As educated women prepared for ministry in our own culture, we usually are articulate and skilled in communication. When the educated and articulate woman enters her new culture, where even toddlers surpass her in speech for the first couple of years, it is not only humbling but also destructive of self esteem. Most professionals are reluctant to make mistakes. Depending on temperament, this may be a severe problem in adjustment, since language acquisition consists of multiple mistakes and constant correction. In our experience of 25 years in global work, the most educated and articulate suffered the most loss of self through the process of language development. But, once gained, mastery can once again enhance self esteem.
Another critical area relating to self esteem is success. It is hard to see and measure achievements in ministry where long-term and often intangible goals guide us. It is hard to maintain vision without visible gains. Uncertain or imperceptible progress creates self doubts. How do we measure our effectiveness and whether our sacrifices are worth it? Do we count converts? Do we measure success through our still-floundering language skills? Do we count success only when there is a reproducing church? The perpetually unfinished work leads to a lack of self-confidence and a sense of achievement. The good news is, most global workers do eventually reach a state of equilibrium, with enough sense of success to keep them in ministry.
A typical pattern in the fluctuations of self esteem seems to be a sharp decrease in self esteem in the first years during the period of culture chock, a gain or increase in esteem with adaptation to the new culture and field situation, and another drop in esteem with the stress of furlough or re-entry. Especially in the early years of ministry, there is seldom a phase long enough to reach equilibrium, to relax and get back to normal.
Another important factor relating to self esteem is that many Christians are predisposed to feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness even before entering cross-cultural ministries. Some women may have temperamental, genetic, or familial predisposition towards depression or self doubt. These create additional vulnerability, as all the challenges to self compound through the events in the new culture. These women should seek out help from their organization or from a trusted friend who can help them sort out their feelings and guide them to the Scriptures.
So, what can we do? Most importantly, we can focus on the Lord and His strength. We can take certain steps, like the ones listed below, to boost our self esteem, but, acknowledging our weakness and God’s strength is the first step we must take. Only with God’s help can we see ourselves as valuable. It is His family name, given to us, which deems us worthwhile. A helpful Biblical perspective is a study of Ephesians 1 and other passages which describe our place in God’s family. This is a valuable resource for focusing on central and unchanging aspects of identity and re-experiencing positive feedback towards the self, based on God’s love for us. Another helpful resource is How Do I Look From Up There?, a Biblical study on self esteem by Dr. Lois Dodds. Contact WOTH for more information.
Other suggestions by women in the field:
- Pray and ask God to sustain you with His strength and wisdom.
- Don’t fight to “get over” the struggle of adjustment. Live in each moment.
- Fellowship with other women! Try to have regular times out and away from the everyday atmosphere.
- Read other books on global work stress to know you’re not alone. These can help you predict and accept the waves of adjustment that inevitably come.
- Refuel often! Use familiar books or music to give you a sense of security and calmness.
- Find out what charges you. Then, go do it!
- Spend time alone. Read through the Psalms and other Scriptures which talk about God’s love for you.
This article is a classic originally published in our early print magazines.