Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting Real

[what's brewing: anyone gotta spoon 'cause I'm ready to stir it up!]

The comments on the topic of sharing a burden were fantastic, and if you haven’t had a chance to read through them yet I would encourage you to do so. I have gleaned something from each comment that is helpful as I’m thinking through this issue of transparency and sharing with the people we are ministering to.

The discussion on that topic has naturally led me to consider another related issue – sharing openly and transparently with teammates (or fellow Christians ministering in your area, etc.).

(Is anyone thinking, “Is she crazy?!” just yet?)

I have experienced some very supportive, open relationships with other ministry teammates. I have heard very positive stories from some friends in ministry about the strong and supportive relationships they have with fellow Christians in their area. But I have to say that by and large, the primary impression that I have been left from missionaries over the years is this:

There seems to be an intense fear lurking within many missionaries of what other Christians may think if a struggle (or, dare I say, a sin) were to be revealed. Subsequently, many have chosen to retreat into silence, striving to maintain the appearance of perfection,while suffering and struggling alone.

I trust that we are all too familiar with the reasons that support this fear of revealing sensitive information to others: being judged and treated poorly by other Christians, having confidences broken, information being used against you (even as ammunition and/or blackmail, as it was stated last week), or losing the respect of people around you (a response that only affirms the initial belief telling you to keep quiet because ‘they won’t respect you anymore’).

These are real and understandable reasons for being hesitant, even opposed, to sharing personal struggles with other believers around you. But the fact is that these wounding responses, though they may have come from God-fearing people, are ungodly. They encourage a life of emotional and spiritual solitude and self-sufficiency that is contrary to the fellowship that God intends among His people.

The kingdom of God is to be marked by grace, love and forgiveness – a sharp contrast to the self-focused world around us that uses weakness and suffering as a chance to further individual interests. We are to celebrate the gifts and blessings that are given by God’s hand and to be His hands in caring for others in dark times.

If this is what we are both called to and proclaiming, then why is this not what so many are experiencing on the field? Why does a sense of competition seep through the tiring efforts of so many as they try to appear whole, holy and perfectly happy? Why are teammates and other believers often seen as competitors rather than fellow sojourners?

The clear answer to this is that we are saved by grace, yet corrupted by sin and still very capable of hurting one another. But I come to you again looking for a discussion on the specific reasons that many missionaries are experiencing competition and isolation with those around them. I am seeking your honest and vulnerable insights, even if it means leaving an anonymous comment in order to do that. Let’s talk about the issues that contribute to this. Let’s share the real struggles (as well as the real victories) that surround this issue, not simply reciting the truths should solve the issue.

Let’s get real.


Two Sheep said...

I intended to comment on last week's blog, but somehow the week has already flown by and I still haven't done it. Now I am trying to determine if it was latent avoidance or if I really just did not have the time to sit and gather my thoughts. Since transparency can be something I stealthily avoid, I am looking into my heart and motives. Honestly, I think I didn't have the chance to sit down long enough and do it, but this area is one that I have to be conscious about.

I am also an "I" (ISTP/ISTJ), so it is very easy to just let others speak and share and not really open up personally. But the thoughts you raised have been stirring in my mind and heart for the better part of a year. Vulnerability, transparency, real-ness- these are the things that I have been drawn to in others and these are the things that will best build relationships and share Christ with others.

For too many years, Christianity has been presented as the "perfected" or the "righteous", which although theologically true does not translate well into non-Christianese terms. The older I get the more I am aware of how little I know and how more flawed and needy I am. It's the opposite of what I used to think. The closer I grow to Christ, the more I realize my depravity and need and the more amazed I am at His grace, love, and forgiveness.

Therein lies the problem: the longer I serve Him the more I come to grips with my sinful nature, but there is such a public pressure that the longer you serve Him the more you should have it together.

I don't have a solution to all this except that I am certain that it is necessary that each believer walk this path and begin to allow Christ to be glorified even in their weaknesses and shortcomings in some type of openness. It is not important what others think, only that God is glorified. As I allow my "true" self to be revealed, I will not only have a greater revelation of who Christ is but I will have a much greater ability to build relationships with other believers and non-believers.

I have been meditating on insights from Richard Foster's book, "Celebration of Discipline". The public disciplines of Confession and Submission are exactly along this discussion. We have learned to 'play' church but are not real and are not living in the fullness of fellowship and grace that is available to us.

Sorry this is long- once I got going my fingers just did the talking. I am certainly not trying to preach but simply letting my thoughts flow as God has been working on this exact area in my life. I have a long way to go, especially living cross-culturally it is even easier to not be real because cultural and language issues are easy excuses. At the same time, cross-cultural tends to increase the pressure as the "leader", to also be the "expert". I do not have it all together and the more I study and read the more I am convinced that leadership happens through servantship and humility. That is the kind of person, missionary, and leader I want to be and I am convinced it can only happen through my transparency, my self-disclosure, my willingness to release my reputation into God's hands. Wisdom is a great companion to this as I do believe there are appropriate times and places, however the key is our WILLINGNESS to obey the prompt of the Holy Spirit instead of second guessing and making excuses why we shouldn't share.


Alan & Beth McManus said...

What is the purpose of our "sharing," being transparent, opening up? Is it to have others tell us we're ok? Is it to replace the Holy Spirit by going to people? Is it to sharpen one another/glorify God?

As an MK and daughter of "leadership on the field" I have seen everything. We were dragged along to all the meeting places (not the meetings themselves), all the problem areas, all the trouble. We spent many hours discussing as a family what should/could/would be done. Was God still in control? (One of Dad's questions to check our emotional/spiritual morale.) How do you/we extend grace while ministering justice. Etc.

If I just want to be transparent so everyone will pet me, then I'd do best to suck into my turtle shell. If I want to be transparent to grow and to cause growth, then it's going to hurt and also be of great benefit.

On the human side, sometimes we just don't "click" with others. I have NEVER felt a close kinship with other missionaries my age. As I analyze it, I see that much of the reason for that is the difference in our cultures. I grew up down here and the things that frustrate others about the Latin culture/the things others get so mad about as "wrong" don't usually bug me. I'm not American. I'm not Latin. I don't fit.

I find that when I share transparently, others are horrified. I find when others share transparently I want to roll my eyes and give a lecture on cultural relevancy. So . . . I share in such a way as to protect my inner self. I talk to God about it rather than to other missionaries. I try not to get too involved emotionally.

BUT . . . our mission changed things this year. We're now in small groups as missionaries for the very purpose of sharing intimately for the glory of God. My team is all MK's with the exception of my husband. I've been shocked to find they react like I do. I've been thrilled to find a connection in our "MK-ness" although we grew up in many different countries and in two different missions.

All that is not to say that opening up is easy. I still tend to have one little part of me holding back. But that little part is becoming less and less as I find the others to be understanding (while still forcing me to be biblical) and trustworthy.

Anonymous said...

This issue is one of my very "rough spots" and this is what I am learning: Pretending to have it all together and not allowing myself to seem weak or vunerable is pride at it's purest form! We all know what the Bible has to say about that!

I also believe that satan feeds us with the lie that we cannot share our struggles with anyone and when we buy into it, we find ourselves held captive by that thought, leading to fear and alienation. When faced with the issue, we need to ask...what is truth? Scripture tells us to "bear one another's burdens", to pray for and encourage one another. I do believe; however, that discernment is needed when sharing these personal areas of our lives with others. Of course, it would be unwise to walk around spurting out our sins and burdens without much thought.

To me, the bottom line is that we need each other...we need to have accountability in our daily lives. This may not be letting the whole world know, but sharing your heart and inner struggles with another can help to bring healing.

On the flip side...when we are walking through a trial with a friend, we need to be careful to display compassion and not judgement...remembering that our job is to bring them closer to the Lord through their struggles and to help bring them to healing. What a special responsibility that is; always to be treated with great care. Never to forget to speak the truth in love! :-)

Chantelle said...

I appreciate the honesty of the posters thus far. I am a new missionary on the field and have learned already that this is indeed a touchy subject. I have been here in Africa almost a year and I know when i came that I really had the expectation that our community would be really close and supportive.I was quite stunned to see that this wasn't the case and that many people didn't seem to share what was important to their lives and be real and walk through the tough things together.

I am someone who really thrives in close relationships and open communication and accountability. It has been really hard to find people who also want that and will open up and walk through life, the flowers and valleys both, together. I haven't been able to understand why! Maybe in the many years many have been in the field they have been burned by others or felt competition or hurts and thus they refuse now? But what is the excuse of people who havent been here long? God does call us to live in community. I believe accountability partners and close relationships are one of the things that will keep us emotionally healthy on the field and able to "do the distance". So why is it so hard to find anyone else who feels this way? I don't want to compete with anyone, and i get so frustrated when i feel that eminating from others. I am here as a missionary because I love the Lord, and want to share that. Not because I am perfect, not because I have it all together and not because I am super holywoman with a thousand hidden powers. I am just me, for the good and the bad.

So yeah, I feel your pain. I am still looking here for people who really want to be open. Who want to cry together, rebuke each other (with loads of love and trust!) when we stumble and rejoice all together in our successes. Anything else is not acceptable for me, and I feel bad when people just "make do" because of all the reasons people have mentioned here already. Definitely a cause for prayer for women of the field!!

Kacie said...

I also am an mk and my dad was in the leadership of our mission, I and will probably end up on the mission field eventually. I was proud of my dad for intentionally trying to be honest about his struggles, and intentionally looking for accountability partners and mens Bible studies. Still, I know that even that was difficult for him and both he and my mom were lonely at times.

I think part of it is that our culture teaches us that people won't respect leadership if they see it as weak, so it is very difficult to learn how to intentionally lead a group while also intentionally being vulnerable.

I personally have not experienced this, but perhaps that is because it is very very important to me, so I have sought church communities that value authenticity.

This is a good discussion though. Thanks for bringing it up!

Missionaries in La Ceiba, Honduras said...

One thing I find is to "set the stage". This works in so many areas of life - I taught Sunday School often at church, and each year, when a new group of kids came in - I had to set the stage - set the rules - know what was/wasn't acceptable. This applies on the mission field as well. What are the "norms" that you as a team have established? What "norms" have you has fellow MK's or with other missionaries set. We have a weekly bible study, and women from as far as an hour away come so we can fellowship together in our heart language. The "stage" had been set before I had even arrived - and it's a healthy stage - leaves the door open for people to share honestly and from their heart. No, we don't all have a close relationship with one another, if anything, it's fairly casual, but as we are all brought here with the same foundation of Christ, that brings us together and Sisters to cry with, even as "casual" acquaintances. We have set the stage for women to feel it's an open invitation. We also have recently started a local blog for the missionaries in and around our area. Another way for us to feel connected even when we are apart, or have teams in town and are unable to meet together. I pray that everyone in a similiar situation has the ability to do their part in setting the stage.

junglewife said...

Wow, what a great subject for discussion. This is something that my husband and I are starting to discuss in our own lives right now, realizing that we crave authenticity. My husband was recently given a book called TrueFaced on this very subject. What I have read so far of it seems very good and Biblical.

I think that this is not just a problem for missionaries, but for Christians in general. We want to appear "more Christian" than the guy or girl next to us. We want to be more spiritual, closer to God, whatever. And as missionaries, the problem is only exacerbated. We are already put up on a pedestal (warranted or not) by those who send us to the field, and maybe even in our own minds we justify thoughts like that, thinking that we have given up so much, sacrificed, etc, and somehow we MUST be more spiritual than those who are back in our home country. These kinds of thoughts definitely do not lend themselves to openness and honesty with our fellow missionaries!!!

I've heard that my generation in particular (I'll be 30 this year) is seeking authenticity. We grew up with our parents and grandparents who had the attitude of "you put on a happy face when you go to church, whether it's real or not." You don't let anyone see your struggles. You don't let anyone see any cracks in your family or marriage. You sweep it all under the rug. I realize that this isn't necessarily true of everyone from those generations, but I think it's the trend. And now we're starting to question that attitude, which I believe is a good thing.

Like others have said, being real and honest and open can sometimes backfire, and your honesty can be used against you. I think that all we can do is make sure that WE are doing our part to foster authenticity and show grace to others. Especially on the mission community where the very last thing we need is to have to put on a mask with our fellow co-workers. Think of how much longer missionaries would last on the field if they weren't having to work so hard at just being "good missionaries"!

Well I suppose I could go on and on. I don't know how coherent these thoughts are... I guess I'm just working through it in my own mind, too. I'm interested to see what others have to say.

Ellie said...

Getting real...

I started this trip over the last few years. Interestingly, it was the comment of one older missionary who was/is real that started me. He admitted to one struggle that was not on the "approved list of missionary struggles". The effect on me was instant - complete attention, and a longing to know how you can do that... can we really be real?

So I began, and this couple walked with me. I've become much more real, able to talk about some things, and therefore deal with issues in my life, and hopefully with things in our marriage and ministry that are hard and need God's hand to change.

Has it been safe? No.

Along the way, I have got two responses. One is from people who are not perfect and know it. Some of them are relieved to know we can talk. Others have been in tears saying they have been struggling with that for a long time and just assumed it would never be healed. They have been given the hope they needed to start on their own journeys of healing. That is a blessing that still leaves me standing in awe.

And then there are those... I don't know what their excuse is. Maybe they are frightened by transperancy. Maybe as someone said, they are trying so hard to maintain the illusion of perfectness. Who knows? Maybe they are close to perfect and have never suffered. Maybe they are too busy to open their eyes, not wanting another problem.

But these people... they have been very, very hurtful. They've accused me of lying, they've gossiped behind my back calling me things that are hard to believe. They have convinced themselves that I have a psychological disorder. They have attacked my character and my reputation. They have carried these attacks without facing me with them to my team, my mission, and my church (who thankfully laughed at them.)

It's been hurtful. I'm glad I didn't know at the onset what I would be accused of going into this. I might not have been able to be willing to do it. But, I'm thankful. I've seen people begin their own steps to wholeness. I am in a place where I minster to women, and now I have the ability to feel their pain with them and talk honestly because I have faced my past and have been answered by God. I know Him. I know what He can do.

But people, missionaries, can be very, very painful. I still live in a team and work daily with someone who has yet not been honest with me and who continues to smile to my face and accuse behind my back. It is hard. Even harder when those people are our leaders.

Through it all, though, have been the people who started me on this. I am still open with them, and that openness makes me stronger. I value that. I hope as a team (perhaps without the leader) to continue on towards openness.

I think someone above had it right. Openness requires trust to be developed. What I can do as a member of the team is build trust by keeping confidences, speaking only well of people, and valuing people. To give people value - to reinforce that, I think that is important.

MissElaineous said...

I agree one hundred percent that openness needs to be built on trust. This thread has made me analyze friendships I have on the field, looking at those genuine and those not as deep. The close, real friendships I have were built through time and experiencing a variety of really tough as well as wonderful things together as friends.
Last fall I nursed a friend through dengue fever, and now we are incredibly real with each other because we've seen each other at our worst. I saw her weak and in pain with fever, while she saw me cranky, tired and stressed. We've also had great experiences together-eating dinners and watching films, laughing on rickshaw rides, etc.
The difference in our relationship and ones that ended badly in the past was how we handled those hard experiences together; by extending grace to each other rather than burning each other (which I've had happen before).
Now plain old friendly friendships just don't meet my emotional needs. Last night I attended a large dinner party with friends, but no close friends. I found myself longer for so much more than the trivial conversations present.
I guess all this is to say that building the trust-even though it is time, more time, oh, and energy-is worth the effort because of the fulfillment close-knit friendships bring, especially cross-culturally when you need someone to share with.


Phil and Pattie said...

I have found it hard because we are tne newer and younger family to our field and the other couples are from a different generation. I really looked forward to having a good mentoring and accountability relationship with our immediate co-workers. In some ways, that has happened but more often I feel mothered and sometimes have to fight feeling resentment because I know she means well. She has even commented on how our generation seems to desire networking, closer relationships while hers is more the lone ranger, independent types. Comments she has made make me feel like I cannot approach her to have that type of relationship because I don't feel there is much desire for that on her part and that she does not really have the time either. I hunger for the type of relationship here where we can both be transparent in a healthy way, helping each other grow in our faith, knowing the good and the ugly but extending grace anyways, etc. In the past, the Lord has blessed me with these types of relationships even when we were support raising and in language school and it has been very hard on the field although it has really drawn me closer to the Lord since I don't have those relationships here. I pray that someday I might find a national to have a close relationship with like those I have been blessed with in the past but often despair of that happening either since it seems there will always be a wall (real or imagined, I don't know) between us whether it is the language or cultural differences, etc, I don't know. It can be so lonely sometimes.

Phil and Pattie said...

I just thought you would want to know that the blog settings currently do not have the option for leaving an annonymous comment.

Anonymous said...

This is so fascinating for me. We arrived on the field almost a month ago now and I have found myself wishing for someone I could be vulnerable with, but not sure how that's going to happen. We are the only Americans on our team and so it's hard to share about cultural issues, even with those that are completely bilingual and have spent a lot of time in the States. It's just a big difference still. I find myself sharing to a point and when their eyes start to glaze over...I stop. ;) No, but honestly - I haven't shared much with anybody because for one, we're new and I have a hard time letting people here know that even the first month has been difficult in some ways and for two, I don't have that "trust factor" built with anyone yet where I can feel comfortable being vulnerable and know it's not going to go anywhere or get distorted.

The one thing I wanted to say, though, was that I like what everyone has been saying about sharing WHEN it's pertinent and not just sharing to share. I have always had a hard time with leaders who were TOO open and shared too much information. I'm thinking specifically of someone who shared during a hard time at our church and she really shared "dirty laundry" that the ladies in our group did not need to know. She brought the focus and attention of our study on herself and never really brought it back around to how it related to what we were studying. It was uncomfortable, awkward, and, I thought, inappropriate. As leaders and missionaries - those in the "public eye" - I think we do have a responsability to share when there is a purpose behind the sharing, when done during a group setting.

Phyllis said...

Wow. I've been here at your blog a few times, but I don't think I've commented before. This subject is something I've really been thinking about lately. I really value openness and transparency. Now, really for the first time, I'm in contact with someone who doesn't believe in sharing, so I've been thinking through the reasoning on that side and on my own. Thank you for writing this!


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