Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sharing a Burden

[what's brewing: help wanted to serve this up]

In one of my recent postings for the Coffeegirl Book Club I wrote that I usually find it easier to bear the burdens of others than to let others bear my burdens with me. I have been considering the reasons behind this, and here are some of the thoughts I’ve had thus far:

- It’s easier for me to be trusted than to trust.

- People open up to me quite easily, so I am often entrusted with the burdens of others.

- The risk of being misunderstood is the primary reason I refrain from opening my burdens to others.

- I’m an ISFJ – caring for others comes more naturally than caring for myself.

- I sought a graduate degree in counseling because I find fulfillment in walking alongside others during difficult times (an extension of my ISFJ-ness).

- I generally process difficult things internally for a long time before I am ready to verbalize them to someone else.

- After years in various ministry positions, the posture of receiving others’ burdens has become more natural than the posture of offering my own to others.

- Our current ministry role has further reinforced this and has me feeling that my posture should be one of almost exclusively receiving others’ burdens.

I am very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on that last point because it troubles me in many ways.

It troubles me primarily because I never thought I would say that. For many years I have rejected the idea that leaders should refrain from sharing their challenges and burdens with those whom they are serving. This is largely due to the fact that the most meaningful relationships I have had with ministry leaders in my life were marked by transparency on both ends of the relationship.

I learned remarkable lessons from Sunday school leaders who were vulnerable enough to share prayer requests for their marital challenges and doubts about God’s character in the midst of crisis. I was blessed by personal relationships with several professors who allowed me to know them as they got to know me. I thrived in a Bible study where the facilitator exposed her personal struggles that were being stirred up by the text we were looking at.

Conversely, I dried up in a small group where the leader poured herself into the group and drew out meaningful times of sharing, but never extended her own heart with the group. I have been downright put off by pastors and missionaries who spend so much emotional energy stifling their personal struggles to keep up the fa├žade of being “practically perfect in every way.”

In my own ministry experience I have sought to be transparent with others as much as possible, seeking to affirm the truth that no matter our titles, positions, or spiritual depth, we are all broken creatures and reliant upon God’s lavish grace. I have sought to reject and actively break down the tempting lies that would suggest Christian leaders should be perfect, and (a less overt message) should keep from exposing their failings in order to be a good example to those around them.

Suffice it to say that I have stepped down been pushed off my soapbox in these past 8 months. Whether it is the cross-cultural dynamics, the taught beliefs about Christian leaders that we have inherited within our congregation, or the disparity between our struggles that keeps me from sharing my burdens, I often feel that the people around me want me to be perfect.

I can argue this issue from both sides very well because it’s been spinning in my mind for months, but I’m most interested in hearing from you. Tell me, dear readers:

1 – Do you feel that you can share your burdens with the people you ministering to in cross-cultural service? (By “share your burdens” I mean be genuinely transparent, not just sharing controlled portions of yourself)

2 – If no, do you think that’s how it should be or have you just ended up in that situation? If yes, has that been an intentional choice, and did it come naturally?


Ellie said...

I wonder about this often.

We work on a team that my husband is the team leader of, and he is the same nationality as they are, and I am different, the "foreigner".

Sometimes, I think I can only share controlled portions of my life with the team. But that may have to do with the fact that if I am struggling in my marriage, and I talk, does he lose respect?

But silence leads to worsening problems.

So, do I talk? I think I am learning to. I've made steps in that direction. I came from a "missionaries are practically perfect in every way" family. (Yeah, Mary Poppins!) I'm learning to be more honest in my relationships among others. Doing well there, but in our team... I wonder what effect being the wife of the team leader has. How honest can we be? Where do we get help when we struggle? I suppose pastor's wives have the same questions at times, too.

Yet my steps so far in that direction have brought only good.

Alan & Beth McManus said...

I find I share controlled amounts. I share things that have to do with the text we're studying or that I think will help them grow by seeing that I have to work on those areas too. I don't naturally share the deepest darkest parts of me and tend to think that's nobody's business unless it will serve to teach them. (Even then it's usually a past-tense sharing.) Part of my reasoning for this is the fact that they will often use information about us (missionaries) as ammunition/blackmail later. They have found that to be singularly unsatisfying with me because I don't like secrets, so as soon as they try to "whisper" things, I start broadcasting it to the world -- something very disconcerting to a Latin.

I, too, am an introvert but have learned to share enough to make others feel like they are in my heart. I don't know if that is right or not but it is what it is.

Missionaries in La Ceiba, Honduras said...

Interesting and thoughtful blog! In the past, i.e. before going on the mission field - I found that I mostly kept my burdens to myself. However, I found that once going on the mission field I found that to stay emotionally healthy, I found I needed to have a different perspective on things other than myself, and have found myself being much more open than ever before.

Libby said...

Wow! Making me really think here! :) I think that I do not freely share with people we are here to minister to. If I do, it is because I have gotten to know them and I can tell that maturity-wise in Christ they can handle it and will care. I think I'm very careful.
I think my husband and I both tend to share deeper things if we think it would encourage or help the other person. For instance, there was a time a couple came to us sharing some struggles in their relationship and we shared with her that we totally related. We especially wanted to share with them because we wanted them to see that struggles aren't something they only deal with and that there are many others even near them that struggle and yet God loves us and is working on us,etc.

Sharing things I struggle with can help break down barriers sometimes, and can really be shepherding people and they'll notice that! And at the same time can be an encouragement to me that I am not all alone here, satan likes to lie to me and make me believe I AM all along in my struggles, but there are people right here near me who even if I might think at first that they wouldn't understand or care, they really do! And if my partner girl friend reads this, thank you for our talk yesterday!!

I think I have a lot to learn yet about this. It's great to read others' thoughts and I relate to many of them!

Tim and Michelle said...

I have struggled a lot with this b/c we have been in a situation where it seemed like we were expected to be perfect. At the same time, I desire and feel I should be "real". In general, I have seen that those who recognize that they themselves are "weak", respond well to this, but ones that are trying to "prove themselves" to be spiritual do not. I'm still learning what "real" should look like! What we had shared in the past was used against us- although it was a very hurtful experience...I haven't decided if that means we shouldn't have been real...b/c I see how God has/is using it...I'm asking God to teach me the balance on this one!! I'm often reminded that God came for the "weak" and the sinners and delights in showing His strength through our weaknesses...too often churches portray that you have to have it all together to serve God...is this what we really want to communicate?? Another question I've wrestled with is, "Am I willing to be real at the risk of getting criticized...but at the same time being able to impact others who are hurting"...Is it worth it?

Brenda said...

"After years in various ministry positions, the posture of receiving others’ burdens has become more natural than the posture of offering my own to others." OUCH! I can relate. . .

Yes, I can share my burdens with my national coworkers, but that is probably because the language comes easily to me and the culture is a good fit for my personality. Its hard for me to share in general, but my best friends here are the nationals.

Grammy said...

ladies for all your insights. We are still in Language school but soon to be in our country. I will take to heart all that you have shared.

Grammy said...

There was a Thank you but it disappeared!

Jessie said...

My mentor has been working with me/ helping me work through some serious issues regarding my lack of desire to be transparent. I have learned a lot in the past year. One thing that was super helpful was a Sonship course by World Harvest Mission (I think) that helped me really see my sin and be grateful for abundant forgiveness.

My mentor has also been challenging me with the question, "What would life be like if Jesus' opinion really was the only one that really mattered?" I think I would be much more open about struggles and issues if I truly had that kind of faith, if truly only Jesus mattered. I'm working on it though, and its been a great ride!

Anonymous said...

It depends a lot on the context. When in the village, there is so much that the people cannot even imagine which is part of my life and the burdens that come with it. e.g. praying for a brother who is atheist, finding housing for furlough, academic challenges. It's easier in a town where people have a wider horizon. Nevertheless, I remember the frustration when I tried to share with a very good friend, intellectual, has lived in other countries, mature Christian, that I am feeling somewhat depressed and in need of prayer, and she just gave me this blank look, as if I was talking Chinese.

Ashley said...

Great question! We serve in ministry to college students, and the majority of the people that we minister to are in a very different stage of life and are relatively new believers. For this reason, I don't share about absolutely every aspect of my life, not because of culture, but because of maturity and what they can understand thoroughly enough. I think it is very important to share struggles, even with people who might not be able to relate fully or understand completely, but I think there are reasons not to tell everything.I don't feel like it is a lack of being willing to be transparent though. I actually wish there were more people in our ministry that I could be completely transparent with!

Like several of you mentioned, when someone is dealing with a struggle that I am dealing with or have dealt with, I think there is so much value in stepping into that conversation with vulnerability and offering wisdom from experience.

Sharing about life with young believers is kind of like the relationship of parents to children though. For children, or those who are young in their faith etc, we discern what they are mature enough to handle and what will cause them to grow, and then we share with them on that level.

Anyway, I desire to be appropriately vulnerable and love the depth of relationship that comes along with it, and I am sure that I can grow in this area!

Kacie said...

This isn't an answer to your question, just a comment. I just found your blog, and what do you know... I'm an ISFJ and I'm seeking my graduate degree in counseling with plans to be in full-time ministry.

funny. :)

Ben Layer said...

When most of your struggles are associated with the culture you're adjusting too, sharing your battles can be counter-productive to ministry, I've found. I'm pretty sure the national women have no idea what a hard time I have embracing their culture. In the past when I've tried to relate my struggles, their shock and disbelief were almost comical. Nationals who have done international travel extensively or have lived outside their own culture tend to be empathetic, but overall, I've come to the conclusion that I have to be careful about transparency with certain people with whom and about what I am transparent .

Donna said...

(I can't change the photo... I've forgotten how, so I'll be a gorilla for this conversation!)

I've been in my country 10 years and I find that transparency is extremely helpful, mostly because our host country has built-in barriers, namely, the after effects of communism and all that trusting or mistrusting someone meant in that context.

I've walked through some pretty deep stuff and if it's relevant to the person's situation, I tend to share it. If I'm concerned that it might discredit or harm my husband's ministry, I 'sanitize' it a bit by putting it into a different time frame, or re-framing it in some other way.

Overwhelmingly, though, the women I talk with are grateful that someone has walked where they have walked. Being 'broken' is not acceptable in church culture here - sad, but true - so people are terrified to admit they've got a problem.

Sometimes, though, more due to busy-ness than anything else, I do struggle with having someone to share current struggles. Also, I have some very close friends, but the Lord has rotated them out of my life, and it's hard to re-build that with someone when a crunch situation arises. My national friends cannot sometimes relate to what I'm struggling with, either because their marriages are younger, their children are younger, or they just can't imagine my circumstances.

But the one comment about getting a different perspective hits home with me. When I'm actually able to get across what it is that's a problem, my national friends have asked some amazing questions, or have just sat there, amazed that I think that's such a big deal.

Still, the temptation to hide some of the harder stuff is there; hiding is pretty hard, though, and I work more on the being careful end of the transparency spectrum.


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