Christine Paterson from Field Partner International gives us her personal takeaways on a survey they conducted earlier this year amongst cross-cultural Christian workers.
At FieldPartner International, we believe that anybody who serves in the field cross-culturally should be properly trained, well-resourced, and wholeheartedly supported by their sending church. We did a survey in the Spring of 2023 to gain insight into the challenges and needs of cross-cultural workers worldwide.
We heard from 137 respondents from 21 different countries who have served in 40 different countries or regions globally. Our survey questions were targeted to individuals at each stage of the cross-cultural journey – from pre-to-post-field, plus those sending.
We are excited to report that the breadth and quality of the responses we received to the survey reflect that both fieldworkers and senders are serious and passionate about their work and consider Jesus’ mandate to the Great Commission as a joint effort between both of them! But it also uncovered some areas of challenge and concern.
Christine's personal takeaways from the survey
Whilst a high proportion of those working cross-culturally experience ‘more challenges than anticipated’, as well as ‘moderate to severe culture shock’ on the field, those who had ‘adequate’ training and ongoing support from home found themselves more able to press through the challenges and make it for the long haul. Conversely, those who lacked sufficient training and felt ‘isolated’ and ‘lonely’ on the field were much less resilient; some (as attested by about a quarter of our respondents in the post-field category) even added to the sad missionary attrition statistics – defined as those who leave the field prematurely for preventable reasons. (See the main reasons given for this on p16 of the report.)
On balance, we take encouragement from the fact that at least some of the recommendations coming out of the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project (ReMAP) of 1997 appear to have made a difference in the intervening decades. The call then was for:
- A good candidates process (proper screening and supporting at the pre-field stage by agencies and supporting churches)
- Adequate pre-field training (at FieldPartner we stress the need for that to be practical cross-cultural training, as well as theological and professional.)
- Adequate ongoing support and training for those on the field, throughout their career. (On this point, our respondents gave a long list of areas where they desire ongoing training even after going to the field – presumably seeing the need after the event and calling for help to fill those gaps.)
Despite some encouragement, however, there is still a long way to go. Our findings, in our much smaller survey, show that too many are still going out without sufficient training and support. With so many attesting to experiencing challenges that they had not anticipated, to me that speaks to the need for pre-field training to be truly practical and down-to-earth. Those who go need to be able to sit down and ‘count the cost’, as Jesus said, with their eyes wide open as to what the challenges are likely to be. Of course, it is impossible to mitigate every challenge by being forewarned, and there will still be those that take us completely unawares (also spiritual warfare is real!). But many can be foreseen and for those we should be forearmed! In addition to targeted training, it was greatly encouraging to find that so many (80%) of our post-field respondents stated a willingness to become mentors for new recruits coming through. That was truly a heart-warming finding. Returnees are a resource that senders can make good use of – so much experience to put to good use! (And mentoring was a stated need, especially in the early years, for our on-field respondents)
Speaking to ReMAP point 3 above, it was interesting to note the number and variation of the topics raised where ongoing training on the field would be appreciated (see p15 of the report.) Clearly these are felt needs that fieldworkers only became aware of through the challenges they faced. These included: more language and culture training, conflict resolution, parenting, accounting and support-raising, intercultural team building, counselling, member care issues (including preparation for re-entry), understanding history and religion of host country etc. Taking the recommendation of ReMAP seriously would mean that senders (both agency and church) would need to facilitate and possibly help finance ongoing training, allowing time off for study and applauding the results when they come. For those of us who produce content online, the challenge is there for us to respond to this need by creating courses that address those specific needs, enabling more fieldworkers to remain at their post while still being able to sharpen their skills.
Senders (in this case supporting individuals as well as leaders in the sending churches) do not yet seem to understand how crucial their role is in fostering the longevity of those they send to the field. The data seems to suggest a tentative approach and not enough hands-on engagement to know what the real needs are at the field end. There is a fear expressed that they are putting too much pressure on the fieldworkers by their expectations, whereas at the field end, the converse seems to be the case. Where senders are engaged, their interest seems rather to be experienced as support not pressure! (p20) And when senders themselves take part in some of the pre-field training, it results in greater understanding of what the fieldworker is going through and thus a greater capacity to support through the challenges. The data about feeling able to be ‘honest’ with colleagues on the field and supporters back home plays in greatly as well. If being honest is not experienced as ‘safe’, then the danger is that struggles that badly need to be shared and prayed through will be repressed and hidden, with possible grave consequences. When those who go are encouraged to build personal support teams, the chances of feeling safe to share the realities of life on the field are greatly enhanced. With that comes a sense of feeling truly seen and cared for. And at the post-field stage, the support team can help greatly with confronting re-entry stress, which famously can be even more challenging than the original culture shock experienced on the field! Note: only 14% returnees said they had received debriefing, and most would still welcome that even after the event.
Final note to senders: “Having a sending church and a sending organization as partners in a fieldworker’s mission is instrumental to managing challenges on the field.”