Married in M-work: An Interview with Alexis Kenny

This is the book I wish we had when we started our international service as young marrieds in 2005 . . . and when we became parents . . . and when we went to language school . . . and when we repatriated . . . and for all of the (extra)ordinary days in between. If you’re married and engaged in cross-cultural ministry, this book belongs in your hands and then in your reference library. It’s not your average prescriptive marriage book, but carefully and competently tailored for folks in cross-cultural service. It accounts for a variety of roles and seasons.

Today we talk with the author, Alexis (Ali) Kenny. I know you’ll want to hear what she has to say. If you would like to engage the conversation in the comments, your name will be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of her book.

Welcome, Ali!

Can you tell us about your cross-cultural service? Where were you, what were you doing, and for how long were you there?

Twelve days after getting married, my husband and I boarded a plane for Honduras to begin our 13 months of service at a home for children in rural Honduras. The orphanage works to keep siblings together and functions as a final placement for kids who have experienced abuse with no capable family member(s) to care for them.

Pat and I served as Padrinos, the primary caretakers, of certain groups of children there. Pat worked with 33 boys, ages 5-13, while I spent my days bucket showering, braiding hair, and folding the clothes of 16, similarly-aged girls. Our days began at 5:00am, waking up our kiddos and helping them get ready for school. After dropping them off, I would hand-wash laundry, prepare my weekly lesson for religion class (I also taught in the school one day a week), and sneak in some leisure reading. At 2:30pm, we would pick up the kids from school, do chores in the dormitories, complete homework assignments, wrangle everyone up for dinner, romp around the fields after eating, and then try to get the kids showered (“try” being the key word here) and ready for bed by 9:00pm. Simply put, Pat and I were full-time parents.

Do you foresee more in your future?

It would seem that my husband and I enjoy working together as we are both students in a Doctoral Program in School and Clinical Psychology. While part of me would love to serve internationally once more, I foresee my family and professional life keeping me here in the U.S. However, I continue to be interested in cross-cultural dynamics and hope to find a meaningful way by which to work with immigrant and refugee populations from a more psychological platform. Pat and I want to raise our family as part of a community that is culturally, racially, and religiously diverse.

What prompted you to write the book?

In short, it was a requirement. Married in Mission was my master’s thesis. In the fall of 2012, I began my studies in Intercultural Studies and Ministry. I took a year off to serve in Honduras, and then returned to Chicago in the fall of 2014 to finish my degree.

In reflecting on our shared cross-cultural experience, I have found that it can be summarized in one word – “intense.” Serving in a remote, hot, and notoriously dangerous environment was intense, being the primary childcare providers for abused children was intense, and doing it all as newlyweds was…you guessed it…intense. While Pat was (and continues to be) a self-contained and internal processor, I remember feeling like it would have been helpful to have had some guidance in navigating my overseas experience as both an individual and as a wife – someone part of a dyadic unit.

After returning back to the United States, I sought out literature specifically for married couples transitioning home from international ministry, and came up relatively empty-handed. As mentioned, I had one semester of coursework to finish and a thesis to write before my graduation. Seeing that I had the time, academic means, background, and aspiration, I decided to fulfill my thesis requirement by creating a resource for other volunteer husbands and wives working cross-culturally.

What need do you perceive that this book meets?

I believe that international service organizations (and those affiliated with them) must start looking at overseas work as more than just the time spent in a foreign location. How you prepare for (insert host country) and how you process your experience of (insert host country) directly impacts the relationship you have with your service in (insert host country). With that in mind, I have identified and separated extended, cross-cultural work into seven different phases: the pre-departure processes of (1) discernment and (2) preparation; the (3) beginning, (4) middle, and (5) end of the abroad experience itself; and finally, the post-service stages of (6) re-entry and (7) integration.

Each chapter of this book is dedicated to one phase of cross-cultural work and contains three exercises that are meant to help partners resolve some of the common issues that can arise in each stage of an international service experience. This resource is dedicated to accompanying those involved with overseas work via a more holistic schema with interactive components.

What are your hopes for the book?

Oh gosh. What a big and lovely question. I think I have two hopes for this book. Firstly, I wanted this resource to straightforwardly, yet gently address sensitive issues that many married cross-cultural workers face – struggles with changes in marital roles, maintaining emotional and physical intimacy, experiences of infidelity, etc. I think honestly dialoging about such topics can better assist couples in managing the dynamics within their marriage in an international context. Secondly, I was very intentional about writing this book in a way that made it accessible across theological boundaries. One of the most satisfying sources of feedback about this resource has come from my Protestant readers. As a Catholic, I am pleased that my living out and communication of the faith tradition to which I ascribe has encouraged non-Catholic couples to more deeply engage with their own religious identities as Christian spouses.

Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about you, your time in Honduras, your marriage, or your book?

I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Pat and I’s first child. My pregnancy was both wonderful and conflictive. During those nine months of our daughter’s growth, I often thought about my 16 girls in Honduras. “Why is it that our child is welcomed into this world by two loving parents while so many other kids are not offered the same loving advantage?” I feared that the love I had for my own daughter would in some way detract from the relationships I formed with the Honduran children who had once been in my care. That fear was quickly quelled soon after our daughter’s birth. Becoming a mother has made me realize just how much each and every kid deserves the awe, unconditional love, and incredible commitment that are part and parcel of the parental experience. I think about and pray for the 16 girls who changed my life in one year, and continue to be grateful for the preparation they gifted me, which has allowed me to be the mother I am today.

Thank you, Ali, for joining us today.

Over to you, Readers. What do you find interesting or attractive about this resource? What phase of cross-cultural work are you currently in? Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing to win a copy of Ali’s book!

68 Comments

  1. Nikki February 12, 2017

    What a tremendous resource! I am looking forward to working through some of the exercises that accompany this book. Thank you, Ali!!

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Many thanks for the appreciation! I’d love to hear your thoughts on what exercises you find most useful!

      1. Ali February 14, 2017

        Oh gosh! I though my picture was going to fit into that little circle next to my name! Ha! Excuse my rather large grin here : )

  2. Kiera February 12, 2017

    This is my 11th year overseas. I came single, got married 4 years in and now we have a daughter. We are preparing this June to move to the U.S., (my husband’s home country but I’m from Canada). For our married life to date, we have worked for the same company, although I’ve been home with our daughter since she was born. Starting this fall, we are entering a new stage of life – he will be working, probably at a school, that I will likely have no professional connection to. Going “back” seems like as big of a life change, if not bigger, than it was to come 11 years ago. I have been doing my best to prepare (reading Looming Transitions, Amy!) etc, but I hadn’t really considered marriage as a specific dynamic to either our life here or the move “back.” I’m intrigued by the way Ali has addressed all the stages of cross-cultural work. I imagine that there would be something here for me in either processing what has been or what will be. 🙂 P.S. I love the fact that something Ali “had” to write is blessing people. Thanks for being faithful to write it, Ali!

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      There would definitely be something here for you, Kiera! Prayers as you make this move. P.S. I loved the way the book came to be, too.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      What a transition that will be! Whew! Be sure to check out Chapters 5-7 (Finalization, Re-Entry, and Integration). I think exercises in those chapters will help you in the grand process that is coming “home.” And thanks for your kind words…a faithful writer is a label I’m flattered to be given.

  3. Valerie Browne February 12, 2017

    What a great idea to have exercises that accompany the book! That is a great idea for people who don’t really have access to other resources or people to help them through the type of life we lead. As I was browsing through the exercises for the “middle” stage of life overseas, it seems there are several really practical tools! This is awesome to know about this resource – thanks for choosing this as one of the books/authors this week!

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      It really is a fabulously crafted resource, almost DIY counseling – which is not to say counseling isn’t necessary, or that only counseling-seeking couples can benefit here, but just that when access is limited, it is a godsend to have materials like this. Thanks for browsing the pages! I’m glad to know this choice was a good one for this week!

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      So glad that you think the exercises are a great idea. In the past, I found myself reading about concepts that always seemed so interesting/necessary/transformative, but could never quite figure out how to make those more tangible. That was my goal with the book activities! I appreciate your feedback.

  4. Deborah February 12, 2017

    Much like Ali, my husband and I moved across the word just weeks after getting married. We intended to stay in China for 3-4 years but God has made it clear that for now we need to do something else. We are still deciding if that something else will be another cross cultural experience or returning to the States for a time. I can say that I am terrified to move anywhere. The first year of marriage while living overseas has been harder than anything I could have imagined or prepared for and now facing yet another huge transition is intimidating. I think this book could be helpful as my husband and I continue to learn about having a healthy, strong marriage.

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      It really could be helpful. A change-of-plans transition, newly married, and cross-cultural living combo is no joke. Grace and peace be yours, Deborah.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      Oh gosh, I’m sure we could swap some stories. Transitioning to being a spouse AND living in another cultural was a bit of a doozy. Day by day gal! I wonder if checking out the I-You-We Care Stars exercise would prove helpful? I wish you wellness in figuring out where you feel called to be next.

  5. Amy Miller February 12, 2017

    I look forward to reading more of her thoughts on being married while overseas!!

    We are currently in the support raising process to move to Nepal. Lord willing, we’ll be there before this Fall.

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      What a good time to jump in to this book! Blessings as you recruit your sending team.

      1. Amy Miller February 14, 2017

        Thank you! I’m learning how vitally important our sending team is!!!

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      Luck and peace! You can start the book at page 1 : )

      1. Amy Miller February 14, 2017

        Thank you!! We’ve been married for 5.5 years and it’s been an adventure from day 1! Can’t wait to see how God directs!!

  6. Jenilee February 13, 2017

    Sounds like an amazing resource! And yes, thank you for writing it! We had been married for 13 years before moving overseas but now, 3 years into our time overseas, I can see how much we’ve grown and how different things are in this context. All help to protect marriage on the field is a huge blessing!

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      Yes! Overseas work is a unique marriage shaper. It’s so nice to see a book come from that angle.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      While my marriage is a young one, I can imagine that there are many seasons of a marital relationship. Context, context, context. You got it. I hope that the book can help in contextualizing your marriage in terms of location and stage.

  7. MaDonna February 13, 2017

    Kimberly, thanks so much for this interview. I didn’t know about this book and think it’s definitely needed. Thanks Ali for taking the time to not just research for your thesis, but to add activities to go along with it.
    I moved overseas as a single quite a few years ago now. Met and then married a year and a half later. We’ve moved often with our three kids in tow. I think this would be a great resource. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      Thanks for your comment, MaDonna! Glad you found this interview helpful!

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      Your love story sounds like an interesting one! I’m so glad that you came across this resource. I’m always looking for feedback about the book’s contents, so let me know your thoughts!

      1. MaDonna February 15, 2017

        Thanks Ali, I just got my email that I won your book. Thanks for offering it. Can’t wait to read it. I’ll do book review on my site afterwards.

        1. Ali February 15, 2017

          Congratulations! I plan on getting in touch with you via email so I can send you complimentary, printable PDFs of all the book’s exercises. I would LOVE for you to review the book on your website. Thanks so much for offering. We’ll be in touch soon!

  8. Angie February 13, 2017

    My husband and I are coming to the end of our term and have differing ideas about further service overseas. Not night and day differences but differences nonetheless. I’m sure we could benefit from this book!

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      I know you would find it helpful as you have those important conversations. Peace be with you, Angie.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      I think you’d find the exercise, Finding Common Ground (located in Chapter 1), helpful in your future discussions!

  9. Liz February 13, 2017

    This is such a great idea for a book! Definitely meets a need out there. I look forward to reading this book.

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Thanks gal!

  10. Felicity Congdon February 13, 2017

    Thank you for sharing! This book was recommended to me recently by my organization’s counseling department. It was fun to read about the authors background.

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      So glad that this resource is reaching to counseling and member care departments across the globe! Yay! Glad to give you a snapshot my funny little life : )

  11. Sherri February 13, 2017

    Sounds like an interesting book. It can put extra stress on a marriage working together overseas, learning a language, adjusting to another culture, etc. We may have expectations of each other. And we go through stages as kids grow up and leave home, and we need to navigate those changes, which are hard enough in your own culture but multiplied overseas. A topic that definitely needs to be explored!

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Wise words indeed! You’ve hit the nail on the head – the whole process of being and becoming married in a culture not your own is true WORK.

  12. Deborah Alexander February 13, 2017

    Sounds like a good book. Our flight overseas was our first time as empty nesters. Needless to say it was a pretty difficult time. We are going on 36 years of marriage and 16 years overseas. We are in the midst of starting a marriage ministry at our church here where we serve. I think the book could be a great help.

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      I agree, Deborah, that this would be great resource to have as you start ministering to married folks. Peace and comfort as you acclimate to a new season.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      I would love to get your feedback as both seasoned spouses and cross-cultural workers. Thanks for your work in this world!

  13. Becky February 13, 2017

    The sharing of this book comes at a perfect time for me! I have been overseas for a single for the past five years. Six months ago, I came back to the US just for a year of furlough, during which time I met my now-fiance, whom I will be marrying this summer, one month after I had been planning to be back overseas. Our plan is to get overseas together (he’s long had interest in overseas work and has done many short-term trips, but has not yet lived overseas), probably 3-4 years after the wedding. So I am aware that much of my overseas experience to date, as a single, will be very different from being overseas as a married, but I’m not sure how to prepare myself, or my future husband, for that. So I am really looking forward to reading this book!

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      I’m so glad this is timely for you! Thanks for saying so. Many congrats on your engagement!

      1. Becky February 14, 2017

        Thank you so much!

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      Providential timing indeed! Yay for engagements! Congrats! I would love to get your feedback as you start from the beginning of this resource. I’m interested in the parallels/differences you see between being overseas as a single woman versus a married woman.

  14. Sarah Gomez February 13, 2017

    Perfect timing as I seek out any resources to aid our marriage – 7 years married and on our 4th month in Nicaragua – just as recent as this weekend my husband and I having very honest conversations about how this time has changed us – our situation is a bit different as this is his home country so most times I feel isolated and going through normal “overseas” transition alone instead of with my partner – thanks for writing and sharing – I look forward to checking into this

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      Sarah, thanks for this comment. Prayers for you as you navigate this new territory in your marriage, self, and place.

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      Oh, the transformative-ness of living and loving overseas! While I think pieces of this book will be informative/growth-inspiring, I wonder if resources that address cross-cultural marriages would also be helpful? Google “cross-cultural marriage”…a few interesting books popped up!

  15. Lisa Anderson February 13, 2017

    Thanks for alerting me to this book! We’ve lived overseas various times in our marriage and I’m sure I’ll wish we had this book back then! Currently as staff care coordinator for our internationally serving staff, I’m eager to read this and use it as a resource within our organization. Eager to read it!

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Always looking to get in touch with folks at the administrative level! I’d love to hear your feedback based on your experience of living overseas as a wife.

  16. Tina February 13, 2017

    I love this!! And, in my opinion, this resource is needed. I’ll be looking into it for sure. Just a side note – I agree completely that motherhood makes more room in your heart to love 🙂

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Your motherhood comment made me smile SO big. Thank you for the affirmation.

  17. Kcen February 13, 2017

    I am so glad this book was written. I was single when I was working in China, but several of my teammates were married and I know it was sometimes harder for them because of the changed dynamics in their expectations. There was so little help available to them. I really agree that Ms really need more resources & support not only for marriage but for depression, insecurity & anxiety that can happen during such huge transitions.

    1. Kimberly Todd February 13, 2017

      Keen, thanks for these thoughts. Here’s to more shared resources and support!

    2. Ali February 14, 2017

      So refreshing to have a perspective of someone witnessing a change in marital dynamics as a non-married individual (at the time). Glad you feel like this resource has a population to whom it can benefit.

  18. Spring February 14, 2017

    My husband and I were mission interns for a year. We will return to the field for a 2-3 year term this summer. Our past 4 years have been full of intensity. I am thankful for a resource that helps people like me

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Me too : )

  19. Kim A. February 14, 2017

    So excited to get my hands on this resource! Always looking for ways to support the marriage of those on the field. When we first left to work in the South Pacific we brough the book Love After Marriage and it helped us so much to process that first year and stay strong as a couple!

    1. Ali February 14, 2017

      Hopefully this resource can provide the same kind of support!

  20. LaRae February 16, 2017

    Thank you for the idea of interviewing authors. I really would like to read this book now. My husband and I are in our 7th year of overseas service. It has been an adventure and ordeal all at once. We have been through so much to stretch, hurt, tear, build, our marriage. My husband is a bit of a bah humbug when it comes to marriage books, as most are formula driven-do this and this just like this and you will get this result. Our lives are so fluid that it is difficult to apply most of those books. Yet, we need ideas on keeping marriage strong through these crazy times. I know that the biggest thing I can do is stay connect with Christ every day. But outside of that it will be interesting to read this resource and see how it encourages, strengthens, applies. Resources and community on this topic are sparse for the cross-cultural worker. Many are too busy to create it and those who are not in cross cultural work don’t understand. Thank you Ali for choosing to use your education to write this book. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Ali February 16, 2017

      My husband is a bit of a bah-humbug about marriage books too…even mine : ) I appreciate your awareness of and desire to strengthen your marriage as it tosses and turns across your seven years of overseas service. I hope that you find some of the exercises applicable to your fluid reality. I would love to hear your feedback!

  21. Monica F February 17, 2017

    Finally getting to this post! What a great resource, and so thankful that people can have access to something like this. My husband and I started our 17 years of overseas work, with just 3 years of marriage under our belt- no doubt we would have benefited from a book like this. We observed a lot of expat couples in those first few years- and began to see ways in which we could improve/strengthen our marriage vs. damage/ignore or marriage! Twenty years strong now- but man, a lot of stretching, pain, and struggle in there. As women, the more open we can be in sharing our experiences about married life overseas, the better. Although, we all share different stories- we can at least encourage, come along-side, and allow our vulnerability to help others grow, and even be inspired!

    1. Ali February 18, 2017

      Here here! Thanks for your words of wisdom and encouragement.

  22. Renée February 21, 2017

    Wow! Sounds like Alexis has experienced some pretty intense stuff in her early years before even being a parent herself. We were dorm parents to a dozen teen MK girls for two years in the midst of our 12 years at Black Forest Academy – it was the most challenging two years of my life and I was already adapted to German culture! I also had launched my son to college but still had my own daughter with us. I also saw those years as “such a time as this” moments for the particular girls we cared for. I am interested in looking into this work by Alexis especially now as a member care worker ever looking for resources for our workers. Thanks for making this your thesis. I think it is quite relevant!

  23. Ali February 23, 2017

    Sounds like we had similar experiences, just at difference stages within our marriages. Interesting! I would love to hear your thoughts as a member care worker once you’ve had the time to read it.

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