Shortly after returning home from the field we had dinner with a good friend. She was a veteran of life overseas and it was refreshing to sit and talk with someone who understood about the ups and downs of life on the field.
As we chatted she shared about a friend of hers who was getting an advanced seminary degree to specialize in counseling overseas workers dealing with mental health issues and general problems they had developed on the field. We nodded vigorously and were encouraged to hear about someone who has a vision and heart for such ministry.
She went on to tell us she had recently shared about this friend with another of our mutual friends. That friend’s reply was, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Why do overseas workers need something like that?!”
My mouth dropped open. I was dumbfounded. This friend didn’t get it at all.
Maybe it was the weight we were carrying back from the field. We’d seen up close the scars left by years of insufficient member care and mental health issues. I’d glimpsed the ugly firsthand. The way wounds just can’t heal in a place so broken.
When we left for the field in 2010 we never expected to work alongside so many broken people. Granted, some of the folks we worked with had hearts not attuned to Gospel, but we also worked with people who claimed a growing relationship with Christ.
It only confirmed one thing for me. You can’t fix something if you’re broken.
On a daily basis I could look around the expat community and see men and women striving to bind up their own wounds by doing good work on the field.
Yes, we’re all broken, but it is Christ who binds up the brokenness and gives us the grace to minister whole even as broken people. I’d be lying if I said I was expecting to work with a group of emotionally struggling people.
At times it was unclear what we were there to do more of; work with nationals or minister to our expat brothers and sisters who were struggling deeply with their own demons.
How do you write that into a neat and tidy letter home? How do you tell the whole story to supporters and people personally invested in your work?
My reaction to my friend’s story came from a deep place of longing for people at home to truly understand. I never guessed that I would come home from the field with my heart and mind changed so drastically about the reality of what life overseas is like and the toll it can take on a mind.
I thought I knew, but I didn’t.
Her story served as striking proof that there is a deep chasm of understanding between those who serve overseas and those who send us overseas. Part of that chasm exists because the risk of being real about these issues puts our ministries at risk. Admit a struggle and watch your supporters drop like flies.
There is a tendency for us to put people on pedestals who choose to do risky Kingdom work. We assume them to be above the pitfalls and struggles of everyday folk. That’s why when a pastor fails personally or in ministry we recoil in shock. That’s why the idea of an overseas worker having a complete and total breakdown with full on PTSD seems outside of the realm of good Christian service.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a call to holiness as believers. What I don’t believe is that anyone, pastor or otherwise, is called to a higher degree of holiness. We are flawed and grace needy and the only way we minister if out of that need for Jesus. But there is a line that can be crossed that leads to burnout and irreparable damage to the mind, body and soul.
There are people we served alongside who will only heal, in this life, by God’s grace.
Along the way some of us will experience wounds that need healing for us to continue on in life and ministry. We need to enter into our work realizing that some of the people we encounter will already be walking around with limps. We also need to know that not everyone back home is going to understand this very real fact.
Have you been surprised by the mental and emotional health or lack therof of co-workers on the field? Do you struggle to tell the whole truth to those back home who support your ministry?
We’re praying that the Velvet Ashes Retreat will bring healing and renewal to many. The retreat will be opening soon! We’ll be launching a bit early to let those of us with slow internet have time to download the videos.