Cultivating Longevity in Cross-Cultural Missions

Now that my wife and I have been living and working cross-culturally for nearly 31 years, the question will often be posed to us, ‘How do you stay a long time?’ Younger people who are missionary candidates are often wanting to know the secrets of longevity as they contemplate moving into another cultural setting. I first would say that many of these same answers would equally apply to longevity in ministry in one’s own cultural setting. Working cross-culturally is simply taking your spiritual gifts and using them in a new setting, rather than using them within the culture of your birth. Although I have never sat down and tried to make some kind of comprehensive list, these are the things that come first to my mind.

Before I begin my list, I want to share a picture that has been very helpful to me over my years of service. It came from a book put out by Overseas Missionary Fellowship on living cross-culturally and I read it early on after arriving on the field. It was an article on the distinction between culture shock and culture stress. Culture shock is a pretty familiar term to most people and refers to that sense of disorientation we all have when the familiar cues of our own culture are removed and we are trying to navigate in the unknowns and ambiguities of a new setting. It wears off as you begin to learn and understand the new social system. Culture stress however, is something that does not go away entirely but can only be reduced. It refers to the stress points that we will have in a new culture, where cherished values and ideas that we have are opposed or in conflict with something in the new culture. We may be able to understand it to a degree within the framework and perspective of the new culture but never totally accept it. It also may be something that is so deeply wound into us that we can never fully divorce ourselves from that perspective, even though we can understand and operate to a degree in a new framework.

The article said that while you cannot remove the stressors, you can lessen their impact by dividing them out with stress reducers. So the picture is that of a numerator and denominator with the stressors being on the top and the stress reducers on the bottom. Thus if your stressors are say a level ten, and your reducers are only a level 1, you have a total stress level of 10. But if your stress reducers are at level 100 then your total stress level is only .10. Many of the things in the list below function as stress reducers, they are things that lessen the impact of external stressors that you don’t have much control over.

Each one of these could be expanded, and perhaps in future entries I will take develop some further. For now I will just list ten things that are the first things I think of when come to the topic of longevity…

1. A rich personal devotional life. This is the primary spiritual resource. You need to have lots of tools and variety to keep your prayer life fresh.

2. Ministry flows out of who you are as a person and family. Ministry is not in opposition to family.

3. Do not take yourself too seriously. Relax and enjoy. God is big and you are small. We all tend towards a messiah complex. Embrace grace and minister to those God brings to you.

4. There is no substitute for quantity of time in raising children. When you have emotionally healthy and spiritually strong children who are able to leave you home and make their way in the world, it makes it much easier to continue your work in another place.

5. The number one indicator for a successful cross-cultural worker is getting along with people, both local and your team.

6. Remember that stuff happens wherever you are, you cannot blame your new culture for everything. There are life cycle issues.

7. Language. You cannot overestimate the importance of learning the local language and culture.

8. Keep a culture journal, suspend judgment, use local informants to help explain things, find local mentors in ministry and culture.

9. Take a day off.

10. Learn to say no, work in your gifts and strengths, play to the crowd of one and not your home constituency.

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