by Linda Parker, LMFT

It was just a deeper-than-normal step off the sidewalk curb, and I went down in a flash, hearing the “crack” that made my spirits plunge. A trip to the emergency room confirmed the unhappy results of a broken ankle with a cast and crutches my fate for perhaps the next 6 weeks. I was not a happy camper. It was Christmas and I had places to go and people to see!

After a few days my spirits lifted a little, realizing, though pretty inconvenient at the moment, the time would soon (enough) come when life would return to normal. And in the meantime, people were willing to help and give me time to heal. This gave me pause to wonder, how about those who are emotionally wounded, for whom a definite time frame of healing is not obvious? What preconceived notions do we as caregivers have for how long it should take for a person to get past their anxiety or depression, accept their losses and get on with life (and ministry) or come up to full speed after difficult transitions?  What can be done to facilitate their recovery? Let’s address some of these questions regarding the healing process for emotional pain.

As is the case with physical problems, with emotional difficulties, getting help sooner when signs of emotional difficulty begin to appear gives more likelihood for a quicker recovery than later, when perhaps the person’s functioning is affected. For example, people who come for help at the first signs of burnout may only need reduced responsibilities for a few months and counsel for self-care, whereas those who have “fallen off the cliff” into full burnout might have to leave the field for one or perhaps two years for rest and therapy. Workers are by nature, determined and independent people, qualities needed to get to the field in the first place. The downside is that they sometimes struggle along on their own too long before either noticing that something is wrong, or that they can’t handle it on their own and need help. To help with this tendency, member care personnel can be more transparent about their own pain or give preventive seminars where emotional pain is normalized to give permission to those struggling emotionally to open up and ask for help, sooner rather than later.

Another factor that influences the time it takes to heal emotionally is the resilience factor, the ability to “bounce back” from difficult circumstances. Research shows that, as a group, workers can endure much more stress and emotional pain and still remain more resilient than the average person (Schaefer, et al., 2007). However, most member care personnel concede that more workers are coming to the field with “emotional baggage” from abandonment, abuse or addiction in their family growing up and/or scars of past lifestyles before knowing Christ. These experiences, if not dealt with, may interfere with the development of natural resilience and produce a pool of emotions that are easily triggered by the stresses of field life.  In addition, a lack of self-awareness is often a by-product, which makes the counseling process much slower and recovery more difficult. Astute member care personnel will realize that a worker’s “presenting problem” of anxiety or depression may be fueled by some of these childhood experiences and accept that this deeper work on the past may take longer so that a more lasting recovery can result. On the preventive side, agency personnel screening workers for the field with such backgrounds should not just assume that their candidate’s current healthy functioning in their home country and passion for the work indicates that healing of the past has taken place. Rather, they should ask direct questions about how those past experiences affect their current emotions, attitudes and actions and when and how those issues have been dealt with.  If answers are given that evidence a lack of self-awareness, they should be referred for pre-field counseling.

Lastly, most of us who care for workers have seen how the degree of support in one’s community is a huge factor in the success of the recovery process and even length of time needed. For the global worker, their closest community is often the ministry team they are working with. Member care personnel can help ministry teams work toward a culture of health where there is concern for the well-being of team members, where there is transparency regarding emotional pain, weaknesses, failures and the team leader is leading through example in these things. One question the candidate/potential team member can ask of the team on their customary vision trip is, “who on this team has struggled emotionally and how did you feel supported?” Also, the sending church can be a huge source of support to their global workers who struggle emotionally. Mind the Gaps written by a sending church’s care team (to be found at MindTheGaps.org) is a practical tool to help the sending church come alongside its workers, proactively establishing close relationships that promote open disclosure of difficulties sooner, rather than later, and then providing resources for the global worker’s healing process.

A few years ago I talked with some global workers who were on a team that had had significant conflict over how the emotional and physical pain of one of its members was handled. I was impressed with the commitment of this team to meet together several hours per week over a 3 month period to discuss the issues, heatedly at times, until forgiveness was exchanged and unity was reestablished. Yes, time and energy for kingdom work was diverted to this task, but the outcome was priceless as local believers observed this group of expatriates. “In taking the time to heal your relationships,” the local believers told them, “you have shown us what it is to love one another.”

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