As I write this, I am teaching at China Lutheran Seminary in Hsinchu, Taiwan. After I addressed members of a mission society here the other day, I was asked a thoughtful question. I thought I’d report the question and also, in more condensed form, my response. (Thanks to the members of the mission society and to Dr. Stephen Oliver, an LCMS pastor who is a member of the faculty at China Lutheran. It is quite moving for me to be with folks internationally who are working to share faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their culture.)
Q: Since you have worked with missionaries for some time, can you tell us what you think the biggest problem is that works against missionaries being healthy and working effectively in their ministry?
A: I believe that missionaries share a problem — perhaps a better way to phrase it would be to “share vulnerability” — with most workers of the church. While there are particular challenges for missionaries, of course, I believe common concerns with other workers are there as well.
This common vulnerability has to do with the tendency of workers of the church to believe that they must present a public face that is always positive. Somehow, workers of the church can come to believe that regardless of how they are actually feeling (as in anxious, depressed, unhappy, angry, etc.), they must look like they are joyful, satisfied, and at peace.
This often creates a gap between the real self (as the worker experiences himself or herself) and the image that is presented to others. The larger the gap, the more vulnerable the worker is to issues of burnout, longer-term unhappiness, and stagnation. This is because it takes great energy to maintain such a fa‡ade. As more and more energy is used to bolster this increasingly sagging picture, the worker becomes more listless and has less energy to operate creatively in ministry.
For instance, if the worker’s marriage is in significant conflict, it is hard for both the worker and her/his spouse to maintain a public picture of a “happy” couple. Likewise, if a worker is feeling anxious and tense, it is hard for him/her to bottle that up so much that it cannot be seen by others.
Sometimes I do this myself — pretend that all is well when it is not. When I do this, it is partly, I think, because I simply do not want to be vulnerable about what I am really feeling, and partly because I believe that I am duty-bound to present a positive front for the sake of the Gospel.
The problem with this thinking is that such a fa‡ade does not do justice to the Gospel at all. The message of the Gospel is that I am loved by God in Christ despite who I am, what I sometimes feel and think, and even how I sometimes behave. My weakness points to God’s strength and love. In sharing our actual vulnerabilities, we point beyond ourselves to the greatness of God’s love for us.
In short, the biggest problem that works against workers of the church being healthy and working effectively in their ministry is their own spiritual life when that includes a tendency to deny the reality of their life experience rather than to acknowledge it and flee to the cross. Having a spiritual advisor or director would help immensely in this.
It is also important for people who are served by the worker to understand this vulnerability and not attempt to paint a picture of expectations for the worker (and her/his family) that are not realistic.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at bruce.hartung@ lcms.org.
Posted Feb. 28, 2005