We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.
It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.
Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.
Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.
Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.
The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.
These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.
This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.
I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.
Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.
Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.
Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.
Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash