Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 2


We Are a Family

Rosalinda Walker
Shakawe, Botswana

There are fads in every field. As a representative of my generation, I have participated in the current mission trend of "team". I had observed teams as a campaigner, apprentice, and, finally, as a team member to Africa in l985.

My parents were missionaries long ago, but we were the only family from the Church of Christ in the country at the time. I saw first-hand the loneliness and the stress of bearing a heavy work-load. They tried so hard to become part of the culture (and, indeed, had no choice if they wanted a social life) that I remember having to relearn English on our furlough. I remember how foreign the United States was to me when we returned.

Models for a team

After observing my parents' experience, the team concept looked inviting. We would be taking along our own peer group; we would work as a unit and bear each other's burdens; the children would have American playmates and "aunts and uncles". Often people told us it would be like a marriage, requiring commitment and mutual trust, but bringing great joy. This paradigm is a useful one at times. However, our marriage may be better-than-average, or our team may be worse, but I do not think any member of our group is completely comfortable putting these two concepts together. Our experiences as a group have often been painful. Though we have learned much about getting along with each other, we still have a long way to go.

We search our past experiences to find a more useful model to facilitate solutions to these problems among ourselves. Most of us were raised in congregations in which tensions occurred. Could this be our template? Yet what have we seen? We have seen people whose lives were so busy that they had little time to be with each other, much less to rub each other the wrong way. We have seen people who have had the luxury of avoiding each other until the storm subsided. Sometimes it has been a lifetime. Each of the warring members had plenty of other Christian fellowship. There are many of us in each congregation in the states, but, few viable options in our small and closed missionary community.


Perhaps a simile that fits more nearly with our reality is the model of the family, especially the siblings in a family. This more nearly captures the ethos of the last few years. It is a model that fits in with my own observations and failures.

It all hit me when I read a book which two different friends of mine sent me: Siblings Without Rivalry (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, New York: Avon Books, 1987). The authors have only child-rearing in mind, but I kept applying it to relationships on the team and with our friends and supporters "back home" (who often play a parental role, sometimes without even knowing it).

Sibling rivalry. Dirty words. Yet I began to believe that we were not so unusual. Grumbles come, not only from disappointed missionaries who return, but also from all sorts of mission organizations the world over. The problem that consistently ranks hardest to deal with among missionaries is co-workers. We agonize inwardly, feeling that if we are incapable of having a joyously loving relationship with our fellow-missionaries, what message do we have, after all, for people who do not know the Lord? But, the truth is, we are all hard to get along with, we are all frail and sinful, and we see these qualities more in our co-workers than in ourselves.

Unfortunately, we missionaries can be as petty as any brother or sister anywhere. We stake out our territories and get our hackles raised when they are trespassed. If we think we have been slighted, we feel hurt. If he tells me I "have to" do that, I will refuse out of spite. If he hits me first, I have a right to hit back, maybe just a tiny bit harder. If my brother's feelings have been hurt by someone, I get mad as a hornet and forget that I myself have felt those same feelings on occasion. If visitors tell me how lucky I am to be working with someone so smart, spiritual, talented, etc., I think I might be sick. If anyone insinuates that I should be more like my sibling, I definitely will be ill. We occasionally think in our innermost selves that "He is a brat, a bully, a hypocrite, a lazy-good-for-nothing, a busybody, a snob, a featherbrain, or a sanctimonious holier-than-thou". No one on our team, of course. But you get my drift.

Of what does this remind you? Granted, we usually appear less blatant. We are, after all, sophisticated adults. Lurking beneath the surface are very human feelings. Denying their existence does not eradicate them. They crop up in the most unexpected corners of the world, and hamper our ability to do God's work effectively.


One of the ways in which the team experience compares with that of siblings is in the realm of authority. A sure-fire way to start a fight among children is to put one of them in charge, or, worse, for one of them to put HIMSELF in charge! Woe to the missionary who sets himself up as an authority over the others! Problems arise when (not if) the time comes that an agreement cannot be reached.

Agreement in the myriad of items on which we differ is virtually impossible. In the end it boils down to having the maturity to live in mutual submission. This sounds lofty and grand, but it often feels like one is selling out his or her principles (committed Christians can indeed have differing ways of applying Scripture to arrive at different principles). Or it may begin to look as if one is always giving in to a more hard-headed teammate. Or, more insidiously, agreements may be reached in a meeting, but, later, simply ignored by those who are not comfortable with them.

This is an issue to which sending churches should be particularly sensitive. Ideally, missionaries could have strong leadership in the "home church", and someone to whom they are accountable as well.


Another area in which the paradigm of siblings is useful is in comparisons between missionaries. When comparisons are made, everyone loses. Just as each child is unique in his talents and frustrating characteristics, so is each missionary. Wishing Susie could be more like Sally seldom helps Susie; and it often makes Susie despise Sally.

Even as comparisons are difficult to avoid with children, it is a trap into which many a missionary falls. Some missionaries spend their lives disillusioned that they cannot be "like so-and-so". Some eat their hearts out, and count the number of letters or parcels each teammate receives, keeping a running tally. Some compare salaries or benefits. Others compare relationships with important mutual friends.

Unfortunately, comparisons do not come only from within the individual or the team. People in the host culture also compare team members with each other. It is definitely a struggle to love Tommy when someone tells me that he is far, far, FAR more fluent in the language than I am. Or, "Why can't you be as generous to me as Tommy is?" "Yes, Tommy really understands me." These negative assessments come through loud and clear in any language. And, as is often the case, some people in the host culture will try to play one missionary against another to get the most of whatever they want.

More innocently, sending churches can measure one missionary against another. They seldom do this blatantly; but like children, missionaries hear the innuendo, and are hurt by it. Wise senders know how to praise each person for the appropriate utilization of his God-given talents.

Even people who are friends of several members of a team can be guilty of comparing them. Being unaware of the subtle tensions in the "family", they can assume that the missionaries are happy to hear the comparisons. Friends who do not have to work with my "sibling" seldom know how difficult he can be. They also do not know how I can hurt for him if he is compared unfavorably with me. It makes me wonder how that friend compares me unfavorably when he talks with my "sibling".

Although comparisons are hard to avoid, the common solution of equality is not the answer. As the authors of Siblings Without Rivalry put it, "equal is less". It can never be equal enough. The magic solution is an artful and concerted effort to treat each person as an individual, to meet the particular needs he has at this particular time. No sibling wants to be treated as a carbon copy of someone else; he only wants to know that he is infinitely special and extremely loved.

In a box

It is very human to put people in categories. If this occurs, those who are categorized will take on certain roles and functions when in the group context. When these labels become fixed they are uncomfortable and stifling. Even a flattering label such as "He's the responsible one on the team" can be harmful. The missionary might react by fearing to take reasonable chances lest he should lose his choice position.

Labels, when applied over a period of time, also affect the other members of the team. If he is the "responsible" one, what does that say about me? How does that make me feel about myself, the person applying the label, or my "responsible" sibling? One common, but unhealthy reaction to fixed roles is the desire to take on the opposite role. "If Johnny is the good one, then I'll be the bad one."

No one fits a particular description all of the time. Even in areas where one team member has a particular talent, it is not desirable for other individuals to refrain from developing that same talent. In spite of the fact that they may not be as outstanding as the teammate, those talents are still given by the Lord to be used.


Though the majority of teams form with the idea of going and staying together, harsh realities force readjustments. Someone's parent becomes ill, for example, so one family leaves to shoulder responsibilities "back home." The feeling on the team is not so much that there has been a divorce; rather that one sibling has, perhaps, "gone off to college." The gap is felt and must be dealt with.

On the other hand, families who join an existing team have to learn unspoken rules and traditions. They will have to find their niche. The new sibling absorbs and changes the existing family atmosphere.

Older siblings on the team might greet the recent arrival with mixed emotions. The novel is always more interesting than the old, being filled by its very nature with possibilities. Change, however, is something we all resist if we are comfortable with relationships as they are.

Family business

The model of siblings in a family is useful in deciphering the interrelationships on a team. The other factor to be considered is that these siblings must also work together. They not only co-exist, they have a task to accomplish. We are not just ANY family, we are siblings running a family business!

People who make it to the mission field care a lot about their work. It involves their deepest beliefs and convictions. When there are disagreements, intense feelings result. When a co-worker begins to behave in ways which one might deem destructive to the ministry, it affects every facet of a missionary's life. At the end of the day he cannot leave the work behind. The same people with whom he argued earlier in the day will be at the birthday party that night (or whatever entertainment or relaxation is scheduled). The recreation of the "family reunion" can be ruined by deep-rooted conflicts in the workplace.

Perhaps, if a team were comprised of people with separate and independent ministries, and relied on each other only for social and spiritual comfort, they might be spared the struggles of working together. Most teams, however, find that each person's work does affect the work of the others. When one teammate decides to give away some grain, for example, people start coming to me for their share of ours. And so it goes in little and big things. Independence is virtually impossible. It is unavoidable. Mission team members will be seen as one family.


A discussion of the model of the family business would not be complete without a few words about fighting. First of all, it happens. No one escapes, unless he swallows his individuality entirely, and even then the other siblings will be irritated by this quality!

So it is not a matter of avoiding conflict, for this is impossible. Rather, it is a matter of learning to "fight fair." This is something with which most Christians, even many mature Christians, have never had to deal. It is difficult to keep in mind that the enemy is not the co-worker. Rather, it is what has been said or done to or about a teammate. Epithets applied to a co-worker in the heat of a moment are never forgotten. Gossip is still a sin. Teams that survive have individuals whose tongues are calloused from being bitten.

Parents at times find it expedient to enforce a "time out" for children who are having difficulties getting along. Likewise, teammates must learn to give each other space and time to deal with hurts. Without parental help, they must also set a time and place for talking through these hurts when necessary. Loving and gentle confrontation is an essential skill for the mission field; and it is one with which none of us has had enough experience.  

The Model

The model of siblings is a valuable tool for sponsoring church leaders, mission committee members, friends of more than one person on a team, and team members. It will take hard work to set up new patterns of relating to one another. Old habits die hard, but healthy new ones might help us toward the goal of being a unified happy family in this business. Only the heavenly Father can raise us up to the maturity which we so much need.

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