The 5 Types of Stress Every Missionary Faces

The DAR debriefing retreat I attended last week was a wonderful time with 36 other missionaries and 25 children to consider the common joys, challenges and stresses we face serving cross culturally. I left very encouraged, more relaxed about how I'm adapting to life in the States, and with some new tools to help me take good care of myself.

Three topics we discussed really grabbed my attention: Stress, transitions, and identity. We talked about five categories of stress that missionaries face. When we made a comprehensive list of the stress experienced by my group, I was sobered by how much stress missionaries experience on a daily and cumulative basis. I gained a renewed appreciation for how much stress I've experienced living in Spain (even though I really enjoy being there). I realized my attitude has been "just do it" (common to all missionaries) and I've failed to appreciate how accumulated stress impacted me.

Below are the five main categories of cross-cultural stress, followed by some of the specific stressors in each category that have affected those in my group.

1. Situational Factors: Dirt everywhere; pollution; earthquakes; team conflict; heat and humidity; leadership problems; constant turnover of teammates; changes in leadership structure; government bureaucracy; being hassled at road checkpoints; corruption/lack of integrity; spouse's workload; unable to form close friendships; loss of relational/emotional support; poor heating; frozen water pipes; isolation and loneliness.

2. Daily Hassles: Communication challenges; language learning; crowded public transportation; changing schedules and plans; no hot water; constant interruptions; filtering water; bike stolen; adjusting to local babysitters; not being "one of them;" being a minority; beggars everywhere; parenting difficulties; always more to do than time allows; everything takes longer; shopping; car repairs; daily life tasks; noisy living environment.

3. Life Events: Missing birth of grandchildren; death of parents and family members; moving overseas with 6-month-old; miscarriage; pregnancy; children moving on; moving many times; residency renewal issues; adjusting to new city, home, language, and culture; changing friendships; no stable place to stay when in USA; major illness; surgery; move from city to village.

4. Traumatic Events: Confronting thief in my home; near fatal accidents; seeing fatal accidents; chronic poverty we can't escape; not being with my sister when she almost died; marriage issues; feeling non-supported by our church; protecting children from dangerous local events; unplanned return to U.S. due to terrorism or residency issues; struggling with cultural adaptation; "American-ness" affects work with nationals; mass exodus of teammates.

5. Personality/Gender: Living in a male-dominated culture as a woman; being an extroverted woman in a culture where women are to be silent; living in fatalistic culture; perfectionism; struggling with being performance driven; trying to live up to expectations of adopted culture; questions about singleness; an extrovert working alone; confronting American stereotypes; need for more down time; private personality in a very nosy culture; being a control freak.

As I listened to these stressors being read out loud, I was a bit overwhelmed as I considered how much stress we deal with as missionaries. As a group, we were amazed and almost speechless when we saw the degree of stress that accompanies missionary life.

I so appreciate the continued prayers of friends and supporters during my HMA (Home Missionary Assignment), as I dedicate time to reflect upon the joys, challenges, and stresses I've experienced during the past seven years. In addition to the stressor categories I mentioned above, I was reminded that I've gone through six transitions since June 2008. My reaction was, "No wonder I've been feeling so tired!" I left the retreat recognizing that one reason God brought me back on an unscheduled furlough is to have time to rest and renew my energy, to reflect upon and process my missionary journey thus far, and to prepare for my return to Spain, which, Lord willing, will be this fall.

Chery Flores is an MTW missionary serving in Spain.

Chery Flores in Missiology on May 13, 2015

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