Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission

I don't think I ever posted this here, but the the Intercultural Studies team at my school published my Master's thesis on their website. (Their title for it is better than mine, too.) Don't worry, I'm not going to let this honor go to my head. The school has a strong history of commitment to educating current and future international workers, but the actual ICS department is pretty small. The option of completing one's Master's by writing a thesis (rather than completing a practicum) is a new, not available to all, and not what most are choosing to do. Only three of us wrote a thesis this year.

Get the highlights in my previous post, Equipping New Cross-Cultural Workers.

The school was only asking for a 15,000-25,000-word doc (60-100 pages) and recommended, for “case study research,” focusing on no more than 5-10 agencies.

I was concerned that the sample size would be too small or that more of the agencies I approached would say no, so I started with a list of 20 and ended up profiling 12.

Only later did I realize that processing the data in the time I had to do it would keep me from the additional steps I’d hoped for (follow-up interviews going deeper on key statements, and surveys testing patterns)… and the whole thing was quickly getting too long.

So I think the case study descriptions themselves are more helpful than my chapters on correlations and conclusions. I learned a lot and want to share that with anyone interested, but in terms of original research, it all feels more tentative than I’d like. I’m not making any plans to publish my findings elsewhere at this point.

Enough disclaimers? I'd still be thrilled if you read it or shared it with someone you know!

»  Read about Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission.

Friday, June 17, 2016

"God must have needed another angel."

My Baby Angel, by Draskias Art
He was a garrulous man and we'd just met him at church, accepting an invitation to share a table at a meal before the Wednesday night service. In exchanging pleasantries he discovered that Hubs is a chaplain. People seem to connect with that much more easily than with my ministry. So even though I've been working in missions all my adult life, Hubs comes across the religious professional in our family. Occasionally this rankles.

Maybe I should be glad of it. It means people seldom try to engage me on matters in which I have some expertise and experience, such as relating to people from different religions and cultures or understanding the cultural dynamics underlying global events. Sometimes they still say dumb stuff about those things in front of me which I have a hard time letting pass, but it doesn't seem to occur to them that I might know more than they do about what they're talking about. I'm more likely to get blank stares, though, than people who want to talk world mission with me.

I watch this happen a lot to my husband. People want to talk to him about death, grief, and loss, or reflect on what his job must be like or what he's trying to accomplish, and sometimes they just say the most ignorant things... things I hate to hear, but at least it's just me, not  someone who just suffered a heartbreaking loss.

This time the man brought up a tragedy that had just occurred down in Florida. A two-year-old boy was snatched and killed by an alligator while wading in a pond at a Disney resort.

"God must have needed another angel," the man said with conviction, as if expecting nods and affirmation from the chaplain and his wife.

We both stiffened. What kind of terrible God would... ? Take a child from his parents so cruelly, for his own sake? Need more angels, really, at all? And where does this idea come from that people who die zip right up to Heaven and turn into angels, anyway?  How could someone who grew up in the church and came to this specific church because he appreciates that they teach the Bible (and not just the human ideas and traditions) fail to recognize how many things were wrong with this kind of statement?

I got to thinking about why people might think it's a helpful thing to say. I can think of several possibly comforting or encouraging implications of believing that kind of lie: It suggests that God has things under control, rather than letting the world's chaos run wild; and it suggests that the child is in a better place and has in some sense been promoted, rather than suffering such a horrible experience without any positive results to perhaps mitigate things. It's as if to say: Your baby is OK. Even someone who didn't really believe that might consider it more palatable than alternatives. There are certainly other ways to arrive that these conclusions, though, ways that align better with the teachings of scripture, though they may not sound as slick. The "angel" idea might seem kinder, if indeed people are in a place to receive comfort of this sort (maybe so, maybe not).

Meanwhile, it is hard to sit and listen to someone malign God, really, and say things that are, when it comes down to it, biblically and theologically unsupportable (not to mention potentially very harmful or wounding if said to someone experiencing that kind of loss).

But what do you do? We'd just met this guy and his comment was only made in passing. No one was asking for feedback or instruction here. The right thing to do seemed to be just to let it pass. Hubs has also held his tongue in more sensitive settings, as when a family member or neighbor or nurse or deputy coroner says these words or others like them. To stop them and give a theology lesson isn't likely to keep such words from wounding the bereaved, just to shame and maybe anger or drive away the well intentioned but thoughtless speaker.

What do you do when people say thoughtless but terrible things like that? When would it be OK to confront them? Does it depend on the setting? Who else is present? How long they go on in that vein? Or maybe how well you know that person? Perhaps there are times when you know the person and can speak to them later about the problem, privately, as well as to offer the bereaved a chance to talk about it when the other person is not present.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Mulch, the local approach

At first glance I thought it was a hay truck, but the hay was more brunette than blond, and the bales were kind of small. Turns out it's not hay, but straw: "pine straw," which is to say, pine needles.

I would think they'd be awfully prickly, but apparently the trees and bushes don't mind. It's good for insulation, reduces evaporation, keeps the weeds down, and (at least according to the folks who promote the stuff) is a great way to beautify your landscape.

By the end of the day the bales had been slung out all around the apartment complex. Today contractors are out with rakes and spreading the contents of those bales thickly around all the bushes and trees. Each item looks like it's growing from its very own giant nest. Apparently this is the finished "look," though it will flatten in time to give the appearance I guess I had stopped noticing; last year's pine straw application.  

Have you ever gardened with pine straw? Just an East Coast thing?

Help. I can't get this to rotate. Sorry!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Summer Blues

Hey, it's my old friend, the summertime blues, my very own Seasonal Affective Disorder. This time it's a whole month early. (Usually I fight this battle in June). That may be due to the summer weather and the academic calendar; school was out almost two weeks ago. I graduated April 30.

I suppose it's possible my SAD response is rooted in some long-buried childhood trauma that happened this time of year. But I don't think so. As usual, I had a super-busy spring, and now face that "school's out, there's nothing to do, and nobody wants to play with me" dynamic. After a few weeks I'm usually OK again, and in the long run a quieter season is good for me.

A diagnosis of clinical, or major depression requires that you can check off the boxes on a number of symptoms and have experienced them most of the day, every day, for two weeks, and thankfully I'm far from that threshold even at my lowest lows. Bad days are mixed with good ones. That means drugs and doctors are not the answer...  though counseling, nutrition/exercise, and other behavioral treatments may help.

My favorite description of depression and a rather smart cure for it come from Brer Rabbit. See Depression: Its Causes and Cures (per Uncle Remus).

By the way, garden-variety depression has a much lower threshold than clinical depression, and at least once or twice a year you can put me down for that. The PHQ-2 Depression Screening Indicator asks these two questions:
  1. Over the past two weeks, have you ever felt down, depressed, or hopeless?
  2. Over the past two weeks, have you ever felt little interest or pleasure in doing things? 
Apparently, 82% of those who can give a positive response to one of those questions is depressed, and 92% of those who give positive response to both of them are (read more here).

Want do you think, is that assessment TOO sensitive? I mean, don't normal people feel down or hopeless at some point over the course of a fortnight (at least many a fortnight)? Isn't it normal to have some sad thoughts?

What I once heard described by a medical professional as the Single Item Depression Indicator is probably just as effective. Want to know if someone is depressed? Just ask them: Are you depressed? There you go, there's your answer.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Worldview Survey

Note: I came to grad school in hopes of improving my own teaching and writing and often pay as much attention to how things are taught as what is taught. This is one of those posts that analyzes my grad school experience more for approach than content.

Playing cards from "Magic: The Gathering." The artwork enlivened the
PowerPoint I made for a presentation about Magic for my Cultures and
Worldviews class. "Best in show!" said the professor.

My final class for grad school was a course they call "Understanding Cultures and Worldviews." It's a grand mash-up of cultural anthropology, philosophy, apologetics, biblical contextualization, and personal evangelism—all applied to a project in which students are asked to design and conduct an ethnographic survey in a non-Christian (or at least largely non-Christian) context.

Often students in this class have conducted studies among ethnic communities, e.g., African exchange students, Burmese refugees, or transplanted Sikhs. But the prof encouraged us to consider creative alternatives that would not fit anyone's traditional idea of a "culture" and gave us access to sample papers on groups like surfers, restaurant workers, African-American middle school girls, and Target employees. With research proposals due by the second class meeting, there wasn't much time to make a plan... my group took advantage of the latitude to propose a project focused on members of the community, some 20 million strong, who play a collectible card game called "Magic: The Gathering."

I'd never heard of it, but from what one of my teammates, who had the idea, told me, it sounded pretty interesting. Initial research suggested the Magic community showed signs of being a fairly vibrant subculture. I'd had some interaction with comic book geeks and video gamers, but that interaction was both positive and negative... I wasn't sure which aspects would be best reflected by the Magic players. By the end of the project I realized I'd already rubbed shoulders with Magic player not only at one of the coffee shops I frequented back in Colorado ("Enchanted Grounds Coffee Shop and Gameporium") but also on campus, as a group of students meets in the student center weekly to play the game.

The problem with choosing "Magic players" as a group to study became apparent as we explored the parameters of the assignment. While it included some room for studying the scope and social culture of the group and speculation about what it would look like to identify with the members or reach out to them in a contextualized way--the kind of thing I've done in ethnography projects in the past--what the prof really wanted  was quite different. He expected us to focus on worldview. We would need to put most of our energy into finding out what the people we interviewed believed about the origins and meaning of life, the source of power, man's ultimate destiny, the root of the world's problems and source of any solution, and basis for determining truth and ethics. The seven questions, he called them, though it was more like seven topics.

Yes, these were tricky topics to ease into with a stranger on your first meeting, but at least we could point out it was a school assignment as we wildly scribbling notes or ducked behind a laptop typing (we were working solo, not in pairs, unfortunately). At least they were fluent English speakers. Some of these things would have been tough to explore if they weren't. The whole approach contrasted considerably with the team-and-partner based, discovery-oriented approach I'd used for ethnography overseas in the past, which also usually also focused on questions more sociological than philosophical. So I was a bit grumpy about all this. I love doing ethnography and wanted to do it the way I like to do it! All the more reason, this being a learning experience, to try something different.

Magic: The Gathering is a card game, sometimes played at home
but often at gatherings held in game and comic shops
or conventions like this.

It's true that Magic players don't have a common worldview. If I'd realized how much that would be the focus, I would have tried to find a group actually formed around a common worldview or values... like my dad's Sierra Club. That would have been fun, and the results would have had more validity.

As we worked on our paper and watched presentations from other classmates, I saw what I think is the biggest downfall of this assignment, given the way it's designed: students are encouraged to do interviews with groups that lack sufficient commonality and then interpret and present data about what the group is like, focusing on prescribed topics rather than actual patterns they might discover. On the other hand, it gives students the chance to learn how to research these specific topics (and the professor evidence that they have done so).

If I could change one thing, it would be to do a class session or two--or at least an article or two to read--about interpreting findings. That was on the syllabus but didn't end up getting covered. You know, maybe I could contribute an article the prof might consider assigning, or write a chapter to add to his unpublished manuscript used as a text for the class? May take a look at that over the summer. One of the challenges is that this is a required class, and not just for those coming from or heading into cross-cultural work; the audience are current and future pastors, counselors, teachers, and more, and he's trying to give them skills he hopes they will use in a wide variety of roles and contexts.  

Anyway, Magic players seemed happy to talk to us, often at length, so things went pretty well one on one. As fans both of fantasy and intellectual inquiry, they often had good answers (or at least interesting ones). I may try using questions like these again.

The prof had us work out the questions in advance and asked everyone the same ones, though when there was time and interest, we could ask follow-up questions of course. It took more prep up-front but also took some of the scare out of the work and of course gave us more consistent answers. This was particularly helpful since we were doing interviews separately, pooling notes at the end, rather than interviewing together and reading each other's interviews along the way.

Trying to interest missionaries in doing ethnography has often been kind of a tough sell. Most don't see enough value in it or feel comfortable enough doing it to put in the time and effort necessary to make it really work for them. But this was a really carefully defined approach, put together by someone who not only has a lot of field experience in places like where we're sending missionaries these days, but also has a real slant toward evangelism. So something more like his approach might be a lot more palatable for some of our field workers, than the more ambiguous, sociological and developmental approaches that are all I really knew to give them.

So I have some new tools for my toolbox!

Below is the survey we used. The questions are classified under the academic-ese categories we used in class but written somewhat playfully in ways we hoped would connect with this specific audience. What would you think if a grad student said they wanted to buy you coffee and hear your philosophy of life? While some said no, we were pleased that so many took us off on our offer. We did some of the interviews over email or the phone, but face-to-face seemed to work best with this group.


1. Personal History: How did you get into Magic: The Gathering? Can you tell us your story?

2. Investment: In an ordinary month how much time and money to do you invest in Magic?

3. Networks and Relationships: How well do you know the other people who come? How many of them would you consider good friends? If you needed a favor, like someone to help you move, who would ask? How many of the people you play Magic with would help you?

4. Entertainment and Recreation: What other interests or activities would people who like Magic be “into”? What about you? What are some of the other things you like or ways you spend your time?

5. Influence: What are some ways you think being part of Magic: The Gathering and the Magic community has influenced you or affected your life?


6. Origin: Different people and cultures have lots of different ideas about how everything began. For instance, there’s the “Big Bang” theory, there’s the argument for intelligent design. It’s even been suggested that life began here when aliens came with a crystal containing all the essential components to generate life on earth. What do you believe is the most likely explanation regarding creation or how life began on earth?

7. Power: Is anybody in charge? Do you believe there is any ultimate force in control of the universe? How would you describe it? If there’s no ultimate force, what would consider the source or sources of power?

8. Destiny: Most of the world’s epic stories include some emphasis on destiny—the idea that our existence may have a purpose beyond what we can see. Other people just say you’re here today and gone tomorrow, and when you’re life is over, that’s all there is to it. Which perspective would best represent how you think? Or maybe you have another perspective all together that you’d be willing to share.

9. Problem/Solution: Every great story seems to have characters, tension, and conflict—some kind of problem that needs to be solved. Do you think there’s an ultimate problem in life that needs to be solved? What is it? What do you think is at the root of that problem or the cause of it? What does or would it look like to solve that problem? Is there any solution?


10. Truth: Many of the world’s most intellectually gifted, professionally accomplished, and artistically creative people have openly shared their perspectives about what they believe is true; not surprisingly, many of these perspectives conflict with one another entirely. How do you decide what you choose to believe? What factors are important in proving something? If someone told you something and presented it as a fact or a proven principle, what would you need before you could accept it as true?


11. Values: Do you think there’s only one standard for right and wrong, or is it just a matter or what’s right and wrong for me and what’s right and wrong for you? Or something in between? Imagine you’re at your favorite place to eat when suddenly, some guy you’ve never met before comes up and punches you in the face. Would you suggest that what just happened to you was wrong? Why or why not?


12. Is there anything else you’d like to share which we haven’t asked about?


a. Name, b. Age, c. Gender, d. City you live in 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Equipping New Cross-cultural Workers

Last week I submitted my 152-page Master’s thesis exploring how a dozen different U.S. missionary sending agencies approach training new workers, especially in the area of cultural study, along with an analysis of the pressures, priorities, and trends affecting the training landscape in general.

In any field or profession, new employees require some kind of orientation and “on-boarding” process. In some occupations, one can expect to find a wide pool of applicants who are already basically trained and qualified for the positions they will fill. In missionary service, however, this is not frequently the case. Few enter fully trained and equipped for the ministries they will perform. Applicants may have previous cross-cultural experience and ministry training or experience in their own culture, but the gap between what they know and what they need to know (or be able to learn and do) may be a large one.

How do the sending organizations respond to this reality? What do they do? What do they see as feasible for their agencies and their workers? What factors limit, challenge, or put pressure on their ability to provide training to new missionaries? It seems clear that any resources or recommendations for training approaches will need to take these factors into account, so even if we don't discover some great models of training in this area, we can learn about what it might take to create them by looking at other areas of training.

Working on this project reminded me of my early days as a church mission committee member when I so enjoyed learning about and/or meeting each of our church’s global partners and their diverse ministries. At that point I’d recently been burned by a large ministry with a single-solution response to the world’s problems and was delighted by the diversity I encountered.

The ministries I contacted for this study were not as diverse as the slate of ministries supported by my church back then, but every ministry does certain things a bit differently, and each one shared thoughtful and creative responses to the challenges of equipping new missionaries for cross-cultural work. Part of the agreement I made with contributors was that they would get a copy of the thesis so they could see the results. I hope each participant has at least one “aha!” moment and finds a new idea that could work in their context. Here are a couple that intrigue me.

Enlisting the Senders in the Orientation Process

The small US office of an international organization outsources much of their pre-field training and makes good use of prerequisites and assessments to make sure that those they send are well equipped and have the skills they need, despite limited training resources. Yet they still have to do some in-house training, and like most organizations that includes a candidate orientation event. In recent years they have cut the length of this event in half (from two weeks to one) by creating what they call a “Local Candidate Orientation” which candidates complete at home before coming to the US office. It’s sort of like an orientation in a box, and candidates gather like-minded family members, close friends, and home church leadership to work through it together.

“This change has been very positive and provided a much earlier start to the important relationships with a candidate’s sending church and leaders, as well as meeting and helping the family and friends understand who we are, how we work and care for our workers, as well as much more.”

Several other ministries reported strategies that reduce the time given to topics previously covered during an orientation event by covering this material through an (often more effective) distance-learning strategy. One has developed its own online course that trains new members in all they need to raise their financial support; several others use online classes developed by other ministries to provide training in fundraising or security.

Many also make use of mission mentors or coaches for candidates and appointees before and/or after the orientation event while they are preparing to go to the field. Such changes may not only reduce the cost of providing training or make it possible to provide training despite scarce resources, but often have additional significant benefits of their own. And they take pressure off of other programs and systems, allowing those to be more effective in accomplishing their primary purposes.

Helping Americans Become Self-aware and God-reliant

Another organization, also the US office of an international group, used to lean heavily on the Europe-based training which until recently had been the primary training new workers received before joining their teams on the field. But then they surveyed international leaders and asked what problems or issues seemed common to Americans and developed a US-based training with those needs in mind.

It begins with a two-month online program through a secret Facebook group which is designed to build community within a "cohort" of new candidates. They have weekly assignments and respond with videos and sometimes written responses. They also complete a spiritual gifts survey and work through a checklist of items with a church leader.

Next, candidates participate in a week-long orientation event, working in small groups led  by coaches who lead them through experiential training designed to help them become more self-aware and God-reliant. The event includes a “global village” simulation, an evangelism outreach in a local park, and a visit to the largest mosque in their part of the US where a Muslim explains his faith and hosts a question and answer session. Each of these experiences comes with thorough debriefing to help candidates process what they are thinking, feeling, and learning about themselves and the experience and discuss how it applies to the task ahead.

After the week-long orientation event, new workers continue to prepare together in their Facebook cohorts by working through a book on spiritual equipping for missions, and most go through the Europe-based training and orientation event two or three months later before joining their teams on the field.

The jury's still out on how much the new US-based training system will help, but so far all signs are positive.

Another organization, working primarily in Africa, came up with a similar solution to the weaknesses of their training program, creating a three-step orientation process that includes US training, an "Africa-Based Orientation," and a personalized "induction" process through which each new worker is paired with someone more experienced when they arrive in their new location.

Are Agencies Doing Enough?

I began my research with an assumption that (most) mission agencies weren't doing enough to train or require training for the new workers they send out, and that they ought to do more (especially in the area I wanted to focus on, equipping workers to do cultural research). I ended up with greater sympathy for the agencies given both the challenges they face and the "demand" from candidates and supporters to reduce the amount and cost of the training process.

Many agencies are also keenly aware that there is no substitute for training that is experiential, personal, learner-driven, and happens as close to the context where it is needed as possible. The conventional wisdom, these days, is that more training isn't necessarily better training, especially when we're talking about pre-field training. As a result, many agencies seem to be focusing on doing what they can to assess the needs of the individual and key in on things like character, emotional health, self awareness, etc. "Our assumption is that if these foundational items are in place, the new missionary will be in a good place to learn," said one leader: "We have always felt that much of what people need will be best learned on the field under the direction of our outstanding field leadership structure." 

“There is a limit to how much we can front load their preparation," emphasized another training leader. "I think we can encourage and make good resources available... I would add [that] for Americans it is also very important that they understand their own culture and how it is perceived by others, and how to work well cross culturally by adapting ‘our’ ways.”