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.”

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