Five Themes Facilitating Ill Health and Ineffectiveness Amongst Global Workers: Theme #1 Spiritual Anemia

© Scott E. Shaum 2014

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The next 5 posts will address one of 5 themes I am seeing on a very consistent basis that lead to ill health (emotional, spiritual, relational, physical, etc.) and ineffectiveness. These themes are restricted to the arena of shepherding global workers. Of course, there are other issues that are of concern as well, such as field leaders being under-resourced and trained, poor team cultures, and inadequate ministry skills. These topics will focus on 5 themes related to holistic health which of course impacts effectiveness in missional objectives.

The 5 themes are:
1. Spiritual Anemia
2. Holistic Exhaustion
3. Relationships in Crisis
4. Identity attached to role and performance
5. Lack of permission for self-development and self-care

This post will address the first theme, that of spiritual anemia.

Anemia is defined as lacking power, vigor, vitality; listless. This is a startling, but all too accurate picture of many, many global workers’ spiritual life. Again and again when I ask people about how they maintain vitality I receive vague answers about exercise or going to a local fellowship – if that is an option. It seems all too seldom that a profound sense of God’s presence is experienced in other’s lives. This need not be.

What is to often manifested is a spirituality that is woefully insufficient for the vocation of living and working cross-culturally. In our own cultures we are able to create a spiritual life that gets us by. We can dabble in bible study, attend a few small groups, pray on the run, attend Sunday services and have hoards of resources at our disposal from radio programs to conferences. We know how to survive in the familiar environs of our home country. When we move to a new culture, however, the demands of life and work quickly begin to outstrip that level of spirituality. We suddenly find ourselves in a place where even the most mundane of activities cause high stress – like buying groceries or merely commuting. These stressors are everywhere and unrelenting. Further, the spiritual environment is usually resistant to our faith. We begin to experience spiritual resistance and often times outright attack. We can get by for a while but eventually the well will run dry. Then the confusion sets in. We can’t understand where God has gone, why we feel so disoriented, and why life feels so overwhelming and confusing.

Ponder this question: Is your spirituality sufficient for your vocation?

Let me define terms working backwards. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare. The closest English word that gets the gist is “calling”. Our vocation is all-encompassing of our various roles and relationships. So, for example, my vocation consists of being a child of the Living God, a husband, a father, a friend to many, a shepherd, a teacher, a leader in an organization, on and on. These are all expressions of who God has created and redeemed me to be. This is my vocation. By sufficient I do not merely mean good enough to get by. Rather we are seeking  breadth, depth, and a quality of practice that facilitates deepening  relationship, personal nourishment, and on-going formation. And we think way too categorically in the Evangelical world regarding our spiritual life. We slice our world up into our devotional life and work life and family life and personal time and those worlds may or may not interconnect. What does a spirituality look like that encompasses all of life, all day long? This is a question to answer very individually as we are all in extremely different contexts. There will be no simple formulaic answers here. Be encouraged to convert these questions into prayers and see how God begins to shape practices in you.

Some more questions for you:
How is your biblical literacy? Typically it is way too low amongst grassroots workers.
How much time are you spending weekly in true biblical study – digging in and learning and being fed?
What is your capacity to commune with God? By that I mean, simply sit with him, enjoy his presence, allow him to tend to you, renew and nourish you?
How do you experience the realities of being loved by your Father and being his personally chosen, adopted child? Is this your core, motivating identity or is that tied to other elements?
How do you facilitate attentiveness and responsiveness to God throughout your entire day no matter where you are or what you are doing?
Who do you have as mentor, coach, spiritual guide and/or spiritual director with whom you speak at least monthly?
How often do you take a day of prayer and solitude?
How often do you attend an event where you are primarily receiving input into your own vitality and growth?
If any or all of these questions feel overwhelming, simply take note of that impact and start small. But definitely start somewhere. Ask God to teach you, he has promised in his word that he will do just that.

A brilliant quote from Morris Dirks: “If you are failing to feed your soul, while at the same time you are handling sacred responsibilities, the disconnect will finally become too much.” Marriage, singleness, parenting, language learning, being a teammate, leading others, being a friend – these are but a few “sacred responsibilities” we might be carrying.

The bottom line is this: living cross-culturally requires a higher level of spiritual intake (and other forms of self-care I will mention in the next post) than living in our own culture. Anemia is deadly. What people in the world need to experience is not a well-oiled team or a slick program. Anyone can do that. What they need is the Risen Jesus Christ. Either he is overflowing from your own topped-off well or not. Not much latitude there. We need much more time in the Word, in solitude and prayer, in personal reflection, in rest, in reading books that stimulate us, in seeking counsel from others and a lot less time numbing ourselves on the web or other entertainments or pure, frenetic busyness. Nothing wrong with those realities in and of themselves. But they will not nourish our souls to the point that we will thrive. Let me state it again – we need a lot more time nourishing ourselves spiritually. Do you feel guilty even thinking about it? Then you are going to have to wrestle with God over that reality. I will speak to the permission dynamic in theme 5.

A few more thoughts to influencers:
Leaders: If you have influence over a group of people then this topic must be a primary concern of yours. The first concern is your own vitality. You cannot lead someone to places you are presently not yourself. If you are spiritually dry, that is the influence you will offer. Modeling for others is a crucial opportunity and responsibility of leaders. Then take the initiative to not only ask the questions listed above, but then to repeatedly give permission and resources to facilitate others’ spiritual vitality. Did I mention repeatedly?

Shepherds: This is your PRIMARY work. Again, first for yourself. You cannot handle the sacred responsibility of shepherding others souls while your own grows thin. People need a living model of how to live and work in communion with the Triune God. Then, ask people questions about their spiritual vitality. Do not let them off the hook if they are vague. Be gentle, gracious and empathetic, but do call them to a deeper communion with God. Many people need coaching and mentoring in this area. They do not know what to do on a day of prayer or in a time of solitude. No one has taught them how to allow God to tend to them, love them and renew them in the complex context of cross-cultural life and work. They might need resources for personal bible study. They may need books. Make this a top-shelf topic every time you speak with others. Shepherd sheep to the pasture that is the Living God.

One more group to address – parents of little ones. If you have children in the home, especially pre-schoolers, an article like this can elicit outright hilarity or maybe scorn. “Vibrant spiritual life? Are you kidding? I am just trying to not kill and eat one of these creatures!” My wife and I raised three boys that were each all boy to the bone. There was always a football scrum in the family room – even in our 700 square foot flat in Asia. But do not give up, it can be done. Be creative. Think outside the box. Tag teaming with a spouse is key. One of you take a 1/2 or entire day alone. Then trade. Do that same routine with another young family in the area – cover the kids for a block of time and trade. One can always train the kids about “quiet time.” Every afternoon have a nap time or post-lunch time to play alone, color, read,  or on rough days even plug ’em into a movie cuz mom needs her own time out in the corner. And definitely keep Sabbath as a family. Also, this is not meant to be trite or overly spiritualistic but the shaping of little souls is one of the greatest spiritual practices God has ever given us to shape our own souls (remember, think outside of boxes and categories – all of life is a practice for walking with God as our hearts are attentive and responsive to him).

Rest in him, he knows right where you are. Do not give up. Be determined to lean into him, he is right there ALWAYS pouring into you. He does not expect us to work harder at this. This is not my initiative here. This is not a self-help effort. He invites us to respond to his redemptive, loving presence and activity in our lives. How are you being responsive today?

Key Resources:
Michael Reeves Delighting in the Trinity and Christ our Life
Peter Scazerro Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Ruth Haley Barton Spiritual Rhythyms
Eugene Peterson’s older works, you can start with The Contemplative Pastor
Stephen Seamonds Ministry in the Image of God
Moriss Dirks Forming the Leader’s Soul: An Invitation to Spiritual Direction

As always, I’d love your thoughts and ideas. What have you found helpful? How are you mentoring others in this area?

Next post: Theme #2 Holistic Exhaustion.

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