Before You Go: 12 Practical Ways to Evaluate and Strengthen Your Emotional Health
Missionary life is both joyful and challenging, exciting and heartbreaking. In order to navigate all the ups and downs of missions work in a healthy way, it's crucial for missionaries to develop positive emotional care patterns before they serve.
Annette Pedersen is a licensed professional counselor and is the associate director of counseling ministries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. She shares 12 tips to evaluate and strengthen your emotional health before you serve as a missionary.
In order to grow and thrive, you must first understand yourself. Ask yourself these six questions and share your responses with a trusted friend or colleague. Without an outside perspective, it can be easy to miss patterns or overlook problems.
1. What is your history and experience of stressful situations?
Serving in any form of ministry can be stressful. How you or how your family have responded to stress in the past can give you a clue for how you might handle future scenarios. You can also ask yourself, “How do I bounce back from challenges? Where do I find my self-worth?” For example, if you do a good job but your boss doesn’t acknowledge it, does that change how you view yourself?
2. What is your support system like?
No matter where you live, having a support system of people who know you well is critical to preventing isolation. Who is in your current support system? Will you still be able to have access to them if you move across the country or the world?
“It is important to learn to build a support system wherever you are,” Annette advised. You will need to be intentional to create new systems wherever you might land.
3. What are your social and work patterns?
What is your longest relationship? How frequently do you shift from one job, responsibility or relationship to another? Look for patterns in your life, and consider taking a personality test to help you understand yourself and your tendencies better.
4. What are your cross-cultural experiences and expectations?
Take a step back and consider your experiences and expectations of cross-cultural life. Short-term trips don’t necessarily give realistic pictures of long-term living.
Don’t forget to evaluate your expectations for your future team: “People tend to be more prepared for the idea that the host country is going to be the cross-cultural experience,” Annette shared. She emphasized: “But probably what affects [people] more is the cross-cultural team they are on.”
5. What gives you joy?
Knowing what makes you passionate, excited and joyful is key to finding sustainable long-term living and working situations, even amid sacrifices and hardships. Finding joy in whatever God’s called you to, even when it’s hard, helps prevent burnout.
6. What is your current baseline?
Before you dive into missions, consider taking a stress or burnout assessment (you can even do a marriage assessment if that applies). These assessments can point out areas that might need to be addressed. Then a few years into serving, take the assessments again and compare them. How are you doing? What needs to change or grow to help you thrive?
Small weaknesses can be magnified under pressure, so take the opportunity before you start serving as a missionary to strengthen healthy habits and practices. Here are six areas where you can grow.
1. Physical habits
Make sure you are taking care of yourself physically with healthy habits for eating, sleeping and exercise. Consider expanding life skills that you might need in a new environment such as cooking from scratch, small engine repair, hair cutting and more.
We can all grow in our community and relationships. How can you continue to deepen current relationships and establish new ones that will support you in the future?
3. Ministry and Service Opportunities
Look for opportunities to serve others and practice teamwork and communication skills you will need later in missions. You can even try giving up certain things or habits to stretch yourself. For example, one person who was used to using knives and forks tried eating only with chopsticks for a week.
4. Boundaries and Conflict Resolution Skills
Not establishing boundaries in your life and work can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction, resentment and burnout. Start setting healthy boundaries and when they are crossed, practice good conflict resolution skills. These habits are hard work but they are crucial to helping you thrive.
What are your expectations for your future and job? Annette recommends that you talk to someone with missions experience about your expectations and ideas of what missions life is like. Spend some time discussing where reality and your expectations may differ and how you can manage that tension or disappointment.
6. Family of Origin Issues
No family is perfect and it is important to address issues in your family history, including things like abuse, neglect and mental illness. Seek out help from a qualified counselor or therapist to help you on the path to healing.
Wherever God might call you, the adventure is going to be filled with ups and downs as well as joys and hardships. Even the most faithful missionaries go through seasons of challenge and discouragement. But by evaluating and strengthening yourself ahead of time with these 12 tips, you can better prepare yourself to persevere and ultimately thrive on whatever journey God has for you.