Exposure to Trauma and Stress Among Missionaries
A survey conducted in 2004 by the author explored the level of trauma and stress experienced by missionaries in Russia, particularly in Moscow. Respondents included 26 missionaries representing 15mission organizations and one independent missionary. Counting children, the survey represented104 people. As of 2004, respondents had been serving as missionaries for an average of 7.5 years and had served in Russia for an average of six years. The intent of the survey was to measure the occurrence and describe the nature of traumatic events and subsequent stress on families. The resulting analysis leads to several recommendations listed at the conclusion of this article.
Motivation for the Survey
After 11 years of missionary service in Moscow, the author became increasingly aware of stress as a cause of the departure of missionary families serving in Russia. An informal survey of high school males at a school for missionary children revealed that 85percent had been assaulted in some way during their family’s tenure in Moscow. Several families endured painful infidelities and subsequent divorces. One of the author’s missionary friends was murdered.
Respondents noted a total of 41 specific traumas, in addition to seven general city-wide traumas that had taken place over the previous six years - including apartment bombings, bombings on the Metro(subway), Red Square, and McDonalds, the hostage crisis in the Nord-Sot Theatre, the U.S. bombing of Kosovo (which heightened anti-American sentiment),and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in these. The particular McDonald’s that was bombed was one often frequented by missionary families following their children’s soccer games, and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to heightened security concerns over Americans living abroad.
The school where most missionary children attend was termed a “soft target” for a terrorist attack, and missionaries became increasingly aware of their vulnerability. Some specific personal traumas included being hit by a car requiring evacuation from Russia for medical treatment, being harassed and/or threatened, car accidents, medical emergencies, having friend murdered, seeing dead bodies on the street, attacks on missionary children, and witnessing suicide on the Metro. Missionaries who were in Moscow in 1993 also experienced the attempted Communist coup. While most respondents suffered losses to pickpockets and money changers, other reported crimes included identity theft, attempted rape, being robbed at knifepoint, office robberies, apartment robberies, and car vandalism. In total, missionaries in Moscow experienced an average of9.64 traumatic events per family over an average of sixyears.
Underreporting by Respondents
How accurate are the survey results? Were the traumas and stresses exaggerated or minimized? It is clear that negative data were underreported because the author knows first-hand of multiple instances of missionary families not including traumatic and stressful events. For instance, one respondent did not report a medical emergency that necessitated a family member being evacuated from Russia. Another female respondent did not report being physically attacked binate-American Russian teenagers at the time of U.S. bombing in Serbia and Kosovo. When asked why she did not make note of the incident, she replied that it did not seem very significant compared to other incidents. Another respondent had a family member suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome but downplayed its effects. It also is important to note that while 85 percent of high school males in the missionary school reported being assaulted, few of the parents of these youth reported these incidents in the survey. Respondents from 26 families identified 85crimes for an average of 3.4 crimes per family. Again, this figure represents underreporting, as in almost all cases it does not include personal assaults, especially against teenage males. Nor does it include instances of extortion or pressure to pay bribes. Resolving traffic violations (real and alleged) and paying fines required by neighborhood constables are so common, many respondents did not think to identify them in the survey.
Changes of Residence
Many families have moved frequently and for different reasons. Generally, there are no legally enforceable landlord-tenant contracts. Agreements are often written, but they are personal, depending upon the good will and intentions of the parties involved for fulfillment. Most commonly, missionary families rent from Russians who typically own two apartments, renting one to the missionary and using that rent to supplement their family income. When a change occurs in a Russian family, that often results in the missionary family receiving an eviction notice or a rent increase. Rents typically change according to local economic factors, including constantly increasing real-estate values in Moscow. The Russian capital currently is ranked as the most expensive city in the world for expatriate living, surpassing Tokyo and Seoul (Moscow Times, 27 June 2006, p.1). In total, respondents representing 26 families reported approximately 78moves for an average of three moves per family in six years. They also reported being required to move 26times for an average of one forced move per family.
The Cumulative Impact
The cumulative impact upon a missionary family moving every few years is difficult to assess. The survey probed for a response to the “unexpectedness” and “forced” nature of changes in rental agreements, but only 12 respondents reported having their rent raised “unexpectedly.” Many answered that their rent had been raised, but they expected it. A better question would have been, “How many times was rent raised and what percentage did the raise represent?” The author’s family may serve as a typical example, with three moves since arriving in Moscow in 1993. All three changes of residence were involuntary. The first landlord, 1993 to 1997, increased rent 133 percent over four years. The next landlord actually decreased rent when the dollar fell against the ruble in 1999,and in 2003 gave three months’ notice when his family needed to move back in. This man, a Russian Baptist, is perhaps one of the best landlords any missionary has had in Moscow and the relationship with him was excellent. However, the present landlord has raised rent 88 percent over three years, and in December2005 insisted upon another 25 percent increase – or eviction. In a sense, none of these changes were unexpected, but the long-term impact of the constant uncertainty and the sense of powerlessness in negotiating rental arrangements add great stress to missionary life in Moscow.
Additional Questions and Responses
Have you ever seen a dead body on the street or elsewhere?
Eighty-one percent of respondents reported seeing dead body at least once, and most of those reported multiple instances.
What are the most stressful circumstances on the mission field?
The sources of stress and the number of times that they were mentioned among 26 respondents follow:
• Ministry conflicts (including cultural adjustments, mission team disagreements, and certain national leaders intent on obtaining money)
• Language difficulties 14 (53.8)
• Urban living 11 (42.3)
• Separation from family and friends 11 (42.3)
• Finances 10 (38.5)
• Problems with police and
government officials 9 (34.6)
• Safety 8 (30.8)
• Russian living 8 (30.8)
• Difficulty in forming friendships 6 (23.1)
• Children (including unhappy children,
helping children cope with mission life,
and the feeling that one’s family is
obliged to be perfect 5 (19.2)
• Spiritual warfare 4 (15.4)
• Schooling issues for children 3 (11.5)
• Conflicts with one’s mission organization 2 (7.7)
What Would Help You Stay on the Mission Field?
When asked what would most help them to continue their ministry, respondents gave the following replies:
• Counseling for various percent missionary family problems 15 (57.7)
This was stated in various ways:
o “Effective, confidential Christian counselors in the locale when needed”
o The need for a “safe place” to talk
o “Confidential and anonymous counseling on the field”
o “Some sort of neutral caregiver for missionaries, where missionaries can feel safe to talk about various issues”
• Counseling for children 8 (30.8)
• A sense of having friends who really care 6 (23.1)
• A place to go outside the city to relax 4 (15.4)
• Effective pastoral ministry within one’s mission 3 (11.5)
• Access to marriage and parenting seminars and resources 3 (11.5)
• Greater support from the mission
It is clear that missionaries in Russia, and in Moscow in particular, experience significant trauma –sometimes in the form of one-time events, sometimes in the form of several events over a short space of time, and sometimes in the form of ongoing, cumulative stress. Trauma and cumulative stress work to create heightened anxiety that can lead to depression, burnout, physical symptoms, and various “acting out” behaviors – conditions that can cause the missionary to leave the field. It is also clear that surveyed missionaries tended to underreport trauma and cumulative stress. Why? Perhaps they did not consider or recognize these events as traumatic. Perhaps they simply expected to endure certain difficulties as missionaries and were prepared to trust God in all matters. Because they knew others in the missionary community experiencing the same difficulties, perhaps they did not want to complain or appear weak. Because they were highly motivated and trained individuals, perhaps they expected that they should be able to overcome cross-cultural challenges. Or perhaps they were so busy that they just never stopped to account for all the negative events experienced over time. Although this author served as a missionary in Moscow for 11 years before researching this topic, the tally of what missionaries typically had experienced in a six-year time frame still came as a surprise: 9.64 traumatic events; 3.4personal crimes (not counting graft and/or bribes);three moves, one being forced; and significant rent increases – in addition to the stresses of cross cultural adjustment, language learning, and the general uncertainty and instability of Russia today. This inability or unwillingness to recognize or admit the impact of trauma complicates the process of providing missionaries with needed assistance. It seems clear that help needs to be given as incidents occur, before they accumulate and contribute to missionaries leaving the field.
A third point is also evident from the survey. Missionaries in Moscow not only wanted counseling services; they, in fact, considered such help to be crucial in enabling them to remain on the mission field. A majority (57.7 percent) reported that counseling services would help them to continue on the field and 30.8 percent specifically mentioned counseling services for children as a significant need. In addition, missionaries want help from counselors who understand their perspective and who can relate to the unique circumstances they face.
Finally, when problems are finally recognized and the need for help is acknowledged, missionaries want that help to be “safe.” A surprising fact revealed by the survey was how many people wanted counseling services from outside their mission organization, as that seemed safer. As noted above, several respondents said that they needed a “safe place” where they could talk about problems without fear of “punishment.” In poignant quote, one missionary stated, “We need help with our struggles, but nowhere is safe – or so it seems.”
Missionaries surveyed in Russia tended to underreport trauma and cumulative stress. If not addressed by professional treatment on the field, this trauma and stress can lead to the premature departure of valuable workers from Russia.
Therefore, ongoing educational opportunities addressing trauma and its impact would be beneficial, both for adults and for missionary children. Mission leaders and mental health providers must be more proactive as they anticipate the trauma and stress endured by missionaries in the Russian context. Ongoing, on-site counseling services are a necessity. In addition, mission organizations need to support the need for “safe” counseling outside the mission – need heightened in the minds of missionaries exposed to the traumas and cumulative stresses of life in Russia today.