“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 (NLT)
At an annual leaders' meeting for OM's Arabian Peninsula field (AP), trainer Durwood Snead, missions director at North Point Ministries, talked about the differences between problems and tensions. “So often things we consider problems are not problems to be solved but tensions to be managed,” he explained.
“Tension is like fire. It can warm you or it can burn you,” he continued. However, “if you don’t have tension, you don’t have progress.”
The group, leaders with long-term ministries in the AP, shared amazing stories about God’s work in the region. They also acknowledged that life there wasn’t always easy. Together, they compiled a list of ten tensions they encountered on a regular basis.
1. Safety and security
Life in parts of the AP seems stable, but political tensions across the Middle East make security tenuous at best. Although workers have lived in the Arab world for decades, many have moved countries at least once, not always by choice. Different countries have different levels of safety and security; so do different people.
“When we’re thinking of an event or security measures, we must consider those at the greatest risk, including local believers,” one leader shared. However, ultra-security can also hinder communication, teamwork and progress. Sometimes local believers—who risk their lives rather than a visa—are most bold about their faith. Workers must constantly determine what is wisdom-driven and what is fear-based.
Family can provide a built-in overseas support system, but managing everyone’s activities can also create chaos. When the husband wants to do one thing, the wife desires something else and the kids need to attend events as well, life gets complicated. Not to mention the pressure of family “back home” and responsibility for aging parents.
“Because of educational costs, there’s a tension between schools being either not very good or very expensive,” a worker explained. “To solve that, my wife’s home-schooling the kids. Her Arabic’s superb and she loves being alongside people. But [teaching our kids] means she doesn’t have all the time visiting local friends.”
Everyone has 24 hours a day, but full-time jobs and families command the bulk of those hours. Time-related questions constantly crop up. How much time are people willing to give the community: local friends and other workers? What time of day can they meet? Leaders have to factor in families – work schedules and kids’ bedtimes – when scheduling team meetings. And there is always more to do.
Tension arises when someone suggests adding another activity, “a thing that’s obviously godly,” one worker described. “You want to say yes, but if you do, all manner of things will suffer.” Taking on too much, the workers said, is a recipe for burnout.
“Two days ago, I came off a roundabout, and one guy cut in front of me by passing over a white line,” a worker recounted. Everyday, there are “cars weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds in town,” another described. “Driving here is insane,” a third admitted. In the AP, driving can be both physically and emotionally dangerous “because you start drawing cultural conclusions from the way people are driving. It’s detrimental to my attitude towards locals,” he said. “The most stressed I get is when I’m driving to work.”
Prayer gatherings and meetings certainly contribute to vibrant team life, but not all members leave feeling filled. “Maybe it’s an introvert-extrovert thing,” one worker suggested. “We’ll meet, talk for a long time, pray. You can see the extroverts, by the end of it, they’re incredibly energized. Those of us who are introverted, we’re exhausted…All I want to do at the end of a meeting is go lie down in a quiet room for 20 minutes.” Leading teams can be complicated and confusing, learning how to blend different personalities and expectations.
Workers agree that the better one’s Arabic is, the better he or she can connect to the heart of locals, yet some people who speak very little Arabic lead incredible ministries. In a mixed environment, some locals speak good English; others don’t. “Arabic is a difficult language to learn, and it takes a lot of time, but it is still important,” one worker noted. Initial language studies on the field might not yield fluency, and full-time jobs can compete with further lessons. Figuring out the language causes a few to work at it too hard, others to ignore it and some to slowly add pieces of vocabulary and grammar over the years.
7. Work and ministry
“If you go back to 'work as worship', it’s all one,” the AP field leader explained. “I don’t see a tension between the two, but some people feel it.” Practically, workers might decide whether to visit locals after a 10 (or more) hour work day. One worker shared that he often works 50 hours a week, but communicating the holistic nature of work as ministry to those at home is challenging. Even though he spends his work days with local colleagues, “the expectation is that you should be doing outside [ministry]”.
8. Cultural differences
Generally, workers move overseas ready to encounter and adapt to cultural differences with the host culture. “When you meet a local, you expect cultural differences,” one worker explained. “Within the worker community, you expect it less because you’ve got all that shared foundation of Christ and the Bible.” However, differences within those groups can also cause tension. At meetings, certain cultures might take over. Various nationalities are more sensitive to particular topics, and workers need to try to avoid inside jokes. When workers go on furlough, they also take adopted international idiosyncrasies with them, often needing to readjust to their home cultures.
With lowered oil prices, job insecurity among workers is high in the AP. Some employees have received late paychecks or only a percentage or their salary. The instable economy creates insecurity among the locals as well, a worker said. “They don’t know when this is going to end.”
Life in the Arabian Gulf is expensive. In a family where just one adult works, it’s hard to make ends meet. People can’t always afford travelling to take necessary breaks or attend ministry training events. Socioeconomic differences exist among the worker community, depending on backgrounds, jobs and pay levels. “There’s always a danger of jealousy,” a worker noted.
Despite the tensions present in the AP, workers embrace the challenges because they want to obey God. “If God has laid it on your heart, you need to be doing it, and you then push through whatever bit of resistance gets in the way,” one long-term worker explained. “You live with it because you know that God loves you so much that you can trust Him through the tension.”
“When I hear that something’s hard, it actually makes me want to stick at it, because some of the greatest things that happen, happen through hard times,” the OM AP Field Leader said. “We’re content to live in this world of tension. We want to thrive in this because if we do, the kingdom of God will be expanded in our area.”
Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM International, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.