Disillusionment and the Cross-Cultural Worker

1996-1999. Our first term of service in a faraway land. A roller coaster ride for sure: Civil war. A subsequent peace treaty. More unrest. A trip back home for the birth of our second child. During that time, we learned of my dad's diagnosis of cancer. Less than a year later, we were back in the USA for his funeral. Throughout those three years, we were watched closely and questioned regularly by government authorities. In the mix of it all, we endured a season of crisis within the NGO (humanitarian organization) we were working with. 

As I look back, it was three years in which I cycled through feelings of hopelessness and great excitement. In the worst of times, I questioned my calling. I'm just now remembering a conversation with my wife in our living room. The NGO we worked with was imploding due to interpersonal conflicts which had been boiling under the surface. After another emotionally exhausting day of meetings, I came home and told my wife it was time for us to give up and go home. If she had agreed, I would have been tempted to start packing. And the whole terrible, beautiful story would have looked much different today. We ended up staying (and in many ways thriving) another 15 years in the same location.

For most expat workers, myself included, what brings us to the point of disillusionment is not usually war, or a crisis in the family, or sickness, or even the death of a family member back home. Although those events are the source of much stress and strain, the thing that often brings us to the breaking point is failed relationships, especially among our expat colleagues in our companies and on our teams.

My first term is a good case study. With all of the hazards of cultural adjustment and personal life encountered and endured in those tumultuous 3 years, the thing that brought me to the lowest point of despair was the hopelessness I felt due to failed relationships among my expat and local colleagues. The same may be true for you. Nothing messes with a sense of calling and causes feelings of disillusionment more than relational issues. Here's why:

The present reality betrays our highest values. As cross-cultural workers, many of us have this in common: we place high value on relationships. This is one big reason we crossed all those time zones- because we believe relationships are important to God the Great Reconciler. Therefore we have a hard time sleeping when relationship issues go unresolved. No wonder unresolved conflict weighs so heavily on our hearts, even causing us to question our own callings if things aren't working out.

We feel distracted from the "real" work. Nobody comes to the field expecting to spend loads of time dealing with interpersonal conflict and unresolved issues among fellow workers. Language acquisition and effective, productive ministry is what we're after, right? But sometimes we find ourselves caught in the middle of a crisis which becomes so distracting, physically and emotionally, that we have little capacity for anything else. If this persists, it can lead to the next thing...

Disillusionment sets in. When relationships go south, our world of ideals and expectations can be shaken. I personally recall thinking to myself, If this is what cross-cultural service is about, I want nothing to do with it. Over the years, I have sat with a good number of colleagues who have felt the same way.

Without correction, the disillusioned worker may be able to continue in a career, but it's much more challenging to stay faithful to a calling. Disillusionment is dangerous because it fosters a critical spirit which poisons the pot.

The good news is that disillusionment may be just what we need to re-calibrate. One definition of the word is "to free or be freed from illusion". In other words, it allows the discouraged person to have their false ideals and expectations corrected and to be o.k. with some of the messiness which life dishes out.

Let's face it. Relationship issues are an occupational hazard of cross-cultural service. But I'm convinced it's possible to thrive and stay in the game even during seasons of relational strain. Here's a few quick tips:


Are you getting ready to go? Go expecting a mix of the good, bad and ugly when it comes to relationships. This is not being cynical or faithless; it's simply setting realistic expectations for yourself and others. With that expectation in place, along with a determination to extend lots of grace and forgiveness, we can set ourselves up for success.

In the Trenches...

Determine not to allow negativity and gossip to poison your heart and mind. Refrain from making judgements about locals or expats based on hearsay and one-off encounters. Get to know them yourself. Give it time.

Remember, we reap what we sow. Plant good seed in ALL your conversations.

In the Home Stretch...

To the best of your ability and as far as it depends on you, keep on sowing good seed to the very last day. In this way, you will leave behind the aroma of Christ in each situation.

And whatever you do, don't leave bitter. Life's too short for that.

“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” -Hebrews 12:15 NIV

Feeling a bit disillusioned? Walking through a messy transition? As your coach, I'm here to help. Contact me.