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Finding a Niche in an Unexpected Place
Paula’s* reasons for going into missions were not glamorous, though she felt convinced God called her to it.
She first met her future husband when he returned home from a four-month term of service. They started dating, and for their first six months together, Paula ignored the topic of him going back.
“I had no dream whatsoever to work in missions,” Paula said.
After growing up taking music lessons and seeing how her pastor dad journeyed with others through hard times, she combined doing what she loved and supporting people through music therapy. She didn’t easily see a role in missions that fit her skills and interests as a music therapist.
When Paula and her husband visited the Wycliffe office, she heard about ethnomusicology and member care. She realized missions was not just about language research or Bible translation.
“It sort of gave me hope that there might be something that would fit me,” she said. “It took some time to be convinced that it would be worthwhile. I didn’t have an interest in going into missions before I met my husband, but hearing about his dreams for it sort of put it on my path. I experienced God challenging my objections in a way that showed his care for me.”
A year after Paula and her husband got married, they left their home country for their first term working abroad for SIL. She assumed that it would be for only two years. But once she settled in to her new role, her motivation and passion for the work grew.
When asked about going back home, Paula realized she wasn’t convinced that short term was what she wanted anymore. She felt she was contributing to meaningful work, and she didn’t want to leave that.
Starting out in a member care role, she led an orientation program for new workers. In this program, she journeyed with new arrivals for a year. She shared practical information such as how to stay healthy or where to find an ATM. But she also invested in newcomers’ ability to stay resilient in their life abroad by supporting them in developing self-care skills and investing in friendships and their relationship with God.
She tried to build a sense of community with the newcomers by praying together and sharing struggles together. They discussed their theology of suffering—why they believe bad things happen. Stress and struggles are bound to happen in missionary life, Paula said, and it can be helpful for staff to be aware of how they see God caring for them in hardship. Paula has a heart for giving people space to share their story with her when they go through hard times.
Missionary life often has some ups and downs, but it is a very rich life. She acknowledged the richness of deep relationships with people and with God as well as the privilege of learning a new culture and calling a second place home.
In her member care role, Paula enjoyed the diversity of people she worked with and cared for. They were diverse in culture, age, experience, family and background, so Paula tried to give them space to share about their home country and home culture. She introduced new members to old members so they could get to know each other.
“I love how I can use my creativity to develop materials or curriculum or to think of fun get-togethers so people meet each other and feel socially supported,” Paula said.
Paula currently has a leadership position in the field of Staff Care in SIL.
One purpose of her department is to build a network among staff care workers and to support their professional development. She organizes monthly Community of Practice meetings so people can connect with each other, learn about resources or hear from a speaker. She also writes a staff care newsletter to share information about events and resources.
She has regular meetings with others in SIL who serve in care areas, such as counseling, medical care or TCK (third-culture kid) care and education.
Another purpose of her department is to research the way SIL currently practices staff care. She and her team look into staff care to figure out who does what where, what the needs are and how the needs can be met.
Lastly, she is working to standardize the roles for all staff care workers. This means writing role descriptions and describing what staff care looks like now but also where it should go in the future.
“You’re somewhere in between a coach, a pastoral care worker and a trainer, and that’s what I love about the job,” Paula said.
Working with so many different people means she has to customize the care for each one. Staff care for a young woman from Hong Kong will look different from staff care for an elderly couple from Romania.
“You have to be creative in how you offer the support to make it culturally fitting and age fitting,” she said. Her role requires empathy, cultural sensitivity and a deep spiritual life.
Paula’s supervisors check in on her, so she knows she’s cared for as well. “I feel blessed with having a tight-knit community around me with friendships that are meaningful,” she said.
She knows her work is not perfect, and that’s something she has to hand over to God. She knows more needs exist than she can see due to her own cultural or personal limitations.
“You can’t always meet all the needs, and you don’t have to,” she said. One thing she needs right now is more staff care workers. “We would love to have more people available to provide staff care to our workers. There is a real need for that.”
People often think about the end result of missions, Paula said. They think about a translated Bible or somebody becoming a Christian.
“While we do hope that those things become a reality, there are many things needed to make it happen,” she said.
If workers focused so much on the task that they forgot about their own well being, they might burn out or feel constant stress. Staff care workers exist to encourage sustainable work practices, holistic health, strong relationships and spiritual community.
Staff care is partly about giving direct individual care. But it’s more about creating a healthy organizational culture and facilitating the flourishing of social networks and spiritual community.
“You can use the image of the legs of a table. The table isn’t stable if it isn’t supported by all four legs,” Paula said. And that’s how she sees staff care. “It’s one supportive role that enables the organization to function.”
*Not her real name