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Barriers to and benefits of seeking counselling

By Ronel Geldenhuys

The life of a cross-cultural missionary is fraught with stressors and challenges not typically experienced by those who reside in their own countries or cultures. The traumas of African Christian workers and missionaries can range from unexpected disappointments to compounded traumatic events or tragedies that bring faith to a sudden halt. This could leave them with ‘sacred’ questions; the ‘Why God?’ ones which they don’t dare to ask out loud, even to themselves.

These, together with expectations of the church, supporters, and even false responsibilities placed on themselves, may drive missionaries to simply dismiss the realities of their trauma in order to survive and continue the work. Some events may be shelved to be dealt with later, and eventually, become displaced by other pressures.

The basic human response to trauma is to disconnect from the reality of the situation or incident. Traumas may be too painful to face, to exhausting to manage, or too unbearable to accept as reality. Our need for physical and emotional safety is the reason we respond by disconnecting; it’s a way of protecting ourselves. Sometimes an incident is completely dismissed or shutoff. Other times, it is recalled with clarity, but with numbed emotions.

When traumas from childhood remain unhealed and the ways we’ve learnt to manage them are not understood, as adults, we may respond to traumas on the field in the same ways.

Some barriers to receiving counselling

Cultural beliefs: Some cultural beliefs teach us how to deal with traumatic events or how to express and not express emotions. Receiving counselling may be a misunderstood concept in some African contexts where shedding tears is seen as a weakness or a sin.

A leader shared with me how children in their community were beaten if they cried in response to news of a parent’s or a loved one’s death. The belief was that all crying and all anger are sinful, which is contrary to what Jesus modelled. This led to an emotional disconnect in the children.

Misconceptions about trauma: Misunderstanding the dangers of unhealed trauma, unexpressed anger, fear, and pain can be a significant barrier to field workers receiving help after traumatic events. Mistrust or suspicion prevents many believers in Africa from sharing the real effects of a traumatic incident. Post-traumatic symptoms like fear, nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks may be perceived as ‘unnatural’ or ‘un- Christian’ to other believers, who may advise with a caring heart to ‘pray, read the Word, and have more faith’.

Social awkwardness: Where counselling resources are available in the community, the missionary may feel uncomfortable, considering their role and calling in the community, to open up about their struggles or needs. They may be concerned that it might reflect badly on the ministry they are doing. Additionally, expressing cross-cultural struggles to a counselor who is only familiar with the host culture may be difficult. Where someone with cross-cultural fluency is available, that person may be a close friend or work partner, making it complicated to change the relationship into a counsellor-counselee one.

No rhythm of a Sabbath rest: Missionaries tend to run multiple projects and have very full plates. Finding the time and prioritizing getting help is often a challenge. This issue varies widely depending on the missionary and the culture of the sending organization. However, there is a tendency to put it off until a ‘less busy month.’ Limited understanding of a rhythmic, regular Sabbath rest and how that is spent may keep missionaries from facing the real conditions of their traumatized hearts.

Inadequate member-care services: Missionaries may recognize the need to seek help for their traumas, but may not know a safe place to go. In cases where member care facilities are available they may not be equipped or resourced enough to handle the depth of healing required.

Family commitments and ministry responsibilities: Fulfilling family and community demands are both important values in African culture. A Missionary may know they need healing from the effects of trauma, but their family, community and ministry obligations may take priority above themselves. It ‘trains’ them to always give out, which sometimes leads to unproductive busyness, procrastination, and not knowing how to receive help for the needs of their hearts.

Limited support and cost of services: Sending churches or organizations may not support missionaries in seeking counselling, appropriate debriefing, healing or prayer ministry if they don’t understand their importance. Additionally, most missionaries live on a tight budget and seeking counselling may require travel costs or payment for the services offered. Some organizations will cover these costs sometimes only after the situation has escalated with serious implications.

Unhelpful coping mechanisms: Traumatized hearts need care and God’s love and life. Unhelpful coping mechanisms such as secret addictions, unhealthy emotional connections, compulsive ministry engagements, and disordered family and ministry priorities are symptoms of unhealed trauma. They give the flesh and the enemy permission to ‘care’ for the traumatized heart, keeping God’s life out. This can lead to fear, stress, flashbacks, sleeplessness, depression, fatigue, physical breakdown, mental illness, disillusionment, spiritual dryness, eventual burnout, and possibly, a hardened heart.

These barriers are not a comprehensive list and are not all unique to the African context.

Benefits of receiving counselling

God desires for us to be emotionally and spiritually whole, and to experience abundant life (1 Thess. 5:23; Jn. 10:10). On the cross, Jesus made a way to heal even the most traumatized person who feels disconnected and broken-hearted (Is. 61:1-3 and Lk. 4:18). Any form of disconnect will not only keep the trauma locked in, but also keep God out. God wants us to live in reality and to receive the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, our sin-bearer is able to bear our pain and restore our lives back to His purposes. He wants to bind up the shattered pieces caused by trauma (Is. 61:1-3).

Receiving counselling taught me humility. There are times one needs to repent of using fleshly ways to ‘care’ for the broken heart. When harmful practices like angry outbursts and sexual immorality become an outlet for the effects of traumatic events, a trusted believer or counsellor may be needed to listen and pray into these effects and to facilitate God’s heart of forgiveness in response to confession (Jam. 5:16).

Just because traumas are minimized, shut off, or dismissed does not mean they have been addressed. Rather, what we often witness is how God gives grace and meets people personally in their difficult places when no external help is available. One benefit of counselling or prayer ministry is the restoration of a more intimate relationship with Jesus and a deeper knowledge of the Father’s love. Many workers would testify that they feel connected to the reality of God’s love, some for the first time in their lives.

Many missionaries who are restored have gone back to the field to serve God in more powerful ways. Having experienced the gentle Healer, slow to anger and rich in love, they are encouraged to be used by God in the lives of others in the same situation (2 Cor. 1:4). I love the invitation from God that David recorded in Ps. 27:8 NLT ‘My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.


Ellel Ministries offers healing retreats and equipping programmes in healing and restoration at centres in South Africa, Kenya, and Rwanda. Workers or missionary retreats are specifically held at Shere House in Pretoria, South Africa.

A special thanks to article contributors – Ellel leaders who regularly minister to traumatized missionaries across the globe.

Order the following relevant books from Ellel by contacting bookshop@ellel.org.za:

Healing from Accidents and Trauma

Healing through Creativity

For more information on retreats, online resources, and training courses, visit www.ellel.org.za.

Ronel Geldenhuys is the Deputy-Director of Ellel Ministries Africa

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