By Kenneth D. MacHarg
Published originally in the Wall Street Journal Expat blog
“Yes, we would like to talk about it.” The long-term expat couple in Honduras was responding to my question about whether they would return to their home country or remain abroad. With aging parents back home and an urge to move on to something new, they were considering all options. They needed someone to help them reflect on their thoughts and uncertainty.
Another twenty-something member of the church I served in Costa Rica sat across the coffeehouse table from me. A vivacious person always surrounded with the teenagers from a local American school she had come to mentor, I assumed that her life was filled with social activities.
Tears formed in her eyes as she told me, “My best friends here are the people I see on television every night.”
Expats are like anyone else: they struggle through times of trauma, disappointment, uncertainty, death and unfaithfulness as well as joy, fulfillment, success and celebration.
But they are also different: They deal with culture shock, loneliness, frequent moves, separation from friends and loved ones, great uncertainty and frustration that they would never experience back home.
In their home country they would most likely turn to a professional counselor, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a school counselor, a social worker, or a clergy person.
In a foreign land where there might not be a trained, English-speaking counselor, finding someone who can listen and advise professionally is often a struggle.
Enter one of the English-speaking pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy who serve expats through international congregations.
“The most difficult are troubled people who really should be in their own country where there is a support system,” said a North American pastor in a North African country who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “Recently a woman has been coming to church. She has suffered from depression. She needs help and may be bipolar. But she will not return to France because she has a boyfriend here.”
“I consider us to be on the front-line of offering help,” he observed.
Many pastors and priests provide initial, trouble-shooting counseling abroad as church members and community residents approach them with problems ranging from marital struggles or disturbed children to loneliness and difficulty with cultural adjustment.
“The main issues I encounter include guidance on whether to stay or leave or where
to go,” reported the Rev. Mark Blair of the 600-member Beijing International Christian Fellowship in China.
Rev. Blair also pointed to problems unique to expats, such as not knowing what is really happening with family back home or how to help aging parents or ill relatives.
Then there are temptations related to being far from familiar moral restraints, he said, as well as cultural confusion around dealing with local employers, landlords, and contracts.
In my years serving churches in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Kyrgyzstan, and now Honduras, the problems I’ve seen most frequently are extreme loneliness, especially among single, young adult expats, and issues surrounding expats’ frequent transitions.
Increasingly, international English-speaking churches are trying to establish a more formal counseling process for people seeking assistance.
In San Jose, Costa Rica, the Rev. Stacey Steck, who has served at the Escazú Christian Fellowship for nine years, helped his church establish a formal counseling program that was both English-language and faith-based. Adding more hours to his workweek, Rev. Steck says, was a way to gauge whether there was an even greater need for help, possibly through a counseling center with more staff.
In Beijing, the size of the city and the church means that counseling is already available there, says Rev. Blair. In addition to that, the church offers a support group for those with substance abuse problems.
Research proves that emotional issues can grow into bigger problems for expats. The 2012 Talent Mobility Study by Towers Watson, a New York-based global professional services company, warned that assignment failures among expats mainly come from job performance issues and family or personal situations.
Asian companies reported that 53 percent named problems with an employee’s family as the reason an overseas assignment failed. In the U.S., family issues were ranked the second most significant reason for assignment failure, after job performance problems.
The report said that most companies do not evaluate an employee’s family situation when selecting candidates for international assignments, nor do they often provide support for the family to limit problems. Only 15 percent of U.S. companies and 14 percent of Asian companies take those situations into consideration.
That’s where international churches can help. As the pastor of several international congregations, I have worked at not only at identifying and inviting new expats in town to attend our church, but also to integrate them into the life of the congregation and to acquaint them with other, more settled expats.
A Mexican-American student who attended one of our churches told me of her difficulty in getting to know others and in dealing with her homesickness. To help, I asked two young women who had been in the city for a while to invite her to lunch or for a cup of coffee. I also matched her with a Mexican woman in the church who invited her over to make tortillas.
Oher churches have developed specific programs to orient new arrivals to the city. “Every fall, when most of our new folks arrive, we have a several-week ‘Welcome to Beijing’ program following our Sunday services,” said Rev. Blair. The church also produces a Welcome to Beijing booklet with language tips, maps, lists of restaurants, government offices, and other information.
The Rev. Scott Herr, pastor of the American Church in Paris, where 700 people worship each Sunday, uses a similar methodology. “We have been offering an orientation course to life in Paris called ‘Bloom Where You’re Planted’ for the past 40-some years,” he said. “We also publish a book that is a survival kit encyclopedia of helpful information.”
Jimmy Martin, an elder of the International Christian Fellowship in Oberursel, near Frankfurt, Germany, said that women in the church can help. “Finding a ‘home away from home’ in a loving group of women who understand many of your own challenges is a tremendous help to moms and wives,” he said.
Stewart Perry, the former pastor of the 300-member International Church of Bangkok, Thailand, explained that his church identified newcomers in the community and worked to integrate them into various activities.
Expats don’t have to join a church to get some help. Many of the more than 1,000 English-speaking, international congregations worldwide open their doors to non-members in need of friendship or dealing with difficult adjustments and circumstance. Some of them can be found at www.internationalcongregations.net, www.micn.org,www.ibc-churches.org and www.internationalchurches.net.