Living and Teaching Overseas: Adjusting to Living in a Foreign Country.

Culture Stress
TEAM missions define culture stress as “The relearning of daily routines in an unfamiliar environment resulting in fatigue or frustration.” Typically when one goes to a foreign country to live and serve for the first time, there is an initial feeling of excitement; this excitement is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” stage. Though there is not a specific time frame, this period of time will usually last from 2-6 months. There are good reasons to feel this way. Everything is new, and you are making new friends, seeing and experiencing different types of food, shopping, forms of transportation, language, etc. However, likely, this feeling will not last. At some point, you will get frustrated. (“referred to as the frustration stage”). This feeling of frustration is usually a result of unmet or having a set of different expectations. For example, if you are coming from the United States, you may expect some things to operate the way they do back home. When that doesn’t happen, it can result in feelings of frustration or anxiety.
Loss of Control
When moving and living overseas for the first time, often what happens is, we feel a sense of loss of control. If you are an American, you are coming from a “do it yourself culture” that values independence and individuality. Now, because you do not know the language or how to get around, you are suddenly dependent on other people. This feeling of dependence can be stressful for the self-sufficient. Once you get your communication and transportation problems solved, you will more than likely feel like you are getting some control of your life back. To make a smoother transition to living overseas, I would like to offer a few suggestions:
1. Expectations:
If you can come into the country with little expectations on “how things should be” you will find overall that culture stress will be less of a problem. You will be puzzled, or you will find that the way the culture does or does not do something doesn’t make any sense to you. Please remember it makes perfect sense to the culture and citizens living in the country. Also, if you live in the country long enough, you will more than likely begin to understand why it is done a certain way and come to a place where its starts making perfect sense to you. In fact, you may well find yourself wondering why “we do not do this way” in the U.S. For example, my first year in Bolivia (1994) I would go out looking for a place to eat at 6:00 p.m. unable to find open restaurants. I later was to find out that most restaurants in Bolivia do not open until 7:30. At the time, this did not make sense to me because I considered 6:00 p.m. a regular time to eat. After being frustrated, I found out the reason. Restaurants in Bolivia do not open until later in the evening because of the warm climate. Most of the restaurants do not have air conditioning, and if they were to begin at 6:00 p.m. or earlier, it would be too hot to eat at that time. They open later in the evening so people can eat dinner when its cooler.
2. Learning the language:
A big culture stress reducer is the ability to communicate with the people around you. Learning the language of the host culture (Something I did not personally do very well) will make your transition much easier. Learning the language of the host culture makes it easier to go shopping, order food in restaurants, and asked for help. Maybe the biggest plus is it opens doors to building relationships with the citizens of the country. Getting to know and building relationships with the nationals is the gateway to making your adjustment smoother. As I mentioned in “Twenty Suggestions for living and working as a single overseas missionary, according to Bernard Adeney “Friendship is the key to knowledge and wisdom in a foreign context” (p. 54). Adeney believes that through getting involved in the lives of the people and experiencing their culture we can observe, “by seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our way of seeing for the first time” (p. 24). Not to mention the doors it may open up to share the gospel, which is what the overseas Christian schoolteacher is doing in obedience to his word. (Matthew 18: 20,21).
For the overseas Christian schoolteacher teaching at an English speaking school learning the language of the host, culture may not be easy particularly, if you are not a member of missionary organization that has as one of their requirements for serving on the field a separate time for learning the language. As a school teacher you teach in English, the students and staff are conversing with you in English; the school community is English speaking, you spend a great deal of time with students and faculty in activities outside of the regular school day which is all in English. You will often work 8-10 hours a day teaching and grading and will probably be exhausted when you get home. Unless the teacher is intentional and has a plan for scheduled time (summer months, weekends, holidays, short time in the evening, it’s probably not going to happen).
3. Keep a good sense of humor
The ability to laugh at yourself will be essential to adjusting to living overseas. Some of the most embarrassing things that have happened to me happened while I was living in a foreign country. In one case, I stopped at a Bolivian coffee shop to pick up a takeout coffee. I became baffled and frustrated when they did not have “take out” coffee. In their attempt to please me, they found a cold drink cup and filled it up with hot coffee and wanted to sell it to me with no top. Of course, that was not going to work, so I gave up. While frustrated I realized later that in Bolivia when you have a cup of coffee, it’s meant to be a treat and often a social event, you sit down at the table and are served in a real coffee cup. You take the time to enjoy yourself usually conversing with friends while drinking the coffee. It’s the Americans that are “always in a hurry” that asked for “coffee to go.” Upon reflection, I realized later just how comical the whole event was.
4. Keep short accounts with God and others.
Staying in fellowship with Lord and others will be the most significant single factor in making one’s adjustment to living and teaching overseas a smooth one. It will allow oneself, for example, to exercise patience and humility (listed as fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5) in the face of stressful culture situations. Keep in mind that God has promised that he will be with you wherever you go. God is certainly not bound by geographical location. An essential part of this is as you are walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) you will find it important to keep short accounts with God and the people around you. No doubt, just by the nature of being overseas you will encounter different theological perspectives, educational philosophies, time orientations and in different general worldviews. Remember, it’s easy for statements and actions to be misinterpreted by someone from another culture if you sense that you have offended someone its important to go to that person and asked for forgiveness.
5. Enjoy the ride
It’s essential to recognize that culture stress is a normal part of adjusting to living and teaching overseas. However, try not to get so caught up in the frustration of adjusting to the differences that you don’t enjoy the being on the mission field. I found after teaching and living overseas for 26 years that while culture and language are different people are the same everywhere you go. For example, parents everywhere, regardless of their income level, have dreams and aspiration for their children. I have not lived in a country yet where you don’t hear and see children laughing and playing even amid some of the worse poverty in the world. Most people still get up and go to work and try to take care of and build a life for their families. Most of all, people everywhere need God. As the Lord gives the opportunity, share the good news of Christ, for that is what we have been called to do whether at home or abroad. Most of all, enjoy the ride, God is calling you to an exciting adventure and time in your life and wants to teach you some incredible things during your time teaching and living overseas.

Living and Teaching Overseas Servant Leadership Part Two: The Importance of Flexibility

If you have been through any missionary training at all, you know that most missionary training programs emphasized the importance of flexibility on the mission field.

Flexibility is an essential part of living and teaching in an overseas context. As an overseas Christian school teacher, you will probably face some circumstances that may be taxing and stressful. Add to that the uncertainty that goes along with living in a foreign country without the ability and willingness to adapt you may quickly find yourself on an airplane back home. Not to mention that God may very well be using the circumstances at the school or the country you are serving to stretch you and teach you some valuable truths. Below are a few examples of some situations and conditions that have occurred in my past 25 years while teaching overseas.
Philippines: In 2007 Manila was hit with a Super typhoon. Faith Academy the school I was serving, lost seven days of school. The apartment complex I was living in also lost power for days. I lost all the food in my refrigerator and was pretty much cut off from communication. It also took some time before we could get to a grocery store.
Bolivia: 1994-1997 We lost two students and a staff member in a matter of three years. This was at a small boarding school with a student body of 57 students and 12-15 teachers. One student, a talented 16-year-old boy, died of a heart attack while warming up for P.E. The next school year another student of the school, a 17-year-old boy was killed in a motorcycle accident the day after his high school graduation. The staff member who died suddenly was a 49-year-old English and History teacher who was revered and respected by the entire student body and missionary community.
Haiti: 2019 Civil unrest and widespread protest shut down the city of Port Au Prince for seven days. We lost ten days of school. At the time, I was living in the school compound in a staff housing complex. We were not allowed to leave the school compound for ten days. (Referred to as sheltering in.)
Other circumstances that have occurred while I have been teaching overseas:
Mosquito-borne diseases: One year in Haiti I contracted Chikungunya disease from a mosquito bite. I was sick for several months. The very next year the Zika virus struck Haiti. We lost several staff members due to their wives being pregnant and not wanting to take a chance on the pregnancy.
Administrative and staff turnover. At several schools, I have worked the director or school principal was fired or resigned in the middle of the school year. (Actually, this is relatively common at overseas Christian schools) At one overseas Christian school I served we had four different directors in five years.
Lack of stability and high turnover on overseas Christian school boards are also quite common. I have worked at schools where the school board members were not functioning correctly or stepping out of their proper roles. A dysfunctional school board can and will have an overall adverse and damaging effect on the school.
The situations above are just a few examples of what may or may not occur while you are teaching and living and overseas, however, all of them required the students and staff to be flexible and adapt as needed. The ability to be flexible and adapt to the changing circumstances at the school will require someone who has a servant’s heart and attitude. Overseas Christians schools by nature often operate in uncertain and unstable environments. This uncertainty is especially true in a third world country. Earthquakes, typhoons, military coups, civil unrest, gas shortages, a collapsing currency, administrative and staff turnover can all present some challenging circumstances. An overseas Christian school teacher who has an attitude of faithfulness and flexibility can be a great testimony in front of the staff, students, and nationals for the Lord.

One Cautionary Note:
Being flexible does not mean compromising your faith or Biblical values. Nor does it mean conformity at any price. If you find yourself in a circumstance where you are being asked to do something unreasonable or maybe even unethical the issue may no longer be one of flexibility. Share your concerns with the school leadership. If the situation does not improve or if there is specific, unethical behavior and dereliction of duty on the part of school leadership, it may be time to pack up and go home. Stay close to the Lord, and the Spirit of God will guide you in what to do and when to do it.

Living and Teaching Overseas: Servant Leadership Part One

You may not realize it, but as a teacher living and teaching overseas, you are looked upon by friends, family and church members as a leader. The question is what kind of leader you are? Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges would want us to ask, “Am I willing to follow Jesus as my leadership role model?” (p. 12). If the answer to that question is “yes” then you must understand that for followers of Jesus, servant leadership is not an option; it’s a mandate” (p. 13). As a one serving in an overseas organization there are three vital components to being an effective servant leader:
1.) Putting people first: Servant leaders have people as their number one priority. Maybe, the most prolific writer in the area of servant leadership in recent times has been Robert Greenleaf. One of the strongest themes in Greenleaf’s writings is that servant leaders will put people first: “The first concern is for people. Do those served grow as people?” Are your students thriving and flourishing? While being served do they, become healthier, wise, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants” (Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, 13). In Reflections on Leadership, a book written about the ideas of Greenleaf the importance of putting people first comes through loud and clear. “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a desire to help others” (Spears, 3), “The servant leader sees people as an end in themselves, worthy of full development” (Hennessy, Keller, Robins, 165) and finally “it all begins with the individual leader putting people first” (Fraker, 48). Jesus certainly put people first during his time on earth (1 John 3:16). This attitude of putting people first has also been expressed throughout New Testament writings. “Each of you should not look on your own interest but also the interest of others” (Phil 2:16).
2.) Practice Humility: It takes humility to put others first. It takes humility in the sight of God and humility in the sight of people. According to Blanchard and Hodges, “Humility is realizing and emphasizing the importance of others. It’s not putting yourself down; it is lifting others up” (p. 67). At the same time, we need humility because serving people can be a messy task, and one can never predict the results. Greenleaf acknowledges that as one sets out to serve another person, one can seldom know that the results will be as hoped” (Reflections, Tarr, 81). According to Stephen Covey, “Humility is the mother of all virtues because it promotes stewardship” (Principle-Centered Leadership, 54). Stewardship involves understanding who we are in Christ and our limitations. Humility understands we are accountable to God first, above all else. Jesus was the ultimate example of a humble servant before God and man. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in Philippians Chapter 2 where Jesus who could have claimed all manner of authority showed himself to be a humble servant, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7). And we are asked to have that same attitude of humility as servant leaders. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
In New Testament writings we find, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 5: 6). James who called himself a servant of God first (James 1:1) admonishes us in that same passage to “humble ourselves before the Lord” (5: 10). Peter “a servant of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter) also tells us to humble ourselves before God. “Humble yourselves therefore under Gods mighty hand that he may lift you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). From these and other passages in the New Testament, we can see that humility is an essential ingredient for the servant leader.
3.) Lead like Jesus: Leading like Jesus is more than just the title of a popular book written by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges; it is the essence of servant leadership. Any leader in any organization can learn leadership principles from the life of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus encompassed all the basics and all of the truth of what it meant to be a servant of God by always submitting to the will of the Father. Blanchard and Hodges use the acronym EGO to indicate how we need to put our ego (EGO “Edging God Out”) on the altar to (“Exalt God Only” EGO) (p. 63). The idea here is that Jesus depended on God completely. According to Blanchard and Hodges, “Jesus is the supreme example of this second emphasis of depending on God the Father as His source for everything…including self-esteem and security” (p. 65). In John 5:19-20, Jesus says, “The son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” In the same way, as servants of God, we need to be completely dependent on Him. We need to realize that outside of the Spirit of God we are insufficient to be the servant we would like to be. “By myself, I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me” (John 5:30).
Robert Greenleaf in his book Servant Leadership discusses what Jesus and his disciples knew all along, to be a leader is to be a servant first. Greenleaf states, “The great leader is seen as servant first”(p. 7). Greenleaf further explains, “It is who the person is deep down inside” (p. 7). The New Testament writers certainly knew this when they consistently referred to themselves as servants of God, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God” (Romans 1:1), “James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1), “ Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). These were great men of the faith who had been through many trials and tribulations and were worthy of high praise. However, they saw and referred to themselves as servants first.
I am not sure how much leadership, as we use the term today, is addressed in the Bible. But the idea of “being a servant first” once grasped can be compelling in a leader’s life. One person who was introduced to the principles of servant leadership commented, “The great idea of the servant leader is that it releases us by giving us permission to serve others” (Reflections, Rieser, 56). This is what both Jesus and the New Testament writers knew and practiced.

Next:  Part 2 Servant Leadership in the Overseas Christian School. 

Some Challenges and Rewards of Living and Teaching Overseas as Single.

Note to the Reader: The term single is being used in this article to account for anyone who teaches and lives overseas as a person who is currently unmarried or has never married.

Living and working as a single in a foreign country involves many challenges but is also tremendously rewarding.

The Cultural Challenge
The challenges that singles who work overseas face are many and may include living in a traditional family-oriented missionary culture, traditional church settings where marriage and family are considered the norm and overcoming attitudes that you are flawed or incomplete. The rewards are many also including freedom of mobility, availability and single-minded devotion to the work of the Lord.

For the single, the adjustments will be similar to anyone else living overseas but also different in some areas. For example, in many countries around the world, marriage is considered the norm for an adult for both men and women. It is possible that nationals of the country you are living and serving will make you feel uncomfortable or even challenge you why you are not married. For example, during my time in the Philippines when some of the nationals find out that I was in my 40’s and not married, it was both puzzling and humorous to them. According to Lim:
“To be unmarried in the South Asian context can sometimes bring shame both on the individual and on his/her immediate family. For example, sometimes unmarried men and women are not respected in the communities where they are working. Workers are only considered “adults” if they are married and have the responsibility of taking care of a family of their own thus demonstrating that they can handle life” (Lim, O Donnell 89).
For single women, depending on where they are serving, the adjustment may be even more difficult because of the stereotyping of gender. Unmarried and married women may face sexual harassment almost anywhere they go overseas. Adeney states, “The problem of sexual harassment is worldwide and knows no cultural boundaries.” He goes on to suggest that women can resist various forms of sexual harassment by following the local customs of politeness and modesty. “The most effective non-verbal communication is to conform to the local conventions of modesty” (p. 198). While Adeney writes this in the context of Muslim culture, it is helpful for single women to keep this in mind no matter where they go. Keep in mind there are no perfect formulas on how to behave in every situation. Of course, you can go to extremes to live beyond approach and display evidence of paranoia. And again, the cultural dynamics will vary from country to country. Hopefully, you will get some orientation from your sending organization.

Some of the Challenges for Teaching at an Overseas Christian school.

If you happen to be serving in a missionary school, it will not take long, to see that missionary culture revolves around the nuclear family. This is normal and to a point healthy. The missionary school is in fact there to serve the missionary family. However, one may find the bias toward the nuclear family so strong that they feel left out, abnormal, or feel like a second-class citizen. Many single people going to the mission field may be aware of this because it is not necessarily unique to the missionary community but is also common in evangelical communities in the United States.
Overemphasis on the family is sometimes called “family theology.” Hsu addresses this issue when he states, “It is difficult to argue against the married state and the happiness of children, but these were not the number one priorities of Jesus.” Family theology is not biblical theology” (p. 46). However, this emphasis on the family in the missionary community is not going to change for you. For some singles, the adjustment may be difficult, and if one is not careful, resentment can build up. Here are a few ideas that you might want to consider making the adjustment easier:
1.) Serve God by serving families: Look for ways to serve and spend time with a family. You will find out that some families may make certain false assumptions about you, like you have plenty of extra time on your hands or, for single ladies they may see you as an available babysitter. (Fern Horst, False Assumptions). Don’t be thinly skinned about these assumptions but look for ways to help and build relationships with families. You do not have to offer to babysit, but it can be a blessing and a great help. Some of your strongest relationships may be with families, not other singles.
2.) Be a good listener. People on the mission field are looking for someone who will listen to them. Don’t be surprised if some married people will envy your single state and look up to you as a leader. They may very well be able to talk to you in a way that they cannot talk to a married person. A cautionary note needs to be mentioned concerning meeting with a member of the opposite sex who is married. It is perfectly normal and healthy to have such friends, however, in some cultures (actually in most) this should be avoided for appearance’s sake.
3.) Reach out to the host culture. If you’re in a setting like a missionary school or home office, it’s easy to feel isolated from the host culture. Look for ways as the Lord gives the opportunity to get involved in a ministry with nationals. When it comes to an understanding of other cultures, Adeney puts a great deal of emphasis on friendship and experience.
4.) Live a life of devotion to the Lord. Paul the Apostle clearly states that when it comes to serving the Lord, there is an advantage to being single: “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concern about the things of the world, how he may please his wife and his interests are divided (1 Cor 7:32-34). It should not be assumed that just because you are single and on the mission field, serving the Lord will be easy. It is just as easy for a single person to get up caught in the “the things of the world” as it is for a married person. Many a single missionary has been hindered by Satan and is now out of service on the mission field because of a moral indiscretion or poor testimony. Let the Lord use your singleness for His purpose. According to John Stott, “the liberty of singleness is that people experience the great joy of being able to devote themselves with concentration and without distraction to the work of the Lord” (Hsu, 86). As a single missionary, let others see your total devotion to the Lord as a testimony to the fact that it is possible to live as a single on the mission field and remain a complete person in the Lord.

Biggest Challenges and Biggest Rewards
According to a 2007 survey of 65 single missionaries (21 responded) living overseas, some of the biggest challenges’ singles face are the following:
• Being away from family
• Loneliness
• Having to do everything by yourself
• Feeling restricted (For women not being able to go out at night alone)
• Perception by host culture that you are unfulfilled or incomplete because you are not married.

Biggest rewards
• Knowing you are in the will of God and doing the right thing.
• Building relationships/friendship with the nationals and the people you work with.
• Making a difference in the lives of the students and being part of God’s plan to reach the world with the gospel.
An essential part of the survey that should be noted single missionaries being asked if there was one piece of information, they could give to other single missionaries who were planning to work and live overseas what would it be? Here is the response:
It is not surprising to hear that most singles stated that one’s walk with the Lord was the most important aspect of being a single on the mission field. The saying, “knowing one is in the center of the will of God is more important than being married” was stated more than once. Also, advice was offered for building relationships and a network before you go and having an accountability partner while one is on the mission field.

Some Closing Thoughts
Despite the challenges and prejudices that exist in many cultures (Including that of the United States), in general, the Bible teaches that being both conditions of married and unmarried is a gift from God. There is no such thing as the “gift of singleness” as is often taught in the church today. Being single is a condition to be thankful for and when or if you get married you are merely exchanging one gift for another. According to the Bible, both states have challenges, and both are good.
If one is single and feels led of the Lord to serve overseas, it should be said with some assurance that it is the right and obedient thing to do. (Matthew 28: 18,19) This needs to be stated because there are some single Christians in the local church who are unsure about going to the foreign mission field because of their singleness. For those singles that feel that way, it’s reassuring to keep in mind that when Jesus gave the “Great Commission” he did not mention marital status. Also, keep in mind that maybe the greatest missionary of the Christian church “Paul the Apostle” was not married. The list of single Christian missionaries that have had an impact on the church and the world is quite extensive. Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Lottie Moon, to name a few.

In many cases, it was their single status that allowed them to have the impact they did. Being single on the mission field can be handled with grace. It helps to keep in mind what Doris Sala, wife of popular speaker Harold Sala, recently emphasized at a singles conference in Manila, Philippines: “This is not a couples world, it is God’s world.” And since it is God’s world, he would like to use the single man and woman to further His kingdom.

The following are twenty suggestions for living and working as an overseas missionary. Single missionaries have a wide variety of experiences and circumstances, so they are not meant to be all-inclusive. The suggestions are partially based on the input and wisdom that was gathered from the surveys and interviews conducted in 2007 and partly from articles and books on being single on the mission field. They are also taken from 25 years of personal experience as unmarried living and working overseas.

20 Suggestions for Living and Working Overseas
1. Adopt a Family
Live and spend time with a family. In some cases, singles living and working overseas will move in with a family, which will help with making initial cultural adjustments. There will more than likely be families you will feel more comfortable with than others, and you will find some families who will become cherished friends. However, be careful not to make assumptions. Some married couples with children may not be comfortable with singles or may not have the time to give to single co-workers. Raising children is time-consuming!
2. Build a Relationship with A National
Building a close relationship with a national in the country you are serving can go a long way in making your culture adjustment smoother. According to Bernard Adeney “Friendship is the key to knowledge and wisdom in a foreign context” (p. 54). Adeney believes that through getting involved in the lives of the people and experiencing their culture we can observe, “by seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our way of seeing for the first time” (p. 24).
3. Live in the Now
“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt of every situation you believe to be the will of God” (Jim Elliot). For singles, it is easy to get the nagging feeling that something is not quite right without a spouse. Some people might even suggest that you are not complete. This is contrary to God’s Word! We are complete in Him (Col. 2:10). We have been given everything we need to live an honoring and godly life now (2 Pet. 1: 3). Marriage may or may not happen. As singles, we need to make the most of every opportunity that God has given us in the here and now. (Eph; 5: 15, 16).
4. Create a Personal Mission Statement
Creating a personal mission statement is a healthy process that will help you identify your gifts and desires. It may also help give you direction and vision on where and what organization you would like to serve in overseas. However, it needs to be a flexible document that is looked at periodically. Depending on your goals, for a single person, creating a personal mission statement can be a dynamic process.
5. Get Involved in the School Community.                                                                                  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community, let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Don’t isolate yourself from the missionary and school community. Reach out where possible and as the Lord gives opportunity.
6. Use the Gifts God Has Given you
Discover where you are gifted and allow God to use those gifts for the furtherance of his Kingdom. Follow your desires and your spiritual gifts. Fill needs where possible but don’t let your self to be marginalized because of your gender or singleness. If job opportunities come up and you feel like God can use your gifts in that particular area do not be shy about applying for the job. There are plenty of useful assessment tools on the market that can help you in this area.
7. Be a Life Long Learner
Opportunities may be available for you to further your education while on the mission field. Some universities offer online programs and courses at discount rates for those working overseas. For singles who are working at missionary school where there are frequent and extended breaks, you may be used that time to get a higher education degree. Pursuing higher education also may include an opportunity to travel and see new places and meet new people.
8. Keep a Journal
Keep a journal while on the mission field. Being faithful to a journal is easier for some than it is for others, but it may be something that will be very valuable to you in the future. Consistently writing your thoughts down is therapeutic. Journals can take many forms; some will be more public others, whereas others will be more private. The important thing is to have some a personal record of your time overseas.
9. Create a Budget
It is important to stay out of financial trouble while serving overseas. Many singles living and working overseas today are choosing to live alone rather than have a housemate, which makes having a budget even more important. Having a budget will also help you keep track of the exchange rate in the country you are serving. For a new first timer’s it is also easy to fall prey to the illusion that foreign currency is easier to spend. Foreign currency is real money, and the cost of living has gone up in most of the world.
10. Don’t Assume Missionary Families Do Not Understand You
Some married missionaries and overseas workers get married later in life after having been single on the mission field for many years. They can and do relate well to singles on the mission field. Some do not understand what singles are going through and may make some ridiculous assumptions about you. But do NOT assume all missionary families are like that. Given a chance many married missionary couples can be of great help, and some will even love and make you feel as though you are a part of their family. Give them that chance to be a blessing.
11. Do Not Allow Yourself to Be Ruled by Fear
Be cautious but not fearful. God has not given us the spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). For a single living in a foreign country, there are reasons to exercise caution and discretion. However, being overly fearful may cause you to isolate yourself unnecessarily. Your school or mission organization will give you the dos and don’ts of where you are living, so do not allow fear to ruin your time on the mission field.
12. Communicate Your Needs
Communicate your needs to your supporters, family, and friends back home. Some people in your home church or hometown may want to help you but are not sure how. One single I know let her need for a car known by asking for support in her newsletter for a separate vehicle fund. The ability to communicate needs on the mission field has become much easier today with the advent of e-mail, blog sites, and web pages.
13. Enjoy Solitude
According to Hsu “Solitude accomplishes a transformation of our loneliness. Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude” (p. 115). Solitude is not aloneness or privacy but a place of discipline where we cultivate our relationship with God. It is coming to a place that through His word and prayer we grow in our knowledge of Him and come to understand we are not alone (2 Pet. 3:16).
14. Be Free to Marry
Being single is a not a spiritual gift but a state in life. If you are free to be single, you are also free to get married. Getting married is simply exchanging one gift for another. Despite all of the rhetoric, it is not uncommon to find your mate on the mission field. There are plenty of married missionaries who have that testimony. Conversely, there is no guarantee that you will find your mate in your host country. Some singles went back to their host country with the attitude that they were going to make a deal with God and return to the mission field married only to find themselves still single and no longer on the mission field.
15. Commit to Purity
You do not magically become a mature Christian just because you are going overseas. Whatever places of temptations you had at home you bring them with you when you come. Peter encouraged us to be watchful. (I Pet. 5:8) Paul told us to flee youthful lust (2 Tim. 2:22). We need to be diligent about staying away from areas where we may compromise our sexual purity. Staying alert is especially important for single men. Many missionaries and overseas workers both single and married have been disqualified from missionary service because of a sexual indiscretion. Commit yourself to purity on the mission field.
16. Hold Yourself Accountable
A big part of the commitment to purity is to find someone to hold you accountable. According to Joshua Harris” No matter how strong you might feel right now or how many victories you’re presently experiencing you won’t make it very long on your own” (Harris, Not Even a Hint, Guarding your Heart against Lust, p. 133). We are all subject to sexual temptation. It is not easy but reaching out to a trusted colleague or friend that will hold you accountable is important. “ Don’t wait for others to approach you. Be the one to take the first step” (p. 136).
17. Be Careful About Stereotyping Genders
Some singles on the mission field have the attitude that if I were just married some of my practical and physical challenges would be met. The truth is however that not all women can cook and not all men can repair automobiles. It would be helpful if you are a single man to take some cooking classes or if you are a single female to learn how to fix things around the house. We all need to find a balance between being too independent and too helpless.
18. Take Care of Yourself
Taking care of yourself is a broad statement and is a general rule for everyone from every walk of life. However, for the single living and working overseas it is important to get the right amount of sleep, diet, and exercise. Depending on where you are serving, it is easy to fall into bad eating and sleeping habits. For example, in many third world countries around the world, it is not always easy to get fresh fruits and vegetables. There are strategies and ways to best deal with these situations. Check with the veteran missionaries that have been in the country for some time, and they will probably be able to advise you in these areas.
19. Keep a Sense of Humor
With all of the cultural adjustments and frustrations you will encounter on the mission field it’s important that you do not take yourself too seriously. More than likely you will encounter some embarrassing situations living in a foreign country. It can make for some very humorous stories and laughable moments. Instead of allowing it to frustrate you back off and laugh.
20. Be Flexible
It is more than likely you will hear this phrase more than once during your missionary orientation. Being flexible is essential to surviving on the mission field. Singles may have an advantage over married couples in their ability to be flexible. Expect the unexpected and show flexibility.


Adeney Bernard T, 1995, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
Hsu, Albert Y, Singles at the Crossroads: A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1997
Horst, Fern, A Life Worth Living, 1999,

Preparing to Teach Overseas. Before You Go.

Preparing to Teach Overseas. Before You Go

If you are contemplating working at an overseas Christian school or if you are already in the process, then you are about to embark on one of the most exciting and rewarding journeys you could take. As someone who has been serving at overseas Christian schools in Bolivia, the Philippines, Paraguay, and Haiti I would like to offer some suggestions that you may consider before heading into a new life.

Pay close attention to the core values and mission statement of the organization.

On an organizational level, it is well worth the time to check carefully the core values and mission statement of the organization you are serving. You will want to ask specific questions about the mission and vision statements: Do they communicate the purpose of the school? Are they written in a way that is easy to understand? Does the school have a document that clearly states its core values? You will also want to carefully read the school’s statement of faith to make sure it is a statement that you agree with and can sign with a clear conscience.
In some cases, you may be serving in multiple organizations. If you are working in a missionary school, you may be a member of both the sponsoring organization and the missionary school, and while both may have the overall goal of reaching the world with the gospel, each will have its own purpose and values. In their zeal to get to the school, some people fail to pay attention to these kinds of details and later realize they are not a good fit for the school.

Make Sure the School is Accredited.

Based on my experience over the years I would not work at a school that was not accredited. School culture and values are insidious and slow-moving animals that, left unchecked, can result in a great deal of dysfunction and misalignment. Administrators, teachers, athletic coaches, and parents are all well intended and have a wide variety of views on the purpose of school and what should or should not happen on any given school day (including before school and after-school activities). Without outside accountability, it is easy for a school to lose track of its purpose and run off the rails. Sometimes the administrators and teachers who have been there for many years are the last ones to see it. Experienced members of an accreditation team will come in with objectivity and outside eyes. They would be able to spot the existing contradictions that are taking place and help the school get back on track.

Because parents send their children to private overseas Christian schools with the goal of having them attend American colleges and universities, many, if not most contemporary overseas Christian schools are accredited institutions. Accreditation reviews and self-studies often aid in providing the needed structural framework that is often lacking in many overseas Christian schools. Overseas Christian schools that sincerely attempt to meet and even surpass the standards of accreditation are schools that are improving and moving toward excellence. While there may be some quality overseas Christian schools that lack accreditation because of the need for organizations in general to have external standards, it would be better to work at a fully accredited institution.

Create a personal mission statement.

Stephen Covey, in his book First Things First, states that “one of the most powerful processes we have found to cultivate the passion of vision is creating and integrating an empowering personal mission statement” (p. 106). A personal mission statements can be a highly useful and energizing for the teacher at an overseas Christian school. Creating a personal mission statement should be a well thought out process. “What we are talking about here is not simply writing a statement of belief. We are talking about creating an open connection with the deep energy that comes from a clear, thoroughly integrated sense of purpose.” (p.107). It is especially powerful for Christians who share the same vision of God, that of reaching the world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Tim. 2: 4)

Several years ago, the author formulated a mission statement that is still his vision and purpose today.

“My mission in life is to see myself as a servant of God first and be faithful in that calling. I want to be part of God’s plan to reach the world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to be willing to go anywhere in the world to be a refreshment and encouragement to other Christians who are striving to achieve that goal. To allow the Lord to use the gifts and talents, He has given me for the gospel. By the strength of the Holy Spirit, I want to fit in where God can best use me in that calling. To sum up, I want to be a faithful walking servant, being a blessing. “

One’s mission statement needs to be a flexible document. Over time our values can change. Thus, we need to be willing to revise our mission statements, if necessary, to match our changing values.

Assess strengths and weaknesses

Some great assessment tools on the market can help overseas Christian school teachers get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses as persons and employees. Knowing oneself well and gaining awareness of one’s strengths and flaws can be helpful in multiple ways:
Self-awareness can help develop a clearer understanding of one’s values.
Self-awareness may help one discern the spiritual gifts that God has given him or her. Spiritual gifts may be different from particular skills that one has.
Self-awareness may help one gain a clearer understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and where one can best fit into the organization, he or she is serving. Missionary schools often have desperate needs in many areas. They may unwittingly ask you to do something that is not one of your strengths out of the desire to get the space filled. It is appropriate to fit in and meet a need where possible, but it also may be wise, to say no based on what you know about yourself. On one occasion, I was asked to be an assistant principal, and, on another to teach Spanish. Looking back, saying yes to either one of those requests would have been a mistake.

(I have created a list of web-based assessment tools that will help one assess personality, temperament, values, strengths, and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes. These assessment tools can be helpful in making adjustments to the many layers and types of culture that one may face on the mission field. They also may be potentially useful in seeing how one may function best in the organization they are serving. They are located at the end of the article)

Understanding the History of a Country Can Reduce Stress

When one arrives at a foreign country of service, he or she will see and experience some things that will make him or her scratch his or her head in puzzlement. Understanding even a little about the history and culture of the country may alleviate some of the culture stress that people feel when living and working overseas for the first time. Believe it or not, there is usually a good reason why things operate the way they do in a foreign country. The country you see and experience when you get there will be a result of its history. So, it is essential to learn about the country before you go. There are bound to be plenty of books, literature, and articles on the internet on the history, culture, customs, and political systems of the country you are serving. Also, be informed about the country’s recent political events, including elections and laws.
You will probably have a more significant opportunity to learn the language of the country you are serving once you get there but whatever initial greetings and essential phrases you can learn before you go will be helpful.


Covey Stephen R, Merrill Roger, A, Merrill Rebecca, R First Things First: To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1994

Web-based Assessment Tools for Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses

1. Authentic Happiness, 2006 VIA Signature Strengths Test, Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman around the idea of “positive psychology” the VIA Signature Strengths Test measures 24 character strengths.

2. Ichak Adizes PAEI Management Styles, 2006 &
Based on the concept called PAEI developed by Ichak Adizes, the letters stand for four approaches to work. These are four kinds of motivations that drive our adult contributions. See which one applies to you.
3. Lingenfelter, Sherwood G, & Mayers, Marvin, 2003, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An incarnational model for personal relationships, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Mayers/Lingenfelter self-test is divided up into twelve areas approximating a person’s values. This is contained in the book and is a very good assessment for those who are going overseas for the first time.
4. Myers Briggs Type Inventory, 2006
This website has a wide variety of personality assessments that you can take. They are called “cognitive style inventories”. Some are also designed to connect to work satisfaction.
5. Situational Leadership Theory, Blanchard & Hersey, 2006
This website has prolific literature on leadership styles and theories. It gives a detailed explanation of situational leadership and how it can be used in an organization. Also discusses the styles of a follower in a situational leadership context.
6. 2007, The Gallup Organization,
Offers a wide variety of assessments in the areas of career development, education and leadership

The Overseas Christian School Part Two. Adjusting to School Culture: Part Two of Two.

This is a continuation of my most recent post on the Overseas Christian School Teacher: Adjusting to School Culture.

4. Be Willing to Experience Deep Change:

There is a chance you may find yourself in a place where you realize that you are not a good fit for the environment and the culture of the school. You may be in an area where you are experiencing what Quinn refers to as the “deep change or slow death dilemma” (p. 15). For example, you may discover in time that you do not share the core values or purpose and mission of the school. Or you may discover that the contradictions between what is being said and what is really happening are too difficult to overcome. If this is the case, it’s best to discover it early and look for a school that is more in line with your personal values and mission. Otherwise, you may be languishing in what Quinn refers to as “slow death” (p. 15). To use another analogy, “nothing would be worse than to find out after several years of working for an organization that you are in the wrong seat, riding on the wrong bus.” (Collins).
There is also the possibility that the Lord has put you in that organization for a reason. According to Quinn “One of the most important insights about the need to bring about deep change in others has to do with where deep change actually starts” (p. 11). It’s implied in this quote that deep change actually starts with us. “There is an important link between deep change at the personal level and deep change at the organizational level” (p. 9). Quinn goes on to say that people prefer a slow death to deep change because it’s what we know (p. 24). Deep change is risky and involves letting go of what we have been doing. Deep change requires discipline, courage, and motivation. The adjustment to the school you are serving maybe difficult, and it is probably true that the school is also going through some change. These ideas imply that each member of an organization confronts and experiences deep change, the organization can undergo deep change.

Also, keeping the big picture in mind is essential. God uses his word as well as people, places, and circumstances to bring about change in our lives. (Philippians 2: 13-15.) Living and teaching overseas will change you as a person. The culture you are living in, the school and people you are serving, the stressful situations you find yourself while living overseas may very well be the thing that God uses to bring about a profound change in your life and the organization around you.
5. “It’s The Little Foxes that Spoil the Vines”

This is an appropriate time to address what is all too often a common problem among school teachers in both an overseas and non-overseas context and a problem you will want to avoid. In fact, because of sin, most organizations suffer from this to one degree or another. That is the problem of chronic complaining. You are more than likely going to run into some difficult circumstances during your time teaching overseas. A situation that may be less than ideal, a change in school policy or administrative decision you do not agree with, a request from the administration that seems overwhelming or uncomfortable, scheduling changes that throw off your routine, an application that was turned down. One of the most natural things to do is to go to a co-worker and start complaining about an alleged injustice or a policy disagreement. However, this does nothing to solve the problem. While venting is a typical human response if one is not careful complaining can become poisonous, cliques start forming, and before you know, you are undermining the administration and creating division among the staff. This can eventually result in non-compliance to teacher expectations further resulting in firings and non-renewal of contracts. Not to mention that chronic complaining tends to lead to a lot of negative energy that can suck the life out for your time overseas and may ruin the blessings and experience of teaching at an overseas Christian school.
The good news is that we know from scripture there is a Godly way to deal with disagreement and perceived injustice. Again, another beautiful application of the “Little Big Principal” is when you find yourself in these stressful situations is to be faithful. If it’s a policy disagreement go to the administration and share your concerns. If you can, offer up a suggestion about a possible solution. Once you have shared your interest leave it on the administrator’s desk and let the matter drop, continue to do what is expected of you as a faithful employee and teacher. Remember, God also holds leadership responsible do what is right. Regardless of the situation, you are in or how bad things may be at the school no one can keep you from being a faithful employee who is pursuing excellence and being a blessing to the school and the people around you. An attitude of faithfulness and flexibility will do more to influence the people around you and bring about change than anything else you may say or do.
6. Engage the Fruits of Diversity

One of the significant benefits of teaching overseas is the diversity of the students and staff at the overseas Christian school. The amalgamation of different cultures, language, food, and worldviews bring with it a beautiful and fruitful dynamic that would be hard to find anywhere else. It can result in an incredibly rich teaching experience for the classroom teacher. For example, one year when I was teaching American history in the Philippines, I had two Korean students one whose grandfather fought in the Korean war on the side of the South Korea and another whose grandfather fought in the Korean war on the side of North Korea. In another similar situation, I had a Japanese student whose grandfather fought in the Japanese army in WW2. This kind of dynamic leads to history becoming alive and meaningful to the students. For example, the Japanese student mentioned above wanted to know why American history teaches that the Japanese military was so cruel when the United States were the ones that dropped two atomic bombs on Japan killing thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.

You will also be working with a diverse staff that comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Rather than take the attitude of “We have to do it this way because this is the way we do it in the U.S.” which so often happens, be open to other perspectives and other ways of doing things. Mark Twain has famously said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”(Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It.) So much the more for those teachers who are willing to take on the attitude of a learner and reap the advantages of engaging the diversity that occurs at an overseas Christian school.


Clinton J Robert, The Making of a Leader Navapress Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1988

Collins, Jim, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don’t, Harper Business, New York, New York, 2001

Elliot, Dan, Simulated Classroom Discussions via CD: LDRS 591 Organizational Culture 2006, Operation Impact, Azusa Pacific University

Smith, Douglass K. “”the Following Part of Leading”” The Leader of the Future. Ed. Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Quinn Robert, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA 1996

The Overseas Christian Schoolteacher Part One: Adjusting to School Culture

While adjusting to the host culture will take some time the overseas Christian schoolteacher, particularly if it’s the first time will soon realize that the adjustment will also involve layers of culture. For example, there is the organizational culture of the school. Organizational culture is defined as an “ideology and a set of values that guide the behavior of organization members. It includes ceremonies, rituals, heroes, and scoundrels in an organization’s history” (Elliot, APU). Keep in mind that the culture of the school you are serving has been accumulating over time and can be insidious and powerful. It’s also true that these subcultures will overlap and “make different and conflicting demands on you” (Elliot, APU). It is likely according to Elliot that “you will go through a process of enculturation and induction” into the organization’s culture that you are joining. There is the possibility that this enculturation and induction into an organizations layer of subcultures will prove to be a difficult adjustment. While it is important to find out as much about the organization you are going to serve before you go, it also the case that you cannot be prepared for everything. What can the teacher do to make the adjustment easier?

1. Be a good follower: Being a good follower is essential to good leadership. It reduces conflict, gives a good example for others to follow and shows a spirit of humility. Author Douglas K Smith shares what he believes are the skills of a good follower:

• Ask questions instead of giving answers.
• Provide opportunities for others to lead you.
• Do work in support of others instead of the reverse.
• Become a matchmaker instead of “central switch,” learn to help people follow each other.
• Seek common understanding instead of consensus.

2. Practice the Little-Big Principle: Another important aspect of being a good follower is what Robert Clinton in his book calls “The Little Big Principle”: “faithfulness in a small responsibility is an indication of probable faithfulness in a larger responsibility” (Clinton, The Making of a Leader, 95). Endeavoring to be faithful in the small things is essential to modeling servant leadership in front of one’s students and colleagues. A few practical examples of that would be: being to meetings on time, turning in assigned paperwork from the administration on time, being faithful to both obey and enforce the rules and policies of the school, and turning in grades on time.
Being faithful in the small things is important to God and is a theme that runs throughout scripture. In the Old Testament we see this exhibited in the life of David (1 Samuel 16:11), and in the New Testament, we see in it in the life of Christ. (Matthew 20:27, 28). It’s important to realize that while faithfulness is vital because of your Christian witness, it’s also true that nothing will hurt your chance for advancement, pay raises or more responsibility than the lack of faithfulness in the everyday duties of being a teacher.

3. Be Flexible

Overseas Christian schools tend to be unstable because their members live and work in challenging environments. The schools often suffer from a high attrition rate at the director’s position, volatile political situations that include street protest, military coups, and natural disasters.

Here are a few things I have seen in the past 25 years of teaching overseas that required a great deal of flexibility on the part of the teachers and staff.

a. Category Five Typhoon: No school for seven days. (Philippines)
b. The untimely death of a student.
c. Civil Unrest strikes and protest of various kinds resulting in school closing.
d. Director of school is fired or resigns in the middle of the school year. (Happens reasonably often)
e. Earthquake. (Haiti)
f. Staff turnover.

Because of these types of issues listed above often what happens is a disruption to classes resulting in missing school days, or sometimes the administration may need you to fill in for another teacher that had to go home for a health reason. An attitude of flexibility will go a long way in making your time overseas a blessing instead of a burden.


Next month: Part Two of Adjusting to School Culture. 

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. School Policies: Part 3 of 3

School Policies
Clear, well written school policies is a third key structural element for an overseas Christian school. Most schools have various types of critical foundational documents such as student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, board policy manuals, and so forth, that need periodic review and perhaps revision. However, it’s been my experience that what happens in many cases, due to the high turnover rate in administration and lack of competent staffing, these documents are not reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Because the school lacks any kind of coherent procedure for reviewing and updating its policies, it is unable to identify where particular policies are no longer working well and where restructuring needs to takes place. I have personally witnessed school handbooks that had not been updated for years. Often there will be a recognition that a change needs to take place (for example a change in school grading policy), and a new policy will be announced without the change being made in the appropriate school documents, leading to inconsistency, misalignment, and confusion in the everyday operation of the school. I have observed over the years that one specific area of weakness in many overseas Christian schools is its hiring policies.

Lack of structure in hiring policies.

In what Bolman and Deal call “the keystone of structure,” one of the common areas of weaknesses you will see in overseas Christian schools is a lack of structure in “allocating task” (Location 1301). Below is a list of some areas of weaknesses that are common in overseas Christian schools when it comes to hiring practices.
• Hiring of unqualified administrators and teachers
• Hiring of unqualified office staff
• Lack of job descriptions and clear expectation for both staff and teachers
• Lack of balance in allocating task. Some staff and teachers are overworked, while others seem to have less responsibility.
The hiring and firing of administrators, teachers and staff members, is the most consequential action school leadership does. For the school board, it would be the hiring of director, principal, or administrator. For the director, it would be the hiring and placement of administrators and teachers. Unless there are school board policies with high standards, clear expectations and procedures for hiring qualified personnel, the consequences could be devastating for the school. I know from experience that high turnover rate at many overseas Christian schools makes finding qualified teachers and administrators challenging. Though it’s common practice and at times almost impossible to avoid, putting teachers in the classroom and administrators in leadership with little or no formal training in education has the potential to lead to all kinds of unintended negative consequences. For example, school boards of small overseas Christian schools without strong structural framework for hiring a director, may be tempted to measure qualifications anecdotally and sidestep the importance of experience and training. Pressing needs leads schools to promote someone in house to the director’s position, and it is even more tempting to go this route if the person is well-liked, but without a hiring policy that measures things like training in education, basic knowledge of curriculum, high value for student learning, commitment to the shared mission, and core values of the school, the daily operation of the school will lose balance and break down over time.
Another particularly critical area in the structural frame that is often overlooked in overseas schools is the hiring of secretarial staff. Often in small overseas private Christian schools, the school office staff are nationals with little formal training in being school secretaries. While having nationals as secretaries can have advantages when it comes to public relations and communicating in the host countries language, unless the secretaries are competent with 21st century technology, it can potentially create huge headaches for the school—particularly, for the director who needs a competent, experienced secretary who is up to date with the latest secretarial and administrative software. Most Christian schools have various types of important school documents like student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, and board policy manuals, and without a competent office staffer who can organize the documents and keep them updated for review and easy access, structural weaknesses will become evident in the implementation of important policies and procedures.
A particularly egregious area in some overseas Christian schools is having poorly written job descriptions without clear expectations. This can lead to multiple problems like the inability to hold teachers accountable, miscommunication or misunderstanding about what is expected of the teacher, misunderstanding about the chain of authority, lack of uniformity in expectations, changing expectations, lack of balance in teaching responsibilities, and the list goes on and on. Especially problematic is the inability to hold teachers accountable. Without an agreed-on job description that is part of a signed contract, the school has no to way to really give the teacher a valid performance review or enter into any kind of growth plan. The ability to remove a teacher who lacks professionalism and is not a good fit is vital for a school that wants to assure student achievement and excellence.

A word about accreditations reviews.
Accreditation reviews and self-studies for overseas Christian schools are indispensable. I personally would not work at an overseas school that was not accredited by an approved accreditation agency. Accreditation reviews often aid in providing the desperately needed structural framework that is lacking in many overseas Christian schools. However, being accredited is not the total solution for a dysfunctional school or one lacking structure. Just as a reminder, many of the structural problems I have experienced and written about were occurring at fully accredited schools. To be clear, accreditation institutions provide the framework; they do not provide the structure itself. The accreditation agency is not an authority over the school, nor does it manage the school. Its function is to work along with the school to provide a framework that enables the school to correct any possible structural problems that may exist. As valuable as the self-study and accreditation reviews are, they are limited and, in some cases, inadequate. Not all accreditation teams are created equal, and unless the review team does a thorough job of reading the self-study and properly reviewing and collecting documentation, the review could lead to a flawed report. I have experienced several accreditation visits at schools where the final report was based mostly on anecdotal evidence from face-to-face meetings with administrators, teachers and students. Because the final report weighed anecdotal evidence so heavily, it missed several critical areas of dysfunction and structural weaknesses.
Another area where accreditation reviews may fall short is in the area of “showing grace.” Overseas Christian schools have a tendency to be unstable because their members live and work in difficult countries and environments. The schools often suffer from a high attrition rate at the director’s position, unstable political situations that include street protest, military coups, natural disasters, and local and education laws that all have an adverse effect on the school. Because of these dynamics, the accreditation review team, in some cases, appropriately takes these dynamics into consideration when writing the final report and shows “grace” and consideration toward the school when deciding its accreditation status. While showing deference for the school’s current circumstances is needed at times, unless the accrediting agency strikes the right balance, you may find a fully-accredited school suffering year after year with the same structural problems that are not being corrected or addressed.
This article addresses three critical structural elements of any school: foundational documents, written curriculum, and written policies. Because of unique dynamics associated with overseas Christian schools such as administrative and staff turnover, unstable political and environmental circumstances, and constantly changing demographics, it is vital for the future of these schools to have consistent review and restructuring taking place so that these key areas remain strong. It is also important to note there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. According to Bolman and Deal, “structures must be designed to fit an organization’s current circumstances (including its goals, technology, workforce and environment)” (Location 1210). They also assert that too many prescriptions and mandates implemented too quickly can be damaging to school morale and may lead to “apathy, absenteeism, and resistance” (Location 1304). The key is the right amount of structure in critical areas. There are other important facets of the structural frame in overseas Christian schools like board governance and facility policies that are beyond the scope of this writing but should also be consistently reviewed for restructuring as needed.


Bolman, Lee G., and Terrance E. Deal. Reforming Organizations, Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Fourth Edition). Jossey Bass, 2008.

Rice, Condoleezza. No Higher Honor, A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Broadway Books, 2011.

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. The School Curriculum. Part 2 of 3

Having a written curriculum is another key structural element of any school. It would not be an exaggeration to say the written curriculum is what drives the school. Without a coherent, written, guaranteed, and viable curriculum, the school becomes a collection of classrooms where every teacher is completely autonomous in deciding what to teach, how to teach it and in many cases when to teach it. As a result, when it comes to the classroom as Judges 21:25 states, “everyman is doing that which is right in their own eyes.” Some would advocate for such autonomy in the classroom, and many veteran teachers, even today in small private schools see their classroom as their personal domain. Implementing a guaranteed, viable curriculum that is taught and assessed disrupts the autonomous classroom. Decisions about what to teach or why one should teach certain content falls under the watch of the standards and benchmarks. The written curriculum replaces the teacher as the autonomous agent, and the classroom is no longer private, but becomes public domain. Someone may ask is the lack of a coherent, written curriculum that widespread of a problem in the overseas Christian school? In recent years with more schools being pressured to seek accreditation, it probably isn’t as much a problem as it used to be. However, from my personal experience over the last twenty years of teaching overseas, the Christian schools that I have worked at in most cases had a partially developed curriculum that was not being implemented, or they had no curriculum at all. Basically, the schools were textbook driven. Keep in mind these are schools that have been in existence for thirty to forty years, and all but one were fully accredited institutions.
It is hard to overstate the importance of school curriculum. Outside of a school’s foundational documents, curriculum is the critical agent that carries out the school’s purpose. For the following reasons, curriculum in an overseas Christian school’s essential structure:
• Teacher attrition. While teachers at overseas Christian schools come and go, the written curriculum stays in place. It is quite common for overseas Christian schools to have new teachers who may have a four-year degree but limited classroom experience. Written curriculum will give new teachers the resources and tools they need so they don’t feel overwhelmed about the new school year. The provided stability this brings to the school cannot be understated. Curriculum maps that are well developed and have been left by excellent veteran teachers are an invaluable resource for newer faculty members.
• Extension of mission of the school. Written curriculum keeps a school focused on its mission and vision. Curriculum maps should be intentionally developed to carry out the mission and vision of the school both in student learning and in areas of spiritual growth of the students. Everything in the curriculum maps should flow from the school’s core values, mission, and vision.
• Teacher talk: Teacher discussion that centers around topics like instructional strategies, essential content, and subject philosophies, is invaluable to the school and “helps identify answers to important questions about teaching and learning.”
• Public documents: As stated earlier, what students learn in the classroom is and should be public. Student learning is not a secret operation between teacher and student. Written curriculum communicates to the students, parents, and teachers and accrediting institutions what the students are learning in the classroom.
I had a particularly enlightening experience during my first year of teaching social studies at an overseas Christian school. Upon arriving, I found the school had no developed curriculum and no lesson plans or instructional materials other than textbooks. When I asked about the location of these materials no one seem to know where the materials were last placed. After searching file cabinets and various teacher workrooms to no avail, the administration finally told me that the previous social studies teacher must have taken “everything with him.” I was basically starting from scratch. As a veteran teacher who had many years teaching overseas, I found this to be extremely frustrating. Imagine what a new teacher who has no experience teaching overseas, and who at the same time is adjusting to a new country and a new culture, may think or feel encountering a situation like this. A written curriculum that is developed and coherent keeps a scenario like this from happening.


Next Month: Part 3 School Policies

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. Foundational Documents, Part 1 of 3

This is part one of a three part series on the importance of structure at overseas Christian schools. Having the right amount of structure is important for any organization but because of the unique dynamics that is part of a Christian school that operates in an overseas context it is especially important. I write this article referring mostly to the sound writing of  Bolman and Deal, and their book Reframing Organizations. I also allude to my own personal experience living and teaching overseas. I hope you enjoy the article. Please feel free to write me with any comments or questions.

In their classic work on organizational leadership, Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrance Deal write about the importance of an organization having the right amount of structure to keep it in balance. “The assumption of the structural frame reflects a belief in rationality and a faith that the right formal arrangements minimize problems and increases quality and performance” (Location 1200). Having the right amount of structure is crucial for all schools; however, it’s especially important for overseas Christian schools because of their complicated dynamics. Based on personal experience teaching at five different overseas Christian schools in twenty years, I have observed the dysfunction that happens when an overseas Christian school lacks balance in the structural frame. Four of the five schools where I have served were fully accredited institutions. This article addresses a few of the key structural elements that need to be in place and implemented in order for overseas Christian schools to avoid identity problems and high amounts of dysfunction.
Foundational Documents
“An essential ingredient of the structural frame is that ‘appropriate forms of coordination and control ensure individuals and units work together in the service of organizational goals’ ” (Bolman and Deal PG 40). The effectiveness of any organization will always flow from its reason for existing. This is especially true of the overseas Christian school. One of the critical questions the school will need to answer is why are we here? This is not a simple question. Over time, overseas Christian schools who do not have a clear purpose will struggle keeping the everyday practices of the school in balance. It is also important to point out that a school coming to a clear understanding of its mission through questioning its purpose is not a onetime event. This question needs to be reviewed consistently and periodically by the stakeholders and the wider school community. Overseas Christian schools are traditional and conservative in nature and yet, at the same time, have consistently changing dynamics and challenges. Because of this ever-present conflict, an overseas Christian school that does not consistently and periodically review its mission and core values may find itself in a full- blown identity crisis. As Condoleezza Rice states, “When a new challenge arises, the immediate response is to try to handle it within existing structure; but sometimes what is needed is an entirely different set of arrangements” (Location 2127).
Failure to consistently review mission and vison statements can have treacherous consequences. It is not uncommon to hear stories of an overseas Christian school suffering from various levels of identity problems. Some meet up to the challenge; some do not. In the past twenty to thirty years, American missionary schools have seen changing demographics in their student population because of the overall decline of American churches sending out missionaries. In one school where the author served, its stated purpose was to be a school for missionary children but only had 10 missionary children out of a student population of about 200. While the demographics of the school had gradually changed over time, the school failed to adjust to the community it was serving. Most of its supporting documents, policy and procedures, and even financial policies were still in place for serving missionary families even though few missionary children were attending the school. Needless to say, the school ran into one conflict after another. It can be painful for the missionary school community to come to the realization, possibly too late, that they no longer have a missionary school. The schools that can meet the challenge are the ones that pay attention. They pay attention to ensure that there is alignment between the practical, everyday operations of the school and its overall mission and vision. Some schools get lost in the routine and are forever stuck in survival mode, never able to see past the school day that is in front of them. In schools like these, the leadership is often reactive instead of proactive. Schools who dig in their heels and are unable to reflect on its purpose and change may end up closing down or, even worse, propagate a dying institution for the sake of maintaining the status quo or providing employment for teachers and nationals.
Why do some schools seem to be able to make the leap and appropriately solve their identity crisis while others are forever stuck in limbo? Because the status quo is safe. Restructuring and making the hard decisions are often risky for school board members and administrators. Again, I refer to Bolman and Deal, “Organizations are reluctant to make major changes because a stable structure reduces confusion and uncertainty, maintains internal consistency, and protects the existing equilibrium” (Location 1999). The potential price of holding on to the status quo is a structure that grows increasingly misaligned with the environment. Eventually, the gap gets so big that a major overhaul is inevitable. “Restructuring, in this view, is like spring cleaning: we accumulate debris over months or years until we are finally forced to face up to the mess” (Location 1999). I once served at a missionary boarding school that had a specific mission of educating children whose parents lived and served in an indigenous tribe. Over time, the school began to see fewer and fewer of students referred to as “tribal kids” enrolled in the school. The school either failed to see or ignored this dynamic due to lack of procedures or a willingness to review and assess if they were still fulfilling their mission. After many years, the school administrators finally came to the realization that most of their students were children of staff and teachers working at the school or children of parents who owned a business in the city. They were no longer fulfilling their purpose. After grappling with the hard truth for some time, the school eventually closed down for what was stated as contingency reasons.

Coming in July Part 2 on the School’s Curriculum.