Romantic Relationships & Short-Term Mission

Before going on a short term mission trip, remember to keep in mind the goals of the trip. This article highlights the dangers of the natural emotions of team bonding and the emotions of romance during a short-term missions trip.

One of the most wonderful experiences in life is to fall in love - to discover in a person of the opposite sex someone to whom I can belong, to whom I can be special, and with whom I could possibly create a deep and permanent relationship. When both parties are committed Christians, it is even more precious, as the man and the woman receive their relationship as a gift and trust from God. And it is important to celebrate and rejoice when God brings godly young men and women together in Christ in an honoring relationship.

However, it must also be said that romantic relationships are also a source of great danger to short-term mission teams. More than a few individuals and teams have been deeply hurt and missions thoroughly derailed through the inappropriate development and pursuit of romantic entanglements.

It is not difficult to understand why this might be so. The short-term mission team brings together a small community of young men and women who share many important qualities and experiences. They are committed Christians with a sense of calling and a godly spirit of adventure. In many cultures it is not easy to find Christians of the opposite sex who share such important traits!

The team is then placed into a cross-cultural situation with all of the attendant stresses and demands. There is great need for the team members to care for and support each other. The small community becomes an oasis of understanding and care. As team intimacy develops, the members discover a great deal about each other's strengths and weaknesses, fears and failings. In many ways, the team members become emotionally dependent and vulnerable to one another. This is not wrong or inappropriate - quite the contrary! The greater the cultural shock, the more important such team intimacy becomes. So long as Christ is at the center and the goals of the mission continue to be served, this kind of closeness is healthy and godly.

But it can create serious problems if the natural intimacies of team life begin to be supplanted by (or worse, confused with) the intimacies of romance. When a romance begins to blossom, there is a tendency to become focused on the special person - constantly aware of where they are, what they are doing or saying. Emotional energy becomes devoted to nurturing, protecting, fantasizing about that special relationship. The relationship of those falling in love tends towards being exclusive. The couple wants to be together as often as possible. Their private moments take on huge significance for them.

None of these things are bad in themselves, but on a short-term cross-cultural mission team they can be deadly. The safe environment, where all members are free to be vulnerable and intimate as brothers and sisters, becomes a minefield. Instead of the inclusive intimacy of the team, there is now an exclusive intimacy developing. Other team members become confused and cautious. Suddenly there is the question about whether or not one is 'intruding' upon the space of the couple. Often there is even a sense of abandonment or betrayal on the part of the team members who now find themselves excluded from a relationship.

Even the possibility of romantic relationships can be a hindrance to the development of healthy team life and intimacy. The safe team environment is seriously compromised if you have always to be concerned about whether or not your brotherly or sisterly support and affection risks being confused with romantic intentions. When team members have to keep looking over their shoulders to make certain that their ministries are not being romantically misinterpreted, the natural tendency is to become cautious and wary. Once again, the community of the team suffers.

There is also, of course, the issue of the ministry of the team! When romance blossoms, it all too easily becomes the hub of team life and energies. Ministry goals lose their urgency. Even among the national students, the romance can become a prominent focus of energy and concern.

And what if the romance crumbles? The fact is that most short-term mission romances turn out to be just that, short-term. When a relationship dissolves, it can leave deep hurts and wounds which once more have potential to distract the ministry energies of the team and to compromise the goals and hopes of the mission.

There are two further situations which need comment. Sometimes the romance is not between members of the same team or even with another team member at all. It may be that a team member finds him/herself falling in love with a member of the national culture, or with a member of another mission team.

In both cases the concerns about energy and focus being lost to the mission continue to hold true. Moreover, as with the situation between same team members, it is important to be aware of how our ability to make good judgements about intimate relationships might be affected by the stress and demands of living cross-culturally. This is especially true in the first year or two of a serious cross-cultural experience. We typically face periods of depression, anger, and confusion. We can become very needy emotionally. If someone of the opposite sex comes along who seems to relate well to us and understand us, we may find ourselves drawn romantically to the person, even though it is a person who might not attract us in our home culture and environment.

All the issues above are equally relevant when the relationship is with someone of the national culture. But there is the additional factor that, after only a year or two, and especially without a thoroughgoing knowledge of the language and culture, we should be cautious in assuming that we really know someone. Furthermore, when cross-cultural romances are countenanced, national students may become justifiably confused as they begin to wonder whether the team members are potential mates. Motives can begin to be questioned on both sides, with same-sex team members viewed as potential rivals by their national counterparts. The bottom line is that the mission may be rendered less effective.

But what should you do if you discover yourself to be developing special feelings for someone? It is unrealistic to expect that the feelings will not arise. Honestly discuss the matter with your ministry supervisor as it would be very inappropriate to pursue a romantic relationship in attempted secrecy. The intent is not to force anyone to deny their feelings, but to ensure that the expression of those feelings is not hurtful to the team or the mission.

Your first commitment as a team member is to the ministry task given you by the Lord. When you agreed to join the team, it was with the conviction that God had called you to serve in the country of your placement. Whatever else God has for you as a part of your experience, be confident that he will not contradict this first calling.

May God grant each of us wisdom, patience, and an attitude of trust towards God's good intentions for each of us as we seek to honor him in this area of our lives.

--adapted from the InterVarsity LINK Handbook, 1999.

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