Athletes at every level have coaches who train and encourage. Voice coaches help singers increase range and match pitch. Missionaries make use of coaches too, and they can be of great benefit.
Anne Schaffer is SAMS newest coach, specializing in language and culture coaching. Anne has a broad range of experience to draw from, having served as a missionary herself and having taught languages at different levels for many years in many different countries and contexts. Her priority is squarely on SAMS missionary personnel, though she coaches others outside of SAMS as well. Yet, when she introduces herself as a language and culture coach, she is sometimes met with blank stares.
She recently explained more about her role to supporters. “I’m passionate about helping those missionaries who are moving to a new country to learn that language and culture so that they can be successful and remain in the field. I mean, moving to a new country is a major event! And if it’s a location that speaks a different language, basic skills like speaking and listening are no longer possible – let’s pause to let that sink in. Basically, every area of life is going to be impacted and hindered, not just practically, but socially and relationally.”
Missionaries are only human. Some people look at them as spiritual heroes, but in truth they are normal people with normal flaws seeking to earnestly serve God in a fallen world. Yet, they experience major transitions that require extra resources to survive. “But ultimately,” says Anne, “they are relational people that have left behind family, friends and all that is familiar for the sake of new relationships. And in this new culture, they want to introduce people to the relationship that is the most important of all – the Lord himself – so language acquisition is crucial.”
Once in the field, missionaries can discover that there is not a structure or adequate support to advance in language learning. Sometimes there aren’t available resources such as books in their new language. Rarely is there a language school nearby, and if there is one, it doesn’t always provide instruction that meets the learner’s needs. The lack of a “cultural informant” early on doesn’t help either. Finally, expectations of the missionary, either real or perceived, to focus on ministry right away and not devote adequate time to learn the language and culture can be counter-productive and actually exacerbate the already stressful situation of living in a new, unknown environment.
Anne has received consistent feedback from missionaries she has coached, even ones with some formal training, that they don’t know what they don’t know. And she emphasizes that cross-cultural training on the front end doesn’t necessarily eradicate the stress or challenges of living cross-culturally; but it does provide a lens to begin to think differently and to begin knowing which questions to ask.
“Most people are not aware of and do not adjust for the added, underlying stress of cross-cultural living or feel permission to take the needed steps, which can lead to unrealistic expectations and cause them to be less effective than they could be,” says Anne. “Language-learning is a very large, time-consuming undertaking and can get overwhelming very quickly. Having a coach can help provide the professional and emotional support needed to set realistic goals based on actual language needs. It breaks the process down into small, doable goals rather than living under the weight of undefined goals that can never be reached, which only adds more stress.”
No matter whether the missionary candidates are in the field or are preparing to go, Anne says that her main focus is to help missionaries thrive in their new context by helping them to identify and navigate the cultural issues and practically address their language needs. As the process evolves she finds that missionaries better understand and are better received by those in the host culture. And she adds, “I see reduced stress and an emotional stability being established as the learner develops a sense of control and ownership of the learning process. This all leads to increased motivation to serve the Lord and thrive in the place to which they’ve been called, enabling them to carry out their ministry more effectively and more confidently.”
You can contact Anne via her email AnneSchaffer@sams-usa.org