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Review of Jonathan J. Bonk, J. Nelson Jennings, Jinbong Kim, and Jae Hoon Lee, eds., Missionaries, Mental Health, and Accountability: Support Systems in Churches and Agencies

Author: Stephen Allison
Published: Summer-Fall 2021

MD 12.2

Article Type: Book Review

Jonathan J. Bonk, J. Nelson Jennings, Jinbong Kim, and Jae Hoon Lee, eds. Missionaries, Mental Health, and Accountability: Support Systems in Churches and Agencies. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Publishing, 2019. Paperback. 325 pp. $13.99.

Missionaries, Mental Health, and Accountability is an informative and inspirational compilation of essays and papers from forty Korean and Western authors. It is the fifth book in a series produced by the Korean Global Mission Leaders Forum. It includes writings and case studies that were presented at a symposium held in Sokcho, Korea, in June 2019. Essays in the book are divided into four sections, as the editors chose to address these important topics: (1) disillusionment, discouragement, and depression; (2) relational dynamics and tensions; (3) contextual contributory factors in missionary mental illness; and (4) helpful insights to resources for missionary mental health care. I was glad I did not skip the forewords (as I oftentimes do), as I found the following words of Timothy Tennent, Professor of World Christianity at Asbury Theological Seminary, to be major catalysts for me to keep turning the pages of this book: “The insights of this collection of essays and research is a clarion call to the church that we have done a far better job in inspiring and sending out workers into the harvest than we have in caring for and sustaining the ministries of those who respond to the missionary call. Healthy recruitment and sustainable retention should be an important concern for the whole church” (xvi). This is not, however, one of those books wherein the authors critically scold the church for a job poorly done. I agree with Tennent’s appraisal that this book presents “clear, positive pathways offered to the church in these essays” (xvi).

The first section of the book presents case studies of “spiritual giants” in the Old and New Testaments who received healing from mental health problems. The authors of these introductory chapters deal candidly, yet sensitively, with Elijah’s healing from depression and fear, Jeremiah’s struggles with bitterness, disillusionment, and self-pity, and Peter’s self-doubts and faith crises related to his failures and guilt. These powerful stories from Scripture lay a credible, biblical foundation for the validity and value of the book.

Topics covered in the section on “Missionary Relational Dynamics” include marital conflict, neurodevelopmental disorders in missionary children, and sexual addiction. Chapters in the section on “Contextual Factors” address these mental health issues: stress, appropriate care, trauma, and organizational happiness. In the “Resources” section, one gets information about organization-centered mental health, research on emotional stress in retired missionaries, and retirement plan suggestions. The book closes with workshop papers that deal with the following topics: depression in the Old Testament, missionary kids, and building a multicultural mission. Jung-Sook Lee, President of Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, wrote a challenging closing chapter entitled “Our Pain is Not in Vain,” in which he wisely outlines responsibilities of organizations and sending churches. Jonathan Bonk, President of the Global Mission Leadership Forum and Professor of Theology at Boston University in Winnipeg, Canada, closes out the book with a gracious chapter, filled with encouragements and words of gratitude to contributors, aptly entitled “But We Have This Treasure in Jars of Clay. . . : Mental Health and God’s Servants.”

Most of the 23 chapters include case studies and, although many of them relate to the Korean church and missionary works, their applicability to the worldwide Christian missionary movement is obvious. Some of the case studies deal with familiar heroes of the faith, while others address mental health problems encountered by more contemporary missionaries who have served faithfully but are unknown to most of us. Seventeen of the chapters have both an author and a respondent, and they are always from different cultures. This affords the reader at least two cultural perspectives on the issue, and sometimes engages different clinical and/or theological perspectives on the problems. I learned so much from reading Korean cultural perspectives about many mental health issues, for example, the many types of “anger” outlined in the chapter on “Missionary Anger: A Korean Cultural Perspective.” One is reminded of the critical importance of understanding indigenous psychologies and sociologies before making assumptions about the mental health (causes and cures) of missionaries from cultures other than one’s own. I recommend reading the writings of scholars such as Alvin Dueck, Professor Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology, and Gladys Mwiti, clinical psychologist and CEO of Oasis Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, to gain insights into indigenous psychology. Their co-authored book Christian Counseling: An African Indigenous Perspective (Nairobi: Evangel Publishing House, 2008) presents well-researched and clearly articulated information about this important issue.

Stephen Allison

Robert & Mary Ann Hall Endowed Chair of Psychology & Intercultural Studies

Professor of Psychology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, TX, USA

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