Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Assessing Families (Not Just Individuals) for Missionary Service

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Assessing Families (Not Just Individuals) for Missionary Service

Article excerpt

The assessment of missionaries tends to focus on the adult members of the family unit being approved for service. Yet, the family is the one consistent relational network that missionaries are connected to throughout the prefield, on the field, and post-field phases of mission service. In addition, throughout the history of missions sending bodies have struggled to balance the needs of the missions context, the ministry gifts that the adult members of the family bring to the field, and the dynamics of their marital and family relationships. While the literature on missionary children has grown significantly, adopting a perspective that prioritizes the family unit as the unit being "sent" may result in helpful information regarding missionary attrition and longevity. Therefore, assessing missionary families, not only the individual members of the family, at the various stages of missionary service is warranted. Using concepts and techniques from systems theory, a model and logistical factors for assessing missionary families are presented, along with suggestions for whom to assess, what to assess, and how to conduct family assessment. Resources and possible assessment techniques are also provided.


One of the long-standing tensions in the mental health professions is between focusing on the health and pathology of individuals, versus focusing on the relational contexts that exist between people. This same tension exists in the task of the psychological assessment of missionaries. Is this person healthy and a good fit for international service, or do they have the relational networks of connection and support to sustain and thrive in cross-cultural service?

Since psychologists have historically emphasized formal assessment procedures, the bulk of the literature and available assessment instruments assume an individual focus regarding intelligence, personality, learning, behavior, values, abilities, and career. This article will challenge this tendency in the field and suggest that a more systemic emphasis may be helpful, particularly in the assessment of missionaries and their families.

In recent decades, mission organizations have embraced the value of assessment, and recommendations for appropriate and ethical uses of assessment, while also exploring potential misuses (Hall & Sweatman, 2002). However, the focus has been on individual and marital assessment, with little attention given to family and social system assessment.

It is important to note that the individual focus is both societally and theologically defendable. In Western society, the emphasis on individual well-being and achievement is extensively documented (e.g., Cushman, 1996; and in the church, Rah, 2009). The Protestant, evangelical belief system--the emphasis of many mission agencies and supporting churches--has been on individual salvation and discipleship (e.g., Ezek. 18:20; John 6:47). In contrast, the corporate perspective of the church as the body of Christ is downplayed. This systemic perspective, both in terms of theological and biblical support, is discussed in depth elsewhere (e.g., Balswick & Balswick, 2007; Grenz, 1998). Suffice it to say, psychologically, theologically, and culturally, the prevailing bias in mission organizations is towards individual assessment.

Individual assessment is valuable and often systemic issues can be identified in well-done assessments. However, the complexity of contemporary family structures (see McGoldrick, Preto, & Carter, 2015) suggests that family assessment may be increasingly needed. For instance, what if a couple chooses to serve but they have had a conflictual marriage regarding the roles in their relationship? Likely the most powerful factor in the effectiveness of a missionary couple will be the involvement and mutual support of one's spouse. What if the couple has children? To what degree will family members aid or detract from missionary effectiveness? …

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