Trauma and Coping Mechanisms among Assemblies of God World Missionaries: Towards a Biblical Theory of Well-Being

Written by Valerie A. Rance Reviewed By Jessica Udall

It is common for missionaries to experience frequent traumatic events in addition to the high levels of stressors involved in daily cross-cultural living. The effects of this trauma often lead to missionary attrition. In this published form of her doctoral dissertation, Valerie A. Rance seeks to prevent such attrition by studying the way that 254 Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) missionaries serving in seven different areas of the world have handled the traumatic events they have experienced while serving as missionaries. Rance’s contribution comes as she combines this contemporary data with an exploration of how twenty-three men and women of the Bible coped with traumatic events. Her aim is to develop a biblical theology of well-being which can “assist missionaries to deal with the trauma they will face on the field” (p. xv).

The author herself has been an AGWM missionary since 1984, living in El Salvador during a civil war and experiencing traumatic events such as armed robbery of her home, violent activity from gangs, and natural disasters. Because she was curious why different missionaries had different responses to trauma, she pursued her MA in counseling focused on trauma and PTSD. Ministerially, her goal was to help traumatized missionaries stay on the field and experience post traumatic growth instead of merely experiencing post-traumatic stress. Additionally, Rance sought to equip herself and others with the ability to prepare new missionaries with the coping skills needed to endure traumatic events while holding on to faith and calling.

After introducing her research topic and methodology in chapter 1, Rance covers a brief history of research on coping with trauma and understanding suffering, investigating the interplay and areas of similarity and difference in secular and biblical approaches (ch. 2). As one would expect, she details the reasons why missionaries have higher than average levels of traumatic stress and she sketches some of the various negative outcomes of this stress. In addition, however, she intentionally moves beyond this to explore ways of coping with traumatic stress to help prevent attrition and foster missionary well-being on the field. Therein lies her original contribution in the latter portion of her dissertation.

In chapter 3, Rance explores how several biblical characters coped with the suffering caused by the traumatic events they experienced by evaluating them using the Trauma Event Questionnaire and giving them trauma classifications. This allows Rance to use contemporary clinical language to compare biblical characters’ experiences with modern-day people living through similar events. Lest the reader accuse her of anachronism, it is important to point out that Rance readily admits that she is necessarily interpreting their stories using her own perspective, since they were not self-reporting but were only described in Scripture.

Among others, Paul is given as an example of a biblical character who endured a traumatic accident (shipwreck), and Moses as someone who experienced natural trauma (witnessing the ten plagues). Many other biblical figures are shown to have experienced violent crime, war related trauma, hostage events, physical and/or sexual abuse, various kinds of secondary traumas, and psychological/physical trauma. Based on external evaluation, Rance concludes—with the concession that this is well-researched conjecture—that Daniel, David, Elijah, Job, and Naomi exhibit some symptoms of PTSD. Rance observes, however, that “most of the 23 biblical characters studied rebounded from their traumatic experiences and thrived. Even those who exhibited PTSD symptomatology seemed to cope with their misfortune and grew godlier in character” (p. 96).

This growth was mediated by various coping mechanisms, chief among which was exercising trust in God. Other means of coping include asking God for help, lamenting, worshiping, holding on to a sense of purpose or call, understanding oneself as working in partnership with God, accepting help from friends and family, and forming a theology of suffering. Rance asserts that by learning from the twenty-three men and women of the Bible which she studied, we can begin to articulate a biblical theology of well-being which will be of use in missionary member care—and perhaps in wider contexts—today.

Chapter 4 contains the synthesis and discussion of a trauma and coping survey which was completed electronically by 254 AGWM missionaries serving in seven regions around the globe to help Rance with her research. She discovered that there were “statistical differences in the development of PTSD and the missionaries’ satisfaction with life (optimism) and negative religious coping” (p. 217). Specific training in coping with trauma as well as more general cross-cultural training for missionaries were also seen to decrease incidence of PTSD among AGWM missionaries surveyed. In chapter 5, Rance brings her biblical research and insights from interviews together to formulate her Biblical Theory of Well-Being as a tool which can be used in trauma-management training for missionaries.

Strengths of this book include the author’s lived experience as a long-term missionary along with her training as a counselor focused on trauma and PTSD. In addition, the extensive and diverse participants in her missionary survey lend credibility to her research. As Rance herself is aware, the validity of assessing biblical characters for traumatization and PTSD using tools that require the subject to self-report is open to critique. However, Rance admits the clinical limitations of this method and encourages her readers to simply engage in an imaginative exercise, asking what can be learned if these characters were indeed emotionally affected by the tribulations they went through. I would recommend this book to missionaries, missionary educators, and others who want to glean biblical encouragement for weathering the trials of life with hope.

Jessica Udall

Jessica Udall
Columbia International University
Columbia, South Carolina, USA

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