Daily Archives: 4 November 2006

Japan Missionary Burnout, 1970s

In the early years following the Pacific War … missionaries worked with confidence and optimism among a people bewildered and depressed. By 1970, the situation had reversed. The Japanese were confident and optimistic, and many missionaries were bewildered and depressed. The Protestant missionary force in Japan was declining sharply. Southern Baptists, barely holding their own, were not immune to stress and uncertainty. Upheavals in the Convention were unsettling, and the 1970 world Baptist congress, like the 1963 New Life Movement, was followed by a spiritual and psychic let-down.

In 1971 a charismatic evangelist from Canada, Les Pritchard, conducted a timely series of renewal conferences in Japan that attracted large numbers of missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. Participants were led to pray for “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” and many spoke in tongues for the first time. About 12 Southern Baptists were caught up in the movement, somewhat as Edwin Dozier and Max Garrott had been caught up in the Oxford Group Movement that swept Japan in the 1930s. The new Southern Baptist charismatics, claiming that their deepest personal needs had been met, brought their spiritual exuberance to the July 1972 Mission meeting, only to be confronted by others who regarded glossolalia as weird and divisive if not heretical. Providentially, it seems, Bob Culpepper had been chosen to lead the customary time of prayer and sharing. Deeply interested in Pritchard’s ministry, Culpepper had attended charismatic prayer meetings in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka, and he had begun a serious theological study that was later developed into the book Evaluating the Charismatic Movement. Himself not a tongues-speaker, Culpepper was able to play a mediating and healing role as testimonies were given from “both sides of the charismatic divide.”

Pritchard visited Japan occasionally over the next several years, conducting well-attended seminars in the major cities. His 1973 seminar in Kyoto, held in an Anglican church, drew about 300 people. “What a wonderful time it was,” exclaimed a Southern Baptist couple, “filled with the anointing of His Holy Spirit and the praises of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The couple joined with pastors andmissionaries of many denominations to form an Agape Kai (“love meeting”) that met monthly for fellowship and prayer. This couple later resigned from the Mission, and some other members ceased speaking in tongues. Southern Baptist participation in Japan’s charismatic movement gradually faded away.

Another 1972-73 visitor to Japan, Everett Barnard, a psychologist from the Sunday School Board, helped missionaries understand and deal with their personal problems from a different perspective. Barnard gave personality profile tests to members of the Mission and met with them privately to interpret the results. He traveled to several areas to render this service and to give counsel when appropriate.

In 1978 missionaries saw themselves through the eyes of Janice and Mahan Siler, counsellors from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Mahan was director of the School of Pastoral Care at Baptist Hospital. The Silers spent six weeks in Japan conducting family life enrichment conferences in several areas and one in conjunction with Mission meeting. After returning to America they wrote a follow-up report that identified with professional precision the strengths and weaknesses of the Mission.

The Silers were impressed with the importance of the Mission as a family–an extended, functioning family that satisfied some of the deepest needs of its members. But some members, they noted, especially among the field evangelists, were still searching for their place within the Mission and its work in general. Second- and third-term missionaries seemed to be doing less well than first-termers. The older ones, while subject to “the general mid-life kind of stress,” were far enough into the Japanese language and ministry to experience the severity of their limitations in an alien culture. The Silers described this state as “delayed” or “deferred” shock. Their observations were supported by Foreign Mission Board findings that missionaries were vulnerable to the “middle age syndrome,” a significant factor in resignations.

The Silers called for “more mutuality and partnership” within marriage. Wives especially, they pointed out, wanted more interpersonal fulfillment in their marriage relationship, which often felt more like co-existence. Since there was little opportunity for missionaries to deal with anger and frustration directly with the Japanese, resentment often built up within the marriage and the family, a resentment potentially explosive. Though not mentioned in the Silers’ report, it should be noted that six of the couples who had resigned from the Mission during the previous two decades had also divorced after their return to America. At least three more of the couples divorced later on.

SOURCE: The Southern Baptist Mission in Japan, 1889-1989, by F. Calvin Parker (University Press of America, 1991), pp. 253-254

My parents had earlier resigned in 1961, my father citing both burnout and a feeling “that the work in Japan was too heavily subsidized and too tainted with Southern Baptist and American ways” (p. 218). We spent two and a half years in Winchester, Va., where I had the opportunity to get to know my mother’s side of the family. But my parents were already experiencing marital problems, and those problems got much worse after their five children had left home. They resigned as missionaries at the end of 1975 and divorced a few years later. The divorce came as a surprise to my three youngest siblings, but not to the two eldest, who thought it was long overdue.

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