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Professor Trains Missionaries in Counseling Skills

By Rachel Bender | November 12, 2012

Dr. Jim Sells

Isolation from family. Cross-cultural adjustment. Hostility from locals. Economic hardship. These are just some of the stressors that missionaries and their families face in the field. Overcoming these stressors takes time, understanding and patience. Dr. Jim Sells, a professor in Regent University's School of Psychology & Counseling, recently explained that it can also take trained professionals dedicated to making a difference.

"Missionaries are an essential and yet very vulnerable group of Christian ministers," he said. "In all of the ways that they are similar [to pastors], they are different."

Sells was recently invited to present at a two-week workshop for missionaries in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last month. The workshops are an annual event sponsored by the Narramore Christian Foundation. These particular workshops are geared primarily toward missionaries charged with oversight of other missionaries.

The workshops provided intensive psychological training and personal enrichment for a group of 30 missionaries. Sells, along with faculty drawn primarily from Biola University's Rosemead School of Psychology, covered topics of managing stress, coping with emotions and conflict resolution within mission teams, as well as families.

The need for older missionaries to understand how to support the younger missionaries in their care is great. "Part of being a lay counselor is being able to sit intensely with emotion," Sells explained. "You need to be comfortable with your own emotions to understand the emotions of others."

Sells admits that the topic of counseling and psychological issues among missionaries is one that needs more time and attention. He is thankful that groups like the Narramore Christian Foundation are doing just that. "I don't know any place that exists in the world where there is such an intensive psychological exploration for people in ministry," he said.

While this was Sells' first trip to Thailand, it is by no means his first time dealing with the topic. He's traveled to Kenya twice, presenting workshops in Nairobi and Mumbasa.

"When you take on the support of a missionary, you are doing far more than just sending a check," he explained. "A financial aspect is needed, but there is a host of support structures that are required for a person to survive in the difficult structures under which they are working."

Ultimately, he said, "I see my job as helping to train, educate and inform churches as to what their obligations are for the care of the missionaries that they send out." And, he added, his work is providing additional knowledge and experience for his students as well. "We have a number of our students who are working in mission care settings in China and in Africa," he said. "[This is important for them] just to be more knowledgeable about how mental health needs are being addressed in the international community."

Learn more about the School of Psychology & Counseling.


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