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Shame in the lives of missionaries

Equipping missionaries to recognize shame and implement healthy responses will not only benefit missionaries, but also those they serve.

LAUSANNE MOVEMENT AUTOR 433/Faith_Stephens 01 DE MAYO DE 2024 13:00 h
Photo: [link]@felipepelaquim[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

What is shame?

Twenty years of experience working in the Muslim world and interacting with missionaries who serve in this context has led me to consider how missionaries experience shame.

This article will explore shame, how it is experienced by missionaries, and offer tools to equip missionaries to effectively deal with shame. 

Shame is a universal emotion that often results from not meeting one’s own or a group’s expectations.[1]

Shame is present in all cultures and groups, but social norms and cultural values of one’s culture, gender, age, religion, and role, as well as personality types will instigate shame differently.[2]

Shame can cause one to feel defective, worthless, and like a failure.[3] 

Shame can be experienced throughout one’s life beginning in babies as young as 18 months old. As shame is experienced, neural firing patterns are developed that are triggered when similar experiences occur, perpetuating the shame cycle.[4]

Shame signals one’s brain to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, making it difficult to think rationally in these moments.[5] Experiencing shame can produce physical responses such as looking away, blushing, slumped shoulders, and sweating.[6]

Common reactions to the emotion of shame include hiding or escaping from others, which can jeopardize relationships and impact one’s contribution and involvement within a group.[7]


Roots of shame in theology

In order to have a holistic picture of shame in the lives of missionaries, it was important to explore the roots of shame in theology. Shame was the first emotion experienced in the Bible as recorded in Genesis 3:6-8.

Both Adam and Eve experienced shame after they ate the fruit that God had told them not to eat. As a result, they realized they were naked and felt shame. Although Adam and Eve experienced shame after sin, what they felt shame over was not their sin, but their vulnerable exposure.

Shame was experienced because they realized they were exposed, seen by another person, and their connection to God and each other was threatened. 

In the Biblical narrative, not only was the relationship between Adam and Eve corrupted by shame, but also their relationship with God.[8]

Interestingly, God’s reaction to Adam and Eve’s shame was to pursue them in their hiding as he called out, ‘Where are you?’[9] He then provided for their shameful exposure by making clothing of animal skins.

God’s response of moving towards Adam and Eve in their shame is how God continues to engage humanity in their experiences of shame. In fact, Jesus overcame shame on the cross.

Allender and Longman explain, ‘Jesus willingly endured the shame of the cross, but He scorned it—or, in other words, He shamed shame.’[10] God’s movement towards humanity as shame is experienced is an invitation for people to bring their shame to God.


Adaptive and negative aspects to shame

There are two aspects to the impact of shame on a person’s life. The strongest argument for adaptive aspects of shame is that shame helps maintain moral values, social rules, helps change behaviour and leads people to repent of sin and to God.[11]

The list of negative aspects of shame is very long and includes breakdown of social relationships, fear of relationships, anger reactions, low self-esteem, decreased empathy, suicide, self-harm, depressive moods, borderline personality disorder, social phobia, substance abuse, addictive behaviours, and eating disorders.

Another negative aspect of shame is that it can make one believe God is distant and does not approve of or love them as much as others.


Potential shame triggers for missionaries

Considering that missionaries are dealing with expectations from multiple cultures and groups as well as their expectations they have for themselves, there are many potential shame triggers.[12]

Some examples from my research include:

  • language learning;

  • support raising;

  • ministry expectations from team or sending organization;

  • trauma experiences;

  • being molested or harassed;

  • responses to risk; 

  • women’s roles in ministry and at home;

  • singleness;

  • childlessness;

  • amount of material possessions (having more than the host culture or less than the passport culture);

  • burnout;

  • doubting or struggling in their faith;

  • adjusting to life in a new country;

  • taking breaks or spending money on breaks;

  • leaving family or ageing parents in the passport country;

  • struggling to maintain all responsibilities;

  • varying expectations from multiple cultures including host culture, passport culture, and expat culture in country of service;

  • leaving the field.


Shame experienced by missionaries

This deeper understanding about shame has helped me to understand my experience of living as a missionary in the Muslim world. The country that I served in was a very challenging field because of its political instability, male-dominated society, and strict religious laws.

As a female missionary serving in this environment, there were many opportunities to feel like I was not meeting the expectations of my organization, the expat community, the churches that sent me, the host culture, and the expectations I had for myself.

As I have learned more about shame, I understood that I was probably not the only one experiencing it. I believed that it was important to look at this topic further as the negative aspects of shame could be harming missionaries and hindering connection with God and others, which ultimately impacts ministry. 

In order to understand how shame is experienced by missionary women, I invited women who served in the same country I did to participate in two focus groups to discuss the topic of shame.

The discussion was shaped by the findings of the literature. Not surprisingly, the focus group findings align with the shame literature, including the fact that everyone experiences shame.

When I asked women to describe their experience of shame they explained it with even stronger language than the definitions cited earlier. I was told shame is extremely painful, isolating, diminishing, tortuous to the soul, and like a prison.

Additionally, when asked to share experiences that caused the emotion of shame many of the potential shame triggers for missionaries that are listed above were mentioned.

The data was recorded in six main themes which included relationships, harassment, cultural values, reputation, language learning, and transitions.

Additionally, many of the negative aspects of shame were mentioned including suicidal thoughts, crying, frustration, anger, self-condemnation, self-blame, embarrassment, feeling isolated, not speaking out, trying to hide, wanting to give up a role, trying to work harder. 

Perhaps the most significant finding was how willing women were to share their experiences with shame. As women shared their experiences with shame, their openness prompted other women to share their similar experiences.

As the women shared, they were able to help each other see benefits in their responses to shame that they had not seen themselves.


Shame must be addressed

As we consider both the literature and the focus groups, it appears inevitable that missionaries will continue to experience potential shame triggers throughout their service and lives.

Shame has existed since Adam and Eve and will inevitably be present until the Lord’s return. Curt Thompson explains that shame is ‘the emotional weapon that evil uses to corrupt our relationship with God and each other.’[13]

If not addressed, shame can negatively impact missionaries’ relationship with God and each other, and can lead to other coping strategies such as addictions and self-harm.

Missionaries need to be equipped to be aware of shame. They also need healthy strategies to engage with shame as it occurs, to prevent these negative impacts on their ministries and to strengthen their relationships with God and others.


Suggestions for engaging with shame

Shame results from how one evaluates themselves or believes others are evaluating them. Messages that were received from one’s family, community, and social and cultural environments contribute to the types of things the brain encodes as shameful.

These formed pathways in the brain continue to fire the same way throughout life unless retrained. Therefore, to adequately address shame in one’s life, retraining these previously formed pathways will be important. 

The conclusion of my research was that in order to effectively deal with shame, missionaries need to evaluate themselves through the lens of scripture and what God says about them.

Simon Cozens explains that it is problematic when we look for validation from within ourselves or from a group because ‘we are looking across to the world, and not up to our maker.’[14] 

Firstly, missionaries should have self-awareness of the emotion of shame in their lives. Being able to recognize how they experience shame in their bodies—physically, mentally, emotionally, understanding the experiences that often trigger shame—including how their personality contributes to experiencing shame, and knowing how they typically respond to shame, will help missionaries to recognize shame quickly. 

However, being able to recognize shame is only the first step. Secondly, missionaries should be equipped to reach out to God and others when they experience shame. They need to have the tools to cope with shame, such as understanding who God has made them to be. 

Finally, missionaries should learn to recognize and cope with shame messages within each culture that they participate in. It will be especially helpful for teams to be able to have conversations about how shame is experienced within both the team and culture they serve.


Shame awareness tool

In order to guide missionaries through this process, I created the ‘Shame Awareness Tool’ as a culmination of my research.[15]

The tool will help missionaries recognize shame in their lives and establish a personalized plan to respond to shame. As missionaries find helpful ways to cope with their experiences of shame, they can also help those they serve in the host culture cope with living with shame.

Equipping missionaries to recognize shame and implement healthy responses will not only benefit missionaries, but also those they serve.

Faith Stephens has worked in missions since 2001. Since 2003 her work has been focusing on the Muslim world including living in the Muslim world for the past 14 years.

Her work includes supporting expats serving in the region and operating an NGO with her husband in Central Asia. She earned a MA in Member Care from Redcliffe College.

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.


1. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, Minn: Hazelden, 2010), 67. Jesse A. Allpress, et al., ‘Two Faces of Group-Based Shame: Moral Shame and Image Shame Differentially Predict Positive and Negative Orientations to Ingroup Wrongdoing,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 no. 10 (2014):1270-1284.

2. Claudia Ferreira, et al., ‘A New Measure to Assess External and Internal Shame: Development, Factor Structure and Psychometric Properties of the External and Internal Shame Scale,’ Current Psychology (March 2020): Brene Brown, ‘Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame,’ Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Services 87, no.1 (2006): 43-53. Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 5-110. Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey of Self-Discovery (Downers Grove: IVP Books/Intervarsity Press, 2016), 15-29.

3. Corinna N. Scheel, Hedwig Eisenbarth and Katrin Rentzsch, ‘Assessment of Different Dimensions of Shame Proneness: Validation of the SHAME,’ Assessment 27, no. 8 (2020): 1699-1717 Mark W. Baker, Overcoming Shame (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2018), 13.

4.Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Salt River, 2010), 66-195.

5.Brene Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough’ (New York:Gotham Books, 2014), 27.

6. Neda Sedighimornani, ‘Shame and its Features: Understanding of Shame,’ European Journal of Social Sciences Studies 3, no.3 (2018): 86, DOI: 10.5281/ZENODO.1453426.

7. Brian Lickel et. al, ‘Vicarious Shame and Guilt,’ Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 8, no. 2 (2005): 145-157, DOI: 10.1177/1368430205051064. Holly A .McGregor and Andrew J. Elliot, ‘The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31, no. 2 (February 2005): 218-231, DOI: 10.1177/0146167204271420.

8. Simon Cozens, Looking Shame in the Eye: A Path to Understanding, Grace and Freedom (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), 25.

9. Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), Genesis 3:9,3:21. 

10. Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs, CO:NavPress, 2015), 227.

11. Te-Li Lau, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2020), 106.

12- Harriet Hill, ‘Missionaries and Shame,’ Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11. (2020).

13.Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL:IVP Books, 2015), 13.

14. Cozens, Looking Shame in the Eye, 58.15. The ‘Shame Awareness Tool’ will prompt you to think about how you have experienced shame so that you will be equipped to recognize it when you experience it in the future. There is also a section to reflect on what God says about you and who he has created you to be, which will be helpful to understand so you can remember his voice when you hear the shaming messages from yourself or others. The ‘Shame Awareness Tool’ will also help you to think about action steps you will take when you are experiencing shame. For questions about or to receive the ‘Shame Awareness Tool’ and other helpful resources to cope with shame, contact the author here




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