Brent, you are right—perception makes a huge difference. In thinking about missions work, it may help to make a sports comparison. For instance, people who go skiing in Colorado have to waive most of their legal rights—it’s printed (in very tiny letters) right on the ski pass and posted everywhere at the resort. The legislature made that decision because the ski industry is important to Colorado. In another example, people who play soccer consent to contact that would be assault under normal circumstances. Usually, if someone knocks you down and breaks your collarbone, there will be criminal charges and restitution—but not in a soccer game.
The idea in our culture is that you can choose to do certain activities and consent to any bad consequences that happen.
You’ve brought up the idea of ritualizing this “consent” as a ceremonial milestone in moving into missionary service. That is a great idea. An actual legal waiver is another possibility—but instead of just filling a waiver with legalese, we can incorporate the vision statement of the mission and acknowledge that there may be crisis and trauma in the missionary life.
Training and preparation can also be rituals of consent. How you need to be trained is going to vary depending on the area of the world and foreseeable crisis situations, of course. When Bruce and I lived in Sumatra, we relied pretty heavily on the Wycliffe book Where There Is No Doctor, because although we were in a city, the medical care was bad enough that one wanted to double-check everything. Part of child protection plans, in my view, should include training for parents on possible abuse hazards in the local culture. Child sexual abuse is endemic in some cultures and more rare in others. Its symptoms differ between cultures, so outsiders may be blissfully unaware of precautions the local people keenly follow. All these different situations require their own approaches to training.
Training does mold our responses. Have you seen the new book by Amanda Ripley called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why? It’s all about how humans react in the face of disasters like the World Trade Center collapse or airplane crashes. Apparently, even training that seems silly at the time can make a huge difference.
I would sum up by saying three things:
- have a vision that incorporates possible suffering and loss;
- help your missionaries process and own that vision through ceremonies and legal documents such as policies and waivers; and
- train your missionaries to be prepared for reasonably foreseeable crises.
Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion