Preparing A Team For Their Time Offshore

It is often difficult to describe our job as Headspace leaders. After explaining that we work with school leavers and serve for ten weeks in Thailand some say, “That sounds so exotic!”

Don’t get me wrong. I love Thailand and I LOVE leading our teams, but there is little exotic about the trip or the preparation! I am excited to invite you into our Headspace community and share what we do to transform a diverse bunch of teenagers into an effective, unified team who can work in what often proves to be challenging circumstances:

“The water in our bathroom is black! What shall we do?”  Don’t shower, for starters!

“There’s a snake in the classroom!”  Do NOT take selfies. Tell a local.

“There is a ladyboy in my English class!”  Love them like Jesus. Engage, listen and learn

I have to speak in front of how many people?” What an awesome opportunity! Embrace it!

This year marks our sixth mission trip we have led offshore, and our fourth with Headspace. We learned much from those who have been before, and plenty from our own mistakes and oversights! Sharing our insights here, we hope to inform those who pray for us, and ignite conversation with other leaders so we might learn from each another. 

1. Select wisely
Nothing unravels a team faster than disunity and dissention. Before anyone is accepted at Headspace, they need to understand our purpose and commit to our leadership. Each applicant undergoes a rigorous interview process. Headspace is a challenging environment. A good degree of resilience is necessary, along with a teachable and malleable spirit. While it is hard to turn applicants down, sometimes this is wise. Accepting people for the wrong reasons is neither helpful for them, nor fair on others. For some, there really are better alternatives.

2. Form a strong team identity
Few coming to Headspace are equipped to work as a united team. While we will spend six months together before heading offshore, preparation begins on day one. We begin by working on team identity: “Look around. This is your team, your family, your squad. You will learn to love each other. You will learn to be friends and look after each other.”

3. Develop a positive team culture
Rather than presenting a list of our rules, we ask, “What do you want our team environment to be like? If prodding is required, we ask “What did you ind difficult at High School?” Painful memories are shared: being betrayed, shamed, labelled, excluded, and judged. 

As we teach about communication and emotional health, new ideas are added. At the end of our first month together we merge these into a document, place this in a prominent position, and refer to it regularly. When tensions rise, we review our commitment and consider how we might honour it in our present situation. We regularly reflect on how we are going as a team and how we might grow.

4. Teach members to grow through conflict
One of the biggest challenge in building our team comes from members learning to live together. I’ve heard gappers exclaim, “These aren’t people I’d choose to be friends with.” Great, this invites huge areas for growth! 

While leaders make safe space for members to vent frustrations, we encourage teens to solve their own problems. We ask our leaders to model respectful and honest conversation. 

We look at how Jesus managed relationships. He perfectly balanced truth and grace, challenged destructive behaviours and loved those society excluded. 

We identify God as our power-source. Throughout the year, team members are encouraged to deepen this connection through regular disciplines: praise and worship sessions, refreshing “Sabbaths”, group and private devotions, prayer and study times.

5. Address problematic behaviour with wisdom
Put a random bunch of people together long enough, inevitably, intervention is needed. After observing carnage from shaming, we are passionate to restore people with dignity. We have found the restorative practice approach powerful. When I find myself in situations beyond my training, I seek advice from my wise supervisor, a seasoned counsellor.  Once young people feel safe, heard and loved, they move beyond destructive patterns, take responsibility, and rise to new levels.

6. Develop resilience by working together
Before Thailand, our gappers pack fruit, fourteen weeks of long tedious work. While some embrace it with passion, others struggle. There is much more going on than raising money to help cover fees. Teens learn to work hard, solve their problems, and look after one another. This challenge builds resilience and fortitude, vital skills for offshore. 

7. Be well prepared
As the kiwifruit sail to far shores, excitement builds as we reconnect in one base. We draw from knowledge from the wider community and examine Kiwi and Thai cultures, mission, personal “rights”, and responsibilities on the field. We talk about the choice to love Thailand, and to honour their values and culture. Health and safety procedures are discussed. We intensify our focus on Thai language and protocol and increase our rice intake. 

We prepare English lessons, resources, and discuss classroom management. There are Bible stories and studies to organise, testimonies to write, dramas and dances to learn. During this time, we continue to engage in fun and healthy adventures to ease stress and increase fitness.

8. Essentials for leaders 
I am convinced that a God-given love for each person is essential as we lead teams; love that sees past present challenges and views everyone as a precious creation, on our team for a purpose. From this, grace and patience flow. 

We recognise God empowers and transforms and appreciate those who pray for us. I have entered countless situations where I felt out of my depth or exhausted, and experienced a real sense of calmness, clarity and intuition. Ensuing conversations and breakthroughs are awesome. 

Preparing teams is challenging work. Resilience, tenacity, humility, vulnerability and courage are needed. We have found trained, godly supervisors a source of wisdom and encouragement. 

As Headspace leaders, we need to understand youth culture. We ask questions and take time to listen, consider, and learn. Experience from parenting our own teens has been beneficial. We have learned a lot about our limits and effective strategies from past mistakes! 

Finally, something that really helps us lead our trips is the choice to see the year through the lens of a great adventure. Humour, acceptance, embracing fun and “adventure language” are invaluable!

ROSANNE REA | GC3 Headspace Leader