by Kath Donovan
For many missionaries, the hardest thing about overseas service is leaving it, particularly before the expected time.
For many missionaries, the hardest thing about overseas service is leaving it, particularly before the expected time.
I had been a mission doctor in Papua New Guinea for 17 years — and not only a clinician, but an administrator, health planner, trainer, team builder, and trouble shooter — with interests in plumbing, building, and finding food for patients as sidelines. Since I was the only doctor looking after 20,000 people, I was stretched in every way, but I usually felt needed, valued, enriched, and sustained.
This suddenly ended eight years ago when my physician ruled that I was not fit enough to continue. Recognizing that he was right, I returned to Australia and put my feet up. It was no trouble to exchange 24-hour call for 24-hour electricity, the heat and humidity of tropical lowlands for a lovely temperate climate, or to eat apples, drive a car, and have an even-tempered refrigerator.
However, as I began to recover physically, I noticed that the easygoing, relaxed person I’d always considered myself seemingly changed into a depressed, discouraged, angry, resentful stranger. I felt a failure and a non-contributor, struggling almost constantly with feelings of guilt—about not being overseas, not using the gifts and abilities God had given me, and, not least, about my own negative emotions.
Two or three years later, while at a bereavement counseling seminar, I suddenly saw that unresolved grief over the major losses surrounding my return to Australia was the problem. This helped me to understand my feelings and finally begin to adjust.
Many returned missionaries report taking years to just; quite a few never seem to rally succeed against the feelings of failure, uselessness, being forgotten by mission societies, and generally being misunderstood by Christians. But because of their cross-cultural experience, they are a potentially rich resource. The question is, how can it be tapped for their encouragement and the enrichment of others?
My purpose here is to reflect on the reentry adjustment process and suggest ways to facilitate it.
While practical issues such as finding suitable housing and schooling for children greatly influence the speed and adjustment, very different issues are crucial for long-term adjustment.
The stressfulness of life changes. Research has shown that people with a lot of stress are vulnerable to deteriorating physical, emotional, or social health.1 As measured by the scale developed by Holmes and Rahe,2 the average amount of change faced by returning missionaries means they have an 80 percent risk of significant health change during the adjustment period. So not only are physical symptoms common, but also low self-esteem, depression, relationship problems, and reduced work performance. Awareness of this vulnerability, such as a married couple that began to experience relational problems, can help missionaries to understand why and to cope successfully.
Another strategy is to cultivate an appropriate perspective. "Why the gap?" asked the professor of the department when I was hoping to be employed. He was referring to the gap in my experience of medicine as it was practiced in Australia. I realized that this was a perspective-restoring question; the gap was simply part of the cost of having been a missionary and therefore not a reason for dismay, however things seemed.
The grief of major losses. Many missionaries are surprised that many of the negative emotions of which they are ashamed are actually symptoms of grief. A critical attitude toward as mission society,home church, or the community may be an expression of the anger of unresolved guilt.
It helps to reassure missionaries that their losses are real and their grief is legitimate. These include loss of what was overseas (role, place in the team or community, a certain ministry); of the future as they thought it would be; of what was at home because they were missionaries (prayer support and interest); and of what might have been had they nevergoneoverseas (advancement in their profession). The last of these has been a major part of my sense of having failed the Lord. Facing it, on the other hand, has been vital in my adjustment.
These steps have helped me to adjust.
1. Acknowledging grief. I had to acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of my grief and its effects.
2. Facing present realities. I had to face the fact that I was no longer in Papua New Guinea and that there was a gap in my capacity to function in my job and in the home community. The challenge was to make friends with those tigers, which involved tow more steps.
3. Drawing a healthy line on the past. Funerals are a public acknowledgment of a death. For those who are grieving, it is a painfully drawn line signally not only a an end, but also a beginning. My problem was that there had been "no funeral," as one of my friends put it. As long s I was wondering whether I could return to PNG, I could not commit myself to settling down at home. This may be the most common hindrance to adjustment faced by returned missionaries. The idea that overseas service is best and therefore anything else must be second best contributes to the problem. "As far as I can see," one missionary said in a tongue-in-cheek statement of what he perceived the Christian community’s view to be, "the greatest sin a missionary can commit is to resign." This also reflects the deeply held view of many career missionaries. Thus, returned missionaries can easily see themselves as forever on the scrap heap, or they can simply endure their time at home until they can manage to return. This brings us to the most important step.
4. Committing yourself to the present task. The secret to healthy adjustment to the home situations to see it as just as much God’s calling s the overseas situation was. Missionaries may solve their practical problems, cope well with life changes, and partly deal with their grief, but then get stuck at this final step and never fully adjust. A right view of the "gap" is crucial. The "gap" is real, but remember, it has been filled with experiences that are not only rare but potentially valuable in the home country. We have to find ways to build on those experiences.
Unhappy memories resulting from resolved conflicts and unhealed hurts are another common hindrance to wholehearted commitment to the task at hand. Missionaries often need some help before they can make healthy adjustments.
FACILITATING HEALTHY ADJUSTMENTS
1. During overseas service. We all need good memories of our field service. The mission society’s role begins with selecting the right people and making every effort to slot them into roles suited to their gifts and capacities. Its expectations should be clear, performance evaluated, and feedback given. Further training opportunities should be provided, and missionaries should be allowed say in their areas of expertise Leadership potential needs to be identified and developed, and team building encouraged. Spiritual growth and ministry need to be encouraged as first priority.
Regular counseling, pastoral care, and spiritual retreats should encourage missionaries to develop perspectives and attitudes that equip them to face hard things in their lives in ways that glorify God.
2. During home leaves. Although permanent reentry is very different, home leaves provide mini-reentry situations in which to learn coping strategies. For example, we need regular contacts throughout the leave with people who will act as a sounding board while we air our problems. Educational seminars can also be helpful.
If possible, use your last furlough before permanent return to get some advice and material help, if needed, with practical problems like where to live, how to get housing, and how to manage finances. Home councils can often help. In cases where a missionary has no money, home councils, along with home churches, can ensure that suitable accommodation is available when needed.
3. Before final departure. In the months preceding final departure, fourveryimportant things can be done to help reentry adjustment.
(a) Prepare. Through seminars, written material, and one-on-one discussions, missionaries can learn of the adjustments ahead and be trained in coping strategies. Encouragement to clarify the reasons for their leaving—and their legitimacy—can help them to see that what is ahead is God’s best for them. Information and advice on practical issues to be faced in the home country should also be given.
(b). Say good-bye. Public acknowledgment of what the missionary has meant to the body of Christ and to the community is vital for healthy line drawing. Missionaries should not be allowed to slip away without it. Although this will be painful at the time, it will become an important part of a good memory later.
(c). Reflect. Help missionaries to put into perspective what is happening and to begin to cultivate a grateful memory. Discussing with a leader who the missionary’s contribution has fitted into the Lord’s work in that place can be very helpful to remember. If something can be written that the missionary can take home, so much the better. In the midst of the pressures of packing up and handing over, even one weekend of spiritual retreat for reflection can be very beneficial.
(d). Handle unfinished business. Missionaries need time and opportunity to put to rest misunderstandings and unresolved conflicts with colleagues and to ask forgiveness where needed.
4. After arrival. Information and advice on practical matters for newly arrived missionaries are vital, and a sense of belonging and being cared for can provide an important buffer against stress.3 However, many missionaries feel they are left very much to fend for themselves. Four groups ought to be available.
(a) Personal support groups. Each returning missionary or family should be cared for by a small group comprised of mission council and home church representatives, and another returned missionary to give information, practical advice, and loving care in the initial stages of reentry.
(b). An intermission work resettlement group. This group should provide information, advice, and access to resources appropriate to the missionary’s work experience in order to provide maximum help in finding suitable employment. This could be done in contact with Christian professional groups.
(c). Returned missionaries group. With membership open to any returned missionaries, this group should not only offer mutual support and encouragement, it should also find out how to sue the rich resource that returned missionaries represent for the community’s benefit. For example, the returnees might do cross-cultural ministry at home, or facilitate a church’s ministry to ethnic groups, or challenge churches about overseas mission, or specific deputation ministries. They could even become involved in other "cross-cultural" ministries, such as to people in retirement villages or those with life-threatening illnesses who have suddenly been propelled into new and painful experiences for which they were unprepared. Drawing on their own experiences of adjusting to other cultures, missionaries are well-equipped to empathize and help in such situations.
(d) Professional debriefing and debriefing. Ideally, counselors should be psychologists either with missionary experience or with close knowledge of the mission scene. Debriefing should be seen as a time for reflection on the overseas experience with its positives and negatives, for clarification of what can be learned from them, and for finding ways to deal with unfinished business hindering adjustments. This should lead naturally to debriefing, with the aim of helping the missionary come to a positive commitment to serving God at home. It would include help in identifying and becoming established in a new role, as well as acknowledging present difficulties as part of the cost of having been a missionary overseas.
Reentry is a major transition in missionaries’ lives. While transitions commonly cause grief and pain,t hey signalnotonly the end of one chapter, but a challenging beginning to a new one. Mission organizations need to encourage their people to see reentry as a challenging and exciting chapter in their lives. We can’t ignore the problems. We must prepare missionaries ahead of time and be sure that their home councils and their home churches are ready to help them. Returned missionaries are a valuable resource that is scarcely being tapped. We need to gather their insights and help to make the pain of reentry enriching—not only for those experiencing it but also for those among whom they live.
1. G.R. Eliott and C. Eisdorfer, eds., Stress and Human Health (New York: Springer Pub. Co., 1982), pp. 55-80.
2. T.H. Holmes and R.H. Rahe, "The Social Readjustment Rating Scale," Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213.
3. S. Cobb, "Social Support as Moderator of Life Stress," Psychosomatic Medicine, 38, 300.
Kath Donovan (M.B., B.S., Ph.D.) is co-director of the Christian Synergy Center in Belmont North, N.S.W., Australia.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 18-25. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.