by Steve Hunter
Our transition back to the States has brought great challenges, but through them we have learned valuable lessons.
“I believe the Lord is leading me and my family to return to the States,” I told my missionary friend.
“Oh, really,” he responded. “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. Would you mind if I prayed for you?”
“I’d like that,” I said. So he took my burden to the throne of grace: “Lord, I pray for my missionary friend. I thank you for what he means to our work overseas and what he means to me personally. I pray for your will to be done in his life. I pray that sin and temptation would not prevail. I pray that you would remind him of his call and the purpose you have called him to fulfill. The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. Amen.”
When we returned to the States after seven years on the mission field, my family and I experienced the many phases of the re-entry process. I anticipated experiencing a “shame phase.” How long might this phase last? As I searched my heart for its dominant emotions upon leaving the field, shame topped the list. I once heard a pastor distinguish between shame and guilt: “Guilt was feeling sorry for what you do. Shame was feeling sorry for who you are.” I was ashamed to be an ex-missionary. Did I really allow sin and temptation to have the victory in my life? I felt like I had failed myself, my family, my missionary colleagues and ultimately God.
Some may say: “Feeling like you’re a failure is from the devil.” Perhaps, but in my opinion, it was impossible not to feel like a failure. I remember when my wife and I told our kids that we would no longer be missionaries. Our three older children gasped in unison. Our year-old daughter dirtied her diaper. Our five-year-old asked, “Are we still going to love Jesus?”
My wife and I were devastated. During our last conference as missionaries, a regional leader from our agency’s stateside headquarters shared the message, “Finishing Well.” He said: Every month, I fill out attrition forms for missionaries who resign, who follow the example of Mark, who go the ways of the world, who can’t make it on the mission field, who quit. I place a check in the box on the form listed as “change of call.”
As I was literally becoming sick to my stomach, I wondered, “Does our return to the States really mean that we are not finishing well and going the way of the world?” I was disgusted and overwhelmed with shame and grief.
THE GRIEF OF COMING HOME
In our seven years as missionaries, we moved fourteen times. This move, however, was different. As waves of chaos, confusion and transition sought to drown us, my wife suffered a miscarriage and my grandfather died. We swallowed our sorrow from these traumatic events as the pain of losing and leaving our missionary family consumed us. While swimming in a sea of shame, the grief over losing our home, our ministry, our friends and our identity pulled us under. Our kids would ask, “Mom and Dad, when are we going home?” The only response we could give was tears of grief. I miss my missionary family and friends. Not a day goes by that I don’t grieve their loss.
And I grieve the loss of my identity. I knew who I was as a missionary, and I was known by others as a missionary. I knew what to do when asked. Most of the time I could do it well. Now I am no one to everybody, a stranger in my home country. When asked, I barely know how to do anything. Everyone and everything is new.
I miss the old. I miss being competent and confident. I miss my life. I miss me. I wonder if this is what it means to “die to self.”
THE SHOCK OF COMING HOME
The shame and grief we felt upon returning were accompanied by “reverse culture shock.” Clyde Austin, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University says:
A substantial number of missionaries find the homecoming process to be more difficult than the initial adjustment to the field…When missionaries enter the mission field, they expect to have difficulty with language, religions of the host culture, attitudes of national Christians, nostalgia for the USA, and maintaining their own spiritual adjustment. Who would ever expect to feel like a stranger in his own country? (1983, 278-280)
Some may ask, “Steve, what was so shocking about your return?” Part of it was that the America we returned to was not the one we left. I remember thinking, “How did everything get so crazy and so fast and so expensive?” Overseas, we lived in the poorest former Soviet country in Europe and learned to enjoy it. But I remember being frightened to death at coming home. How in the world will we ever survive in the States? American life was a fast-moving river. The sad truth was that if we didn’t jump in mid-stream, we were not going to make it. We went into debt for the first time in our married life. After buying a house, two cars and furniture, I could not sleep at night for two months.
Another shocking aspect of our return home was that no one was interested in hearing us sharing about missions. No one even knew who we were. No one cared to view our nice PowerPoint and CD about our life on the mission field. No one said, “Tell us about your missionary experience overseas,” or asked “How is life for you now that you have returned home?” On previous visits to the States, our calendars were overbooked with speaking engagements about missions. Now, nothing. Not a single invitation. In addition, over time, we had less contact with our overseas missionary family. We were left with the shocking realization that we no longer belonged anywhere—neither overseas nor to our own country.
We did have something even more important, however. We had hope in knowing that we returned home out of obedience to God.
If shame, grief and shock loomed as the darkness in the doorway of our homecoming, the joy of obedience was the light that prevented them from taking up permanent residence. We had believed we would be on the mission field forever, or finish well and retire as good missionaries. We never knew God called missionaries home.
The Lord confirmed his will for us to come home through his word, through the leading of his Holy Spirit, through circumstances, through the counsel of trusted Christian friends and through prayer and fasting. We chose to obey, step out in faith and return. Yes, we are still working to get “re-established” (as if we have ever felt “established” anywhere we have served). Yes, we still sometimes feel shame, grief and shock. Even in the darkest hours, when we felt as if we would never survive the sea of sorrow and despair, the joy and peace that surpasses all understanding were our life preservers. Jesus himself carried us overseas, and he brought us home. In the comfort and security of his loving arms we experienced the joy of coming home.
HELPFUL HINTS FOR COMING HOME
Our transition back to the States has brought great challenges, but through them we have learned valuable lessons:
1. God does call missionaries home. That said, be sure the Lord is indeed leading you home. Verify it through his word, your prayers, and counsel from trusted Christian friends. God’s will never contradicts his word. The missionary life is difficult and challenging. Good reasons to leave the field abound. Who would blame you? Yet, never step outside of God’s purpose and will.
2. God’s love for you is not based upon who you are, what you do or where you live. It is based upon whose you are. You are God’s child through faith in his Son, Jesus. Paul Tillich, in his famous work The Shaking of the Foundation, writes:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you… Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” If that happens to us, we experience grace. (1948, 161-162)
Your value to God, his acceptance of you and his love for you will never change, no matter what.
3. “Finish well” in your service overseas. Don’t burn bridges with nationals or fellow missionaries. Maintain those contacts and friendships. Tie up loose ends. Take care of details. Leave with your integrity, Christian character and relationships firmly intact.
4. Invest in your closest relationships during the transition.This includes maintaining, even increasing, your daily time with the Lord in sweet fellowship with him. This also includes the time spent with family. Unfortunately, the biggest arguments between my wife and me have occurred when we have moved. Sadly in our thirteen years of marriage, we have moved seventeen times, including fourteen times as missionaries. Any move is draining and stressful. An international move is at times completely overwhelming. Don’t lose the Lord and your loved ones in the move. Take time for rest, relaxation and fun.
5. Take time to grieve. There is no time to feel amid such a huge transition followed by resettling in a new home and place of ministry. You must make time to feel, grieve and remember. Talk to your friends, family, loved ones, pets and anyone else who will listen about your likes, dislikes, fondest memories and greatest lessons from your missionary experience. This will be invaluable as you begin your new ministry, make new friends and apply the great lessons from the field in your new place of service. You may even want to write an article. It helps.
6. Role deprivation, shame, grief, resentment, loneliness, discouragement and frustration come with a huge, life-changing transition. Don’t second-guess yourself by saying or thinking things such as, “I made a huge mistake by coming home.” Don’t cave in to the temptation to take on an overwhelming amount of new responsibilities and ministry in an attempt to feel “valuable” or “significant” again. Trust and allow the Lord to open doors. It is better to take things slow in the beginning, step by step.
7. Accept the help of those who care about you: missionary colleagues, State-side friends and family. Trust me, there is plenty to do even with everyone making a contribution. Our missionary colleagues, family, friends and people we never even met were tremendous blessings in our transition. A move of this magnitude is not the time to be prideful. Be appreciative of their help. Look for ways to pass on the love and support to others, maybe even to other missionaries arriving in the States.
8. Expect misunderstanding and even rejection. Seven years ago, when we left America with our two-month-old daughter to dodge rats, drunks and standing garbage in a former Soviet city, some of our loved ones did not understand. When we shared the news that we felt God leading us back to the States, some of them again did not understand. It often seems that the loved ones you are leaving understand the least. Respond with love, patience and gentleness. Always be ready and willing to share how God is working, moving and leading in your life.
9. Get reconnected and stay connected. When working toward getting re-established and getting resettled, take the chance to move beyond Home Depot and relink with family and friends. Visit supporting churches. This is well worth the time and travel investment and greatly helps moving from one phase of ministry and chapter in your life to the next. This was difficult for me at first. I do not easily embrace change. I found it is vital, however, to open your heart to new relationships and opportunities to learn, grow, love and serve. Life goes on for you and your missionary family, but going on without staying connected with your missionary friends who love you would be tragic.
After we returned home, my seven-year-old daughter said out of the blue over a bowl of cereal one morning, “Dad, we are not missionaries anymore.” I replied, “No, honey. What do you think about that?” After all my futile attempts to make sense out of the overwhelming transition, she said it best: “It doesn’t matter if people call me a missionary or not. I will always be a missionary on the inside.”
That did it for me. What can missionaries expect when they return home before retirement? I believe they can expect heartache, but they can hope to learn some helpful lessons along the way. It has been amazing to see how the Lord has transformed our heartache into hope. We are thankful to be home, but even more important, to be in the center of his will in whatever country we may be and to know we will always be missionaries on the inside.
Austin, Clyde. 1983. “Reentry Stress: The Pain of Coming Home,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 278-280.
Tillich, Paul. 1948. The Shaking of the Foundation. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.
Steve Hunter and his family served in Central and Eastern Europe for seven years in member care and pastoral ministries. He is now associate professor of counseling and psychology at The Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. He lives with his wife and four children in Rowlett, Texas.
Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). Published: EMQ April 2005 Vol 41 No 2., pp 150-154. EMQ All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ.