Healthy Reentry: The Shared Responsibility of Missionary Care
by Thomas Kimber
Healthy reentry is the shared responsibility of the missionaries, mission agency, and local church. Each has a unique role to play in reestablishing returned missionaries.
After nearly twenty years of serving overseas, Joe and Lynne began the process of disengaging from the country where they had lived, raised their kids, and planted churches. They were convinced it was time to leave the field and transition back to life in North America.
“We were unprepared for the transition back to the world we had left nearly two decades ago,” Lynne admitted. Along with reentry shock, grief of multiple goodbyes, and overwhelming changes in lifestyle, both admitted that the greatest difficulty was in their relationships with their home church and mission agency. Lynne recounts:
Our agency didn’t know what to do with us and our friends expected us to be no different than we were before we left. I had difficulty being with old friends, since I had nothing to talk about with them, nor did I enjoy the kinds of activities they enjoyed. It wasn’t long before we realized we had to move to a place where no one knew us and we could start over again.
Joe and Lynne’s story is not unusual. One of the most basic questions we all ask ourselves is, “Who am I?” For returned missionaries, this is a perplexing question. When asked this, one missionary responded, “I am very much aware of what my identity is not now.” Another reflected, “I’ve been back from the field three years and I still feel like a fish out of water.” Another summed it up this way: “If I’m not a missionary, then who am I?”
The challenges of reentry are as complex as they are varied. Difficulties in readjusting to one’s home culture are attributed to multiple factors:
• Physical challenges of moving and setting up a new home
• Emotional upheaval of saying goodbye to long-time friends and co-workers
• Cultural adjustments of moving from one country to another
• Financial pressures of a job change
• Spiritual challenges of discerning God’s will
As difficult as each of those things are, two factors stand out as more significant and potentially more devastating: loss of identity and loss of community. Loss of identity is primarily experienced in four ways.
• Loss of one’s role. Roles give us a defined place in our community, helping us to understand the relationship between you and me, along with the functions and responsibilities we will perform. They give us a sense of definition and purpose.
• Loss of ministry. Overseas, many missionaries perform duties they enjoy; however, once they return home, they no longer have the opportunity to engage in these. This may be closely associated with a loss of role since, for missionaries, their role in a group is often connected with their ministry.
• Loss of culture. In adjusting to a new culture, missionaries learn to express themselves in new languages and mannerisms. New cultures present new ways of thinking, relating, and living. Often, missionaries must leave these cultural expressions and experiences behind when returning to the home country. Part of the missionaries may now lie dormant, begging to be expressed in the home country.
• Personal changes. Upon reentry, missionaries often recognize the changes that have taken place in themselves while living overseas. The changes are often imperceptible during the time of sojourn, but are now impossible to avoid. These include changes in thinking, attitudes, perceptions, likes, dislikes, and perhaps even in worldview and shifts in philosophy and theology.
Closely connected with a loss of identity is a loss of community. Identity is formed in relationship to others and God, so the two are in some ways inextricable. The loss of community is experienced in several ways:
• Through radical changes in relationships. Moving from one country to another means leaving behind friends, colleagues, co-workers, and neighbors. This frequently means leaving relationships in which the deepest experiences of life have been shared: conversions, baptisms, and seasons of great joy and deep grief.
• Changes in social structures and societal norms. For example, in moving from the collective cultures of Asia to the individualistic culture of America, missionaries experience very different expectations of relationships and expressions of friendship. Frequently, upon returning home, missionaries discover they no longer fit in places and among people where they once did. At this point, they realize the simultaneous grief of two losses: the loss of the community of the country in which they have served and the loss of realizing they no longer fit in their home community. With the discovery of these two losses, many missionaries feel the weight of loneliness, grief, and abandonment.
These many losses and realizations form two primary challenges in returning missionaries. There may be, first, an uncertainty about oneself and one’s identity. The question “Who am I?” may be very difficult to answer. And there may be, second, an uncertainty about one’s community. Trying to make new friends while experiencing the upheaval of transition can be overwhelming.
As a result, many missionaries withdraw physically and emotionally from others. One missionary recounts, “For about six months I was barely able to survive five to ten minutes of conversation with anyone. I just wanted to withdraw and sleep.”
In light of these two great challenges, the primary need for healthy reentry is to reassure returning missionaries of acceptance of who they are and the desire for meaningful relationship, although this will be redefined and experienced in new ways.
In spite of such challenges, healthy reentry is possible. Many missionaries have been reunited with their home congregations, family, and friends in deeply satisfying ways. The process may be challenging and sometimes difficult, but it must not be seen as a solo experience for missionaries to navigate alone. Healthy reentry is a community commitment. It is the shared responsibility of the missionaries, mission agency, and local church. Each has a unique role to play in re-establishing returned missionaries in healthy and meaningful relationships, with a sense of purpose, fulfilling God’s calling and ministering to others in significant ways.
For missionaries, one of the primary challenges in reentry is rediscovering one’s identity and how to express that in one’s home community. Reentry research examines this question primarily by looking at cultural identity, which attempts to discover to what degree returned sojourners identify with their home culture or the country in which they served.
However, questions of identity are much deeper than cultural affiliations. The Apostle Paul affirmed that his core identity was not found in his family heritage, his ethnicity, or his national citizenship (Phil. 3:5). Rather, it was in Christ, which enabled him to adapt and conform to all types of people for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
Perhaps the most significant question for missionaries is, “Where is God in this?” Recent studies that have explored the relationship between faith and cross-cultural adjustment have found that missionaries acculturate differently from other sojourners (Navara and James 2002) and that religious coping activities (prayer, Bible reading, pastoral counseling) also predict higher levels of satisfaction in the cross-cultural adjustment (Navara and James 2005).
For many returning missionaries, the experience of grief and loss in reentry may be compounded by a loss of connection with God (Selby et al. 2009). Other studies have found that spiritual development is also positively related to psychological development and adjustment in missionaries (Hall, Edwards, and Hall 2006). Below are five things which may make the transition easier for returning missionaries.
1. Practice spiritual disciplines. Missionaries who reenter in a healthy way intentionally cultivate an awareness of God’s presence. This is often experienced through the regular practice of spiritual disciplines. Studies have found significant relationships between practicing spiritual disciplines and feeling secure in relationship with God, finding a greater sense of satisfaction in one’s ministry, and a deeper awareness of God’s calling (Andrews 1999, 117).
2. Recognize that our core identity is not found in culture, but in Christ. While the expressions of identity may change depending upon the circumstances and situations, the essential core of who we are does not (Campbell 2008, 149). Therefore, missionaries who nurture their core identity in Christ and recognize who they are in him face less of an identity crisis.
3. Become aware of and learn to accept changes in yourself. Initially, many sojourners feel they must choose between the two cultures, yet over time many realize that they may integrate parts of each culture into their lives. Many missionaries have found ways not only to express their cultural identity in their home country, but to introduce their community and family to the culture by visiting ethnic neighborhoods, restaurants, and churches.
4. Prepare well for the transition. It is important that missionaries give themselves plenty of time to prepare mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically for the transition. Take time to say goodbye, showing honor and respect to the friends and culture you are leaving. Communicate to your supporters, home church, agency, and ministry team—everyone who needs to be a part of the transition.
Part of the preparation is looking ahead and setting realistic expectations for your life back home. Do you know what you will be doing? Do you have a clear understanding of your role and your work? Missionaries who have a clear sense of calling from God and know what they will do when they return tend to do much better through the transition. Good preparation is essential for healthy reentry.
5. Recognize the tendency to turn inward and pull away. Even extroverts may find themselves avoiding people and spending time alone. In spite of the challenges, communicate your needs to those who have the ability to help.
Mission agencies have a unique dual role in the life of missionaries. Often, they are the legal employer and the primary source of specialized training and information about cross-cultural living and ministry. Agencies spend a significant amount of time and energy selecting and preparing missionaries to serve overseas. Too often, however, that care and attention does not extend to the transition home. Below are five ways agencies can help returning missionaries.
1. Provide information about the challenges of reentry. Training seminars, literature, and the experiences of other missionaries who have experienced reentry are all helpful. Recognize that reentry shock takes nearly everyone by surprise. Mission agencies are in a key position to minimize the surprise factor and help missionaries establish more realistic expectations for their transition home.
2. Communicate often about everything. Agencies should not only pass along vital information about how to transition well, but also inform missionaries about agency policies and procedures in the transition process. The constant flow of communication is reassuring to missionaries and may alert agency personnel about any potential challenges that need to be addressed during the transition. Constant communication is one of the critical means of alleviating stress, reaffirming the missionaries’ value to the agency, and building trust in an unstable time.
3. Care providers should be aware of the unique issues associated with reentry and maintain contact with missionaries throughout the entire transition. Agency care providers are often experienced and skilled in dealing with acculturation and transition issues. They also have access to resources of which others may not be aware. This kind of care reminds returned missionaries that they have not been forgotten and have an advocate if a critical need arises. When providing care, remember to care for the whole family.
4. Assist missionaries to formulate a clear plan before they leave the field. What will they do once they return? If they are continuing on with the agency, what will be their responsibilities? Many missionaries recount that their church or agency did not know what to do with them once they returned home, thus compounding the feelings of loss of identity and the difficulty in finding a new role.
5. Make contact with the missionaries’ home churches to coordinate efforts. Many agencies have established contact and maintain good communication with their missionaries’ sending churches. Providing information about the unique challenges of reentry could be an important step to ensuring that the missionaries’ needs are met.
The local church has a unique place in missionary reentry. Typically, this is the place from which missionaries are sent and the immediate community that will welcome them home. The primary challenge for local congregations is to recognize their significant role in affirming returning missionaries for the work they have accomplished, as well as their redefined role within the home community. Below are four ways churches can help returning missionaries.
1. Be aware of reentry challenges. This includes the physical needs of setting up a home, along with the infrastructure needed for day-to-day life. Additionally, there are emotional, spiritual, and relational needs. It is also important to understand that not everyone will respond in the same ways. Individual personalities and circumstances will cause people to react to the transition differently. For some returning missionaries, coming home is a season of deep grief, while for others it is an enormous relief and an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends.
2. Recognize the importance of immediacy. The first moments of reentry are important opportunities for re-bonding with the home community. Airport greetings and welcome home parties are important ways of receiving missionaries back into the community from the moment they arrive in country. After twenty-five years serving overseas, one missionary family recalls walking into their home that had been completely stocked with food, cleaning supplies, paper products, along with cards, notes, and flowers from the congregation. Also included was a church directory with a list of phone numbers of key people they could contact if they needed anything. They felt accepted, loved, and cared for the moment they arrived home.
3. Communicate often with missionaries throughout the transition. Do they have a place to live? Do they have a clear understanding of their role and ministry after they return? Are there any extenuating circumstances of their return that might require special care? Often, the transition home is an expected readjustment in the missionaries’ lives and careers. However, many families return from the field under duress because of family issues, illness, political unrest, etc. On occasion, these require special attention and ministry. Communicating often throughout the transition will enable the congregation to provide needed care.
4. Have a safe person who can listen well, love appropriately, and care for the missionary families. Everyone wants to hear great success stories from the mission field. But there are also stories of difficulty and challenges. Sometimes, returning missionaries feel confused and lost in their home country. Many learn to stuff feelings of grief and anxiety. They may not know who to call when they have questions or feel the pangs of loneliness. Returned missionaries often do not know where to go to buy basic items for their home. Just having a person to talk with about the challenges of everyday life may reconnect them to their home community in a very practical and meaningful way.
The goal throughout the reentry process is to help missionary families strengthen their identity in Christ and be encouraged to express that in new and meaningful ways in their home community. Restoring old connections may take time and be filled with challenges, but the process of bringing missionary families home in healthy ways will not only affirm their role and identity, but will meaningfully express the identity of a community in Christ.
Andrews, Leslie. 1999. “Spiritual, Family, and Ministry Satisfaction among Missionaries.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 27(2): 107-118.
Campbell, William. S. 2008. “Religion, Identity and Ethnicity: The Contributions of the Apostle Paul.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 29(2): 139-150.
Hall, M. Elizabeth Lewis, Keith Edwards, and Todd Hall. 2006. “The Role of Spiritual and Psychological Development in the Cross-Cultural Adjustment of Missionaries.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 9(2): 193-208.
Navara, Geoffrey S. and Susan James. 2002. “Sojourner Adjustment: Does Missionary Status Affect Acculturation?” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 26(6): 695-709.
Selby, Susan, Annette Braunack-Mayer, Nicole Moulding, Alison Jones, Sheila Clark, and Justin Beilby. 2009. “Resilience in Re-entering Missionaries: Why Do Some Do Well?” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 12(7): 701-720.
Thomas Kimber served for nine years as a missionary with ReachGlobal (Evangelical Free Church of America). He is an adjunct professor at Talbot Seminary and Biola University. Thomas and his wife continue to train and provide care for missionaries through their home church.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 332-338. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.