Reflections on Missionary Redeployment: Caring for the Emotional Needs of the Missionary

by Steve M. Irvin

Transitioning to a new field is often emotionally difficult for a missionary. Irvin offers three strategies for improving the outcome of such situations.

When the subject of redeployment comes up, the general evaluation one often hears is, “We need to improve the process.” Without doubt, some missionary personnel have enjoyed happy transitions to strategic locations and have experienced thriving ministry in new venues that have required great personal adjustment. In spite of these successes, many individuals, both missionaries who have redeployed to other fields and administrators who have shepherded these transitions, would agree that the redeployment process still leaves room for improvement.

Redeployment has sometimes led to missionaries remaining in the US for pastoral ministry or for a career change into the business world, contributing to missionary attrition and to the accompanying impact on their missions agencies. Missionaries who do redeploy to new foreign fields may experience reduced effectiveness in ministry as they attempt to cope with new colleagues, cultures, national church contexts, and, in some cases, languages. The successful transition of missionaries to other fields continues to be a challenge. This article attempts to identify one of the issues that redeploying missionaries face, and to offer some strategies in order to tackle the problems associated with redeployment.

The term redeploy means “to transfer from one area or activity to another.” In the missions context, this typically involves the transfer of missionaries from one field to another, although it may also include changes of ministry assignment that represent significant transition on the part of the missionary. Redeployment is sometimes used interchangeably with the word transition. This indicates the transfer of personnel based upon strategic considerations as some fields mature and transition to independence even while other fields are opening or are in need of mission resources in order to establish viable national churches with indigenous leadership. Sometimes, redeployment stems from emergency evacuations or other urgent situations. Redeployment involves complex cultural and organizational issues. From the transitioning missionary’s perspective, it also carries significant psychological and spiritual implications that can have repercussions on his or her personal life and in the overall work of the field.

Recently, I was conversing with a missionary colleague from another region of the world who finds himself in the throes of redeployment. The circumstances surrounding his transition are different from those that motivated my own foray into redeployment. Nevertheless, I was intrigued as he described his psychological condition in terms that mirrored my own experience when leaving Colombia after twenty years of service. What we shared was the sensation of uncertainty and an almost paralyzing inability to make decisions about our next steps in ministry. My colleague went so far as to say that sometimes all he wanted to do was “sit in a chair and stare at the wall.” This sense of aimlessness can be understood as symptomatic of a condition identified as anaclitic depression blues (ADB).
In his irreverent but insightful book, How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?, Jerry B. Harvey, professor of management science at The George Washington University, introduces the term anaclitic depression to describe the form of melancholia individuals often experience in corporate reorganization (be it downsizing, rightsizing or another accepted euphemism). The term anaclitic is derived from the Greek anaklinw (anaklíno), meaning “to lean upon.” It is used six times in the New Testament in contexts of sitting down or reclining (i.e., Matt. 8:11; 14:19). Anaclitic depression as a psychological construct was identified decades ago in infants cared for in foundling homes where the over-worked staff did not often express emotional support to the children through loving physical contact. This maternal deprivation led many of the infants to become lethargic, tense and fearful, eventually leading to marasmus, a wasting away that resulted in some thirty percent of the children dying.

Harvey applies this psychological construct broadly to adults who experience separation from the sources of emotional support found in individuals and organizations. He believes anaclitic depression blues (a coined, not clinical, term) can affect individuals who are put down by someone in leadership, who endure the process of organizational downsizing or who suffer through corporate reorganization over which they have no control (1999, 113). This suggests that redeployed missionaries may also be susceptible to a form of ADB.

Missionaries experience emotional support in different ways. Contact with the constituency back home, including friends and family members, through email, phone calls and letters, contributes to the network of emotional and spiritual support that keeps missionaries going, even in difficult times. Additionally, there is a need for sources of emotional support on the field itself in order for the missionary to adapt well to the field and to enjoy fulfilling ministry. These sources of emotional support, arguably characteristics of effective missionaries, would appear to include: identification with the culture, comfort with the host language, a compelling vision for one’s ministry and strong relational ties with both expatriate missionary colleagues and with nationals.

Redeployment sweeps away these sources of emotional support. Although redeployment may target the same language group, accents, idioms and grammatical usages often vary. Missionary friends and colleagues from the original field are sometimes scattered to different countries. Established friendships with nationals are abandoned or maintained from a distance. The projects, ministries and apprentices that formed the substance of the missionary’s vision for his or her life work are left behind. Is it any wonder that some of these missionaries experience the marasmus of ADB evidenced by a far-off stare onto a blank wall?

To top it off, after having established a certain reputation with recognized competencies that provide one with a ministry niche (if not a certain status), the redeployed missionary is expected to start over on another field. One missionary colleague related his own redeployment experience and the struggle with the change in roles:

Some days I cannot observe any significant purpose for my presence in the new country. There are few consequences or implications to what I am doing beyond the individual divine appointments that the Lord gives to me. I have no influence in the Mission (none is solicited and the turf is well-guarded), I have no position and I have no responsibility beyond coaching a national pastor. I tell my wife from time to time that my redeployment has been more like going into retirement than it has been the taking on of an assignment!

While one may attribute this sense of purposelessness to organizational shortcomings, it no doubt reflects also the frustration and uncertainty endemic to ADB.

If, indeed, one of the major issues to deal with in missionary redeployment is ADB, what can be done about it? Although there are spiritual issues involved (such as seeking God’s direction and dying to self), the affective or emotional issues should not be overlooked. The missionary subculture does not readily lend itself to introspection concerning the emotional aspects of ministry. As good soldiers, missionaries carry out orders, often in a stoic fashion that is the unspoken ideal of missionary service. When it comes to redeployment, however, addressing the issues raised by the specter of ADB may improve the quality of the outcomes of redeployment. I would like to suggest three strategies to help thwart the effects of ADB in redeployment.

1. Intentionally involve members of the missionary’s network of emotional support to speak into the redeployment decision of a new field and ministry. These individuals may include mentors, accountability partners, missionary colleagues and nationals. For example, in my own case in Colombia, I met three times a year with an accountability group to help me evaluate and project my itinerant evangelistic ministry. I stayed in touch regularly with these men. One of these men was the Colombia field director. One was from outside my mission organization. To my knowledge, none of these five men were consulted regarding our redeployment process and future assignment. Not only would their input have been valuable, but their support in the process would have been of great encouragement to me.

Regional and divisional leaders are typically more limited than field personnel in their knowledge of individual missionaries’ strengths, weaknesses, visions and potential. By allowing those who know the missionary best to speak into the redeployment process, mission organizations would not only widen their base of information in order to better inform decision-making, but this would also allow the missionary to continue to enjoy emotional support throughout the process. During my transition, I found that although headquarters wanted to hear my ideas and desires regarding redeployment, I was at a loss as to what to propose for a future assignment. Missionaries who suffer from the malady of ADB may not only be unable to discern clearly the Lord’s leading in their lives, they may also find themselves unmotivated to engage in the discipline necessary to gain discernment. By intentionally involving in the redeployment decision process others who give emotional support to the missionary, the missionary may be able to participate more effectively in the decision process.

2. Engage in communication with redeployed missionaries early and often in the process. Silence may be golden in some contexts, but the lack of consistent, proactive, affirming communication from leadership may be interpreted by the missionary as a lack of concern or, worse, reluctance on the part of leadership to address his or her situation. Lack of communication may breed increased uncertainty in the mind of the missionary who may wonder if he or she fits into the mission’s plans for the future. Constant caring communication on the part of leadership with transitioning missionaries could provide emotional support on which the missionary might lean in order to better deal with the redeployment process.

Already overworked leadership may feel overwhelmed with the responsibility to engage in such communication with large numbers of missionaries. For this reason, the decentralization of the decision-making process becomes key. The empowerment of local field leaders to participate in the decision may both lighten the load of regional directors and divisional office personnel, and give increased emotional support to transitioning missionaries.

3. Make available mentors who have previously walked the path of redeployment. Mentors offer emotional support, spiritual counseling and practical coaching. The advance of information technology makes communication, even audio and video communication, increasingly available for distance mentoring relationships. One of my companions in redeployment (and ADB!) suggested that the type of mentor mentioned above is actually a consultant/coach who would be experienced in redeployment. He or she is not a clinical psychologist (although counseling may be required from a trained professional), but rather a missionary who has gone through redeployment and knows the ropes. This person would be the transitioning missionary’s advocate before headquarters and the new field. According to my friend, this person would be a valuable resource for emotional support in the process, from start to finish. He or she would be the person upon whom the missionary could trust and lean in the process. This “redeployment specialist” could sit with field leadership and the redeployee’s national and missionary colleagues to hear their suggestions and observations, and could better represent the missionary’s needs before headquarters as his or her representative, as one that the person knows and has trusted.

Furthermore, an experienced onsite mentor who knows how the new field “works” can be an additional asset for the missionary who is used to another organizational, as well as national, culture. This individual could also serve as a “cultural mentor” who could help the missionary work through issues that could lead to stress and culture shock. Such persons can prove to be an invaluable support for missionaries navigating the sometimes-rough waters of redeployment.

In this article I attempted to view the redeployment process from the emotional perspective of transitioning missionaries, identifying ADB as a potential threat to effective missionary redeployment. Not all redeploying missionaries will fall prey to this affliction. Some individuals, however, according to the degree of emotional support they have developed on their field of service through identification with the culture, comfort with the language, vision for ministry and friendships with fellow missionaries and with nationals, may suffer the ravages of ADB. This can result in the loss of effectiveness in ministry and, possibly, leading to termination of service with their mission. Leadership may be able to counteract the effects of ADB in order to achieve improved outcomes through redeployment by: (1) involving members of the missionary’s emotional support network in the redeployment process, (2) engaging in consistent, affirming communication with the transitioning missionary and (3) identifying and making available mentors who can walk with the missionary the path of redeployment. These strategies may make the difference between a missionary staring at a blank wall and one clarifying a compelling vision for his or her future ministry.

Harvey, Jerry B. 1999. How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife? San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.


Steve Irvin has been a missionary with The Christian and Missionary Alliance since 1982. After twenty years of service in Colombia, he and his wife accepted a new assignment in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they are involved in church planting and leadership development.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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