By Carla Williams, Team Expansion — They were so vulnerable and wounded, barely able to make eye contact. They’d gone overseas directly after college, bright with hope and the thrill of obedience. And here they were, three years later, looking so lost and alone, feeling all the weight of their supposed failure.
When missionaries come off the field, many churches and families don’t know what to say and the missionaries themselves don’t always know how to move forward.
Some missionaries are forced out by circumstances completely outside of their control, like political instability or a family crisis. Others leave because they have fulfilled their role in that ministry and God is moving them to another phase of obedience. Sometimes, catalysts like team conflict, moral failure, or burnout cause a missionary to return.
Each of these situations brings with it unique challenges and grief, but churches, families, and supporters can help ease missionaries’ transition back to their home country.
What they feel
Loss — For most of the missionaries who return, there were teammates who became like family, and local relationships that defined their daily interactions. They also lost access to the people group they love and desperately want to see transformed by the grace and salvation of Christ.
Confusion — They are also adjusting their cultural sense of normalcy. They understand the social and political climates and conversations of their field. When they come back, they have to re-learn their home culture, and the people they love have grown and changed. They themselves aren’t the same as they were before they left.
One missionary explained, “You know yourself, but you don’t know yourself here.”
Purposeless — There is often a search for a purpose. After spending so much of their lives and energy in missions, how do they move forward? What was the point for their time on the field? What career options will fit them now?
At the same time, suggestions and advice about what they should do next can simply add to their stress. One worker confessed, “It was difficult to hear some people suggest ideas right away. We were numb and not in a good state to make big decisions.”
Hope — There is comfort in being around those who love them. They cherish the time to share life with their friends and family. They are blessed to experience corporate worship again, and to see the Church responding to their family in love and encouragement.
They know that God is faithful, and they hold on to the promise that He works all things together for His ultimate purposes. They want to continue serving Him, and they look forward to seeing how He will use them.
How you can help
Pray — Pray for their family to adjust. Pray for the friends, teammates, and people group they left behind. Pray for their decisions and future. Tell them you are praying for these things.
Tangible support — There are practical things that will assist the missionary family in their transition. Find out what physical things the family needs. Usually, when workers return, they lack most of the standard household furniture and supplies they need to create a normal life. You can help with moving and settling expenses and physical labor. Offer to baby-sit the kids to allow the parents time to talk and plan. Provide normal activities like hanging out over dinner or watching a movie.
Your church might also encourage and pay for formal debriefing. This will give the family the tools they will need to properly process, grieve, and celebrate their experiences.
Listen — In an interview for Expat Women in 2007, Ruth Van Reken explained, “Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move past it.”
Be patient as you listen. Returning missionaries could be feeling a mixture of emotions, which they will probably not be able to succinctly communicate. One missionary realized, “I have to figure out how I can explain this to someone who’s never done this; they’re just not going to understand the depths of emotion and the highs and lows that come with coming back.”
Ask about their lives in the field, about the everyday things and the defining moments—and then let them talk. Give them a chance to remember, laugh, and cry. Deliberately suppress your impulse to fix the situation.
Withhold judgement — It’s easy to judge whether they should have done something differently, but you simply don’t know. They can’t change any of that now anyway.
Also avoid comments like, “I bet you’re glad to be home!” In many cases, they no longer feel at home, and the transition is harder than they ever expected it to be.
Remember that God moves in ways we seldom understand. He took a team conflict between Paul and Barnabas and created two successful ministries instead of one. He used Joseph’s forced exit from his home to deliver two nations from starvation, and after Peter publicly rejected Jesus three times, God made him the founder of the modern Church. God is always working.
Returning missionaries need patience and grace and the freedom to grieve and celebrate what they’ve left behind. Though their experiences will change them for the good, they won’t disarm them forever. God can and will use what they’ve learned and accomplished for his Kingdom. Their journey isn’t finished yet.
The young couple who sat with downcast eyes, struggling to move forward after returning from the field has now been back for three years. Recently, they realized, “In the moment of everything happening, it feels like such a heavy burden. We felt guilty that we weren’t following through with what we told people we would do. We felt like failures. But in the end, we can appreciate everything that we learned and did and can see how much more effective it has made us in the ways we are able to serve now. Coming back to the US wasn’t the end. In a lot of ways, it was just the beginning.”
Carla has been the creative arts writer for Team Expansion, in Louisville, KY, for the last five years. During that time, she has interviewed more than 100 missionaries and written hundreds of their stories. This article was originally published in the 2012 issue of Team Expansion’s “tell magazine.”