On one hand, you might be excited to see your family and friends back home. You’ve probably been dreaming of your favorite dish from home for months. If you are like me, you’re really looking forward to being surrounded by American football fans again.
On the other hand, you realize that your time overseas was a privilege that most never have. You made friendships just as deep as the ones you enjoy back home. Your co-workers are your adopted family. You have embraced many of the customs and cultural nuances. Maybe this was your life’s work, and you are retiring, which is a huge transition no matter the role, much less as a missionary.
So how do you prepare to leave?
One of the most impactful ways to exit the field well is to intentionally say goodbye.
While often awkward and sometimes difficult, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face, heartfelt goodbye to those who have walked this journey with you.
Not each and every goodbye needs to be a tearful affair, but some acknowledgement will serve you well long-term.
Here are some points to think through and act on when your goodbyes are approaching.
Groups versus individuals
To whom do you need to say goodbye as an individual? Who would it be fine saying goodbye to in a group setting?
For people you’re friends with, but not extremely close, it’s appropriate to say goodbye to them in groups. Maybe you invite them over for a last dinner or out to a last lunch as a group. Some of your co-workers might fall into this category, and you can give a short, broad sweeping goodbye speech at your last staff meeting.
It’s okay if some people who need to be addressed as individuals are included in the group gatherings as long as you also take out special time for them.
Make a list of who you need to say goodbye to as an individual over the course of a few weeks so you are sure not to forget anyone special. Take the other peoples’ feelings into consideration as much as your own. You do not want to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth.
If there is someone you are on the fence about talking to or something in the air you need to clear before leaving but you are not sure how, be sure to talk about this with a mentor or coach.
Ask yourself, “If I do not address this, will it be a dark spot when I look back on my ministry here?”
It is exponentially harder to address these issues once you are back home so I would say if in doubt, go ahead and take time to have those extra conversations. Seek counsel and pray for wisdom beforehand. Tell God you want to make sure whatever you do reveals His mercy and grace to everyone involved.
Once you solidify who you need to address as an individual, it is time to decide what that looks like.
Again, not every goodbye needs to be a tear fest or overly dramatic. Some might need to be longer and might stir up emotions. I’ll give a few scenarios to clarify what I mean.
When addressing your field leader or a co-worker who served as a mentor or close friend, one approach would be to do something special for them at your last one-on-one meeting like pay for their coffee or bring their favorite sweet treat to them. Then as you are closing your conversation tell them what these meetings have meant to you by giving a specific example of a way they helped you. Let them know your experience would have been different without their influence.
If you are saying goodbye to someone you mentored or ministered to then take a similar approach, but spend time admonishing them. Point out qualities in their character that you love and admire. Speak about how you see God using them now, and what that might look like in the future. Again, make sure they know that for all they feel that you did for them, they also ministered to you.
Lastly, if there is someone who you may not be on a deep emotional level with, but you need to address individually out of respect, it is usually fine to pull them aside one-on-one during a group event to do so. The conversation can be very short, but go long way. Something casual about appreciating their extra effort in easing your obstacles or complimenting the way they do their job is appropriate and will be deeply appreciated.
No Empty Promises
Although it may seem kind and polite to tell those you are leaving that you will see them again someday, try to refrain from doing this unless you have plans made to follow through.
If you have intentions to see them again, but no solid plans to do it, then say that. If you do not have plans or intentions to see them again, it is okay to say that you are not sure when you will see them again.
The same goes for keeping in touch and communication. If it comes up then be realistic about how you plan to keep in touch.
You can be polite without also being misleading. It can be damaging for the people you are ministering to otherwise. In a strange way, you returning home may be harder for them than for you. Ideally, you go home to family and friends who have missed you, welcome you, and make you feel loved. They stay in their same situation with your relationship and influence plucked out and missing.
For that reason, false hope or empty promises could lead to a sense of being forgotten and even erase a bit of the work in their lives God used you to accomplish. This is a big reason why it is vital to say goodbye appropriately.
In the end, the advice that trumps all advice is to follow the Spirit’s leading on this. It was He who prompted you to start this journey and He who will help you finish it well.
Congratulations on the end of this meaningful chapter in your life! You have done something that few people have the opportunity to do. And just because you are leaving the field, your experiences will not leave you.
Candice Foldenauer is a missionary coach and owner of Barnabas Coaching. She loves connecting with and coaching people living out God’s call on their lives. Her favorite stage of the missions process are the cultural transition aspects. It is an honor to assist people who inspire her through life coaching. She’s also a proud alumna of Virginia Tech, and cheers on the Hokies win or lose.