The following scene is a quite common one amongst many evangelical churches. The church sends a teenager or young adult out (perhaps as an individual or as a team) for a short term mission experience. The young adult comes home so excited to share with everyone how their time was. The church asks “so, how was your trip?” And the person doesn’t even know where to start. Then two weeks later, life goes back to normal. It’s almost as if the person was never abroad. While church life goes on with the usual celebrations, rote, and rhythm, the young missionary is stuck in their own mind not sure exactly where to turn to process their thoughts and emotions. They may be experiencing reverse culture-shock, they may have left the country with deep seated existential questions about the problem of evil or the cruelty of humanity, or they may be unsure how to re-adjust to daily life in their home country, but they don’t have an older and wiser adult to turn to for support. Many older missionaries and missionary organizations claim that the first month or two that the young missionary is back are the most crucial for long-term success. It almost goes without saying that those who experience a warm welcome, good strong support network and encouragement upon their return are more likely to go back out onto the field. On the other hand, those who are pushed aside, ignored, or bombarded with prising questions are more likely to either never fully get over the transition or else to be a bit bitter when re-thinking going back out.
Personally, I do not think the responsibility only lies with the mission organization or the church. I believe that a good church will have objectives in place to provide the safest transition both onto and out of the field and a good organization will provide ample opportunities to adjust in both cases. However, some of the responsibility also lies with the missionaries themselves. Unfortunately, many first time missionaries are quite young and lack the ability to articulate exactly what it is they need so others are not really aware how to help them in this process. What I’d like to offer below are my own thoughts on the topic. Fully recognizing that I do not represent every single missionary in the world and also realizing that I have not yet returned home to Canada after my latest stint, I’d like to offer you some practical advice for helping to make a smooth transition for other missionaries using both my short term and my year long experience.
Entry: Travelling Abroad
If this is your first missionary experience and you are going to a developing country, your church or mission organization should hopefully be able to walk you through some logistics. These include things like flights, medications, vaccinations, safety issues, and packing. Over time, these things will probably become second nature for you, but if you don’t have much experience with this sort of thing you might be surprised at what you won’t even consider factoring in until it’s too late. Personally, I also find it helpful to set up a Facebook group and send out prayer letters explaining in detail what you will be getting up to and asking specific people to partner with you while abroad. Probably many people will be praying for you while overseas, but having a core group of people who are just an email or Skype chat away when you are going through the initial difficult few months is invaluable. Probably as time progresses and you feel more and more at home in your new country, you won’t need to rely on them as much – but it is at least good to know that you will always have that safety net in case you need it.
I have found that when moving abroad, one of the most important things is to find a local church connection. At first it might be fun to check out various styles of churches (especially if the predominant denomination in your new country is different from your own), however the novelty will soon wear off. Getting plugged into a caring church community where you can contribute is a great way to maintain your sanity. I was particularly blessed with the opportunity to be part of a church with a vibrant International Fellowship. This meant that I had ample times to rub shoulders with other missionaries and to make friends with people who were going through the same things as I was (such as homesickness, loneliness, and adjusting to a new culture). It might be that your area doesn’t have a church with such a group, but even so, I’m sure that in many churches there are people who would be more than willing to take you under their wing and help you out.
Coming back to your home country can often be a confusing experience. On the one hand, you might feel really excited to be back with your family and friends. You might be really looking forward to it and you might be imagining all the things you have missed while abroad. On the other hand, you might almost be dreading it in a way. This is completely normal.
It’s natural to feel all sorts of mixed emotions when re-entering your sending country. You probably will be sad about leaving your new friends, a city that has come to have so much significance for you, and all the places you love to frequent. You might even feel a bit guilty because you know that you should be excited to spend time with your family and closest friends, but yet you still feel a bit ambivalent. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be gentle with your emotions.
It is almost inevitable that upon arriving home you will experience reverse culture-shock. This is usually more pronounced when you have spent a year or more living in a country with a completely different language and with unique customs. However, even if you spent a year in a Western or developed country, there will probably still be things that now puzzle and confuse you. The best way to get over reverse culture-shock is to break yourself in gently. Don’t over do it all at once. Budget your time. Start with seeing your closest friends (perhaps in small groups) and then branch out from there. During this time, understand that your family and friends aren’t mind readers. There is no way for them to know what is going on in your heart and mind. Be gentle with them and do your best to articulate what you are experiencing and feeling, what is concerning or troubling you, and what you have questions about. Also, be sensitive to jet lag. If you end up falling asleep on your aunt’s couch, explain to her that you are tired because of the time difference. Make sure you have some time just to veg and do nothing for a few days.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to start praying about your transition even before you leave your new country. I started praying about the transition a few months ago and I also have asked others to pray about this for me. I then took a block of time (about 2 hours) to sit in a quiet place in nature, reading the Bible and praying. I asked God to reveal to me the answers to questions such as:
- In what ways has my time in Edinburgh shaped me?
- How have I seen God move and work here?
- How have I grown personally and in my faith?
- What do I hope to bring back to Canada from my experience here?
Figuring out the answers to these questions allows you to think a bit more about what’s coming up and to prepare yourself for going back to the familiar.
Advice to Parents, Churches, and Friends: I have spoken mainly to the missionaries themselves in this blog, but now I’d like to turn my attention to you. If your son, daughter, friend, or parishioner is coming back from abroad here are some practical ways that you can help them make the smoothest transition possible:
- Asking how someone’s trip was is a very broad statement. They might not even know where to start, so it might be better to ask more specific questions. Questions like:
*What were you doing abroad?
* Did you get to see anything interesting? Try some new dishes? How’s your French, Spanish, Swahili coming along? Can you teach me a phrase or two?
* What did you really love about being in Cambodia, Thailand, China? What did you find especially challenging? * Would you like to show me some pictures? I’d love to see some! (As an aside, if you’re a missionary think about making a scrapbook or photo album. This can be a fun way to show your friends and family some key points of your time abroad – especially if they are rather low tech! It’s also a great way to summarize – showing perhaps 30 or 40 pictures rather than 2000).
Here’s another great question to ask: How can I best help you to make this transition? What do you need from me/us?
- The person might be very keen to let you know all about their trip, but on the other hand, they might need time to process everything. Give them space and time. Don’t pry them for too much information (especially on personally matters). Let them share whatever it is they’d like to share with you and leave it at that.
- Allow time for re-adjusting. If they don’t want to hang out with you in their first week, it’s not about you. They’re probably just extremely jet lagged and tired.
- Perhaps think about planning a trademark Canadian/American/British, ect. Activity for them. For example, I’m already thinking of how much I want Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Swiss Chalet, Tim Horton’s, and Café Demetries (no, not all in one day!)
- Don’t tease them too much about not picking up the accent (though a little bit of teasing never hurt anyone)
- If you are representing a church, perhaps think about giving the missionary an opportunity to speak from the pulpit or to a small group. This way they get to share their experience with everyone. Also provide a few minutes afterwards for people to ask questions (or to find the person afterwards to ask questions in a one-to-one setting). Also, think about asking the person to make a special cultural dish.
These are just a few of my thoughts. Again I recognize that I don’t represent every missionary, but I hope that it at least gives you a bit of an idea on how to help someone transition. In all things, remember that the real reason the person went out to the field is in order to serve Christ. Try to preserve that same spirit of discipleship and obedience regardless of where the person now finds themselves. After all, we need missionaries both at home and abroad.
P.S. Here’s a helpful link to visually show what cultural re-transitioning looks like (though I am only referring to the chart, not the actual blog): http://pcginger0911.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/they-call-it-reverse-culture-shock.html
If you like this, check out: My Over-Sea’s Survival Guide: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/the-overseas-survival-guide/