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Seven Reentry Challenges for Missionary Families
This article focuses on challenges encountered by missionary families when they return from the field. Former missionaries, member care professionals, recently returned missionaries, and missionary children were surveyed. The article also references a body of literature that addresses reentry issues. The most commonly reported challenges were the culture shock of initial reentry, grief and homesickness, practical issues of re-acculturation such as housing and jobs, loneliness, loss of identity, children’s adjustment, and cultural frustration. Suggestions for missionary care are offered.
When our family returned from South Africa more than two decades ago, we encountered numerous challenges, both expected and unexpected. Since that time we have prayed for and encouraged other missionaries going through that same process.
In preparation for this article, I surveyed former missionaries, member care professionals, and recently returned missionaries. This qualitative research included missionary kids (MKs) and their experiences of repatriation. These findings, our personal experiences with missionary families, and our own family’s reentry have several common elements. They also confirm other research results and the growing literature that addresses the challenges of what is commonly called reentry—the experience of returning to one’s passport country after time spent living abroad.
Every missionary experience is different, but there are shared elements. Culture shock is one. Reentry is another. Although single missionaries face many of the same challenges as families, they also encounter unique difficulties. I limit this article’s scope to missionary families’ reentry experiences.
Reentry is difficult to navigate. It has similarities to culture shock and is sometimes referred to as reverse culture shock. In fact, “most expatriates find readjusting back home . . . more difficult than adjusting overseas ever was.” The experience is so different, so foreign, so disconcerting that it can be difficult for missionaries themselves to understand it, let alone explain it to others.
Unfortunately, for many years the challenges were not widely recognized or understood. However, research and a growth in anecdotal literature has shed light on the challenges and strategies related to the bewildering experience of “coming home.” (For this article, “home” refers to the missionary’s passport country, although many missionaries also refer to their country of service as their home.) Marion Knell in Burn-Up or Splash Down states the adjustment takes at least a year, and Robin Pascoe in Raising Global Nomads writes it can take up to two years.
It should be noted that the context of a family’s return from the field impacts their experience of reentry. For example, an unexpected return because of medical crisis, being recalled by their agency or church, or an emergency evacuation creates additional stressors. The scope of this article deals with the more common challenges of reentry and not with special circumstances.
Initial Reentry: Anticipation Turned to Shock
Missionaries put great effort into preparing to go to the culture they will serve. They work hard to learn language and customs and to acculturate to their new ministry context. Most do not anticipate facing that process when they return to the land of their birth. However, there are elements of these same tasks during reentry. The work of reentry can be a shock, and it can take an extended period of time to feel normal in their home culture. In fact, they may never feel completely at home in their own culture again.
Several elements add up to create the shock of coming home. Some returning missionaries fail to anticipate what they will encounter. There is expectation and excitement. They look forward to reunions with family and friends, eating favorite foods, visiting favorite places, and taking part in remembered activities. They anticipate returning to what is familiar only to find many things have changed. It is not what they remembered, and they are surprised when home no longer feels like home.
Often, returning missionaries have idealized the past. They have dwelt on good memories but forgot sad times, difficult family relationships, or frustrations they once experienced in their church. This is natural, but it can add to the shock of return.
It is also easy to forget that things at home have changed. The hometown, the church, and the culture all moved on over the years. It can be a shock to realize that people in the church who were loved and remembered have also moved on and been replaced by others with whom the missionary family may have no history or attachment.
Grief and Homesickness
Preparations for leaving the field include packing clothes and personal items to take to a new home. But the journey also includes some hidden baggage. Families often fail to recognize the grief they carry with them. They feel the loss of people, place, lifestyle, and work in which they were heavily invested. For many, leaving means never seeing their foreign home or beloved people again.
Even when grief begins to ease, feelings of homesickness may continue. One missionary mentioned missing the worship that was more energetic and animated than Western-style worship. Another said she wept through communion for months thinking of the connection it represented to their mission church family who were also sharing bread and wine on that same day.
MKs reported similar feelings. They listed homesickness, leaving part of themselves back where they served, grief for loss of culture and friendships, and not being able to return “home” (meaning their mission home). One college student MK posts periodically on Facebook about missing “home and family,” referring to her African home and family.
Unfortunately, some who receive missionaries during reentry do not understand the feelings of grief and loss. They may not grant the time or space for them to work through those feelings. Family, friends, and churches may feel confused or even offended. They regard the missionary family as having come home where they in fact belong. They feel the family should be happy to be there.
In some respects reentry means missionaries must start over just as they did when they went to the field.
One might think of it like a house fire in which one loses everything. Purchasing a house full of furniture sounds like fun but can overwhelm even the most avid shopper. In our experience, we did not know where to get quality furniture for the best price. We had not re-acculturated sufficiently to know how to furnish an American home. Consequently, I always hated the dinette set we bought. It continually reminded us how naïve we were in those early months, and the ugly table and chairs became a family joke.
Traditional events that local people automatically know about can be distressing for recently returned missionaries who have spent time immersed in another culture. For instance, figuring out homecoming for their high school student or helping a daughter plan a wedding can make parents and children feel embarrassed, because these are events everyone knows how to do. They feel they should know too, but the years of absence make it feel foreign. The cultural clues and guidelines are no longer instinctive. Many relate feeling humiliated about needing to ask how things are done when they think others will not understand their ignorance.
One of the more challenging aspects of repatriation is finding work for one or both spouses. With most positions requiring online applications and with fewer jobs available, the whole job-seeking system has changed in recent years. Anyone who became unemployed during the latest economic downturn can testify to this. The prospect is even more bewildering for reentering missionaries. One survey respondent also mentioned that time spent overseas may actually be seen by potential employers as detrimental to one’s employment qualifications.
Other practical aspects of relocating may include organizing children’s education, navigating the medical system, and adjusting to technical advances. Shopping is commonly mentioned because of the abundance and variety of things available. One missionary took a picture of a display of fifty toilet seats at a home goods store. He sent it to a friend in the country where he had served where a choice of three or four toilet seats was the norm. Numerous missionaries mentioned the overwhelming aspect of grocery shopping because of the number of choices in everything from salad dressing to cereal.
Financial experiences vary widely depending on agency policies, awareness of sending churches, and other factors. However, even in the event finances are adequate, starting over is overwhelming. When lack of financial resources is an issue the stress is even greater.
Many missionaries and MKs experience loneliness in the first weeks and months of their repatriation.
Words prove inadequate to relate the lessons, memories, and experiences of their time abroad. They realize nobody understands that part of their lives, and this creates a sense of alienation.
Marion Knell writes, “The hardest thing is not just that no one understands you, but that few are really interested in where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing.” One recently returned missionary said, “I think if I could wrap up our experience (of reentry) it was one of disillusionment. While many people helped, many others did not seem to care.”
Loss of Identity
Missionaries on the field have a sense of purpose. They have confidence in their calling and are involved in fulfilling ministry. Returning from the mission field produces a loss of that identity. This is an unsettling challenge.
Knell explains the loss this way:
Back home you are nobody; you have no defining status at work, socially, or sometimes even in the family. While people are away, the roles they filled before have been taken over by others, and the gaps they left in the fabric of society and family have been filled. Life goes on when you are not there, and your return is something of a shock and a resurrection. It’s as if you have come back from the dead; no one quite knows where to put you.
One survey respondent wrote, “I am still figuring out who I am now that I’m not a missionary.” A member care person and former missionary wrote, “Losing the title missionary is a huge loss, and they aren’t sure what they are now. They wonder if they will be able to do anything significant for the kingdom that truly has an impact.” A recently returned missionary stated, “I loved my work in Africa, and I miss it tremendously.” This couple had to find whatever jobs they could to get reestablished in the United States. Years of kingdom work can feel as if it is reduced to paying the bills.
To a certain extent, missionary couples have a shared identity. If one spouse returns to a ministry-related position and the other spouse must accept a non-ministry position to help with the family income, that spouse will likely feel the loss of identity more acutely. A society that identifies and values people by their work automatically creates dissonance for missionaries during reentry. What missionaries have lost cannot be easily replaced.
There is an abundance of research and literature on MKs and other third culture kids (TCKs). However, I mention it here because it is one of the greatest reentry challenges for families with children. Seeing their children suffer and having no quick-fix remedies causes more anguish for missionary parents than any other challenge. Many parents have worried and wept because of their children’s unhappiness.
MKs lack the cultural rootedness of children who grow up in their own culture. The literature often describes them as being at home everywhere and nowhere. MKs in this survey reported not fitting in, feeling different, being excluded, being “weird,” not knowing how to act, and not having friends. An MK may have excelled in a sport like field hockey, cricket, or rugby in the host country but may not even know the basic rules of some American sports. They know and understand food, humor, and other aspects of the country where they served but feel ignorant and backward in their home culture. In their host culture they were recognized as foreigners and generally excused for mistakes they made. At home they do not look like the foreigners they in fact are, and they feel they are expected to know and should know how to live there.
The ways in which missionaries change while they are on the field often lead to cultural frustration when they return home. Their adaptation to a new culture enables them to appreciate new ideas and ways of doing things. Even their value system has often shifted.
Knell writes, “Reverse culture shock is also reinforced by the clash of values many people feel returning to their homeland. After some years living in a different society with different values and priorities, the expatriate subconsciously, or in some cases, consciously, adopts many of these values.” For example, missionaries often change when they are immersed in a culture that values people and relationships over material goods and productivity.
One former missionary listed “dealing with negative feelings about American culture, including church culture” as a reentry challenge. Being surprised and distressed by cultural negatives is a common acculturation adjustment both in going to a new culture and returning to one’s own culture. It is common for such missionaries to feel impatient with Americans and American culture. One former missionary explained:
I told my wife that we needed to approach Americans the same way that we approached the Maasai. That is, we needed to study them, try to enter their lives and understand their worldview. We should not expect that Americans will try to enter our Kenyan experience. In fact, I shared with her that most would not actually care that much about what we did in Kenya.
Another said, “One important thing I heard coming back was to treasure the stories of people here as much as the stories of those from overseas. I don’t think I am the only MK who has struggled to treat Americans and this culture in general with the same respect and patience with which we treat people of other cultures.”
Some Practical Suggestions
Missionaries can contribute to their own effective reentry in several ways. They can make an effort to adjust expectations and attitudes before they arrive. Knowing about common experiences and frustrations inherent in repatriation can guide missionaries through the process.
Missionaries and their children need to be patient with themselves when it comes to the adjustment period. It takes time, and many think they should be doing better and that it should not take so long.
But even with their own best intentions and preparations, missionary families need loving people to help them through the initial phases of their return. Missionaries and their children need time to grieve. They need safe and empathetic people to patiently hear their story. Not everyone will be interested or take the time to listen, but even a few caring people can provide what is needed during the adjustment time.
Supporters, families, agencies, and churches can all contribute to the well-being of returning missionary families.
There are wonderful stories of churches providing generously for the immediate practical needs of their missionaries. Examples include housing, vehicles, introductions to children’s school personnel, and restaurant and department store gift cards.
One church has a shepherding group for each of its missionaries. They meet with them before they leave for the field, stay in touch during their service, and debrief with them on furloughs and when they return.
Agencies often offer debriefing, counseling, or retreats. They may also make missionaries aware of outside resources such as Barnabas International, Families in Global Transition, Interaction International, or residential counseling programs for missionaries.
Several MKs stated that the greatest help was the support of family and friends. One MK said what helped most was “people willing to listen even though they don’t understand. I know they won’t ever fully understand, but they give me undivided attention.” The saddest note was from an MK who wrote, “I honestly have not had much help. I don’t know of anyone around me that can help me, so I feel lost.”
Parents especially appreciate people who try to understand and help their MK. In one case, the youth group of one family’s home church had all but dissolved when they returned permanently from the field. This was the group that had provided friendship and fellowship for those MKs during their furloughs. Church people prayed and shared the concern with one another, and eventually one person said they knew someone who had a child in the Young Life group at school. Young Life students were told about the MK in their midst. They made it their goal to include and involve him in their group. They were patient and persistent, and some became his lifelong friends.
No one understands an MK like another MK or TCK. According to Storti, “third culture children only feel truly at home not in any particular place but when they are in a gathering of other third culture children.” One way to help MKs is to make sure they have opportunity to be with other MKs. Retreats, mission conferences, and college campus groups can provide that. They may require an investment of time, effort, and finances by concerned churches, denominations, or agencies, but such opportunities are absolutely essential for MKs. Some suggest that not only should opportunities be provided but attendance at a minimum of one MK event should be required for MKs experiencing reentry.
A former missionary commented that “being adopted by a church to see them through all the transitions and adjustments” was most helpful. People do not need to know exactly what to say or do. They just need to be interested and patient. If both the missionary family and their support group will remember that it takes time and it does get better, they can forge a special bond while moving forward together.
Rather than rush missionaries and their children into speaking engagements and meetings, the church or agency can require a time to recuperate, rest, and reflect. It will be even better if there is a strategy in place to provide practically and financially for that to happen.
People who have lived overseas can be invaluable to the returning family. These people do not require extensive explanations or persuading. They know what it is like and can offer helpful suggestions and encouragement.
Neal Pirolo offers suggestions in his book The Reentry Team, in which he lays out a plan for the cooperation of mission agency and church to minister to missionaries who are returning from the field. When missionaries, their churches, agencies, friends, and family recognize the reality and importance of the reentry process, they can work together to bring about a healthy transition.
Verna Weber is a Consultant for Member Care at CMF International, a missions agency in Indianapolis, IN (http://cmfi.org). She and her family served for eleven years in Johannesburg, South Africa, as urban missionaries. After the family’s reentry to the US she taught in Christian higher education for nineteen years in family studies, human development, and missions.
Knell, Marion. Burn-up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-entry. Atlanta: Authentic Publishing, 2007.
Pascoe, Robin. Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World. Vancouver: Expatriate Press, 2006.
Pirolo, Neal. The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. San Diego: Emmaus Road International, 2000.
Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2001.
1 Craig Storti, The Art of Coming Home (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2001), xiv.
2 Marion Knell, Burn-up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-entry (Atlanta: Authentic Publishing, 2007), 12; Robin Pascoe, Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World (Vancouver: Expatriate Press, 2006), 188.
3 Knell, 23.
4 Ibid., 26.
5 Ibid., 10.
6 Storti, 176.
7 Neal Pirolo, The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries (San Diego: Emmaus Road International, 2000).