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Missionary Care: Triage or Wellness Checks?

Missionaries need ongoing care and counsel as they face the myriad of challenges posed by living in a cross-cultural context. Reactionary models of care have proven insufficient. How then do we care for those who serve overseas? What methods and means are most effective? This article explores these issues and presents alternative ways to provide holistic care to missionaries.

“I am done.” John uttered these three words over the phone resignedly, his voice thick with emotion. In the middle of his first term overseas, John’s world was coming apart around him. He felt hopeless, exhausted, and burned out. These three words run through every missionary’s mind at some point. These three words can break a person, fragment a team, divide a marriage, stymie a church-planting movement, or cause a family to leave the field completely. The silence that hung between us over the phone was palpable. Was it too late for John? How should I respond? Could his situation be salvaged?

Missionary care is an area of increasing concern among churches and sending agencies. The prevalence of burnout, depression, culture stress, feelings of isolation, and chronic anxiety among missionaries is a disturbing trend—one that demands our attention. While many churches and agencies require the missionaries they send to the field to undergo extensive screening, training, and education prior to departure, these issues continue to be a perennial element of the missionary experience. Why? Are our efforts to prepare missionaries inadequate? Are we failing to maintain sufficient support and care while they are on the field? When these issues surface, do we not respond in an expedient and effective manner? Are these issues unavoidable, something every missionary must endure with clenched fists and gritted teeth?

This article explores the adequacy, accessibility, and timing of missionary care services that churches and sending agencies provide. The methodological framework for this conversation will be the description of two specific case studies, including the engagement of these cases through critical reflection. It is my hope that this article facilitate discussion of these issues among those on the front lines of missionary care in churches and sending agencies.

In preparation for this article, I interviewed Jeff Holland, who has served as Missionary Care Counselor for Pioneer Bible Translators since 2008. He has a positive appraisal of the recent trends he sees in the area of missionary care: “In recent years, far fewer people are coming [to me] in a state of crisis, but because they have a safe place to come.” Jeff attributes this trend to more intentional efforts to maintain regular communication with missionaries on the field. Of course, those crisis moments still come. When I asked Jeff what his usual response was to people who come to him in a state of crisis in their first term, he said: “I help them understand that this is common. I tell them that everything they are feeling is valid but likely to change given time.” Jeff sees the role of the counselor or missionary care provider as walking alongside people, listening, praying, giving advice, and providing helpful resources.

The following cases provide examples of two missionary families. These examples are adapted from real-life situations, with names changed for confidentiality.

Case #1: Internal Bleeding

The Jones family’s first term on the field was disastrous. After years of prayer, planning, fundraising, team training, language learning, and other preparations, they departed for the field excited but daunted at the prospect of joining a team already in place in this particular field. The day after they arrived, they had their first team meeting, in which they learned of a deep, underlying conflict with missionaries from a partner agency who were working in the same area. This conflict had been kept from them intentionally in order to shield them from additional stress as they made preparations to enter the mission field. The nature of this conflict had become so severe that the partnership between these teams was in serious jeopardy. This wasn’t quite how they imagined their first day on the field.

The ensuing months were replete with struggles, trials, and disappointments. Tensions continued to escalate with the missionaries from the sister agency, resulting in the eventual dissolution of the partnership. Friction arose from within their own team over various issues: methodology, division of labor, how to proceed in light of the failed partnership, and so forth. The nationals seemed to resent their presence and, when they did express interest in them, it was for financial assistance, food, or some other form of tangible help. Their children were struggling with their educational needs. Relational drift began to creep into their marriage. They began to feel homesick.

The convergence of these factors led to a crisis moment on their journey. They questioned their call to missions, their sense of purpose, and God’s activity in their lives. They felt their commitment to this work slipping away. They began to despise the host country and resent the persistent requests of the nationals. In light of this, they decided it was time to call it quits. They contacted the staff person assigned to them in their agency’s missionary care department for a Skype call. They weren’t reaching out to ask for help or to seek advice—they were notifying their agency of their intent to resign. They were ready to come home. They were done.

That Skype session was two years ago. This family no longer serves in missions. They now have jobs in the marketplace and no longer attend church. They do not maintain any contact with their sending agency or former teammates.

Case #2: Bandaged Wounds

The Smith family enjoyed the first several months of their initial term overseas. Their entry into the host culture went relatively smoothly. Their relationship with their teammates was strong and their engagement with the nationals was beginning to show signs of increased trust and credibility. There were certainly the usual bumps and adjustments, but they were pleased with the way things were proceeding.

About seven months into their term, John’s parents (who had been opposed to their decision to move overseas from the outset) began to put pressure on them to return to the United States. Phrases like “We need you here” and “We don’t want to miss our grandchildren growing up” became common in their conversations. Coupled with this, Mary had begun to struggle with depression, which had plagued her in previous seasons of her life. She felt her capability to homeschool the children diminishing and she withdrew into herself, becoming increasingly isolated and emotionally unavailable to her family. Then, their sole teammates found out that their home congregation would no longer be funding their ministry beyond the end of the year. John felt that things were unraveling around him.

The next few months continued the downward spiral. John’s parents were furious that they would not be seeing their grandchildren for Christmas and had virtually issued an ultimatum for them to return for the holidays. Mary’s depression became more severe, leaving John to pick up more of the domestic duties and homeschooling. Their teammates were consumed with their impending exit plans and strategy for procuring new funding or an entirely different job. As a result of these developments, the work itself had begun to suffer. Relationships with the nationals were starting to become distant due to lack of engagement.

The recent months had taken their toll on John’s emotional health. He felt hopeless. He was in a state of despair regarding the future of their work. John and Mary had been talking about these issues to some degree with their staff counselor during their regular monthly phone calls, but during this particular session things reached critical mass. When the counselor’s voice came over the line, they laid it all out for her—their frustration, their disappointment, their anxiety. Through tearful and painful moments, they peeled back the tender layers of ache surrounding their hearts. They confessed that they wanted to quit—to return home and leave all this behind. They were done.

After listening intently, the counselor urged them not to make any decisions about their future while in this state of mind. She prayed with them and gave them the name of a book she thought would be helpful. She suggested to them that some more focused care and counsel could do wonders, so she scheduled them for weekly phone calls for the indefinite future. As a last resort, she mentioned that the agency could purchase plane tickets home for their entire family out of an emergency fund from the missionary care budget. However, the counselor offered an admonition that research shows that those who leave the field early in their work to manage a crisis are less likely to return than those who complete their term while working through these issues. Taking her words to heart, the Smiths invested themselves fully into the additional counseling and were able to persevere through the healing process.

That phone call was six years ago. This family is still on the mission field, serving in the same country with the same teammates (who eventually found new sources of funding). Not only did this family persevere through these trials and “make it,” they are now active in mentoring and helping new, young missionaries through similar seasons in their own journeys. They are serving today as “wounded healers” who tend to the hurts of others out of their own experiences.

Teaching Exercise

For those involved in an academic or other professional context related to missions, I am including the following exercise as a way to facilitate further discussion of this topic. It is my hope that these cases be instructive and create evaluative dialogue within churches and sending agencies related to their missionary care strategies and protocols.


  • Students will analyze the nature of missionary care.
  • Students will discuss the effectiveness of various missionary care practices.
  • Students will consider the benefits and challenges of missionary care.
  • Students will reflect on how issues raised in these cases intersect with their own experiences.


Read both cases carefully. In groups of 4–6, have students filter each case separately through the following reflection questions.

Reflection Questions

  • What stands out to you most about the Jones/Smith family’s situation?
  • Were certain aspects of this situation preventable? If so, how?
  • How do you characterize the behavior of the Jones/Smith family? What could they have done differently?
  • How do you characterize the response of the sending agency? What organizational values does their response indicate?
  • What lessons in missionary care does this case illuminate?
  • What elements of this case connect with you and your current situation?


Stress, problems, tension, and disappointment should be expected parts of missionary life. How one deals with such issues is paramount to one’s success and longevity on the mission field. Reactionary models of missionary care are doomed to fail because, when problems are allowed to fester, help is usually sought after it is too late. When both missionaries and those who have sent them engage in a proactive process of preventive care involving regular communication, field visits, spiritual retreats, and other creative strategies, the ability to navigate the turbulence of missionary life is increased significantly. May all involved in the task and privilege of missions take stock of both their own self-care and the missionary care model of their agency or church. These issues are critical and warrant our careful reflection.

Recommended Resources

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ, by Peter Scazzero.

Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, edited by Kelly O’Donnell.

The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries, by Neal Pirolo.

Jeremy Harrison has served with Pioneer Bible Translators since 2013, coordinating translation projects among immigrants and projects involving a digital platform. His overseas travels have taken him to 10 countries, including Thailand, Hungary, Kenya, and Tanzania. He holds degrees from Abilene Christian University. He and his wife, Holly, live in Dallas and have two children. He can be contacted at

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Resources for Missionary Care


“Missionary care is simply the application of the biblical ‘one-another’ concepts to the context of missionary life.”1 In Churches of Christ, missionary care is the responsibility of the stewarding and supporting churches.2 Care means that the church will provide, as much as it is able, the things that would allow its missionary the necessary tools, education, training, and equipping that would make him or her an effective disciple maker in rigorous cross-cultural works.3 Missionary care is ongoing. It begins pre-field with the commitment of a church to support a missionary and continues through reentry and/or retirement post-field. Ideally care will be provided for every supported missionary or missionary family—and sometimes for other individuals or families on a team, or often even for converts. The purpose of care is to develop resilience, skills, and virtue, which are the means to helping missionaries stay healthy and effective in their work. Care involves both developing inner resources (such as perseverance and stress tolerance) and providing external resources (such as team building, logistical support, and skill training).4 Missionary care allows missionaries to remain on the field long-term and to fulfill the purpose for their going: to complete the task of the Great Commission so that every tribe, every people, ever tongue, and every race may learn the good news of Christ.

Missionary care resources can be organized roughly according to four domains: pre-field, on-field, home-assignment (furlough), and post-field care. Naturally, many resources address more than one of these. Organizations that specialize in various dimensions of missionary care are therefore the best place to begin.

Organizations Offering Multiple Resources

Missions Resource Network ( in Bedford, Texas

  • Pre-field resources
  • Assessment and training for missionaries
  • Workshops on missionary care entitled “Offering Your Best to Your Missionaries”
  • On-field resources
  • Short term help, resources, and referrals for missionaries
  • Parents of Missionaries Workshops
  • Home-assignment resources
  • Renewals for furloughing missionaries (in collaboration with Great Cities Missions)
  • Post-field resources
  • Renewals for returning missionaries (in collaboration with Great Cities Missions)
  • Individualized debriefing
  • Reentry Workshop, for stewarding and supporting churches
  • Weekend retreats for adult third culture kids/adult missionary kids
  • Publications
  • Online articles, links, and videos
  • A monthly newsletter, The Messenger

Great Cities Missions ( in Addison, Texas (for missionaries desiring to work in the Latin world)

  • Pre-field resources
  • Assessment and training
  • On-field resources
  • “Continent Care Connection,” renewals for South American, Middle American and Mexican missionaries and national workers, both men and women, on alternate years in October in Brazil
  • Home-assignment resources
  • Renewals for furloughing missionaries (in collaboration with Missions Resource Network)

Mission Training International ( in Palmer Lake, Colorado

  • Pre-field resources
  • A four-week program that includes training in cross-cultural personal skills, how to learn a new language, interpersonal and conflict resolution skills.
  • Children and adolescents have a comparable program designed just for them.5
  • Post-field resources
  • A reentry retreat for returned missionaries
  • Debriefing for children and adolescents
  • Publications
  • Missionary care texts can be purchased on the website

InterMission Ministry ( in Edmond, Oklahoma

  • On-field resources
  • InterNational InterMission, an annual renewal event held in various countries
  • Post-field resources
  • ReEntry InterMission, two-day sessions that help returning missionaries adjust to the United States
  • Global Reunion, a camp for 13- to 20-year-old third culture kids on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University, designed to facilitate family unity and bonding, including sessions for the parents and younger siblings of campers.

In addition to the resources and recommendations these organizations can provide, a variety of others deserve mention.

Pre-Field Care Resources

The provision of spiritual and psychological assessment, along with missions training, is the fundamental component of pre-field care.

On-Field Care Resources

Missionary Self-Care and Mutual Care

Self-care is the basic ingredient of well-being and longevity. Missionaries should especially take care of themselves spiritually.

Missionaries should stay informed about the political situation in their location and always register with their embassy.

  • US citizens, for example, should use the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program: A Service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs (

Other services can also help churches and missionaries stay informed about possible violence that might require evacuation. Daily reports can be obtained from sites such as:

On-Field Renewals

  • Come before Winter Renewals ( offer missionary women and national workers who speak English two women’s renewals a year in different locations throughout the world.
  • At Thrive: Empowering Global Women (, “women are ministered to holistically—spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Our retreats provide a safe place for women to be themselves and share their unique challenges outside of their church and agency.”

Resources Available Worldwide

Children’s Education Options

A number of sites provide explanations of primary and secondary education options for missionary children.

One recognized option for online secondary schooling is:

For study at the university level without earning credit, free online college courses are available.

Home Assignment Care Resources

Retreat Locations

Various organizations offer missionaries retreats at little to no cost. These are times of spiritual refreshment rather than just vacation, but missionaries, with permission from the sponsoring organization, may choose to participate in extracurricular activities.

Residential Counseling Programs

  • Link Care ( in Fresno, California, offers specialized Christian professional care for missionaries, including individual therapy, family therapy, pastoral counseling, as well as training and reentry debriefing.
  • Marble Retreat ( in Marble, Colorado, is in an interdenominational Christian Counseling Center. Their eight-day program of individual and group counseling is led by professional counselors.
  • Alongside ( in Richland, Michigan, offers retreats led by a caring team of licensed professionals who bring years of practical ministry experience to their work.
  • Heart Stream ( in Liverpool, Pennsylvania, offers licensed Christian counseling to missionaries and programs of restoration.

Post-Field Missionary Care Resources

MK Reentry Retreats

  • Mu Kappa International ( “exists to encourage missionary kids, multi-cultural, and international students in their cross-cultural transitions to foster meaningful relationships with God, family, and others.”
  • Interaction International ( is “a catalyst and a resource working cooperatively in the development of programs, services and publications to provide and contribute to an ongoing flow of care that meets the needs of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and internationally mobile families.” Interaction offers Transition Seminars for missionary kids.

Recommended Missionary Care Websites

Missionary Care Resources

Missionary Kids

Facebook Groups


An Abbreviated List of Counseling Resources Associated with Churches of Christ for Missionaries and Their Stewarding Churches in the United States

Stephen Allison, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Associate Professor and Director of the Robert and Mary Ann Hall Chair of Psychology and Intercultural Studies, Abilene Christian University; Abilene, Texas (

Dan Altman, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Private practice; Fort Worth, Texas (

Clifton E. Davis, EdD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Private practice; Dallas, Texas (

Mark DeYoung, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Specialty is cross-cultural, cross-racial adoption; Fort Worth, Texas (

Mark Gomez, MEd – Licensed Professional Counselor

  • Counselor trained in trauma debriefing, Rapha; Irving, Texas (

Dale Hawley, PhD – Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Associate Director for Missionary Care, Missions Resource Network; Associate Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, University of Wisconsin-Stout; Menomonie, Wisconsin (

Cathy Hernbeck, MS – Licensed Psychological Examiner

  • Brentwood, Tennessee (

Jeff Holland, MS – Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Ten-year veteran missionary in Togo, West Africa; Marriage and Family Therapist, Pioneer Bible Translators; Dallas, Texas (

Kenneth Hobby, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Associate Professor of Psychology, Harding University; Searcy, Arkansas (

Rebecca K. Holton, PhD – Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor; Mental Health Practitioner

  • Director for Missionary Care, Great Cities Missions; Addison, Texas (

Chris Johnson, MS – Licensed Professional Counselor

  • Director of Missionary Care, Adventures in Missions, Sunset Church of Christ; Lubbock, Texas (

Gordon MacKinnon, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Professor of Psychology; Chair, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences; Clinical Director, Psychology and Counseling Center, Rochester College; Rochester Hills, Michigan (

David McAnulty, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Associate Professor of Psychology, Abilene Christian University; Abilene, Texas (

Tom Moore, PhD – Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Airline Church of Christ; Benton, Louisiana (

Mike Parker, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Anchor Point Psychological Services; Little Rock, Arkansas (

Eddie Parish, PhD – Marriage and Family Therapist

  • The Parish Hermitage; St. Amant, Louisiana (

Dorris Schulz, PhD – Marriage and Family Therapist; Professional Counselor; Mental Health Practitioner

  • Director for Missionary Care, Missions Resource Network; Bedford, Texas (

Vann Rackley, PhD – Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, Harding University; Searcy, Arkansas (

Marilyn Stinson, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Private Practice; Arlington, Texas (

Brian Stogner, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Professor of Psychology and Executive Director, Health and Behavioral Sciences Institute, Rochester College, Rochester Hills, Michigan (

Ben Walker, MS – Licensed Professional Counselor

  • Private Practice, Lubbock, Texas (806-798-8855)

Gary Walker, PhD – Clinical Psychologist

  • Private Practice, Lubbock, Texas (806-798-8855)

Dottie Schulz is Director for Missionary Care at Missions Resource Network. She served with her late husband, Tom, as a missionary in Amsterdam from 1962 to 1971 and 1972 to 1977. Dottie earned her MS in Human Development and the Family and her PhD in Community and Human Resources, both from the University of Nebraska. Her dissertation was on missionary reentry. She holds licensure from the State of Nebraska Department of Health as a Licensed Mental Health Practitioner, Certified Professional Counselor, and Certified Marriage and Family Therapist. Dottie has worked as adjunct faculty in the Department of Human Development and the Family at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and served as Assessment Director of the Human Resources Management Program at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, where she was also Associate Professor of Family Therapy and Human Services/Psychology. Dottie had worked at York College in York, Nebraska, before earning her doctorate and returned there in 1991, where she was Professor of Psychology and Family Studies and Director of the Cornhusker Center for Human Development until coming to Missions Resource Network in 2004.

2 This article is written with a congregational model of missionary care in mind, particularly that of Churches of Christ.

3 Kelly O’Donnell, “An Agenda for Member Care in Frontier Missions,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 9, no. 3 (July 1992): 108–11.

4 Ibid.

5 This is highly recommended for older adults and families in middle years with older children who have had no cross-cultural experience.

6 Necessity for hidden missionaries and missionaries working in dangerous places.

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Missionary Care: An Annotated Bibliography

Missionary care (often known as member care) has come into its own in the evangelical world over the past 40 years. Although there were some writings in the 1970s, in the 1980s missionary care began to flourish. A series of international conferences on missionary kids (held in Manila, Quito, and Nairobi) brought people from different sending groups together to discuss common efforts in caring for missionaries. A conference on mental health and missions was established (and is still meeting) in Angola, Indiana, and two special issues of the Journal of Psychology and Theology were devoted to the topic. A literature began to emerge highlighting the emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of missionaries.

This literature can be divided into two streams. One stream is intended to educate missionaries on challenges inherent in their chosen path. Books and articles focused on a wide array of issues such as cultural adjustment, spiritual development, missionary families and kids, mental health concerns, and reentry speak directly to missionaries regarding their experiences, generally offering suggestions about how to manage transitions more easily. A second stream is geared toward missionary care specialists, many of whom have a background in mental health, pastoral care, and education. These writings generally emphasize understanding the experience of missionaries from a meta-level and tend to focus on assessment, training, and intervention.

Although this area of study has been around for close to four decades, research on missionary care is relatively sparse. The MK-CART/CORE study and the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project are two examples of large-scale studies, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.1 I conducted an extensive review of research and discovered that a large portion of the studies were theses and dissertations and that ongoing research threads were virtually nonexistent.2 An examination of the PsychInfo database of publications in this area since my review suggests this trend has continued, although more articles on various aspects of missionary care have surfaced and there appears to be a burgeoning thread on treatment outcomes. However, it is fair to say that the emphasis in the missionary care literature has been on direct care and not on research.

Even if empirical work on missionary care has been sparse, there has not been a shortage of publications devoted to the topic in either stream of this literature. The amount of information available to missionaries and their caregivers is plentiful and has markedly increased with the advent of blogs and websites in recent years. Two examples of this are Missionary Care ( and the Global Member Care Network ( The former is a website maintained by Ron and Bonnie Koteskey intended for missionaries and containing brief, pragmatic overviews of a wide variety of issues ranging from marriage to mental health. The latter is a website sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance that serves as a resource clearinghouse for missionary care specialists. In addition to providing links to resources on a variety of issues, this network hosts an international conference for those working with missionaries. These websites are simply the tip of the iceberg; missionary care has become a topic of great interest and there is no reason to believe this trend will shift any time soon.

Clearly, an exhaustive annotated bibliography is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, I have attempted to identify several key sources from each stream of this literature. To help me with this endeavor, I enlisted the help of several missionary care specialists.3 I asked each for recommendations of resources they have found particularly useful in their work with missionaries. The following lists reflects their suggestions combined with my own. To narrow the scope, I have limited annotated sources to books. This by no means implies there are not useful journal articles and dissertations on this subject, but these may be less accessible for many readers of this article. In addition, I have largely included books that focus on missionaries rather than expats in general. There is a substantial literature focused on other sectors of the expatriate community (military, civil servants, corporations, etc.), and there are a number of similarities between their experiences and those of missionaries. However, the lives of missionaries are unique in many other ways and the applicability of more general sources is often limited. I have included a few sources that are not specifically aimed at missionaries because they are frequently recommended but most of the sources below focus solely on missionaries.

Books for Missionary Care Specialists

Andrews, Leslie A., ed. The Family in Mission: Understanding and Caring for Those Who Serve. Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 2004.

This volume unpacks the most ambitious research on missionary life to date. It describes three large studies conducted by MK-CART/CORE, a coalition of researchers from several sending groups, over a fifteen-year period. The first was a study of boarding schools that sought to identify characteristics of personnel and families associated with success. A second study looked at adult missionary kids (MKs), focusing on their adjustment to adulthood. The third research effort studied missionary families, in particular their levels of family, spiritual, and vocational satisfaction as well as spousal dynamics. Overall, these studies found the experience of missionaries to be generally positive. In addition to identifying key results from the researchers, this book includes chapters from missionary care specialists that seek to apply the findings in ways that are helpful in ministering to missionaries.

Bowers, Joyce M., ed. Raising Resilient MKs: Resources for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers. Colorado Springs: Association of Christian Schools International, 1998.

A critical influence in the development of missionary care as a field has been international Christian schools. In past generations sending children to boarding schools was a more common experience than it is today, but even without the room-and-board component Christian schools offer an important option for parents who are looking for overseas educational alternatives. This book is a followup to the international conferences on missionary kids held in the 1980s. Like many books in this literature stream, it is an edited volume that draws on many authors who have contributed chapters. The early sections of the book focus on the experiences of MKs and missionary families. It highlights advantages of growing up overseas and focuses on transitions (including reentry) MKs often experience. The latter sections of the book are devoted to educational issues such as curriculum, language learning, and administrative and staff issues. Readers not associated with an educational institution may not find this section especially helpful, but the final section identifies trends in missions and missionary care which could be enlightening.

Bushong, Louis J. Belonging Everywhere & Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. Indianapolis: Mango Tree Intercultural Services, 2013.

This book is a valuable resource for mental health professionals who work with missionaries and other global nomads. Bushong is a marriage and family therapist who grew up in an international setting and specializes in working with third culture kids (TCKs). While the book does not specifically focus on the experience of missionary kids and their families, it does address many experiences common to those growing up overseas and seeks to help equip mental health professionals working with this population. In addition to providing a useful overview of what a therapist might anticipate in working with a TCK, Bushong also looks at common diagnoses (mood disorders, adjustment disorder, PTSD, etc.) through a third-culture lens and evaluates current therapeutic theories and techniques as they apply to this population (e.g., attachment theory, cognitive-behavioral models, and structural family therapy).

Hay, Rob. Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention. Globalization of Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2006.

This book is a follow-up to the ReMAP project on missionary attrition (described below in Too Valuable to Lose). This research, however, focused on missionary retention and best practices associated with maintaining effective workers on the field. It surveys missions agencies in 22 countries on six continents. Factors associated with retention included a strong working relationship between the missionary and sending agency, moderate- to large-sized mission agencies, higher levels of education among missionaries, a selective screening process that results in a good fit between the missionary and the agency, a clear calling, and good physical and mental health. The study drew distinctions between new and old sending countries, finding some differences between countries that have been sending missionaries for a long time and those who started relatively recently.

O’Donnell, Kelly S., and Michèle Lewis O’Donnell, eds. Helping Missionaries Grow: Readings in Mental Health and Missions. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1988.

No one has been more prolific in publishing material for mental health providers in the area of missionary care than Kelly O’Donnell. This is the first of several books he has edited or written to address issues pertaining to the care of missionaries. This volume is a compendium of articles drawn primarily from journals such as Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Journal of Psychology and Theology, and Journal of Psychology and Christianity written in the 1970s and 1980s. Sections include missionary preparation, families, adjustment to the field, and special issues such as the role of women and repatriation (including a chapter by Clyde Austin). While the literature included in this book is over 25 years old, it still contains useful information and provides a historical perspective to this area of study.

O’Donnell, Kelly S., ed. Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1992.

This edited volume might be considered the first handbook on missionary care. In this book O’Donnell invited a number of people who were recognized as experts in missionary care to write about various aspects of this work. O’Donnell identifies the term member care as synonymous with missionary care; since that time it has become the preferred term in the field. Like other edited volumes in this literature, this book is divided into several sections: an overview of what is meant by missionary care, counseling and clinical concerns, team development, and the collaboration of missionaries with sending agencies. Although it is over 20 years old, Missionary Care remains a vital resource for mental health professionals who work with missionaries.

O’Donnell, Kelly S. ed. Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World. Globalization of Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2002.

Doing Member Care Well is an extension of Missionary Care. Like the previous book, it is a compilation of articles from experts in the field on issues for missionaries, and it builds on and updates a decade’s worth of progress. However, there are two particular advances that set this book apart. First, it has a distinctly international flavor. O’Donnell acknowledges that not all sending groups are from North America, and a significant part of the book is devoted to how member care is done around the globe, drawing on authors from five continents. Second, the book is structured around a theoretical model for missionary care. In the first chapter O’Donnell lays out a model of care that includes five levels: Master care, self care, sender care, specialist care, and network care. Coupled with the developmental model presented by David Pollock in chapter 2 (“Developing a Flow of Care and Caregivers”), a strong conceptual framework for working with missionaries is provided. The latter part of the book is devoted to providing member care within each of the levels of O’Donnell’s model.

O’Donnell, Kelly S. Global Member Care. Volume 1, The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2011.

O’Donnell, Kelly S., and Michèle Lewis O’Donnell, eds. Global Member Care. Volume 2, Crossing Sectors for Serving Humanity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2013.

In this series (a third volume is still in progress) O’Donnell builds on his previous work by broadening member care to include an emphasis on humanitarian aid workers. This seems a natural progression given that humanitarian aid often originates in faith-based groups and that mission efforts are broadening in many parts of the world to include humanitarian efforts. Volume 1 is written by O’Donnell. It includes an overview of the current state of member care around the world; a section on promoting health through unmasking dysfunction, promoting relational resilience, and supporting good management; and a section on ethics in a transcultural context. Volume 2 is an edited book that focuses on the crossover of various sectors serving the international community. Both volumes have a less specific application to missions with a greater emphasis on humanitarian care and global organizations.

Powell, John R., and Joyce M. Bowers, eds. Enhancing Missionary Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Missions. Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 1999.

The Mental Health and Missions Conference held each year in Angola, Indiana, has had a huge influence in the development of missionary care, particularly among mental health professionals. Starting in 1980 as a meeting of a few people interested in serving missionaries, it has grown into a conference of several hundred people from across the evangelical spectrum. John Powell, one of the founders of the conference, co-edited this volume, which draws on presenters and topics that have been shared over the years. Sections include the role of mental health professionals in missions, dynamics of serving in a cross cultural context, preventive methods, clinical interventions, and ethical considerations. It is a useful handbook for mental health professionals who are looking for ways to serve missionaries effectively.

Schaefer, Frauke C., and Charles A. Schaefer. Trauma and Resilience: A Handbook. Condeo Press, 2010.

In recent years trauma has taken on a high profile in the mental health world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the missions community where exposure to risk is often higher than the norm. This edited volume is developed around a theology of suffering presented in the first chapter. Building on this, several stories of trauma are presented followed by chapters on normative reactions to trauma, effective community support, and psychological and spiritual resources for managing trauma. The message of the book is that trauma is part of the human experience and is often associated with spiritual struggle. It can be mitigated through a variety of avenues including the support of spiritual communities.

Taylor, William D., ed. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Globalization of Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1997.

Missionaries leaving the field earlier than anticipated is a concern across the missions world. This edited volume reports on the findings of an ambitious study that sought to determine reasons why missionaries prematurely leave the field and to explore solutions to that problem. The Reducing Missionary Attrition Project (ReMAP) was sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship (now Alliance). It is unique in its international perspective in that it drew on missionaries from 14 sending countries. The initial sections of the book deal with the study itself, providing details regarding purpose, methodology, and results. Overall findings indicate that top reasons missionaries return prematurely are related to personal issues, concerns about marriage and family, and unpreventable circumstances. The next section presents more detailed results from a variety of sending countries. The book then turns to preventing unwanted attrition. Chapters from a variety of authors explore ways in which missionary screening, initial training, on-field training, and pastoral care can be improved to help reduce attrition among missionaries.

Books for Missionaries

Brayer Hess, Melissa, and Patricia Linderman. The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad. Rev. ed. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2007.

Written by two diplomatic spouses with twenty-one international moves under their collective belts, this is not a book that is specifically written for missionaries. However, it is a practical guide to making a cross-cultural move. It is chock-full of pragmatic suggestions and tips for managing life in another culture. It includes chapters on language learning, preparing for a move, helping children adjust to a new culture, safety, initial adaptation to a new place, moving pets, and keeping in touch with the folks at home.

Donovan, Kath. Growing through Stress. Rev. ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Institute of World Mission, 2002.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that missionary life is stressful. While stress is often viewed as inherently negative, Kath Donovan points out that it has a positive function and that we can grow through our coping efforts. She suggests that approaches to the study of stress generally neglect a spiritual component. Her purpose in writing this book is integrating secular findings about stress with spiritual insights in order to help people develop more effective ways of dealing with it. The first part of the book seeks to clarify what is meant by stress, giving it clear definitions, debunking common misunderstandings, and providing a biblical perspective. The second part focuses on stress management. It draws on the stress and coping literature from psychology and provides a variety of practical management strategies. Donovan integrates Scripture and biblical examples to support her suggestions for coping. This is a useful resource for any Christian and may be especially helpful for missionaries who are working in a stress-inducing environment.

Elmer, Duane. Cross-cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Elmer has written several books on cross-cultural life in a Christian context. This one explores the differences between western ways of handling conflict and those of people in many other parts of the world. While Westerners tend to approach conflict directly (and have a hard time understanding how it could be done differently), people in other cultures may use an indirect, passive voice, rely on mediators, take one-down positions, and rely on storytelling as a means of resolving differences while saving face. The final section of the book discusses implications for the gospel message inherent in paying attention to how we deal with conflict in a culturally sensitive manner. While the message of this book is direct (in line with western thinking), its suggestions about dealing with conflict indirectly in other cultures may make living in another culture easier.

Jordan, Peter. Re-entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home. Seattle: Youth with a Mission, 2013.

Although it has a publication date of 2013, this little book has been around for a long time—and for good reason. It is a quick, practical guide to reentry. Using a space shuttle analogy, it describes repatriation in two phases: winding down, or the preparation stage of returning from the field, and reentry, or handling things once the return has occurred. The first section deals with emotional, social, political, and family adjustments that need to be made in getting ready to leave the mission field. It includes practical ideas for leaving including delegating your work, keeping a journal, and returning with gifts. The second section discusses a variety of things returning missionaries often experience but are sometimes surprised by: identity struggles, reverse culture shock, disappointment with church life, and perhaps even hostility or apathy. Once again, the author offers specific and pragmatic suggestions ranging from connecting with the minister to maintaining a routine to ease the cross-cultural shock of reentry. This book may not have amazing insights you have not heard before, but it is an excellent and accessible reminder for overwhelmed individuals and families dealing with reentry.

Pollock, David C., and Ruth E. Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. Rev. ed. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009.

Like any parent, missionaries are deeply concerned about the well-being of their children. For many years it has been recognized that growing up in a cross-cultural setting is a different experience for children than if they had been raised in their parents’ passport culture. The term third culture kid (TCK) has been coined to describe that experience. This book is the definitive volume on the TCK experience. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken are both recognized experts in this area and each have a missions background, although the book is aimed at a wider audience. The book explains the term TCK and how TCKs’ experience differs from monocultural children. It explores both the benefits and challenges of growing up among worlds, describes personal and developmental characteristics often found with TCKs, and identifies common relational patterns and hidden grief associated with the third culture experience. The book also talks about handling transitions such as moving and reentry, using the RAFT model (reconciliation, affirmation, farewells, think destination) that is widely used in the reentry process. In the revised edition, Van Reken expands the notion of the TCK by introducing the term cross culture kid (CCK) to include a wider range of children (e.g., immigrants and international adoptees) who share similar experiences with traditional TCKs.

Savageau, Cheryl, and Diane Stortz. Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally. Colorado Springs: Authentic Publishing, 2008.

Missionaries come with families, and sometimes the most difficult part of the cross-cultural journey is leaving them behind. Though it can be overlooked, this is also a challenge for parents (and, perhaps especially, grandparents). This book recognizes that reality and seeks to help parents manage the physical distance and stay connected to their kids and grandkids. The initial section of the book addresses the grief often experienced by parents of missionaries as well as typical developmental issues tied to this stage of life. The second section deals with managing transitions, including farewells and furloughs. The final section focuses on ways to stay connected as a family in spite of the miles between family members. Parents of Missionaries is a useful guidebook in an area that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Storti, Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures. 2nd ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2007.

In this book about adjusting to a foreign culture, Storti begins by saying that many expatriates have a desire to adapt to the local culture, but few actually do. This is an especially critical aspect of missionary life, and his book presents underlying reasons that make cultural adjustment difficult. Essentially, Storti suggests that most of us are egocentric creatures who have a hard time understanding why people in the local culture act as they do, because their behaviors do not fit with our cultural expectations. This tends to lead to withdrawal, discomfort, and, in some cases, attrition. Storti offers a model that encourages people living in another culture to become aware of their negative reactions and to seek other meanings for the actions of locals that, in turn, can shift their expectations. The book does not provide a host of details about making cultural adjustments (as in The Expert Expat described above), but it offers some basic insights that are key for thriving in another culture.

Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2001.

As challenging as moving to a new culture can be, reentry into one’s home culture after living abroad can be more difficult. This book is frequently recommended as a practical guide for people who are returning home after living in another culture. It focuses on all types of expatriates, with chapters at the end of the book focused on special issues related to exchange students, peace corps volunteers, military personnel, and missionaries. Initially the book describes common concerns experienced by returnees such as disorientation with what used to be familiar, changed relationships with friends, and loneliness. It identifies a series of stages people frequently progress through in reentry including leave-taking, the honeymoon, reverse culture shock, and readjustment. Finally, it describes experiences that typically occur in the workplace and at home during repatriation and offers suggestions for dealing with them. The Art of Coming Home is an easy read that addresses a difficult transition in a straightforward and understandable manner.

Teague, David. Godly Servants: Discipleship and Spiritual Formation for Missionaries. CreateSpace, 2012.

Often the focus of missionary care is on psychological, emotional, and cultural adjustment. However, spiritual health is vital for surviving and thriving as a missionary. David Teague served for years as a missionary and brings this perspective to bear as he explores spiritual disciplines and developing a deeper life with God. The book is divided into three sections: communion with God, practicing spirituality within community, and impacts on ministry. Teague draws on familiar writers on spiritual disciplines such as Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen, and much of the content is similar to other sources. However, the lens he uses in writing this book makes it particularly useful for missionaries.

Van Reken, Ruth E. Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. Rev. ed. London: Summertime Publishing, 2012.

Ruth Van Reken has had a critical influence on missionary care in spite of the fact that she has not focused on it directly. As co-author of Third Culture Kids (see above) and founder of the Families in Global Transition conference, she has spotlighted the experience of families living cross-culturally. Van Reken’s professional journey into this world started with this book, but it began long before as an MK growing up in Africa. Sent away to a boarding school at an early age, she encountered many hurts that lasted well into adulthood. Using the format of letters that she would have written but never sent, she creates a poignant memoir of her experiences, from the pain she sustained to her healing process. Originally published in 1988, the revised edition includes an epilogue in which she offers further reflections from the vantage point of someone in her 60s. Although shaped by a different era, Van Reken captures some of the emotional struggle experienced by missionaries today.

This sampling of sources on missionary care reflects both historical and current developments. Efforts in missionary care are expanding as senders increasingly recognize that the importance of supporting those in the field goes beyond providing for financial needs. Undoubtedly, as trends in missions change, the needs of missionaries will shift as well. As they do, missionary care specialists will need to develop new resources and conduct additional research to best address those needs.

Dale Hawley is Program Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He also serves as Associate Director of Missionary Care at Missions Resource Network ( He has worked with missionaries on and off the field for nearly twenty years.


Andrews, Leslie A., ed. The Family in Mission: Understanding and Caring for Those Who Serve. Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 2004.

Hawley, Dale R. “Research on Missionary Kids and Families: A Critical Review.” In The Family in Mission: Understanding and Caring for Those Who Serve, ed. Leslie A. Andrews, 277–92. Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 2004.

Taylor, William D. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Globalization of Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1997.

1 Leslie A. Andrews, ed., The Family in Mission: Understanding and Caring for Those Who Serve (Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 2004); William D. Taylor, Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, Globalization of Mission (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1997).

2 Dale R. Hawley, “Research on Missionary Kids and Families: A Critical Review,” in The Family in Mission: Understanding and Caring for Those Who Serve, ed. Leslie A. Andrews (Colorado Springs: Mission Training International, 2004), 277–92.

3 Special thanks to Dottie Schulz, Mark Brazle, Becky Holton, and Jeff Holland for their recommendations.

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Missionary Children and Reentry

One of the major concerns in missionary care is the experience of missionary children who transition to their parents’ culture of origin. Knowing some of the major challenges they may face and taking proactive measures to address them will lessen the impact of reentry. In this essay, the author explores some of the critical issues in missionary kids’ experience of reentry and offers practical advice for helping them adjust.

I remember the first time I read the book Grandfather’s Journey to my group of first graders while living and teaching in Connecticut in the 1990s. It was a story written by Allen Say, who left Japan to come to America at the age of 16. He wrote about his family’s cross-cultural experiences and ended the book with the following:

After a time, I came to love the land my grandfather had loved, and I stayed on and on until I had a daughter of my own. But I also miss the mountains and rivers of my childhood. I miss my old friends. So I return now and then, when I can not still the longing in my heart. The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.1

My eyes welled up with tears as suppressed memories of my childhood growing up in Korea came to the surface. It had been almost 20 years since I had left Korea at the age of 17. I had finally adjusted to living in America and had even given the appearance of being the all-American woman. Yet, most people whom I worked with didn’t know my story. They didn’t know that I spent most of my childhood in a foreign country. They didn’t know how un-American I felt at times, with values, goals, and dreams that were unlike their own.

Shortly afterwards, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to homeschool the kids on my brother’s mission team. A one-year commitment turned into seven wonderful years working closely with three missionary families. I felt at “home” not because I was in an Asian country but because I was living in community with families who were having experiences similar to those that I had growing up in a foreign country.

In 2007, my brother’s family made final preparations to return to the United States. They had gone to Thailand as a young couple. Now, 16 years later, they were returning with five biological children, ages 8 weeks to 15 years, and one newly adopted Chinese daughter. None of their children had ever lived in the US. My brother was concerned about their transition to life in America so he signed the family up to go through a one-week reentry program at Mission Training International (MTI). Since I had never gotten any debriefing when my family left Korea, I felt I could benefit from the experience, so I also registered to attend the program. What an amazing week it was, hearing others tell stories that were so different than mine, yet we had so much in common. I felt safe sharing my own story and found myself processing not only my time in Thailand but also my childhood in Korea.

I also saw how the week benefited my brother’s children, as they had safe places to tell their own stories to peers and to discover who they were as kids with a mixed cultural identity. I asked my 9-year-old niece what her takeaway was from the week, and she said, “I learned it’s OK to cry.” It made me wonder how many missionary kids had suppressed the grief and loss they felt when returning to their passport country because they didn’t want to offend anyone or hurt their parents’ feelings. It made me realize that I had never truly grieved the losses that I had felt when leaving the home of my childhood. It was then that I discovered my new calling: working with missionary children and their families.

In January I completed seven years working at MTI. My role has evolved to Program Coordinator of the Children’s Debriefing Program. Being a missionary kid, an educator, and a missionary as an adult has helped equip me to serve the returning missionary families who come through our Debriefing and Renewal (DAR) program. The training I have received from the experienced staff at MTI in the “make and break” issues facing returning missionary families has rounded out my personal experiences. In this essay, I explore some of the critical issues in missionary kids’ experience of reentry and offer practical advice for helping them adjust.

Reverse Culture Shock

It has been said that reverse culture shock is more difficult for missionary families than the initial cultural shock of entering a country of service. How can that be? What makes reentry so difficult for missionary families and especially for their children? For MKs who have spent a significant part of their growing up years in another country, they are not “coming home” as their parents might be. Their experiences, values, and thinking patterns have been molded and influenced by the culture they have grown up in. America may be the foreign country to them.2 They may look and sound like an American kid but think and act very differently than their American peers. They are “hidden immigrants” trying to navigate cultural norms that they are not accustomed to, but without the grace, patience, and help that is extended to immigrants who come to America.

Among the critical issues MKs experience when returning to their passport country are grief and loss, identity issues, relationship negotiation differences, and transitions.

Grief and Loss

One of the biggest issues in reentry is the loss of home, friends, pets, community, and life left behind in another country. When well-meaning friends and family greet the grieving MK at the airport with a cheery “Welcome home!” the MK’s heart immediately shuts down. They question whether it is OK to express the fact that they would rather go home than be in their parents’ passport country. So the MK puts on a facade of happiness when their heart is breaking. If grief and loss are not dealt with and expressed, then there are chances that the MK will have difficulty moving forward, assimilating into the American culture, and making new friendships.

Addressing grief and loss actually begins before a missionary family has left their adopted country. Saying goodbyes well is important and means visiting favorite places for the last time, having sleep-overs with best friends, hosting celebrations, and finding caring homes for beloved pets. Taking time to express love and appreciation for those who were part of the life of the missionary family affirms and validates their experiences and relationships and allows them to move through the grieving process in a healthy way.

Peter Jordan wrote a simple little book entitled Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home that is full of practical ideas for families to consider when preparing to leave their country of service.3 My brother’s team read the book when they prepared to say their goodbyes. The oldest kids on the team were given specific chapters to read and process. Jordan’s counsel generated creative ideas that the team took to heart, and the last month was full of wonderful experiences that will be forever imprinted in the hearts of the team kids. As my brother’s family made their way through the security checkpoint at the Bangkok International Airport for the last time around 4:30 in the morning, he got a phone call from his team mate. He was told to look up towards the glass wall that separated the checkpoint from the main terminal. There stood their team mates and kids with a large banner pressed against the window that read: “Well Done, Allens. We Love You. Go In Joy!” The love shown tempered the grief felt by both families as they said goodbye to each other after sixteen years of living and working together in community.

Grieving takes time and each person does it differently. Younger children tend to process grief a little at a time. A young MK may cry initially and then move on quickly, seemingly adjusting well, only to have a meltdown months later when a sight of a dog reminds him or her of a pet left behind. It is important to sit down with the child and allow them to express their grief. Even better, cry with them. Don’t be impatient with the grieving process. Eventually, the meltdowns will lessen and become times of sweet reflection on the life and loved ones he or she has left behind.

For MK teens, having to say goodbye one time too many can cause them to put up walls with the intention of not making any new friends. We have had teens come through our debriefing program stating, “Why bother making new friends when we will have to say goodbye again.” They must be convinced that we were meant for relationships and having new, wonderful friends is worth the pain of eventually having to say goodbye. We tell the MKs who come through our debriefing programs, “If you are hurting, it’s because you have loved well and have been loved well.” Sometimes, being able to process grief in the presence of other MKs is what the MK needs. Knowing that they are not alone in what they feel is validating and helps them to process their emotions and move forward through the grief process.

Every MK needs a safe place to express their grief, pain, and anger over the loss of friendships and life left behind. Only when they have expressed and released that grief can they move on to new relationships and a new life.

Identity Issues

“Who am I?” is a question that every person asks at some point in their lives. For an MK, it is made even more difficult from living in another country. MKs are part of a larger group of people who have lived cross-culturally called third culture kids (TCKs). Children from military, international business, diplomatic, and missionary families all come under the umbrella of the term TCK.

David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken wrote a book entitled Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. They developed a definition of the TCK that continues to be influential:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.4

Each MK is unique in their “TCKness,” and how much their experiences shape who they are depends on many variables. These include how old they were when they moved overseas, how much they assimilated into the host culture, and who their close friends were—national or expat kids. Other important variables are the extent to which they learned the national language and their schooling experience (e.g., home-school or boarding school, national or international school). Living in third world countries where poverty is right outside their front door can shape an MK’s worldview and at times cause them to be critical of America’s wealth and waste of resources. Experiencing civil war, team conflicts, or cultural or family crisis can also impact an MK’s heart and shape who they are.

Embracing who they are as TCKs will help MKs to understand why and how they respond to life and others the way they do. But, claiming their identity as a TCK for their core identity can actually put up walls rather than build bridges when entering relationships in their passport country. Some TCKs wear their identity as an entitlement rather than a privilege. They identify so strongly with their experiences living cross-culturally that they isolate themselves. Being a TCK is not all there is to each MK’s identity. As with any other part of their identity (e.g., being a student, good soccer player, artist, teenager), roles evolve and change over time. There is only one thing that will never change: their identity in Christ. Embracing Christ as their core identity will free them to love well, extend grace to others different than themselves, and enter into new relationships with humility.

Cultural identity is a layer of personal identity that becomes complicated for MKs who are entering their passport culture to live. They have spent their growing up years learning the rules and cultural norms of their host country. Now they discover the rules have changed and they are not quite sure how to engage in their passport country. Initially, MKs may be unaware of or unsure how to navigate the cultural differences. In an attempt to connect with those like themselves, they may gravitate toward others on the fringes of society, such as immigrants or other TCKs who are not from the US. Sometimes they may be drawn to anti-social groups because they feel such a disconnect with the mainstream groups. Parents and supportive friends need to look for any cultural or social miscues that the MK may exhibit and gently help them to modify their behavior or thinking in order to be culturally appropriate. It may be necessary to help them navigate the social waters by providing opportunities for their MKs to connect with potential new friends at church, at school, or within their new community. Discernment and godly judgment needs to guide parents and their MKs in this process, because there may be times the MK must be willing to stand up and resist some cultural norms that are not in line with Christian principles.

Relationship Negotiation

I remember struggling to make friends with my peers when I returned to the States at the age of seventeen. I perceived them to be shallow, not very spiritual, and closed-minded. I was critical and wrote off potential friendships without giving them much of a chance. How wrong I was! If I knew then what I know now, my entry into the American teen scene would have been much smoother.

Discussions and dialogue within the MK caregiving community in the last several years have revealed keys to how MKs versus their American peers approach new relationships. Living cross-culturally has conditioned MKs to go deep quickly in order to make friends, because people are transient in the international community, moving on even as relationships begin to blossom. Their American peers tend to take their time when introduced to a prospective new relationship, slowly revealing more of themselves as they see that this new person is trustworthy. Thus, a disconnect happens. MKs view their American peers as shallow and not worthy of pursuing because they tire of the initial small talk, while their American peers feel that their personal space has been violated with too much information, too soon. MKs need to be coached that just as they should be culturally sensitive when relating to people in their country of service, they should also be culturally aware when seeking out relationships with American peers.5

Another nuance in how MKs approach new friendships is how they tell their story. MKs frequently make connections with other MKs/TCKs by telling their story using geography words. For example they may say, “When I lived in France, I skied in the Swiss Alps all winter,” or “I rode elephants when I lived in India.” If speaking with another MK/TCK, this creates a bridge of potential connection as they swap stories of adventures and interesting things they did in their country of service. But, if they initially share these stories with their American peers, it can immediately put up a wall with a person who has never been out of the US and has no frame of reference to receive or process the story. MKs need to find a point of connection when telling their stories with their American peers. They could say, “When I was in seventh grade I was on the school soccer team.” This allows an opportunity for connection to occur between two people who may have very different backgrounds and experiences. Going slow, finding common ground, and being patient with the process will allow MKs ultimately to make the close, deep relationships that they desire.


We all go through transitions at some point in our lives, whether from one job to another, one state to another, or one grade to another. Missionary families face unique challenges when transitioning from one country to another. It comes with added stress, loss of identity, having to relearn cultural norms, unmet expectations, and being misunderstood, to name just a few.

MTI has developed a transition model based on the work of David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken that has become an effective tool in helping missionary families understand what they are going through in reentry. The five stages of transition are:

  1. Settled: Rooted Stage; roles defined; established routines; belong within a group
  2. Unsettled: “Pulling up” Stage; fear of unknowns; sense of loss; deciding what is important
  3. Chaos: Confused Stage; no role; problems magnified; routines changing daily
  4. Resettling: Surface Stage; redefining values; risk taking; vulnerable; establishing new routines
  5. Resettled: Newly Rooted Stage; established roles; “at home;” accepted in a group

Giving a missionary family a common vocabulary for what they are going through and how they might be feeling in each stage helps them to go through the change in a healthier way. One mother emailed me saying that her four-year-old daughter spoke up one day after going through our DAR program and said, “Mom, I’m in chaos stage!” Instead of having a meltdown, she was able to express to her mother how she felt. Her mother was then able to address what was causing her daughter stress.

A missionary family will not transition completely until each member of the family has crossed “the bridge” and feels settled. For each family member, being “resettled” may look different. Dad may need to have a new job or ministry to feel settled, while Mom may need to have boxes unpacked and rooms in order to feel at home. Little brother or sister may need to have their own bed and be surrounded by their special stuffed animals to feel settled and at home again. For pre-teens and teenagers, being resettled boils down to having a new group of friends. They are at a place in their social development where relationships are paramount to their wellbeing. They need to have a place to belong.

There are other “bridges” that MKs cross that make the transition seem overwhelming. Some of the bridges may be:

  • Going through puberty
  • Adapting to the American school system
  • Teen subcultural differences
  • Value and cultural differences
  • Grieving process

MKs may not have the maturity of an adult to handle all the changes that they are going through and at times they may shut down and go into a depression. Being in “chaos” stage on several bridges can be too much for them to handle. Parents and a supportive community need to be observant and ready to support their MKs through any transition issue they may be going through. Sometimes, counseling is necessary in order to help a struggling MK get through their crisis.

Be Prepared!

Reentry for MKs and their families can be a complicated process. Knowing some of the major challenges they may face and taking proactive measures to address them will lessen the impact of reentry. Good communication within the missionary family, a supportive and understanding receiving community, and time to process changes and adapt to a new life in their passport country can help MKs and their families handle the reentry process in a healthy way.

Laura Allen is the Program Coordinator for the children’s debriefing program for missionary families in transition at Missions Training International (, where she has worked for the last seven years. Her focus is debriefing children and working with their parents. Laura spent 16 years growing up in Korea in a missionary family. A teacher by trade, she holds a master’s degree in early childhood development. Laura taught for 13 years in private and public schools in the US and participated in a church plant in New Haven, Connecticut. She also spent 7 years homeschooling missionary kids in Bangkok, Thailand.


Jordan, Peter. Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1992.

Phoenix, Michèle.“MKs and Relationships: The Time/Depth Dilemma.”

Pollock, David C., and Ruth E. Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. Rev. ed. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.

Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

1 Allen Say, Grandfather’s Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 31.

2 Although the reader may be reentering a different context than the US, this article is written from my perspective as one who reentered the American culture.

3 Peter Jordan, Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1992).

4 David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, rev. ed. (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009), 13.

5 Michèle Phoenix, an MK blogger, wrote an entry entitled “MKs and Relationships: The Time/Depth Dilemma” that gives MKs helpful insight and tools for approaching new relationships:

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Contemporary Practices of Missionary Care within Churches of Christ

The psycho-social, spiritual, educational, and physical care of missionaries was “professionalized” into a practice called missionary care or member care in the late 1970s.

One can find articles using this terminology published in evangelical religious literature such as Evangelical Quarterly and Christianity Today in the early 1980s. The religious organization that seems to have established the earliest norms and standards in this field was Wycliffe Bible Translators. Wycliffe actually hired staff members and called them “member care” professionals. Soon thereafter, other international missions organizations such as Youth with a Mission started hiring member care staff and consultants. While Churches of Christ had family ministers and staff members who were very involved in missions, there is no documentation of paid staff being assigned to missionary care responsibilities per se until after the turn of this century.

A group of member care/missionary care mental health professionals established an annual conference in Angola, Indiana, in 1980. This Mental Health and Missions conference (hosted by Mission Training International) now draws 200–300 mental health professionals who work part-time or full-time in the area of missionary care from all over the world. The closest approximation to this type of gathering within Churches of Christ is the biannual meeting of professionals and lay people involved in missionary care held at Missions Resource Network (MRN) in Ft. Worth, Texas. MRN is a para-professional religious organization established in 1998; according to their website (, their mission is to “help churches vision strategically, equip for missions, plant churches worldwide, and nurture missionaries.” MRN has two people on their staff working full-time (Dr. Dottie Schulz and Dr. Dale Hawley) and a third working part-time (Mark Brazle, a former missionary/minister) in the field of missionary care. Nowadays there are many missionary care professionals and lay people in churches across the country, but MRN and a similar ministry called Great Cities, based in Dallas, Texas, served as catalyst for very early training and practice of missionary care within Churches of Christ.

From the 1970s until the early 2000s, the home base for Churches of Christ interested in having psychological testing done for pre-screening of missionary candidates and/or for team-building purposes was at Abilene Christian University, through Dr. Clyde Austin’s work as the Robert and Mary Ann Hall Endowed Chair of Psychology and Intercultural Studies. Historically, Austin’s work focused on the assessment of missionary candidates and post-field work with repatriating missionaries struggling with reverse culture shock. In the past decade the work of the Chair has changed quite a bit and now revolves mainly around team-building, stress-management, and interpersonal communication skills building with missionaries and teams before they go to the mission field. A second level of work involves treatment and intervention of missionaries in crisis, ranging from conflict mediation to crisis trauma treatment. Finally, there is much more being done to educate missionaries and gather research data about their needs and the predictable stressors inherent in the stages of the missionary life cycle (pre-field, on-field, during furlough/stateside assignments, and upon repatriation).

Groups of former missionaries, laymen, and mental health counselors have developed very helpful programs for missionary care in larger congregations of Churches of Christ and at church-affiliated colleges across our nation in the past decade. For example, Oklahoma Christian University, under the leadership of Kent and Nancy Hartman, have organized a very popular support program for missionary kids (MKs) on their campus. The Hartmans, along with John and Beth Reese and Clay and Cherry Hart, formed a missionary care organization called InterMission that sponsors an annual missionary kid/third culture kid camp and does extensive training of churches and missionaries about missionary care issues.

The best news about missionary care in Churches of Christ in the past decade is that we are being more proactive. We have heard too many horror stories about the damage done to missionaries and missionary families who were not adequately cared for. Churches across the nation are being equipped by staff at Missions Resource Network almost every weekend; their focus is on raising up people in local churches with hearts and gifts for missionary care, equipping them with basic skills, and empowering churches to care for their own missionaries. There has been a dramatic de-professionalization of missionary care in the past five years in Churches of Christ in North America as the “priesthood of believers” has responded to the call to train and respond at the local congregational level to missionary needs. This allows those who have professional credentialing in this field to focus on multiplying their effectiveness by training others, doing more preventive and educational work, and reserving their clinical interventions for missionaries needing more serious care.

Much has been written about missionary/member care in the past twenty years. Listings of recommended books and white papers about specific topics are available on these websites: Missions Resource Network at, Mission Training International at and Dr. Ron Kotesky’s website God bless us all as we sharpen our skills and prepare our hearts and minds to do our best work to help missionaries minister longer, more effectively, and in healthier ways.

Stephen Allison, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Robert & Mary Ann Hall Endowed Chair of Psychology & Intercultural Studies at Abilene Christian University. Dr. Allison can be reached at

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Encounter with God: A Theological Reflection on Missionary Care

Since the first century, the church has partnered with men and women as they spread the good news of the kingdom. The scriptural imperative of missionary activity is obvious. But what is the heart of God regarding the role of the church in relation to those sent? This paper will reflect theologically on missionary care—namely, self-care and the church’s responsibility for missionaries—through a portrayal of the patterns of Jesus and the early church.

Missionaries face a paradox of expectations from the sending church and those serving as sponsors of their work. There is a broad spectrum of care available to them. I’ve had the pleasure for the past twenty-seven years of working as a therapist and consultant with those called to minister to the church, both domestically and on the foreign mission field. The church’s high expectations for these workers are often coupled with little grace for their needs and struggles. Ruth Tucker states that the church’s theology of missionary care has often limited its role to sending and praying. She offers the oft-cited biblical rationale based on a statement of Paul in 2 Corinthians. As Paul spoke of the suffering he experienced on his journeys, he said, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers” (2 Cor 1:9–11).1 Tucker mentions that this scripture has been used to the detriment of missionaries for years. The church viewed anything beyond sending and praying as a distraction from the sacrificial role required of those on the field. Like Paul, missionaries were being refined by the fire that was the mission context. It was the lot of those choosing to serve as an instrument of God.2

Although sending and praying are essential roles of the church, beyond these activities more investment in caring for missionaries is theologically necessary. The level of care missionaries receive does have a significant impact on the mission effort. This article will offer a reflection on the theology of missionary care. In the words of Powell and Bower, theology is defined as “an expression of our encounter with God in the realities of life.”3 In the realities of mission work, we will look at the church and the individual as they partner with each other and with God in the spreading of the word. The missionary must be responsible for self-care, and the church has a responsibility for creating a true partnership by engagement through mutual responsibility.


A primary aspect of missionary care and an important responsibility of the missionary is self-care—the ability both to be aware of and to address one’s own emotional, physical, and spiritual state. The mission field is wrought with challenges and struggles. There is no disagreement on that point. What can be at issue is the necessity that the worker cares for himself or herself and the level of effort that is given to that care. Churches and missionaries often hold the unconscious perspective that self-care is selfish and in some way takes effort away from the work of God. The typical scenario is one in which a missionary fulfills numerous roles—church planter, preacher, elder, janitor, worship leader, youth leader—as well as attending to the needs of their family as they adjust to and live in another culture. They push themselves beyond their physical, emotional, and spiritual limits and eventually crash. This philosophy of missions was more ingrained in the past, but is still prevalent today. Anything related to God’s work is placed as the highest priority. This takes a toll on both the individual and the family. One family on a team in an Asian country put the rest of the team to shame as they rarely paused to take a break. They had an open door policy and were available to the church 24/7. Conflict erupted on the team as this family chided other team families for the time they were not available. The other families felt torn between their need for rest and the guilt they felt in response to the chiding. But they were right in taking time for themselves. People are not intended to live without rest and rejuvenation. In order to maintain one’s focus on the Savior and the mission in the face of the struggles, the missionary must look to his or her own needs. In the abovementioned case, after a few years, the wife of the over-engaged couple developed a severe case of depression, and they had to leave the field.

This example is not unique. It occurs the world over—the overwork, the guilt, and the conflict. There is always a need to address, always a ministry opportunity. How does one find a balance? Jesus offers the best example of a balanced life. He unapologetically went away for time alone with God, as is clear in Luke’s account of the choosing of the apostles:

One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names: Simon (whom he named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (who was called the zealot), Judas (son of James), Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him). When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone. (Luke 6:12–19; nlt)

Reflecting on this passage, Henri Nouwen accentuates the pattern of Jesus moving from solitude to community to ministry. This pattern is portrayed in all of the Gospels. Jesus withdrew from the crowds and ministry and spent time in solitude with God. Nouwen states that this time in solitude made the ministry of Jesus possible. It helped him remember that his identity was based on his relationship with God and on God’s love for him. It is the way Jesus was able to maintain a steady focus on his purpose. With this foundation in place, Jesus then moved to community. After a night in prayer, Jesus went to his disciples and chose twelve apostles. He was able to move into community and remain centered. Because his identity was firmly based in God’s love, he was not tossed to and fro by the approval and whims of those around him. He did not need their approval! And finally, the community together went out and ministered. It is so often the case that those of us in ministry have this pattern backwards. We have a great idea for ministry and go full steam ahead with our talents and abilities. When we get tired or things go awry, we call in others to help, and at this point, we turn to God and pray. Jesus shows us the right order. This is the pattern for those of us called to a life of service to God.4 Luke 5:16 states that Jesus often went to a lonely place to pray. Jesus, God the Son, took time to rest and be with God. If it was necessary for the Christ, it is logical that those of us intent on continuing the work of Jesus would be even more dependent on this time with God.

I was recently talking with a missionary couple that had just returned from a week’s break. The wife shared that a few days into the break, her husband had collapsed and sobbed for several hours. Her theory was that he broke down during this time of rest because he finally found time for this luxury. He listened as she spoke and somberly agreed. He said for the past year, he repeatedly reached the end of himself and then kept plowing forward. He was weary beyond weary—at the end of himself. We talked about the need for regular time alone with God and he agreed with tears in his eyes. We have finite resources, but God does not! God has given each of us twenty-four hours in a day, and for some reason we believe it necessary to take on the weight of God’s role of saving the world. There is so much that needs to be done. Yet as a good friend has said to me repeatedly, “Jackie, you are not the savior of the world!” It is imperative that we say no both to others and to ourselves. The needs are neverending and the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7). God does not expect the missionary to carry the weight of the work on his or her own shoulders. God invites us to let him shoulder the responsibility and, in his faithfulness, will help us as we seek to find balance in this manner. The more time that is spent alone with God, the more our identity rests in that relationship and the understanding that God loves us.5 We begin to view life with more clarity and balance. One analogy for this is walking in a river. As long as we continue to move, the mud in the water is stirred up and we can’t see. But when we stop, the silt settles and the water becomes clear. Priorities shift and fall into place, and we are better able to choose how best to serve. As we are more and more defined by God’s love, our choices are centered on what moves us toward loving God, others, and ourselves.

The Role of the Church

A secondary aspect of missionary care is the role of the sending organization—the church—in the life of the missionary and in their ministry. What does Scripture say about this role? What is required beyond the responsibility of sending and praying as stated by Paul in 2 Corinthians? We first look at Jesus and the example he gives and then move to the early church’s example of mutual responsibility.

Jesus spent his three years of ministry with two foci—first, loving the world through his personal teaching, healing, and relationships and second, equipping and caring for those he was sending out. John Mark Hicks suggests that the church was created to carry on the work of Jesus in this world—to be God’s healing love in this world and to encourage and equip others to do the same. It is one of the grand acts of the biblical story.6 The church participates in the work of our Lord by carrying the gospel to others and by being in partnership with those who carry the good news to others beyond its reach. Missionaries are co-workers in kingdom work. Unfortunately, this is not always the church’s view. At times the church views missionaries as employees to be sent out to do the work. At other times, the church sees its on-going role as minimal, such as sending a check once a month. Jesus portrays a much stronger partnership when he sends his disciples. In the sending out of the seventy-two disciples, his investment in their work is apparent. He instructs them on how to behave and minister and then sends them out with specific instructions. They then return to him rejoicing and he rejoices with them (Luke 10:1–24). His relationship with them was ongoing. He did not leave them on their own. That is the example for the church when a fellow believer decides to answer God’s call to carry the gospel to other lands. This is an opportunity that not every believer can take. It allows those of us in the church to assist and rejoice in the opportunity for the full-time focus on kingdom work. Our part is to sustain this co-worker in their efforts.

Another example is the manner in which Jesus invested himself in the growth and ministry of his disciples. As the disciples worked alongside Jesus, he continually taught, encouraged, and fine-tuned their understanding. He did not invite them into ministry and then leave them. We see in the Gospels the growth that occurred in the spirits and ministry of the disciples as they spent time with Jesus. We see them ministering in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, because he invited them to participate when they were not yet mature in their faith. He then saw to their growth as they walked with him. He did not move on to the next disciples but allowed them to remain with him. We, the church, see in this investment an example for the equipping of servants of the gospel. We help them work at the beginning of their ministry and continue in relationship with them in order to help them survive and thrive in their work. We invest as partners in the ministry that they do.

The early church also offers a model of partnership with those sent out. The church had a joint investment in the gospel being shared. In those early days, when the apostles were continuing Christ’s work on earth, the church oversaw the efforts and sent out people chosen specifically for leadership in other places. We see an emotional investment in the spreading of the gospel in other cities and countries. The church experienced both concern and joy for the various aspects of the work.

Peter came before the church in Jerusalem to explain his activities with the Gentiles in Caesarea. The church was concerned about the seeming departure from the intent of Christ, but after listening to his report, “they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’ ” (Acts 11:18). They viewed the work of Peter in concert with their own work and rejoiced at its expansion. A later instance is when Paul and Barnabas were met with the question of whether or not the Gentiles should be circumcised:

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles…It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15:6–20)

Again, this event portrays the investment that the church in Jerusalem had in the work of Paul and Barnabas. They viewed it as effort owned by all Christians. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, we see examples of the church sending, encouraging, exhorting, correcting, and caring for both the missionaries and the churches that began in different locations. Powell and Bower describe the development of a pattern from apostle-centered ministry to ministry focused on the mutual relationship of believers and to the ministry of pastor-teachers and cross-cultural workers. He makes a case for missionary care based on this developmental process. He portrays the language changing from that of teaching, preaching, and exhorting in Acts to that of encouraging, comforting, strengthening, edifying, and confronting—a shift to the mutual responsibility of believers.7


How wonderful to imagine the church unified in spreading the gospel to the entire world, a church in which individual members are aware that we each are different parts of the body—encouraging and helping each other to carry out our unique roles for the advancement of the kingdom. If I am not able or equipped to take the good news to another country, I relish the opportunity to do everything I can to make the mission work of another successful. I embrace this chance to encourage another to be Christ incarnate among those with whom I will not come in contact.

We are partners in kingdom work. My role may be to care for myself and my family, so that we can be the best possible instruments of God on the field. Or my role may be to do what I can to ensure that another has what they need to serve God where I cannot. This is the body of the God that I serve. This is truly “an expression of our encounter with God in the realities of life.”

Jackie Halstead is the Director of Education, Programs, and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center, a retreat and conference center in Nashville, Tennessee ( She is an adjunct professor of Spiritual Formation and Marriage and Family Therapy at Lipscomb University. She taught and chaired the department of MFT at ACU and then served at Lipscomb as Director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and on the Bible faculty. She has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for the past twenty-seven years, specializing in clergy and their families. Dr. Halstead speaks frequently on the topics of contemplative prayer, spiritual formation, and mental health at the national and international levels.


Hicks, John Mark. Enter the Water. Come to the Table: Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the Bible’s Story of New Creation. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014.

Nouwen, Henri. “Moving from Solitude to Community.” Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders 16, no. 2 (Spring 1995):

Taylor, Glenn C. “A Theological Perspective on Missionary Care,” in Enhancing Missionary Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Missions, edited by John R. Powell and Joyce M. Bowers, 55–62. Palmer Lake, CO: Mission Training International, 1999.

Tucker, Ruth, and Leslie Andrews. “Historical Notes on Missionary Care.” In Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization, ed. Kelly O’Donnell, 24–36. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992.

1 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless noted otherwise.

2 Ruth Tucker and Leslie Andrews, “Historical Notes on Missionary Care,” in Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization, ed. Kelly O’Donnell (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992), 25.

3 Glenn C. Taylor, “A Theological Perspective on Missionary Care,” in Enhancing Missionary Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Missions, ed. John R. Powell and Joyce M. Bowers (Palmer Lake, CO: Mission Training International, 1999),

4 Henri Nouwen, “Moving from Solitude to Community,” Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders 16, no. 2 (Spring 1995):

5 Nouwen.

6 John Mark Hicks, Enter the Water, Come to the Table: Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the Bible’s Story of New Creation (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014), Introduction.

7 Taylor.

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Seamless, Comprehensive Missionary Care: Pre-, On-, and Post-Field Care for Teams

Missionaries are on a journey that challenges every aspect of their lives. The Lord has promised to be with them, but can they count on senders to be with them in a caregiving way? Attrition among missionaries is sometimes preventable when appropriate, seamless, and comprehensive care makes a difference in the longevity and wellbeing of missionaries. Churches and mission agencies should therefore journey with the missionaries they support, for the good of the kingdom and the glory of God.1

Life happens! A couple finds out they are pregnant. First heartbeats are heard. Birth eventually comes as doctors and nurses are busy with the details of caring for the mother, child and, yes, the father at times. Children are taken for immunizations. While on vacation a child gets a deep cut in his hand from whittling with his knife. A rushed trip to the ER in an unfamiliar town gets help. As an adult you schedule your annual physical and discuss important health issues with your primary care doctor. An ambulance screams down the street carrying a patient to the ER. Families wait as the gentle hospice caregivers provide tender care for the patient and family, waiting for the expected end. Each of these life experiences is an example of health care. Medical care is attending to emergencies as well as helping individuals and families manage their lives in the best way possible.

These descriptions of health care are similar to the care mission teams need as they go through various stages of team life. Whether providers call it “missionary care” or “member care,” they need an approach that is both seamless (pre-, on-, and post-field care) and comprehensive (all aspects of missionary/team life). Frequently, churches and agencies responsible for missionary teams discover that the care they provide is similar to the care given in the ER. Yet, routine care providers need to know their limits and be willing to refer the missionary to someone else for additional care when needed. Moreover, they find themselves responding to emergencies because an immediate need arises that demands attention. The unfortunate reality of providing only this kind of care is that it places the caregiver (church or agency) and team in a reactionary relationship. A comprehensive and seamless approach to missionary care will place the interaction between the team and their supporters in a more positive framework. Their interaction will not be perceived as only addressing problems but will be seen as vital to the team’s health and ongoing success. This article will, therefore, deal only with routine care, not crisis or trauma care.

The Realities of Member Care

Interest in member care has been growing during the last two decades. It has emerged and developed in response to the circumstances in which missionaries find themselves in our changing world. Several realities are particularly important when considering member care in the context of mission teams.

The attrition rate among missionaries is unnecessarily high. Steve Sang-Cheol Moon states that “more and more missionaries are coming back home before the expected time, and more and more missions agencies are experiencing missionary attrition.”2 Moon goes on to list the major causes of attrition, including “problems with fellow missionaries, health problems, change of job, lack of call, weak home support, disagreements with sending agency, and poor cultural adaptation.”3 While some attrition is natural (retirement, family needs, completion of the job, etc.), Moon’s list makes us aware that some of the causes of attrition are preventable.

1. Team Conflict should be expected.

The Christian community has been forced to come to grips with the truth that Christians can and do hurt each other, and if conflict is common in the church we should not be surprised to find it in a mission context. We should not expect missionaries to rise above what is true in human community, even for Christians. The belief that conflict should not take place and the surprise when it happens may indicate that we, knowingly or subconsciously, hold missionaries to a higher standard. It is normal to have high hopes for them and their work, but it is also necessary for care providers to acknowledge their humanness.

The thought that Christians simply need to pray together and “all will be well” is naïve at best and biblically unfounded at worst. New Testament mission efforts were not very far along before conflict between missionaries erupted. The conflict involving Paul, John Mark, and Barnabas illustrates this (Acts 13:13; 15:36–41). Missionary activity in the New Testament shows us that reaching others involves God’s partnering with very flawed, broken humans. Through the study of New Testament churches, it is apparent that healthy communities result from spiritual teaching along with much difficult, intentional work.4 Even when missionaries are committed to following spiritual principles, working them out is the great challenge. One mission team I worked with was so broken they could not worship together. This did not make them any less Christian, but they needed help to work through the causes of the brokenness that had intruded into their lives. That essential work of addressing and resolving personal issues opened the door to renewed worship and praise.

Difficulty with fellow missionaries is a primary contributor to missionary attrition. In his book, Cross-Cultural Conflict, Duane Elmer illustrates this point from his work with sixty North American mission executives. They all acknowledged that the missionaries’ greatest need stems from the breakdown of interpersonal relationships between one another.5 Another corroborating example comes from Ken Williams, former Bible translator and retired member care professional with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Williams states:

Many studies on missionary attrition have found poor relationships at or near the top of lists of reasons for leaving. Recently one large mission asked all their personnel what they needed help in most. The greatest need, reported by 78%, was help in relationships. This may be representative of missionaries in general—yet we do so little to train them how to thrive in their relationships.6

Positive interpersonal skills are needed and can be taught. Because teams are relational communities, the strength of personal relationships ebbs and flows, suggesting an ongoing need for giving attention to interpersonal skills among mission teams.7 The relationships between missionaries on a team are an easy target for Satan. If he can create conflict among a mission team, he can quickly diminish the effectiveness of their work and tarnish their example. After all, teams carry the gospel while they model the gospel as Christian community. By passing on tools for interpersonal health, care providers can help reduce attrition due to poor team relationships.

2. Training before leaving for the field can greatly enhance a team’s potential.

In his article summarizing the past five decades of member care, Kelly O’Donnell references Kevin Dyer as an early advocate for extensive pre-field training in the 1960s.8 Dyer acknowledges:

Merely bringing people together and sending them to the field wasn’t enough. They needed time for in-depth preparation and interpersonal bonding. They came from all kinds of sub-cultures and religious backgrounds and minor differences in personal taste that became magnified when living and working in the team situation.9

Additionally, the challenges of becoming a team are magnified within the context of cross-cultural living. The kind of member care Dyer proposes is a proactive preparation that will produce better results than simply bringing people together and hoping and praying that an effective team emerges.

My wife and I were part of a three-family team that came together on the field. We had only met one of the families before going to Kenya. Even though both of our families were supported by the same church we only had a few opportunities to interact with our teammates before they moved to Kenya, while we stayed behind to bond with the church. Later, we met the third family upon arriving in Kenya. Our team experience was a good one. Good things can occur when people are brought together without prior team building. However, our team experience would have been enhanced greatly by intentional team development.

3. Missionaries often fail to be self-reflective.

This lack of self-reflection is particularly true in our Western culture. Our culture is fast paced and self-absorbed. We hardly reflect on anything. Even though we may have the capacity for self-reflection, we also excel at self-deception. We tend to let things “ride” until they become unmanageable. Missionaries have some responsibilities to care for themselves and their fellow team members, but it is helpful to have a trusted third party provide an additional perspective. When this is done at regular intervals, rather than only when a team is at a breaking point, the team gains insight into themselves and those they work with. The end result of encouraging further self-reflection is that the individuals and the team have the potential to become more resilient.

4. Stress has a major impact on missionaries.

This is true whether one works on a team or not. However, cross-cultural stress certainly intensifies challenges, and this would especially be true for team relationships. Ken Williams contrasts the secular and biblical perspectives on the effects of stress. He asserts that the secular world primarily understands stress as a physical response, while the biblical view sees stress affecting the whole person (spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially).10

Stressors are present in all aspects of missionary life. The list is long: physical, professional, financial, cultural, social, linguistic, political, educational, and spiritual.11 I would add: personal, relational, familial, and organizational. There is bound to be some overlap in these designations, yet adding to and being more specific about descriptions of stressors is helpful.

Investing in missionary care can address the preventable attrition among missionaries.

Ultimately, though, the goal is greater than just helping the missionary stay longer. Member care should seek to enhance and strengthen a missionary’s life in order that (s)he will not only endure but thrive and be resilient. Deborah Ford puts it this way:

A “thrival,” rather than a “survival” understanding of missionary care focuses not only on curative, but also preventative measures, seeking to reduce painful attrition through an emphasis on wholeness and effectiveness. The ultimate aim is to develop inner resources within the missionaries, as well as providing external resources to help them with their work.12

The price of failing to provide seamless and comprehensive care is great:

The cost of not doing member care is revealed when a worker “crashes and burns.” There is the human suffering of the worker, his/her family, and colleagues. Lower morale sets in when workers perceive they are only valued for their work, not for their person. There is lost credibility with the people of the host country and with donors back home. Huge amounts of money are expended in salary, start-up costs, training, and repatriation. The quiet cost of not doing member care is revealed when a worker limps along, joyless, powerless, and ineffective.13

Other costs include the resulting broken lives and loss to the kingdom. These costs are very significant. If we want to avoid them, then we need to be serious about providing care that is comprehensive and seamless. As Prins and Willemse acknowledge:

If we consider the time, energy, money, personnel and prayer invested in new missionaries before they go to the field, should we not invest just as much time, energy, money, personnel and prayer in helping them through their problems after they reach the field?14

Having been involved in missions as a missionary, a church mission committee member, and a trainer and care provider, I know how challenging it is to maintain a commitment to continuous care once a missionary team is in place.

An Example of Member Care

Teams must be able to do their work and also maintain meaningful relationships. What does that look like? O’Donnell describes the characteristics of a resilient team as follows:

  • Coping ability
  • Commitment
  • Appreciation
  • Communication
  • Time together
  • Understanding
  • Structure
  • Spiritual wellness15

These characteristics need to be the outcomes for any pre- and on-field care. Going forward I want to share some examples from personal experience that will help illustrate healthy practices related to comprehensive and seamless care.

Pre-Field Care

Caring for a mission team can be described as “spiritual formation.” Thomas Kimber, for example, cites two studies of teams on the field that underscore the relationship between a strong awareness of God and good team relationships all the way along the path to eventual reentry.16 One of the assessments the Halbert Institute for Missions (HIM)17 uses throughout the missionary life cycle includes a measure for how missionaries feel about their spiritual lives. Frequently, missionaries characterize their spiritual lives as either lacking or dry. Part of the reason for these feelings is because they give of themselves deeply, often neglecting their own spiritual wellbeing. Therefore, an overarching purpose of missionary care is giving attention to their spiritual lives.

At HIM, pre-field training focuses on topics such as:

  • Relationship with God
  • Practice of spiritual disciplines
  • The theological core of missions
  • Calling
  • Getting to know the team (spiritual journeys and genograms)
  • Diversity (personality profiles and spiritual gifts)
  • Theological fit within the team and with the sending agency/church
  • Fund raising
  • Stress assessment (CSA)
  • Conflict resolution
  • Team covenant (descriptions of what it means for this team to live in Christian community)
  • Trust/openness
  • Team health assessment (PATH)
  • Site specific training (may include a survey trip)
  • Leadership and decision making (Dynamic Governance and Statement of Grace)
  • Team, families, supporters weekend

These components give attention to a person’s walk with God and his or her relationship with the team. They also illustrate the value of diverse personality traits and spiritual gifts, measure the compatibility of theological perspectives, draw attention to areas of personal stress, examine how well the team is working together, provide a dynamic understanding of team leadership and decision making, and experience the realities of team interaction as they visit their future mission context. These topics and others are covered during five long weekends plus additional times with a team.

Team building should not be seen as a one-time experience, but as a continuing process that extends through the life of the team.18 HIM is blessed to be involved with Abilene Christian University and, therefore, have extended interaction with teams that are forming. The length of team training, then, can range from six months to two years. Some are students at ACU while others move to Abilene, Texas, to be trained. While the best training is certainly face-to-face, the challenges of costs and schedules have forced us to develop a flexible, hybrid model in which we train at ACU, travel to a team’s location, and do some training online. Utilizing longer, varied training periods and methods assists in developing cohesion and trust among team members.

On-Field Care

Once a team is in place the real work, for them and for caregivers, begins. A question that must be asked is, “Who is best to provide the care?” The answer is multifaceted. The research of Högström and Gingrich articulates three sources of such care: friends and colleagues, in-house member care providers and pastoral workers from the sending church, and mental health workers external to the organization.19 Their research also illustrates that the missionaries, in regard to all three categories of care providers, preferred to have someone who has experience in missions themselves.20 One missionary was quoted as saying, “I think it is less important that one is a ‘professional’ counselor and more important that it is someone who has been where I have been and walked many of the same steps that I have walked.”21

An argument can be made for the value of care from third parties instead of the supporting church or organization. When team members are supported by various organizations or churches, which can give care to the team as a whole? Who among the supporters can be completely objective? A third party, especially if they have been involved in the training of a team, can probe deeply, yet the team members feel free to respond openly. When the third party has a relationship with the team and has previous mission experience his or her effectiveness and credibility increases.

HIM commits to providing regular team development (seamless care) for the teams we train. Sometimes care providers make onsite visits, while other times they make contact via Skype. These visits have several concerns: the missionary, the family, the team, and the work. Two months prior to an “official visit,” I write each missionary (husbands, wives, singles) and ask for their input about what issues need to be addressed. I make sure they understand that we may not be able to address all the issues. In one instance every person mentioned the same sensitive issue. None had been able to bring it up amongst themselves because of its sensitivity. During the visit the team felt comfortable enough to discuss the issue and did so in a beautiful way.

One month before making the visit the team takes two assessments: CernySmith Stress Assessment (CSA) and Periodic Assessment of Team Health (PATH). Overall, these help both the third party and the team members prepare for the visit.

The visit usually takes two weeks, which includes travel time. This allows us enough time to stay with each family unit and engage them in casual conversation. This time is very special and important as it expresses our interest in the missionaries themselves. During the time in each home we debrief the CSA.

The CSA is an assessment that measures stress by examining five domains: organizational, cultural, relational, behavioral, and personal.22 Each domain has various scales that are used to measure a person’s stress, including stress related to spirituality. While taking the CSA the missionaries have opportunity to write in their own words what they believe is causing the stress and the level of that stress (extreme, quite a bit, moderate, a little bit). I have given the CSA to a new team, and among them they listed over thirty items as sources of “extreme” stress. The power of this instrument is in its debriefing. Because of our past missions experience we were able to normalize the stress and coach them to find ways to mitigate it. This process not only encouraged them but also gave them hope.

Over a five-day period we usually spend four to five hours in the mornings doing team development. During the meeting times we begin with worship. Each household is given responsibility for one of the worship times. During these meetings we debrief PATH. This is an assessment that grew out of my Doctor of Ministry project thesis.23 PATH has seven domains: team commitment, diversity, communication skills, conflict resolution, leadership, decision-making, and trust/openness. Each of these domains has five Likert scale questions followed by two write-in questions. One write-in question asks the missionary to reflect on him- or herself and the other asks him or her to reflect on the team. PATH has proven to be very helpful in surfacing needed conversations about both the tasks of a team and maintenance issues (relationship issues) related to a team.

These two assessments, CSA and PATH, are given each time HIM makes an official visit. Value comes from seeing the progress of an individual or team over the years. Once I asked a team to look at their CSA from two years before and to compare those results with their lives presently. They were amazed to see the progress they had made in dealing with difficult stress issues. A team will always have things to talk through. PATH helps them raise those issues and maintain healthy relationships.

Often a team’s emails alert me to the fact that they want or need to talk about the work, perhaps regarding some decisions they are facing. We make sure we give time to hear these concerns. When questions arise as to how to move forward, the DRAWN process has been very helpful.24 DRAWN means: D for “desire/dream;” R for “reflect on resources and reality;” A for “attend to ABBA;” W for “weigh what you heard;” and N for “next steps.” This is a spiritual process for discernment using one’s reflection on deep desires and resources, listening to God, hearing and weighing what he says through everyone, and out of that process, along with prayer, deciding what is the next appropriate step.

Transitions are a major challenge for teams. Losing or adding team members are, therefore, good examples of the kinds of issues that require continuous on-field care. Sometimes members of a team leave the mission context and return home. When this happens it is important to help the team member “end well.” Leaving without closure can often hurt those leaving and those staying. Providing a time of remembering and blessing is critical. The whole team can reflect on their coming together, training, life together in the mission context, and how they have seen God at work. Time is also given for the ones leaving to bless those who stay and for those who remain to bless those who are leaving. Whether the leaving is a good one or has some hurt connected with it, reflection and blessing are always appropriate.

Welcoming new members into the team is a critical time for team development as well. The existing team needs to pause and repeat some of the things they did in their initial training such as personality profiles and sharing spiritual journeys. These two activities help the new and existing members become familiar with each other. The team should take PATH and the CSA and recommit to the Team Covenant. These activities will help integrate the new members and even allow them to participate with the team in some reflection about their life and work together.

Whatever the situation, on-field care needs to be flexible and individual as well as team focused. A mentor needs to communicate in word and action that the lives of the team members are important, not just their work. One of the important pieces of feedback that Högström and Gingrich received from missionaries was that feeling as if you had been heard was the most valued feature of member care.25 Time is required for individuals and teams to feel like they are heard. After the morning sessions, Eunice and I participate with the team in their normal routines. If the women have a class or accountability time, Eunice attends. If the men do the same, I attend. I enjoy going with the men to see what they have been doing; whether walking with them to a local church plant or meeting their friends. They need to know that we care about their lives and are not simply there to assess them as a team.

After each visit a summary is written and sent to supporting churches or organizations. In writing such a report care must be given to the tension between giving a meaningful summary and protecting confidentiality. A copy of the report is first sent to the missionaries to make sure they agree with what was written.

Post-Field Care

As difficult as going to a mission context is, the often forgotten challenge is returning home.26 I was better prepared to go to Kenya than I was for returning home. Kimber says returning missionaries face isolation, confusion, and not feeling “at home” in their home culture.27 Returning home is not a “team sport;” it is faced alone. Still, the team left behind can have an impact, if leaving is done well, as mentioned earlier.

Reentry debriefing is important for returning missionary families. Giving the CSA at this time is helpful because it will show what stressors or challenges they are facing. Debriefing the CSA should be part of a lengthy debrief about their life in missions. O’Donnell describes a debrief this way:

The purpose of a debriefing session is to help a worker review his/her experience on the job. This debriefing is more of a routine nature and is not intended to be used with crisis workers or those who go through a traumatic event. During routine debriefing, the worker is given the opportunity to express feelings, explore the high and low points of work, express concerns, put more closure on unresolved areas, and get a better perspective on the overall experience. The interviewer’s role is to listen and help clarify, being careful to make sure the worker addresses the relevant aspects of his/her work. Debriefing does not involve counseling or performance evaluation.28

During the time of reentry it is important for a missionary to be heard. Giving him or her time to talk at length shows that you value the individual as well as his or her service. Churches and the missionary’s extended family are part of the “team” that helps with repatriation. The welcoming community often does not understand why reentry is so difficult or how important a role they play.

Along with providing for the immediate practical needs of returned missionaries, it is helpful for churches to be aware of the deep emotional and spiritual challenges many missionaries struggle with upon arrival in their home country. The returning missionary who is received by a supportive and loving community of faith may reasonably expect to experience lower levels of reentry distress as well as a more healthful transition, being reestablished in a community of faith, giving to others through meaningful ministry, and deepening relationships and meaningful roles in his or her community.29

It may seem like a daunting task to care for missionaries in such a comprehensive way. Yet, several events beneficial to returning missionaries are sponsored by organizations dedicated to improving missionary care (Missions Resource Network, Mission Training International, and Oklahoma Christian University).30 Missionary caregivers can prepare the family and church for their roles in a missionary’s readjustment if they take advantage of such resources.


There are many reasons to be involved in the care of missionaries and teams. The greatest reason is that when we care in sustained, concrete ways, we model our missionary God. He sent many leaders and prophets with words that promised he would go ahead of them and be with them. Jesus sent out his apostles (and the church) with the promise that he would be with them. The church should take her call to be the body of Christ seriously and do the hard work of journeying with those who follow their Lord into mission contexts. We should count the cost and do member care well, like our Father and to his glory.

Sonny Guild served 10 years church planting in Kenya. After service in Kenya he preached for the Southwest Church of Christ in Tigard, Oregon, for 14 years. Most recently he taught missions at Abilene Christian University for 21 years. He also was the first director of the Halbert Institute for Missions and directed it for 10 years. He is now retired and teaches adjunct at ACU. He also gives time to his consulting business, Culture Concepts Consulting ( where he provides access to his PATH assessment for teams. He and his wife, Eunice, live in Abilene, Texas, and have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and eight grandchildren.


Dyer, Kevin. “Crucial Factors in Building Good Teams.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1986): 254–58.

________. Team Building: Current Issues and New Alternatives. Addison-Wesley Series on Organization Development. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Ford, Deborah. “P(r)ay as They Go? Re-examining the Role of the Local Church in Cross-Cultural Missionary Care.” Evangel 22, no. 1 (2004): 4–10.

Högström, K. Elisabet, and Heather Davediuk Gingrich. “Experiences and Utilization of Member Care in an International Missionary Sample.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 33, no. 3 (2014): 240–53,…-a0385805842.

Kimber, Thomas R. “The Role of Spiritual Development in the Cross-Cultural Reentry Adjustment of Missionaries.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 40, no. 3 (2012): 211–19,…-a0305103728.

Moon, Steve Sang-Cheol. “Missionary Attrition in Korea: Opinions of Agency Executives.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, edited by William D. Taylor, 129–42. Globalization of Mission Series. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997.

O’Donnell, Kelly. “Building Resilient Teams: The CACTUS Kit.” In Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, edited by Kelly O’Donnell, 391–98. Globalization of Mission Series. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002.

________. “Global Member Care: Exploring and Celebrating Our History.” Member Care Associates.

O’Donnell, Kelly, and Michèle Lewis O’Donnell. “Running Well and Resting Well: Twelve Tools for Missionary Life.” In Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, edited by Kelly O’Donnell, 309–22. Globalization of Mission Series. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002.

Prins, Marina, and Braam Willemse. Member Care for Missionaries: A Practical Guide for Senders. Brackenfell, South Africa: Member Care South Africa, 2002.

Williams, Ken. All Stressed Up and Everywhere to Go! Solutions to De-Stressing Your Life and Recovering Your Sanity. Colorado Springs CO: Relationship Resources, 2010.

________. “Training Missionaries in How to Relate Well: Pay a Little Now or a Lot Later. In Enhancing Mission Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Mission, edited by John R. Powell and Joyce M. Browser, 245–52. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg-Fortress, 1999.

1 My thanks to my graduate assistant, Brady Kal Cox, for his help researching this topic.

2 Steve Sang-Cheol Moon, “Missionary Attrition in Korea: Opinions of Agency Executives,” in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor, Globalization of Mission Series (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997), 135.

3 Moon, 136.

4 Colossians 3:12–15 illustrates the tension between theological understanding (being God’s chosen people) and living that understanding out in community (clothing yourselves with godly character).

5 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 33.

6 Ken Williams, “Training Missionaries in How to Relate Well: Pay a Little Now or a Lot Later,” in Enhancing Mission Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Mission, ed. John R. Powell and Joyce M. Bowers (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg-Fortress, 1999), 246.

7 Because of the importance of a mission team’s interpersonal relationships, this became the topic of my Doctor of Ministry project thesis at Abilene Christian University, “A Model for Enhancing Interpersonal Relationships in Mission Teams.”

8 Kelly O’Donnell, “Global Member Care: Exploring and Celebrating Our History,” Member Care Associates,

9 Kevin Dyer, “Crucial Factors in Building Good Teams,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1986): 255.

10 Ken Williams, All Stressed Up and Everywhere to Go! Solutions to De-Stressing Your Life and Recovering Your Sanity (Colorado Springs, CO: Relationship Resources, 2010), 24.

11 Marina Prins and Braam Willemse, Member Care for Missionaries: A Practical Guide for Senders (Brackenfell, South Africa: Member Care South Africa, 2002), 108.

12 Deborah Ford, “P(r)ay as They Go? Re-examining the Role of the Local Church in Cross-Cultural Missionary Care,” Evangel 22, no. 1 (2004): 5.

13 Bruce Swanson, “A Mindset and Department for Member Care,” in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, ed. Kelly O’Donnell, Globalization of Mission Series (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002), 436.

14 Prins and Willemse, 108.

15 Kelly O’Donnell, “Building Resilient Teams: The CACTUS Kit,” in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, ed. Kelly O’Donnell (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002), 393.

16 Thomas Kimber, “The Role of Spiritual Development in the Cross-Cultural Reentry Adjustment of Missionaries,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 40, no. 3 (2012): 212,…-a0305103728.

17 The Halbert Institute for Missions provides co-curricular training for missionaries and mission teams at Abilene Christian University.

18 William G. Dyer, Team Building: Current Issues and New Alternatives, Addison-Wesley Series on Organization Development (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 17.

19 K. Elisabet Högström and Heather Davediuk Gingrich, “Experiences and Utilization of Member Care in an International Missionary Sample,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 33, no. 3 (2014): 244,…-a0385805842.

20 Ibid., 248–50

21 Ibid., 250.

22 The instrument was created by Drs. Len Cerny and David Smith. See

23 Visit to see what an individual PATH assessment looks like. Go to to see a team report. The assessment will be available online in late February 2015.

24 DRAWN is a process that was developed by Dr. Kent Smith of the Halbert Institute for Missions.

25 Högström and Gingrich, 247.

26 Kimber, 211.

27 Ibid.

28 Kelly O’Donnell and Michèle Lewis O’Donnell, “Running Well and Resting Well: Twelve Tools for Missionary Life,” in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World, ed. Kelly O’Donnell, Globalization of Mission Series (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2002), 316.

29 Kimber, 218.

30 Missions Resource Network has a Missionary Renewal Retreat. Mission Training International has a weeklong reentry event called DAR (Debriefing and Renewal). Oklahoma Christian University missions staff holds a retreat for Third Culture Kids (Global Reunion for TCKs).

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Managing Stress and Burnout on the Mission Field

Stress and burnout often affect missionaries working cross-culturally. Member care providers can do much to prevent or lessen the damage caused by mismanagement of cumulative stress. Best practices in missionary care call for self-care by the missionary and intentional care by the sending church or organization. The author suggests essential member care interventions that will help maintain the health of the missionary.


In twenty odd years of providing pastoral care for missionaries, the critical issues that have surfaced most often in my experience are problems related to stress management and personal burnout. In addressing these issues, I have found several critical issues that must be addressed in order for the missionary to maintain a life balance: stress levels, awareness of stressors, and maintenance of emotional and physical reserve levels. How well one manages stress affects not only the individual but their family, their co-workers, and their ministry.

Stress is normal. It is our body’s reaction to an emotional or physical life challenge. Stress can be positive if it activates our body and our mind. When we encounter stress, we marshal every resource the body has to react quickly and sufficiently to the stressors. However, if stress is prolonged, physical and emotional energy reserves will be exhausted, resulting in the development of harmful or negative forms of stress reactions.

Experiencing stress does not mean we are lacking in strength, professionalism, or spirituality. It means we are finite human beings created to need fellowship with God and relationships with other finite humans. We also require work, rest, sleep, exercise, and food. In the same way, missionaries need an understanding of what stress is, an ability to identify the symptoms of stress, and coping skills for managing stress.

Understanding Stress

If we define stress at the most rudimentary level as a transaction between the missionary and the environment, any event that cannot be managed by the available resources becomes stressful. Stress is, therefore, what we experience as we adjust to our continually changing environments.

Recently, during a debriefing of a couple returning stateside that had experienced several troubling events, I learned that only one had been severely traumatized. The other spouse was coping quite well. The couple’s response was different because of their perception and interpretation of the events that brought them home. How an individual appraises a situation will determine whether it is stressful. Our behaviors are shaped by many factors including our core values, beliefs, expectations, culture, and subculture. Likewise, our range of coping skills and strategies is determined by the same factors. How we think about stress matters.

Stress can be understood developmentally by beginning with common, basic stresses that occur at work or within a family. If the basic stress level is not addressed adequately, the stress moves to another level defined as cumulative stress. Burnout occurs when all resources for dealing with the cumulative stress are exhausted. Traumatic stress or critical incident stress is caused by situations outside the range of everyday experiences, when the missionary’s life is perceived to be under immediate danger. Traumatic stress can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a pathological condition requiring professional mental health care.

The Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale is a standardized measure of the impact of common life events over a period of a year. The scale is based on the observation that important life changes, positive or negative, will induce stress. Because stress is cumulative, by adding the values assigned to the life events, one is able to obtain a rough estimate of how stress is affecting one’s health. Nine items on the scale are life events at which a missionary moving to a new field would likely experience stress. Adding the values assigned to those events results in a mid-range score indicating a 50% chance of a major health breakdown within two years. Yet, the Holmes and Rahe scale does not include the factors most common to cross-cultural workers—adjusting to a new culture, language learning, maintaining financial support, maintaining a devotional life, and spiritual warfare. Add these to the Holmes and Rahe scale, and one would have an even higher risk of health breakdown.

Why does cumulative stress appear to be the most frequent form of stress encountered by missionaries? Missionaries often bring to the field qualities of selflessness and idealism. With high personal standards, a divine call to make a difference, and a results-oriented philosophy, they become vulnerable to stress when the needs are overwhelming and they are facing limited resources. Although cumulative stress is, to a large extent, inherent in missionary work, measures can be taken to ensure that it remains within reasonable and manageable limits.

The reality in our American church culture is that we rarely admire and encourage those who maintain a margin of time and energy, nor do we appreciate and encourage those who create healthy boundaries for themselves and their families. There appears to be an admiration and support of the “it’s better to burn out than rust out” attitude. Such an environment, which pressures one to prove one’s worth and success, can establish a drive that destroys a healthy balance in ministry. When missionaries are thought of as super-human, they can become driven by unrealistic expectations that threaten their physical and emotional health.

Symptoms of Stress and Burnout

When a missionary experiences chronic stress, and demands exceed their coping resources, burnout will likely occur. Burnout is an exhaustion of normal stress coping mechanisms. The difference between normal stress and burnout is one of intensity. For example, fatigue becomes exhaustion or irritability becomes unmanaged anger. If not addressed, burnout will play havoc with relationships, ministry, and personal health.

There is no formal assessment that provides the diagnosis for burnout, unlike depression or other mood disorders. Recognizing the symptoms is the first step in assessing this destructive challenge to one’s health and ministry. There is a wide range of symptoms. Three areas that appear to be principal signs of burnout are:

  1. Emotional exhaustion.
  2. Disengagement from work and family.
  3. Reduced performance in everyday tasks.

One does not suddenly burn out. The person undergoes a process marked by physical, emotional, and behavioral indicators that can be identified and addressed at an early stage if one is aware of the symptoms.

Signs of stress:

  • Physical symptoms: overtiredness, headaches, sleeping disorders, changes in appetite, and back pains.
  • Emotional signs: anxiety, mood swings, crying spells, apathy, irritability, frustration, and guilt.
  • Mental signs: forgetfulness, loss of motivation, negative self-talk, poor job performance, and negative attitude.
  • Relational signs: loneliness, social isolation, resentfulness, anti-social behavior.
  • Spiritual signs: feeling of emptiness, feeling unforgiven, loss of life purpose, loss of prayer life and worship.

The most common symptoms of burnout are feelings of isolation and lack of support from teammates, family, or organization; loss of enthusiasm; increased rigidity; and negativity. Emotional exhaustion constitutes the main characteristic of burnout. Becoming familiar with the following symptoms will enhance one’s facility for self-care.

Symptoms of cumulative stress that have become chronic:

  • Chronic sleeping disorders
  • Somatic problems and exhaustion
  • Deterioration of mental capacities
  • Loss of memory and efficiency
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Focus on failure
  • Profound disillusionment
  • Rejection of values or faith
  • Unwillingness to take leave
  • Risk taking

The systemic causes of burnout can come from a lack of support and, if a person has a high need for feedback or affection, a lack of recognition. Working in a high-risk, unstable environment requires exceptional vigilance and readily accessible resources both internally and externally. The loss of control in a high-risk situation can generate burnout quickly. Competitiveness, unforeseen changes in team organization, and changes in work strategies can be additional systemic causes. Finally, missionaries that have few protocols for self-care, are experiencing poor physical, mental, or emotional states, and sustain a high degree of perfectionism are extremely vulnerable to burnout.

Coping with Stress

Preventatives Generated by the Missionary

Learning new coping skills is critical to maintaining health. The effects that stress has on us can be positive or negative. As a positive influence, stress can move us to action and allow us to evaluate a situation from a different viewpoint. The negative impact can result in a rollercoaster of emotions and moods.

Much can be done to decrease cumulative stress and make it manageable. Learning to take care of oneself and recognizing the importance of an adequate support system is a major step in the right direction.

Start with “Who am I?” Know who you are and what you will allow to be changed about you. Recognize that you are fallible, will make mistakes, and that you cannot fulfill everyone’s expectations. Learn to write your own life script. If you do not, there are plenty of well-intentioned people who will gladly do it for you.

Stop comparing yourself to others. No matter what they act like, everyone else is also human and fallible.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can be very helpful by identifying your personality preferences. The MBTI will show how you are energized, take in information, make decisions, and orient yourself to the world around you.

Share and communicate clearly. Find someone to share your fears, doubts, and disappointments with. Especially at times of physical danger, take time to talk and share your emotions. Spend intentional time with co-workers that share your culture. It is important to relax and be yourself around those that understand you in the context of a common culture.

Sabbath rest is critical for maintaining balance in life. You need daily, weekly, and annual breaks that provide time to replenish your emotional and physical reserves. God made the Sabbath rest for people. Our bodies have a divine rhythm of work and rest. The Sabbath is a picture of the rest and care we have all been designed to need in order to maintain health and productivity. Practice it without guilt.

One life-long missionary attributed her longevity in a highly stressful mission work to the practice of Sabbath rest. She reportedly practiced the weekly Sabbath, a week-long Sabbath every seven weeks, a month-long Sabbath every seven months, and a year-long Sabbath every seven years. While that may appear excessive, she was able to maintain a long and effective ministry that few can claim.

Take relaxation seriously and cultivate margins in your life. Plan for physical sports activity, an exercise program, or active games with family or friends to reduce stress. Unplug from technology and build margins that exclude cell phones and the Internet.

Stay attuned and take notice of what factors cause you the most stress. Be sensitive to precursors that indicate you might be under too much stress. If you are struggling, seek the help and support of co-workers, family, or friends. Listen to them if they recommend that you may need to seek professional attention.

Know the internal and external sources of stress.


  • Health
  • Spiritual struggles
  • Emotional struggles
  • Life stages
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Negative attitudes
  • Emotional pain


  • Marriage and family
  • Major changes
  • Social relationships
  • Living situation
  • Work/ministry situation
  • Unsettled future
  • Situational crises

Are you getting enough sleep? Recovering from chronic stress and burnout requires replenishing your resources by removing or reducing the demands. Sleep can help replenish your energy and reserve.

How is your spiritual life and practice? Ron Koteskey states:

The factors that help you cope with stress are summarized in the three enduring things mentioned by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13.

Faith. In addition to faith in God, faith in yourself as a person created in God’s image and called into his service will help you cope.

Hope. Rather than feeling helpless, having not only the hope of eternity with God, but also hope in your future, knowing that he has good plans for you, will help you cope.

Love. Finally, having both God’s love and the love of his people to give you support in the stressful situation you face daily, will help you cope.1

“For the Son of man also came not be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; ASV). Jesus was both the Son of God and Suffering Servant. In his earthly ministry, Jesus experienced unimaginable stress. How did he cope with stress? First, there was the primacy of prayer. In his deepest times of stress, Jesus went to the Father in prayer. Second, he affirmed he affirmed that he could do nothing without the Father (John 5:19; 8:28). In his servanthood, Jesus served without drivenness or compulsion. He knew that God, the Father, loved him so that he could serve the multitudes without the need for recognition. Like Jesus, we are to find the fulfillment of our deepest needs in relationship with the Father.

Preventatives Generated by the Supporting Church
or Sending Organization

Do proper pre-field training. Be preventive by determining that the candidate is healthy and prepared to meet the challenges of the cross-cultural assignment both physically and emotionally. With the abundant resources and support systems stateside, it is easier to address problems and bring resolution before departure.

If a walking path comes near the edge of a cliff, a warning sign and a safety fence can protect hikers from falling over the edge, or a first-aid station at the bottom of the cliff can tend to the unfortunate person who wanders off the path. Prevention is obviously the rational measure. Sending healthy missionaries to the cross-culture assignment is the first step in prevention. Individuals experiencing depression, anxiety, or other unresolved issues will leave their home support systems and, to their dismay, will find only an exacerbation of their personal issues in their new environment.

In particular, pre-field psychological assessment can help identify and address problems before departure. The MMPI-2, 16PF, and FIRO-B are standard assessment tools that can be beneficial to the pre-field preparation of the missionary.

Sending a candidate ill-prepared mentally, emotionally, and spiritually is like throwing a non-swimmer into the pool for his first swimming lesson. He may dog-paddle for a while, but he will not learn to be an Olympic swimmer until he has a coach and proper training. Training candidates in interpersonal skills, communication, conflict management, team development, decision making, language learning techniques, and rest and renewal is critical to the “basic training” of the front-line worker. The provision of a Personal Development Plan (PDP) for the new missionary as well as the seasoned missionary provides additional sources for managing personal and cultural stress. On-field and post-field development plans can strengthen the worker and assure longevity. Lifelong learning and re-tooling are necessary to meet the demands of expanding ministry challenges that create stressors.

Maintain regular check-ups by member care personnel or pastors to missionaries. Planned, consistent use of assessments like the CernySmith Assessment (CSA) will measure progress and provide a voice for the missionaries. Using the CSA periodically after arrival on the field, then annually, will assure the missionaries that they have someone to tell their story to in full confidentiality. Everyone needs a confidant. The CSA can also be used for debriefing following a critical incident or on return to the missionary’s passport country. Member care personnel should not assume that long-term missionaries have less need for similar attention and investment of time. The reality of spiritual warfare is that even the most experienced missionary can be wounded, requiring the need of immediate care.

Member care visits on-field establish a pastoral bond with the missionary. Regular on-field visits by a member care professional provide the missionary another safe outlet to share personal or group concerns. Utmost effort should be made to establish trust and confidentiality. Such a climate may take multiple visits to create. Someone has said the first visit response is, “Thank you for dinner,” the second visit, “Oh, it’s you again,” and finally, the third visit, “Okay, here’s what it’s all about.”

On-field team members can play a vital role in the prevention of cumulative stress in co-workers. When becoming aware of negative trends, the team should provide the missionary an opportunity to rest and talk about the causes of stress being experienced by the missionary. Team members are the first responders and can provide important immediate care.

Recommended Tools for Member Care Providers for Pre-field, On-field, and Post-field Assessment2

The CernySmith Assessment (CSA) is a comprehensive online questionnaire developed by Leonard J. Cerny II and David S. Smith that queries the degree of stress a person is experiencing regarding personal, social, cultural, and organizational experiences ( The CSA provides a snapshot of current stress-management skills and adjustment. This assessment can be taken pre-field as a way to create baseline data that can be compared to any later CSA taken on-field or post-field.

The GoCulture Assessment (GCA), developed by Carley Dodd of Abilene Christian University identifies sixteen intercultural factors called the Cultural Readiness Indicators and five Leadership Style Indicators that show strengths and challenges ( The assessment provides self-improvement worksheets for developing stronger skills in cultural adaptation. The assessment developer claims that use of these coaching questions can improve cultural adaptation by as much as 85%.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. The Linda Berens Institute ( uses the insights of the MBTI to help individuals shape a stress-resilient work environment.

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) is the most widely used psychometric assessment of adult personality and psychopathology. An alternative version of the test, the MMPI-2 Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF) is a streamlined version with fewer questions. The MMPI-A version of the test is designed for adolescents, ages 14 to 18. It is recommended that the test be used in addition to other assessment tools.

Unlike the MMPI-2, the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) is a measure of normal-range personality. The 16PF measures sixteen personality traits, which can predict a person’s behavior in a range of contexts.

The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B) assessment provides insights into how an individual’s needs for inclusion, control, and affection can shape his or her interactions with others within a group setting. This is an excellent tool for coaching and team building.

The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI) is designed to measure a person’s behavior in conflict situations. The inventory measures five conflict-handling modes: Competing, Accommodating, Avoiding, Collaborating, and Compromising.

The Team Performance Inventory (TPI) is a resource for assessing a team’s stage of development and performance. The inventory provides insights into the dynamics of the team with evaluations of the team members’ commitment and the tasks needed to improve performance at each stage of team development. The inventory also identifies the appropriate leadership style and the tasks needed to lead the team to high performance.

Stress Questionnaire

Because everyone reacts to stress in their own way, no one stress test can give you a complete diagnosis of your stress levels. This stress test is intended to give you an overview only.

Answer all the questions, but just check one box that applies to you, either yes or no. Answer yes, even if only part of a question applies to you. Take your time, but please be completely honest with your answers.



  1. I frequently bring work home at night.
  1. Not enough hours in the day to do all the things that I must do.
  1. I deny or ignore problems in the hope that they will go away.
  1. I do the jobs myself to ensure they are done properly.
  1. I underestimate how long it takes to do things.
  1. I feel that there are too many deadlines in my work/life that are difficult to meet.
  1. My self-confidence/self-esteem is lower than I would like it to be.
  1. I frequently have guilty feelings if I relax and do nothing.
  1. I find myself thinking about problems even when I am supposed to be relaxing.
  1. I feel fatigued or tired even when I wake after an adequate sleep.
  1. I often nod or finish other people’s sentences for them when they speak slowly.
  1. I have a tendency to eat, talk, walk, and drive quickly.
  1. My appetite has changed, have either a desire to binge or have a loss of appetite/may skip meals.
  1. I feel irritated or angry if the car or traffic in front seems to be going too slowly/I become very frustrated at having to wait in a line.
  1. If something or someone really annoys me I will bottle up my feelings.
  1. When I play sport or games, I really try to beat whomever I play.
  1. I experience mood swings, difficulty making decisions, concentration and memory is impaired.
  1. I find fault and criticize others rather than praising, even if it is deserved.
  1. I seem to be listening even though I am preoccupied with my own thoughts.
  1. My sex drive is lower, can experience changes to menstrual cycle.
  1. I find myself grinding my teeth.
  1. Increase in muscular aches and pains especially in the neck, head, lower back, shoulders.
  1. I am unable to perform tasks as well as I used to, my judgment is clouded or not as good as it was.
  1. I find I have a greater dependency on alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, or drugs.
  1. I find that I don’t have time for many interests/hobbies outside of work.

A yes answer score = 1 (one), and a no answer score = 0 (zero).


Your score:

Most of us can manage varying amounts of pressure without feeling stressed. However, excessive pressure, often created by our own thinking patterns and life experiences, can overstretch our ability to cope, and then stress is experienced.

4 points or less: You are least likely to suffer from stress-related illness.

5–13 points: You are more likely to experience stress-related ill health, either mental, physical, or both. You would benefit from stress-management counseling to help in the identified areas.

14 points or more: You are the most prone to stress, showing a great many traits or characteristics that are creating unhealthy behaviors. This means that you are also more likely to experience stress and stress-related illness (e.g., diabetes, irritable bowel, migraine, back and neck pain, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, or mental ill health such as depression and anxiety). It is important to seek professional help or stress-management counseling.

Tips to help improve your score:

  • Review the questions that you scored yes.
  • See if you can reduce, change, or modify this trait.
  • Start with the ones that are easiest and most likely to be successful for you.
  • Only expect small changes to start with; it takes daily practice to make any change.
  • Support from friends, family, and colleagues will make the process easier and more enjoyable.

Willard Walls is the director of A Lamp Unto My Feet (, a member care ministry of Missionary Health Care and Training International. Will has served as pastor in local churches in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and for twenty-three years he worked as a state university campus minister. He and his wife Ruth were church planters in England from 1995 to 2004. For the next ten years Will served as Member Care Division Director and then Director of Pastoral Care for Christian Missionary Fellowship International (, where he continues to serve as a member care consultant.


Koteskey, Ronald L. “What Missionaries Ought to Know about Culture Stress.”

1 Ronald L. Koteskey, “What Missionaries Ought to Know about Culture Stress,”

2 A sending church or organization can find assessment providers through member care networks, e.g., Global Member Care Network ( and Member Care Europe ( Some member care professionals will provide these services at little to no cost to the missionary.

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Seven Reentry Challenges for 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.”1 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.2

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.

Practical Re-Acculturation

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.”3 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.4

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.

Children’s Adjustment

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.

Cultural Frustration

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.”5 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.”6 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.7 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 ( 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).

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Training for Transitions

Though transitions such as reentry can seem overwhelming, missionaries can prepare well for these transitions by listening to and learning from the stories of others who have already walked that road. In this article the author shares constructive insights both from her family’s reentry story and from the InterMission ReEntry workbook.

In 1991, my family of six moved to Texas after having lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa for 15 years. At the time, research on missionary care was sparse. My resources in Africa were limited, and I could only find one book on the subject of reentry. This book was not just for missionaries but also for business and military personnel. Entitled Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings, the book was edited by Clyde N. Austin.1 Published in 1986, the book was fairly new on the market when I was looking in 1988. We had met Dr. Austin while visiting Abilene Christian University, so I decided to give it a try. The book was probably recommended by Dottie Schulz when I took a seminar class on the Missionary Woman.

At first I thought it would be difficult learning about reentry just by reading a book that seemed to pertain to our family only partially. However, I persevered and learned how business, military, and missionary families shared similar needs regarding reentry and family adjustment. I began to appreciate learning from other kinds of expatriates so I could apply their experiences to my own family. I would like to share with you a few of the lessons that I learned at that time and applied to my family upon our return. These insights eventually contributed to the development of a new ministry called InterMission, which is designed to help others through reentry, as well as to help and encourage missionaries on the field. The second section of this article therefore presents some of InterMission’s reentry material.

Lessons from My Family’s Reentry

One of the first lessons that I learned was that we were not alone. Of course I knew that many families had returned from the mission field before us. My own husband’s parents and grandparents were among them. It was, however, a new concept to realize that all of the families of missionaries I had known had internally gone through many of the same struggles. From a distance, it was not easy to realize that other missionaries had trouble fitting back into US congregations, thought shopping was a nightmare of choices, and really did not know what to do with all the local family traditions into which they were expected to fit. One of the reasons for this difficulty was that I had not yet learned to ask about and listen to other missionaries’ stories about reentry. In retrospect, I remember hearing my husband’s grandparents, A. B. and Margaret Reese, having returned to the States after about 30 years in Zambia, lament that they no longer felt any purpose in their ministry or their life. They wished they had spent their retirement years in Africa where they could continue to bless others. (They blessed many in Arkansas but they could not see that as easily.) They did not feel that they really found their role in the US congregation. At one ReEntry Seminar with my InterMission team, I related a story about having so much trouble buying a hair bow for my daughter at Wal-Mart. I had been used to a limited range of choices, but at Wal-Mart there was a display five feet high and about fifteen feet long. I was overwhelmed. When I finished the story, one of the returning missionaries in the group said, “I thought I was the only one that had that trouble.” Everyone in the group assured him that they had each had the same experience with cereal, bread, or some other item. As missionaries we had also developed our own family traditions at holiday times. Coming back to being closer to family physically, we were expected to be at all holiday gatherings since we had missed so many. We were happy to do so but did feel the conflict with our own family traditions.

Another lesson was to say goodbye well to the country where we had lived so long and the people we had learned to love. Since we had been working in the later years with World Bible School follow-up, we had traveled and worked in many places. We made trips and said goodbye to some of our favorite people and places. We visited local congregations. We made personal presents for each family in our home congregation in Kempton Park, South Africa. When the day came for our departure, the entire congregation came to the airport. We stood in a huge circle and sang praises to God. One of the things we told them, our children, and even ourselves was that we would always be friends, no matter where we lived. (This was before email, Internet, and Facebook.) Twenty-three years later this still holds true. We are still friends with many there. We may not see each other often or even communicate regularly, but if one of us needs something from another, all we have to do is ask, and help is on the way.

The next major lesson I remember is that the missionary family needs to take time for themselves between saying goodbye on one side of the ocean and saying hello on the other. Since we were flying from Africa and already had to make a stop in Europe to change planes, we decided to spend two weeks in Europe on the way to the States. Lack of resources made it challenging, but God took care of all our needs, and the time allowed us to get our emotions on a more even keel. Arriving in Germany, we were exhausted from all the packing, cleaning, and saying goodbyes. Our first challenge was the heavy rain that ruled out staying in our tent and forced us to find a bed and breakfast. We spoke no German, but the proprietor could understand John’s Afrikaans. When we wanted to locate church services in Italy, no one answered the church telephone on Saturday. Since it was a long weekend, the banks in Italy were closed, so we could not change money or buy food. (This was before ATMs.) Finally, someone at the church arrived early for services and gave us directions over the telephone. When we arrived at the church building, longtime friends and teachers from Harding University were there at worship. They took us in for the next several days, feeding and blessing us both physically and spiritually. Though the holiday itself was taxing, we were in much better shape emotionally to fly to our sponsoring congregation and begin the process of being welcomed and cared for at “home.”

Before reading Clyde Austin’s book, I had not had much education in understanding Third Culture Kids (those raised in a culture different from their parents’ home culture). I was married to a TCK and was raising another four TCKs, but I did not have a larger perspective on the subject. I was not completely prepared for the idea that my children would fit the “hidden immigrant” profile, meaning that in the US they would look like everyone else but would not sound or think like their peers. When we arrived, we had one in high school, one in middle school, one in elementary, and one starting kindergarten. There were many foreigners in the public schools my children attended. The two oldest, however, did not want to appear different; they wanted to fit in with local peers. After three days of speaking with a lovely South African accent (sounding mostly British to US ears), my teenage children tired of answering the question Where are you from? and switched to a perfectly pitched Texas accent. They kept their thoughts to themselves and began to blend in and appear like everyone around them.

Since beginning to learn about reentry from Dr. Austin’s book, I went on to earn a master’s degree in Family Studies in 2002, writing a thesis on “The Strength of Missionary Families: A Descriptive Study of Missionaries among Churches of Christ.”2 One of the main places I found to do research on missionary families was in the library Dr. Austin had set up as part of the Robert and Mary Ann Hall Chair of Psychology & Intercultural Studies at Abilene Christian University. (Currently, Dr. Steve Allison holds that chair.) So again I was very thankful to Dr. Austin for helping me on my way.

Our personal reentry story has continued as my husband John and I established a ministry called InterMission in 2006 with other veteran missionaries. Clay and Cherry Hart, Kent and Nancy Hartman, Edward and Sharon Short, and John and I are all volunteers who serve other missionary families to help them in their transitions. Each couple has over 16 years of foreign experience, and two of us were reared as TCKs. We host a Global Reunion camp for TCKs and their parents each July, we hold ReEntry Seminars on weekends twice a year for those that have recently returned, and we go annually to mission points around the world to host a five day InterMission to encourage those on the field. More details are available at In addition our own four children, their spouses, and our twelve grandchildren have all lived and served (or continue to do so) in five different mission fields on three continents. Helping missionaries is our passion and our pleasure.

Guidance for Reentry from InterMission

The following material is adapted from InterMission’s ReEntry Seminar handbook.

1. What is reentry?

This is the simple term that means a person has left a country that was foreign to him and returned to his home country. This time away could have been short or long or somewhere in-between. Reentry involves the adjustment back to the home culture.

2. Reentry begins when you leave home in the first place.

Reentry is affected by the leaving of the foreign culture. Were we able to say goodbye in a satisfactory way to our friends, the church family, the local shopkeeper, and the household help? How about saying goodbye to favorite places like our house, the park where we played with the kids, our get-away hiding place on the beach, in the mountains, or in the country—did we take time for this?

Reentry is also affected by our thoughts of the home culture while we were overseas. It is easy to glamorize thoughts of home when away for a period of time. Everything becomes better when we haven’t seen it for a while and are struggling to learn a new way. Coming home to reality can sometimes be a real shock.

Another part of reentry that happens before we return is the simple fact that we and our family have changed because of our experiences. As Christians, we missionaries pray for the Lord to mold and make us into better people. Without necessarily realizing it, we have been affected by our experiences. We have learned patience by having to work with rules we do not understand and governments that don’t really care. We have learned humility by working in a culture where we understand less than little children and where we find out there is more than one right way to accomplish a task. Our ability to love has been stretched to love many different kinds of people. Our adaptability has taken on new dimensions as we eat foods we have never heard of, shop in markets where we have to learn to bargain, and worship in languages foreign to our ears.

We also have to realize that the United States has changed while we were away. In the years away, new politicians have come to the forefront. New stars have become popular. The culture has been changed by movies, clothing styles, and let’s face it, lots of immigrants. The local congregation has probably changed as well. People have come and gone, new programs have been started and new people may be in leadership. Our friends and family have also had growing experiences. That loved one who died while we were gone is now going to be missed more than ever. That new baby you haven’t even seen is now a walking, talking person.

3. The arrival home phase

Most experts agree that reentry is much harder than first entering into a foreign culture. When we go to a foreign culture, we expect everything to be different. We expect to be misunderstood. We expect not to know the cues of the culture. We expect not to look or sound like anyone else. When we return to our home culture, we expect everything to revert to normal where we are easily understood and we recognize the cultural rules. Yet, because of all the changes that we have just discussed, this is not possible. The fact that our mind does not expect this makes it harder still. Just staying in the home culture there is a lot of difference between being a teenager or a college student and being a responsible adult with a young family. There are adjustments to make. If we leave our home culture not long after college and then return to pick up the reins of a career, we have all of those adjustments to make on top of reentry.

There are several major issues in this phase. One of the first we notice is that we have a hard time communicating our experiences. What can really be said at worship services when someone says, “Hey, great to see you. How was your time overseas? Aren’t you glad to be home?”? Even if you manage to get in a few sentences, you will soon be interrupted by someone across the foyer who stops by to invite your friend to lunch. Telling our stories is difficult. We have to summarize those feelings and experiences with words that are wholly inadequate. Then we have to find someone that is willing to listen for more than a couple of minutes.

Another issue, especially for the wage-earner in the family, is the feeling of a loss of time or even training. Others our age have advanced from entry-level worker to manager. A master’s degree is no longer good enough as all our peers are finishing their doctorates. Those who have been gone a while will find that somehow they missed out on investments and building up retirement. As missionaries, we have good experiences under our belt, but it is hard to translate them to marketable skills.

Fitting back into a local congregation in the US can be a big issue for a missionary. First, he has been the elder, preacher, youth minister, decision maker, direction setter, and more on the field. If he did his job well, he has transitioned out of those jobs on the field and helped others learn to take his place, but he was still in a position of respect and some authority. Back in the US, the missionary feels (at the beginning) no more involved than a long-time visitor. He has no jobs or role in the congregation. No one comes to him for advice on what to do. Often, in this day of the “professional” minister, he may not even get to preach for his home congregation. Ladies class, the local benevolence ministry, or the Bible class program does not revolve around the missionary wife as it might have done on the mission field. Also, there could be issues about independence. One recent missionary talked about how he had to get permission to buy a package of paper at the local congregation, when overseas, he had been in charge of making the decisions on spending the large building fund they had raised. Besides money, there is also the fact that the missionary, while he is on the field, is often accountable to no one. He has to make his own schedule, decide on his own work load, and set his own goals. He is accountable to the home church, but they are not with him every day.

Adjacent to this role change, the missionary has to redefine his or her identity. We have to be careful to define ourselves as “How does God see us?” rather than “How does man see us?”

Also related to this are the changes in the church culture while we were overseas. As mentioned, the church has probably undergone changes. Now we, as missionaries, have to work to catch up. Some of the changes will be easy to accept. We may have to wrestle with some of the changes to decide if they are scriptural. What if we decide they are not? What are our choices?

One of the most obvious issues that affect people on reentry, whether they have been gone one month, one year, or one decade, is their attitude toward materialism. Getting out in the world and seeing that most people do not live with the huge amount of choices and things that Americans have is quite an eye-opening experience. Coming back to overwhelming abundance can be very difficult. It is hard to throw away leftover food when you have seen the hungry. It is hard to throw away good plastic plates, cups, flatware just so we don’t have to wash them (in our dishwashers). It is hard to “run get something to eat” when you have lots of food in the pantry. It is still a shock to see what people register for on wedding and baby shower gift lists. How many choices do we as Americans feel we really need?

The last issue in this phase has been eluded to already, but it deserves more attention. The returning missionary family needs to find its sense of purpose in the home country. On the field, we often do things we wouldn’t normally do or endure things we normally would not accept, because we feel the Lord put us there for a purpose. Back home it is sometimes easy to get so caught up in the busy life that we feel God doesn’t purposefully guide us anymore. We tend to forget that there are people all around us that need the gospel.

4. The survival phase

The survival phase also starts before you ever get off that airplane. Experts agree it is beneficial to reflect on your time overseas as a family. This is a time to release your experiences mentally and say goodbye. When possible, it is best to do this before you have to say hello. If you did not have the opportunity to take some time off on the trip home, then make an opportunity as soon as possible upon returning.

Take the time to grieve over the things you have lost because you gave of yourselves to the Lord. Realize that this grief is real and don’t be afraid to express your feelings toward the issues you face. Realize that the grieving process takes time. You will also need time to heal and adjust.

Approach the home country as you did the foreign field. Take it slow in making changes and being critical. Take the time to find out why people do what they do. Don’t be overly critical.

It is important to your wellbeing to be able to tell your story. Find some avenue to do so, such as a friend who is willing to sit and listen. Use your experiences in teaching Bible class (but remember that it was inappropriate to make constant comparisons between the mission field and your home culture, and apply the same wisdom in reverse). Think of great lessons you learned and write articles for magazines and the like. That experience overseas has made you a better person. Use your transformation to bless others.

Take a little time to do some career evaluation. Since you are not the same person who moved overseas, maybe you do not still have a passion for the career you thought you wanted. Be willing to try it for a while to find out, but also be willing to change to what suits your new skills and emotions. You may find that your years overseas have given you new skills and opened new doors for your future. (There are counselors that do testing and counseling on career assessments if you need help.)

Be open and honest with your mission committee, elders, or family about your needs. Be willing to ask for help and guidance instead of feeling that you have to do everything by yourself.

Use your ability as a self-starter to benefit the local congregation. Let the other members continue to do what they are doing well, and look for jobs that no one has thought to do. Start that international outreach ministry with all the foreigners in your community. Who would know better that they need to feel loved and welcomed than someone who has walked in their shoes? Use your experiences and your new perspective to bless other ministries. Also, remembering your purpose, help others learn to reach out to their neighbors.

Because you want others to listen to you, you have the opportunity to learn to be a great listener to others. Put your compassion to work. Don’t just think about yourself and your needs but think about how to help others.

Life is full of transitions. May the Lord help you as you make this one for His service. May He bless you for the time you have given in other cultures for Him. May He make your life richer and fuller because of the experience.

Beth Reese worked with her husband, John, as a missionary for sixteen years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. She worked in personal evangelism and ladies’ ministries. The family returned to the US in 1991.They led a number of God Bless Africa campaigns to Zimbabwe and Ghana. Beth earned an MA in Family Studies in 2002. Since that time she and John have taught classes on missionary families in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the United States. In 2006, they helped form InterMission, a missionary care organization that offers missionary care by and for missionaries ( She currently lives in Austin, TX.


Austin, Clyde N., ed. Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University, 1986.

Reese, Joy Beth. “The Strength of Missionary Families: A Descriptive Study of Missionaries among Churches of Christ.” Master’s thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2002.

1 Clyde N. Austin, ed., Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University, 1986).

2 Joy Beth Reese, “The Strength of Missionary Families: A Descriptive Study of Missionaries among Churches of Christ” (master’s thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2002).