They were so vulnerable and wounded, barely able to look me in the eye. They”d gone into missions directly after college, bright with hope and the thrill of obedience. With sincere love and determination, they”d adopted an unreached people group. Thousands of dollars had been sacrificed for their language study and living expenses. And here they were, three years later, looking so lost and alone, feeling all the weight of their supposed failure.
When many missionaries come off the field, churches and families don”t know what to say and the missionaries themselves don”t know how to move forward.
Those interviewed for this article represent a range of situations””decades of service and brief experiences, successful ministries and fruitless ventures, expulsion, burnout, family health issues, and redefined purposes. Despite their different circumstances, their responses were strikingly similar.
There is a growing supply of research about why missionaries leave their fields and how to prevent undesirable attrition, but there isn”t much about how churches and individuals can help the missionary family standing right in front of them. Here is a start.
Why Missionaries Leave
“¢ Forced exit“”Many missionaries find themselves back in the States for reasons completely outside their control. Closed countries do not hesitate to deport missionaries with little or no notice. Sometimes a crisis in the family gives them no other option. The missionaries didn”t choose to return, and if they could choose, they”d still be on the field. Most of these missionaries have had no time to process the sudden change in their lives, and their grief is often intense.
“¢ Healthy transition“”There are good, healthy reasons why workers return from the field. Maybe they have successfully handed the ministry over to local believers and no longer need to be there. Maybe they recognize serious red flags in their family life and are wise enough to return before there”s an emergency. Maybe they realize they are ineffective in their role, and rather than stubbornly persisting in unfruitful ministry, they come back to the States to evaluate and pursue a better fit. Maybe they simply know God is closing that chapter. For these people, even though they believe it was the right decision to come back, they are still grieving the life they left behind.
“¢ Potentially avoidable reasons“”Situations like team conflict, moral failure, loss of vision or passion, and others may seem as if they could have been dealt with before the problem led to attrition. In these situations, it”s easy to make assumptions about what should have happened, but none of that can be changed once the family has returned.
One missionary said, “We tried to change the factors and could not.” The missionary eventually realized, “I had arrived at the point that I cared more about being a missionary than I cared about my family. Ministering at the expense of your family isn”t really what God had in mind.” That family wisely chose to change the circumstances before they suffered more serious consequences.
These families usually experience grief from the loss of their field, but also from the baggage they carry about the cause. They need the freedom to learn from their experiences without the added guilt and condemnation of those around them.
How They Are Feeling
“¢ Loss and confusion“”For most of the missionaries who return to the States, their loss is great””but difficult to explain. First, there are people they”ve left behind. There are teammates who have filled the roles of family, support systems, coaches, partners, teachers, friends, coworkers, and everything in between. The people they saw and lived life with every day are suddenly gone from their lives. They”ve lost local friends, language tutors, believers, disciples, shopkeepers, house helpers, guides, and translators. Basically, they lose their entire community when they get on that airplane.
They also lose the people group they love and desperately want to see transformed by the love and salvation of Christ. They no longer have access to the very people they wanted to reach.
Then, when they come back to the States, they lose their sense of normalcy. Most of them have learned how to live daily life in their host culture. They understand those rules of transportation, the social and political climates and conversations, and the expectations of casual interaction. They learned how to shop and cook and communicate and entertain in those cultures.
So when they come back to the States, they”re a little lost. They don”t know the bands or TV shows or political topics in this country. They haven”t kept up with the ever-changing fashions or trends. The people they love have grown and changed, and they themselves aren”t the people they were before they left.
One missionary explained, “You know yourself, but you don”t know yourself here.”
There is often a sense of confusion and search for a purpose. After spending so much of their lives and energy in missions, how do they move forward? What was the purpose of their time on the field? What career options fit them now? At the same time, suggestions and advice about what they should do next, if given too soon, can simply add to their confusion and stress.
Many returned missionaries echoed the sentiments of this worker, who confessed, “It was difficult to hear some people suggest ideas right away. We were numb and not in a good state to make big decisions.”
Depending on the situation, the returning missionaries could also be feeling a mixture of guilt, disappointment, excitement, exhaustion, uncertainty, relief, purposelessness, and pressure””just to name a few! And they probably will not be able to succinctly explain this to their families, supporting churches, or even themselves. Even if they are sure about their decision to return, it still came with a cost, but because no one else has experienced that cost, it”s difficult to explain.
One missionary observed, “I have to figure out how I can explain this to someone who”s never done this, and they”re just not going to understand the depths of emotion and the highs and lows that come with coming back.”
Well-meaning comments like, “I bet you”re glad to be home!” hurt the missionaries much more than they help. In many cases, the missionaries no longer feel at home here, and the transition is harder than they expected. Returned missionaries regularly cite this phrase as being enormously painful to hear and respond to.
“¢ Hope“”Being in the States has its benefits. Aside from consistent electricity, orderly lines at stores, and the ability to speak English everywhere they go, a returning missionary experiences comfort in being around those who love them. They cherish the time to share life with their friends and family. They are blessed to experience corporate worship again, and to see the church responding to their family in love and encouragement.
Most returning missionaries feel great chords of hope. They know God is faithful, and they hold on to the promise that he works all things together for his ultimate purposes. They want to continue serving him, and they look forward to seeing how he will use them. Most of them have spent crucial, difficult months praying and seeking his will before they moved back to the States, and so they returned believing their decision honored and glorified him.
How You Can Help
As a church, family, or individual, you can help the returning missionaries you know. Your direct involvement will change based on the relationship you have with the family, but following these basic guidelines will go a long way.
“¢ Pray“”Pray for their family to adjust. Pray for the friends, teammates, and people group they left behind. Pray for their decisions and future. Tell them you are praying for these things. Ask to pray with them, and ask them what they see as their greatest needs. The most influential thing you can do for them is stand next to them in prayer.
“¢ Tangible steps“”There are a number of physical ways to help the missionary family in their transition back to the States. Your church can encourage and pay for formal debriefing. This will give the family the tools it will need in the next few months and years to properly process, celebrate, and grieve their experiences.
You can also find out what physical things the family needs and provide them. Usually, when workers come back to the States, they lack most of the standard household furniture and supplies they need to create a normal life. You can help with finding a house, moving expenses, and physical labor. Offer to babysit the kids to allow the parents time to talk and plan. You can also provide normal activities like hanging out over dinner or renting a movie to all watch together, without expecting them to feel completely natural or at ease. Don”t be offended if they need to decline for awhile.
“¢ Listen””Ask about their lives in the field, about the everyday things and the defining moments””and then let them talk. Give them a chance to remember, laugh, and cry. Recognize the value of their experiences by letting them share with you””even when you don”t understand.
Don”t give suggestions or try to encourage them until you”ve listened for as long as they need, which is probably going to be longer than you expect. Be a safe place for them by deliberately refusing your impulse to fix the situation.
You can validate their experiences and decisions simply by letting them share those with you. In an interview for ExpatWomen (www.expatwomen.com) in 2007, Ruth Van Reken explained, “Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move past it.”
“¢ Withhold judgment“”When missionaries come back, it”s important to remember you do not know what God is doing. It”s easy to judge whether they should have stayed, done something differently, or come back a long time ago, but we simply don”t know. The returning missionaries can”t change any of those things now anyway.
Let go of what you think should have happened, and focus on the person or family standing in front of you. Chances are, they already have thought of all those things. They”re probably beating themselves up for all of the things they simply can”t change. They usually already feel like they failed in some major ways, questioning most of the decisions they made along the way. The returning missionaries are hardest on themselves.
Remember that God moves in ways we seldom understand. Remember he redeems the broken situations and the hurting people and he creates something beautiful. He took a team conflict between Paul and Barnabas and created two successful ministries instead of one. He used Joseph”s forced exit from his home to deliver two nations from starvation. After Peter publicly rejected Jesus three times, God made him the founder of the modern church, and when Jesus” father Joseph relocated out of family welfare concerns, he unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy that verified Jesus as God”s Son.
Once we let go of judgment, we find the freedom to love the returned missionary family exactly where they are.
“¢ Moving forward””Returning missionaries need time to transition and readjust, just as they did when they first arrived on the field. They need patience and grace and the freedom to grieve what they”ve left behind. But their experiences won”t disarm them forever. They will reclaim normalcy eventually. God can and will use what they”ve learned and accomplished for his kingdom.
The young couple from the beginning of the article has been back in the States for two years. Recently, they realized, “In the moment of everything happening, it feels like such a heavy burden. We felt guilty we weren”t following through with what we told people we would do. We felt like failures. But in the end, we can appreciate everything we learned and did and can see how much more effective it has made us in the ways we are able to serve now. Coming back to the U.S. wasn”t the end. In a lot of ways, it was just the beginning.”
Carla Williams is a creative arts writer for Team Expansion.
The article was originally published in Team Expansion”s tell magazine, 2012.Â
Personally, I have made some recent decisions that I had gone about mission work in the wrong way. My wife is from the country that I went to, so our situation is remarkably more complex than a lot of other missionaries. I decided that I am going to try and leave behind support from U.S. churches in the long run. I am already only partially supported as it is. This will allow my family a lot more flexibility, as God is giving me the opportunity to form an Internet business, which in turn will also not take up all my time and also is completely mobile–I can run it from anywhere. So, if my wife and I for some reason need to quickly change countries, a means of living is already put into play. I realize this is not possibly for everyone, but thought I might share my experience. Making your own living is helpful because it causes you to interact with more people. I have also begun to think of the mission field as a much broader place that includes my own country. Wherever I go, my goal will to be to find a person that God has prepared. I am in a foreign third world country now, but if I live in the U.S., then I will continue to do mission work. True, I do not dedicate myself to this full time, but neither did Paul, and he did very well. We need to consider now that Christianity in the Western world has crumbled, and it is also just as much of a mission field. Each time I visit the U.S., I find myself shocked at how the country has changed. It is not a “Christian” country any more, not by a long shot.
In this way, you never lose your calling or your mission by changing countries. If you can find a way to support yourself, it also means you are not at the whims of someone else’s opinions (I’m not saying accountability is not important), but you listen to God. In today’s globalized world, we need to find ways to be missionaries wherever God takes us. I just don’t see the world any more as foreign country/home country. The world is the mission field, and everyone is connected. I know that if we can begin to think this way, transitions will be far easier. In fact, there is usually no need to stay somewhere for years and years. Once a church is planted, after a couple of years, you really should be moving on, if not in location, at least to plant another church and allow God to do his work among the new Christians. I realize to some of you that might sound counter intuitive, but that’s basically what Jesus did. Moving countries is not a death, it is the birth of something new where God will use you to plant somewhere else. All that being said, missing friends and brothers and sisters is definitely the worst part of moving countries. I recently spent a year in furlough, and there are just some people I feel I can’t be without! That is by far the worst part of being a missionary. Fortunately, today the internet helps tremendously.
Thank you Carla for this article and to the many who have contributed with their testimony, suggestions and comments. Regardless of your country of origin or service”¦.Thanks! Regardless of the length of time you were able to serve”¦Thanks! Your sacrifice and desire to serve a cup of water in Jesus name is noteworthy so please pardon those who infrequently do from the comforts of their homes and churches. They are also disconnected from these transitional overwhelming needs as they observe and remain clueless of how to pray”¦.until they read an article like this. I”™ve supported missionaries with a sanctified percentage of my gross income since my college days but have not understood what these beloved family members would be facing when they returned home. I hope to encourage everyone by saying that cup of water you gave, came with a promise of return, as will the cup you may pass out today. Thank You All for your service to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Thanks for this article. The Church shies away from this issue and I’m glad you’ve taken it on. Returned from mission field 6 years ago under painful circumstances. Was never debriefed and have never shared with former colleagues the heavy burden and many mixed emotions I’ve carried. I think Christians back home have a certain image of missionaries and don’t know how to respond when I relate my situation. So, I’ve felt very alone but, thankfully, not abandoned by God. Still so much unresolved, but I hope for the day when I can process what happened with former colleagues. I’ve left the timing in God’s hands.
Our family returned to our home country in 1996 after 15 years serving in Europe and South America. How I wish this article had been available to us, and our family and supporters, then! It clearly articulates every stage we passed through. When we told our family and supporters that the decision to leave the field was a much more difficult decision than the decision to go out had been, it seemed to hurt their feelings–so that pretty well shut down further dialogue regarding our situation. Our children were angry with us and with God for taking them away from their community of friends, even though we were returning to family. Thankfully, we have found our way to healing with the Lord’s faithful leading, and went on to have a great ministry that we would have never dreamed of with our people group right back in our home county! We recently retired from that ministry, and many of these same feelings and issues arose for me again.
Praying this article will find its way to those who can minister to the recently returned. I think much of it would also be applicable to those who leave a ministry position in their home country, as well.
The only thing I saw missing was that sometimes God calls missionaries off the field. Too often, people make the wrong assumption that when a missionary goes to a field it is suppose to be until death. That’s not always the case- God may call a missionary to a field to set up a locally run church and then His will is for them to move on (whether that be another field or even back home in the US). I know many missionaries who have come home from the field to start thriving ministries here in America (and it is certainly needed). I also know missionaries who have gone from one country to another.
We need to remember that we don’t know God’s will for their lives, and just because we don’t understand or agree with it doesn’t mean that they are out of the will of God. They may be exactly where the Lord wants them!
Wow thank you SO much for this article! I found myself crying as I read it because as a missionary myself (all short term up until this point), you seemed to pinpoint so much of how I’ve felt in the past trying to come back home, and seeing that you’ve done a really good job putting it into simpler terms for OTHERS to understand what we go through when returning home from the mission field, especially a third world country. I believe this is a great article that I will save for when I return home, to send out to those I love and who help support me so they can better understand how to empower, encourage and love me when I come back, even when they don’t understand even a single thing I may say to them about my experiences and feelings. Thank you again, I know that even for a 1 week trip out of the country of the United States needs some quality, well-prepared debriefing to return home, so for a year abroad, it’s very vital to have those I return home to read articles like this that can help everyone involved for the return of a missionary. Now I’m rambling, but I must thank you again for your well thought out article! Much of a blessing!
WOW and WOW and WOW
This article is so awesome, so truthful, so emotional. I have cried, choked up, broken down and cried some more, related to and also fear what will happen within a few months. I know what it was like to go to the field after so many years of preparing; the excitement, the knowing you were finally able to fulfill God’s calling, the years of service, the problems, the going back home, relocating, starting all over, the mk’s trying to adjust, to a new culture for them, in their parent’s home country, the returning to a third world country, alone this time and being able to serve again. God’s grace has brought me through all of this. Not to say it wasn’t difficult, but God was there, sometimes as it seemed a far off, but through it all, He WAS there. Thank you Jesus.
Not much has been said about the missionary who goes home for a very short term furlough or maybe more correctly, a working rest, due to traveling to many churches trying to present the work of the Lord and build prayer and financial support.
It seems like no one understands the missionary passion, the fulfillment of the work one is doing and yet the heart rending loss of not being able to be there for your own family, of not being there for major events like graduation, etc, of not really knowing your own grandchildren, of feeling so far removed from your own children who have grown up, built their own life (however beautiful that is and should be). Of going “home” when it doesn’t feel like home anymore because you don’t fit, you don’t feel like you belong. Everyone has their own life, their own schedule.
You, the missionary on furlough, are used to having your own transportation, your own house, your schedule, and suddenly there you are, always in someone else’s home (as wonderful as that is) but always dependent on someone else for everything.
Furlough has its good moments but has its distressing ones, too. Have you written any articles on this, Carla?
Thank you so much for writing this article! I was on the foreign mission field for a year and a half, and now a year and a half has passed since I’ve been back in the States. For me, it was a type of forced exit that was very abrupt and traumatic, but I knew that I heard the Lord tell me it was time to leave. In many ways, I am living a completely different life back in the US, knowing God has a plan for me to return to foreign missions, but having no clue as to His perfect timing. He has led me every step of the way. When I returned I went to a ministry school and am now a full-time intercessory missionary with a house of prayer in my hometown. It is such a blessing to be reconnected with family and to do life with them! Since I jumped into the new season that God had for me upon my return, I realized while reading this article that I haven’t properly grieved all the loss of leaving the field. Those African people became my second family, and oh how I miss them! This article validated my feelings that have been buried down deep inside, and now more healing can come to my heart.
One way to avoid attrition is to let missionaries on the field who WANT to stay there, stay. We were on the field for 3 years. Adapted to living in the our new country/culture, planning to do subsequent terms, successfully working with the local church, fellow missionaries, and starting new Bible studies. Our plans were to stay. The mission had sunk considerable funds into our training. We did not want to come home; we were sent home because of “funding cuts”.
For those of you who came back (in the US), and are looking for some kind of formal debriefing, our organization usually recommends DAR through Missionary Training International in Colorado (www.mti.org/programs/DAR). But a quick Internet search will give you several options of differing intensities.
I haven’t ever written anything of length specifically about furlough/home service, but it does seem like another topic that could really be useful for the church and supporters to have some resources on. Furlough is coming “home” on a smaller scale, so many of the same issues and concerns will be in play. I’m sure some great things have been written on it.
Thanks for continuing to share your stories. I’m so honored to listen to them.
Grace and peace,
This is so true! We did exactly what God told us to do, which was stay one year but it was still painful to return.
We left behind precious children that had learned what Christ’s love is through our ministry. And they couldn’t understand why we left them. We protected these children from people who had hurt and used them in many ways and now they were left in a hurtful situation. Our stay there had been very difficult with threats to our family, church services interrupted, our truck windows busted out, one of our orphans hurt and after leaving our house was raided. I didn’t expect people to understand what we had been through. We just needed healing. We had been and were still going through so much. My four children had been secluded due to safety issues. When we returned they looked forward to friends and family. But we still felt alone. Everyone was busy and it seemed like no big deal we were home. Not many calls to check on us, not many reaching out to us at church with a prayer, and most people saying “I Know Your Glad To Be Home” . I know people just don’t know how to help or what to say. My advice is if you know a returning missionary let them know you love them and are here for them. Take them out to eat, spend some time with them, listen to them ‘even if you don’t know what to say” and yes PRAY for them. We felt out of place and the silence made it worse.
But of course God is faithful, after a year and a half we are healed and ready to go again. We have been in the field one week out of each month since we returned. God has delivered ALL our children out of the situation they were in and we are preparing to build a new orphanage for them. All things work together for the good!
Thank You So Much For This Article!
There is a message between the lines in this article that is important. The mindset of many western churches and believers is you need to go to a foreign mission field to serve the Lord. This colonial mentality is what leads to the problem in the first place. Foreigners do not belong in foreign countries as missionaries unless they specifically bring to the table skills that are NOT available locally. There are tens of thousands of local devout Bible believing Christians in almost all the countries where there are western missionaries who would give their eye teeth to be able to even have a small amount of support that would either allow them to serve as missionaries in their own country or to be able to attend Bible School to gain the requisite skills. Instead, we are spending $60,000, $80,000 or more to support a family who knows little about the culture and language and who require western-style schooling for their kids, transportation, conveniences, food, and frequent contacts with the folks back home. Many local believers in many countries will even privately tell you that western missionaries often do more harm than good as it reinforces the idea that Christianity is a Western …or American…religion. I could tell you scores of first hand stories of people who absolutely did not belong on the mission field and were miserable and ineffective. But because of the investment of their supporters they end up sending out misleading reports about what they are doing and stay on in a place where they do not belong. They do not come home for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is because they are running away from something in their home country. Sometimes it is because they fear the prospect of starting over and finding a job back home. Sometimes it is just to let the kids finish High School in their overseas country. There are several great mission organizations that support local national ministry in their own country. My advise is to get behind one of these groups where your dollars will reach ten times as many for Christ at one tenth the cost. My favorite is Christian Aid Mission. There are others. Please read this in the spirit it is intended.
Hi, they are FAITH HEROES, We have learned that our missionary work isn’t measured by numbers or seen fruits but rather we walk by faith weather it’s at home churches or on the missions field, Yes we have to receive return missionaries as a real heroes with great appreciation and love, most what they need is encouragement to know that their labor in love wasn’t on vain, home Church has to continue on supporting them financially and spiritually until they find their new jobs and ministry hopefully.
We have to know the time when to leave the m.f and to be prepared for that, After all it’s only by God’s grace we minister, not to blame others or ourselves if things didn’t happen as we expected. thinking grace means i am so glad to be saved a child of God going to heaven, all the rest is extra bonus. strong vertical with God will set me free from many troubles such as, what i am doing and where i live.
there is a famous saying- Every Christian is a missionary and every soul is a missions field, so please relax and pray that God would reveal his will for you wherever you are.
If Church planting is the heart of mission then any investment in it is great, ether for a short term or long term missions.
I think what you have set out to do has been accomplished in this article, but would state the following (similar to David from the 8th January) BUT coming from a different angle.
Too often we hold the mindset that we have church and the mission field – a ‘healthy’ church is the one that sends off someone/a family to another country on mission – the phrase ‘missionary’ gets used to describe these people. The issue is, we have church OR mission – and get church IS mission. Those people that get left behind tend to pray for the missionaries (which is vital, of course!) but forget that, if we are Biblical, if you are a Christian then you are already on mission!
Mission must not be defined by geography – where you GO, but is in fact a mindset – how you THINK.
Churches need to know that mission is all around, and sometimes that means someone going to another city or nation.
Now when that happens, and when people come back to their original country (not I didn’t say come ‘home’) this article does help educate some as to the issues faced. I would say, if they are returning to church, that they haven’t come off the ‘field’, but changed to another field. The area where the church is now based. We can’t forget that mission is how we think, not where we go.
I myself am British, so I know I have a different church back ground from the US anyway. I’m not a missionary in my own words – I have lived away from the UK for 5+ years already, church planting firstly in Russia and now nearly two years in Estonia. I’m just a normal Christian, following what God has spoken to me.
And this is my big difference to David’s comment from above – it can’t be about money – it has to be about calling. Can God call a family to another nation, even though they don’t have the language, culture, background etc. Absolutely. Because He is God – he can do what he feels is best.
Calling is important. Estonia, for example, where we are now, is the 2nd most Atheistic nation in the world, and the most secular nation in Europe. Way less than 1% of the population are in any church. We also aren’t funded in the 10,000s that were mentioned – actually I’ve been working since leaving, though about 50% of income has come in through giving in the UK – people partnering with us as we made the long term transition. We aren’t here under a mission organisation, so that we could be called ‘home’ – home, of course, is Tallinn. We love it here. We were sent from a local church to plant a local church. Following the calling of God.
Painting a picture where nobody goes anywhere (because it’s cheaper), especially where people are called, is not a good picture – and not Biblical. People who are called will stick longer. Church planting is hard. Of course we want Estonian’s on board (and have them on team with us), but for whatever reason, God would choose to move an English family, from Russia, to be here. I’m as lost as you are on that one! But I can stand before God and say I know it was his plan for us.
David did make a great point that being a ‘missionary’ isn’t a career option – going onto the ‘field’ for any reason other than calling, is a dangerous game. But they will ultimately have to answer before God on that one – and as the Bibles said, if they are preaching Jesus, regardless of their motive, at least the Kingdom is advancing.
From observation, American churches are amazing at supporting their missionaries financially. I am amazed (and some times jealous!) at the resources many US families have around them, but I see the pressures of these resources, and the strings attached, like some of the things mentioned above.
There is an important message in the article about relating with people. My hardest trip was the first trip BACK to the UK after a year. It was way harder than first arriving in St Petersburg. Shopping was overwhelming – so much choice! I can imagine the US is just even more extreme. These are real, cultural, issues, and actually relate to anyone coming back from a period of living in a foreign culture.
I’ll finish here – please do send people on mission – whether it’s to their local street, another city or another nation. Know that you are on mission where-ever you are. Actually, its far easier to do mission with people that speak your language! Better for you to reach your neighbours, that God send an African, or Brazilian right around the world, because mission is not happening.
I have moved from country to country growing up, and have a sense for the disorientation and mixed emotional extremes that one faces in these circumstances. I left India for West Africa (Nigeria) when I was 8, then returned to India when I was 13, then moved to New York City when I was 17, and then to Charlotte, NC when I was 34.
It seems to me that there is a responsibility here on those who send missionaries overseas. I would argue that the responsibility does not end when the missionaries return – they need to be supported emotionally and spiritually during their readjustment phase, and offer practical training on getting re-acquainted and re-adjusted to life in the States.
Sometimes, those of us who put missionaries on a pedestal idealize them, and hence distance themselves from the real needs they face upon returning to the US. Churches which are big on “supporting missions” need to expand their understanding of what that actually means to include providing a warm family atmosphere for missionaries to get their bearings. In fact, I would argue that ministering to missionaries is in itself a ministry – Paul in his epistles wrote letters to churches to warmly welcome the itinerant ministers he sent all around Asia minor.
This is so helpful! Thank you for writing this and helping those of us who stay here, but have a heart for these missionaries gain more insight on how we can support them in holistic ways. I will be sharing this and probably coming back to read it again in the future. Thanks again!
There’s a great book on the subject called, “Reentry.” It’s a great read, simple and straightforward. Returning missionaries (being one myself) need a time to decompress, be embraced and reintegrate culturally. Reverse culture shock is almost more painful than the initial culture shock of entering the host country. Our family was on the field for 25 years and the reentry (even though our reentry is under good circumstances) has been intense. Thank God for His grace, for the One who sustained us when we left for foreign lands, is sustaining us now!
Thank you for this thoughtful article.
My wife and I were trained by our Peace Corps trainers to expect the conditions we actually experienced when we arrived in country as Peace Corps volunteers. We were in Afghanistan 1967-1969 after three months of language and cultural training. Almost like a person whose heart rate is slowed by lowering body temperature, we experience a slow-down in the pace of life. While we were there we did not expect much to happen or at least not soon. What was a surprise to us was our own culture in the U.S. when we returned after two years. We were not expecting the speed … everything happens so fast in the U.S. As Peace Corps volunteers we knew exactly what our assignments would be and we knew the duration of our assignment. Clearly, missionaries do not have those certainties that allow preparation and anticipation concerning their return home.
Thanks also both to all the Christians who are willing to make their commitments as foreign missionaries and to those Christians who are able to provide witness and evangelism in their own country.
For 7 years we served in a Korean Christian school, suddenly with a crackdown on foreign teachers, we were forced to come home. We had sold our home, furniture, cars and put everything else in storage. We came home with no severance, little in savings and having to move in with mom in our late 50’s. Our church has received us with open arms but few seem to know how to deal with our story. After 6 months we are still out of work. Everyone tells us that God will have a place for us soon but we haven’t had so much as even an interview. We have poured ourselves into our church and are actively waiting on God. We are thankful for our experience overseas and feel that God used us in a mighty way, so much so that it is hard to understand this time we find ourselves in.
Thank you for writing this post. I have just made the incredibly hard decision to leave my surrogate family here in Cambodia and return to the US after just eight short months of work. My original commitment was for a year, but it is so clear that God is calling me home right now. This post was good for me to read as far as what to expect to feel when I return home, and what I may need from others as I reintegrate into American culture. I’ve forwarded this to a few of my closest friends and mentors asking them to read. Thank you
I can identify with so much of this. It is not only missionaries, of course, but pastors, and every category of church worker.
When it ends, especially if it is for the perceived ‘failure’ of the worker, the church so often stands by and watches that person unravel. Alone, confused, grappling with guilt and a profound sense of loss, the church does not know how to help.
We have to address this. Whatever the reason for the end of the missionary assignment, we have to learn to show love, support, and fellowship. If we cannot it is a tragedy, often preventing the re-annointing of those persons to a new field of service, and at the extreme, leaving the individuals permanently adrift with no spiritual home.
Wonderful article, budding missionaries should read. I believe what the writer has shared may especially be true for when the missionary does not belong to a large organization, and uses a small sending agency where there’s fewer resources for dealing with fall-outs upon their return from the field.
Thank you, Steve, for your comments. I especially liked your statement about having advance knowledge of your assignments and departure date. (Much as do military personnel). Missionaries do not have the luxury of knowing their precise assignments or their departure date, as you stated. They must rely on God’s direction for both.
Thanks very much to you and your wife for your service in the Peace Corps. My husband’s and my prayers followed you to Afghanistan, along with our U.S. soldiers.
Many blessings to you both in your future endeavors.
David, I am most surprised by your comments!
Missionaries are called by the Lord to go where He needs them. Why would the Bible say to go into all the world and preach the gospel, if it were not true?
How can you say that someone is ineffective, when they are sowing seeds for the Lord’s cause? We don’t always see the results of these seeds for a long time. And sadly, some people refuse to humble themselves and to accept Jesus into their heart.
Please give these servants of the Lord an “E” for good Effort ! They selflessly serve under oftentimes very harsh circumstances.
One of my favorite phrases is the old Indian saying of not judging a man (or woman! :)) until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
May God Bless you,
Hello. Just wanted to say thank you for the article. My family and I just moved to America after 12 years in missions. We have been here for about 5 months now and really struggling. Your article was a touch of joy to read. It was printed out and given to us by a family member…I plan to pass it on to other missionaries preparing to make the transition from Mission Field to Native Homeland.
Thanks for your insightful observations and advice.
I am one of the broken ones (after 11yrs). Often, I feel that I will never get fixed again. I know it’s not true, but it sure feels like it when you’re staring at walls for six months, trying to figure out why your passion has died.
It was “¦ peace, hopeful — to read an article like this, and then send it to all my church friends and my family of supporters.
One day (in the near future), I will be okay again. Not yet, but soon. Until then, thanks for saying what we try to say ourselves, but it doesn’t quite come across the same unless an advocate (that’s you) puts it in clear terms.
When things happen to cut short what you believe God has called you to do, just remember it is God’s Plan and not yours. He will always accomplish His plan, and you have given it your best, then everything that happens WAS His plan all along. Believe me, He is in charge and sometimes we just don’t see the Big Picture in our time. He does have plans for you, and when you faithfully follow Him with your heart it will happen gloriously.
Thank you Carla for your insightful article. A friend sent it to me since I just left the foreign mission field three months ago to return to my country of origin to address a family issue.
(By the way – responding to Tim, and also Dave above – I agree with you in part, but there are far too many diverse situations worldwide to determine that one-size-fits-all concerning how to complete the Great Commission. In my case, local Christians would not reach their own indigenous neighbors due to mutual racism! As a result, an objective outside missionary was necessary to clarify matters and catalyze a missions movement).
I have wondered if the depth of re-entry shock is equal to the depth of identification with the people group among whom a missionary served. Initially joining this indigenous group without knowing the language or culture, they “raised me” almost like they would a child, teaching me “to be” just like them. So I functioned among them, as much of an “insider” as I could possibly be, considering that I arrived as an adult. Leaving my “family” was profoundly grievous.
I have also been puzzled by how long this grieving process has taken. If someone asks me about the people among whom I lived I instantly choke up and burst into tears. Initially I understood this, but three months later”¦?
Fortunately, before I left the country a Sending Team from my church formed around me. We worked as a team the entire time. Each member had a role to play. They even know how to take care of re-entry shock. Neil Pirolo’s book, “Serving As Senders,” helped get my church on track understanding what is involved. Mr. Pirolo also put on a seminar at my church which helped to call and mobilize those who were open to participate.
My Sending Team made all the difference. I can’t imagine going through this alone, wondering if I’ve lost my mind. Your article, Carla, also helped remind me that this is a phenomena that almost everyone experiences. The section “How They Are Feeling” is completely true, every word! It’s very comforting to know we aren’t alone.
This is an insightful article. I have many missionary friends and I now know how to better minister to them. I am a Military Chaplain that has deployed and the adjustment to coming back to the States was very difficult. Unlike Steve, I found life back in the States slow and inefficient, because we worked at such a fast pace. It was hard to adjust to how slow others were to act or make decisions. I often thought to myself, “Are there more idiots in the world or is it just me? I learned that it was just me. 🙂 I The hardest thing was not being able to share my experiences with others because they had no context to understand them. This lead to loneliness and feeling like I was on the outside looking in. I often felt misunderstood when I could not adjust to civilian life. Throw in some deployment related trauma and life really gets complicated. I felt awkward, and could no longer be in crowds. I isolated myself and only felt comfortable around my fellow Soldiers.
The ministry was so rich and there was such a sense of importance to everything I did. I was trying to deploy again before I even returned. God had other plans for me so I did not get to deploy again. Looking back, I see God’s wisdom in that. I miss the ministry I had with our Soldiers there and went through a period of grief upon my return.
I will never forget Easter Sunday morning when I was about to serve communion. A Soldier came to the Chapel door and asked for help. I went to him and he informed me his three year old daughter was killed in a playground accident. My heart broke and we helped get the Soldier back home as soon as possible. Later that day I preached to a packed Chapel and after the service a Soldier accepted Christ. was baptized that same day. along with another Soldier who accepted Christ a few days earlier. That Easter Sunday was such an emotional roller coaster my head was spinning when I went to bed that night
The night we left to return home I went to the Chapel at 1am, got on my knees, and in tears, thanked God for the tremendous privileged of serving our Soldiers.
All that to say between this article and my deployment I think I know how to better minister to our wonderful missionaries when they return to the States. They are most certainly warriors and heroes in God’s Army. All the adjustment of coming and going, leaving friends, starting new relationships, adjusting to old relationships that changed while I was gone was hard. It seems like there is constantly a “new normal” I to get used too. I am not the same person before I deployed and some of that is good and some of it is bad. Do missionaries feel this way as well? I know not all my experiences are the same as missionaries but many are very similar. I pray God will us my experiences to listen, learn and care for our missionaries in way that is meaningful and helpful to them. I know they will minister to me and help me as well. I know
God’s richest blessings on you all
What a wonderful thorough artical. Thank-you so much for showing how I can better love returning missionaries. Because of your heart to write this I pray that I will better express the love, respect & gratitude I have for them as missionaries but mostly as my brothers & sisters in Christ. May we all help each other home loving as Jesus loves all the way.
Just another aspect to consider when leaving the mission field is the Missionary’s children. I myself am a MK(Missionary’s kid) and i had a fairly easy transition back to canada. I still feel like i don’t always fit in however and there were times when i was very glad a person cared about me as a person rather than my “fitting in” in the culture. MK’s are unique people with a very unique world view point that a lot of people don’t understand. They often have more culture shock than the parents and it takes care, understanding and consideration to smooth the transition. No child wants to embarrass themselves in front of others but every culture is unique and has its own ways of acting in society, showing respect, age appropriate actions and even ways of greeting. Their actions can easily be misunderstood and the child doesn’t know how to act. In some cases MK’s were raised overseas, understand its culture, social aspects and are at home in that way of life. When they return to the “western culture” they have no idea about social cues, what is acceptable or not and even how to communicate with the people around them. For them they are not “returning home”, they are going to a strange country where they feel they don’t fit in and don’t understand. When they return home they are laughed at and misunderstood. The children feel like they are being forced to change lot about themselves including their identity by people who try to change them to fit in with the “western culture” without understanding or caring why they behave like they do. They need people to guide them and help them delicately without demeaning the one culture but explaining what is appropriate in the “new culture” A child will be a lot more willing to change to fit the “western culture” if people are willing to understand their culture. taking time to listen to, to try to understand, to accept them as a person regardless of their a “weird” actions is vital to a child’s adjustment. sometimes when the parents call the western world home the child will call the second culture home. A lot does depend on the individual and the circumstances but every missionary child will have some culture shock. Acceptance for the unique individual they are is very important. The Missionary children need our love, care , understanding, acceptance, assistance and prayers
My wife and I are one of those casualties. After 24 years in missionary service, we left the field for many reasons. I said at that time, I can fight inflation, etc, etc but I will not fight with leadership over things I saw in scripture as absolutes,,, we had the other reasons like kids having difficulty adjusting to US college life and health issues so we returned to US. Problem after coming back, there was no room to talk and be accepted. Pastors promised to help, leaders promised things and I’m still waiting for the results. The old saying that missions take their soldiers to war and afterwards leave their wounded to suffer alone was certainly true for my wife and I.
I’m not bitter, God continues to be Faithful but so wish that mission leadership would learn and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Once we moved back to the States, my husband and I went through lots of emotions that we weren’t expecting. A friend from church – who also experienced the same since he used to be a missionary – debriefed us and recommended that we read a book about transitioning back “home”.
We purchased Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home by Peter Jordan and it helped a lot! The first half of the book is dedicated to preparing the mission field and the second half is to be read once you have moved. We didin’t start reading the book until a few weeks after having moved back to the States, but it was still very helpful and explained why we were feeling the way we feel and that we are not alone. The range of emotions is normal for people coming home from short and long-term mission trips.
Helpful Resource: For those reading this article who are facing some of these very challenges, or know someone who is, I encourage you to check out – http://www.coachingmission.com – especially their “Bridges Program” coaching options. The skill level is high, the costs are low, and the coaching is accessible anywhere there is Skype or Telephone.
In the late 90’s, my wife and I along with our young children were denied a visa and unable to return to our field of service in Asia after 8 years of fruitful service. While we had around us a very supportive community, they didn’t really know how to walk with us as we were forced to make an unexpected transition. The few re-entry programs we heard about were typically an intensive 1-2 weeks only, and expensive beyond our limited budget. How I wish we had had the kind of ongoing coaching support available to us that is now available through Coaching Mission International!
After years on the mission field, suddenly I was back and once again “entangled in civilian pursuits,” as in 2 Timothy. I did art during the time of this transition; it expresses my feelings (somewhat) in pictures and sometimes words.
Logically we know we are all missionaries wherever we are, but then again . . . we hurt. Not only do we have culture shock, but there is grief, maybe in a way we have never experienced.
I think it a good thing to recognize the hurt and to explore the beauty of what God is doing, even during the hurt.
“For Right Now”
for right now
I will look
not at the way
it should be
at the beauty that is
that’s the way
it should be
(Here’s a link to the image that accompanies this poem: http://rgphil.com/?s=897)
Was on the field 15yrs or better and coming home was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I was single, still am, and nothing was written about returning home then. I did feel like my work was finished there, but like it was said ones heart grieved because you lost as it were your family, community, and just a country of people you shared your worship with and so many things.
Then to start over and wanting to go back to the “mission Field” didn’t work like I wanted it too. However, what God wanted did. I now train short term teams and visit missionaries on the field. It is an enriched life as well and I visit so many fields. But how my heart hurts for those going through this difficult times.
God Bless, Barbara
I’ve been a missionary for 23 years now and loved a lot of the points in this article….and in many of the comments posted by the missionaries. To all the missionaries who read this article, and can relate, please know there are thousands of us who can relate. I wish there was some way to truly alleviate this problem.
I am one of those whom God chose to go to the mission field and then He chose to bring me back to the US. Like Moses, I tried out various excuses for not going to the field. Then, when He began making it clear that I was to be back in the US, I argued with God again. You know what, when I try to argue with God, one of us is wrong….and it isn’t the Lord! Sure there were a variety of responses from people. But once I was completely sure of what the Lord wanted me to do.
What was not immediately evident was that the Lord had another ministry for me here in the States. And, as one wise pastor said to me, “God can tell his waitress to stop waiting on this table and go wait on another table.”
Since then, through a study of His Word, I have learned that ‘When I don’t know what God is up to in my life, I know what He is up to; He wants me to know HIM better.” (my quote) (Phil 3:10, also read through Ezekiel and note the “know’)
Deeply touched by this article as well with the many responses to it.
We went out in 1996 to work with a UPG in Northern Thailand. After two years of very difficult language study we were ready to finally get to work. Almost immediately problems emerged within our team. The home office decided the best thing to do was to remix the team which brought us back to the US.
Hurt and confused, it was hard to explain our situation to the churches and individuals who had sent us. We came very close to quitting altogether and going back to what we did before we went out. But we didn’t quit. Instead we turned to the Lord and submitted ourselves to our mission’s authority.
Soon thereafter our Mission sent us to Canada to serve with an new refugee upstart ministry in Toronto. While there we had what we consider a missional conversion. We felt God was leading us to welcome newcomers who were coming as refugees, immigrants and internationals in academic settings. It was as if all the discomfort, lack of balance, vulnerability and inability to work in Thailand because of our lack of language and later team conflict was being redeemed into a new heart, one that could empathize with what newcomers to North America often experience when they arrive here. This was transformative to us. It redefined our call. Before we thought of the nations as only those who were far away from us. Now we see people from every nation that we believe God has brought by his very hand here to North America, to within reach of his church.
A New Model for Missions
Some churches do it right: They continually raise up missions-minded disciples of Jesus Christ and send them on long-term commitments to remote parts of the world where the Good News of Jesus Christ has yet to be heard. Then those churches fully support the ones they”™ve sent – by praying with them, communicating regularly with them, and paying all of their expenses. And the ones they”™ve sent, free from the burden of having to work a daily job to earn a living, fully engage 40-plus hours a week with their new neighbors, demonstrating the love that Christ taught.
There”™s a second common model. Some individual Christians obey Christ”™s command to GO! without the support, and sometimes in spite of the objections, of their home church. These faith-full disciples respond with hearts full of gratitude for what Jesus has done for them, understand what Jesus meant when He said, “those who love me obey me”, and feel compassion for the beautiful people in foreign lands who have not yet learned of God”™s great love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and power to heal and restore. These obedient missionaries find their own funds, often taking employment opportunities in the new country, in order to pay for their own living and travel expenses. These people may not have much prayer and communication support from the church people back home, but they find fellowship wherever they go. These mature, meat-eating disciples are tent-makers, modeled after the Apostle Paul.
Then there is the seemingly default model of Christian missions: People who feel called to go and live overseas must first learn how to go from church to church, pleading for financial support. Rather than spend their efforts learning the new local language and cultural nuances, they write newsletters asking for money, and prepare for their next time home, when they”™ll have to organize a tour from one supporting church to the next. In their new country, they”™re comfortable with the fact that they never have to go to work – never have to participate in the marketplace.
Many established churches support the default missions model. They are proud to claim support of several, or maybe hundreds, of missionaries. But just how much support is actually given? Maybe when the missionary returns to visit the church, a part of the service is given to them to share some testimonies. Maybe an offering is collected and given to the missionary. But is it enough? Is it the second offering, with the first offering collecting the tithes so that the second offering is little more than spare change?
Often, Church accountants, boards and pastors want money. They have plans and ambitions for their church, to make it the biggest and best church in the community. They want prime land, and new buildings, and advanced technology, and comfortable furniture, and high salaries for “excellent” pastors and associate pastors. They need their tithes and offerings. If showing that they support missionaries helps them to collect more tithes and offerings, then that”™s what they”™re going to do. But there”™s no sincerity in the support.
Jesus Christ never said to build big, beautiful churches. He never taught that. Paul, too. He did go from country to country establishing churches, but those churches were communities, groups of reborn people, coming together in fellowship. They were nothing like the building-focused denominations that we have today.
The church is supposed to go out. Jesus wandered from town to town, sharing the love of God. Paul wandered from country to country, sharing the love of God. Jesus said, “Follow me.” And when He left, He said, “Go into all the world.” Paul obeyed, and said, “Be like me.” Abraham is the father of our faith because Abraham left his home to seek God”™s kingdom.
Most Christians I discuss these concepts with are not “called to be missionaries”, as if it wasn”™t a command to all followers of Christ. They always argue, “This country needs missionaries, too! Everybody can”™t go.” In spite of the facts that America has a church every quarter mile, overlapping Christian radio stations, Christian bookstores in nearly every town, and hundreds of Christian colleges, while the Gospel has reached merely 1% of the people of many other nations and ethnic groups, it is true that the majority of Americans still reject true Christianity. Yes, it is true that even America still needs missionaries.
But Jesus told us and taught us to live lives of faith. We can”™t experience God”™s power by staying in the boat when Jesus calls us out onto the stormy sea. God can often use foreign missionaries much more than He can use locals to spread His love.
So, I propose a new model for church-supported missions. Instead of American churches sending out and supporting American missionaries to foreign countries, how about churches everywhere seeking to support foreign missionaries to come to them and to work in areas where they are aware of the greatest needs. For example, an American congregation will offer to pay for housing and expenses for a missionary from Pakistan. And then a church in Pakistan will offer to pay for a missionary from South Korea. And South Korea will support a missionary from Austria. And so on. The local churches will make it possible for a foreign missionary to influence the unreached part of the local community. Maybe the foreign missionary can become a part of the local church staff, or maybe they will be needed at more remote locations, but they would still be considered an important part of the local church family.
Maybe some churches are already doing something like this. But is it an important aspect of those church”™s identities? It could be. It could be a priority. Imagine a congregation where many of the world”™s nations are represented by supported missionaries among them! And if it”™s all done right, shouldn”™t there be plenty of fruit from it? I believe so.
This was a very good article. My family and I have been a missionaries living overseas for 24 years. I don’t foresee returning to the States (but then again – God is my boss). Everything mentioned in this article is right so I hope my comments are not taken in a way that detracts from the good points made. That’s not what I want. – What I have seen over and over, is that many people who think they are called to missions, simply aren’t. They do not have God’s grace on their lives that is required for missionary service and as a result, it is a horrible experience for them. They have passion for people, love for God and often many gifts, but not for missions work. My desire would be that those who think they are called to missions service be better prepared by spending extended time (at least several months) in the field before they make a long-term commitment. It’s much easier to return home after some months having discovered that God’s grace was not there for that work than to return home feeling like a failure.
Thank you for writing this article. Our family was ready to come home to the U. S. with our adopted children. After two years, I still just feel guilt. I feel guilt for leaving the mission field after seven years even though it was definitely time. I feel guilt over driving a decent car and buying a home. Does anyone else have these feelings? My husband and I are also having a difficult time finding a church. We are struggling with the American church and the superficial nature of it. We are trying to just go, overlook things what we don’t feel comfortable with and build relationships.
On the positive side, our children are blooming! They both have special needs and the services they are receiving as well as schools are wonderful! We are making friends outside of the church just not with people in the church.
We love being home and seeing our older children and families more often, but we so miss our “family” that we left behind. Our relationships were so much closer. Life was more difficult but the pace of life is what we miss. I just didn’t think it would be this hard!
I have been on the mission field for 35 years and just as JJ above I have seen missionaries come and go. I thoroughly agree. All too often Christians mistake the burden for missions with the call to missions. I believe no missionary organization should allow a recruit to commit to more than one year the first time. This allows a person to get beyond the romance of the short-term mission experience and gives an out with no shame. This means belongings should not be sold and doors should not be closed. If the recruit survives this period then perhaps a three-year commitment should be allowed.
However when missionaries do go home, especially when they have confronted stressful, traumatic circumstances, the sending churches need to provide counseling or at least debriefing to help them process all they have been through. This includes when a missionary goes home on furlough or faces a period of testing on the field. Missionaries are human beings; we do not possess super faith or have super powers, but all too often we are required to walk through fires of testing alone.
Thank you for the post. I am a former missionary and tent maker in Asia. During my years of overseas service, I saw fellow laborers struggling with a variety of issues – culture shock, loneliness and isolation, compassion fatigue, and conflicts with colleagues. I also know of brothers and sisters serving abroad who have experienced more substantial mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. In addition, I have found that globally mobile families experience a disproportionate amount of marital stress and parenting difficulties. Many times, in many contexts, these individuals and families do not have access to help.
Having witnessed such needs first hand, upon my return to the U.S., I set out to obtain a Masters in Social Work with a focus on evidence based trauma counseling that complements my Biblical worldview
I am currently a Mental Health Therapist in Seattle, WA. However, my concern for those laboring around the world continues to burden me. My vision is to see globally mobile people thrive no matter where they are. My mission is to provide mental health services for this unique population, who might otherwise lack access.
I would be honored to provide my services to individuals in your community. My website is provided below. Please feel free to contact me regarding any questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you.
Anita Colombara, LSWAIC, MHP
Founder of Remote Access Mental Health
I was told by my mission board, church, and spouse that the challenge of returning was in my head and my failing. I knew it was not just a me thing. Amazing and freeing to find my thoughts and feelings expressed here, over and over.
Is there a ministry for us, I mean TO and FOR US anywhere? My church expected me to be some sort of special person and to minister and pray for them. No one would pray over me anymore.
My wife and I were “casualties” 25 years ago. We are currently raising support to go to Western Asia to minister to others who are struggling with some of the issues we did. Our hope is to encourage and help those valuable workers to stay the course.
May we quote from your article? You touch on some fantastic points!
I am not a missionary or an MK, but I grew up in another country surrounded by missionaries and their families. They were our best friends and even yesterday after all these years my mother’s friend who was a missionary in that country and still returns there called to see how I was. We called them “Auntie” and “Uncle” and it was like a family. We spent holidays and Sunday dinners together when they weren’t out in the tribe. When they came into town, they rested with us in our home. So I know what it is like to be a “third culture kid.” When I am craving comfort food, it is empanadas and arroz con pollo, not steak and potatoes.
Then I grew up, went to Bible college for a short time and joined the Army “to get money to pay for college.” My first duty station was South Korea and I fell in love with that life and tried to learn the language and culture. We lived off base and experienced how to function in that community. I married my husband during that time and even though he was thoroughly from Wisconsin, he enjoyed Korean life and the life of my adopted homeland where we lived for a few years near my parents. Returning stateside was very different for me, but buffered by military life. Later when the drawdown happened he got out and we settled in Pennsylvania. What a culture shock for me! It was complicated by the fact that I looked and sounded like I should know how to fit in, but in nearly every situation it was and still is clear that I am “not from around here.” When I spoke of my home, people assumed I was an MK and I had a hard time explaining that I was not. Our closest friends became those who had also lived in other countries. They were the only ones who could really understand where we were coming from.
My husband got to take a business trip back to Korea. I was so excited, sending a list of all the things I wished that I had brought with me. Instead, he had an affair with a sexually trafficked woman. He came home, confessed, and I tried to take him back. Then months later, he went back. I didn’t know at the time that he had fathered a child and has stayed in touch with them all these years.
We separated and he moved a girlfriend into our family home. After years of this, I went on a mission trip to South Africa. It was like coming home. What I found were women who had endured hardship and were living and leading in their villages with strength and dignity. The dream was born to go back to school to a Christian college to become a special education/ESL teacher. So I did that, thinking it was the Lord’s leading. It has been one of most alienating experiences of my life. The world is much more welcoming to a divorced woman with four kids trying to go back to school for an education and really struggling in the process than the church is. Within moments of starting a conversation with someone, they are bombarding me with unasked-for advice and comments. Yes, they might be well-meaning, but they are totally unaware that their advice and suggestions coming from someone who has a home, husband, and knows where their income is coming from, are sometimes entirely impractical for someone who is living in a dangerous part of town, has no practical support and doesn’t know how the finances are going to play out from month to month. It was devastating to my children to finish their growing-up years and launch into adulthood under these circumstances. My Christian college didn’t know what to do with me, and my church doesn’t know what to do with me.
Even though I am not a missionary right now, this article struck a chord with me. The church is not very good at relating to people who are different from them, and I am not talking about reaching out to those who are living an overtly sinful life. I am doing my best to live this life in obedience to God with integrity, but I cannot find any church in this area where I fit in. You can be wholeheartedly trying to serve God and be totally misunderstood and rebuked. It is very painful and frustrating. Sometimes I leave church weeping not just for myself but for all of us who don’t fit the expected mold. Some day I would like to go back and serve in South Africa or another country. Part of me worries that it is my own thought . . . that I would feel more comfortable there than in this country.