Coming ‘Home’: When Missionaries Come Off the Field

11_Williams1_JNBy Carla Williams

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.”

11_williams2_JNWithhold 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. 

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98 Comments

  1. Gabriel
    November 28, 2013 at 1:19 am

    As one serving on the field and that day will come, when we do return “home”, this article is a standout for all folks involved in missions. … Thanks Carla

  2. Al
    January 4, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Good article … but not all English speaking missionaries return to “the States”. Some return to Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand. We can all identify with much of what you have written. But it would be nice to remember that while missions is international, missionaries are international also.

  3. January 4, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    We had to return to the states after 16 years in Taiwan. The reason was to provide care for my mother-in-law who has Alzheimer Disease. We weren’t expecting the transition, and we felt out of place in the US for several years (we’ve been back in the US for 7.5 years), In fact, it is only in the last year or so that we felt “normal” – what ever that is.

    You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. It was far harder returning from the field than going to it. The entire mission enterprise, from local churches to Bible colleges/seminaries to global mission agencies, is structured to help people get to the field, not to return from it (for whatever reason). I don’t say that to be condemning. It was just my experience of the process.

    What we have learned without doubt is that God is just as capable of meeting our needs and sustaining us here as He is there.

  4. January 5, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Found this via twitter. What an extremely insightful article. We have extended family who had to re-group from an unreached people group in Africa now in Europe due to family health issues with children. Thanks so much for posting, I will reference this again as I interact with returning missionaries

  5. January 5, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    This article should be shared far and wide, plus become mandatory reading for churches that sponsor missionaries who may return home.

    I wish people would realize that returning “home” is not home. It hurts to hear “I bet you are glad you are home.”

    There is wise advice here for churches to support the missionary family for a season of readjustment and perhaps provide for debriefing services.

    One of my friends went through a debriefing service and it was the most helpful thing for his family to walk through.

  6. lorena
    January 5, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    This is an excellent article. As a missionary family finding ourselves temporarily stranded back in the states in between terms due to visa issues, and realizing we would not be returning to our home overseas, but would be finding somewhere else to work, I would add “anger” and “sense of futility” to some of the emotions that are being felt. And how can the church family in the states help–reach out to the missionary family with offers of friendship, opening your home, giving some of your time. We were hosted by a church that gave us wonderful housing but nobody in the church knew who we were. During our 9 months there, only one family reached out to us by inviting us to eat out at a restaurant one Sunday. Nobody else took the time to say more than hi, much less reach out to us. I don’t think anyone from the church noticed when we arrived or when we left the country.

  7. January 5, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    I respect the missionaries that are able to see that God didn’t want them to ignore their families. My sister and her husband are missionaries and they have ignored their families. Both only have Mothers living now and they both are elderly one in hers 80’s the other getting ready to turn 78. Right now, they are in good health but are becoming forgetful among other subtle changes that are noticeable unless you spend time with them. Plus, they themselves have two kids here and grandchildren. As the sister of the missionary and only other child of our Mother, I do everything for my Mom and I live 200 miles away.

    As far the transition process, I feel if it is that big of an issue then it’s the IBM’s fault. They could bring missionaries back to the States on assignment a year before and give them time to transition.

    These of course are just my thoughts!

  8. Char
    January 5, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for a well written and truth-filled article! This was my husband and I when we returned from the mission field 2 1/2 years ago with dashed dreams of being full-term missionaries after serving for 2 very difficult years.
    We were not received back very well by our church family, basically out of ignorance of what returning missionaries really need. Someone even asked us if we thought we might have “heard God wrong”. Ouch!
    Sadly, more missionaries will be the ones reading such articles as this rather than churches, families and friends receiving the returning missionaries. It is still a goal of mine to be a part of bringing greater awareness to churches of the needs of their returning missionaries.
    Thank you again for your care and concern!
    Blessings,
    Char

  9. January 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    As missionaries who came back after serving almost 30 years on the field, I can identify with a lot of what was brought out in this article. But helping adult children with that transition is even more of a challenge than our own. They have left their “home” country probably never to return and their grief is even greater than ours. But I still think this is a “must read” for all missionaries and for all who are part of their support network.

  10. tom Richards
    January 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Good article. We just returned to the US from serving among refugees for 18 years to care for aging parents.
    So much to adapt to. Feel ever more strongly like a sojourner…and thats not a bad thing.

  11. Dana
    January 5, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    It is good to know that we have people who can listen, understand and communicate the deep feelings of missionaries. Thank you Carla

  12. Angie Pagel
    January 5, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    Great article, Carla! From the many stories I know, you’ve covered this topic well. I hope that someday if/when Scott and I return to the States more of our friends, families, supporters will understand some of what we’re going through because of this article.

  13. January 5, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Very good.

    Churches and people should read Neal Pirolo’s books before thinking of sending or going on the field so they can be prepared to go and come home

  14. January 5, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    It was true for us almost 16 years ago that our return to the States, after less than a year on the field, was a defeat that seemed like a death. However, it was really just the beginning of a new ministry for us.

    “Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” John 12:24

    Thank you for the article!

  15. Lindee
    January 6, 2014 at 7:44 am

    As we are currently on the field and feeling very much lost and alone this was a real help for us.

    We have not been invited home in 5 years and feel very much as if we are on our own. At the moment we are not even sure where “home” would be.

  16. Rick Hedger
    January 6, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Excellent and well thought through article. So thankful God gave you clarity and simplicity in acknowledging the complexities of our brothers and sisters in Christ coming off the field for whatever reason. Well done!

  17. Kerry Thelen
    January 6, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Thank you so much for this well written article. It put into words exactly what our family is going through in adjusting to coming back to the US after 14 years overseas. It was exactly what we needed.

  18. Sonya Wright
    January 6, 2014 at 9:23 am

    We have been home in the USA for almost 5 1/2 years and many times I still do not feel like It is home at all and I feel like I do not fit the “norm.” I am so blessed to have missions as a part of my heritage by being a MK (missionary kid) and also having served for almost 10 years with my husband as missionaries n South America. I Was so encouraged last year to finally be part of a missions team that served in Nicaragua and was able to use the skills God has equipped me with and also in a language that I love. Thank you for your article. It is so true!

  19. January 6, 2014 at 11:03 am

    We’ve been on (and off!) the field, and I’ve dealt with debriefing a lot of returning missionaries. Having ‘been there,’ both personally and through the experiences of others, some of the best things a home church can do are to provide people that will listen to more than the “five minute” version, and provide consistent practical support (meals, a loaner car and babysitting to start!). Debriefing and reacclimating to the home culture happens over a longer period of time than many westerners (esp. Americans) are generally comfortable with – patience please! Glad to see this article.

    On a personal note, those returning from high security risk areas have an additional layer of adjustment. It’s jarring to walk carefully for several years, then return to completely open, free-to-be-a-Jesus-person culture. Americans in the Bible belt, in particular, don’t get this. The good news is that there are churches growing in their understanding and willingness to learn in these areas, though!

  20. January 6, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Such a great article. We left the field unexpectedly less than two years after we arrived, largely due to team issues. Going back to the US under those circumstances was so hard – and it continued for 4 and a half years before we were able to return to the field. How I wish people around us could have had this article as a resource back then. We are now involved in member care, trying to help those going through difficulties, before they return to their “home” countries.

  21. Sharon Pratt
    January 6, 2014 at 11:22 am

    I am pushing 60, have been serving in Thailand going on 4 years now….and anticipate maybe another few years…but as I anticipate going “home”, there are times the thoughts of it simply overwhelm me. I, as many of you I am sure did, sold everything I owned, with the exception of my home (which I have rented, but am considering putting on the market). I have missed grandchildren’s high school graduations, and will soon miss one’s college graduation. I often wonder, will they resent the time I have been gone? I worry, at my age, how will I begin again from scratch…rebuilding my life? I continue to do, as I have done from the start…telling our precious Lord “I will trust You!”. He has never failed me yet! This article was very eye-opening, though…made me realize some of my concerns are certainly well founded. Age and health, will more than likely be my “call” back “home”…but there are days, here, that it just grieves my heart to think of doing anything other than what I do every day here…shedding His Love abroad. I just can’t imagine. Surely, He will prepare our hearts to leave? As He did when we were first leaving our homeland, family, friends and church homes. Surely, He will strengthen us…and make a way where there seems to be none. Surely, He will comfort and calm us, as He did when we first arrived in our “strange and distant lands”. We may find ourselves “foreigners” in our homeland, one day…and will have to trust that He will guide us as He did when we first touched down on foreign soil, and will surround us with loving, caring, helpful, supportive people that will help us navigate our way back into our homeland. This is my heart’s prayer. Blessings and love to each of you serving in the field…and may God always be our bright Light in our paths…making the way smooth and straight before us, wherever we go. <3

  22. Erin Mc D
    January 6, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Thank you for this! I and my family are missionaries and we have been on the field for almost six years and although things have been great we are starting to look at going back home and knowing what we may face is nice to just see from a far.

  23. Lenny Kroneman
    January 6, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Great article. Very insightful and very real.

  24. January 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I wish I’d read (and passed on) this when we returned to the States for an extended amount of time after a first, short, difficult term. We’re now back on the field, but will be keeping and referring to this for the future. Thanks.

  25. Debra
    January 6, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    I was glad to read so many key and important points to keep in mind about missionaries in general. However, not surprisingly there are also many unsupported Holy Spirit sent missionaries such as myself that serve in various capacities in the United States. I am one of them!

    I wish there were a way to know other called missionaries who serve others in countless ways without any recognition of a group or church or organization and I am sure there are many. At this moment I am 45 years ‘on the field’ entirely dependent on the CEO of the universe and oh the volumes of books that could be written on the experiences!

    Back to this article, there should be more organization to help missionaries of all kinds and levels and one way I see is to provide a way for them to receive time away at mountian retreats/spas for a week at a time to renew and refresh. I’ve often asked the Lord for this kind of a miracle for myself and would love to be able to offer other missionaries a break should my situation change to be able to do that.

  26. Michelle
    January 6, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    This is also true for in States missionaries who serve in places like Native reservations or inter-cities, which can be like stepping into a third world nations. At least that has been my personal experience.

  27. James
    January 6, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    This is a good article. Another point to include would be financial. There is such a separation between living expenses in third world countries and back in home countries. Often, especially for missionaries of a decade or more as was the case for my family – you are coming back into a completely different economic environment. Missionaries are compensated, or raise support to survive in the environment they live in. They are many times not acquiring skills that are needed to operate back in the home country. It can very much be a ‘starting over’ for so many families. Adults in their 40’s or 50’s with virtually no retirement savings, no investment in housing, little opportunity to gain employment they were likely originally trained for, etc.. It took our family a long time to get back on track. Missionary organizations and churches should be much more open and available to help during the transition in this way.

  28. Thirza
    January 6, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you for this article. I identified with it in many ways. We, too, returned “home” two years ago (but it feels like yesterday). I had been on the field since right after University and Bible School, i.e. for 13 years, married my husband 8 years ago and we returned after four years on the field together as a family because of him. He had a hard time on the field and really didn’t want to stay any longer. I had always felt called to be a long-term missionary and could not even imagine living in our home country again. It’s been an incredibly difficult two years and I’m still grieving. As you say in the article, I’ve not only lost dear co-workers and friends, a completely different lifestyle and the ministry I felt so deeply called to and fulfilled in, but also my sense of purpose and all the hopes and dreams I had for my life. I’m functioning at “home” but am still struggling to hear the Lord on what He wants me to do here. As somebody commented, the problem is that most people reading this article will be the missionaries themselves, not the churches and friends/relatives of missionaries who should read it. I am thankful that we went to a debriefing week shortly after we returned, without it I would have been even more completely lost. Very few and rare are the people who understand what we are going through, our church simply doesn’t understand, especially now after two years (we should have “arrived and settled” by now!!). My husband is struggling with a sense of failure and also a loss of purpose in his life. After a year in one job, he burned out and is now unemployed. It’s definitely been MUCH harder returning “home” than going to the field in the first place. I also wish churches would be more aware of this so they can support returning missionaries with counseling and practical help during the tough and sometimes long transition phase.

  29. January 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Good article. The only thing i would add is the need to consider redirection either back to the field or to another field. We shouldn’t think a failed (or should i say seemingly failed) first go means one is disqualified or not cut out for X-cultural service. Lets face it, we (mission agency and church) can send people out with unrealistic expectations. A young (or not so young) missionary or couple who hits the wall, even shortly after passing through baggage claim, will learn valuable lessons that can shape and serve them for future service. Lets not throw away those valuable lessons.

  30. January 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I am Canadian by birth, but most of my life was spent in Norway, where my parents still serve as missionaries. I recently moved “back home” to Canada, but even coming from one first-world country to another was still MAJOR culture-shock! It’s not easy “coming back” when you are leaving your entire existence (except what you managed to stuff into 2 suitcases) including your way of life, friends, language, culture, traditions, etc. behind! My parents are still in Norway, and most of my siblings are scattered around North America. I can’t even imagine what it will be like for my parents to move back, if they ever do.

    For the dear lady who is angry with her sister and husband for “ignoring their families,” I’d just like to say that it probably hurts them just as much as it does you – trying to do what they believe is right while at the same time knowing that they can’t “be there” for their extended families like they wish they could! I know my parents experienced those feelings when they couldn’t spend the time with their ailing parents or when they had to miss their kids’ graduations. Mom & Dad got comments like “while you’re off vacationing in Norway, we have to take care of things here” when they couldn’t come back to Canada, and then “Since you seem to have the money to go galavanting back and forth across the ocean, you should be paying US!” when they did come back to North America. Please don’t condemn them – they are doing the best they can!

    There are times I look back at my high school and college years here in North America and WISH that I had spoken with an accent JUST so that people would accept that I was different. But, since I looked and sounded like everyone else, then I was expected to BE like everyone else! I was deemed WEIRD rather than different. I didn’t know the socially accepted traditions and habits of Canadians, so yes… I was a bit awkward! But being told in front of the entire class by a college professor that I was immature and needed to grow up – well, that didn’t really help my awkwardness.

    So much could still be said, but I’m so glad this article was written! Thank you so much, Carla!

    Another great resource for those who would like to understand MK’s (or expat kids and a lot of military kids) is a book called Third Culture Kids. I highly recommend it!

  31. Mark
    January 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I would echo the importance of debriefing–both from your sending mission (if they offer it) and an independent organization, with extra importance on the independent debriefing. So many issues involve teammates/fellow missionaries and leadership, and it’s sometimes difficult to be open and honest about them with your own organization. Plus going through a debrief with missionaries from other missions helps broaden your perspective.

  32. January 6, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    There is always that, hardships, in all forms. Rest awhile, the work is still there in every place, with all the remaining challenges. The old battle hardend sarge said to his men, “Get some rest, but we can not stay here long. We will be moving out soon!” In one sence the war is not over yet! The fields are still white and still ready for harvest. Fight the good fight…..

  33. Brian Braddock
    January 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Great article. It reminded me of all the good friends who comforted us when we came back. Twelve years later and it still hurts to think about what might have been if we had stayed. Yet, God truly loves us and His comfort and grace is more than sufficient. Thanks!

  34. David López
    January 6, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    As someone who served my denomination (SBC) for many years both as national and international missionary and church planter, I felt completely abandoned and rejected by my former employer when we were “forced” to resign because of medical issues. By “forced” I mean that our salary and benefits just stopped coming when we were not medically ready to go back to the field by the end of our furlough. It was completely unethical to be discarded in the middle of a terrible illness and PTSD that was a direct consequence of our service overseas. We were completely broke emotionally, spiritually and financially and we were abandoned. We are still recovering in many aspects, but we are back in the field without the support of a mission’s organization or having to raise our own support. It is possible to do missions the way missions was intended, the way He intended, because God is good.

  35. Roger
    January 6, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Good article, and my wife and I identify with a lot of what is said. We would like to ditto what Al said back on Jan 4th. You would expand the relevance of your article by not assuming that only Americans will read it.

  36. Wilma F
    January 6, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Carla, thanks for writing this. It is so true that sending churches need to be aware that the missionaries they send out and have to return, for more than a home assignment, need assistance with the transitions. Debriefing is very important, and having it done with an “outside or third party” organization can be very helpful in processing all the losses, grief, and countless uncertainties about the future. There is great freedom when you can talk about your experiences and not worry about what you say getting back to your mission leadership. Organizational debriefings also have their place. I would encourage any returnees to avail themselves of both if possible.

    Another aspect of returning to your passport country is giving yourself permission to grieve. My family returned 17 yrs ago, and it wasn’t until 2 yrs ago when we had opportunity to return to our foreign field of service that we actually experienced closure — something that neither my husband nor I realized we had missed.

    The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti is now 20 yrs old, but is a very helpful book for those returning to their passport country. Ideally it should be read a few months ahead of the return date as he offers some very concrete and practical tips about how to exit your country of service. Granted, for those who have been deported, or had to leave abruptly this isn’t possible. However, I would encourage you to find a copy at a local library and read it anyway. I only discovered this book after I had been back in Canada several years, but it was helpful to me, with many “aha” moments.

    I’ve worked in member care for years, and currently with Canadian youth returning to their passport country to start post-secondary education or work. Re-entry retreats are beneficial, and can make the first year(s) less painful. Sonya van Stee, thank you for recommending Third Culture Kids. Another one is the Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition. And those of you who are parents I would encourage you to read these books as well, it will assist you in knowing more about the children you have raised and the adjustments they face while trying to fit in with their passport culture.

    One last comment: someone mentioned that it will most likely be missionaries who read this article. That may be true, but you can also take it to your church leadership and suggest they read it. You can allow Carla to be the voice that you may not have at present, and allow her message to still be communicated on your behalf.

  37. Andrew
    January 7, 2014 at 6:33 am

    I was overseas for nearly 10 years having been a pastor in the UK for the preceding 11. As soon as I was on the “field” I realised just how clueless about missionaries (and hence uncaring towards them) I had been in my previous role.

    Although I believe that God used us in South America (a theological teaching/training role, principally) I feel deep sadness and shame at the fact that my own spiritual life actually disintegrated on the field, leading to backsliding, withdrawal from the ministry, cataclysmic moral failure and ultimately the destruction of my marriage. I was away from the church for quite a period, although in the last two years have returned and I have in fact remarried, a Christian woman who understands language and cultural issues, albeit in a very different (European) context. I now feel part of a Christian community again, although it is striking that it is in a denominational setting quite distinct from the circle in which I worked before and where I was well-known.

    I write all of this only to say that the article resonates very strongly. Huge issues of identity and faith are raised when we go cross-cultural. It seems that the more I plunged deeply into language and culture, the more distanced I got from the man I had been in the UK. Few people “got” that — and I resented that failing very bitterly. I think that the sin of such bitterness was the biggest factor in my overthrow and plunge into serious sin.

    Thank you for writing as you have.

  38. ken
    January 7, 2014 at 8:46 am

    I had to leave missions 13 years ago for family reasons and have struggled greatly over the decision. Returning to a non-missions lifestyle was a crushing reality for me. My family is more healthy and I have grieved the loss. God is faithful and loving. I am thankful for His acceptance!

  39. Edgar Fishbine
    January 7, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Hi,

    We are from the USA and have been on the field since 1989. We may be transitioning back to the States because of the political fallout of a new international leader for our org. We don’t believe their is anything malicious going on in this situation, just real bad communication and the normal cross -cultural baggage that we all carry. If we return we believe that our family will really need a debrief with a great org in Colorado that our friends went to. I think this article is really insightful and helpful in framing these times of transition for missionaries.

    Edgar Fishbine

  40. January 7, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Loved the article, such a lot in there! One thing I would like to comment on – what’s it like for those missionaries who return with a broadened, widened, deepened faith (that’s not meant to sound superior, I’m struggling to find the right words…) that doesn’t look the same as it did when they left – how can the churches help them? We struggled for 3 years after coming back trying to fit into our former spiritual family until we conceded that, actually, we couldn’t meet God there anymore and weren’t able to give in that forum, so have left. We now go to a very small house church. Many others in the UK that we have spoken to seem to struggle with spiritual belonging when they return to their home culture too. Any experiences of good or not so good handling or spiritual change on returning “home”?
    Thanks, Carla.

  41. Administrator Author
    January 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

    The writer of this comment wishes to remain anonymous
    ____________

    My wife and I came back to the States in 2007 and we are still in mourning. We told everyone that we came back because the situation with both our moms was different than when we left. They needed us here, which was, and still is, true. However, there was the other side of this coin.

    Our sending church pastor told us to work with a national pastor who had teens who were girls of the street. How do you witness and invite people to church when they know these girls and won’t come because of them! We were also to work, along with the national pastor, with another missionary family who also had problems with finances, which our pastor later admitted they had! The national pastor and the other missionary decided to go with something unbiblical and we kept sending their written material (written proof) to our pastor for over a year. He comes to see us only after another pastor said he had some issues with this other missionary. Then, and only then, did our pastor admit that he hadn’t read what I had sent him!

    One of the main issues the other U.S. pastor had was the issue we had with this other missionary and the national pastor. Our pastor listened to him because his church supported our pastor (who is a home missionary pastor) but didn’t listen to me! We were told to move to another area and work with a different national pastor. This pastor had some moral issues which we could not prove but we believed the woman rather than believing him. Our pastor had known us for 15 years and hardly knew this national pastor yet he believed this pastor rather than us!

    My wife and I both got along fantastic with the nationals and are still in communication with some of them even today. We were so connected with the people. They responded to the gospel message, they loved us, and we were getting along so well with the language. I got so I could preach without reading my notes. My wife was able to speak at several women’s conferences there and a ladies retreat in a neighboring country. One couple said that we were so different than the other missionaries in that country because we were so genuine. It was just not a workable situation that we were faced with.

    Could we have said more when we came back? Supporting church pastors do not want to hear negativity. Only one supporting pastor said that he felt there was more to it than what we reported and so he asked. Could we have said something to our mission board? Our pastor and our sending church was the mission board!

    Appreciated your article. Thanks.

  42. January 7, 2014 at 11:36 am

    A wonderful article … thanks for publishing it! Families of those returning may also find insight and help in the book Parents of Missionaries (IVP) that I co-wrote with licensed clinical counselor Cheryl Savageau.

  43. Lisa
    January 7, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Thank you! You basically just wrote our family’s story. We have been “home” since Feb. 2013. It has been difficult to talk about and difficult to adjust. With God’s help, each day gets better and a little easier.

  44. Natalie
    January 7, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    A good article, but really, why the constant inference that the only missionaries are American? It’s something the rest of us deal with constantly…and it’s really annoying. You aren’t the only people serving, and you shouldn’t talk/write as though you are.

  45. Dorothy Pearce
    January 7, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you for this article! I haven’t known how to find counseling or even others as a support group to talk to about these issues. My family is not interested — they’re just glad I’ve come to my senses. Many friends don’t have a clue and can’t take the time to try to understand. Some think they can counsel me out of my feelings. People just can’t seem to realize that I completely trust God and love him with all my heart. I would do anything for Him. He knows my heart. Many people think they know better than God does.

    The kicker here — I’m only on furlough. The first real furlough in almost 10 years. Although I am slowing down and will eventually back out completely due to age, my passion is still there with my children and my people.

    Your understanding and compassion is remarkable. Thank you and God bless you!

  46. Carla
    January 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you all for your comments and stories. It’s amazing to me that so many people are reading and relating to this article. I’m learning so much from you all. I pray that God is bringing you great peace and joy as you continue to serve Him – in whatever capacity that requires. I’m challenged by your humility and faithfulness.

    Just a note: This article was originally published in my organization’s magazine, which is a U.S.-based sending agency. So the original audience was for U.S. missionaries/churches. I never intended to exclude any of the other sending countries – I value and appreciate those folks so much! We’re clearly all in this together. I was just writing to a U.S. audience, and thus the references to the States. In reflection, I realize I should have adjusted that wording when Christian Standard republished the article.

    Thank you for sharing your stories with me.
    Grace and peace,
    Carla Williams

  47. January 7, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Carla,

    Something well overdue. We served 23 years. We did make the transition twice, once for our children’s education and took a ministry for eight years. We then returned to the same field and continued to serve. We went through a civil war and moved to the neighboring country and served for 13 more years. So many transitions that others never could understand. Those times were not always easy and then folks did care to debrief missionaries. It is a must for everyone returning home no matter how long their services was on the field.

    Thank you listening and using you gift of writing to express the facts so truthfully.

  48. Matt
    January 7, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for this article…it was a reminder to me that our family is not alone in having to leave the field unexpectedly. We had intentions of staying in Peru for several years. In August 2012, we were in the U.S. for a 2 month furlough and our 2 year-old daughter was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. After it became apparent that chemo wasn’t going to work and that she was going to need a liver transplant, we had to make the decision that we couldn’t go back to Peru. We had lived there for 3 years and what made it even more difficult is that we had just purchased our apartment, and because this was an unexpected event during furlough, all of our stuff (and our dog) was still there. I had to return to handle all of the apartment business (it took almost a year and 3 trips), pack our stuff, and say goodbye to our mission team and new church family. I packed up our apartment and sold it without my wife ever having the opportunity to return to the home she created. It still pains me to write about it. The good news is that our daughter had a successful liver transplant and is cancer free! Even though we wondered what in the world he was doing, God has been incredibly faithful to us.

  49. January 8, 2014 at 12:08 am

    My local Parish just changed our commitment to our missionaries this past month. We’ve decided to support them FOR LIFE. We’ll continue to fund them, pray for them, and support them in any way we can until the Lord takes them home. AND … whereas we’re interested in what God is calling them to do, we’ve done away with mandatory trips home to report … if we’re supporting them the way we should we’ll know what they’re doing anyway! I think it’s time we look at them the way God does … full-time, faithful, committed … and treat them that way!

  50. January 8, 2014 at 4:23 am

    Thanks for the article. I am transitioning out of Korea at the end of this school year. I have been serving as a missionary teacher for 10 years. I’m thankful to find information available and to know others feel what I’m already struggling with and I haven’t left yet…

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