Returning from overseas mission

Jamie Read

The Phaeacian sailors deposited the sleeping Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca, his homeland, to reach which he had struggled for twenty years of unspeakable suffering. He stirred and woke from his sleep in the land of his fathers, but he knew not his whereabouts. Ithaca showed to him an unaccustomed face; he did not recognise the pathways stretching into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices. He rose to his feet and stood staring at what was his own land, crying mournfully: “Alas! and now where on earth am I? What do I here myself?”    - Homer, The Odyssey

‘Re-entry’ has become a buzzword for the process of transition for overseas workers and missionaries returning ‘home’ after a period of service overseas.

A vessel re-entering the earth’s atmosphere undergoes forces that could completely destroy it. Unsurprisingly these moments require controlled technology to navigate the vessel to earth safely.

The missionary experience of re-entry is a bumpy and hazardous process but, to outsiders, it won’t always appear this way. It is easy to miss the subtle stress-indicators beneath the surface. The closest most of us come to anything like re-entry is moving house. Moving countries, after years of involved Christian service, is different altogether.

Think of a trapeze artist flying through the air at great height. For a split second they let go of one trapeze as they reach out for the next. In real time it’s over in a flash. But watch in slow motion and you appreciate the performer’s vulnerability. Again, to the ordinary eye, the risks and dangers are hard to spot.

Many things conspire to bring missionaries home from ministry abroad and the momentum can be unrelenting. With endless decisions to be made for a family or individual, the process of letting go begins well before you board the plane. There are push-factors: health, relational breakdown, succession and handover. And there are pull factors: children’s education, aging parents, new job opportunities.

The task here is not to describe the experience of re-entry. There are many helpful books which offer practical insights to both mission partner and mission organisation(1). The task here is to help churches and individual supporters understand how to support their mission partners, however bumpy or graceful things appear. To press the trapeze analogy, churches, alongside mission organisations, are the safety net.

In 1967 Holmes and Rahe developed a psychological assessment called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS)(2). It has been used to identify the links between stress and illness in various life events. Michael Griffiths also uses this to understand the stress related to missionaries and culture shock(3). 

There is no formal category for ‘re-entry’ or ‘moving country’, but some clearly apply. For example,

-    #10 – retirement (score = 45)
-    #16 – change in financial state (score = 38)
-    #22 – change in responsibilities at work (score = 29)
-    #26 – spouse begins or stops work (score = 26)
-    #27 – change in school/college (score = 26)

The above represent only 5 out of 40 categories and don’t account for areas such as cultural adjustment or loss of close friends. Whilst somewhat arbitrary, a score of 164 flags up a moderate to high chance of stress-related illness in the near future.

Marjory Foyle has written about the process of re-entry in her book Honourably Wounded. Having looked at the process of re-entry for short-termers, she turns to the question of permanent re-entry, both for children and adults.

It is the sense of permanence that is noteworthy. Very often, relationships and routines left behind, whether healthy or otherwise, are severed at the point of return, especially where geographical distance is vast. Foyles compares re-entry experience to bereavement, due to the immense sense of loss(4). 

First, there is every chance your mission partner will feel numbness on their return. It is as if grief is placed on hold, in an attempt to merely take in what is going on. This leads to a stage of review where events are recounted from all angles in an effort to understand the finality of the departure. 

Thirdly, there may be anger at why things worked out this way. Criticism and blame may be expressed in an attempt to find resolution of this new situation. It may take many months, but finally there will be resolution. The memory of loss never goes, but the stark pain is resolved as a new life is finally established.

There is a danger of oversimplifying what a mission partner might experience on re-entry, but these four stages are worth bearing in mind. Partners and support groups need to look beyond the logistical pressures and understand the underlying factors.

I recall one missionary couple who were unable to have proper closure and farewells. It is possible this will compound their sense of loss, or even failure. Another missionary couple, raised in central Europe, served in southern Africa for many years and are now seeking to settle in Scotland. In addition to loss, they grapple with questions of identity. Are they Swiss, Zambian or Scottish? 

When the shipment arrives, worldly possessions unpacked and a new job begins, many will assume the transition is over. But it isn’t. This is where partners and friends can rally, both with practical wisdom but also prayerful insight. 

Here are three brief suggestions for partner churches to engage in the transition process:

1.    The universal need for a cup of tea

That might sound simplistic. Wouldn’t a welcome home gathering be more affirming, or even an interview at the front of church? Perhaps, but both are very public and probably suited for a later date. One couple returning from Thailand gave feedback at a church mentioning that whilst they had been warmly welcomed into the church, nobody had initiated a conversation over a cup of tea. The point in the cup of tea is the opportunity to offer to do something mutually enriching. Welcoming a missionary family or individual back home doesn’t need to be extravagant or costly, it can be enjoyable!

I remember being invited for a run with the curate of our main partner church shortly after we arrived back to the UK. It was physically exhausting (he was much fitter), but spiritually refreshing! It gave him the chance to ask questions about cross cultural ministry (he is now in Italy) and me the chance to download some of the challenges we were facing. 

Ok, so we prayed and drank cold water rather than tea, but you get the point.

2.    The universal need for accommodation

Unlike offering a cup of tea and your time, offering accommodation is not in everyone’s gifting. If not the immediate days after landing, accompanied only by suitcases, it will be the weeks following that are most important for accommodation. Communication is essential, so try and plan ahead and make your church family aware of dates of your returning mission partners.

Some churches might be far away from the UK home of mission partners. Think creatively about how to accommodate your mission partners when they visit. On the one hand they’ll want to spend time with partner churches. On the other hand they’ll be looking for space to process and reflect. 

We were invited on a church weekend away which worked particularly well. Equally it could mean a generous offer of a rented cottage for a long weekend, taking the pressure off living at close quarters during a proper partner church visit. Both church family and mission partner family will benefit

3.     The universal need for communication

This relates to both points above, so long as church and mission partners create opportunities to communicate. It will also include correspondence with the relevant mission organisation. 

Very often, wounds carried from the mission placement can be exacerbated on return when there is a break down between church, mission partner and mission organisation. It will be necessary to discuss matters such as accommodation, children’s well-being, general health (both physical and mental). There will also be potentially awkward things to discuss such as money and the possible need for counselling. Bearing in mind all of the above, a combined effort to have a common meeting of minds between these three is essential. 

It will involve a degree of vulnerability and willingness for a UK church family to think cross-culturally. Returning mission partners will think (and sometimes act!) in non-British ways. We just need to embrace it. 

It will require patience as decisions are made thoughtfully, especially where they involve planning for future employment and other logistical decisions. A family arriving home might take a year to get settled, especially in terms of new job, schooling and housing. Be prepared to take the long view.

But above all, handling re-entry will require the grace of the gospel. There will be time to do what we know the early church did and share stories of the open door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27). But people are people and, especially early on, will need to be given space to cry out: Alas! and now where on earth am I? What do I here myself? 

We give thanks for returning mission partners, whatever hue that experience takes. Above all, what an opportunity these times present for you and your church to express tangible partnership in the gospel.


(1) One good example that includes the missionary experience, but applies more widely to ex-pat workers, is Craig Storti, The Art of Coming Home (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2003).
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holmes_and_Rahe_stress_scale.
(3) Michael Griffiths, Lambs Dancing with Wolves (London: Monarch, 2001), 98-99.
(4) Marjory Foyle, Honourably Wounded (Oxford: Monarch, 2009), 223-243, cf. 53-55.