Team leader debriefing guide: instructions

God has brought your team a long way from the first day you began preparing for this short-term mission experience, and God’s not done with you yet.

“Preparing to return home is as important as preparing to leave” (Dearborn, p. 67). The importance of preparing to return home cannot be overemphasized. Returning home is often harder than going to a new place. When we leave on a trip, it is with a great sense of adventure, community, and purpose. But when a team returns, the adventure is finished, the team community is disbanded, and our purpose at home does not seem as significant.

Definition of debriefing

Debriefing is simply a matter of helping people reflect on their experiences and helping them incorporate those experiences into their daily lives. It can be done in a group setting or solo, both during the trip and after it. In fact, there is no one right way to debrief. But debriefing has a goal: to help people process what they’ve learned so that they can grow in Christ and become of greater value to His work in the world.

A re-entry program should address the mixed feelings of elation, triumph, confusion, and frustration, as well as the issues of change, grief, closure, reverse culture shock, and expectations.

Debriefing is:
  • not only a place and a time, it is an atmosphere
  • emotional unpacking
  • sorting out
  • being heard
  • making sense of the experience
  • listening/identifying issues
  • being aware and in touch with one’s feelings
  • empathizing with others
  • reviewing and recalling God’s work
  • a time to look back and to look forward

Why do debriefing?

It’s biblical. Jesus thoroughly briefed and prepared the 72 short-term followers for what they would do, say, and expect. They were well-prepared in what to expect going out and properly instructed on their return (Luke 10:1-24). Debriefing is an opportunity for faith to grow, self-discovery, values clarification, and life-changing decisions. Re-entry and follow-up allow for evaluation and utilization of what has been learned in another culture. Crossing cultures for the kingdom requires that we pay definite emotional and spiritual tolls. We need to acknowledge and assess these to ensure a healthy transition. A re-entry plan helps bring healthy closure to the foreign experience. (Adapted from Lisa Chinn, Re-entry Guide for Short-term Mission Leaders)

The keys to a quality debriefing

(Adapted from
Experienced short-term mission leaders know that what God does in the hearts of team members is just as important as what He does through them. Every team leader wants the members of the team to come home changed, to have a vision for the world, and to act out the next steps God has shown them. A quality debriefing experience is the key to unlocking the potential of long-term life change for most team members. As a team leader, planning and executing the debriefing sessions is like putting the key in the lock. It is up to the team members to “turn the key” as they engage in the process with you and open their hearts to God’s next steps. Here are nine proven principles that will help you prepare for a quality debriefing experience.

1. Make it a priority from the start. You can’t wait until your ministry is over, bags are packed, and the team is standing in the airport to think about debriefing and expect it to be productive. Decide in advance that you are going to provide your team with a designated time to process the whirlwind of events and activities they have experienced together.

2. Plan to hold at least one of your debriefing sessions in your host country. Most short-term team members have an internal switch that goes off as soon as your plane touches the ground back home (for some it’s just being in our airspace that does it!). Team members tend to become preoccupied, focused on reconnecting with their friends, family members, and favorite fast food meal upon returning home. Your team has a measure of honesty, vulnerability, and team chemistry that is nearly impossible to recreate outside of your host country, so get started there!

3. Schedule your debriefing sessions with your in-country contact during your logistical planning stage. Your host contact will want to get every minute of ministry and service out of your team. And so will you. Make sure you tell your contact in your advance correspondence that you will need up to six hours of time for debriefing two days before you depart for home. It is always easier to carve out time for debriefing before you arrive in the host country than afterwards. If you wait until you arrive to bring it up, you may discover they have your team scheduled every minute until you depart. Don’t take a chance with what you have determined is a non-negotiable.

4. Emphasize the importance of debriefing throughout the trip. Team members will develop their perspectives on debriefing by observing the way you as team leader profile it. If it seems important to you, it will be important to them. Seize opportunities during the trip to highlight the fact you will be addressing important issues during this strategic time.

5. Select the location for your debriefing sessions carefully. Often in-country contacts suggest you combine a visit to a tourist area with the debriefing sessions. If this seems to be the best use of time, make sure you go to a secluded area away from potential distractions to hold your debriefing sessions. Be sure to instruct your team members in advance that priority one is debriefing and priority two is free time at the tourist site.

6. Be realistic with your time allotment. Quality debriefing sessions cannot be rushed. This material will digest better if prepared in a relational “crock pot” than in a "quick fryer." Every team member will add a unique flavoring of their own. Be inclusive. You may be surprised to discover some very sensitive issues surface as team members begin to process the experiences of the trip. Team members will be reluctant to open up and address more than superficial concerns if they know you have planned to do the entire debriefing in one hour. You should tell them to plan on four to six hours to be safe. Plan to make a day of it.

7. Use the debriefing guides and the transition resources for team members to reflect and think about next steps beyond the trip. Some team members simply will not verbalize issues they are facing.

8. Emphasize the priority issues. A good debriefing session goes beyond getting your team members to talk to you. You will need to direct their attention to priority subjects that go deeper than their felt needs. Most teams need to discuss issues such as misconceptions about missions, the danger of exaggerating team experiences, and disillusionment upon returning home. Team members should also be empowered to learn the priority lessons God has for them and how they can communicate these lessons with others.

9. Meet one-on-one with each team member. In addition to group debriefing sessions, you should plan to meet with every team member for a personal appointment before you return home. Review the evaluation form (Debriefing Guide Session 2; "Reflections on coming home") in preparation for your meeting and think through the ways the team member has contributed to the efforts of the group. Give them an opportunity to share issues they were uncomfortable sharing in front of the group. Speak words of affirmation, encouragement, and correction into each team member’s life.

Debriefing sessions

The debriefing sessions are designed to help your team walk through the normal phases of readjustment to life back home. It will also help them to reflect on their experience and apply what God has taught them during the trip. To some people, re-entry is just a “P.S.” at the end of a mission trip, but you may want to introduce the idea of re-entry early on in your team gatherings before your mission trip takes place. You can bring up the subject through questions like:
  • Which do you think is easiest, adjusting to a new culture or readjusting to your home culture? Why?
  • Most participants return home changed; in what areas are you expecting God to change you?
  • In what ways will being flexible help you in your entry to another culture and your re-entry back to the United States?
We strongly encourage you to do these three debriefing sessions:

On-site experience/debriefing – Session 1
We encourage you to do the first debriefing time with your team while you are still in the host country, just before returning home.
Post-field debriefing – Session 2 and Session 3
Once you have returned home, gather the team to meet at least two more times to do post-field debriefing.

The debriefing sessions cover two main topics:

Re-entry to home culture
  • Debriefing and “de-griefing” the trip
  • Re-entry skills and reverse culture shock
  • Sharing the story of your experience
Short-term mission to long-term commitment: reaching out with God’s love
  • Minister at home in the neighborhood, community
  • Address institutional racism, exploitation, violence
  • Maintain a relationship with host country sisters and brothers
  • Plan for the next cross-cultural mission experience
Schedule the dates of your debriefing sessions, and inform each team member.

Date/time/place             Team session
_________________________ 1: Debriefing and “de-griefing”
_________________________ 2: Sharing our story
_________________________ 3: Putting feet on our faith