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Re-entry guide for MSTs

When the missionary returns

Missionaries returning to their home culture need the help of others to make a healthy adjustment. MSTs are well positioned to offer this vital ministry.

This guide can help those reaching out to returning missionaries; it provides education about transition and practical suggestions for care during transition. Returning missionaries need special assistance to find their way back into new and healthy lives at home. Learn how you can minister to them during this crucial adjustment period.

In the words of returning missionaries
  • “It was time to go home, but my problem was I didn’t know where home was anymore.”
  • “It was all so much – the people, the speed of everything! My family was at me and I felt so pressured to get a job, to get settled, to get out on my own and continue as if nothing had happened. I was so frustrated that I just wanted to shout TIME OUT!”
  • “It was impossible to just drop in for a visit. Everyone seems to be ruled by an appointment book!”
  • “Essential to all of our stories is the telling of them . . . and I find people fascinated with the fact that we have lived overseas, but only for about 30 seconds.”

Re-entry ministry

A healthy re-entry starts with building strong relationships with MST members before the missionary departs for assignment. This creates a safe environment in which missionaries can share from their hearts throughout the assignment and especially during re-entry.

Re-entry stress will happen! The awesome privilege and responsibility of being part of a re-entry support team is yours. And that opportunity for you to minister continues until persons have been fully integrated and are ministering again, or until they return to another missionary assignment.

Biblical wisdom

In the book of Acts we see that the church used wisdom in sending their missionaries out and in bringing them home.

“From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there for a long time with the disciples….But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.” (Acts 14:26-28; 15:35)

In this scripture, we see the five components of successful re-entry modeled for us:
  • they finished their assignment
  • they returned to their sending church
  • they received the church’s hospitality
  • they testified ALL that God had done in and through them
  • they ministered again in their church

Transition stress in re-entry

Though “going home” sounds like a comforting thought, normally it feels more like a shock. Friends have moved on, the restaurant down the street is now a parking lot, and church is full of unfamiliar faces. Coming home after a term of missionary service is a major transition. Most persons find major transitions stressful, especially when the loss of a familiar role and identity is involved.

An illustration of major transition

The transition process involves moving from a familiar place to one of profound uncertainty. Only after much change and growth does the new place become home. Missionaries experience this transition twice, once in moving overseas and again in returning to their home culture. For most missionaries, the return to the home culture is the more difficult transition.

In the familiar place, people belong, are known, have a role, know what is expected, are members of a group, and are involved.

The place of profound uncertainty carries with it feelings of not belonging, not having a role, not knowing what is expected, not being a member of a group, and not being involved. This causes a crisis in personal significance and security. Persons focus their energy on survival. Grief over losses, fear of the unknowns ahead, and anxiety can threaten to send them into stress overload.

Most persons gradually “learn to swim” and move to a new place. But the pain of the loss has permanently changed them, and life will never be the same. Out of this painful experience, a new capacity for ministry emerges.

How long will re-entry stress last?

The stress and duration of transition varies and may be influenced by the:
  • preparation given to bringing good closure and to returning
  • unexpected nature of the transition which makes the change more difficult
  • degree of pain and loss, especially when experiences in the assignment hold wonderful memories
  • unhealed hurts and regrets about the past that can block healthy adjustment
  • length of time the person has been gone
  • degree of change in the home and church environment
  • degree of change in the person
  • attitude of church members toward the missionary – they may exalt person or allow him/her to be lost in the crowd
  • lack of understanding or recognizing re-entry stress by others or support team

What are the signs of re-entry stress?
  • Disorientation and loneliness – not fitting in, feeling like a guest, lost in a crowd
  • Uncertainty in interpersonal relationships – person has changed and can’t just “jump in where they left off”
  • Restlessness – desire to return to the host country
  • Misunderstood – not sure that anyone understands their experience in re-entry
  • Critical attitudes toward home country – contrasts in the material realm (waste/extravagance) and in church (worship styles)
  • Frustration in keeping up with the pace – busy lifestyles, pressure to produce
  • Loss of identity – now that ministry role is gone, where do I fit? Who am I?
  • Tired, immobile – may be burnt-out, need time to process
  • Grieving
    • loss of independence
    • loss of sense of calling
    • loss of friends left behind
    • loss of status and financial security
    • loss of sense of "knowing" America the way it was when you left
    • loss of being able to use the skills and experiences gained on the field

How do I help someone in transition?

1) Be there for the person – listen!
A returning missionary has been through both wonderful and difficult experiences. Taking time to listen is the most important thing you can do. Schedule a time to sit down and allow the person to process. Encourage the missionary to express feelings. By listening, help him or her to understand that the feelings are legitimate.

Some helpful questions you can ask:
  • What have you learned about God and yourself through this experience?
  • What were some of your most meaningful experiences?
  • What things were most difficult for you to face?
  • How did you experience God’s faithfulness?
  • What did you find helpful from the support we tried to give you as an MST?
  • What new questions do you come “home” with?
  • What are your most pressing anxieties as you come back to the U.S.?
  • How can we be supportive to you now in re-entry?
  • What changes in your life would you like to live out here?
2) Pray with them and for them.
Prayer is an essential component of ministry during transition.

3) Provide practical help.
Since grieving consumes a great deal of energy, it can immobilize persons. Thus practical help and support are vital. This may mean helping the missionary buy suitable clothes, learn to use an ATM machine, or make selections between many brands in a supermarket.

4) Provide professional help.
Professional help may be invaluable in helping persons to clarify their situations and to move on from the past and identify God’s new path for them. Recommend professional counseling when you see signs such as nightmares, chronic physical symptoms, or depression. When these things are present, working through past experiences requires help beyond what you can offer.

5) Be sensitive to individual needs.
Ensure that the support provided is appropriate to the individual. Grieving and working through transition varies from person to person.

6) Provide support over the long haul.
Missionaries may receive a lot of attention when they first return. After six to nine months, many people feel the missionaries are settled in again. However the process can often take longer, so please stay in touch with them.

Timely ministry

Before the missionary returns

A few months before the missionary is scheduled to return, contact him or her to find out what his/her needs will be upon returning. You can:
  • Offer to schedule doctor or dentist appointments
  • Find out about car and housing needs
  • Encourage writing a letter to God three months before leaving the field, telling God how it feels to be leaving. Have the missionary send it to you to keep, unopened, to give back to upon return.
In the first two weeks

Leaving the field takes a lot of energy. When combined with jet lag, missionaries will need to unwind and rest during the first week or so. You can:
  • Meet them at the airport with vehicles that can carry them and all their luggage.
  • Offer them cash and a vehicle to borrow.
  • Have the place where they will stay stocked with food, games/movies, flowers, and beds ready to sleep in.
  • Have a party to welcome them back to your church after they are rested.
  • Give them a copy of the church’s latest pictorial directory so they can remember who’s who.
  • Offer to care for missionary children while parents complete necessary errands.
  • Make persons aware of any local resources for missionaries, such as Christian Missionary Technical Services in Bernville, PA, which buys cars at auctions or loans cars to missionaries.
  • If the person feels spiritually burnt out, provide them with spiritual retreat options.
  • Suggest at least two weeks of rest. Offer help to make vacation arrangements. Lend use of a camper, cabin, or vacation home.
Cultural adjustment

For those who adjust best in new situations, it is often hard to come back home and deal with “what was.” You can:
  • Listen. Give them time and understanding throughout this process of readjusting and integrating their old way of life with their new experiences.
  • Acquaint persons with new forms of communication or styles of expression, e.g., computer lingo.
  • Explain changes in political priorities/views.
Connecting with the congregation

After an appropriate amount of rest, prepare to help them fit back into the sending spiritual community.
  • Make sure the pastor knows when the missionary is returning and help to schedule a meeting.
  • Invite the missionary to share about his/her mission experience with the congregation. Possible venues include 15 minutes during Sunday morning worship, a youth meeting, Sunday school classes, an evening program.
  • Help them find a prayer group, a Bible study group, or home cell group which provides support and accountability within the congregation.
  • Arrange a time for the returning missionary to meet with other returned missionaries in the area as they will most closely identify with the person’s experiences.
  • Ask the missionaries if they prefer involvement in any specific ministries in the church.
  • Show the missionary ways to become involved after s/he has had time to become reacquainted with what God is doing in the congregation.
  • Connect what the missionary has learned experientially with needs in the congregation (e.g., teaching a S.S. class on a topic relevant to that experience).
Securing jobs and education

Re-entering missionaries often struggle with aspects of the North American work ethic, such as production seeming more important than people and closer supervision of a “boss.” Their job skills may also have deteriorated while they were away on the field. You can:
  • Review the specific ramifications for them of “earning a living” in their present context.
  • Pray and listen; help persons discern what is next.
  • Encourage persons to take time to reflect, pray, and discern.
  • Help with financial support if the missionary feels great pressure to get a job immediately.
  • Provide information on continuing education or specialized training opportunities of interest.
  • Give advice and information on local education for children.
  • Lend or donate a musical instrument so a child can participate in band or orchestra.
Special needs of TCKs during re-entry

A TCK, or third culture kid, is one who has grown up outside the parent’s culture. The TCK relates to all of the cultures in which s/he has lived, yet does not have full ownership in any. While TCKs benefit in many ways from their experiences, they also experience challenges such as these during re-entry:
  • Confused loyalties – Where is home really?
  • Can’t always find ways to fit in – struggles with loneliness
  • Not totally at ease except on the plane
  • Saying goodbye has become a way of life
  • Frequent need to adapt
  • Ignorance of many things in U.S. culture
You can:
  • Help TCKs find a place to belong – with other TCKs, sports teams, Bible studies, church groups
  • Network the TCK with someone who would be willing to walk the re-entry journey with him/her as a friend -- someone who can answer questions about the culture without judging or making fun of what the TCK doesn’t know or understand and who can listen patiently to the person’s frustrations
  • Connect the TCK with a spiritual mentor in the congregation who understands some of what the TCK may go through (preferably an older TCK who has adjusted)
  • Look for ways that the TCK can use their intercultural skills
  • Take the TCK shopping for clothes with a friend who can help suggest appropriate items
  • Arrange invitations to athletic events, parties, etc.
Resources for further reading

Families on the Move, Marion Knell
Growing Through Stress, Kath Donovan
Letters Missionaries Never Write, Frederick L. Kosin and George Verwer
Moving Your Family Overseas, Rosalind Kalb
Reentry, Peter Jordan
The Reentry Team, Neal Pirolo
Serving as Senders, Neal Pirolo
Sojourners: The Family on the Move, Ruth Rowen and Samuel Rowen
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken
Receiving Them Well: A guide on how to support your loved one returning from humanitarian aid or missionary work, Lisa Ennis and Lori Bryan

Sources for this guide

Donovan, Kath. Growing Through Stress. Revised ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Institute of World Mission, Andrews University, 2002.
Pirolo, Neal. The Reentry Team. San Diego: Emmaus Road International, 2000.