Missionary care: How churches can help returning workers settle and process
May 2019

This article is adapted from a Global Missions Podcast interview with Melissa Chaplin, author of “Returning Well.” Melissa helps churches lovingly care for cross-cultural workers who are re-integrating into life in their passport country. You can listen to the full interview here. (The conversation with Melissa starts at 9:38.)

When cross-cultural workers return from the mission field, they often go through two stages — the Settling Stage and the Processing Stage — before they fully re-engage in their passport culture. There are different ways for churches to interact and help in each of these phases.

The Settling Stage 

The Settling Stage is when returnees have just re-entered their passport culture. This includes a lot of travel to connect with churches, friends, family and supporters. It also includes tackling many logistics: setting up housing, procuring a car, changing insurance, getting a new phone. This stage can take up to four months, depending on how much clarity the returnee has about his or her next steps.

This is a season of mixed emotions. There’s relief and grief, joy and sadness. All of this varied emotion, plus other aspects of transition, can result in some challenges, like atypical indecisiveness, forgetfulness, insomnia, fatigue, even mental health issues for a time. It’s important to give returning workers an extra measure of grace during this season. They’re real people under real stress. 

With that heart behind it, here are some practical things that churches can do: 

  • Ask how you can help: Have an open conversation with the returnee, asking, “What would be helpful for you? What kind of housing are you going to need? What kind of vehicle are you going to need? Can we help you find those things?”
  • Remove a common stressor: Often cross-cultural workers are overwhelmed by the number of choices in their passport country’s stores. Try asking them for a pantry wishlist, and stock their house with food items to get them through that first month. Or, ask if they would like someone to accompany them as they go about their errands, to help them work through anything that might be new (like self checkout at the grocery store, or electronic prescriptions at the doctor’s office, for instance). 
  • Be basic: Most cross-cultural workers will have sold most of their earthly possessions before they left for the field. When they come back, ask them what basics they need — dishes, bedding, pots and pans, towels, and so on. Rally the church to provide those items. 
  • Give them time: Allow returnees to choose when they’re ready to share about their ministry with the church. Sometimes churches ask returnees to share before they’ve debriefed and processed themselves. If churches wait until returnees are ready, the sharing can be so much richer. 
  • Don’t forget the kids: Keep in mind the needs of returning missionary children, too! Consider whether there are relationships with other children in the church that can be, not forced, but seededthrough intentional playdate invitations. 
The Processing Stage 

In this stage, returnees are feeling settled in their living situation, and the emotional transition begins to weigh heavy on them. They’re ready to begin processing internally. Here’s how churches can help during this stage: 

  • Build relationship through listening: Ask open-ended questions that keep the focus of the conversation on the returnee’s experience. Some sample questions could include: “Who do you miss the most? What do you miss the most? What’s been most difficult for you during re-entry? What aspects of your culture were most life-giving?” 
  • Offer patience: Realize that it might take returnees more time than expected to work through their processing. When you think they should have an answer of what’s next, they still might be mid-process with the Lord on what he wants to do with who they are now, after this season of living cross culturally. 
  • Encourage returnees to obtain an effective debriefing: Debriefing programs usually last about a week, and include group debriefing with other returning workers plus some individual sessions. These programs are not free, however, so a church could help a returnee by making it financially viable to attend. Another option would be to use the book “Returning Well,” in which someone from the church would act as a Returning Well companion to help guide the returnee through the debriefing process. 

Thank you, Melissa, for your wise insights and your care for returning workers! Click below to listen to the full interview with Melissa. The interview starts at 9:38.

Global Missions Podcast episode 100
Returning Well: A Guide to Thriving After Serving Cross-Culturally
Melissa Chaplin

This article is reposted with permission from the Global Missions Toolbox, an online resource designed for “SENDers” – faithful Christ-followers who will not necessarily live on a mission field themselves yet are earnest about advancing the Great Commission. Find out more about the Global Missions Toolbox here.

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