Coming back to the “home culture” is stressful for any missionary, and re-adaptation can take months – even years.
In her book Burn up of Splash Down, Marion Knell states that ‘more than sixty percent of former missionaries returning home find the experience negative – even devastating.’
So, to help put your missionaries into the other 40%, here are my top tips:
DO: Get up to date with their news first! If you have time, re-read their last couple of prayer letters so you know what to ask. There’s nothing worse than an opening conversation like this:
“So, how was Benin?”
“Fine, but I’ve been in Mali for the past three years.”
DON’T: Bombard them with dozens of questions too soon. Coping with readapting to the home culture is very disorientating for them, and having the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ every time they meet someone is exhausting. All they really need is a hug and the assurance that they are loved and welcomed, maybe followed by a couple of well-directed questions.
DO: Invite them into your homes, even if it’s just for a cup of tea. It’s common for folk back home to think: “They need time to settle in, so we’ll leave them be.” The first part of the statement is – of course – very true. However, what folk don’t realize is that being welcomed into other people’s homes is all part of that settling in process, as it allows the missionaries to reacquaint themselves with the home culture and to feel loved and wanted.
After eight weeks back home, one missionary was asked: “So, have you finished your epic tour of dinners with supporters yet?” Embarrassed, he replied that during this time he’d only been invited to two people’s houses!
DON’T: Expect them to do too much too soon. Besides perhaps a short introduction and welcome back at their first Sunday service home, it’s best not to even ask them to be directly involved in any church ‘work’ for their first two to three months home. If asked, they may feel obliged to participate, and may even like the idea of doing so. However, this is probably not the best thing for them during these initial weeks of intense transition and adaptation.
DO: Offer them a debriefing and/or counselling. If their mission organization is worth its salt, they’ll have already had this shortly after returning. But extra times with a caring local pastor or deacon could also be helpful. Even if they have left the field under ‘normal’ circumstances, it is still quite traumatic to return to what is now a foreign country to them.
DON’T: Focus on the future. They’re still dealing with the past, and coming to terms with all they’ve left behind overseas. This includes their home, their workplace, many wonderful friends/colleagues and – in many ways – their very identity. Until they have come to terms with grieving all of the above, they will not feel like talking about future plans in any detail. It’s a very Western trait to want to ask people this, but it is unlikely to be helpful for your missionaries. For more information on the transition process, follow this link.
DO: Ask one or two open questions which allow them to share some of what they’ve experienced with you. For example: “What is the hardest thing to get used to back here?” or “What do you miss most about Africa?”
DON’T: Use “You must be/it must be…” phrases. It’s a very British (Western?) trait, but they’re just not helpful to most people returning home. The likes of: “You must be glad to be back” (Actually, I’m not. Not yet, at least), or “You must be cold” (Correct! I just came from India. What do I say next?!) Then there’s: “It must be really strange for you, coming back after all this time.” (better, but still rather stating the obvious, and all I can do is nod mournfully in response).
DO: Show a genuine interest in what they’ve been doing oversees. Asking them to bring some photos along or to recount interesting anecdotes (they’re bound to have loads of these) will not only help them to reconcile their two worlds, but will also mean that you learn something new and understand missionary life more clearly. Saint Augustine said: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” So, think of them as a living encyclopaedia of anthropology!
DON’T: Say, “You haven’t changed a bit!” Again, terribly common, but to many of us, that’s like saying: “The past 10 years have had no effect on your character or spiritual depth”. Living overseas changes anyone, and usually for the better! In fact, this great website states that ‘When you’ve had a mission, you can never go back to a mere job’. I agree!
DO: Pray for them and with them. Missionaries like praying and tend to do a lot of it (as do many Christians, of course!)
DON’T: Make negative comments about their dress sense, however out of fashion or outlandish it may seem; they’ve just spend several years in a culture that not only dresses very differently, but which – in all probability – puts much less importance on fashion and outer appearance than most Westerners do. Sure, your missionaries may not ‘blend in’ like everyone else, but they are probably most comfortable dressed like this. With time, they will readapt (to some extent at least), but being singled out for “dressing weird” is unlikely to help them readapt!
DO: Keep on asking questions, even weeks after they’re back. Their overseas experiences are now part of who they are; they really don’t want to have to deny this and merely slot back into the home culture unchanged.
There you go!
For more great (and even better!) tips, please take time to read – and act upon, the sound and thorough advice in this article: Welcoming Returning Missionaries.
Also, have a look at this reading list with loads of great books on the subject.