Anyone who has returned from overseas mission work or is involved with returnees knows that the transition isn't always easy. What is it about this particular process that makes it somehow more complicated or less straightforward to express than other changes we go through in life? And what can we put in place to make the ride a bit smoother?
I carried out a survey of returning overseas workers in August 2013 to see what the challenges of re-entry were, and what would have been helpful (see full article). Whether you are a returning mission worker or a supporter, my hope is that you will find a few pointers in this article to make re-entry an easier experience.
Debriefs / retreats
No matter how long people have been away, and in what capacity, having a personal debrief (a few hours) or spending time on retreat (a couple of days or more) is a must. Those returnees who took advantage of one of these found their re-entry to be smoother and their transition easier to cope with. Of those who weren't offered or didn't take part in either, many thought it would have made their transition easier. Debriefs / retreats offer the chance to process the ups and downs of the time spent abroad with the result that any stress that lingers from those experiences is lessened, and the experiences of living abroad can be integrated into our ongoing story rather than compartmentalised or forgotten. One way that churches can support returnees is to pay for them to be debriefed and to take part in a retreat specifically for returned missionaries. See the OSCAR re-entry pages for suggestions.
Having people around us whom we trust is foundational to everyone's wellbeing
Interestingly in the survey results, "friends" came out as the greatest blessing (36%) but also the greatest challenge (46%). Having people around us whom we trust is foundational to everyone's wellbeing. No less so the missionary who comes and goes from their passport country. As the length of time they serve overseas becomes longer, they can gradually feel less connected with those they previously counted friends. Home assignment can help renew those friendships, and with some it is easy to pick up where you left off, whilst others move on without us, move away, or the friendship just peters out naturally. Often it's not possible to know in advance which of these scenarios you are returning to. In fact it's better sometimes to assume that all our contacts are acquaintances rather than friends and to watch with interest which contacts turn into more than that as we share snippets of our story and who we have become.
Space to share
One of the biggest things that helped returnees to adjust to being back was having the opportunity to share their story. 41% said they found it challenging. Whether in an informal friendship setting, a house group, or a large church gathering, sharing of the story is an important part of the processing of their lives, and one that must continue in order for them to move on. One of the most precious settings can be with other returnees. They are the people who most understand the dislocation and the turmoil that are part of the transition. This setting can be such a relief and really normalise what they are thinking / feeling. People who knew or were put in touch with other repatriates to talk with gained a huge amount, not just in terms of advice, but in really being heard and understood.
36% of respondents said that they struggled with spiritual belonging once they returned. There is a paradox here. The home church has been experienced as a place of belonging and support, and perhaps where the call for working overseas originated. However, when people are overseas, their faith and their expression of it can change. They may have asked bigger questions of faith and life; they may have had a broader church experience or none at all; these are not necessarily good or bad, but can cause a clash of cultures when returning to a more parochial church environment. And returning to such a setting, they may well see things through fresh eyes - yet their observations may not be comfortable for those who remain at home. Practical help is great during re-entry (and very much needed!), but perhaps ongoing spiritual direction / mentoring can play a part here in helping returnees go on grappling with the questions they have (without being fixed or made to feel it is wrong to ask). This requires open-handedness on the part of the church - to be willing to hear feedback from an outsider's view, and to be willing to provide space for the returnee to continue their own path of faith, including when that means they need to find a different spiritual home temporarily or permanently.
However many things we put in place to smooth the ride, transition back to the passport country is still transition! The old adages of giving yourself time and being gentle with yourself definitely apply. But it is well worth while putting some things in place to help and encourage you / your friends on the way.