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Field personnel return to the U.S. and re-establish roots for various reasons: needs of stateside family members, retirement, health issues, TCK needs, change of assignment. As field personnel from your church return stateside, keep in mind that things have changed both for you and them.
They have changed.
Before leaving for the field, they drove a car to the corner store, threw away food and discarded plastic bags without thinking. Now they may live hours or even days from the nearest grocery store and wouldn’t dream of throwing away food or valuable plastic bags. They have immersed themselves in a different culture that for many families has become “home.”
Friends and family have changed.
They used to know a lot of people in their churches and communities. They had friends and strong fellowship. But while they were gone, new people came into the church and their friends are now involved in different activities. They’ve missed family events and will confront new faces and changing relationships.
Your church might have changed.
Has your church continued its interest in them and their ministry? If not, personnel might become disillusioned. When they try to talk about their experiences, will people listen politely for a few minutes, then begin an excited conversation about how the local football team is doing? Has your staff changed? Has your church grown significantly? Consider what personnel will face when returning to your church.
The U.S. has changed.
Cultures now change so quickly that even those living in them can barely keep up. Those who have been gone return to a culture very different from the one they left. Something as simple as walking into a store to buy something can be very overwhelming.
So how can your church support field personnel who are returning to the U.S.?
Let them talk.
Those returning need to share their experiences. As a church, create venues – large or small – where they can tell their stories. Be proactive in helping them find ways to thank those who supported them on the field. Affirm them for their contribution to God’s Kingdom, past, present and future. Perhaps you could interview them during a worship service, invite them to lead a prayer time or share during Life Group or Sunday School times. You could include prayer requests from them about the work they left behind in church newsletters or websites. These are just a few examples to help them tell their experiences of what God has done.
Be sensitive to culture shock.
Many field personnel have difficulty re-entering the U.S. This is sometimes referred to as reverse culture shock. Reconciling differences in the cultures, such as the materialism of the West as opposed to the poverty and suffering of developing cultures, can create stress. For TCKs who have lived most of their lives overseas, their parents’ home culture is a new culture. They are not experiencing reverse culture shock, but primary culture shock. Sometimes, by not fully understanding how hard it is to return to the U.S., we could make returnees feel uncomfortable. Even if we don’t understand, asking questions or reaching out in gentle and sensitive ways will be greatly appreciated.
Give them some breathing room.
Ask them to help you know when they are ready to more fully engage in the life and ministry of your congregation, but stay in touch. Give them some time to settle back into life in the U.S. If they are ready to jump back in, then by all means assist them in finding places of ministry.
Guard against overwhelming them when they first arrive, then disappearing. Develop genuine relationships and friendships so they won’t feel they have been merely assigned to individuals or a group.
Help them network.
Introduce them to association and state mission leaders. Include them in events where they can meet members of local ethnic congregations. Encourage them to use their spiritual gifts through sharing their knowledge and expertise within the local church and at association and statewide events. Be alert to staff positions and ministry opportunities for which they may be perfectly suited and to which the church may be able to prepare the way through introductions and recommendations. Help them find a continuing place of ministry.
They are not going to be in transition forever. Anyone who has served cross-culturally needs time adjust. For some, providing an extended time of listening empathetically and asking good, clarifying questions as they re-enter the U.S. may be enough. Others may have lived through traumatic events such as war, detention, interrogation, injury, illness, disease or other kinds of distress. Everyone who has experienced any crisis needs the opportunity to debrief by sharing stories and emotions. Returning field personnel are sometimes reluctant to do this. Offer a safe place for them to open up and tell their stories. Be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19) and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). If there are on-going issues over a period of time, then professional assistance may be needed. A phone call to the IMB Member Care team at 804-620-3371 is the place to begin when seeking direction and counsel.
Developing a Re-Entry Team
As you can see, needs of former field personnel re-entering U.S. culture can take physical, emotional, financial and social tolls on loved ones. In order to help these brothers and sisters make a successful transition, welcoming churches can assist by developing a re-entry team.
This team should have six to eight volunteers so that several can share the task according to their gifts and abilities. Perhaps more than one church or an entire association of churches could come together to temporarily assist with needs related to transportation, housing, childcare, meals, spiritual encouragement and support. The list is endless. Be sure both males and females of all ages are on the team in order to have a balanced approach to support husbands and wives, as well as single men and women.
The first step is to remind the entire congregation of the desire and commitment your church has to support personnel returning to the U.S. Perhaps your church already has a relationship with field personnel planning to return stateside soon. If not, then parents or family members of field personnel you know or the IMB could assist. These servants need to know they are welcome to be a part of your church family and the church needs to be prepared to receive them in an appropriate way.
One of the first steps in assessing the needs of returning personnel is to ask them! Ask them how to supplement what they may already be receiving from other churches or the IMB. The following checklist might be helpful as you consider how to reach out:
- What will their immediate needs be as they return?
- What expectations do they have of your church?
- What are your expectations for them? Have you communicated those with them?
- Who will greet them at the airport? How will you welcome them as soon as they arrive?
- Can you provide ready-to-eat meals requiring little preparation for a few days upon arrival?
- How will you help find them a place to live if they need one?
- How will you provide opportunities for them to share with the church what God has done in and through them?
- How will you celebrate their return? A party or reception to welcome them? Let them be involved in any decision like this so they won’t be overwhelmed.
- How can you engage them in such a way that they encourage everyone in your church to be on mission rather than seeing only them as the ones fulfilling the church’s mission?
- Will you provide debriefing for them as they re-enter U.S. culture? Find out what other kinds of debriefing they will receive.
- What will you do if they need counseling?
- How can you help them recover from physical illness and fatigue?
- How can you love their children and help them transition from one culture to another?
- How can you be a strong source of support for returnees who are single adults? How can they be effectively incorporated into the church family?
- How can you involve the entire church to help?
- How can the church educate itself to prepare for their return? What are some resources?
- Who will take the lead in helping them through the sense of isolation common to re-entry culture shock?
- What resources/training do you need to debrief them effectively? (See the debriefing questions for pastors/churches and parents/families at the end of this document.)
- Can they be completely honest with you? How will you assure them?
- Are you familiar with reverse culture shock? How will you help ease primary culture shock for teens and children?
- Are you prepared to grieve with them over the loss of national friends and ministry?
- Can you assign a few small groups/Bible studies to each missionary family/single for extra love and care according to stages of their lives?
- How will you help them get involved in your church community?
- What are their transportation needs?
- What are their housing needs?
- What are their communications needs (phone, Internet, laptop, etc.)?
- What are their children’s educational needs?
- What is the IMB providing? What are they not providing? How can you fill in the gap?
- Will there be a gap in income? Do they need help finding another job?
- What would they like in their pantry upon arrival from hours of exhausting travel?
- How can you help them take a vacation for deep rest and recovery?
- Ask the Father to continue working in the place and among the people they served on the field.
- Pray about your church’s involvement among people groups in your area that would benefit from your returning personnel’s experience, language and/or cultural understanding.
- Pray that TCKs will make a smooth transition into school and church life. Pray they will make friends who will strengthen them in their walk with the Lord.
- Pray that married and single adults will make a smooth transition back to the U.S. and establish strong relationships among friends and family.
- Ask the Father to continue to faithfully provide for the needs of former field personnel: vehicles, housing, employment, finances, meaningful relationships, ministry.
Your gestures of kindness and prayerful support will be appreciated, but keep in mind that your team should not create needs or dependencies. Allow the single or married adults returning to the U.S. to do everything they can on their own with the understanding you are there to supplement their efforts if needed.
As they settle into a home, other ways to reach out might include a “pounding” to stock the pantry or provide necessary household items. But above all, don’t forget these friends after some time has passed. Check in with them at least monthly for the next few months to see how they are doing. If your team discerns they are not assimilating well, then seek assistance from someone sensitive to re-entry issues. Ask them to make an informal visit, but no attempt should be made to diagnose behaviors unless they have the proper credentials. Again, if the returnee(s) would like assistance in connecting with a professional, direction can be provided by the IMB Member Care team at 804-620-3371.
Debriefing Questions for Pastors/Churches:
- Below are some potential questions to help debrief with your returned field personnel. Simply having someone ask questions and listen is a helpful tool in reconnecting and transitioning.
- What was your assignment overseas? Tell me about your role.
- What was the highlight of your journey?
- What did you see God doing where you served or in the lives of those with whom you served?
- What are some things you learned through your sojourn? (spiritually, about self or otherwise)
- What was a low point in your ministry?
- How has your journey changed your walk with Christ? How are you different as a result of this experience?
- Are there any difficulties (physical, spiritual, emotional) that you are presently experiencing as a result of your journey?
- If so, how might we be of assistance? Or, how might you be able to work through this difficulty?
- What are you looking forward to back in the U.S.?
- What do you anticipate may be a challenge as you re-enter and settle into life in the U.S.?
Close in prayer and remember if you have any concerns about your returnee or need additional resources, please contact the IMB Member Care department at 804-620-3371.
Sources and Helpful Resources:
The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti
Drawing Near, Woman’s Missionary Union
Parents as Partners, IMB, 2011 version
What Cross-Cultural Workers Ought to Know, Ronald Koteskey, www.crossculturalworkers.com
IMB Member Care and Stateside Assignment Training team members and resources
Downloadable PDF: Re-entry resources from IMB Training
For more information related to ministry to former field personnel, contact Terri Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org