pastoral

Many cross-cultural mission workers return from an assignment overseas, whether a two-week visit or 40 years abroad, with a multitude of conflicting emotions and impressions which, if unaddressed, can cause them ongoing problems.  Whether they are back in the UK for good or are on a short visit, they may well be struggling with reverse culture shock, and debriefing is part of helping them to come to terms with their experiences.

One returning cross-cultural worker commented:

Debriefing made me aware of possible reactions to expect and it was reassuring to know there was further help if needed.

Debriefing provides returning mission workers with:

  • a safe place to reflect on their experiences
  • an opportunity to help normalise their feelings
  • help to identify (and potentially refer) issues of concern

Debriefing is a structured, confidential way in which people can talk about their feelings & experiences so that their time on the field does not have a detrimental effect on their health, but on the contrary can enrich their life & future ministry. (OMF UK)

From this statement we can extract some key features which help to define debriefing:

  • Structured: Debriefing is not merely a random conversation; it is an intentional, planned time of reflection.  And it is more than just asking a person “What would you like to talk about?”; it is a conversation guided by thought-provoking questions in which the debriefer is looking out for specific unresolved issues.
  • Confidential: This is vital.  Without confidentiality the mission worker may not feel free to talk about some of their challenges and doubts for fear that it will get back to the wrong person.  There are limits to confidentiality: child protection issues, the risk that the mission worker will inflict serious injury to self or others, and the suspicion that they are planning an act of terrorism, but apart from these the mission worker must be able to trust that anything said in the session is not recorded or repeated.
  • Talk: This is about the mission worker and they should have the time and freedom for self-expression.  The debriefer’s role is to listen.
  • Feelings and experiences: This is not so much about the routine and practical issues of their mission experience but about their thoughts and feelings, which they may need help in working through.
  • Detriment/enrichment: Research suggests that many mission workers experience significant levels of stress and can go on to develop emotional or psychiatric problems after they return ‘home’. Debriefing is a significant factor in preventing this happening.

Another cross-cultural worker commented:

My organisation offered no help when I returned. I felt I really needed help from people who really understand the pressures of ‘re-entry’ and the symptoms of burn-out. How vital is support and debriefing in the period following return.

Debriefing differs from an operational review or appraisal which will ask for information about the work performed and what was achieved, with a view to learning what was done well, what could have been done better, and what changes should be made.  Debriefing asks how the experience was for the individual and aims to help them integrate their experience into their life as a whole, perceive the experience more meaning-fully, and bring a sense of closure.  A review or appraisal may be done with the benefit of the church or agency in mind so that procedures can be improved; debriefing is done solely for the benefit of the mission worker and must be treated as confidential.

What are the key skills needed in debriefing?

Routine debriefing does not need to be carried out be highly-trained professionals and can be done by volunteers in churches using some basic interpersonal skills.  These include:

  • Asking open-ended questions. Using questions which can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ does not keep a conversation flowing.  Questions like ‘How did you feel when….’ are more effective.
  • Active listening. People talk more freely when they are confident that the debriefer is paying attention.  Maintaining eye contact, nodding occasionally, showing emotion and encouraging from time to time with short comments like ‘uh huh’ demonstrate your interest.
  • Waiting for answers. When a mission worker is silent, it can be tempting to jump in and reword the question or even suggest an answer.  But the silence belongs to the mission worker and it shouldn’t be taken away.  The mission worker may be using the silence to thing about the answer, come to terms with their feelings and find the courage to say something.  A useful tip is to make sure you can see a clock with a second hand, and allow at least a minute’s silence.
  • Awareness of body language. Body language can be a key indicator of how a person is feeling.  An open, relaxed posture tells you the mission worker is feeling comfortable while arms folded across the chest may be a sign of defensiveness.  Staring at the ground mind indicate negative emotions and fidgeting, particularly with hands, may signify anxiety.

How do we structure a debrief?

It is important for the debriefer to have in their mind an idea of how the debrief is going to pan out.  It should ideally take 2 to 2½ hours – any less may not provide time to get to the bottom of issues and any longer may be emotionally exhausting for the mission worker.  One cross-cultural worker observed:

My organisation offered a 45-minute debriefing appointment.  I was conscious of the time limit right from the start.  It made me feel ‘unrelaxed’ and all I could think of was ‘how can I fit in all I’d like to tell someone?’

The following structure for a debrief may be helpful to keep in mind: 

  • Time to set ground rules, establish a rapport, and identify some positive features of their experience.
  • Identifying what was most troubling. Ask the mission worker to identify up to three issues which troubled them.
  • Facts, thoughts and feelings. Explore the issues one by one, working through facts, thoughts and feelings before starting on the next issue.
  • Any other aspects you want to discuss? Give the mission worker a chance to raise anything else.
  • Did you have any symptoms of stress? During this time the mission worker may have been irritable or depressed, sleeping badly or experiencing dietary problems, all of which may be indicators of stress.
  • Normalising and teaching. This is the time for the debriefer to talk, explaining where relevant that the mission worker’s feelings and reactions are normal, and providing help and guidance on a way forward.
  • Return ‘home’. Explore the mission worker’s feelings about being back in the UK.  Explain about reverse culture shock and help them understand that it is a normal experience.
  • Anything that was positive? It’s good to draw your time to a close with some positive reflections on their time abroad.
  • The future. Ask them what their future plans are, and what help they need.
  • Finish off with prayer, and check any arrangements for follow up or meeting again.

However, we must also be aware that structure must not dictate to the debrief, and it is entirely appropriate to depart from this outline if the conversation naturally flows in a different direction.

What are we looking out for?

While some mission workers may have had a wonderful time and are giving glory to God for what has happened, certain negative issues commonly crop up and it is worth keeping an eye open for signs of them.

  • Isolation: The mission worker may feel a lack of supportive relationships either in the field or at ‘home’, they may not understand or fit in well to local culture, or be unable to communicate effectively.
  • Guilt – for being so wealthy, for leaving work unfinished, for leaving people behind in the field or not being there for family members at ‘home’.
  • Conflict – with other team members, with leaders, with nationals, within their own family.
  • Spiritual issues – loss or damage to faith, the challenge of suffering, weariness and burnout.
  • Unfulfilled expectations – dissatisfaction in ministry, sense of failure, where is God in all this?
  • Reverse culture shock – not settling, angry with church/culture/family, disillusioned with worldliness and materialism.

We also need to watch out for symptoms of stress, burnout or even depression which may be present.  They can include:

  • Physical – tension in the shoulders, headaches, clenching teeth, tightness in the chest, digestive problems.
  • Emotional – irritability, tearfulness, outbursts of anger and uncontrolled mood swings.
  • Behavioural – sleeplessness, loss of appetite, irrational or unpredictable behaviour
  • Mental – inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, simple mistakes
  • Spiritual – lifeless relationship with God, loss of desire to pray, avoiding church.

But what about…?

Couples.  Couples can be debriefed separately or together.  There are arguments for both but ultimately the couple should be free to make their own decision.

Children.  Children need debriefing too.  This can be done in the context of a special conference where possible, but the children should not be overlooked.  Older ones can be done together with their parents, at least for part of debrief, or separately.  Even young children can be debriefed through games or drawing.

Teams.  Teams should be debriefed as a team – they went through the experience together so they should debrief together.  This will clearly take longer if everyone is to have their say, so it’s best to set aside a day for it.  Personal debriefs can be offered as a follow up if individuals feel the need.

Retirement or end of assignment.  People who are not going back to the field will have an additional aspect to their debrief – loss of a vocation and possible uncertainty about the future.  There may also be anger about the circumstances of finishing.  People who are retiring may face loss of identity issues going from a high-responsibility role, possibly in a culture which respects age, to being ‘just another pensioner’.

If people become emotional.  Don’t panic!  Crying, shouting, screaming are all valid ways of expressing emotion, which possibly has been suppressed or unrecognised for a long time.  Allow people to do what they want.  Don’t hand them tissues (as this implies telling them to stop) but make sure tissues are available on the table for them if they want them.

Critical Incident Debriefing.  Where a cross-cultural worker has been through a traumatic experience such as kidnapping, a major road accident or death of a close relative, CID will be appropriate.  Experienced debriefers such as Interhealth or Healthlink360 (see below for websites) should be brought in to do this, preferably within 72 hours of the incident.

Referring on.  Sometimes debriefers come up against an issue which they feel unable to assist with and need to get more help.  There is no shame in this and it is quite appropriate to refer people to a qualified counsellor or psychiatrist if they need professional help.  If there is a risk of suicide or serious injury to others it should be done urgently and will supersede the requirements of confidentiality.

And finally….

Remember that this is all about the person being debriefed.  It is a way of expressing our love and esteem for them, and this time is available for them to use as they wish.  Hopefully, the experience will leave them feeling hopeful and refreshed, understanding their feelings about what they’ve been through, and not feeling so isolated and misunderstood.

“I thought beforehand that it was going to be a waste of time, but I found that actually it was very helpful to be able to talk about everything, however small, that had happened.”

Further reading:

Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries by Dr Debbie Hawker (2012) is the best work on this subject and has been used extensively in preparing this presentation.  It is available online at www.peopleinaid.org/publications/debriefingaidworkersprinted.aspx either as a hard copy or a pdf.

Burn-Up or Splash Down by Marion Knell (2006) 978-1-932805-83-3 is a good book on re-entry in general and has a very accessible chapter on debriefing.  Available at www.globalconnections.org.uk/content/burn-up-or-splash-down

Ad-mission by Graham Fawcett (1999) 978-0953584505 is also a good work but is hard to get hold of.

Referring on:

ARREST are based in the East Midlands and provide excellent support including debriefing and therapy – www.resilientexpat.co.uk

Healthlink360 have centres in Scotland and Northern Ireland where they provide healthcare, debriefing and psychological support – www.healthlink360.org

Interhealth are based in central London and provide both medical and psychological support – www.interhealthworldwide.org 

Penhurst Retreat Centre is in rural Sussex and provides mission-focus led retreats and private space including opportunities for debriefing and spiritual direction – www.penhurst.org.uk

pastoralMany cross-cultural mission workers return from an assignment overseas, whether a two-week visit or 40 years abroad, with a multitude of conflicting emotions and impressions which, if unaddressed, can cause them ongoing problems.  Whether they are back in the UK for good or for a short visit, they may well be struggling to deal with the experiences they’ve had abroad while trying to cope with reverse culture shock, and debriefing is part of helping them to come to terms with their experiences.  In research conducted by Dr Debbie Hawker, one returning cross-cultural worker commented:

Debriefing made me aware of possible reactions to expect and it was reassuring to know there was further help if needed.

Debriefing provides returning mission workers with:

  • a safe place to reflect on their experiences
  • an opportunity to help normalise their feelings
  • help to identify issues of concern

Another cross-cultural worker commented:

“My organisation offered no help when I returned. I felt I really needed help from people who really understand the pressures of ‘re-entry’ and the symptoms of burn-out. How vital is support and debriefing in the period following return.”

 

How do we structure a debrief?

It is important for the debriefer to have in their mind an idea of how the debrief is going to pan out.  It should ideally take 2 to 2½ hours – any less may not provide time to get to the bottom of issues and any longer may be emotionally exhausting for the mission worker.  One mission worker observed:

“My organisation offered a 45-minute debriefing appointment.  I was conscious of the time limit right from the start.  It made me feel ‘unrelaxed’ and all I could think of was ‘how can I fit in all I’d like to tell someone?’”

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

Source: http://vineswingingartist.blogspot.co.uk

The following structure for a debrief may be helpful to keep in mind:

  • Introductions.  Time to set ground rules, establish a rapport, and identify some positive features of their experience.
  • Identifying what was most troubling.  Ask the mission worker to identify up to three issues which troubled them.
  • Facts, thoughts and feelings.  Explore the issues one by one, working through the facts of the issue, thoughts (e.g. “He was wrong”) and feelings (e.g. “I am so angry”) before starting on the next issue.
  • Any other aspects you want to discuss?  Give the mission worker a chance to raise anything else.
  • Did you have any symptoms of stress?  During this time the mission worker may have been irritable or depressed, sleeping badly or experiencing dietary problems, all of which may be indicators of stress.
  • Normalising and teaching.  This is the time for the debriefer to talk, explaining where relevant that the mission worker’s feelings and reactions are normal, and providing help and guidance on a way forward.
  • Return ‘home’.  Explore the mission worker’s feelings about being back in the UK.  Explain about reverse culture shock and help them understand that it is a normal experience.
  • Anything that was positive?  It’s good to draw your time to a close with some positive reflections on their time abroad.
  • The future.  Ask them what their future plans are, and what help they need.
  • Close.  Finish off with prayer, and check any arrangements for follow up or meeting again.

However, we must also be aware that structure must not dictate to the debrief, and it is entirely appropriate to depart from this outline if the conversation naturally flows in a different direction.

 

What are we looking out for?

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

While some mission workers may have had a wonderful time and are giving glory to God for what has happened, certain negative issues commonly crop up and it is worth keeping an eye open for signs of them.

  • Isolation: The mission worker may feel a lack of supportive relationships either in the field or at ‘home’, they may not understand or fit in well to local culture, or be unable to communicate effectively.
  • Guilt – for being so wealthy, for leaving work unfinished, for leaving people behind in the field or not being there for family members at ‘home’.
  • Conflict – with other team members, with leaders, with nationals, within their own family.
  • Spiritual issues – loss or damage to faith, the challenge of suffering, weariness and burnout.
  • Unfulfilled expectations – dissatisfaction in ministry, sense of failure, where is God in all this?
  • Reverse culture shock – not settling, angry with church/culture/family, disillusioned with worldliness and materialism.
  • Stress.  We also need to watch out for symptoms of stress, burnout or even depression which may be present.

 

And finally….

Remember that this is all about the person being debriefed.  It is a way of expressing our love and esteem for them, and this time is available for them to use as they wish.  Hopefully, the experience will leave them feeling hopeful and refreshed, understanding their feelings about what they’ve been through, and not feeling so isolated and misunderstood.

I thought beforehand that it was going to be a waste of time, but I found that actually it was very helpful to be able to talk about everything, however small, that had happened.

 

Further reading:

Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries by Dr Debbie Hawker (2012) is the best work on this subject and has been used extensively in preparing this blog.  It is available online at:

http://www.peopleinaid.org/publications/debriefingaidworkersprinted.aspx either as a hard copy or a pdf.

This is an abridged version of a more detailed article in one of our Guides to Doing Mission Well which can be viewed by clicking here.

pastoralAfter three years of doing regular blogs about missions, often with a particular emphasis on stress, I am amazed to realise that I have not yet specifically blogged about that most vital of tools – debriefing.  I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in passing but that is in no way sufficient considering the significance of this powerful resource to help combat stress and culture shock in the life of the overseas mission worker.

Debriefing is the act of sitting down with a facilitator to reflect on past experiences and how we feel about them.  During the course of a mission trip, whether short or long-term, each mission worker undergoes new experiences (many of which are challenging or even dangerous) and comes into contact with new sensations, many of which may not be at all pleasant.  These challenges may well be repeated differently at the various stages of our experience: leaving home, arriving in a foreign country, changing assignment, moving to another part of the country and returning ‘home’ all require repeated adjustments to change.  While we stoically cope with all these challenges, each one contributes to the general level of stress we feel, and can create an inability to cope with more change and deal with relationship challenges responsibly.

To have the opportunity to reflect on what we found different, how we felt about it, and how that continues to impact our ideas and feelings helps us process our thoughts and emotions so that we are more aware of what’s going on inside us.  It helps us to recognise that the occasional tearful or angry outburst, or an inner deadness can be perfectly normal in some circumstances.  In the process of doing a debrief, which can take a few hours or several days depending on the complexity of the issues involved, we have the opportunity to restore a sense of balance and inner peace.

sweater-splitDebriefing is rather like dealing with a drawer which is so full of stuffed-in jumpers that it won’t close neatly any more.  Often we just shove our emotional responses down inside us, but there comes a time when we can’t deal with any more, and that can lead to emotional breakdown.  To tidy out the drawer, we take out every jumper, decide whether we want to keep it or not, and if we do, we fold it up neatly and put it back.  Then the drawer will shut properly.  The debriefer asks questions of the mission worker, which helps him or her identify and evaluate their feelings and decide what to do with them.

Proper debriefing can be vital to the long-term inner health of the mission worker.  Debriefing has been linked to improved resilience and decreased mission attrition (Kelly O’Donnell, Global Member Care).  Regular and appropriate debriefing can keep mission workers in peak condition, but it is also possible that failure to provide proper debriefing, particularly after a traumatic incident like a serious car accident or a hostage situation, can lead to long-term emotional damage and even loss of faith.

Syzygy recommends that all overseas mission workers make sure they have debriefs on every home assignment.  Ideally, it should be about 6-8 weeks after getting back.  This is the time when the initial joy of being reunited with friends and family is beginning to wear off and the challenge of reverse culture shock is beginning to bite.  It should take place in familiar surroundings if possible, and involve everyone who has been part of the mission experience – including the children, who sadly often get overlooked.

If your sending agency or church does not provide this for you, we are very happy to provide you with a debrief, with their agreement.  We specialise in providing this service for independent mission workers who do not have an agency and perhaps have not yet realised how much they need debriefing.  We conduct our debriefings at a time and place that is convenient to you in order to minimise the impact or travel and strange surroundings on your experience.  Please contact info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberately abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012:

Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.

Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.

But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?

 

13494856_10153527469631604_2804772598341091290_nAfter growing up in Fleet, Hampshire, Hannah spent a year serving with BMS World Mission on a Thailand Action Team in 2010, then studied for a BA Theology at Exeter University.  She then served as a Church Ministry Intern at Pavilion Christian Community, and is now working as a Regional Mission Mobiliser for Serving In Mission, UK.  In this role she works with those exploring a call to mission, supporting them from enquiry through to debrief, and partnering with churches to send and receive equipped gospel workers to share the good news of Jesus.  She loves outdoor adventures, being creative, and all things elephant related.

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

As a follow up to last week’s discussion (Derailed) here is a further reflection on the challenge of feeling that somehow we are no longer on the mainline.  This is a challenge for most of us mission workers who are more like Martha than Mary, because we have an urgent desire to be getting somewhere in our ministry.  Such is the impact of the Protestant Work Ethic on our thinking.

Even though we may wish to be thundering at full speed down the mainline, pulling a prestigious express full of significant people, God may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to stop us for a bit.  We find the experience frustrating, but we need to remember that it’s not all about us, and there may be other parts of the rail network having an impact on our personal journey.  So here are some reasons why trains unaccountably stop from time to time (other than to let Edward Thomas write a poem about it).

  • Filling up. Trains need to refuel and while it’s normally done at specific times (such as home assignment) it occasionally needs to be done at other times too.  Take the opportunity to go on a longer retreat than you might normally have time for, or have an extra debrief to make sure you’re ready to go when the signal changes.
  • Collecting other carriages. Sometimes the train I’m on waits at a station for another train to come in behind it and be coupled up to make one longer train.  Is this an opportunity for you to take new supporters on your journey with you?  Spend more time investing in your sending church and building relationships.  Maybe you can recruit some new team members.
  • Waiting for the line to clear. Sometimes the signal is at red because there is a blockage down the road that needs to be cleared.  I have experienced times when other things have needed to fall in place before I can get on with what I feel God has given me to do.  Or perhaps another train is coming through and we need to get out of its way or it would damage us.
  • Taking an alternative route. How often does God take us down a branch line for no obvious reason?  Maybe it’s just to enjoy the scenery, and pootle along at a gentler pace.
  • Routine maintenance. Well, now you’ve got the time, go and see the doctor, dentist, optician, counsellor, life coach…  Make the most of your pause and check all the moving parts are properly greased!

Finally, if you feel you’re stuck in the station waiting for the light to turn green, why not take the time to look around and see who else is in the station?  Maybe it’s time to make some new friends.

We can’t always tell why God shunts us into a siding at times.  Why did Jesus have to wait until his 30s?  David sitting in the desert on the run from Saul must have thought his calling would never happen.  Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness thinking he’d missed his opportunity.  What was Paul doing with his life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch?  But if we can learn one thing from this experience is that it’s God who is in the signal box, not us, and we have to learn to trust him to pull the right levers at the right time.

RetirementFollowing on from our last two blogs focussing on transition, today’s blog focusses on retirement, which is also a transition.  We already have a blog for mission workers preparing to retire, and in fact we have an entire guide to retiring for them, so today we’re going to focus on how church can understand the nature of retirement for mission workers and effectively support them through this transition.

Every day people retire.  It’s such a common event that like many other transitions in life – birth, starting school, graduating, marriage, divorce and being widowed – it is an experience so common to humanity that we often overlook the potentially traumatic nature of this transition.  People often need support through the retirement process to help them come to terms with feelings like:

  • I’m no longer a productive member of society
  • I’ve lost my identity
  • Nobody values me
  • I’m just waiting for God
  • How do I fill the emptiness?

These may equally apply to mission workers, who also have to cope with the challenges of becoming part of a society they may not have lived in for decades, and which can feel very alien to them even though they feel they ought to belong.  They may have to cope with living without a sense of vocation, and need to integrate themselves into a church for which overseas mission is an optional extra in their range of ministries instead of the driving passion that the mission worker feels.  They may be struggling with guilt over leaving behind a struggling church or a needy people group.  All these factors can contribute to spiritual or emotional challenges which can make a retiring mission worker quite dysfunctional.

So what can their supporters do to help?

  • Understand that they are not naturally unhelpful; they’re just struggling with a major life transition
  • Introduce them to mission workers who have already successfully transitioned into retirement
  • Find a way for them to have a significant role in the church, without overburdening them with responsibility until they feel ready for it
  • Make sure they have a thorough debrief
  • Listen to their stories sympathetically even when you’ve heard them many times over
  • Recognise that they’re not really critical of the church; they’re just struggling to adapt to a different way of doing things
  • Help them navigate the challenges of benefit/tax/housing bureaucracy
  • Pay for them to go on a ‘Finishing Well’ retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre
  • Provide pastoral support/coaching/mentoring/counselling as appropriate
  • Encourage them to continue to support mission work through their sending agency
  • Be practical about providing assistance with daily living
  • Talk them through things that have changed in your country since they last visited

And above all, please try to remember that they are (probably!) not naturally difficult people.  They are grieving, hurting people who are struggling to find their feet in a culture they don’t feel at home in, who will need support for several years before they really settle in.  It’s rather like the reverse of the process they started when they first went abroad, and the patience and support we gave them when they first went to a foreign country is exactly what they need now.

You can find more recommendations on how churches can support their mission workers effectively in our Guide for Churches.

 

008In this series on resilience, we have made the point that resilience is essential for our survival as mission workers.  We need to develop it before we go, sustain it when the going gets tough, and restore it when things get easier.  Today we’re going to look at some resources to help with this, several of which we have already referred to in other blogs because they’re so good, but it does no harm to bring them together in one place.

Books

The best single resource we have come across on this subject is a small booklet called Spirituality for the long-haul, by Tony Horsfall.  It is a simple, practical and accessible way of making sure you have everything you need in place, and you can buy it online from Kitab for just £3.  Tony is also the author of Working from a Place of Rest, which helps us combat overwork.  Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings and Marjory Foyle’s Honourably Wounded are both classics in helping people wounded by their own leaders and colleagues. And Laura Mae Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient & Effective is a great handbook for leaders of agencies and churches in helping develop resilience in their mission partners.

Online resources

There is now a vast number of websites dedicated to supporting mission workers, and out of them all you might like to look first at Member Care Media with its vast array of podcasts on a variety of topics.    The Headington Institute has a variety of fascinating articles about self-awareness, stress and resilience.

Retreat

We frequently talk about the importance of retreat to restore our inner peace and create a space to reconnect with God.  While there are many places across the world providing retreat for mission workers (see our retreats page) we particularly recommend Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex for its cosy, informal atmosphere, effective debriefing and focus on mission workers.  Those of you in extreme stages of burnout or trauma may find a visit to Le Rucher helpful, and of course there are similar resources in other continents.

backpackerSyzygy has recently come across several cases of ‘orphaned’ mission workers, which reminds us how tough life in the mission field can get for some people.

These are mission workers who suddenly find themselves in the field without adequate support, and they are often desperate and tragic cases where people are unable to support themselves.  They frequently have a deep conviction that God has called them to serve in a certain place but are then unable to sustain themselves in ministry.  Such situations can come about for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • a supporting church closes, leaving mission workers with no funding
  • mission workers choose to go independently without proper support and cannot maintain themselves in the field
  • an agency withdraws from a particular region but the mission worker, feeling a strong sense of calling to the local people, declines to leave and stays on as an independent
  • mission workers fail to maintain good relationships with their supporters and over time gradually lose support, or are even dropped by their church because there is no communication

Such people sometimes come to Syzygy for help.  While we can debrief them and provide advice, we cannot do for them what they really should have done in the first place: build and maintain strong relationships which give them lasting support and accountability.  Sadly many mission workers go independently of churches, agencies and even their families because they are strong independent types, and in many ways they can be just what is needed for pioneering situations.  But it can make them reluctant to collaborate and listen to others.

Our advice to such mission workers is to return to your sending country (wherever possible) and spend time rebuilding the foundations that should already have been in place.  Advice for those thinking of going independently, and those who need to return and rebuild their support base, can be found in our Guide to Going It Alone.

Some of these ‘orphans’ are indeed so alone that they do not even have the funds to get themselves back to their sending country.  Sadly Syzygy does not have sufficient money to help them, though a visit to their national embassy may help them at least get a flight ‘home’.  Mission workers should always have an exit strategy before even going, and the question

What do we do if this all goes badly wrong?

should always be part of the pre-departure planning.  Sadly many people only start to plan for disaster once it’s already happened.

We recommend that a relative, church or agency always holds sufficient money in a designated account to pay for flights back for the whole family, and ideally enough to help with ongoing support costs through the transition too.  Setting aside such a large sum before going may seem impossible to mission workers on a tight budget, but it should be factored into the set-up costs.  Some may think that is not trusting God to provide, but we think it’s just trusting God to provide up front so that we have one less thing to trust God for when things all go belly-up in the field.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I recently stayed overnight in a typical British guesthouse where breakfast was an interesting experience.  Not because of the food, service or facilities, but due to the interesting social interaction – or lack thereof.

In a small dining room where guests sat at separate but adjacent tables, conversation was curiously stilted, as people were aware that their private discussions were being overheard.  A men’s football team tried to joke with each other about the previous night’s escapades without incurring the scorn of other guests.  A harassed father tried hard to keep his disobedient toddler under control without losing his temper.  A browbeaten woman took the opportunity to chide her husband at a time when he couldn’t answer her back.

It occurred to me that often conversations between mission partners can be similar.  We often refrain from saying the things that we’d really like to because we are aware that others are listening.  We don’t like to disagree in case we sow the seeds of dissent, or act as a bad witness in front of others.  So we bottle up the things we’d really like to say, and if we don’t blurt them out in a fit of self-indulgence they can build up inside us to such a point of frustration that they contribute significantly to our levels of stress.

Why do we do this?  Because we mistakenly believe that when Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers” he meant that we shouldn’t rock the boat.  But by failing to address relationship issues and by sweeping things under the carpet, we are not making peace, we are only keeping it.  Peacekeeping may prevent outbreaks of open hostility but it takes real peacemakers to bring reconciliation and harmony.

So how do we make peace?  First, we need to recognise that disagreement isn’t necessarily the same thing as disloyalty or rebellion.  There is such a thing as what the British parliament calls “loyal opposition”.  Somebody who has a theological, missiological or personal disagreement with you may actually love you, share your vision for ministry and be committed to your success.  Disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t on the same side as you.

Secondly, we should remember that leadership can be a lonely and vulnerable place.  Every objection can seem like a personal attack even if it’s intended to be a constructive suggestion.  To a leader, people who speak out can seem like critics, people who oppose can appear to be rebels.  If you’re going to disagree with somebody, ask yourself first how your comments will appear to them, and do your best to show them that you are not challenging them personally, or their position, just their decision.

Third, we should remember that if someone disagrees with us, they may actually be right.  It can be tempting to surround ourselves with people who always agree because it is so much more affirming and comfortable, but it’s also the path to bad decisions.  The person who disagrees with you may actually help you to come to a better decision, even if it can be hard work getting there.

Many mission workers carry unnecessary stress because they feel unable to speak their mind, whether it’s through concern that they might find their service terminated for causing trouble, fear that a person they challenge might lash out at them in pain, or because a misguided sense of loyalty tells them that they ought to agree with everything.  The current trend towards confidential personal debrief with a person from outside the mission worker’s agency is to be welcomed, because it gives mission workers an opportunity to get issues off their chest in a safe environment, and find a constructive way of dealing with unresolved issues.  If your agency does not provide this service, consider asking for it.

Syzygy offers a confidential debriefing service to any mission worker, whether serving with an agency, church network or fully independent.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.  We find that it often helps people see past their immediate frustration and find long-term solutions to unresolved issues.

CBPPreparing for a presentation I was giving at a recent Short Term Mission Forum, I realised that this is an area which is often overlooked by both those organising short term mission and those providing member care.

Member Care workers seem to focus largely on long-term mission workers, to such an extent that looking through the Member Care books on my shelves I found that most of them didn’t even refer to short-termers.  Likewise, people organising short-term programmes can easily focus on the practical issues and neglect the personal care for the person going.

As part of my research for this presentation I produced some very quick and grubby statistics.  They are not academically robust and are merely a straw poll, but the results are shocking.  I found that only slightly more than 50% of the people going on individual short-term placements through an agency attended a formal pre-departure training event or a post-return debrief.  For short-termers going as part of a team those having training rose to 60%, but those having a debrief fell to just 40%.

Perhaps short-term gets overlooked because it’s not considered as hard as long-term.  Perhaps it can’t shake off the mistaken impression that it’s just an adventure holiday with a difference.  Yet the people going short-term may be younger, less mature, and less experienced in cross-cultural pressure than long-termers.  Moreover, in the course of their mission they may be exposed to challenging situations with which they’ve not had to deal before.  So in terms of the impact on them of short-term mission, and processing culture shock and preventing post-traumatic stress, good Member Care is critical to the well-being of those going short-term, whether on a summer team or on a placement which can last up to two years.

Three elements that are essential to provision of Member Care to short-term workers are:

Selection and preparation – While selection may have an element of screening people to make sure they are robust enough to survive their mission, it seems that it may in fact be quite perfunctory if the trip is only for a few weeks.  Perhaps the need to get people on board and justify the sending of the team may supersede good care.  And while training events may include cross-cultural training it may well focus on the practicalities of behaviour rather than the emotional challenge of adapting to life in a foreign culture.

In-field support – team leaders may not necessarily be trained or experienced in facilitating a supportive environment which can help short-termers adequately process the challenges they face and look to God for the resources they need to manage the transition.  Proactive support needs to be arranged.

Post-return debriefing – while recognising the challenges of getting everyone back together for a debrief event, it is important that people have the opportunity to review their experiences and unpack the issues raised as a result.

So what can agencies do to ensure better Member Care for their short-termers?  Here are Syzygy’s top tips:

  • Ensure that Member Care personnel have an input into the design and review short-term programmes.
  • Be familiar with and committed to the Member Care provisions of the Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission (the core value of partnership and paragraphs 1.5, 2.4, 2,7, 3.3-3.5, 4.1-4.5).
  • Review the Member Care Guidelines and reflect on how they apply to short-term mission.
  • Be committed to ensuring that every short-termer is provided with effective Member Care before, during and after their assignment. Bring in Member Care providers from other agencies if necessary.
  • Set appropriate targets to measure how many short-termers receive training and debriefing.
  • Build an effective and well-trained volunteer force to carry out individual training and debriefing in support of the full-time team.
  • Facilitate, fund or provide training for church members to be able to prepare and debrief their short-termers well.
  • Liaise effectively with sending churches to ensure that short-termers have an opportunity to debrief in their home church.

Why do we need to provide good Member Care?  Not merely because it’s good practice, prudent risk management, an effective witness to the people the short-termers are working with, or a good recruiting model since happy short-termers can evolve into long-termers.  Because we love.  Because we care.  Because we don’t want to be the unwitting cause of people’s long-term spiritual and emotional damage.  Or, as our friends at Missionary Care put it:

Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the Great Commandment

Antlion traps

Antlion traps

Recently I was out walking, and crossing some gravelly ground I noticed a neat round depression about an inch in diameter.  “Antlion!” I thought to myself, before remembering that I left Africa 15 years ago and haven’t seen an antlion trap* since.  Likewise, while driving in some rocky place like Wales or the Lake District, I occasionally catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a large grey object and think “Elephant!”  Sound, sights or smells can trigger a reflex response sending us back in time many years.  For those of us who have lived abroad it can also trigger feelings of ‘homesickness’ for the place we once served, even though we may have left there many years ago.

This illustrates the fact that the subconscious changes that take place in us as we serve in another culture can often take many years to subside, if they ever do.  I still find myself clapping my hands occasionally in a Zambian gesture of thanks, or using words from a language that nobody around me will understand.

This can be somewhat discouraging for those of us back in the UK on home assignment, or just to live in this country.  In a recent workshop with mission workers we discussed such issues: the things we miss about our home abroad, the things we don’t understand about our ‘home’ culture any more, and why we find it hard to settle back in and feel we belong.  We discussed the Syzygy confectionery model of cross-cultural adaptation, which many found helpful.  And we worked through a number of ways to avoid becoming a bitter old grouch who is forever complaining that their church doesn’t get it.  Here are our top tips for preventing re-entry becoming a horrible experience:

Don’t have unreasonably high expectations of your church.  They may be incredibly supportive and caring of you, but may not understand exactly what you need.  So when you feel they’re not there for you, such as when their eyes glaze over just 2 minutes into your conversation telling them about your amazing ministry, remember that they may not get the significance of what you’re doing.   Many of them may wonder why you need to go abroad when there’s already so much to do here.  So I recommend preparing one or two short, powerful stories that may intrigue them and draw them in.

Don’t have unreasonably high estimations of your own importance.  Most mission workers expect to be given a platform to talk about their work though other people in the church aren’t.  Others feel frustrated if they are not asked to preach when they would not have been asked if they weren’t mission workers.  Some expect everything to be organised and paid for by their church, when they are quite capable of doing that for themselves.  In a world where the prevailing message is that we are all mission workers, people often don’t understand why cross-cultural mission workers feel they need more support.

Remember to adapt cross-culturally.  When we go to a different culture, we learn about its culture and work hard to fit in, but we often forget that we need to work equally hard when we return.  Don’t just moan about the differences you can’t get used to, or why life was so much better where you used to live; find out why things have changed and work out a way of dealing with it.

Don’t judge.  Those of us who have lived in a foreign country have had the amazing privilege of seeing how large and diverse the world really is, and we return to where we came from able to see our home culture with the eyes of an outsider.  Those who have never stepped outside their home culture don’t find it easy to do that.  Don’t condemn them for not noticing; remember that you too were once like them.

Treat the church as your mission field.  Many of us return to be part of churches that don’t understand why we have to go abroad to do mission, or even why we need to do it.  Don’t browbeat them.  Treat them the same way you would those you’ve been witnessing to abroad; explain gently, persuade, demonstrate – all in a spirit of love.

Get some help!  It can often help to talk to people who understand what you’re going through.  Meet with people from your agency or wider community who’ve been through re-entry.  Get some debriefing or go on a retreat to hear more clearly what God has to say to you in all this.

If you’re struggling to feel at home in your ‘home’ culture, do get in touch with us on info@syzygy.org.uk – we’d love to talk to you!

* Antlion larvae dig traps in sand to catch their prey – mainly ants – rather like the sarlacc in Return of the Jedi

(in no particular order)

  • Assist them in managing the rental of their house
  • Remember their birthdays and send greetings (including the children)
  • Ensure they get appropriate missions training (Bible College?)
  • Make a commitment to contribute finance
  • Pray for them regularly at prayer meeting
  • Encourage people to send gifts and cards at Christmas (you may need to post them months in advance to make sure they get there in time!)
  • Be available to help them find accommodation for them when they come back on home assignment
  • Store belongings they’ve had to leave behind
  • Keep in regular contact and know how they’re doing
  • Encourage small groups to partner with them
  • Hold regular missions events to highlight the importance of overseas mission
  • Phone or skype them once a month
  • When they’re coming back, make a dvd so that they’ll recognise people. Or post a recording on YouTube. Do it from hip height so the children will relate to it
  • Find creative ways to make prayer meetings work!  See for example OMF’s Seven Ways to Pray for your Mission Workers or our own creative suggestion
  • Make sure you get to know their sending agency and keep in good contact with them
  • Take a short-term team to work with them
  • Ensure they get a good debrief when they return home and don’t forget children need debriefing too
  • Do a Skype interview with them during a service
  • Check out Global Connections’ resources for churches
  • Distribute prayer letters for them
  • Make sure they are included on your website and welcome packs (unless this would compromise their security)
  • Regularly ask how they’re feeling
  • Hold special fundraising events for them
  • Tell them how much you appreciate them
  • Consider providing financial support for church members who want to visit them (though you may need to regulate who goes, and when)
  • Encourage all the church to Facebook them
  • Read Serving as Senders by Neal Pirolo
  • Invite their UK relatives to your special events
  • Brief new church members on your mission partners
  • When they come back, make sure their home has food and drink so they don’t have to go shopping
  • If you have a missions group, ensure that it is empowered and has a good budget
  • Look out prayer resources about their country (eg the World Prayer Map)
  • Fly inside your building the national flags of the countries where you have mission partners
  • Be available to support their UK family, particularly elderly parents
  • Make sure church leaders give visible support to them, so the rest of the church will follow
  • Find out about culture shock and reverse culture shock
  • Arrange for Oscar to do Serving as Senders training for your church
  • Preach regularly on the Great Commission
  • Tell them about significant changes in your church
  • Keep a financial reserve so that you can pay for flights home for them in an emergency
  • As a church, join Global Connections and engage with their forums
  • Make sure they know about re-konnect camps for kids when they come back
  • Send them off with a commissioning (or re-commissioning) service in church
  • When they come back, invite them to do a presentation on their work
  • Regularly ask what challenges they’re facing
  • Be available to take them to the airport when they leave
  • Have a missions notice board with maps and photos
  • Invite guest speakers from their agency to preach at your church
  • Make sure you are well-informed about the country they serve in
  • Remember they’re still part of your church even when they’re not around
  • Talk in advance to them and their sending agency about evacuation procedures in the event of a crisis
  • Ensure they have an ‘ambassador’ to promote their interests at church
  • Provide a car for them when they come back
  • Send them new Christian books
  • Visit them
  • Make sure they pay National Insurance contributions and facilitate this if necessary
  • Occasionally make a dvd of what’s going on at church and send it to them or post it on YouTube.
  • When they come back, facilitate introductions to new members
  • Link up with other churches which have a reputation for doing overseas mission well and find out how they do it
  • Have regular meetings with them, both formal and informal, while they’re preparing to go
  • Be willing to fly out at short notice to help resolve serious issues
  • Pray for them personally
  • Acknowledge that their effectiveness may not be measured in numbers of converts
  • Make sure they take regular breaks
  • Develop and preach a clear theology of missions
  • Be available to discuss significant decisions with them, at a time convenient to them
  • Invite a group from their overseas church to visit you
  • Take a group from church to their agency’s annual conference
  • Keep some winter/summer clothes for when they return
  • Send them magazines/dvds, particularly of new worship songs so they can keep up to date
  • Set up a prayer support group for them
  • Ensure they get a full medical checkup when they return (e.g. InterHealth)
  • Send them treats occasionally
  • Be prepared to advise them in emergency situations
  • Help them get their children into a local school when they come back
  • Make sure you understand the unique pressures they’re under
  • Appreciate that their first year in particular may be emotionally demanding
  • When they come back, make sure they visit all your small groups to talk about their work and get to know new members
  • Send them CDs of your sermons if they’re not available as podcasts
  • Read The Re-entry Team by Neal Pirolo
  • Arrange for a group to take care of practical issues for them, such as cleaning up the house for them after they leave
  • Ensure your church knows how to pray for them effectively
  • Encourage them to have a mentor, and be willing to be a mentor if they ask you
  • Remind them of the need to plan well in advance for ageing and retirement (e.g. pension, housing, healthcare) and be willing to help where necessary
  • Offer to meet them at the airport when they come back
  • Make a memorandum of understanding with them and their sending organisation so everybody knows what they’ve committed to

 

There is more detailed information about many of these issues in our regular blogs, our Guide pages and our Briefing Papers. For further information for churches supporting mission workers, visit our guide at For Churches

 

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On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

After a few weeks abroad you may well feel ready to come home, but a lot of people struggle with a variety of emotions when they return. After the initial elation of seeing family and friends again has worn off, you may realise that you have changed as a result of your experience, and don’t quite fit in any more. The symptoms of this are what we call reverse ‘culture shock’. You may feel angry about the wealth of your home country, or the lack of interest your friends have in what you’ve been doing. You may feel guilty that you’ve left behind people who needed your support, or sad that you made friends you might never see again.

Once you’re suffering from reverse culture shock, there’s not much you can do to get rid of it. Time is the biggest factor, as you gradually learn to adjust. But time can be helped by some very simple practical steps:

Recognise it. Once you realise this is what you’re suffering from, you have the reassurance that you’re not cracking up. In fact, your apparently erratic behaviour may be perfectly normal! Link up with people who understand. Other people have been there before. Really, we have. Find us, talk to us, hang out with us. It provides you with a lot of comfort just to know others can sympathise with what you’re going through.

Find some stability. One of the causes of reverse culture shock is that fact that you don’t fit back in where you left. So find somewhere you do fit in. Seek out new friends, particularly among former mission workers who can see things from your point of view. Take up an old hobby, try and find old haunts that haven’t changed, listen to your favourite music and read your best books. Eat your favourite food.

Talk it over. It’s crucial to talk to an experienced debriefer. Most sending organisations will organise a debrief, many church missions committees are able to offer this service, and Syzygy is very willing to help you with this. Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a debrief.

Make no major decisions. Because reverse culture shock can cause emotional instability, it’s important that you don’t rush into making decisions during the first few months you are back in your home culture. You may feel tempted to rush back to the field because you feel guilty about the wealth of your lifestyle in comparison to the people you’ve been working with, or feel that you’re not cut out to be a missions partner because you can’t cope. Once your emotional equilibrium begins to return, you’ll be better equipped to make a rational and prayerful decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

Here are some questions for you to think about to help you make the transition:

As I return home, I feel . . . . .

I think the easiest/hardest part of going home will be . . . . .

I think the easiest/hardest part of leaving will be. . . . .

I am looking forward to . . . . .

God has used me to . . . . .

I have learned . . . . .

I won’t miss . . . . .

The most important thing to do about reverse culture shock is to recognise it for what it is. Once you have done that, you are well under way to recovery. Sadly, we know of too many cases where it was not even heard of, and people have suffered for a long time as a result of unresolved issues. If you are properly prepared for coming home, and have a debrief, you should make a complete recovery even if you end up fitting differently into your home culture than you did before you went. If after several months you still feel tearful, angry or guilty and seem unable to cope with things as well as you did before, you should talk to your church leaders or sending agency and explain that you think you need further help to deal with the issues arising from your trip.

 

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When we go abroad, we prepare for culture shock. We know the food is going to be different, as will the weather, and people’s attitude to life, and there’ll be many habits that will take time for us to get used to. But we’re not prepared for it to happen the other way. But while you were away, things changed. People moved on. That girl who you did everything with now has a husband and two kids demanding her time. The guy you used to play football with now has a heart condition and watches tv instead. The church has a new pastor and it feels completely different. Your parents moved and their house isn’t your home any more.

Then there are other things that haven’t changed, but are in such a marked contrast to your life in the field that you find it hard to adjust. We’ve all heard the stories about people having panic attacks in the supermarket because they don’t know how to choose between the 60 different types of cheese, since back in the field it’s simply a choice of cheese or no cheese. The sad fact is that this is quite symptomatic of reverse culture shock. Other similar symptoms may include your disgust at the wasteful extravagance of people who don’t appreciate the poverty you live side by side with, or you may find that you’re accustomed to Christians being teetotal but the members of your church seem like drunks in comparison.

These are just some of the many things that are challenges to us. While they’re not necessarily a problem in themselves, we tend to come back from our assignment not expecting things to change. So the fact that they have unsettles us. Add to that the fact that we’ve changed too, and we just don’t fit in where we used to. We have a vague feeling of not belonging, or of frustration that the church doesn’t care about things that are important. This is a cause of subconscious stress, which suddenly manifests itself in unpredictable outbursts of anger, guilt or uncontrollable tears. This is reverse culture shock. It’s often the case that the longer you have been away, the more likely you are to suffer from it.

Once you’re suffering from reverse culture shock, there’s not much you can do to get rid of it. Time is the biggest factor, as you gradually learn to adjust. But time can be helped by some very simple practical steps:

Recognise it. Once you realise this is what you’re suffering from, you have the reassurance that you’re not cracking up. In fact, your apparently erratic behaviour may be perfectly normal!

Link up with people who understand. Other people have been there before. Really, we have. Find us, talk to us, hang out with us. It provides you with a lot of comfort just to know others can sympathise with what you’re going through.

Find some stability. One of the causes of reverse culture shock is that fact that you don’t fit back in where you left. So find somewhere you do fit in. Seek out new friends, particularly among former mission workers who can see things from your point of view. Take up an old hobby, try and find old haunts that haven’t changed, listen to your favourite music and read your best books. Eat your favourite food.

Talk it over. It’s crucial to talk to an experienced debriefer. Most sending organisations will organise a debrief, many church missions committees are able to offer this service, and Syzygy is very willing to help you with this. Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a debrief.

Have a medical. Sometimes, the effects of something as simple as a vitamin deficiency due to poor diet can cause fatigue and lethargy that can be mistaken for reverse culture shock. A proper medical can also reveal other long-term problems like bilharzia. You should definitely have a medical before seeking counselling. Visit your GP to arrange a medical or see our healthchecks article for information on where to find specialist medical help.

Have counselling. Occasionally people can refuse counselling because they mistake it for psychiatric treatment. Counselling is a series of conversations with a fully trained and qualified therapist who can help you diagnose the causes of issues like sleeplessness, anger or depression. We recommend that everyone who has been in a traumatic situation, had a serious illness, or a significant conflict with colleagues or leadership should have counselling to help ensure that they are in the best possible state of mental health. See our healthchecks article for information on where to find specialist medical help.

Make no major decisions. Because reverse culture shock can cause emotional instability, it’s important that you don’t rush into making decisions during the first few months you are back in your home culture. You may feel tempted to rush back to the field because you feel guilty about the wealth of your lifestyle in comparison to the people you’ve been working with, or feel that you’re not cut out to be a missions partner because you can’t cope. Once your emotional equilibrium begins to return, you’ll be better equipped to make a rational and prayerful decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

The most important thing to do about reverse culture shock is to recognise it for what it is. Once you have done that, you are well under way to recovery. Sadly, we know of too many cases where it was not even heard of, and people have suffered for a long time as a result of unresolved issues.

Here are a few handy tips to help you settle back into life in your home country:

• Milk is a liquid

• Post comes through a hole in your front door

• Church services last an hour and a half max

• Preachers don’t shout

• ‘On time’ means on time, except for church meetings

• To buy your groceries, you have to go to a shop, not merely stop at traffic lights

• It is safe to stop at traffic lights, even at night

• Buses don’t reverse up the road to pick you up before another one gets you

• Civil servants are paid by the state, not the user

• Taxis are fitted with a little box that tells you how much to pay

• Toilet paper goes down the loo

• You need an umbrella and a coat, even in summer

 

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One of the most important things to do when back home is to arrange a thorough healthcheck. Many of us are exposed to germs and diseases we’re not accustomed to while we’re abroad, and it’s good to check that nothing is seriously wrong.

First visit your doctor, and tell him you’ve been living abroad. You might as well get as many of the checks as you can courtesy of your state Health Department. However, even if you’re a UK citizen, you will find that you can no longer get free access to hospital services.  You can find further details here.

There are also many specialist organisations which cater specifically for mission workers, such as Healthlink 360 and Interhealth. Their services may not seem cheap, but they are extremely thorough and their staff are highly knowledgeable. They also provide debriefing and psychological checks, to make sure that you’re not suffering adverse emotional effects of your time abroad.

Many people find that after a significant time abroad they are suffering from the physical effects of long-term stress. A full debrief is often the first step to recognising some of these issues. Follow up with an experienced church leader, mission rep or a qualified counsellor can help unpack some of the issues arising from such situations and is highly recommended. Some of the organisations that offer counselling can be found here.

Syzygy offers a debriefing service to mission workers and you can talk to us about this by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk. We are also happy to put you in touch with counsellors whom we can recommend.

 

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(in no particular order)

  • Get some theological training on a short course
  • Have a reunion with all your relatives
  • Check the state of your house
  • Get your children into a school and prepare them for the bullying, indiscipline and swearing they may encounter
  • Have a full medical
  • Review your finances
  • Get a new laptop
  • Report back to your prayer partners
  • Update your will if your circumstances have changed
  • Top up your injections ☺
  • Hand out gifts from your host country to your friends and supporters
  • Join a house group at church
  • Check your National Insurance and get a Pensions Forecast
  • Be prepared for some loss of identity as you’re no longer a key person in your community
  • Have a review with your church leaders
  • Help your kids understand that Christians in your country may think and behave differently from those on the field, possibly in ways that may not appear ‘Christian’ in their eyes
  • Get to know people who’ve been on HA before and understand how hard it can be
  • Catch up on your favourite music
  • Get some professional training to make sure your skills are up to date
  • Visit organisations which may be able to support your ministry
  • Arrange a re-commissioning service
  • Post yourself some little treats so they’ll be there in your host country for you
  • Spend time asking God what he wants you to do when you get back
  • Visit the dentist ☺
  • Be ready to do all your own cleaning and cooking as you won’t be able to afford help
  • Say goodbye to your friends and family, especially elderly relatives you may not see again
  • Have a presentation evening (with food!) for your supporters to hear what you’ve been doing
  • Get supplies of prescription medicines to take back with you
  • Warn teachers that your children may not understand basic concepts familiar to other kids (e.g. What’s a creme egg?)
  • Make sure your prayer support group knows how much you appreciate them
  • Get to know the people who have joined your church since you went abroad
  • Attend a Christian conference
  • Update your address book
  • Have a SMALL photo album to show people about your life abroad – where you live/work/worship etc
  • Take one or two ‘comfort blankets’ to help you transition
  • Re-engage in a favourite hobby
  • Invite your pastor/elders/missions secretary to come and visit you
  • Visit all your church’s house groups to get to know people and let them get to know you
  • Check your passport is still valid and apply for a visa well in advance
  • Report back to your sending agency
  • Remember not to spill your life story in the first five minutes of meeting someone new, as mission partners have been known to appear arrogant and self-obsessed
  • Do a retreat, particularly one aimed at people like you
  • Get well acquainted with new church leaders
  • Earn some money
  • If your kids are going into school, help them find out what clothes they should wear, bag they should carry, music they should listen to and tv they should watch so that they don’t get laughed at
  • Prepare one or two short but pithy stories which encapsulate your life and ministry
  • Read books by missionaries
  • Spend significant amounts of time with all your supporting churches, not just a Sunday morning
  • Do a presentation at church about your ministry
  • Catch up on the latest technology
  • Book your flights through a missions supporting travel agent to get extra baggage allowance
  • Check your pension arrangements are up to date
  • Have a full debrief
  • Don’t assume your kids know how to use things like buses, cashpoints, or oyster cards
  • Go on holiday – TWICE!
  • Seriously consider whether it’s working out and you’re doing God’s will

 

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