Book review: Burn Up or Splash Down

When considering the perpetual challenge of ‘re-entry’ for mission workers returning to the countries they went out from, I have referred several times to Marion Knell’s excellent book with the above title. The title refers to the challenge of re-entry for a spacecraft returning to earth, and how that critical point of the journey can so easily go wrong.

Here at Syzygy we have seen far too many mission workers return to their sending country in a state of unpreparedness, or who struggle with issues even after many years of being back ‘home’ because these issues weren’t addressed at the time, so we want to encourage broader circulation of this valuable book.

Marion writes encouragingly in her introduction:

You can make it back into whichever part of the earth’s atmosphere you’re destined for.  There are people around who speak your language, who have survived the impact.  But you need to have the heat shields in place, the life-support systems working, and a good reception committee on the other end steering you back.

Her book helps you to make sure those things into place.  Marion explains what re-entry is, in simple terms, and why it can be such a challenge.  She helps us understand how stress can affect us as we return.  She shows us how to leave a place well and has plenty of good advice on the challenges of an international relocation.  She emphasises the important of having a good debrief.

The second part of the book focusses on TCKs and the challenges they can go through with re-entry, and tips on how they can thrive, and the book concludes with a section for sending churches on how to welcome back their mission partners effectively.

Marion’s writing style is light, entertaining and easy to read.  Unlike many member care books, reading the book is an enjoyable experience, not hard work.

If you are a mission worker planning to return ‘home’, read this book as soon as you think about returning.  If you’re responsible for sending mission workers, either with a church or an agency, read this book now!  You can buy it from the Global Connections website where members get a discount.  You might also like to read our guide to doing re-entry well.

A few years ago we designed a course called Crash Landing? which was designed to help those who made it back to their sending country and survived the impact, but were wounded in the process and still carry the scars.  Get in touch with us if you could use some support in helping you finally settle back in.

Which sweet are you?

Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Model of Cross-Cultural Adaptation. This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model[1] which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them.  In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation.  The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!

Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*.  They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside.  Every Malteser is alike.  So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.

But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos.  On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different.  In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised  – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do.  That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.

But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals.  That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside.  So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them.  Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.

Then we go back to our ‘home’ country.  But we’ve changed on the inside.  So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside.  Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced.  ‘Home isn’t home any more.  This is when we can get reverse culture shock.

Sweets

So what do we do about it?  Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again.  But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson.  That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’.  Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.

The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel.  They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different.  It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not.  So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do.  This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.

Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more.  We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more details.

* Other types of confectionery are available.

  • [1] Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.