Crash landing?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

‘Re-entry’ is a term that is frequently used for mission workers returning to their ‘home’ country.  It conveys the sense of a spacecraft coming back into the earth’s atmosphere, which is the most risky part of the whole voyage into space.  This imagery was used successfully in Marion Knell’s book Burn Up or Splash Down which talks about how to re-enter successfully.  We’ve also got a section on re-entry in our Guides to Doing Mission Well.

There are also courses to help people manage their re-entry – notably the All Change/New Directions courses run by our friends at Oscar, and Penhurst Retreat Centre’s New Direction retreat.

But what happens when it goes wrong?  Instead of a gentle, parachute-assisted splashdown it feels more like a crash landing.  Many mission workers experience a profound sense of disorientation when they return.  They feel like they don’t belong in the place where they always used to.   They no longer fit in.  They’re not at home.  And this is profoundly unsettling, because it’s the place they feel they really should fit in.  It’s rather like being in that 1960s sci fi film in which a spaceman finds himself on a duplicate earth by mistake – it looks just like home, but it doesn’t feel right.

With appropriate support some people adapt successfully after a few months.  But many don’t, and they continue to struggle with a sense of alienation.  They can become angry, frustrated or disillusioned.  Their churches don’t really know how to help them move on.  They feel isolated, unable to connect with family and friends.

These can be entirely normal reactions to re-entry, but unaddressed they can become unhealthy.  But where can people with these problems turn for help?  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop called Crash Landing? which is specifically tailored for returned mission workers who have struggled to feel at home in their ‘home’ country.  It helps to answer such questions as:

 Where is home?

How can I thrive when I feel I don’t belong?

Why don’t I fit in and what can I do about it?

How do I relate to a church which doesn’t share my values?

Crash Landing? will equip people with the skills and resources needed to be able to begin the process of adapting to living in this in-between world and help them to find a way forward.

Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for details of the next Crash Landing?

Preparing for retirement

passing the batonWhile retiring may be a fairly flexible concept when one is fulfilling a God-given calling, there comes a point in the life of most ageing mission workers when they consider whether they continue in their work or return to their sending country.  Some may be involuntarily retired, as a result of the policy of their sending agency or church, financial pressure or failing health.  Others may take the opportunity of reaching a significant birthday to review their future.

Whatever stimulates it, retirement is a major transition and Syzygy has taken the ground-breaking step of publishing a guide to retiring.  We don’t think there’s anything else quite like it on the internet.  There are many links to our own and other websites and resources, so just click on the orange hyperlinks  to follow them.

While the decision to retire will rest with the mission worker(s) seeking prayerfully to determine God’s will for their lives in old age, we encourage them to make this decision in the context of a supportive discussion involving a community of their agency, sending church, receiving church, family, friends, colleagues and member care professionals (where appropriate).

In our guide to you can find our thoughts on questions like:

  • Why retire at all?
  • Why not stay on?
  • Why is it hard?
  • How do I plan for retirement?
  • How do I leave well?
  • What will I do with my time?

You’ll also find another document in our occasional series 101 things to do…, and obviously this one’s called 101 things to do on retiring.  It’s a helpful tickbox list of all the things you need to think about before and after retiring.

Retiring can be a stressful transition for anybody, even those keen to give up working.  It can involve a loss of identity and purpose, a diminishing of profile in society and a lack of self-respect.  Yet we continue to be beloved children of God, with a calling on our lives and a way to use our time serving our Saviour, even if it’s in a different way.  Good preparation can help smooth the transition and lead to a fruitful and productive retirement.  So, if you’re planning to retire in the next few years, please take a look at our guide.  And if you’re not planning on retiring, please forward this blog to anybody who is, so that they can benefit from it.

 Even to your old age and grey hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isaiah 46:4)

The essentials of debriefing

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?’”

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?

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.

TCKS coming ‘home’

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

Depressed, misunderstood, lonely?

It’s a while since we discussed TCKs, and since we reviewed reverse culture shock a few months ago, this might be a good opportunity to focus specifically on how this affects TCKs.  TCKS are Third Culture Kids – people who spent a significant part of their formative years growing up in a culture which was not that of their parents.  They don’t fully fit in either in their parents’ home country, or the country (or countries) in which they grew up, so they form their own third culture which features aspects of both.  Where the parents are mission workers, they are also known as Mission Kids (MKs).

Among the many huge challenges facing TCKs is the question of where home is.  They can often experience significant confusion over the issue, particularly when they’ve lived as mission kids in more than two countries.  But they seldom agree with their parents that the original sending country is home.  This complicates returning to the sending country, whether temporarily for home assignment or permanently, as in relocating for educational reasons.

Parents can easily talk about this as ‘going home’, which it may well be for them, but for the children, it is more like going to a foreign country.  They may be familiar with aspects of it but it is probably not home.  They are leaving home!  Their wider family in the sending country, and also in their ‘home’ church may reinforce this view, asking children who are already feeling lonely, bewildered and homesick how it feels to be ‘home’.  It’s not surprising if they occasionally get a hostile response.

Recognising that any such transition is a huge challenge for young people is the first step in dealing with it.  Some of our top tips for helping TCKs cope with this transition are:

  • ensure that the parents can spend more time than usual with their children, since they are a key point of stability in a different world;
  • connect with old friends back home through social media to maintain meaningful relationships;
  • bring with you favourite toys, furniture and food supplies so that you can continue to celebrate where you’ve come from;
  • meet with people from their host culture in the new country, and connect with other TCKs who have already made the transition;
  • continue to speak in the language of your host country to reinforce your connection with it;
  • take children and teens to Rekonnect – a summer camp specially designed for TCKs;
  • ensure that key features of life and culture in the new country are explained.  Don’t take it for granted that TCKs know how to tie shoelaces or button a dufflecoat if they didn’t have shoes and coats as they grew up!
TCKs in Brazil - Pam and her four sisters

TCKs in Brazil – Pam and her four sisters

One of Syzygy’s trustees, Pam Serpell, herself a TCK who grew up in Brazil, wrote a dissertation on this subject for her degree, and has given us permission to publish it here.   In her research she discovered that TCKs who reflected back on their experience of relocating to the UK used words like depressed, misunderstood, belittled, lonely, excluded, trapped and even suicidal.  This will not come as a surprise to those who have already been through this transition, but indicates how seriously the challenges for TCKs need to be taken.

Pam also looked at what helped prepare the TCKs for the transition, supported them through it, and what else they thought might have helped.  She clearly felt there is a need for sending agencies to do more to help prepare TCKs, perhaps through a formal orientation programme, and to support them through it.  Fortunately, in the 10 years that have elapsed since she did her research, many agencies have made great progress in this area.

Yet despite the evident challenges involved in being a TCK, Pam concludes:

All the people who took part in my research expressed being grateful for their upbringing and the experiences they had in ‘growing up between worlds’ and I would encourage any TCK to concentrate on the benefits of their experience and look for the positives.

You can read a pdf of Pam’s dissertation here.  As with all material on the Syzygy website, it is available for reuse where appropriate as long as the author receives due credit.

Being an effective sending church

1279274_fragile_parcelOne of the saddest situations I come across in mission is when I ask a mission worker “Is your church supporting you?”  Too often the answer is a short pause, a wry smile, and “Kinda”.

This response often indicates that the church is happy for them to go, may give them a bit of money occasionally, and remembers to pray for them from time to time.  Unfortunately, many churches do not have a significant vision for global mission and think that this level of support is quite adequate.  Yet it is clear from the response that the mission worker doesn’t feel fully supported.  In fact for some of them it feels like abseiling without being confident that somebody is holding the other end of the rope.  And the only way you find out whether anyone’s holding it, is when it’s too late to do anything about it.

Syzygy and Oscar are joining forces to address this issue.  Both agencies are more than willing to visit churches, talk with their leadership or missions teams, and provide training and encouragement for the entire church.  If you’d like to get a feel for what this might look like, we are running an introductory evening in Birmingham on the evening of 8th October at Rowheath Pavilion at 7.30.

Get Out More! is a free event for church leaders and others supporting mission workers.  We’ll tell some stories of how bad it can get on the mission field, and how we can help to put it right.  We’ll provide some tips on what you can do to help.  All in an informal atmosphere which may even include a drink in the Pavilion bar afterwards.

Churches which wish to get a bigger vision for supporting their missionaries effectively can also refer to our  Guide to Doing Mission Well.  There are also other resources listed on that page.  We’d particularly like to draw your attention to Neal Pirolo’s two excellent books Serving as Senders and The Re-entry Team, which are ideal resources for helping churches.  And our page 101 things to do to support your mission partners.  Our friends at Oscar also do a particularly effective day course for churches called Serving as Senders.

We hope to see you at the Pavilion!

Reverse culture shock

More change on the way

More change on the way

It seems to me that every time I come back from a trip abroad, a new shop has opened on my local high street.  I don’t know if they wait for me to go away, in the hope that I won’t notice, but it’s a regular occurrence.  Since I travel quite frequently, this adds up to quite a turnover of stores.  Over time, the character of the high street changes, but most people wouldn’t notice, as the change is gradual and incremental.

But if I were to come back after a year or two away, the difference would be much more marked.  I would still recognise the high street, but I could clearly see it’s different.  The supermarket has changed hands (again!).  The post office has gone.  The bank has turned into a posh restaurant.  The greengrocer’s is now a charity shop.  We grieve (just a little bit) the loss.

This is a small example of what is called ‘reverse culture shock’.  It never ceases to amaze me how few mission workers, particularly independent ones, are prepared for the fact that things are not the same as they were when they left.  Life has moved on without them.  The sense of things not being quite the same can lead to a feeling of not quite belonging any more.  Once the euphoria of meeting family and friends again has worn off, returning mission workers can be left feeling slightly disorientated.  It’s a mild form of grieving – grieving for a lost past that cannot be recovered.

La bancaAdd into the changing high street the fact that church has changed (there may be a new vicar, old friends have left), family has changed (granny has died, mum and dad have moved into a house that was never home to me), and society has changed around us in too many ways to mention, and reverse culture shock can become quite an issue.  On top of what has changed in our environment, we have changed too while we’ve been away.  We’ve learned a new language, taken on aspects of a new culture, and seen God at work in an entirely different context.  So we can’t reasonably expect to fit back in where we left off, whether it was three decades ago, or just a year.  These changes can lead to loss of friendships, dislocation of family, and alienation from church.

If you find yourself feeling unaccountably emotional (tearful, angry, impatient, frustrated) – or indeed curiously numb – some 6-8 weeks after your return, it’s possible you’re suffering from reverse culture shock.  This can go on for quite some time, but recognising it for what it is will be the best way to start dealing with it.  Having a proper, formal debrief can help – either with your church or agency, or if they don’t feel competent to do it, please contact Syzygy to arrange one with us.  Talking about it with somebody who understands can help normalise your experience and facilitate your adaptation.  If you’re the church, family, or friends of people returning from abroad, watch for signs of reverse culture shock and be prepared to help with it.  For more information about it, see our article which is part of our guide to re-entry.

Overseas mission has a habit of knocking off some of our sharp edges.  As a result, we don’t fit back into the square holes we came out of.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.  We’ve just grown.