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.