Reentry: Bouncing Back

The "short-term" mission experiences in this article refer to periods of from 90 days to two years.

Some suggestions for the deflated short-termer

by Stanley E. Lindquist and Daniel B. Peters (with some editing by Howard Culbertson)

Turning up the driveway of his home church, Darrin felt a sense of relief to be home. Yet deep down something was bothering him. The lawns here were too well-mowed. The buildings were too well-maintained. The pastor's car was too nice looking. Then, as Darrin waited in the missions pastor's air-conditioned office, he looked at pictures of family outings to Disneyland, a seminary diploma, and missions association membership plaques. A sickening feeling slowly overwhelmed Darrin.

Where was commitment? he thought. Earlier, Darrin had written home pleading for an offering so he could help a national pastor get desperately-needed surgery. The response was that the church's missions budget was spent. Such a special offering, he was told, violated church policy.

Where was the Body of Christ? Darrin wondered when he had written telling them of his frequent vomiting spells caused by sheer exhaustion? If he had received one more message from home reminding him to leave his concerns at the Cross, he knew he would have gotten deathly ill. How do you leave concerns at the Cross when people in need are standing there stretching out their hands to you? Nobody knew the real story. Nobody cared. Darrin suddenly told the secretary he had to go.

Six months later, confused and depressed, Darrin sought out a missionary counselor for help in re-entering American culture.

Often people assume it's easier to reenter one's home culture after a two-year short-term mission experience than it would be after being gone for many years. However, many missionaries report that the opposite is true. Short-termers seem to feel the shock of adjusting back into the "new-old" cultural more, not less. They haven't been away very long, but everything seems so different when they return home.

Short-termers often go overseas with stars in their eyes. They dream of great things happening on the field. They are admired for their dedication. They feel supported by everyone. Often, however, they are poorly prepared for the task. They are often surprised by what they encounter in another country, and they can be even more surprised by what they find when they return home.

Reentry problems can be divided into two categories: cultural adjustment and personal reactions.

Cultural adjustment and readjustment

Short-termers face the same problems as those who stay longer, but they have to face them and solve them in less time. Most short- term experiences are intense, emotional, and life-transforming. Many young, evangelical Americans live out of a set of assumptions which sort things into "right" and "wrong" boxes. Seeing throngs of people with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs can easily overwhelm the assumptions of short-termers. The plight of lost people and the problems of missionaries can converge to shake the short-termers' hopes, wither their faith, and even reduce their readiness to share God's love.

Some short-termers have to cope with tumultuous experiences. It may be the realities of mass malnutrition, a national's rejection of the short-termer, or contradictions between the words and the behavior of a missionary. Few orientation programs help short-termers effectively handle the disappointment, loneliness, depression, and strained relationships they likely will encounter. If these problems do not get worked out on the field, they can strike back later, just when the pressures of adjusting to home life began.

Sometimes it is only upon reentry into one's home culture that the subtle, but serious, shifts in world view which occurred during the short-term experience really come to light. The resulting internal turmoil can lead the short-termers to react to their home culture in bitter and negative ways.

While overseas, short-termers tend to assume that life back home remains the same. It is startling to return and discover changes have happened. Friends have married, moved, purchased homes, and changed jobs. Any of these changes can create a feeling of insecurity and instability on the field.

Personal reactions

Because of his or her own commitment and sacrifice, the returnee may see friends and others as being uncommitted to the priority of sharing the Gospel with all the world. The person may be right. Because of the fresh exposure to the needs overseas, it becomes easy to see usual spending habits of people back home as lavish, foolish, and unspiritual. The price of simple things could support a family for days or even weeks in the country where the short-termer may have been working. A house that cost $100,000 would support the entire mission program.

The seeming excesses one encounters in reentry can cause a judgmental reaction to set in. Even though nothing is said, feelings begin to grow and can emerge in quiet, confusing ways. Testimonies in church meetings can begin to show growing bitterness and disillusionment about the church's commitment.

Often the short-term candidates serve at the bidding of the "real" missionaries. As a result, the short-termers may baby-sit or do laundry to free the career missionary mothers for the "important" work. Other kinds of seemingly inconsequential work may be expected of the short-termer. This treatment breeds a feeling of unimportance. When those back home display their lack of concern for missions, they simply are reinforcing the short-termer's feelings of uselessness. Often short-termers return without a clear vision for the next step in their lives. The pressure of fending off conflicting sets of expectations laid on them is often enough to nudge them toward isolated bitterness.

Ways to bounce back

If you are having trouble with reentry shock, here are some practical ways to begin working through it:

  1. Remember you are not alone. Others have gone before you on the short-term missions journey. What you are feeling is not unique in the history of missionary emotions. Begin by searching out people who have had similar experiences. Ask them to share honestly what has helped and hindered them during their reentry.
  2. Seek objectivity. Go one step further and ask these same people, or others, to be honest about you. If you can muster up the courage, ask someone who in the past has even been critical of you in some way. Ask the person if he or she sees some ways in which your actions, motives, or personality may have contributed to your reentry stress. The goal is to get realistic feedback. You might not get all the realistic feedback that you need if you only ask your mother or your best friend.
  3. Face the facts. Get honest with yourself. Take what you have learned from others. Face issues head on. Although much of what they may say is mere opinion, some of it will reflect the truth about you. Embrace what is truth. A good help in the process is the book Telling Yourself the Truth by Backus and Chapian.
  4. Put responsibility where it belongs. No one person is solely to blame. Accept responsibility for your own actions. Your sending agency, your church, your field missionaries, and even the nationals have no doubt partially shaped the way you feel now, Be clear without being judgmental. With a forgiving attitude, cautiously accept your part of the problem.
  5. Recognize that change comes slowly. You may not have been all that you wanted to be on the field. You may even be disappointed with how you reacted when you got back. The key is to be faithful today in what God has equipped you to do. Set aside all the rah-rah visions you had of saving the world singlehandedly, and get down in the trenches where progress and growth are slow.
  6. Check your motivation for going. How do you see the world now compared to your perspective before your mission experience? Make a list of things you learned that will permanently change how you see the world, how you relate to the Church, and how you relate to your peers. Does this list show you anything about God's purpose that you didn't realize initially? Who do you think benefited more from your short-term experience: you or the nationals you went to help?
  7. Evaluate your experience. Ask yourself how certain factors contributed to your short-term experience. Regardless of how effective you felt your short-term experience was, ask yourself questions such as:
  8. Plan your future. Base your dreams on what God has designed you to be. The Body of Christ is dependent on diversity to effectively live and move. Don't let anybody foist on you their private vision of how you should fit into God's plan for the Body. You know that you are to live for God's glory. But is missions the future that God has designed for you? Your short-term experience could help you answer that question.

If you honestly accept the mission experience as a permanent part of your life and objectively evaluate it through feedback, you will move back into American culture more smoothly. Deal with the problems of your short-term. Whether you move out again from your home culture as a missionary or serve God at home, you'll be much better prepared for whatever He has for you.

Stanley E. Lindquist, founder of Link Care Foundation, has spent decades counseling missionaries, and helping mission organizations with personnel issues.

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