Though transitions such as reentry can seem overwhelming, missionaries can prepare well for these transitions by listening to and learning from the stories of others who have already walked that road. In this article the author shares constructive insights both from her family’s reentry story and from the InterMission ReEntry workbook.
In 1991, my family of six moved to Texas after having lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa for 15 years. At the time, research on missionary care was sparse. My resources in Africa were limited, and I could only find one book on the subject of reentry. This book was not just for missionaries but also for business and military personnel. Entitled Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings, the book was edited by Clyde N. Austin. Published in 1986, the book was fairly new on the market when I was looking in 1988. We had met Dr. Austin while visiting Abilene Christian University, so I decided to give it a try. The book was probably recommended by Dottie Schulz when I took a seminar class on the Missionary Woman.
At first I thought it would be difficult learning about reentry just by reading a book that seemed to pertain to our family only partially. However, I persevered and learned how business, military, and missionary families shared similar needs regarding reentry and family adjustment. I began to appreciate learning from other kinds of expatriates so I could apply their experiences to my own family. I would like to share with you a few of the lessons that I learned at that time and applied to my family upon our return. These insights eventually contributed to the development of a new ministry called InterMission, which is designed to help others through reentry, as well as to help and encourage missionaries on the field. The second section of this article therefore presents some of InterMission’s reentry material.
Lessons from My Family’s Reentry
One of the first lessons that I learned was that we were not alone. Of course I knew that many families had returned from the mission field before us. My own husband’s parents and grandparents were among them. It was, however, a new concept to realize that all of the families of missionaries I had known had internally gone through many of the same struggles. From a distance, it was not easy to realize that other missionaries had trouble fitting back into US congregations, thought shopping was a nightmare of choices, and really did not know what to do with all the local family traditions into which they were expected to fit. One of the reasons for this difficulty was that I had not yet learned to ask about and listen to other missionaries’ stories about reentry. In retrospect, I remember hearing my husband’s grandparents, A. B. and Margaret Reese, having returned to the States after about 30 years in Zambia, lament that they no longer felt any purpose in their ministry or their life. They wished they had spent their retirement years in Africa where they could continue to bless others. (They blessed many in Arkansas but they could not see that as easily.) They did not feel that they really found their role in the US congregation. At one ReEntry Seminar with my InterMission team, I related a story about having so much trouble buying a hair bow for my daughter at Wal-Mart. I had been used to a limited range of choices, but at Wal-Mart there was a display five feet high and about fifteen feet long. I was overwhelmed. When I finished the story, one of the returning missionaries in the group said, “I thought I was the only one that had that trouble.” Everyone in the group assured him that they had each had the same experience with cereal, bread, or some other item. As missionaries we had also developed our own family traditions at holiday times. Coming back to being closer to family physically, we were expected to be at all holiday gatherings since we had missed so many. We were happy to do so but did feel the conflict with our own family traditions.
Another lesson was to say goodbye well to the country where we had lived so long and the people we had learned to love. Since we had been working in the later years with World Bible School follow-up, we had traveled and worked in many places. We made trips and said goodbye to some of our favorite people and places. We visited local congregations. We made personal presents for each family in our home congregation in Kempton Park, South Africa. When the day came for our departure, the entire congregation came to the airport. We stood in a huge circle and sang praises to God. One of the things we told them, our children, and even ourselves was that we would always be friends, no matter where we lived. (This was before email, Internet, and Facebook.) Twenty-three years later this still holds true. We are still friends with many there. We may not see each other often or even communicate regularly, but if one of us needs something from another, all we have to do is ask, and help is on the way.
The next major lesson I remember is that the missionary family needs to take time for themselves between saying goodbye on one side of the ocean and saying hello on the other. Since we were flying from Africa and already had to make a stop in Europe to change planes, we decided to spend two weeks in Europe on the way to the States. Lack of resources made it challenging, but God took care of all our needs, and the time allowed us to get our emotions on a more even keel. Arriving in Germany, we were exhausted from all the packing, cleaning, and saying goodbyes. Our first challenge was the heavy rain that ruled out staying in our tent and forced us to find a bed and breakfast. We spoke no German, but the proprietor could understand John’s Afrikaans. When we wanted to locate church services in Italy, no one answered the church telephone on Saturday. Since it was a long weekend, the banks in Italy were closed, so we could not change money or buy food. (This was before ATMs.) Finally, someone at the church arrived early for services and gave us directions over the telephone. When we arrived at the church building, longtime friends and teachers from Harding University were there at worship. They took us in for the next several days, feeding and blessing us both physically and spiritually. Though the holiday itself was taxing, we were in much better shape emotionally to fly to our sponsoring congregation and begin the process of being welcomed and cared for at “home.”
Before reading Clyde Austin’s book, I had not had much education in understanding Third Culture Kids (those raised in a culture different from their parents’ home culture). I was married to a TCK and was raising another four TCKs, but I did not have a larger perspective on the subject. I was not completely prepared for the idea that my children would fit the “hidden immigrant” profile, meaning that in the US they would look like everyone else but would not sound or think like their peers. When we arrived, we had one in high school, one in middle school, one in elementary, and one starting kindergarten. There were many foreigners in the public schools my children attended. The two oldest, however, did not want to appear different; they wanted to fit in with local peers. After three days of speaking with a lovely South African accent (sounding mostly British to US ears), my teenage children tired of answering the question Where are you from? and switched to a perfectly pitched Texas accent. They kept their thoughts to themselves and began to blend in and appear like everyone around them.
Since beginning to learn about reentry from Dr. Austin’s book, I went on to earn a master’s degree in Family Studies in 2002, writing a thesis on “The Strength of Missionary Families: A Descriptive Study of Missionaries among Churches of Christ.” One of the main places I found to do research on missionary families was in the library Dr. Austin had set up as part of the Robert and Mary Ann Hall Chair of Psychology & Intercultural Studies at Abilene Christian University. (Currently, Dr. Steve Allison holds that chair.) So again I was very thankful to Dr. Austin for helping me on my way.
Our personal reentry story has continued as my husband John and I established a ministry called InterMission in 2006 with other veteran missionaries. Clay and Cherry Hart, Kent and Nancy Hartman, Edward and Sharon Short, and John and I are all volunteers who serve other missionary families to help them in their transitions. Each couple has over 16 years of foreign experience, and two of us were reared as TCKs. We host a Global Reunion camp for TCKs and their parents each July, we hold ReEntry Seminars on weekends twice a year for those that have recently returned, and we go annually to mission points around the world to host a five day InterMission to encourage those on the field. More details are available at . In addition our own four children, their spouses, and our twelve grandchildren have all lived and served (or continue to do so) in five different mission fields on three continents. Helping missionaries is our passion and our pleasure.
Guidance for Reentry from InterMission
The following material is adapted from InterMission’s ReEntry Seminar handbook.
1. What is reentry?
This is the simple term that means a person has left a country that was foreign to him and returned to his home country. This time away could have been short or long or somewhere in-between. Reentry involves the adjustment back to the home culture.
2. Reentry begins when you leave home in the first place.
Reentry is affected by the leaving of the foreign culture. Were we able to say goodbye in a satisfactory way to our friends, the church family, the local shopkeeper, and the household help? How about saying goodbye to favorite places like our house, the park where we played with the kids, our get-away hiding place on the beach, in the mountains, or in the country—did we take time for this?
Reentry is also affected by our thoughts of the home culture while we were overseas. It is easy to glamorize thoughts of home when away for a period of time. Everything becomes better when we haven’t seen it for a while and are struggling to learn a new way. Coming home to reality can sometimes be a real shock.
Another part of reentry that happens before we return is the simple fact that we and our family have changed because of our experiences. As Christians, we missionaries pray for the Lord to mold and make us into better people. Without necessarily realizing it, we have been affected by our experiences. We have learned patience by having to work with rules we do not understand and governments that don’t really care. We have learned humility by working in a culture where we understand less than little children and where we find out there is more than one right way to accomplish a task. Our ability to love has been stretched to love many different kinds of people. Our adaptability has taken on new dimensions as we eat foods we have never heard of, shop in markets where we have to learn to bargain, and worship in languages foreign to our ears.
We also have to realize that the United States has changed while we were away. In the years away, new politicians have come to the forefront. New stars have become popular. The culture has been changed by movies, clothing styles, and let’s face it, lots of immigrants. The local congregation has probably changed as well. People have come and gone, new programs have been started and new people may be in leadership. Our friends and family have also had growing experiences. That loved one who died while we were gone is now going to be missed more than ever. That new baby you haven’t even seen is now a walking, talking person.
3. The arrival home phase
Most experts agree that reentry is much harder than first entering into a foreign culture. When we go to a foreign culture, we expect everything to be different. We expect to be misunderstood. We expect not to know the cues of the culture. We expect not to look or sound like anyone else. When we return to our home culture, we expect everything to revert to normal where we are easily understood and we recognize the cultural rules. Yet, because of all the changes that we have just discussed, this is not possible. The fact that our mind does not expect this makes it harder still. Just staying in the home culture there is a lot of difference between being a teenager or a college student and being a responsible adult with a young family. There are adjustments to make. If we leave our home culture not long after college and then return to pick up the reins of a career, we have all of those adjustments to make on top of reentry.
There are several major issues in this phase. One of the first we notice is that we have a hard time communicating our experiences. What can really be said at worship services when someone says, “Hey, great to see you. How was your time overseas? Aren’t you glad to be home?”? Even if you manage to get in a few sentences, you will soon be interrupted by someone across the foyer who stops by to invite your friend to lunch. Telling our stories is difficult. We have to summarize those feelings and experiences with words that are wholly inadequate. Then we have to find someone that is willing to listen for more than a couple of minutes.
Another issue, especially for the wage-earner in the family, is the feeling of a loss of time or even training. Others our age have advanced from entry-level worker to manager. A master’s degree is no longer good enough as all our peers are finishing their doctorates. Those who have been gone a while will find that somehow they missed out on investments and building up retirement. As missionaries, we have good experiences under our belt, but it is hard to translate them to marketable skills.
Fitting back into a local congregation in the US can be a big issue for a missionary. First, he has been the elder, preacher, youth minister, decision maker, direction setter, and more on the field. If he did his job well, he has transitioned out of those jobs on the field and helped others learn to take his place, but he was still in a position of respect and some authority. Back in the US, the missionary feels (at the beginning) no more involved than a long-time visitor. He has no jobs or role in the congregation. No one comes to him for advice on what to do. Often, in this day of the “professional” minister, he may not even get to preach for his home congregation. Ladies class, the local benevolence ministry, or the Bible class program does not revolve around the missionary wife as it might have done on the mission field. Also, there could be issues about independence. One recent missionary talked about how he had to get permission to buy a package of paper at the local congregation, when overseas, he had been in charge of making the decisions on spending the large building fund they had raised. Besides money, there is also the fact that the missionary, while he is on the field, is often accountable to no one. He has to make his own schedule, decide on his own work load, and set his own goals. He is accountable to the home church, but they are not with him every day.
Adjacent to this role change, the missionary has to redefine his or her identity. We have to be careful to define ourselves as “How does God see us?” rather than “How does man see us?”
Also related to this are the changes in the church culture while we were overseas. As mentioned, the church has probably undergone changes. Now we, as missionaries, have to work to catch up. Some of the changes will be easy to accept. We may have to wrestle with some of the changes to decide if they are scriptural. What if we decide they are not? What are our choices?
One of the most obvious issues that affect people on reentry, whether they have been gone one month, one year, or one decade, is their attitude toward materialism. Getting out in the world and seeing that most people do not live with the huge amount of choices and things that Americans have is quite an eye-opening experience. Coming back to overwhelming abundance can be very difficult. It is hard to throw away leftover food when you have seen the hungry. It is hard to throw away good plastic plates, cups, flatware just so we don’t have to wash them (in our dishwashers). It is hard to “run get something to eat” when you have lots of food in the pantry. It is still a shock to see what people register for on wedding and baby shower gift lists. How many choices do we as Americans feel we really need?
The last issue in this phase has been eluded to already, but it deserves more attention. The returning missionary family needs to find its sense of purpose in the home country. On the field, we often do things we wouldn’t normally do or endure things we normally would not accept, because we feel the Lord put us there for a purpose. Back home it is sometimes easy to get so caught up in the busy life that we feel God doesn’t purposefully guide us anymore. We tend to forget that there are people all around us that need the gospel.
4. The survival phase
The survival phase also starts before you ever get off that airplane. Experts agree it is beneficial to reflect on your time overseas as a family. This is a time to release your experiences mentally and say goodbye. When possible, it is best to do this before you have to say hello. If you did not have the opportunity to take some time off on the trip home, then make an opportunity as soon as possible upon returning.
Take the time to grieve over the things you have lost because you gave of yourselves to the Lord. Realize that this grief is real and don’t be afraid to express your feelings toward the issues you face. Realize that the grieving process takes time. You will also need time to heal and adjust.
Approach the home country as you did the foreign field. Take it slow in making changes and being critical. Take the time to find out why people do what they do. Don’t be overly critical.
It is important to your wellbeing to be able to tell your story. Find some avenue to do so, such as a friend who is willing to sit and listen. Use your experiences in teaching Bible class (but remember that it was inappropriate to make constant comparisons between the mission field and your home culture, and apply the same wisdom in reverse). Think of great lessons you learned and write articles for magazines and the like. That experience overseas has made you a better person. Use your transformation to bless others.
Take a little time to do some career evaluation. Since you are not the same person who moved overseas, maybe you do not still have a passion for the career you thought you wanted. Be willing to try it for a while to find out, but also be willing to change to what suits your new skills and emotions. You may find that your years overseas have given you new skills and opened new doors for your future. (There are counselors that do testing and counseling on career assessments if you need help.)
Be open and honest with your mission committee, elders, or family about your needs. Be willing to ask for help and guidance instead of feeling that you have to do everything by yourself.
Use your ability as a self-starter to benefit the local congregation. Let the other members continue to do what they are doing well, and look for jobs that no one has thought to do. Start that international outreach ministry with all the foreigners in your community. Who would know better that they need to feel loved and welcomed than someone who has walked in their shoes? Use your experiences and your new perspective to bless other ministries. Also, remembering your purpose, help others learn to reach out to their neighbors.
Because you want others to listen to you, you have the opportunity to learn to be a great listener to others. Put your compassion to work. Don’t just think about yourself and your needs but think about how to help others.
Life is full of transitions. May the Lord help you as you make this one for His service. May He bless you for the time you have given in other cultures for Him. May He make your life richer and fuller because of the experience.
Beth Reese worked with her husband, John, as a missionary for sixteen years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. She worked in personal evangelism and ladies’ ministries. The family returned to the US in 1991.They led a number of God Bless Africa campaigns to Zimbabwe and Ghana. Beth earned an MA in Family Studies in 2002. Since that time she and John have taught classes on missionary families in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the United States. In 2006, they helped form InterMission, a missionary care organization that offers missionary care by and for missionaries (http://intermissionministry.org). She currently lives in Austin, TX.
Austin, Clyde N., ed. Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University, 1986.
Reese, Joy Beth. “The Strength of Missionary Families: A Descriptive Study of Missionaries among Churches of Christ.” Master’s thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2002.