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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Returning Missionaries: The Challenges of Coming “Home”

I breathe deeply and say over to myself: “You are at home; you are at home.” But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I can find nothing of myself in all these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there is my case of butterflies, and there is the mahogany piano but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.


—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front


Missionary to Togo, Todd DeKryger, is now home. Though the hospital founder had often rubbed shoulders with numerous West African ailments during his service, this time his malaria-like symptoms only masked the lethal Lassa Fever he had actually contracted. After a cinematic emergency evacuation, DeKryger died at a hospital in Cologne, Germany on February 26, 2016. Certainly his wife and four young sons could not have been fully prepared for the worst-turned-reality, though Togo’s suffering likely led them sometimes to at least consider the worst. Nor could their home church know fully the ache of tragically losing a missionary, though they were well aware of its possibility.


Sure, the inherit dangers of crossing cultures in our neighborhoods and among the nations linger before us. But it’s much easier to think about sending people out than receiving them back. So why try?


Because it’s part of being the church. Not many of our missionaries will come back in caskets. No, no. But they will come back in pain, if for no other reason than “home” isn’t home anymore. If we think that “sending” infers one-way action—just getting them from here to there—then we’re falling short of the family that God made us to be. How to journey alongside our furloughing, transitioning, and retiring missionaries really is our concern.


So we’ve got to be ready.


Unfortunately, receiving sent ones back is typically the ugly duckling of global missions. When soldiers head to the front, they come back changed. Yet it’s taken professionals a long time to even begin understanding their deep wounds (Kolk). Most civilians have no categories of similar experience, no language to empathize, no capacity to respond. There’s nothing glorious about rehabbing prosthetics or replacing bandages or weathering PTSD outbursts. Similarly, when heroes and heroines of the mission field come back distant, awkward, or disgruntled, it can be challenging to offer more than the welcome-back potluck.


On multiple occasions Paul gives us a glimpse of his battle scars (Romans 8:35-391 Corinthians 4:8-132 Corinthians 11:23-29). Even from his conversion we see God’s sobering intention for him: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). Now while I wouldn't describe Paul’s sufferings as regulatory for all missionaries, they do represent the general nature of the business. Being sent doesn’t always mean signing up for death, but it guarantees a series of small deaths. Kelly O'Donnell writes,


From the day one enters the process of becoming a missionary, spiritual, emotional, interpersonal, and physical stresses begin to multiply, and these stresses usually continue unabated throughout one's career. (47)


Sarah Hay points to a study that shows 40% of aid workers develop a psychological disorder (such as depression) while on the field or shortly after returning home (386). Justin Long notes that around 20% of first-term missionaries don’t make it, though the statistic is debated to be as high as 75%.


And keep in mind, that doesn’t even include missionaries outside the category of vocational missions. They are professionals, students, tourists, internationals, soldiers, volunteers, and retirees. The more the world indomitably globalizes, the more the church naturally mobilizes. Our churches’ members and visitors have the capacity to be on multiple continents just days before they walk into a Sunday gathering—or to just Zoom in when their flights get delayed. Thus the idea of “‘mission from everywhere to everywhere’ is a much more helpful and accurate understanding of mission in the 21st century” (Christianity Today). We probably have more missionaries than we realize, and they’re likely returning home more changed than we know.


However, just like the missionaries they send to preach and heal, churches can wade into brokenness with the confidence and hope that only the gospel provides. They can be instruments in the hands of the Redeemer (Tripp). They can build awareness and plans for the unique challenges missionaries face each time they return for the following reasons.


Furlough


Furloughs can be sacred times for missionaries. They are intended to provide the cultural distance to rest, renew contact with the church and family, raise funds, recruit workers, report the ministry, reintroduce children to their homeland, and refresh training (Hale, 392). Yet sometimes they can be just the opposite thanks to missionary kryptonite: reentry culture shock.


After all the adjustments of a new language and culture, reentering one's home culture can cause as much or more stress than going to the field (O’Donnell, 310). In her book Burn Up Or Splash Down, Marion Knell uses the analogy of a spaceship reentering earth's atmosphere to parallel reentry, but goes on to say it's ultimately more like being an alien on a flying saucer (4).


And reentry is the most difficult for children (or TCK's [Third Culture Kids]) because reentry is more like entry, as they have often only known life elsewhere (226).

Transition

Transition is a catch-all for any reason that a missionary returns. This category could also be called “failure,” not because returning missionaries are failures, but because regardless of their circumstances they are often undeservedly viewed as such. The church can easily exalt missionaries as heroes, and thus struggle to have a category for them when they return “prematurely”. Like Will Smith’s washed-up superhuman character in the film Hancock, returned sent ones can feel as though every passing glance and awkward conversation infers, “What went wrong?”


Common reasons for missionary attrition include lack of financial support, conflict, marriage for singles, culture shock, expulsion, persecution, lack of fruit, emotional trauma, a sense of God's leadership, moral failure, loss of vision, lack of care, physical illness, family dilemmas, educational needs, and change of assignment. As you can imagine, an entire host of hardships can accompany the internal and external disappointment of transitioning home.

Retirement

Retirement is as important a stage in missionary life as the other stages (O’Donnell, 312), and yet is no less challenging. John Piper has famously challenged retirees to leverage their golden years for God’s glory. But that doesn't mean that missionaries should never relinquish their posts. God compels every generation to pass the baton well (Deuteronomy 4:92 Timothy 2:2).


Yet bidding farewell to the field can be as hard for a missionary as giving up the car keys for an ailing parent. It's common for their most severe identity crisis to occur in the midst of permanent reentry. And the grief of final goodbyes can be overwhelming, not to mention looming financial and health concerns. They arrive back at churches that have changed, some for the better and some for the worst. They can silently feel quite old, quite irrelevant, and quite underutilized.


How will our churches respond to these returning missionaries? It’s likely that the way we receive them back won’t surpass the intentionality with which we first sent them out. If we’ve boomeranged our people across cultures, we’ve got to be ready for their return.




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