Carla Williams reflects on why missionaries leave the field and how you can help them. She notes that they leave the field primarily for three reasons:
• Forced exit—Many missionaries find themselves back in the States for reasons completely outside their control. Closed countries do not hesitate to deport missionaries with little or no notice. Sometimes a crisis in the family gives them no other option. The missionaries didn’t choose to return, and if they could choose, they’d still be on the field. Most of these missionaries have had no time to process the sudden change in their lives, and their grief is often intense.
• Healthy transition—There are good, healthy reasons why workers return from the field. Maybe they have successfully handed the ministry over to local believers and no longer need to be there. Maybe they recognize serious red flags in their family life and are wise enough to return before there’s an emergency. Maybe they realize they are ineffective in their role, and rather than stubbornly persisting in unfruitful ministry, they come back to the States to evaluate and pursue a better fit. Maybe they simply know God is closing that chapter. For these people, even though they believe it was the right decision to come back, they are still grieving the life they left behind.
• Potentially avoidable reasons—Situations like team conflict, moral failure, loss of vision or passion, and others may seem as if they could have been dealt with before the problem led to attrition. In these situations, it’s easy to make assumptions about what should have happened, but none of that can be changed once the family has returned.
Because of this they can feel burnt out or hopeful as they make a transition. She then offers ways you can help them. Some include:
Pray—Pray for their family to adjust. Pray for the friends, teammates, and people group they left behind. Pray for their decisions and future. Tell them you are praying for these things. Ask to pray with them, and ask them what they see as their greatest needs. The most influential thing you can do for them is stand next to them in prayer.
Tangible steps—There are a number of physical ways to help the missionary family in their transition back to the States. Your church can encourage and pay for formal debriefing. This will give the family the tools it will need in the next few months and years to properly process, celebrate, and grieve their experiences.
You can also find out what physical things the family needs and provide them. Usually, when workers come back to the States, they lack most of the standard household furniture and supplies they need to create a normal life. You can help with finding a house, moving expenses, and physical labor. Offer to babysit the kids to allow the parents time to talk and plan. You can also provide normal activities like hanging out over dinner or renting a movie to all watch together, without expecting them to feel completely natural or at ease. Don’t be offended if they need to decline for awhile.
Listen—Ask about their lives in the field, about the everyday things and the defining moments—and then let them talk. Give them a chance to remember, laugh, and cry. Recognize the value of their experiences by letting them share with you—even when you don’t understand.
Don’t give suggestions or try to encourage them until you’ve listened for as long as they need, which is probably going to be longer than you expect. Be a safe place for them by deliberately refusing your impulse to fix the situation.
You can validate their experiences and decisions simply by letting them share those with you. In an interview for ExpatWomen (www.expatwomen.com) in 2007, Ruth Van Reken explained, “Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move past it.”
Withhold judgment—When missionaries come back, it’s important to remember you do not know what God is doing. It’s easy to judge whether they should have stayed, done something differently, or come back a long time ago, but we simply don’t know. The returning missionaries can’t change any of those things now anyway.
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Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International. As President, Darren oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.