Transition Stress and TCKs: What does “normal” look like?

by Lauren Wells

“We haven’t seen our boy act like himself in over a year. We sometimes get glimpses of the fun, playful kid he used to be, but most of the time he’s like a shell of his old self. We don’t know where the kid we knew went.”

Fifteen months earlier, these parents had moved across the globe to a new country and culture. Their oldest son had started attending a local school while the younger siblings who weren’t yet school age stayed home. 

“We knew it would be a big transition for him,” they said. “We worried when he seemed to get more and more withdrawn, but we kept telling ourselves this was the normal transition stress everyone warned us about. But it’s been over a year now and it’s just gotten worse.” 

I wish I could tell you that this is the only time I’ve had a conversation like this with parents, but it’s not. The phrase “we figured it was just transition stress” is one I’ve heard many times in my work with hundreds of parents. 

When my colleagues and I work with families prior to a move or to train schools or organizations about family care, a topic we cover is how to distinguish between  “normal” transition stress and when it has gone beyond that. This preventive approach keeps normal transition stress from growing into a long-term state of emotional unhealth which will eventually turn into a crisis. 

So, what is normal transition stress for children? At what point should adjustments be considered because the transition stress has gone beyond a healthy limit? Knowing how to distinguish between healthy transition bumps and long-term adjustment issues is a critical part of preventive care. 

Red Zone/Green Zone

When my company (TCK Training) talks about transition stress for Third Culture Kids, we use the concept of Red Zone/Green Zone. When we’re in the Red Zone, our brain is flooded with stress hormones. This isn’t concerning for a short period of time, and in small doses it can actually be part of resilience building. While a developing brain shouldn’t be exposed to those stress hormones too consistently or for too long, during a major transition it’s normal for everyone to be in the Red Zone for a while.

What the Red Zone looks like for children/teens:

  • Uncharacteristic behavior challenges 
  • Being overly emotional
  • Appearing down or withdrawn
  • Being extra clingy to a parent 
  • Developmental reverting (accidents after being potty trained, sleep regressions, using baby talk, needing a comfort item they had grown out of, etc.) 
  • Development of new stress-induced habits (hair twisting, biting lips or skin, etc.) 
  • Not enjoying activities that used to bring joy 
  • Lack of ability to learn new concepts (this often shows up as  difficulty meeting academic milestones, such as reading, if those concepts are introduced while the child is in the Red Zone, or lower grades than the child’s typical performance)
  • Long periods of numbing/distracting behaviors (e.g. spending hours on an electronic device, consistently choosing to read for hours instead of spending time with family/other children) 

While these behaviors are all normal during a transition season, some behaviors require immediate support even during the normal Red Zone window of transition: 

  • Any sort of self-harm 
  • Suicidal ideation (or any statements that imply that they wish they weren’t alive)
  • Extreme physical aggression toward others 
  • A pattern of undereating or overeating 
  • Depressive or anxious symptoms that interfere with daily functioning

If your child experiences these symptoms at any point it is important to seek immediate professional mental health support.

The Green Zone

In the midst of Red Zone seasons like major transitions, planting “Green Zone moments” is important. This brings the child’s brain momentarily above water. While they still may be mostly in the Red Zone, consistently bringing in Green Zone activities can speed their progress out of the Red Zone.

Green Zone moments can include: 

  • Body movement (going for a walk, playing a sport, etc.) 
  • Anything rhythmic – rhythm regulates the brain (music, dancing, coloring, etc.) 
  • Talking about why this transition feels so hard (allowing them to share and/or giving them language for why they’re feeling this way) 
  • Laughing 
  • Deep breathing 
  • Experiencing something that feels physically comforting (a favorite food, a cozy blanket, a special treat, etc.) 
  • Quality time with a parent, sibling, or close friend 

How Long is Too Long?

After a major transition it is common for children to be primarily in the Red Zone for three months. During this time it is important to implement Green Zone moments for/with them. After three months, we typically see that children have fewer Red Zone days/moments. They begin to act more like their normal selves, trending toward a more consistent Green Zone state. When this is happening, we begin to see that: 

  • They can identify friends they like to play with 
  • Getting ready for school in the morning isn’t as difficult  
  • They talk about things they’re looking forward to
  • They want to join activities that brought them joy in the past or that tap into their skills or talents 
  • They are beginning to feel more confident about how to succeed in school
  • They seem to have a more positive outlook 
  • They are laughing and smiling more 
  • They are doing “Green Zone moments” without prompting 

Most often at around 6-9 months after a transition, the stress has eased and children are in the Green Zone more regularly.

What If It’s Not Getting Better?

The shift from Red Zone to Green Zone may seem slow and drawn out, and even in the best circumstances it can take time. If after six months a child doesn’t seem to be trending toward the Green Zone, we have moved beyond normal transition stress. At this point, professional support for the parents (and possibly the child as well) may be helpful. 

Shifts need to be made so that we can prevent the child going deeper into the Red Zone. The following questions can help determine factors that could be contributing to prolonged transition stress. You can begin making small shifts to see if they begin to make a difference. In the home, for example, you might schedule consistent one-on-one time with that child. In the environment, you might add an activity outside school hours that they would enjoy. 

In the Home

  • Are they receiving regular, positive attention from their parents? 
  • Do they feel they can talk about their emotions and feel heard and comforted? 
  • Do they feel physically safe? 
  • Are they sleeping well?
  • Does the family smile and laugh together often? 

In their Environment

  • Do they have access to activities that would give them Green Zone moments? 
  • Do they have potential friends in their class/school? 
  • Is their teacher a factor that is putting them in the Red Zone?
  • Are there specific stressors that they or you can pinpoint? 
  • Are there adults other than their parents investing in them?

Understanding the progression from Red Zone to Green Zone that happens during a transition season can help parents to monitor their children’s stress levels during times of change. Not only does this knowledge prevent children staying in the Red Zone for an unhealthy period of time, but it also gives parents strategies for improving family health and tools for making adjustments to get each family member on the right track if it doesn’t seem to be happening naturally.

There is so much hope in knowing what normal looks like and having tools to help your children when their transition stress goes beyond that point. To learn more about going through transitions of any kind, especially as a family, check out TCK Training’s self-directed Transitions Course.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

12 Ways to Connect with God When Your Schedule Changes

by Corella Roberts

If you’re anything like me, keeping a consistent quiet time during a transition (like the non-schedule of summer with kids at home or, worse, home assignment travels!) is incredibly hard. I struggle with this every time, but I have wrestled with it enough to discover ways to maintain God-time no matter what’s going sideways in the world around me. Here are a few suggestions that I hope both give you encouragement and freedom in how you can meet with Jesus this summer.

1. Enjoy God in nature.
In times of transition and changing seasons, nothing helps reorient our perspective quite like a walk. Leave your phone behind, head to a park or mountain trail, and let every scene of beauty turn your heart toward your Creator. 

2. Try a devotional app and rearrange your phone screen.
Your phone will likely be with you or near you most of the time, so how can you turn it into a tool that helps you draw closer to God rather than be distracted from Him? One way is to try an app designed to do just that, then rearrange your home screen so that the most distracting apps are a swipe or two away and the most encouraging ones are what you’ll see first. The next time you’re waiting somewhere with a few minutes to spare, instead of opening a game or social media, try one of these:

3. Establish a Bible reading plan before the change of schedule.
If you know a schedule change is coming, make a goal and start a sustainable Bible reading plan before it hits. For example, you might want to hunker down in the book of Philippians for a month. Plan to read it in its entirety every week, or pick a slow reading schedule, chewing on just a few verses each day. Whatever you choose, start it well ahead of the transition so you will have a clear goal and be in an established habit when change comes.

4. Involve the kids.
Kids might feel like the great enemy of a good quiet time, but finding ways to involve them can be enriching for both of you. Obviously, you can do structured family devotions, but we’ve found that spontaneous times of worship and prayer tend to be more enjoyable for all. Put some worship music with lyrics on the TV and initiate popcorn prayers in the car. Choose a family memory verse and have the kids help create hand motions to go with it. Read inspirational stories together and have heartfelt conversations about the struggles and joys of following Jesus. It might not be “quiet,” but it can still connect you (and them!) with God.

5. Go on coffee dates with Jesus.
And then there are those times when you just really need some quiet space out of the house, away from family. That’s real! So, find a library or coffee shop, bring your Bible and journal, and just have a good chat with your friend, Jesus, away from all the distractions of home.

6. Read a book with a friend.
Sometimes a little accountability can go a long way. If your Bible study or prayer group stops for a season or your new work schedule won’t allow you to attend, find a friend who will read through a book with you. I’d suggest setting regular meeting times for discussion and making a reading plan that you can both stick to. This can foster both your relationship with God (if it’s a book with solid spiritual content) and your relationship with a friend.

A few I’d recommend are The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, Placemaker by Christina Purifoy, Soul Keeping by John Ortberg, the Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Brown, Journey of the Soul by Bill and Kristi Gaultier, The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn, Relentless by Michele Cushatt, and Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan (or anything else by him). You could also check out Catch the Rain or Colliding with the Call by yours truly.

7. Set aside one morning a month for reflection.
Reflection is critical to growth. Take the time to answer a few key questions as you close out one month and start another, and you’ll be far more able to identify what is helping you grow the most spiritually. A few of my monthly questions are: What expectations were met/not met last month? What spiritual practices did I do the most? Is there anything I need to repent of? What is God inviting me into next? What am I most thankful for?

8. Join a service project or summer church program.
Sometimes we need to simply get our hands dirty or be stretched out of our comfort zone to find a fresh connection with God. It’s also one of the best ways to deepen relationships with others. What can you physically do to be part of serving even in the midst of a new season?

9. Write out a morning and evening prayer.
These can be as simple as short breath prayers (here’s a printable guide) or as long as you want. If you long to anchor your heart in a scriptural truth during this season, pick a verse and personalize it into a prayer. Lately, I’ve been taking the concept of abiding from John 15 and simply praying, “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” Opening and closing your day with a rote prayer can be like having two solid bookends to keep you from toppling over.

10. Make use of travel time.
Plan for soul-enriching activities during travel, like encouraging audiobooks, podcasts, and music. Let the content that fills your mind be “true, noble, right, pure, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (see Phil. 4:8). 

11. Set up a new quiet-time space.
Do you gravitate toward the back porch in the summer? Set your Bible by the door. Is your house noisy with kids and company? Create a quiet nook in your bedroom. If having a consistent physical space is important for you as you meet with God, do whatever you need to do to set that up for this season.

12. Embrace the change and prepare for the reset.
When life gets stirred and tilted, we tend to more readily recognize what really matters. Use this season of change to help you sift out the old routines that have become lifeless and bravely try some new methods of connecting with God. If you can look ahead, like to the end of summer break, and see your schedule return to normal, start to anticipate now what you want your time with God to look like then. It might be different from what it was, and that’s okay. Often a reset can do us good.

I think we put the idea of an hour-long, morning quiet time on a pedestal. Sure, it can be helpful to carve out an extended time to read the Bible, pray, and journal, but checking “quiet time” off your daily to-do list (even mentally) isn’t the goal. Abiding with Jesus is. In every moment, every breath, tethering your heart to His, turning your ear toward Him, resting on His strength – this is the goal. And there is certainly more than one way to get there. Maybe this shaking up of your devotional routine is just the beginning.

Article originally published at corellaroberts.com and reprinted with permission.

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Corella Roberts is the author of Colliding with the Call: When Following God Takes You to the Wilderness. She serves at an international school in Thailand with her husband and three kids—two biological, one adopted. She loves music, mountains, and walking with people toward soul restoration. Find out more at corellaroberts.com.

10 Things I Used to Think About My Host Culture . . . and How I’ve Changed

by Roberta Adair

Few things remind me of how much I’ve changed in the 10+ years living in Japan than sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms). I remember first-term Roberta rolling her eyes a little at the way people gushed about sakura, like they were really special or something. I remember thinking grumpily, “They are overrated and impotent. Why didn’t they plant something that actually produces fruit rather than all of this flowery nonsense?” I remember on a really rough culture stress day shaking my fist at a tree and bellowing, “You couldn’t even produce a peach, you impotent tree!”

Fast forward to now, and I’m regularly organizing mini excursions to see sakura with friends. They bloom for such a short time, and I anticipate these adventures, plan my days and meals around them, and thoroughly enjoy them. I have come to love the emphasis on beauty for beauty’s sake rather than for production and usefulness. I gush over the different varieties, the different shades of white and pink, the different shapes of blossoms and petal formation, and the different experiences viewing them when they are budding, in full bloom, and falling (“like snow!”). I love seeing gnarly, ugly trunks spouting these delicate, fragile flowers – the contrast between rugged stability with momentary beauty stuns me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve thought of other ways I’ve changed, whether my perspective has shifted to “it’s not wrong; it’s different” or all the way to “it’s not wrong; it’s very, very good!” My list grew quite long, so here is just a sampling. In no particular order:

1. I used to think that trees in Japan were “pruned within an inch of their very lives! Let them be freeeee!” Now, I often find myself thinking, “Wow, there isn’t a lot of space here, and it’s amazing that Japanese people have found ways to add green anyway.” The art form of making trees fit a space impresses me (and reminds me of Dr. Seuss illustrations). Bonsai trees, carefully trimmed and controlled over decades, can grow in a yard that’s not quite a yard, and I have a deepening respect for people committed to this long-form, natural art.

2. I used to roll my eyes at parasols. When I first came and saw so many people carrying umbrellas in the summer, I’d think, “The sun isn’t your enemy!” and made all sorts of judgmental assumptions about people’s vanity. Now I realize that it’s more humid here. Sunscreen is both uncomfortable and sweats right off, so hats and parasols make a lot of sense. They are effective against the heat (not just sun rays), and I’m also impressed by people proactively taking care of their skin.

3. I used to think that concrete everywhere was an eyesore. There is a ton of concrete in Japan. Many, if not most, rivers have concrete along at least parts of them. (“Why can’t they be free?!” — yep, broken record.) Where we live, concrete sea walls have been built (or rebuilt higher) to help protect people along the coast from future tsunamis. Our city is really hilly, and loads of hillsides are covered in concrete. I thought it was a bit much when I arrived, but now I see it as a lot of smart science-y and engineer-y people working together to keep hillsides from collapsing and rocks from falling in this land of earthquakes and typhoons. I still don’t think it’s pretty, but I’m grateful for it now.

4. I used to think the rain and haze was a drag. I heard myself complain about the wetness and compare Japanese skies to Pennsylvanian skies All the Time (now I just do this Quite Often). I am in the process of accepting that we live in a different climate, that this isn’t Pennsylvania so stop comparing it to Pennsylvania already. I’ve also come to appreciate beauty in fog and clouds. It was pointed out to me years ago that Japanese art is rarely bright and blue-skied but is instead cloudy, misty, and nuanced. Mystery is beautiful, and Japan has helped me see this.

5. I used to think my way was (shhhh) better. One example of many is that I’d feel disoriented and defensive when I’d drop someone off at their home and they wouldn’t go inside but would wait until I drove off. In the US, the driver makes sure the person dropped off gets inside safely, whereas in Japan, the person dropped off makes sure the driver leaves well. This one is small, but it felt uncomfortable to me for years, and what was uncomfortable to me often got interpreted as wrong. Now it’s not only in the “not wrong; just different” category, but I also see it as quite lovely. I love getting our boys involved in waving people away when guests leave our house after dinner or when they are dropped off after playdates.

6. I used to struggle with the emphasis on ganbatte (persevere). Initially, I loved seeing the word on bumper stickers and spray painted on walls in post-disaster Japan. It conveyed something like, We will make it. We will overcome this together. Press on and don’t give up! Yet the longer I lived here, the more it grated on me. “Workaholism is a big deal here,” I would say to myself. “Stop persevering and rest already!” Then when I had kids, I’d prefer to say to our boys, “Have fun at school!” (or swimming lessons or the craft event) rather than joining the other moms calling after their kids, “Ganbatte!” Yet now I’m mostly thankful our boys grow up hearing that their effort matters just as much or more than their level of fun. Work hard. You can do hard things. Keep at it. Be a koi and swim upstream. Persevere. (And of course, have fun too!)

7. I used to be a little skeptical about uniforms. For middle and high schoolers, I now think there is a pretty good argument for them. Yet as a middle or high schooler 25ish years ago, boy oh boy would I have spouted off about how they cramp my individuality and make it difficult to express myself. (My mom endured years of my suspenders, fedoras, grandpa sweaters, and old bell bottoms in the name of individuality.) I’ve changed over the years, and I marvel at the dozens of uniformed high schoolers around me as I write this – collared white shirts, vests, and plaid skirts. Self-expression is a lower value here (at least in school), and I might say that this is in the “it’s not wrong; it’s very, very good” category (especially recently coming back from the Land of Self-Expression on Steroids).

8. I used to think Japanese women, particularly moms, must all be miserable. I pitied them for not having “mom’s night out,” for having to look a certain way, and for having (in my interpretation) such small lives. But I see some of my American friends trying to do it all with big, expansive lives. I see them investing in their careers, hosting Pinterest-perfect parties, living in tastefully decorated houses, working out, baking homemade bread, and taking epic family vacations — and they look exhausted. Here, I have mamatomo (mom friends) with simple, content lives, and I’m better for being around them. Their homes are small, their lives involve a lot more laundry and dishes than their American counterparts (many here don’t have dishwashers or dryers), and they aren’t rushing around. I’m thankful for the unassuming influence of several dear mamatomo on me. They’re not documenting their lives on social media or chasing some ideal they’re told by someone somewhere they’re supposed to pursue. Basically, I used to pity women around me and thought they were trapped, and I don’t think like that anymore.

9.  I used to think I would never be able to belly laugh in a country that values self-control. For years, I struggled with how women around me laughed, covering their mouths and laughing through their noses, if at all. Yet now I have a neighbor and other friends with whom I can laugh until I cry (and have). Recently I was drinking coffee with my 65-year-old neighbor across the street, and the topic turned to my eye wrinkles. I referred to them as my shima (stripes) rather than shiwa (wrinkles), and for reasons I’m forgetting now we cackled and snorted, which of course made us cackle some more. Another time this neighbor was telling me about her new hobby, crochet, and I noticed the beautiful, expertly croqueted vest she was wearing. I asked with bug eyes, “Did you make this!?!” “No,” she said perkily, “I made this.” She handed me a half-finished potholder full of mistakes, and we laughed until we cried. This is one example out of many “I’ll never get to ______ in Japan” thoughts that have proven to be untrue.

10. I used to roll my eyes at all the ceremony. Three-year-olds are expected to sit on little wooden chairs in suits for the entrance ceremony for daycare. Between our four boys, we’ve sat through eight entrance and graduation ceremonies and counting. (We have 16 more to take us to the end of middle school.) While I still sit and endure, feeling semi-lost and occasionally questioning why the emphasis is on somber, serious, and ceremonial rather than fun, light, and funny, I now think there is a lot of valuable stuff connected to these markings of time. I think my home culture is missing out on not having more ways to recognize coming-of-age moments. Other things that surprised me by how somber they were include weddings, new year celebrations, and kids’ campfire ceremonies.

I’m not sharing these items to say I’ve arrived. I still occasionally struggle, compare, and complain – yet I hope I’m also growing, learning, and changing. Being past the 10-year mark, I want to remember that I used to think one way and now I think differently. Hopefully I can be patient and kind when I hear others having similar reactions and attitudes as I did. And if I see some frizzy foreigner shaking her fist at trees, I hope I will take her on a whimsical picnic and let her bellow about peaches in peace, imagining her going from accepting to valuing to celebrating them.

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Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Why Public Speaking Skills Make a Difference for the Gospel

She pulled my husband aside and said, “We want him to let more missionaries speak during the service, so don’t screw this up!” The woman didn’t bother whispering despite the referenced person being well within earshot. As a former medical missionary and long-time supporter of ours, she was unashamed and undeterred in her mission to put missionaries in the pulpit when they visited the church during furlough. 

We were scheduled to speak during the Sunday morning service and had been given the full sermon time to share about our ministry in Kenya – a rarity under the current pastor. Despite the church’s long history of faithfully supporting missions and enthusiastically listening to missionaries speak when they came through, this particular pastor wasn’t keen on giving missionaries the spotlight.

His rationale? After decades of pastoring, he’d heard far too many terrible missionary presentations, which vastly outnumbered the compelling ones.

The church – as missions-minded as they come – had been trying to convince him that missionaries should get the pulpit and the full sermon time, as they used to when previous pastors had been in charge, but he routinely pushed back, saying they could have a Q&A afterward and take all the time they needed when the service was done.

The pastor wasn’t opposed to missionaries sharing about their ministries around the world. He was opposed to giving them a microphone and too much time on the stage.

The woman’s comment to my husband was a charge to prove that missionaries can speak in churches and not make everyone in the congregation regret giving them the pulpit.

Despite my own zeal for the opposite measure – giving missionaries the chance to speak when the most people are apt to hear them, i.e. during the Sunday morning service – I can’t say I blame anyone for viewing such an occasion as high-risk.

Public speaking isn’t exactly the kind of job skill listed on most missionaries’ resumes. We tend to do well with people in less-formal settings, doing things like Bible studies, community health development projects, discipleship, and children’s ministries. We equip ourselves with skills like translating, evangelism, mentorship, organizational leadership, and, in the case of my husband, medical work.

All of this means that most missionaries aren’t gifted in public speaking. Most of the population doesn’t have the gift either, and many people in Western cultures even fear it. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is very real. Even missionaries who do have a God-given skill in the art of rhetoric probably didn’t become a missionary because they thought, “I’m good at public speaking! I guess I should become a missionary!”

In reality, the vast majority of missionaries felt called to missions first and only later resigned themselves to the public speaking part of the job. And it is a part of the job, not only because supporting churches have a right (and hopefully a genuine interest) in hearing about the ministry they’re financially and prayerfully supporting, but because it’s biblical.

The apostle Paul left on his first missionary journey after the church in Syrian Antioch commissioned him and Barnabas and sent them off. After traveling around Asia Minor, preaching the Gospel and ministering to the churches, Paul and Barnabas “sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:26-27, NIV).

I have no doubt that Paul and Barnabas shared a myriad of stories. They talked about intense struggles they faced along the way (including a stoning so severe that Paul was left for dead), but I imagine they focused mostly on sharing stories of people who heard the Good News of Jesus.

Paul and Barnabas knew the importance of testifying to what God was doing around the world. They knew it was vital to report back to those who had sent them, not only for accountability and responsibility’s sake, but for the encouragement of God’s people. They all – we all – need reminders that God is on the move, all around the world, all the time.

The question then becomes: When we as missionaries have the opportunity to return to our sending churches and report “all that God had done,” how do we speak without botching it? Paul and Barnabas were in the minority – they were gifted speakers and were even in the preacher category. Speaking was not a resigned part of the job for them. It was the job.

In fact, in Iconium they “spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1b). Returning to Antioch and speaking to the believers about what had happened was just one more time they spoke in front of a group of people.

But what about the majority of missionaries, the non-preachers, the I-would-gladly-do-anything-but-speak folks? How do missionaries speak without making pastors and congregants cringe as they sit in the pews? It’s a question we need to take seriously because, of all the responsibilities in our care, testifying to what God is doing around the world is of utmost importance.

We’ve probably all heard stories of bad missionary presentations – when a missionary was boring or long-winded at best – and hoped we wouldn’t be the next person to further cement the impression that missionaries are terrible public speakers.

The only way to combat this is to actually improve in this area, to train ourselves to be presenters and speakers whether we’re only given a few minutes on stage to introduce ourselves or are actually allowed to speak at length. We want our opportunities to talk about what God is doing around the world to be memorable – for all the right reasons.

I have often joked that the tagline of missions should be: “If you’re here, you’re the right person for the job.” Missionaries spend countless time and energy learning skills they never imagined needing, yet we do it for the sake of ministry. We learn to fundraise, learn languages, write grants, oversee renovation projects, plan events, homeschool, and so on. Public speaking is no different. It’s a part of the job, and it’s something we should train ourselves to do no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

Whatever it takes – reading books, watching YouTube videos and TED Talks, practicing in front of a mirror or a trusted friend – we should care about improving our public speaking skills. The goal is not to become the next Paul and Barnabas. The goal is to be welcomed to share “all that God had done” when visiting a sending church because we can be trusted to testify well to the work of God around the world.

Before that Sunday morning when my husband and I were graciously given the full sermon time to speak, we prepared by discussing not only what we wanted to say, but how we wanted to say it. We discussed transitions, tones of voice, pacing of speech, and movements on stage. We were eager to share stories of how God is moving in Kenya, but also hopeful that the presentation of those stories would have an impact.

Later, the pastor who was so reluctant to give us the pulpit expressed that in nearly 50 years of ministry he’d never heard a more effective missionary presentation.

Thank God we didn’t screw it up.

More to the point, thank God that He is truly at work all around the world, including in the hearts and minds of missionaries who find themselves in a position of speaking publicly about Him.

Photo by Irina L on Pixabay

14 Ways to Make Furloughs Fun for Everyone

by Sara Simons

What if you could replace the dread of being gone for multiple months from the place you love, having to put on your most extroverted self, or feeling paralyzed by the thought of packing and re-packing with fond memories of being with people who love you in a context that was life-giving?

Although there is often an unending checklist of details to attend to, might I suggest starting with creating space to brainstorm and imagining what it would take to make this the furlough where you return with newfound energy and support, the way it was always intended?

What would it take to get there? And how can you be intentional towards this goal?

As you consider your plan and the destinations you will embark upon, here are a few creative thoughts, not just for families with kids, but for the tired overseas worker who wants to maximize and enjoy their furlough.

1. Create a furlough bucket list. As my kids used to say, “Our job was meetings,” so think outside the primary reason you’re there. Start by asking each individual (or yourself) what is one fun thing that he/she would like to do while you’re away. The sky’s the limit for now. This may take doing a little research of what there is to do in the areas you’re visiting, or it could be very simple things you already enjoy.

Brainstorm your list, narrow it down to three to five items, and then choose one solid and important selection per person. While not everyone may want to engage in this exercise or the chosen activity, some may feel inspired by sharing out loud the creative options of memories past or not yet formed – of wanting to go horseback riding, doing a park tour through each city, getting an autograph of every person you meet, or traveling through a beloved foreign city on the return trip.

One year when we were planning to be in nine cities in four states with our then two-year-old and six-year-old, we each chose one thing we wanted to do in those cities: try the ice cream, go for a walk, see the moon and constellations from the unique point of earth we were on. At that age the ideas were all free. You’ll be amazed at the ideas, not to mention the joy of conversing about the possibilities in preparation for your arrival.

2. Think creatively about setting. Where we meet people is not limited to a restaurant or cafe. We often suggest meeting at a park or beach or even a museum. A park is a much more casual and neutral space that requires less of everyone. For us as a family, this option allows us to play with our children and include them once again. Our kids have many positive memories of meeting people at the beach and parks, where otherwise they may have been bored out of their minds.

3. Engage in physical activities with friends and supporters. When we started planning our calendar with this in mind, the joy of furlough possibilities returned. We hated how we seemed to gain weight upon return. The idea of another sugar-laden coffee or heavy meal made my stomach hurt just thinking about it. However, the idea of a walk on the beach, a stroll through a new neighborhood, or a hike together with supporters felt much more energizing. Teach us to play paddle! It was so good for us, our children, and those we were meeting with. Walking and talking isn’t a new concept; sometimes it just takes a little more intentionality to consider time of day, ability to talk, and what is needed to maximize this time. This allowed for bonding and connection in a much more organic way as well.

4. Set up fun play dates with trusted family or friends when we can’t (or choose not to) bring our children to a meeting. People are always asking what we need, and this is a very practical way people can help – something they can offer on home assignment that they can’t give while we’re in our ministry context. Our kids remember the families that supported us with this quality time when their parents weren’t around. These elements of connection to our home country ignited delight in them for future returns, a gift we had hoped for.

5. Host a coffee shop “open house.” When we land in an area, we typically start with this as a priority. We will set up “office hours” for several hours at a local coffee shop and let everyone in the area know where we’ll be. We try to meet where people can drop in during a three- to four-hour window (late lunch hour is good at a self-serve cafe). This is a fun way to see lots of different people, as well have your worlds integrate a bit. This simultaneously takes some of the scheduling pressure off of you. As an introvert, this idea is much easier for me than packing a schedule back-to-back with individual meetings and once again getting in the car.

6. Think of creative games that can be played in a coffee shop, restaurant, bus, or airplane. When we are all together as a family, we try to avoid having both parents pulled into the same conversation so that one of us can solely attend to the children. One of our favorite games is “who can get the most waves.” Each player waves at strangers, trying to get waves (or smiles) in return, and then we tally the number of points. As an adult, this is one game you are certain to lose (although a suspiciously waving and smiling adult gets fun looks too – bonus points!). We have hilarious memories of sitting in the window of coffee shops around the world trying to make people laugh or smile or wave. It’s a day brightener for everyone, especially us.

7. Give your kids a list of things to find from their seat or window (scavenger hunt style). Let’s be honest, we sit way more than any of us benefit from, but we can still find a way to have fun, whether we’re in a restaurant, coffee shop, car, or airplane. Your scavenger list could include: person with glasses, child crying, strange hat, someone who looks like they’re having a good day, colored hair, best tattoo, and more. These can be made up on the spot by you or your children. Sure, this may only take 20-30 minutes in total, but it can also spur on interesting conversations about culture similarities and differences.

8. Enjoy the journey. Plan a side trip for wherever you end up. As global workers, one of the perks we’ve enjoyed as a family is the ability to make memories en route to our destination. A side trip is a trip within the greater trip, sometimes planned, sometimes spontaneous. Needing to go on furlough has afforded us stop-overs that turned into stay-overs at unique and amazing destinations. For the cost of transportation out of the airport and possibly one- or two-night’s stay, you can make incredible memories in beautiful destinations around the globe. This is surely a gift of being globally mobile.

9. Get out in nature by yourself. There isn’t a country on earth that God did not bless with some incredible and unique landscape. It may look like desert, or it may look like marsh, but nonetheless, getting out into nature and engaging in the unique ecosystems of the world is an incredible way to declutter your thoughts and connect with your creative brain. We try to set aside one day a week for this necessary outlet as a family and also as individual adults to get alone time. We have managed to make this a priority by taking turns and limiting our morning commitments.

10. Purposefully try the local food. From Louisiana creole to Minnesota hotdish, not every meal needs to be pizza or hamburgers (thinking US-based here). If people invite you over, ask what their favorite local dish is, and offer to join them in preparing it or to teach them a fun recipe you miss. You could say something like, “I’ve heard there are really delicious ____here. By any chance do you know how to make them?” Learning a new recipe and eating new food is both a memorable way of engaging with people as well as the culture.

11. Reciprocate and bring the cuisine from your country of service and teach others how to make it. Just keep it simple and make sure it’s not too exhausting of a task for you to make or carry unique ingredients for.

12. Go on a special jetlag date when you’re awake at 5:30 in the morning and no one else is awake (minus some crazy-early morning Americans!). My kids have way fonder memories of jetlag than I do. This might be one of the reasons.

13. Make a smash journal. I despise clutter, and I struggle with the amazingly well-intentioned outpouring of gifts to my children by my lovely US-based family. Once we had the idea as a family to “collect” memories along the way through a smash journal. It became our intentional down time together as a family (though not every night). We made space regularly to create little memory books in the form of a journal with everything imaginable stuck inside. Tickets, receipts, napkins, and flyers instantly became more valuable than toys. This was a delightful way for each person to have something tangible from their trip, personalize their experience, and remember their “highs and lows” from the trip using their own unique way of expressing it. It also minimized the need for extra storage or travel space on our return.

14. Take a picture of every bed you have slept in or car you drove or person you met with. This might sound strange or bizarre, but it’s memorable. (Taking pictures of dogs is another option that my kids loved!) For us, this cataloging is another memory-building exercise. Sometimes the pictures validate the wonder of exhaustion or serve as an understanding of your reason for chiropractic care. And sometimes they act as a memory trigger of the beautiful space that was created on our behalf. We have incredible memories of people who loved us well in ways we never asked for.

Getting kids involved in planning from the beginning can give furlough an incredible boost instead of it being a bore. Be creative and think outside the box. You’re sure to make incredible memories that only other global workers truly understand. But don’t feel like this is a checklist. Make it your own, and then be flexible and spontaneous, present to whomever the Father wants to put before you. Truly pray for this time to be the gift it was intended for.

 

Originally published at The Way Between and revised for reprint at A Life Overseas.

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Sara Simons and her family recently relocated back to the US after 11 years living and working abroad. She and her husband Jeff create resources and provide coaching for ministry leaders in major life transition and on sabbatical. You can learn more at thewaybetween.org.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 3: The Journey of Post-Traumatic Growth

by Shonna Ingram

Welcome to Part 3 of our series, where we’ll explore each re-entry season in depth, uncovering how to apply the principles of post-traumatic growth and offering specific resources for each season of the journey. (If you missed them, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 at these links.)

The concept of Post-Traumatic Growth hypothesizes that while trauma inflicts deep wounds, it can also create change. Through the post-traumatic growth journey, individuals can uncover new strengths, gain new perspectives, and explore new possibilities. More importantly, it can help them find restoration and a deeper connection to God. By embracing the post-traumatic growth model and committing to the journey, missionaries can discover their next step in ministry.

While not all individuals experience trauma during re-entry, a trauma-informed perspective acknowledges the possibility of trauma. In the following sections, we will explore the different facets of the re-entry journey, shedding light on the experiences and challenges missionaries may encounter along the way.

Season 1: Return (Pre-Departure and Arrival)

This phase of re-entry is covered extensively in most re-entry literature, which focuses on “saying healthy goodbyes” and “preparing for landing.” As we discussed in Part 1, ideally, missionaries have time for pre-departure preparations; however, unforeseen circumstances may disrupt this. Regardless, the Return phase marks the start of settling back home, from pre-departure readiness to initial arrival and approximately six months after they arrive.

Pre-Departure Preparation: Typically starting nine to six months before departure, this phase involves logistical, emotional, and mental readiness. Prioritizing intentional farewells, addressing logistics early, and engaging in reflection is crucial for a smoother transition.

Initial Arrival (0-3 months) Preparation: This season can be especially hard if there is no pre-departure preparation. This phase addresses practical responsibilities like housing, transportation, and internet service. It is important to be aware of the emotional undercurrents accompanying these responsibilities.

Extended Arrival (3-6 months) Preparation: This phase sees missionaries exploring life in their home country, navigating ongoing adjustment, and settling in. Challenges may persist despite time passing, inviting reflection on overall well-being, family dynamics, career trajectory, and how to manage continued reverse culture shock.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your return, you may grapple with the complexities of leaving behind your life overseas. You may exhibit a range of behaviors indicative of trauma responses, including fight responses by asserting control over your circumstances, fleeing from overwhelming emotions, freezing by looking like you are in indecision, or engaging in fawning behaviors to appease others. Being aware of these normal responses is essential in finding effective support during this transitional phase.

During the initial Return season, consider the following strategies:

  • Find a comprehensive checklist outlining essential tasks and considerations for preparing to return home. This checklist should encompass logistical arrangements, emotional preparedness, and strategies for self-care. Check out our free checklist here.
  • Beware of circumstances surrounding your departure so that you can ensure that you receive the assistance needed to navigate the complexities of re-entry effectively.
  • Foster awareness of the first re-entry season among other missionaries and support networks. This way you can better anticipate and address the challenges that arise in this season.
  • Create environments that validate your re-entry experiences.

Starting with these tips will help ensure that the journey to your home country can be done with confidence. 

Season 2: Restore (Navigating the Space in Between)

The Restore phase follows the initial adjustments of re-entry, representing a crucial period. This season involves navigating space between two life chapters and may span from a few years to a lifetime if not addressed.

During Restore, you may confront a range of emotions and experiences, including ambiguity, waiting, and uncertainty. Particularly important to address during this season are family dynamics, career shifts, and overall well-being. 

This phase presents unique challenges, such as supporting children through their adjustment and navigating shifts in faith. If done well, it can prompt spiritual growth while addressing unprocessed emotions, trauma, or even positive life changes.

Navigating this transitional phase involves a fluctuating journey, marked by moments of feeling stuck and longing for clarity, especially when neither the overseas nor passport culture feels entirely familiar. Questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to grapple with their new realities and search for their place in their communities.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to the Restore season is vital, considering that you may be wrestling with hidden traumas during this phase. Common trauma events observed during this season include: 

Acute trauma, which stems from one-time events like theft or accident.

Compound trauma, which arises from insufficient time to process between smaller transitions or smaller one-time events.

Survivor’s Guilt, which occurs when a person survives an event or leaves others to fend for themselves (this happened during the pandemic, especially if the worker had to leave national friends and coworkers behind). 

Moral Injury, which occurs when individuals have to act against their values, such as breaking laws to achieve certain objectives or witnessing others do so.

Unresolved childhood attachment issues, which lead individuals to feel unsafe or insecure.

It is imperative to be in a supportive environment where you feel empowered to address these parts of your journey in this season. 

During the transitional Restore season, consider the following strategies:

  • Adopt a holistic view of well-being and recognize all areas of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
  • Be a part of a supportive community where you can find understanding and encouragement. Check out our Restore groups. 
  • Address traumas effectively. A team of counselors or coaches specializing in re-entry trauma, older couples, pastors, or organizations familiar with the re-entry space can all be helpful here.

It’s crucial to create a supportive environment where missionaries feel empowered to address trauma and to work from a post-traumatic growth model effectively as part of their journey toward restoration and healing during the Restore season.

Season 3: Rebuild (Developing the Next Step)

The Rebuild season marks a significant shift in how we spend our time, being able to move beyond the hard places, trauma, or liminal space that held us in a Restore season. This is when our brains shift out of survival mode, allowing us to move forward with openness and curiosity. We integrate past experiences, accepting the present while still allowing space for grief. It is also a time to embrace the future with hope.

Key areas of focus during the Rebuild season include cultivating cultural awareness, unfolding one’s faith journey, and embracing growth and transformation. By reflecting on your re-entry journey, leveraging your international experiences, setting new goals and aspirations, and embracing change and adaptability, you can step into a future filled with purpose and fulfillment in your passport country. 

During the Rebuild season, our attention shifts towards narrative development within the post-traumatic growth model. Utilizing resources such as re-entry workbooks and seeking guidance from coaches or trusted friends, individuals can explore their new values and motivations, recognizing both their strengths and areas for growth. Through the process of crafting a new purpose statement and adopting a forward-thinking mindset, you can actively shape your new narrative to cultivate growth and resilience.

During the Rebuild season, consider the following strategies:

  • Explore your renewed purpose and possibly consider further education or training to align with your values to foster a profound sense of purposeful living. You can also join a Rebuild group.
  • Engage in meaningful work or ministry opportunities, which offer avenues for personal and professional growth.
  • Explore new avenues of service, whether through pursuing new job opportunities or engaging in cross-cultural ministry endeavors. 
  • Foster connections within the community, whether through church involvement, professional networks, or volunteer opportunities, as this is essential for building strong support systems and facilitating a smooth transition during re-entry. 

As you start the Rebuild season, you can embrace new opportunities and navigate this transformative phase with confidence and purpose.

You Don’t Have to Go Through Re-entry Alone

As we wrap up our series, remember that you’re not alone in this journey. My consulting company’s new Re-entry program is dedicated to providing resources for each season of your re-entry journey. Whether you’re navigating a season of Return, Restore, or Rebuild, we’re here to equip you with the tools and insights needed to support yourself or others through the re-entry process. From comprehensive digital courses to engaging in small group discussions, we offer a space where you can find understanding, connection, and support. Our team of experienced coaches is ready to walk alongside you, offering guidance and encouragement every step of the way.

If you’re part of an organization with a member care program, consider how you can further support your missionaries by becoming a trained re-entry coach yourself. And if you know someone who could benefit from our resources and community, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Our supportive community is continually growing, so whether you’re planning your return to your passport country, you are still in the process of transitioning back, or you are seeking guidance in retirement, we’re here to assist you. We would love to help you navigate this journey. 

Not sure what season of re-entry you are in? Sign up to take the free quiz.

Our next groups start April 25th and May 3rd. 

Connect with more re-entry resources at shonnaingram.com/resources.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 2: A Case Study of the Three Seasons of Re-entry

by Shonna Ingram

In this second installment of our three-part series on Beyond Reverse Culture Shock (read Part 1 here), I will share a case study to explore the complexities of the three seasons of re-entry. To review:

Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.

Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arrival and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.

Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately from two to five years after returning and entails living out the next phase of one’s life and determining how to show up in this new reality.

Throughout this article, we’ll follow the journey of Sarah as she journeys through each of these seasons, and we’ll look at the challenges and growth she experienced along the way. 

Sarah’s Life on the Field 

Sarah and her husband started on their missionary journey accompanied by their four children, ranging in age from four to nine, and headed to East Africa. Despite Sarah’s background in social work and psychology, which led her to take on the role of on-field care facilitator for their branch, they encountered challenges soon after they arrived. 

In their daily work, these challenges included navigating the complex team dynamics of a young team and wrestling with a partnering organization. As their responsibilities expanded, it became increasingly clear that their primary mission was to hope and pray the new missionaries would return for their second term. 

Living four hours away from quality medical care, Sarah became proficient in managing frequent health issues like malaria and stomach illnesses. They grappled with regular water and power outages, in addition to dealing with multiple missing items which Sarah knew had been stolen. They faced the unexpected deaths of a few national team members and a house helper due to AIDS. 

The trust in any security that she once had no longer was there. It was all so draining. Despite receiving feedback from a missionary care psychologist who indicated the unhealthy nature of their position, Sarah felt compelled to continue, sensing that they had no other choice. Their hearts were burdened for the new missionaries, and they felt responsible for taking care of them.

Amidst these daily challenges were moments of success, such as helping their house girl start her own business and launching ten Bible translation projects.

Sarah’s Pre-departure 

As they approached the five-year mark, her husband said that it was time to go on home assignment and explained that they needed to decide if they were going to return to the field. Sarah found herself hesitant to leave, feeling they had only scratched the surface of their mission. However, it soon became clear that returning to the States was their next step. 

Since they knew in advance that they were leaving their overseas ministry, they followed re-entry book recommendations on how to leave well. They also secured new positions at their international headquarters in the States. Despite feeling somewhat broken yet functional and still in need of a break, they felt like they left the field well.

Sarah’s Arrival (Return)

The first six months started with navigating the housing market, including multiple failed attempts at securing a suitable home due to bidding wars and undisclosed issues. The season was full of stress. They had to find everything that a family of six would need to feel settled, like beds and a car that would hold them all. They made multiple trips to supporting churches explaining their new ministry and the need for more financial support because it was more expensive to live in America.

A few months after they started paying their mortgage, their largest church and individual supporter thanked them for their service in Africa and abruptly discontinued their support. This added to an already fragile state which put a strain on her marriage and her children’s attitudes. 

Reverse Culture Shock in many other areas of life set in and started a downward spiral of not being able to keep it all together. Sarah started having unexplained physical symptoms (beyond the normal perimenopause symptoms that most women feel during their 40s) which she knew were from unprocessed experiences from their time on the field.

Despite a year of fundraising efforts, disappointing results occurred, with discouraging remarks like “You work in the States now; why doesn’t your organization provide your salary?” and “Get a real job and support your family.” These experiences only added more questions about God’s presence, her identity, and her relationship with the church. 

Then one day they received an email from their organization stating that they didn’t have enough funds in their account to get a salary that month. After doing everything she knew to do, she was done with missions and very angry with God for not providing and protecting her and her family even as they tried desperately to do the right thing. They had given up everything to move across the world, and this is what they get? This intensified Sarah’s emotional and physical pain, culminating with bouts of pneumonia and eventually being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.  

It became evident that their return season consisted of two distinct parts: While they managed the pre-departure phase fairly easily, it wasn’t until they arrived that they found themselves not being able to get out of survival mode, since they could not even get their basic needs met. 

Sarah’s In-Between Season (Restore) 

A few years later, as she continued to navigate a season of uncertainty, Sarah was introduced to the study of trauma. It was there she recognized its grip on her—feeling trapped in a constant cycle of fight or flight, numbing out, and being easily triggered by seemingly insignificant events. 

Her journey into trauma recovery led her to confront her heart wounds. She learned how to face loss head-on and to address feelings of disappointment and resentment stemming from past experiences, including things that happened before she went to the field. Engaging in the practice of lament over past hurts, she began the journey of forgiveness, extending it to others, herself, and God.

This shift marked the beginning of her path toward healing and hope, transforming her approach from merely doing work for God to partnering with Him. This part of the healing journey wasn’t a one-time event but a lifestyle change of healing and growth.

In addition, Sarah began healing her body through specific somatic exercises and nervous system regulation techniques. Furthermore, she learned how trauma impacts brain chemistry and how the brain can rewire itself. Armed with this knowledge, she navigated the connections between her heart, mind, and body, fostering a deeper sense of self-awareness. 

A few years later, looking back on her re-entry journey, she realized that if she had known this information earlier, her recovery might have been quicker. As she shared her story and spoke with others going through similar transitions, she found that many could relate. Seeing the value in her own journey of healing, she felt motivated to assist others on their path to recovery.

Navigating the phase “in-between” two life chapters often entails moments of feeling stuck and a strong desire for clarity, especially when struggling to fully adjust to either the overseas context or the passport culture. Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has experienced at least a few days in this in-between season, but some people get stuck in this season. Additionally, during this phase, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to wrestle with their new realities and seek their place within their communities.

Sarah’s New Narrative (Rebuild)

Driven by her passion for helping others heal, she immersed herself in various trauma recovery trainings. Through those trainings, she noticed a significant gap in available resources for those in the church and missions world. 

At the beginning of 2020, she created a new post-traumatic growth program for churches. Later that year, she was asked to help her organization establish a re-entry program. Eager to contribute, she created new resources specifically for returning missionaries. Other organizations worldwide started reaching out to her as they saw what she was doing to help missionaries return well. This led her to create a new organization geared toward those on the re-entry journey. She is now able to impact more lives than she ever did while she was on the mission field.

The Rebuild Season signifies new beginnings, offering an opportunity to reevaluate our contributions to the ongoing narrative of ministry. It’s not a one-time event but a continuous journey of growth and hope, where we discover our evolving purpose and embrace the next chapter of our ministry.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is mine. I am Sarah.

In the next article, we will look at trauma-informed care in each season of the re-entry journey.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 1: Trauma-Informed Care for the Re-entry Journey

by Shonna Ingram

As I stepped off the plane at Houston International Airport with my husband and four children between the ages of 9 and 14, my thoughts were all over the place. We thought we were ready for the next season. A little broken, sure. A little uncertain sure, but isn’t that what God called us to? 

We had read a re-entry book that guided us in ending our overseas service well, which led me to believe this next chapter shouldn’t be too difficult, since we had only been overseas for five years. However, the months and years that followed show a different story that I hope to never repeat. That was over ten years ago, and nothing has been the same since. 

Navigating the Changing Mission Landscape

The missionary care landscape experienced a significant change with the sudden onset of the pandemic, particularly impacting missionaries who had to unexpectedly return from their field. Missionaries found themselves forced to leave their country of service within 24 hours’ notice—a situation seldom witnessed in recent history, if ever. Even before the pandemic, there was a notable trend of missionaries returning home due to factors such as visa complications, burnout, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. 

Additionally, there has been a noticeable shift in the duration of missionary service, with many individuals opting for shorter overseas assignments, deviating from the traditional model of long-term commitments. As someone closely involved in a Bible translation organization, where projects typically span several decades, this evolving trend has prompted concerns and reflections. 

I found myself pondering these trends. Are these changes viewed as failures or simply a natural progression within the missionary journey? These reflections led to further questions about the preparation and support available for returning missionaries.

Throughout this series, we will delve into the re-entry journey across three key seasons, exploring its impact on missionaries and offering practical insights for navigating this critical phase of the missionary sending process.

Defining Re-entry

At first glance, re-entry is simply the process of returning to one’s passport country after a period of overseas service, whether returning from a short mission trip or ending a lifelong career as an overseas worker. No matter how long you live overseas, it does something deep within you. However, for those who have at one time dedicated their lives to overseas Christian service, re-entry can be a confusing and complicated season.

It is also important to note that re-entry comes in two forms: planned returns and unplanned returns. Planned returns can often be marked by the completion of a project, retirement, or at least entering into the season knowing that they will be returning to their home country after a period of overseas service. It may entail celebratory send-offs and opportunities for reflective gatherings to honor the missionary’s service. Many resources are available to aid missionaries in this initial phase of re-entry, through books, articles, and checklists focusing on ensuring a successful conclusion to their on-field service.

On the other hand, unplanned returns are a different type of return. These unexpected departures can stem from various reasons, such as health concerns affecting the missionary or their family, marital crises, visa complications, or unforeseen global events like pandemics. Missionaries facing these unplanned returns require a different approach and guidance in navigating the re-entry process.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the return, the re-entry journey is not merely a physical relocation but a transition that affects emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions and can be a complex experience that demands careful attention and support. 

Understanding the Re-entry Journey

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of being part of an organizational think tank tasked with establishing a re-entry program. My involvement stemmed from my expertise in crisis and trauma support, career development, spiritual formation, and my own re-entry journey struggles. We wanted to comprehensively understand the journey of returning missionaries and identify strategies to facilitate their transition.

Our initial inquiries revolved around the difference in experiences among returning missionaries. Why do some navigate the re-entry journey more easily, while others find it profoundly challenging? We then conducted interviews and focus groups, soliciting feedback on what helped, what didn’t, and what could have been beneficial during different phases of the process.

Then I went one step further and took into account the SAMHSA definition of trauma, which states:

Trauma arises from an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. This trauma can have lasting adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s well-being, including their mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and spiritual well-being.

One glaring observation emerged: while existing resources predominantly catered to those experiencing expected returns, we were experiencing a significant number of missionaries facing unexpected circumstances around their return. Moreover, we identified a progression through a few distinct stages.

We distilled the missionary re-entry journey into five key phases which I turned into three key seasons:

  • Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.
  • Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arriving and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.
  • Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately two to five years after returning where they integrate their overseas time into their next life season.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that these stages are fluid and not strictly bound by timelines. External factors such as marital issues or health concerns can indeed impact the progression through these stages, potentially causing delays or requiring additional attention and support. While we’ve outlined approximate timelines for each stage, it’s important to acknowledge that individual experiences may vary, and flexibility is key in navigating the re-entry journey effectively.

By reframing the re-entry process through the lens of these stages (which I prefer to call seasons), we gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities on the journey. This approach allows us to anticipate and address the unique needs of returning missionaries more effectively and to facilitate smoother transitions.

In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the three seasons of re-entry through the use of a case study.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Accessing the Power of Good Debriefing

A colleague of mine at TCK Training spent time preparing and travelling to facilitate a two-day debrief with a family who were on home assignment in their passport country. As they all introduced themselves and began to get to know each other, she asked what their hopes were for their time together over the next two days. The parents looked at each other and then back at her as they sheepishly admitted, “Actually, we have no idea. This is something our organisation requires, so we just signed up because we were supposed to. We have no clue what a debrief actually involves.” 

While debriefing has grown in popularity and more missionaries are at least familiar with the concept, the actual nuts and bolts of a debrief can be a bit murky. Because of that, it can be hard to even know, “What is a good debrief?” What should your expectation be of the debrief you signed up for? How do you know a debrief went “well”? 

As we’ve worked with hundreds of families at TCK Training, we’ve heard about a wide array of debrief experiences. There’s a vast mixture in what they received and how effective it was. We would love to see a broader understanding of the hallmarks of a good debrief, even if the execution differs.

In this article I am going to explore what a good debrief involves, why good debriefing can be so powerful, and how to access quality debriefing – no matter what services are (or are not) made available to you in your own situation.

Q: What is a good debrief?

1) A good debrief is preventive. 

That is, the debrief is not in response to a crisis situation but is part of a program of regular care. At TCK Training, we recommend that all families experiencing global mobility do a full debrief (two full days set aside for the sole purpose of debriefing the entire family) every 3-4 years and a check-in style “annual debrief” each year in between. While crisis situations also need to be addressed, this should not be the only situation in which a debrief occurs.

2) A good debrief crafts an intentional, open-ended journey.

Good debriefing is more than verbal processing, prompted with questions along the lines of “Tell me what happened? How did it go? What happened next?” A good debrief instead asks about all different facets of life, and is open to unexpected answers, not just looking to check items off a list. A good debrief asks intentional and purposeful questions that are crafted to lead you and your TCKs through a journey of discovery, finding things that need processing – even if you weren’t consciously aware of them.

For children, this element of a good debrief involves engaging in a variety of ways. Since we all know that sitting across from a child and asking them direct questions isn’t particularly effective, we need to make sure that movement and creativity are a central part of a TCK debrief. 

3) A good debrief creates a sacred space for hard things.

During a good debrief, you feel safe to explore difficult experiences and the difficult emotions that go with them. You are not shamed for your emotions, worried that your emotions might be used against you, or that what you share might result in you losing your job. In the sacred space of a good debrief, you know there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. 

4) A good debrief embraces both shared and individual experiences.

At TCK Training we believe in the power of families working through debrief materials together. We all have shared experiences as a family, and it is helpful and healing to process those shared experiences together. During the debrief, parents get the opportunity to model expressing hard feelings and doing the hard work of emotional processing, with expert guidance to support them. As their children watch this, it will help them recognize the importance of this work and how to do it, as well as give them permission to do this work with their parents, not only in the moment but in the future.

In addition, there will always be aspects of our lives as a family that are individual. Children and parents do not have the same experiences, nor does each child or each parent have the same experiences. Having individual sessions as well as family sessions is necessary to build self-awareness and for personal growth.

Q: Why is a good debrief powerful?

Making debriefs part of a regular program of preventive care leads to more beneficial outcomes. Reactive care – a debrief that takes place in the aftermath of a particularly stressful event – occurs when individuals are full of heightened and heavy emotions and aren’t able to fully engage in the debriefing process. During a preventive care-style debrief, individuals are less occupied with a specific need and can engage in the process of working through all the small things they have experienced over time. This leads to greater learning about themselves and their needs and greater likelihood of retaining that learning over time. 

As part of an individual debrief, teenagers and adults alike get the opportunity to work through their experiences with guided assistance. The crafted questions of a good debrief help us recognise things we didn’t even know were hiding under the surface of our hearts and minds. We debrief our emotions, identity, grief and loss, subconscious expectations, and more. 

Debriefing as a family helps us see where these different facts do and do not line up with each other – where we have different perspectives on the same events. Children are provided a safe space and a mediated opportunity to share emotions they have struggled to express. Parents can help fill in the gaps where children were missing part of the story. These can be powerful family moments.

One Adult TCK shared with me that as a child, their missionary family had something called a “debrief” every four years through their parents’ missionary agency while on home assignment. Yet this experience never included anything individual for them as a child or teenager, where they could explore their feelings. In addition, they felt constrained to not speak about certain events. A debrief that created sacred space and acknowledged their individual journey would have been far more powerful. It would have combatted the loneliness far too many TCKs struggle with and instilled the value that they are worth being individually cared for.

Q: How can our family access a quality debrief? 

If your organisation offers (or requires) a debrief, try to get some information about what debrief means to them. You might ask what the debrief consists of, how children are involved, what the goals/aims of the debrief are, and how the debriefers are trained. 

If your organisation does not provide debriefing, or the debriefing offered is not comprehensive, you could ask them to outsource these services to another organisation or to cover the cost of your family procuring a debrief elsewhere. Knowing what a good debrief is and why it matters will help in explaining why this is important to you.

Our priority at TCK Training is ensuring that families have access to quality debriefing, both inside and outside the missionary world, and we are not the only group with this goal. Other sources of quality debriefs include MTI (Mission Training International), Alongside Ministries, TRAIN, and Safe Place Ministry. 

TCK Training provides debriefing services (both in-person and virtual), and we also train others to provide good debriefs. (We have trained hundreds of people in how to conduct quality debriefs, including staff at various mission organisations.) To make quality debriefing even more accessible, we now offer a resource to help parents lead their own family debrief at home. We also have a FREE processing worksheet with great questions to ask yourself or someone else to help work through emotions. This free resource is a great place to start if you want to learn more about what a quality debrief can look like.

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

This is What Courage Looks Like

Sandy was raising support, and she was stuck. She had exhausted all of her contacts – friends, relatives, acquaintances. She had contacted all of the churches where she knew someone, and had reached out to dozens of other churches with no response. Yet she was still far away from that elusive 100% funding goal. 

So she tried a different strategy. Each Sunday morning, she would pick out a church to attend – cold turkey – not knowing a solitary soul.  She would show up at this church where she knew no one, look for a friendly face, strike up a conversation with this complete stranger, and ask if this person could connect her with a pastor or missions leader. 

Sandy is an introvert. She is warm and confident but not the kind of person who especially enjoys entering new churches and striking up conversations with strangers. But she did it because she had to. She was determined to get to the country where God had called her and was ready to do whatever it took.

I was Sandy’s coach during her support-raising season. When she described this to me, my mouth gaped open and my eyes bugged out. All I knew was that I didn’t think I’d ever have the guts to do what she was doing, Sunday after Sunday. This took resolve. This took courage. 

I thought about my own support-raising journey. My husband and I would “divide and conquer” in our support-raising tasks. I wrote the newsletters and thank-you notes; he wrote the sermons. He fixed the printer when I was about to throw it out the window. And having him by my side every time I entered a new church gave me a measure of security.

I coach many single missionary women who are raising support, and they don’t get to delegate these tasks. If they hate public speaking, they don’t have a spouse to pass that off to. If they aren’t good at technology, they still have to figure it out themselves. When their pitch is rejected, there isn’t a partner by their side to share the burden. 

We laud the courage of single missionary women when they single-handedly figure out how to exterminate a rat invasion, stop the flood seeping into their house, or replace a blown-out tire. But we don’t often recognize the additional demands of everything they must do to build a support network on their own.

I realize that much of this could also apply to single men. However, I believe that single women often face unique challenges in earning others’ respect and attention – in foreign cultures, on their missionary teams, and in the churches of their home country. 

As I walk with these women on their journey to the mission field, I brim with tremendous admiration for their grit, perseverance, and resiliency. The truth is, most of these women would love to be married with a family. For many of them, it’s their deepest heart’s desire. Yet they are steadfast in obedience while they trust the Lord with their futures. 

This is what courage looks like. 

Do you have a single female missionary in your life? Probably more than anyone else, they need advocates to raise their support. Maybe that could be you.