A Trip to the Store

by Robert Buchanan

We were on a six-month home assignment after having served our first term as missionaries in a South Pacific country. At the time we were living in our friend’s finished basement and using one of their vehicles. One night my wife Heather told me she wanted to do some shopping in town. Like many men, I’m not a big fan of shopping, and I didn’t want to go. Heather persisted, and I finally said, “Why don’t you just take the car and go? We can do something when you get back.”

For several seconds she looked like she was in deep thought and then said, “Oh yeah, I can do that here!” In our country of service, it is unwise for ladies to drive off our mission center by themselves. Heather and I had spent over 40 years of our life in the U.S. before going overseas, but now after only two years abroad, we had changed.

Even simple tasks aren’t that simple when one lives in the developing world. If you live in a suburban location in the United States and want to go into town to shop at a local store, what do you do? Most likely, you make a shopping list, grab your wallet and car keys, and drive into town without much thought.

You probably don’t check with the local authorities about road conditions and zero out your trip odometer so that you’ll know exactly how far away you are from home if you break down. Or take the time to ensure that you have a full tank of fuel, check to see that your license and registration is up to date, and know that the vehicle is in good working order.

You are even less likely to make sure someone else knows your itinerary, that you have emergency contact numbers written down, have redundant communications devices available, ensure that there is a reasonable proportion of adult men to women and children, think about who would be an asset and who would be a liability in a critical incident, have a throw-away wallet in your possession in case of a robbery, or on occasion request an armed escort from a local security provider.

As you drive, the tactically minded among you may be looking for roadblocks and choke points, but for most Americans without a law enforcement, military, or security background, that is an odd and foreign concept often relegated to the paranoid. Of course, humans aren’t the only hazards on the roads, but in the U.S., you are unlikely to have pigs, dogs, and drunk people wandering in the middle of the “highway.” If for some reason that does happen, it doesn’t last very long.

Similarly, you’re unlikely to drive over bridges without railings or that seem ready to collapse. Pedestrians and other drivers may sometimes use bad judgement, but for the most part, Americans follow the rules of the road which are actively enforced by the police.

When you arrive in town, you probably don’t have someone stay with the vehicle to deter theft. You probably don’t consciously ensure that the men in the group take responsibility for looking out for the women and children. You probably aren’t looking for surveillance and likely don’t have a mental contingency plan for a riot, medical emergency, or firefight between the police and local criminals.

If you live in the developing world as a missionary or NGO worker, you likely do all of this and more for every trip into town. Are there some missionaries and NGO workers who become complacent and fail to take all these precautions? Yes, there absolutely are, but even in their complacency they are more alert than most Americans who have never lived overseas.

This is understandable since the United States has good roads, well-trained police, fire, and emergency medical service professionals, trauma centers, available tow trucks and mechanics, solid communications infrastructure, and a stable power grid. So thank God and count your blessings if you live in suburban America, but remember that, to the majority world, the stability you experience in the U.S. is unheard of.

As a career security professional, I have always run scenarios in my head and made plans for a whole host of contingencies, but it wasn’t until the I lived overseas that I began to fully understand the quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously said, “Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.”

No matter how good my plan is, it is unlikely to match the exact situation I find myself in, but having gone through the act of planning, I can more easily adapt. Now, as practical as that statement is, my time overseas has also taught me a corollary: “No matter how much I plan or how adaptable I am, I am still totally reliant on the One who knows the end from the beginning.”

God stands outside of time, knows all things, and works all things together for His glory. As a servant of God, I fall short when I only rely on my ability to plan and adapt. My faith must be in Him, who not only gave me the skills and intellect I have, but who knows far more than I ever could.

Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is prepared against the day of battle: But safety is of the Lord” (KJV). Notice that the horse is prepared. We are not to shirk our duties or ignore our talents and abilities, but in the end, it is God who gives safety.

As a missionary with 10 years of overseas experience and a security professional with 34 years of experience, I can give this advice: Learn everything you can, plan to the best of your ability, and prepare for foreseeable events, but most of all, rely on the One who holds all people and all history in His hands.

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Robert Buchanan is a career security professional who answered God’s call to use his skills in overseas missions. He currently serves as a security advisor for a mission organization in the South Pacific. His wife, Heather, serves as a teacher in the local international school, and together they have found that true joy comes from doing God’s will – even when conditions are challenging.

What I Learned After Visiting Scotland

My last name may not scream an ethnicity to you. Unless you are Chinese, and then when you see my pale face, sturdy bones, and slightly curly hair, the response comes from an ancient script passed down from generation to generation. Eyes widen, “You are not Chinese.”

Yes, I know that.

Growing up I latched on to the “Scotch” part of my “Scotch-Irish” heritage. I don’t know why I wanted to be Scottish so much more than Irish, but I did. Fostering this lovefest was the bag my great-grandmother brought through Ellis Island in New York. As a child it all seemed so exotic and exciting.

One of my dearest friends in college moved to Scotland after graduation and served three years as a cross-cultural worker in a small church. My first visit to Scotland was one year into her term.

I was going to walk the land of my ancestors! I was going to get in touch with my Scottish roots! I was going to find where a distant relative was buried! I was going home!

Except it turns out, that “Young” is an Irish name. My enthusiasm was met with blank stares. Even in the tourist stores where I was desperate to buy anything with the “Young Tartan” on it, there was a nary a thread to be found.

{Side note: A couple of years ago, when I visited Scottish friends I made on that first trip, “Young” has either been discovered in the Clan Annals OR the wise merchants wanted in on the action. Either way, I bought “Young Clan” coasters for the whole family.)

While I had a wonderful trip and fell in love with Scotland, I left with a profound sense that no matter how much I wanted to be Scottish, no matter how much I loved Scotland, no matter how many scones I ate or cups of tea I drank, I was an American.

It seems to be in vogue these days to either cling to a country or reject identifying with it outright. Are those the two options God gives us? As I considered what it is that God says about citizenship in the Bible, I noticed the following.

1. God has a soft spot for the alien; however, God’s soft spot for the alien seems more related to power than to citizenship. One of the few passages that directly relates to citizenship is the well-known “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and is related to taxes. Other passages talk about our citizenship being in heaven and are almost all in Paul’s letter. Keeping in mind he was writing to people in the Roman Empire, they too were trying to figure out the boundaries of loyalty. This post is too short to go into the context of each letter, but if we had more time, I would love to explore what Paul (and a messenger for God) was saying. In short, the bottom line is not that citizenship and loyalty to a place are bad or to be denied, but they must not be supreme.

2. God gives a face to those who are rooted to a place. In the Bible God weaves the stories of the foreigners in with those who stay, those who are known in and for a place. God also lists other nations throughout the scripture. Outside of a few specific times the Israelites were told to destroy a people group or city, God preserves the different nationalities.

Those associated with a place (or at least not known for being a foreigner) who also modeled the tension of holding God above nationality:

Jesse
Mordecai
Rahab
Jesse
Shunammite Woman
Elizabeth and Zechariah
Isaiah
Phoebe

When we compare the lists of those who were known for the foreignness in the Bible and this list, I love the Bible all the more. God includes both, inviting us to keep interacting with this tension.

3. This two-sided coin points to a bigger story. We see in both the Old and New Testament that variety, differences, and uniqueness will exist in heaven.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Amen and Amen!

I had coffee with a friend who recently returned to the US after 18 months in a poor area in India. She’s transitioning to another assignment. After explaining to her mom the analogy that many cross-cultural workers are from Circle cultures who live in Square cultures and in the process become Triangles. Her mom asked her to please be a Circle person again. She wondered if it was possible to return to being a Circle.

I laughed.

Her mom was asking the wrong question. Maybe we are too. There is nothing wrong with asking “Where do you feel like an alien?” or “How has your notion of citizenship changed?” In fact, these are good questions. But let’s use them to propel us deeper into the mystery and beauty of a faith that points to the Already/Not Yet of belonging in and to the Triune God,

Podcasts, Anyone? Let’s Serve Up a Smorgasbord



Some people scroll Facebook. Some YouTube. Some TikTok (at least for now). Some spend their online time on Pinterest or X or Insta or IG or Gram—and I’m going to stop there, before I pull a muscle.

If you can’t tell already, I’m not a big consumer of social media, but I do have go-to sites of my own. Most mornings I call up a collection of tabs for local, world, and Church news; sports updates; and several blogs. One site that I check daily is MinistryWatch, which helps readers make informed decisions about giving to Christian charities. A couple of weeks ago, MinistryWatch‘s editor, Warren Cole Smith, wrote about the recent online conversation concerning the drop in the number of American conservatives listening to NPR. He says that his “own experience reflects that change.”

“Part of the reason for these changes,” Smith writes, “is technological. The rise of podcasts means that we have a much wider variety of listening choices than we did even a decade ago. As recently as a few years ago, when I got in my car, I turned on the local NPR affiliate. Today, I plug in my iPhone and listen to a podcast.”

Some people listen to podcasts . . . but not me, at least not often. I have listened to season one of Serial (on NPR, oh, the irony) and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, but that’s mostly it. I don’t have an iPhone and my 2006 Honda CR-V doesn’t speak Bluetooth.

I know that many of you are fans of podcasts, though. So I’d like your help in crowdsourcing a list of them for your fellow ALO readers. What do you listen to? What podcasts do you tune in to to get your cross-cultural-worker information, insights, or inspiration? Maybe you host a podcast yourself. Let us know. Also, what podcasts not specifically in the cross-cultural-worker orbit do you follow—ones that tangentially speak into the CCW mindset and experience?

When giving podcast recommendations at his site, Smith notes the importance of moving beyond one’s own beaten path, writing, “If I am not careful, I’ll end up in an echo chamber of my own design.”

“[I]n media as in other areas of life,” he writes, “a balanced menu is the best approach.”

So let’s make our own menu. Normally, in a situation such as this, I’d prime the pump with my own ideas. But this time it’s all on you. I can slide in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill for something tangential, but that’s really all I’ve got firsthand.

It’s up to you to provide your suggestions (with links or platforms if you have them) in the comments. Feel free to provide descriptions or plugs or caveats, but those aren’t necessary. My part is that I’ll compile the titles alphabetically into a list here in this post. I’m calling it simply “A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers.”

Thanks in advance, and bon appétit!

A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers:

[Warren Cole Smith, “Editor’s Notebook: Listening in on the World,” MinistryWatch, April 12, 2024]

[photo by Gil Medina]

What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

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.

~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~

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

Failing Lent

Church seasons are my jam. I love how struggling through Lent prepares me to celebrate Easter and engaging in Advent readies my heart for the miracle of Christmas. But this year I’ve failed. 

I started Lent with grand dreams to write a letter a day. I’m talking a hand-written, thoughtful, prayerful, encouraging note from yours truly. I bought 40 cards, made a list of 40 people, and began imagining those little rays of happiness flying into mailboxes all around the world. 

That commitment lasted about a week. 

Slowly writing a card got replaced with an ever-expanding to-do list that made even a 10 minute pause seem impossible. And often, I just forgot. Making a new habit was difficult, and soon a whole week had gone by without a card. Then a second week. My shiny, pretty cards mocked me, and I had a vague sense of guilt for not following through on my plan.

It has been a busy season. (I loathe that word, “busy,” especially the way it’s worn like a badge of honor for overcommitted folks with poor boundaries… especially when that person is me.) Some unexpected roadblocks came my way that needed my attention, and my good intentions were crushed under my feet as I rushed off to fix problems and put out fires. I’m surely not the only one. 

That’s why I was so relieved when I sat down to read my daily devotional toward the end of Lent and found this thoughtful reflection by Jan Kwiatkowski: 

“Most likely you started Lent with specific intentions and desires and then found yourself having to adjust, perhaps letting go of some of your original intentions, or maybe you realized that you took on more than was possible this season… I don’t think it matters to Jesus what any of us did or did not accomplish… we never 100% get any spiritual practice right… Trust that compassion and love surround you waking and sleeping, no matter what is done and left undone.”

Whew! I’m so grateful for this reminder that God is not a harsh taskmaster who refuses to grade along a curve. Instead, we serve a God who knows all of our human weaknesses and our most intimate struggles and flaws… and still calls us “good.” 

We are made in God’s image.
We are God’s beloved children.
We are God’s good creation.

Even when we fail.
Even when we are unloving.
Even when we don’t look good.

The Bible is full of stories of God’s lovable failures and imperfect followers. Whenever I need to remember that, I flip to the Psalms. They remind me that this following-God-life is not about performance or perfection and that it’s okay when my ridiculous humanity far outweighs my hopes for holiness.

One of my favorite passages comes from Psalm 73:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.

(Ugh, same.)

When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

(Oh I know that feeling.)

Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.

(I’m clinging to that promise.)

My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever. 

(Yes! Amen. Thank you, Lord.)

– Psalm 73:1-2, 21-24, 26 

My Lenten failures reminded me of how utterly dependent I am on God and how very grateful I am for grace. And if that’s the case, can they really be considered failures?

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.

You will not clear them away all at once

Deuteronomy has a good word for missionaries. You’re familiar with the setting, the Israelites were finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land after 40 long years.

In part, God said:

“No, do not be afraid of those nations, for the Lord your God is among you, and he is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you little by little. You will not clear them away all at once, otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. But the Lord your God will hand them over to you. He will throw them into complete confusion until they are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 7:21-23

The wilderness was an in-between place for the Israelites. No longer in Egypt, God used their time in the desert to prepare them for what’s next. While you might not be in an in-between place right now, this passage contains reminders that are good to revisit.

1. Do not be afraid for the Lord your God is among you. 

God doesn’t start with the details, instead he starts at the deep heart level: do not be afraid. Why does he say not to fear? Not because what you’re facing isn’t scary, it may be very scary! You don’t need to fear because God offers the gift of his presence. You will not be alone.

2. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you. 

When you’re in an in-between place and getting ready for a new or next stage, it’s good to be reminded that you don’t have to do anything at first. Too often I think I have to go first and then God will come along once he sees that I’m “willing to do my part.” This is backwards.

3. Little by little. 

What? Little by little? What happened to great and awesome? But little by little rings true to my life and ministry. Far more true than the Hollywood version of change where there is one big, life changing moment and then the credits roll. Even for situations that seem more clear cut—I now pronounce you husband and wife, It’s a boy!, Welcome to your new cubicle—they do not, in fact come all at once. Instead they are little by little until deep roots are extended and the change has taken place.

When you enter the new phase, remember that at first, it all may feel overwhelming, unfamiliar, and even slow. But something is happening, little by little.

4. You will not clear them away all at once. 

Isn’t this phrase a relief? When we face an old temptation or think we “should” be further along than we are, God holds the long view in mind.

Why not move faster? (I’m a “faster is better person.”) Otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. Who knows what wild animals God is protecting you from I admit that I can grow weary of a slow process, but when I think of the wild animals I am clueless about, I can lean into the slow pace with more gratitude.

This passage ends with two sentences using the word will. It will happen. You will enter a promised land. What is not promised is the how or the timing

If you’re in an in between phase, may these four reminders prepare you for the time after the in-between:

—God will be with you in the new unknown.
—God will go before you.
—The process in the new phase most likely will be little by little.
—The process may be slower than you would like.

What other scripture passages have helped prepare for what’s next when you are in a waiting phase?