Two Practices for The Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I am wired to move forward.

In January I created a Reflecting on 2019 and Preparing for 2020 packet. During group calls with cross-cultural workers who used packet, many said they are similar to me. Others said, “What?! No, reflecting is the best; planning is the hard part.” Obviously, both are important. That being said, just because something is important, doesn’t mean we will do it.

Part of my “move forward” mentality influenced my understanding of debriefing for missionaries. I thought people went through debriefing when they left the field. So, when I left the field in a more traumatic (to me) fashion than for years I assumed I would, I attended a weeklong debriefing. I highly, highly recommend debriefing!

But one repeated statement shocked me.

“Debriefing isn’t only for those who are leaving the field.” 

Wait? What?

Turns out debriefing helps both those who like to move forward and need a nudge to reflect and those who like to reflect and need a nudge making plans.

Since I can’t go back and add more debriefing to my past, I can build more into my life and have found two practices that have allowed me to sort through experiences closer to real time but with enough distance to be valuable. 

The first practice is an “After Action Review.” I read about AARs in Your Best Year Ever by Michael Hyatt. They were designed by the US Army in 1981 to provide a structured way to look at “failure.” After learning about them, my hope is that you and your team will start implementing them.

I have already done three since January, one for the January Challenge I designed for Global Trellis, one for a cross-cultural worker conference I attended last weekend, and one for the April Challenge (also at Global Trellis). 

An After Action Review involves four stages:

  1. State what you wanted to happen.
  2. Acknowledge what actually happened. Tease out themes, single words or phrases, even complete sentences.
  3. Learn from the experience.
  4. Adjust your behavior.

Because models are helpful, you can see the After Action Review I did of the January Challenge here. I have included most of what I wrote (I’ve left out the parts that are private). I will admit I reluctantly did an AAR for the April Challenge. Probably like you, much of this season has been marked by disappointment and parts of the April Challenge did not go as I had hoped. I wondered if doing an AAR was going to depress me (and remind me of the plans and investment—both time and money—that had gone to “waste”). But I did an After Action Review and you know what?

More went well than I thought. By taking about 15 minutes to answer the four question I was able to both capture on paper (so I can refer back) and allow the Holy Spirit to extend grace to me (this really was an unusual spring, I can be nice to myself that it didn’t go as well as hoped). 

Whether you are looking forward to doing an AAR or dreading it, I’d encourage you, your spouse, and/or your team to build in the practice after larger events. In truth, if you do it yourself, they take about 15 minutes. If you do it in a group, each of you do one ahead of time and then give no more than 45 minutes to go over it as a group. This will help you stay focused.

The second practice is debriefing. My hope is that you do not find this statement shocking in the least: “Debriefing isn’t only for those who are leaving the field.”

Whether you have been through a traumatic experience or simply the normal rough and tumble of a year or two, debriefing can benefit you. Similar to an annual checkup at the doctor, debriefings help you to know where you are healthy, where you might be in a warning zone, and where you need to change or intervene right now. 

Often debriefing in-person is expensive or unavailable. Thankfully with the internet more accessible debriefing options exist. Whether you left or stayed for COVID-19, you have a lot to unpack. Here are two options for accessible debriefing that can be done where you are. 

When Jesus pulled away and spent time with His Father, in part, he modeled that a life time of ministry has times of reflection and times of action. The more you build these two practices into your life, the more you will become integrated and whole.

After Action Reviews are not just for businesses and debriefing isn’t just for those leaving the field. Instead, they are practices of those who participate in what Eugene Peterson called “the long obedience in the same direction.”

Photo by Tucker Tangeman on Unsplash

Debriefing: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

After I wrote about debriefing last month, some people responded with versions of . . . Sounds like a good idea, but where should I go?

That’s a great question, and I’d like to point you to a place where you can find some options. Here at A Life Overseas, click on the Resources link at the top of the page, and you’ll see a list of debriefing opportunities under the heading “Re-entry and Debriefing Resources.” It’s not an exhaustive list, but with the continued help of this community, we can make it more so. Can you give us the names, URLs, and locations of other places you’d recommend? Just comment below or leave your contributions in the comments section at the end of the Resources list.

Of course, Where? isn’t the only question worth asking. So as you think about what might be a good fit for you, here are some more questions to get you started:

Who is offering the debriefing?
Is it led by an organization, or an individual?
What is their philosophy? Do they have a statement of faith?
Who are the facilitators? What is their background, experience, and training? Do they have specific areas of expertise? Have they written blog posts or books that you can read?
What have others said about their time there?
What language(s) will be used?
What are their policies concerning confidentiality?

Where is it located?
Does it take place in your passport country, or near your place of ministry?
Is it along your scheduled route, or would you rather it be off your beaten path?
Is it in the mountains, next to a lake, in a city, outside a small town?
What’s nearby?
What are the facilities like?
Where will you sleep—on site, at a hotel, in the home of a host?
Is it close to an airport, and is transportation available from the airport to the site?

Who will attend?
Will there be others there at the same time, or will you be there by yourself?
If there’s a group, how large will it be?
Can others from your organization attend the same session?
Are children welcome? Is there a minimum age?
Does the debriefing include a program for children, or is child-care provided?
How many young people will there be? Will age groups be divided?

How much does it cost?
What is included in the cost?
Are room and board provided, or should you make your own arrangements? (If food is included, can dietary needs be accommodated?)
Are scholarships available?
Is there a penalty for cancellation?
Will there be extra transportation costs to factor in?

When does it take place?
Are there multiple dates each year?
How long does it last?
When is the registration deadline?
Does it fill up quickly? Is there a waiting list?
How long after reentry do they recommend you wait before debriefing?
Is there a minimum time you’ll need to have spent on the field?

What is the schedule like?
Is the daily schedule flexible?
Is free time included?
Will attendees have time for informal interaction with each other?
How is time divided between group activities and individual debriefing?
Are times set aside for organized worship?
Is there anything you should do to prepare?
Will there be follow up after the debriefing?
Can you arrive early, or stay late?

Not all of these questions will be important to you, but some will. And you might have questions of your own—born out of your specific experiences, needs, and expectations. You can help out the rest of us with your additions to this list. And again, don’t forget to go to the Resources page and add your suggestions for where to debrief. That will be a big help, as well.

[photo: “Welcome home,” by Stefani Woods, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door

When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, and unclipped or ingrown toenails. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’d like to keep your running shoes on. Debriefing is just another mile marker in your race from agency to church to summer camp to appointment. You’re on a tight schedule, and while you’re tired and thirsty, the most you can do is grab a paper cup of water as you run by. Even when you stand still, you’re jogging in place.

Or maybe you don’t want to take off your work boots. You come to debriefing only reluctantly. This is your spouse’s idea or your team suggested it or maybe your agency told you you had to come. So you make phone calls during the breaks and answer emails until late at night. Mental multitasking keeps your thoughts half a world away.

Or maybe it’s your dress shoes that you don’t want to take off. You’re ready for the debriefing questions the same way you’d be ready for a job interview or performance evaluation. It’s like when your boss asks you “What’s your greatest weakness?” The trick is to come up with something that sounds honest but doesn’t reveal too much, maybe even sneaking in a strength, all the while avoiding the too obvious “I struggle with being a perfectionist” or “Sometimes I just care too much.” When you’re asked how you are, you say “fine” and tell how well your ministry is going.

That’s not the way debriefing should be. Effective debriefing requires barefoot honesty and vulnerability. But I do need to add here that that’s not solely on you (no pun intended). You need to be in the right environment, the right culture, to bare your feet. Not everyone can offer that.

You probably don’t share everything with your agency, church, supporters, or family, because they’re, well, your agency, church, supporters, or family. And that’s what makes the debriefings offered by independent member-care individuals and organizations so valuable. Yes, debriefing can cost money and time that you could spend elsewhere, but it also has so much to give in return.

It has experienced facilitators who know the right questions to ask and who know how to listen, even to words unsaid. They see beyond your status as a missionary, knowing how much your vocation impacts you, yet knowing that there is much more to your identity. They won’t decide your future but can help you figure out the path ahead. They are safe. They are encouraging. They won’t report to others what you tell them but, if needed, can guide you to those who can give you more care.

And if you join with a group of other missionaries for debriefing, you get the extra blessing of forming a community that speaks the same language (and I’m not talking about English here), that can relax around each other, that can laugh at shared jokes and cry over shared losses, that can find comfort in each other’s quiet presence.

No one can demand your trust, but your trust can be earned. No one can make you take off your shoes, but when the ground below you becomes holy, removing your shoes becomes a natural response. And it will invite those around you to a deeper level of honesty.

When you travel abroad, pick up on the cues where you are and follow their shoe-wearing customs. When you fly, you should strongly consider leaving your shoes on (seriously, here’s another article on that topic). When you go to debriefing—and I encourage you to do so—I hope you’ll be able to leave your shoes, and socks, at the door. It’s one of those cultural things.

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Debriefing Resources


Thanks to the facebook followers of our A Life Overseas page we have a list of debriefing resource links. Please share any resources you have found helpful. We would love to bulk up the list with resources around the globe.

Other names for debriefing include: home assignment, re-entry counseling, member care, and processing for repatriation.

Christian Training Center International at The Inn (Franklin, North Carolina, USA)

Life Impact (various locations around the world)

Link Care Center (various locations around the world)

Mission Training International (Palmer Lake, Colorado, USA)

Missionary Health Institute (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

The Rest Initiative (Maitland, Florida, USA)

TEAM (various locations around the world)

Thrive, empowering global women (various locations around the world)

TRAIN International (Joplin, Missouri, USA)

The Well Member Care Center (Chiang Mai, Thailand)


Member Care Radio

Expatriate Connection


Re-entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home” by: Peter Jordan

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by: William Bridges

Trauma and Resilience” by: Schaefer and Schaefer

As Soon As I Fell: A Memoir” by: Kay Bruner


As stated up top, if you have links to resources that could help in the area of debriefing, counseling for repatriation or re-entry, member care, processing for home assignment, or other related needs those living overseas might have, please share.  Thanks! Be well and take care, my friends.