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

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

A New Resource for Member Care Providers

by Geoff Whiteman and Heather Pubols

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Essentials for People Care and Development: A Collection of Best Practices, Research, Reflections, and Strategies, an excellent new book on member care from Missio Nexus. ~Elizabeth Trotter

Since 2000, I (Heather) have served in missions and communications. These days much of my work is focused on equipping and encouraging other missionary communicators. I often tell them that the job of a missions communicator is more than just developing content and materials to promote a mission organization’s vision and programs. As we help our missionary colleagues share their knowledge and stories, in the process, we care for them as encouragers and advocates.

World Evangelical Alliance Global Member Care Network Coordinator Harry Hoffman has a category for people giving this kind of care. He calls them “people helpers.” Harry says this group includes lay counselors, mentors, peers, and spiritual mothers and fathers. I might add colleagues to his list. People helpers are an often untapped or overlooked source of peer-related member care. 

In his book Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms, Jim Wilder decries the neglect of relational skills development in Christian organizations. Instead, he says, as we collectively strive to accomplish our organization’s vision, staff tire, disconnect, and become spiritually dead. 

However, Wilder goes on to explain that when our organizations first cultivate healthy relational cultures, vision is implemented in a better way. People stop “burning out for Jesus,” mature spiritually, and exhibit greater trust in God. Member care in this model becomes a critical organizational strategy for sustainability, and everyone is invited to play a part in it.

This brings me great encouragement and was part of my inspiration in spearheading the creation of this book. My desire was not just to see member care professionals better equipped. I also wanted anyone involved in missions to have the chance to expand their view of member care and see ways they could apply the contents of this book as they cared for their fellow humans serving in God’s mission.

To achieve these objectives, I partnered with Geoff Whiteman. Geoff has served as a member care professional in private practice and with mission sending and service organizations (both as a resilience researcher and a marriage and family therapist) and currently advises member care professionals directly. Together as co-editors of this book, we bring our experience as co-laboring missionaries as well as our perspectives from different ends of the member care spectrum. Geoff gave leadership to this book’s topics and authors, while I worked with each author on crafting the content for a broad audience.

So whether you are a person who simply wants to be more aware of how to better care for global workers you know or work with, you are considering a ministry of care for God’s beloved missionaries, or you are a seasoned member care professional – welcome! This book was written for you. 

Most of the contributors to this volume presented at the MissioNexus Mission Leader Conference in 2022 and 2023. The themes of those conferences were “Counting the Cost” and “Shift: Rapid Social Transformation and the Gospel.”  The people care and development workshop track connected these themes with the needs of the missions community through a practical theology lens. 

To develop this further, we asked several questions. What do member care professionals believe (theological and biblical reflections)? What do we know (research and case studies)? How can we respond (frameworks and strategies)? What will help (tools and resources)? And who can we join (kingdom collaboration)?

An axiom of missiology is that faithfulness to the universal gospel requires attentiveness to the particulars. We need exegesis of the text and ethnography of the context if the good news is to be good news here and now. This axiom is true for member care as well. There have been seismic shifts in the world that impact the world of missions and the discipline of member care. 

I (Geoff) can think of many people who have lamented to me about what they are seeing. An executive director of a mid-sized agency explained, “We used to have a good handle on member care, but now we’re not so sure. Everyone coming is carrying so much trauma. We want to help them, and we also have a job we need them to do.” 

A seasoned trainer told me, “We keep seeing major member care issues in our trainees. The people coming through training now need more training, but organizations are placing a lower priority on training. There’s a huge gap between everyone’s expectations. I’ve given my life to closing this gap, but it keeps widening.” 

On another occasion, a senior pastor shared with me about texting with global workers on the other side of the world who were in a medical emergency with their child. He said, “I’m their pastor. I have to help them, but I don’t know who to turn to.”   

I share Heather’s conviction that the invitation of member care to love one another well belongs to each of us.  And I add my conviction that some of us are invited to become member care professionals who do so with excellence. This is because many of the perplexing and pervasive challenges are best understood as structural. These are places where our walls are not framed plumb and square to our foundation and where no amount of fresh paint will remedy the problem. 

One of the more pervasive structural problems is the belief that the aim of member care is to eliminate preventable attrition rather than to see reductions in attrition as an outcome of a healthy system in which member care has a key role. Through research, we found that attrition is multi-faceted, complex, and rarely (if ever) clearly differentiated between preventable or unpreventable. Member care workers often play an essential role in helping global workers do well, but their work is often tertiary and occurs alongside friends, family, colleagues, supporting churches, and others.

To move forward we need to grow in awareness of how care fits across cultures in individual relationships and in organizational systems. And we need to approach this area with hearts and minds that honor those who came before us and are open to the diverse perspectives of those involved in today’s global mission environment. Reading and interacting with the content of this book can be one step in moving forward. 

Our prayer is that this book will meet a real need you have now and provide you with resources you can return to again and again. We trust it proves to be a blessing to you and through you to those God invites you to care for. We hope you’ll share it with someone you know and the dialogue that follows will spark new insights.

May we each be a part of building healthy relational cultures in the organizations we serve!

~~~~~~~~~

Heather Pubols is the editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ, emqonline.com) – a professional journal for North American missionaries that has been continuously published since 1964. She is also the founder and principal communications consultant for le Motif (lemotif.org) – a communications consulting firm focused on global mission. She has served in missions for more than 20 years. 

Geoff Whiteman, ThM, LMFT, serves member care professionals as the director of the VALEO Research Institute (valeo.global/research) and the MissioNexus People Care and Development track co-leader. Since 2000, he has served in vocational ministry and has supported the care and training of global workers in Christ since 2007. Those experiences piqued his interest in how global workers could persevere with joy which led him to research resilience (resilientglobalworker.org). 

A Pocket Guide for Talking to Missionaries: Dozens of Missionaries Open Up About Questions They Love and Questions They Don’t

“Soooo…..how’s Mongolia?”

Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia. 

Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.

Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling. 

But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”

My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.

We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions? 

We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.

The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)

Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.

Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there. 

Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home. 

Instead ask questions that reconnect.

“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.” 

“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”

“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”  

“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?” 

“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?” 

Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post. 

Don’t ask how their vacation is going.

Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.

Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.

This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.

Instead ask what this time looks like for them.

“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”

“Will you be able to take a vacation?” 

“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?” 

“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?) 

Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.

The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions

Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.

Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”

Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome! 

Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.

Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”

Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”

Jean: “What breaks your heart?”

Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?” 

Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences.  I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other. 

Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.

Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.  

Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.

Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”

Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]

Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.

Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.

Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.

Matyas:  I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews. 

Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”

A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?” 

Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.

Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.

Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.) 

When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class

Don’t get too personal.  

Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway. 

Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.

Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)? 

Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).

Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions

Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends

Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Don’t ask for numbers.

Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”

Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.

Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”

Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.

Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?” 

Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.

Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?

Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.

Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.

Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that?  These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.

Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for. 

So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.  

Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them. 

Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.

Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!

Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end. 

Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.”  (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)

We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!

4 Reasons Churches Should Visit Their Missionaries

by Beth Barthelemy

About a year ago, we had our very first visitors since arriving on South African soil (about a year before that). After months of anticipation, our pastor and friends from our U.S. church arrived to spend a week with us.

They did not come as a short term team, with a particular ministry focus. We had no projects lined up for them. They did not come to “check up” on us, to make sure we were worth their investment. They did not have a list of questions with which to assess our effectiveness or success. They came with a simple purpose: to be an encouragement to us.

Throughout their visit, both my husband and I wondered, “Why aren’t more churches doing this?” We have friends whose churches give generous financial gifts but offer little other support. After just a short stint on the field, we see our deep need for all kinds of support from sending churches. Long-term missionaries need you, beyond your monthly check and prayer. They need you to visit them.

Here are four reasons why.


1. It is a major encouragement to the missionary.

The very night they arrived, I told my husband, “I already feel so encouraged – it’s like such a lift to my spirit.” They didn’t have to actually say anything – just the act of planning the visit, making the long trip, and arriving at our door, was a gift in and of itself. They could have turned around and left and I would have been so thankful.

But then, over the course of the week, we were able to have meaningful conversations — about our family life, about how our kids were doing, about my husband’s classes and his students, about how we’ve struggled this year and how we’ve grown this year. Being able to share all of that, to hash it out with people who’ve known us and invested in us prior to the field, was huge.

 

2. It enables the church to see and experience the ministry.

Before our pastor and friends arrived, we lined up a handful of experiences which would give them insight into our ministry. They attended classes with my husband, and we hosted a dinner with students that evening. They met our coworkers at the college and from our organization. They spent hours in our home and played with our kids. They took a tour around our city. They attended our church and chatted with our pastor here.

At the end of the week, they expressed how valuable it was for them to be able to put faces to our ministry here. It’s not just numbers anymore, but peoples’ lives, stories, hopes. It’s not just a vision for ministry anymore, but a tangible experience of that ministry. And we’re not just a picture on their wall, but a family whose life and work they intimately got to be a part of for a week.


3. It reminds the missionary that the ministry isn’t just about them.

While we were fundraising in the States, we were regularly encouraged by the excitement and support people provided. It was obvious that this discipleship ministry in South Africa, this raising up of Christian leaders, wasn’t just about us or God’s leading in our lives. It was about so much more – about many individuals who were joining us in this ministry and churches who were behind this mission. We truly felt like Paul when he wrote, “I thank God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1:3, 5).

After being removed from our churches and circles of partners, however, it became easier to forget that this was indeed a team project. On hard days, especially for me at home with kids most of the time, I found myself asking of the Lord – “Why am I here again? Did we make a mistake, coming to South Africa? Is all of this sacrifice really worth it?”

Over the week that our sending church visited, I was reminded in a deep and meaningful way that this ministry was never about just me. Sure, we are the face of this work, but we could not be here without our churches behind us, without our amazing base of partners, all who have affirmed God’s leading of our family in this direction and expressed desire to be a part of this ministry. Tearfully and humbly, I have thanked God multiple times for his goodness in sending our church to us so that He could remind me that it’s not all about me. I needed that reminder, and he gave it to me in a powerful way.

There is no price tag you can put on that kind of encouragement.

 

4. It’s an investment in your long-term missionaries.

You may be thinking, “Isn’t it really expensive to send people just to visit?” Yes, it is. Many churches are sending multiple short-term missions teams out every year, some with great effectiveness and others without. There may be great value in redirecting some focus onto the effectiveness of long-term missionaries. After all, they are the ones who are with locals day in and day out, for years, developing relationships, training future leaders, and have potential for a more lasting impact.

Additionally, there is great value in just “being” with people. We are prone to believe that unless there is tangible achievement or numerical results, nothing has been done and our efforts have been wasted. This is simply untrue. Sending people for the primary purpose of encouraging your missionaries is indeed doing something very valuable. It is practicing the ministry of presence. Being with people is encouraging, rejuvenating, and motivating.

In general, churches would be wise to consider their investment in their long-term missionaries — and I mean beyond the financial investment. Long-term missionaries need much more than just your money every month. We need your prayers, your emails, your intentional connection, your teaching, your accountability, your resources, your care. Sending a few key people to visit your long-term missionaries is an investment in them and in that ministry. Our church ministered to us in profound ways, by simply showing up at our home and being a part of our life for a week. And we are so thankful.

originally published here

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to three young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, moved to South Africa in 2016 to be involved in teaching and discipling future Christian leaders. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her at www.bbbarthelemy.blogspot.com and www.instagram.com/bethbarthelemy.

Beating the Drum for Missionary Care: An Interview with Neal Pirolo

In her post “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” Katie Rowe looks at the findings of a recent survey of missionaries, showing that respondents rated “lack of missionary care” as one of the most common reasons for leaving the field. One of those who commented on the post was Neal Pirolo, author of Serving as Senders—Today: How to Care for Your Missionaries as They Prepare to Go, Are on the Field and Return Home, and The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. The current edition of Serving as Senders—Today is a revision of the original, first published in 1991. Since then, it has been translated into 20 languages and has nearly a half million copies in print.

In reference to missionary/member care, Neal wrote, “I have been ‘beating this drum’ since 1976!” I contacted Neal to get his long-term perspective, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions (and along the way, with his wife’s help, remembered that the year was actually 1978).

Why was 1978 a starting point for you to begin your drumbeat for missionary care? 

Oftentimes, telling a story communicates better than “just the facts.” Let me tell a story:

I went to Brazil to administer the five schools Wycliffe/SIL was using at the time for missionary children. My wife was given the responsibility of overseeing the Group House in Cuiaba. We had a choice: move our family of six in with all the singles or move from house to house every three months as translators went to their villages and back. We moved in. We looked in the refrigerator. Every item had someone’s initials on it. We looked at each other. “This will not work,” our eyes said to each other. But how do you change a group of people so entrenched?

On the second evening, we were all in the kitchen trying to quickly clean up and get to a meeting. Someone pulled hard on the fridge door. It came off its hinge! It fell forward, dumping all the contents on the floor. After the clean-up, my wife said, “We will be doing things differently now.” We became a family.

To make a long story short, in those two and a half years, we lost all sense of personal ownership. Everything became ours. Even our bedroom became the crying room for several single women who were being teased beyond reason about getting married.

Well, in 1978, we came home. At the office, a working partner was using a new Bic extra-fine felt-tipped pen. (They had not been around when we went to Brazil.) I admired it. He let me try it. It made such a smooth and clear script. I liked it. The next day he brought one and gave it to me. He gave it to me! It was mine. I owned it! Every so often, I would stop writing and just look at that 79-cent Bic pen and realize that I owned it. It was mine! His first look at me was quizzical. Then he smiled an understanding smile. And we went back to work.

There is a chapter in The Reentry Team titled “Silly Little Things.” Silly little thing after silly little thing can create an apprehension in returning missionaries making them wonder “what next?” Bit by bit the reservoir of resistance to the uncertainty of these silly little things can become “the final straw.” Only those trained in missionary care will see the need to help them process even those silly little things.

After returning from ministry in Brazil. I was given the position of director of the San Diego School of Evangelism and missions pastor of the sponsoring church. SDSE was a ministry school with a very strong emphasis on cross-cultural outreach (missions). Even as the students made their application to the school, I encouraged them to develop a team of ten people who would be supportive of them, for they were entering this school with a life of ministry before them. Then, to those who wanted to minister cross-culturally, we gave further training in living and ministering in a second culture, with the support team becoming more fully developed around the areas of care Paul commended the Christians of Philippi for providing for him.

You’ve had 40-plus years of watching the missionary landscape and listening to missionary stories. From what you have seen and heard, how have the member-care needs of missionaries changed—and how have they stayed the same?

Missionary care is multi-leveled and diverse. In its fullest sense, it brings to play four levels of involvement: church care, partnership care, agency care, and crisis care. Each level is good at certain aspects of need and not so good at other aspects. But it is interesting that as the first three function at their strength, the fourth level is less needed. It is diverse in that each member of the family, as a unique individual, has different needs, and different needs at different times. It is quite intense. Thus, there’s the need for a cooperation between all parties, including the missionary, in providing missionary care.

The need for missionary care has not changed through the years. The enemy who raised havoc in Paul’s day is the same enemy who is waging war with the saints today. Through world travel and communication networks people may be more aware of the needs of missionaries. However, Paul, the Apostle, in writing a letter to the Philippian Christians, acknowledged their care for him in six areas: encouragement, prayer, logistics, communication, finance, and reentry. He opens the letter by calling them “partners in the Gospel”! And every missionary today needs “partners in the Gospel” to provide care in those six areas.

What has changed is a greater awareness of that personal/relational/partnership level. It is a group of people who have come together as a team and have taken “ownership” of the specific work of a specific missionary. With this level of commitment, they are more likely to see the mission through to its completion. They are as concerned as the missionary is about the outcome of their efforts. They see the missionary as their “field representative,” but they, in their respective roles, are equally vital to the end goal.

The prayer coordinator of one partnership team saw a photo of a young lady with her head on the shoulder of a missionary she and her team had sent out. When she saw it, she said, “I want to know if this young lady is distracting Byron from the work that we sent him to do!” That’s ownership. That’s commitment. That’s missionary care.

Partnering in that way takes trust. What can missionaries and senders do to develop that kind of relationship?

Here is the first part of Byron’s story:

Byron had just come back from a short-term ministry trip to China, and he believed God wanted him to return long term. Very quickly, because he had been active in his home church, the leadership confirmed his call. The missions pastor brought him that news with a copy of Serving as Senders—Today. “Byron,” Dan said, “read this book and begin developing your partnership team.” Byron’s reply? “I’m not gonna read dat book! I’ve got the Bible and that’s all I need!” Gently, but firmly Dan responded: “Byron, we can’t keep you from going to China, but if you want us to send you, you will read this book and develop your partnership team.” He began reading. One by one, he sought out and gained a commitment from a core leadership team. He began having meetings on the last Sunday of each month. No pressure. No commitment. But at each meeting, as Byron shared his enthusiasm and God-directed commitment to this ministry, more and more people prayed and decided it was something they wanted to be a part of. Byron was allowing them to “own” this ministry. As each made a commitment to provide care in one or another of the six areas, they related with the core leadership for that area. These commitments were not on a “management team” level. These people had prayed about their decision. A trust in the Lord and in each other was being developed. In nine months, Byron was ready to be sent by his home church. Though 14 years have passed, and many changes have taken place in his ministry (he did marry that young lady), many on that original team are still partnering with him.

Byron’s is a success story of beginning—and continuing—cross-cultural ministry with a partnership team. There are some missionaries, though, who’ve been on the field for several years and who find themselves, for whatever reason, without such support. Maybe they’re feeling distant from the people “back home.” What advice would you give them for taking steps to fill this need?

Craig, you are making this so easy for me! Another story:

Maria was sent out (more like . . . said “good-bye” to) by her church. They and she knew nothing about partnership teams. She struggled. (That’s an understatement!) She was observing another missionary family who was doing so well. One day, they invited her to a Bible study. Their missions pastor had prepared a study—just for them. He had flown to their city only for this reason: to share the Word with them and encourage them.

Maria was aghast! “How? Why? What?” she wondered. She drew up energy to ask them. In the conversation, she discovered how they had developed a partnership team. Their finances were in order; hers were almost nonexistent. They had an active prayer team; she doubted anyone remembered where she was. Their missions pastor had made a special trip to encourage them; she didn’t know if her church still had a missions pastor.

She came home. Yes, there was a missions pastor, but he was busy with 35 missionaries out around the world. Her name was on the list, but she had never received anything from the church, except one time: They had sent her a USA bank check. It had been returned for additional postage and sent again. In her country, she could not cash it.

Well, another one of the pastors heard her story and decided to do something. He arranged for her to share at all of the home fellowships to educate them about partnership teams. Then he sent a copy of Serving as Senders—Today to each of the 35 missionaries, with a note: “Read this book. If you would like me to help you develop a partnership team, pray, then send me the names of two or three you believe could become the core leader of your team.” For those who responded (When I heard this story, I couldn’t believe that some did not respond!), he went to the people named and asked them to prayerfully consider taking on this responsibility. From there, the core leader wrote to the missionary, obtained the names of their friends, and asked permission to write to them. A team was developed.

This way is a bit more difficult than if the missionary develops the team before going. For Maria, it worked by her taking the drastic step of coming home and God leading her to a pastor who would “carry the ball.” It would be even more difficult if there were no one in leadership to assist the missionary or for the missionary to manage it from the field. However, all missionaries have someone who has shown interest in their ministry who could help facilitate it from their home country. I cannot over emphasize, from my experience with missionaries who have a developed partnership team and those who don’t, it is clear: Whatever it takes, it is worth your effort to develop this level of missionary care.

This is not to negate the need for the other three levels of missionary care. There are functions that the agency can do well that the other three cannot, likewise, for those at the church and crisis levels of care. When each level functions well at what they are best equipped to do, a missionary is well cared for, to the glory of God!

Neal serves as founding director of Emmaus Road International, which provides many member-care resources through its websiteThey include Byron’s complete story, “I’m Not Gonna Read Dat Book!” and the audio of a talk Neal has given entitled, “Partners in the Gospel,” both at ERI’s Free Media Library.

You can purchase Serving as Senders—Today from ERI, with discounts for bulk orders. And to those missionaries now on the field wanting to set up a partnership team, Neal extends this offer: If you email him the names of two or three people you have prayed about who might be willing to take on the leadership of a team, he will send them a copy of Serving as Senders—Today, with a letter encouraging them to “step up to the plate” and assist you in developing your team. You can reach Neal at Neal_Pirolo@eri.org.

[photo: “Drum,” by André Prata, 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]