“Personal debriefing allows time for sharing the paradoxes of the field experience. To be seen, heard, and understood in a safe space is invaluable to a global worker’s health. This vital process allows them to learn, grow, and look forward to the next steps in their life journey.”- Cynthia Barkley, Clinical Director, Juliana Poor Memorial Counseling Center, Houston's First Baptist Church.
I have a friend who is an avid duck hunter and a natural-born storyteller. He loves to regale me with tales of his hunting adventures. By the end, I'll know the details of every duck that entered his spread and get an analysis of every shot. I'll hear about the satisfaction from success and the wistful lament over the ones that got away. The stories usually end with his conversation with the game warden as he departed and headed for breakfast tacos on the way home. Smoked or grilled, duck is on the menu for dinner that night.
The point of this illustration? It's a good example of the debriefing that occurs all the time in our everyday lives. It is a normal, natural thing we do with our friends and family members because we care about one another. Reflective storytelling is how we process life and maintain healthy connections.
The same is true for the global worker; only their experiences span longer lengths of time and are much more intense. Without debriefing, life and ministry experiences on the field accumulate, becoming a burden that can affect their health and contribute to burnout. The stories they carry, bitter or sweet, cry out to be told.
"It was twelve years after our return before we had any debriefing. Back then, it just wasn't done." We were having lunch at the PTM Conference in North Carolina. This veteran global worker’s remark encapsulated the need for a shift in debriefing philosophy among those on the front lines of global worker care.
"Without debriefing, life and ministry experiences on the field accumulate, becoming a burden that can affect their health and contribute to burnout."
It's easy to understand how things have developed. Veteran global workers who spent twenty or thirty years on the field started in a very different environment. Expectations regarding travel, technology, and time spent on the field were different. It was normal for workers to be more isolated and be gone for years without return. When they did return, debriefing may not have been a priority. They learned to live without resources and without much contact with their church or sending organization.
Thankfully, gone are the days when global workers were expected to tough it out in silence, whether on or off the field, but especially when they return. Right now, many workers have returned home and will remain at home for the foreseeable future because of travel restrictions related to COVID. But rest assured, ease of travel will return in time, and most will go out into the field again. This is a good time for the local church to establish a sustainable reentry process that includes debriefing. This critical component of care helps ensure their continued health, resiliency, and well-being.
Jesus as Debriefer
How can the local church address a healthy debriefing methodology? The answer is in the Word, where we find several good examples. Luke 9:10, Acts 14:27, 15:3, are all good passages, but perhaps the best is Luke 10:17-24, where the "debriefer" is none other than Jesus himself.
As Jesus journeyed toward Jerusalem, He sent seventy-two disciples to go into towns along the way, taking the message of salvation with them. The passage begins with the story of their success, "even the demons are subject to us in Your name."(v.17). Jesus then puts things into their spiritual context, "I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning" (v.18).
Next, He gives them the proper perspective, "do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you, but that your names are written in heaven" (v. 20).
Finally, He praises God (v. 21) and encourages the disciples for what they have done in His name, "Turning to the disciples, He said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see, for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and did not hear them.’" (vv. 23–24).
"Local church, regardless of your size or the number of global workers in your charge, you can provide life-giving care for them upon re-entry."
Together, Jesus and his disciples address the past, present, and future of their experience. They are seen, heard, and understood by the master himself. Dr. Ronald Koteskey uses three terms to describe this process for personal debriefing; verbalize, normalize, and contextualize. Verbal expression of thoughts and feelings clarifies experience; normalization occurs among others who understand or have similar experiences, and placing experience into proper context shows what God is doing in the long game of their life.
Local church, regardless of your size or the number of global workers in your charge, you can provide life-giving care for them upon re-entry. I encourage you to consider these four DEAR steps.
Develop – If you don't have a care team, get one. There will be those in your congregation with a heart for the global worker. Seek them out and bring them together as a team.
Equip – Read everything you can about global worker care and especially debriefing. Make it a goal to train your care team in peer debriefing. Resources for training are plentiful and affordable. Even if your worker's sending organization provides debriefing, commit to being at the ready as a safe, third party resource.
Assess – Know your workers. Who are they? Where do they serve, and what is their ministry? Be consistent in communications with them before they return so that when they do, you will know their needs, especially with regard to debriefing. They will feel seen, heard, and understood by your team.
Remember – Your workers have been called to evangelize the nations. They are at the forefront of bringing the Gospel to every nation, tribe, and tongue. Our commitment to their care can help ensure their longevity on mission for as long as God calls them to remain.
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. You can find her on Twitter and texpatfaith.org.