"I've been adjusting well, though I also feel kind of lonely in ministry here. I don't know how to explain it. I'm on a team in my host country, but it's just me when I'm back home. I miss the interactions with my team." – Michael Detana, Returned Associate Pastor.
Michael conveys what is common to many global workers on reentry. They leave behind their community and ministry team and enter an environment, at least at first, that is devoid of community support. It can be a lonely time, especially during our current pandemic, when people are not gathering together. Even so, care teams don't want to miss out on those first days of reentry and the opportunity to connect their workers to the community.
In the words of care contact Rachel Hannusch, "Deep and lasting care of the soul cannot be done in isolation. God made us relational, and we are best healed, shaped, and sharpened when in community with other believers. Transitions for global workers disrupt those all-important relationships, and we as a care team need to do whatever we can to reestablish those vital connections as quickly and seamlessly as possible."
I spoke with mobilizer Herschel Rothchild, who serves as the South Central Regional Director for SIM, U.S. His words ring true to the experiences our care team has had with our own returning workers, "When cross-cultural workers come back, they need to have a person or people that will pray for them, listen to what they have to say, and validate their experiences."
It Takes a Village
If you want an illustration of what a support network should look like, read Paul's litany of names in Romans 16. He lists at least 26 people that comprised his community of support. Striking in its diversity, he speaks of churches, benefactors, loyalists, companions, co-laborers, and hosts who assisted him as he traveled from place to place.
"Paul was able to do the work God had called him to do because of the incredible support of those brothers and sisters who are immortalized in Romans 16."
Warren Wiersbe comments, "He (Paul) did not try to live an isolated life; he had friends in the Lord, and he appreciated them. They were a help to him personally and to his ministry." Chapter 16 ends with the reason care teams do what they do, a doxology that gives glory to God and praise to Jesus Christ for the Gospel, and a command that Paul (and our global workers) “advance the obedience of faith among all nations—” (Romans 16:26b).
Paul was able to do the work God had called him to do because of the incredible support of those brothers and sisters who are immortalized in this passage. How can the local church strive to emulate Paul's model described in Romans 16? Our care team has found there are three groups of people critical to global worker soul care on reentry; church staff, care contacts, and a global worker's home group.
A designated person in your church or your missions staff should be the central point of contact for workers and supporters. This individual should be the one that knows all the workers supported by your church, where they are, what they do, and, regarding reentry, the timing of their return, including the details of their transition. This type of care requires consistent contact with your workers, and it allows for proper preparation well in advance of their reentry.
"Maintaining healthy souls on reentry is a community effort that takes time and commitment."
The foremost priority is to know why they are returning. This will go a long way in identifying needs. Is it burnout, team conflict, regularly scheduled furlough, family or medical concerns? Knowing the reason, and the practical details, like flight arrangements, housing, transportation, schooling needs, etc. allow for mobilizing a support network that stands ready to welcome your global worker back into the community.
Ideally, each supported or sent worker should have an established relationship with a home-based contact or advocacy team. If they don't, then follow Woody's moving buddy orders in Toy Story, "If you don't have one, get one!" These relationships are the first line of defense against a lonely reentry. Your missions council members, bible study classes, and small groups are great resources for care contacts and advocacy teams. Recruit and train them to be part of your global worker's support network.
My own experience with reentry was the catalyst for opening up our home to returned workers. When my husband and I returned from overseas, we left behind a thriving home group vital to our well-being. We wanted to re-create that environment as part of our church's care ministry. It has been our experience that a returned worker's home group is by far one of the best things you can do for them.
A gathering place for people with the shared experience of serving the Lord overseas is therapeutic, and it meets a critical need for encouraging these servant souls while they are home. It is a place where they are seen, heard, and truly understood. They are on common ground with like-minded people.
Any local church of any size can do this for their global workers. All you need is a willing host. I promise, your home will feel like the first-century church, right out of the Acts of the Apostles.
Maintaining healthy souls on reentry is a community effort that takes time and commitment. Everyone involved in the ministry of global worker care has their own part to play to ensure a loving support network quickly surrounds returned workers. I encourage you to consider, "What role do you play?"
Don't leave your global worker hanging out there alone. Embrace them with open arms, spend time with them, listen, and learn, as you walk alongside them during their reentry.
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.