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Post-Field Care: Plan, Presence, and Pathways to Reengagement

Post-field care can be the most challenging care for churches to provide. Missionaries come home for numerous reasons—scheduled visits, life events, abrupt endings or retirements—and just as the church needs to be the launching pad for its missionaries, it also needs to be the place to which its missionaries can safely and confidently return.[1] Neal Pirolo writes, “Not only is it crucial for a missionary to have a home church from which to be sent, but . . . upon reentry, it should be their first stop.”[2] He argues that if a church has buy-in with sending a missionary to the field and supporting them on the field, then they should also receive that missionary home from the field in a hospitable way. “If you are diligent in properly sending out your missionary, you also need to carve out the time and energy to bring him home safely.”[3]

Reverse Culture Shock

Churches sometimes have a hard time relating to missionaries during the reentry phase because of the reverse culture shock missionaries often experience.[4] Reverse culture shock is a normal experience for returning sent ones, and it can often be more jarring than the shock of entering a new culture for the first time. Returning to what feels like “home” after being away can make the reentry period challenging for a missionary. Craig Storti writes, “Home is the place where you were born and raised . . . your homeland . . . it refers to a set of feelings and routines as much as to a particular place—where you are known, trusted, accepted, understood, and indulged.”[5] Navigating “home” is certainly tied in to the ways in which relationally, spiritually, and even financially a church invests in its returning sent ones. As the church provides care in these areas, the missionary will feel a sense of belonging as they return from the field. Three broad categories in which churches can help structure post-field care are the areas of planning, presence, and pathways to reengagement.

Missionaries will not return from the field as the same people they were when they left, and their churches will not be the same either.

Planning

Planning on both the missionary’s and the sending church’s part will require anticipation and intentionality. Thomas Kimber encourages churches to “be aware of reentry challenges, recognize the importance of immediacy (being present from the start of reentry), communicate often with the missionary, and listen well.”[6] Churches should assure their missionaries by being a safe place for openness, honesty, and transparency. Planning also involves acknowledging that no one-size-fits-all approach to reentry care exists and that providing appropriate care will require considering variables such as a missionary’s length of time on the field, unique needs, and attitudes. Our church put together a process by which we knew six months to a year ahead of time when the missionary would be returning stateside. Because we had a mission house at our disposal, we were able to plan for meeting tangible needs through the house and the amenities it included, as well as helping with schooling and transportation needs. By staying in touch with our missionaries, we were able to get a pulse for what areas we needed to debrief with them on well in advance. Missionaries will not return from the field as the same people they were when they left, and their churches will not be the same either. Churches need to be aware of these changes and prepare to work through them as they engage with missionaries during reentry.

Presence

Acts 14:26–28 shows us how important presence is to post-field missionary care. Just as Paul and Barnabas spent “no little time” with the church at Antioch, missionaries need to have significant opportunities to interface with their sending church. This time of interaction as missionaries share stories, successes, difficulties, and challenges is known as debriefing.

Debrief can be a vulnerable and often difficult process for missionaries and churches, but it can also expose the church to the best ways to pray, equip, send, and support their missionaries.

Debriefing allows the missionary to share burdens of missionary life with others who will provide a listening ear. Shirley Ralston comments that “without debriefing, life and ministry experiences on the field accumulate, becoming a burden that can affect their health and contribute to burnout.”[7] As missionaries from our church returned stateside, one of the associate pastors and I would meet one on one with the missionary to debrief in areas of physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual health. We would also provide times for the missionary to meet with our other elders to talk and debrief. Providing these opportunities for the missionary to debrief and share helps the church practice the “one another” commands of Scripture and be a co-laborer like Epaphroditus was for Paul in Philippians 2. Additionally, there needs to be a time of debrief between the sending church and their missionaries to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the on-the-field care they are receiving (this would include care they receive from their agency and from the church leadership and advocacy teams).[8] Debrief can be a vulnerable and often difficult process for missionaries and churches, but it can also expose the church to the best ways to pray, equip, send, and support their missionaries.

The sending church should be seen as a haven for reporting, resting, and recharging as missionaries come off the field.

Pathways to Reengagement

As churches and partners plan for post-field care and make themselves present for debriefing, the third area in which the church can assist with reintegration is providing on-ramps into the church. Church leaders will need to establish clear avenues and boundaries for ministry as they incorporate their missionaries back into the life of the church. Healthy churches will strike a balance between making sure their sent ones are neither under-utilized nor overwhelmed. Avenues for reengaging in ministry ought to provide opportunities to strengthen pre-existing relationships and begin new relationships. Through times of sharing corporately and in small groups, missionaries can speak into the life of the congregation and stoke the missions flame.

The sending church should be seen as a haven for reporting, resting, and recharging as missionaries come off the field. Much like a coach pulls an exhausted player off the field to protect them and foster their longevity over the course of the game, the church needs to be a place where missionaries are received into the tangible care of those who know them, support them, and love them deeply.


This post is adapted from Ryan's book, Holding the Rope: How the Local Church Can Care for Its Sent Ones, published by The Upstream Collective.


NOTES

[1] Neal Pirolo, The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries (San Diego, CA: Emmaus Road International, Inc., 2000), 242.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey, 2017), 278. Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock define “reverse culture shock” as “experiencing culture shock when returning to the passport country rather than a foreign land.”

[5] Craig Storti, The Art of Coming Home (Boston, MA: Intercultural Press, 2003), 3.

[6] Thomas Kimber, “Healthy Reentry: The Shared Responsibility of Missionary Care,” Evangelical Missiological Quarterly 48, no. 3 (2012), 337–38.

[7] Shirley Ralston, “Healthy at Home: Healthy Minds, Part One: Debriefing,” Upstream Collective, 15 June 2021.

[8] Zach Bradley, Susan McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Andy Jansen, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Coming “Home” and How Churches Can Help (Upstream Collective: CreateSpace, 2017), Kindle edition, chapter 8, “A Critical Ministry.”

 

Ryan serves as Director of Missions and Operations with Lightbearers Ministries and is the author of the recent Upstream publication Holding the Rope. He graduated in 2022 with a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. He has received a MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2008) and an undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, TN (2005). Prior to joining Lightbearers, he served for thirteen years as a missions pastor in the local church. Ryan lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Rebekah, and three children: Hudson, Annie, and Hattie.

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