By Kim Frolander, Vineyard Missions Blogger
Coming home from a missions trip on a mountain-top “high” can be an exhilarating experience. Even more surprising can be the depressing aftermath, an unexpected crash back into normal life in your own culture. From science to experience, we discuss the varying symptoms of “normal” re-entry, what to watch for, how to prepare yourself and your team to ease into the transition, and how you can help friends returning from the field make their adjustments to living in a new normal.
Part 3: What Contributes to a Rough Re-Entry?
I am a certified SCUBA diver, and while it’s loads of fun, it can quickly become a life or death situation. One of the things good divers assess before descending on every dive is the “load” they are carrying. Divers are taught to watch for amount of sleep, proper hydration, stress over the previous week or more, amount of training related to the type of dive (i.e. cave dive or night dive), number of dives done that day, general health and well-being at that moment, any extra physical weight or equipment being carried, how much alcohol, tobacco, or second-hand smoke consumed in the previous 24-48 hours, the sea state and temperature, underwater visibility, and how your gear is functioning. Even how much experience your dive buddy has will influence your dive plan. There is a lot to assess.
Parts of your load can be controlled, like how much water you’ve had to drink; other parts cannot, like the sea state. No one will score a zero load on every single dive, but a diver learns to evaluate how much a certain combination of items are loaded on him at that moment and make a wise decision on whether to go ahead with the dive or “call the dive.” (In “SCUBA speak” that means deciding not to go because it may cost you your life, or at least a very scary underwater emergency.)
In the Christian world we might call this same phenomenon “living within margins.” We all live with certain stress factors which weigh on us in varying amounts at various time points. When returning from a short-term missions trip (we will touch on long term re-entry in another section), it is important to self-assess your readiness constantly. You have put a big load on your physical body (physical travel, lack of sleep, dehydration, being with people constantly if you are an introvert, or being without your normal buddies if you are a people person, perhaps you picked up a stomach bug, so many new friends’ names—in accents that it can be hard to distinguish); and a big load on your emotions (what you saw, what you experienced in your heart); and under all that was the spiritual load you have been working under (new spiritual environment in a new country, working at a different spiritual level than you might at home, and being “on-call” 24/7 for prayer either with your team or your new friends in country). It is a lot to deal with. And I am sure you did a great job while you were away. You had prayer cover from back home to help you along spiritually and adrenaline pumping to help you along physically.
But now that you’re home, the adrenaline wears off (hopefully!) and the prayer cover wanes too (we suggest getting your prayer team to continue prayer coverage an additional two weeks after returning home for this reason). And all of a sudden you might not feel like doing things you usually enjoy doing. You might push yourself to do them anyway and either snap at people or resent the waste of time. This is probably a signal that you’re not quite through with your re-entry process. The best thing is to give yourself time and grace. Give yourself permission to sit at home for a little while, to rest, to pursue the new resolutions you made, or to do nothing.
Give your soul time to catch up to your body.
Assess your emotions to identify what you are feeling. A Focus on the Family blog (1) about identifying emotions emphasizes using “soul words” to describe feelings. Instead of afraid they suggest choosing more precise feeling words such as “scared, anxious, apprehensive, boxed in, burdened, confused, distressed, fearful, frightened, guarded, hard pressed, overwhelmed, panicky, paralyzed, tense, terrified, worried, insecure”1 to describe what you are feeling.
When you identify an emotion you are feeling it is easier to deal with it. Rather than feeling a generic “irritable” when you are in the office two days after you’ve come home, perhaps you are feeling “overwhelmed” by the number of emails in your inbox and “worried and insecure” that when you brief the congregation on Sunday about your trip, you won’t be able to adequately describe all you wish you could. Perhaps instead of feeling “put-out” that you have to get ready to go to another evening dinner or counseling session you might feel “embarrassed and frustrated” that you’re still exhausted eight days later, or perhaps you were serving in a low-income area and now you feel “guilty” about spending so much money on yourself to go out to eat when it could feed so many people elsewhere, then you transfer that guilt over to the others and “judge” them for spending their money on entertainment or easy living. Re-entry emotions can go awry so quickly.
When you notice unsettling feelings or negativity crop up, assess the load you are carrying at that time. Identify the actual emotion you are feeling and whether it is related to the present event or whether it is an underlying re-entry issue. Assess before you go somewhere out of obligation during this critical readjustment time whether you should “call the dive” and decide it is better to stay home from that event so you don’t stand in wrong judgement or say something to make people feel unimportant or unloved.
Difficulties experienced on the field, such as having to have hard conversations or witnessing the fallout of a moral failure, can also impact how easily we can re-establish our emotional and spiritual equilibrium when we get home. Even something as small as a misunderstanding with a teammate or a local pastor can make coming home hard. A good, solid debrief with a trusted friend can help mitigate a trip that has gone wrong by redirecting your memories to the extraordinary ways you did see God at work!
In parts 4 and 5 of our re-entry series, we will take a look at contributing factors toward the kind of re-entry you experience (both difficult and easy).
Yerkovich, M. & Yerkovich, K. (2018). Learn to identify your emotions. FocusontheFamily.com. Retrieved from https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/communication-and-conflict/learn-to-identify-your-emotions
Going With the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide
Kim Frolander started attending Inverness Vineyard Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1994. She spent two years as a volunteer/missionary in Jerusalem, Israel, and upon coming home, she trained with Bubba Justice and led missions at IVC for 3.5 years. Now she uses her experience and degrees in research and writing, (formally known as English and History) for curating resources for Vineyard Missions. She has authored eight books and recently founded a non-profit ministry, the Ruth Israel Initiative.