Going with the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide - Part 6: The Short-Term Missionary Re-Entry Experience

Going with the Return in Mind

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 6: The Short-Term Missionary Re-Entry Experience

Start back at Part 1

U.S. Vineyard churches and missions partnerships send hundreds of short-term missionaries across the globe every year in singles and in teams. With all of these short-termers, you are likely one of them yourself, or soon will be.

In this part of our series, we will offer interviews with five different people of diverse ages and levels of experience with short-term missions and let you in on their first-hand experience with re-entry. (The demographics of age and experience may or may not have anything to do with the lived experience of their particular re-entry process, but it is nice to have such a broad spectrum of perspectives.)

For our chart lovers, here is an overview of our five interviewees with their stats. Meet them individually below, and compare their re-entry experiences. Many answers have been edited for space. If you want more details, two full-length interviews are available by clicking on Julianne Kowalski or David Crim.

Name Luc Jackson Julianne Kowalski Linda Davidson Joy Elion David Crim
Location Baja, Mexico 5 Continents India Kenya Latin America
Prior Experience 12+ trips 2 weeks Indonesia none 12+ trips 12+ trips
Time Away 3 days 10 months 12 days 10 days 7 days
Age at Time 34 years 20 years 63 years 37 years 40 years
Been Home 2 days 6 months 23 months 1 month 4.5 weeks
How They Grade Their Re-Entry A C B+ B+ D

Meet Luc Jackson

Luc travels for missions a lot. He has done short-term trips for 12 years in Indonesia and 11 years in Mexico. We are asking him about his most recent trip to Baja, Mexico. He was there for 3 days and is 34 years old. At the time of the interview he had been home for 2 days.

Meet Julianne Kowalski (read full interview)

Julianne traveled to Europe, the Middle East, South America, North America, and South East Asia, on a YWAM DTS (6 months) followed by other personally organized missions involvement with our partnership in Indonesia and with a ministry in the red-light district of Bangkok. She was gone from home for 10 months at age 20, and has been home for 6 months. Previous to this trip, her only missions experience was a 2-week trip to Indonesia.

Meet Linda Davidson

Traveling to southern India was Linda’s first mission experience. She was gone for 12 days at age 63. She’s been home almost 2 years and offers us her recollections.

Meet Joy Elion

Joy served as a team leader in Kenya (Nairobi and Kitale) for 10 days at age 37. She has been home a little over a month. She has previously served in missions in: Tanzania (1 month, 10 years ago), 16 trips to Haiti, 2 trips to Kenya, and 1 trip to Jordan.

Meet David Crim (read full interview)

David traveled around a Latin American country about a month ago. He was gone for a week and was 40 years old at the time. He has served in there since 2006, sometimes making 2-3 trips annually, and leading multiple teams.

The Re-entry Interview in Panel Format:

(some questions/answers did not apply to each person, so we left them out)

What letter grade would you assign to your most recent returning home experience? Why?

Luc: (A) We've been down to Mexico multiple times, and the more we do it, the more comfortable it becomes to enter back into 'normal.'

Julianne: (C)  It has not been an easy or fun process. I struggled for the first 4½ months pretty severely and just recently have sort of gotten the hang of being home. It’s been a really rough and confusing transition. I felt like a complete outcast and struggled to find my place.

Linda: (B+) Air travel is not what I consider pleasant anymore, but it is fast & I was getting homesick.

Joy: (B+) It's always such a pleasure to come home. You truly appreciate little things, like a hot shower, not having to wear bug spray, sleeping in your own bed. But re-acclimating to the fast-paced American culture where everyone wants more and they want it quickly is sometimes difficult.

David: (D) In the week we were in the Latin American country we visited, protests were happening about the government’s lack of urgency when dealing with a rain-forest fire that was destroying families’ livelihoods. Two days after our return home, the countries government announced a new tax plan and the protests started back up, but this time the government countered. The national police were actually instructed to kill innocent protesters in some instances. (It’s been a lot to process.)

What other emotional load were you carrying upon beginning re-entry?

Julianne: It was a tough process to settle in my new reality that was not filled with constant ministry and foreign countries. However, this rest time at home has been an essential season for me and Jesus, and I’ve grown.

Linda: It's complicated, but other members of the team were very excited about some things we had learned that I did not see as applicable for the U.S. They got upset with me because I didn’t share their enthusiasm. It weighed on me.

Joy: As the team leader of our trip, I wanted to ensure that all of our team members had a great experience and returned home safely and in good health.

David: Our oldest son just moved back home, and we have been helping him get on his feet.

Did you know about and prepare for re-entry before you left or began to transition home from the country where you served?

Luc: We didn't do any re-entry training for this trip before we left. I'd like to do more of that preparation in our training.

Julianne: I contacted experienced friends for counsel while still in country, but what triggers one person may not trigger another. I listened to podcasts and read blogs, and debriefed myself while I was still in country. I regret not asking someone to help me debrief because debriefing myself was quite hard. When I came home I immediately got myself into counseling to help process and debrief.

Linda: Yes, reading material, prayer, team discussions.

Joy: Yes! Due to many other trips, I knew what triggers to expect and things I should avoid upon returning home. Such as shopping malls or areas and large crowds of people. I have learned in the past that the more I'm around those things, the more culture shock I experience.

David: Yes. While still in the country, we talk through our trip and the things we would do once back stateside to debrief. We spent time at the end of every day reflecting on and praying over that day; there are always things the Lord wants to show us.

How long did it take for you to feel settled down back at home?

Luc: I stepped right back in at home, although I am definitely more groggy.

Julianne: It took 4-5 months to feel a little more comfortable at home. By no means is life back to ‘normal’ or do I feel like I completely fit in, but I have sort of found my place here.

Linda: about 2 weeks

Joy: about 2 weeks

David: Typically it takes about a week to get back to “normal” life at home, but as stated before, this time, almost five weeks later, we are still experiencing the remnants of this trip because of the civil unrest taking place

What if anything has surprised you about this particular re-entry?

Luc: Nothing was particularly surprising for this re-entry.

Julianne: Feeling like an outsider, the strain it put on my friendships, and life often felt like a fog.

Linda: Jet-lag is real!

Joy: Nothing

David: Worrying about our friends and if their daily needs are being met.

What steps did you take while in the throes of re-entry to cope and care for your body and soul?

Luc: I took a day when I got home to just try to rest and spend time with the family. I had some great time in the Word and in prayer the morning after; it helped me center while coming back in.

Julianne: My coping came through going to therapy. I started reading and spending a lot of time trying to process and journal. I got caught up on my favorite shows, I got a couple massages. I remembered things I liked to do like painting and singing and getting coffee with friends. And I learned to incorporate into my new life the new things I liked to do like watching movies and reading. Also, eating healthy and working out.

Linda: Lots of sleep and prayer, reviewing my journal and reading.

Joy: I rested as much as possible and whenever needed. I continued my daily devotionals every morning and prayed for patience. I was also very intentional about spending some time alone.

David: I’m a verbal processor. I have to talk things out. So my wife and I take walks or drives to talk about life in general.

Who has been your greatest support and how did they help/are they helping?

Luc: My wife is my best supporter. She's great at asking perceptive questions and giving me space to process everything coming home from a trip.

Julianne: My older sister. Because she has been involved with missions, she knew. She offered me whatever I needed, whether it be time alone or watching a movie with her or actually going out. Sometimes she just held me when I cried and didn't have to say a word. It’s hard to talk about some of my experiences overseas and she was so good with letting me “word vomit” if I needed.

Linda: Jesus! And a team member on the trip with me who was willing to talk and who understood where I was coming from.

Joy: My family and the guy I'm dating. My family is great about giving me time and space to get re-acclimated, and the guy I'm dating made sure I had some of my favorite foods at home, and he gave me space and didn't plan any events for when I returned.

How did your prayer life sound in the first two weeks you were home?

Luc: I'm always a bit jumbled when I first come home. I definitely need time to enter back in regarding prayer and to let my mind settle.

Julianne: My prayer life the first two weeks of being home was kind of non-existent. I found it very hard to pray and get back that intimacy with the Lord that had sustained me my entire time overseas. I felt like everyone was always staring at me, expecting this amazing, wise missionary to have it all together, have the answer to all their problems, and prophesy over people constantly. But I didn’t feel amazing or wise and I was not even close to having it all together--I was a hot mess!Linda: I was into prayer and listening for God's voice much more than before, so there was a greater quantity and quality in my prayer life.

Joy:  I had to pray for a lot of patience while adjusting to being back home. I prayed for rest, restoration, and help returning to my normal routine. Sometimes I would take a moment in the middle of the day while at work to ask God for strength to make it through the work day. I also prayed for physical and mental strength.

David: More, Lord! Often I was speechless because of what is happening in the country we visited, and I couldn’t put words to my prayers, but my Father knows my heart and sees my tears. I trust He knows best, even when it hurts and is hard.

What changes has your missions experience brought into your life?

Luc: Missions has changed my entire paradigm in life! It's now the lens through which I see everything: family, work, relationships; missions is always the forefront of my mind now!

Julianne: I see people so much deeper than ever before. God has completely broken my heart over things that break His heart. That so many people still live without knowing that Jesus loves them crushes me. I live day by day trusting that God will provide. I became way more adaptable and flexible! I appreciate things a lot more after having lived without them for so long.

Linda: In preparing for sharing the 4 keys to hearing God's voice, I learned it myself! There is also a deeper understanding that cultures are very different in ways you don't even imagine.

Joy: Missions experiences truly help me to appreciate everything I have and how truly blessed I am. It almost serves as a reset button. When you can travel around the world and see people who have so little but are so happy, it really helps you to reevaluate what is truly important in life. It helps to remind me that stuff does not make you happy.

David: I used to think if someone lived where there was no water why wouldn’t they move to be closer to water. I never thought about the geography, culture, or even what was important to them. Now I always want to try to see through their eyes; I want to know how and why someone thinks the way they do. I want to be close to people so I can ask and be asked hard questions, so we can grow together.

What do you see as contributing factors to the experience you have lived during this reentry process?

Luc: I was a part of a great team, and an incredible leadership team really helped foster a great team environment so we could really serve alongside each other.

Julianne: Most of my ministry occurred in red-light districts, and I didn’t have anyone from my home church intentionally helping me debrief.

Linda:  Friends and family being patient and understanding. Having experienced people willing to guide you.

Joy: My prior trips prepared me for what to expect during the re-entry process and having friend and family support is important also.

David:  The civil unrest in the country we visited.

What could friends do to help you transition back to life at home.

Luc:  I think just asking questions helps give me prompts to help me process the experience.

Julianne: Friends and family probably need to start from scratch and be very intentional with getting to know their missionary all over again. Everything has changed for them: their likes, dislikes, passions, frustrations, the way they dress, the way they act and respond to certain things. Learn who they are now by asking easy questions.

Linda: Praying with you and for you, and being there when you need them.

Joy: The best things friends can do after a trip is to give you time to get readjusted and be there to listen about the experiences on the trip and how you are adjusting to being back home.

David:  I enjoy when people genuinely want to know how the trip went and ask details. I’m not much for small talk especially when I’m talking about something I’m passionate about.

Do you have any advice for first-time short-termers?

Luc: If you truly go with a heart to serve, and ultimately you're asking God to use you however he wants to bless the nations, you will experience Jesus in whole new ways! Go as a learner, not a teacher. You are simply there to serve however you are asked!

Julianne:  Re-entry sucks and I’m sorry you have to go through this season. Draw near to Jesus because even when it seems that no one else understands you, He will and He does. Don’t be afraid to be open and honest with your needs.

Linda: TRY to avoid having expectations. Things will not be what you think. Even if you study the culture, which you should do, there will be surprises. Be ready to "roll with the punches." The more open-minded you are, the greater your experience will be.

Joy: It's completely normal to feel overwhelmed upon your return home after a missions trip. It will take some time to feel completely normal and you may even find that your views and feelings about things may be changed forever, and that's ok too.

David: If you are near missionaries who have been on the field for a while take some time to serve them. They often get overlooked because they are there full-time. Pray for them and their families, spend time getting to know them. And always eat what is offered! The number one way to offend people around the world is to turn down food they have prepared for you.

Some takeaways

  • Short term missionaries have different experiences on the field and different experiences in re-entry.

  • Difficult experiences on the field take longer to recover from.

  • When they get home they need space to think, but want to be asked thoughtful questions too.

  • They have changed and you may need to get to know the “new” person.

  • Short-term missions is worth the re-entry experience.

Here are those links again to the full-length interviews with Julianne and David.

In our final segment interviews, three long-term missionary couples to discuss what it is like coming home after living abroad 3-17 years. Get some fresh insights on how to help long termers transition or prepare someone for the realities of coming home if they are considering long-term cross-cultural work.

Going With the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide


HEADSHOT - Kim Frolander (300X300).jpg

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.