Going with the Return in Mind: Re-Entry Resource Guide - Part 7: The Long-Term Missionary Re-Entry Experience

Going with the Return in Mind

By Kim Frolander, Vineyard Missions Blogger
Contributing authors: Miguel and Mai Zayas, Melody and Adam Mosley, and anonymous

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 7: The Long-Term Missionary Re-Entry Experience

Many of the same principles we have discussed to this point apply to the long-term cross-cultural worker as well as the short-termers. If you were gone for two years, expect it to take up to four to regulate back into a new normal. Gone for 20 years and are returning back to the US to church plant or retire at “home”? Expect it to take up to 40 years…so really the rest of your life…to fully re-enter US culture. Go ahead and just plan to use the God-given skills of cultural adjustment that you used to move away and integrate yourself into a new culture to adjust to and study your “new home culture.” It will not be the same country you left.

If your church family or family of origin doesn’t throw you a welcome home party, throw it yourself. Moving home is a huge life milestone, and celebrating it will help you start the adjustments. A cross-cultural move is not just a new chapter, but a new book of your life.

Let’s hear from a few people who have been there (or are there currently):

COUPLE #1

Names: Miguel & Mai Zayas (missionary/church planters for 17 years)

Country of service: Estonia
Age(s) of service: Miguel (age 28-46), Mai (age 31-49)
How long have you been "home”: 6 months as of this writing.

What was the most important thing that you wish you had known before you got home?

We cannot really say what is the most important thing…We knew what we were getting into in terms of our new assignment (pastoring an existing Vineyard after a founding pastor’s transition). Maybe the shocker was the distance between people’s desire for change vs the ability to change.

What was your first (or worst) re-entry blunder? We were communicating some of the changes we wanted to pursue in our new assignment which were understood as disparaging to the history of the church. Unintended consequence of coming into a church with a long rich history.

What were a couple of things that surprised you in your first year home?

  1. For both of us would be the amount of times people eat out and, if honest, unhealthfully. We are used to a walking culture not a driving one, so to live in areas where there are no sidewalks or bike paths has meant a very sedentary life…we have both put on some weight we are needing to get rid of.
  2. Language and meaning: We all use words to communicate, but it’s often the case that what one person is saying might be completely misunderstood simply because of the background culture both people are coming from. I have had to re-word what I say several times in order for people to understand what I mean.
  3. My wife and I have been surprised how people are able to express themselves as Christians in open environments such as a restaurant. Openly praying around a table was, and still is, a shock to me. In our overseas culture, you just never really saw that as normal.

What has been the hardest change to adjust to?

For us it has been the systems. Things like insurance, the DMV, doctors, dentists, schools. All of these systems are different than what we were used to. We came from a European country where medicine was run by the government. This meant that all I did was pay my taxes and go to the doctor in my area to be treated or for a check-up. All our children were covered too. A stay in the hospital only cost 5 euros, the rest was covered by the state insurance. Here, it took us months to get health coverage and then weeks to get an appointment, and still after paying the insurance premiums, I had come up with $40 co-pays. Schools zones were simpler in Estonia too. If you lived in the area close to the school that is where you went. Simple. Not here.

The high cost of healthy and fresh foods are also a bit of a shock. If you want good foods (organic or natural) you pay a lot for it. Where we came from organic was the normal.

Another adjustment would be forms of communication. Europeans tend to be very direct whereas Americans—at least in the South—not so much (this might depend also on which part of the US you are in).

What could friends do to make it easier for cross-cultural workers when they return home?

Probably before moving back, the missionary family would have regular visits to the US (home) - at least every other year, depending on time away - something that keeps the family up to date with what is going on (i.e. trends, styles, sports, culture).

When the family arrives give them time for everyone to adjust, but not ALONE time. Quarantine is never a good way to treat or handle the incoming family. For us, we have been back to the US regularly, so the integration was not a difficult one, but what made it especially good was that the church (both the institution and the people) were very warm to us, inviting us to homes and helping us get around and find things. Sometimes the assumption is that, since they are new or re-integrating, the family needs space alone to process. For us that would have been a killer, and not in a good way. We thrive on people, being around people, talking, getting to understand and to know, so to be left alone would have been hard. It is still the case that on Sundays, when many families make plans with other families in the church, we are kind of left out. It’s not because people don’t care, but they think someone else has already asked us out.

Friends, keep engaging until the family indicates they need some personal time and space. IVC, the church we came home to lead, did an amazing thing for us. They got to know about Estonia so when we arrived, people asked good question, took time to even learn some recipes to bake for us, and had a blue, black, and white party (our Estonian flag colors). Another thing might be to have a couple of people assigned to help with practical info like where to go - stores, shops, restaurants, where are the good places to get deals on clothes or food, etc. Help with getting around the DMV, insurance, help with purchasing a vehicle - all of these things are critical, and if you have been away a long time, it could be overwhelming. Again, the people at IVC did an amazing job of this too! What can we say? We have a great church!

How do you include favorite features of both of your cultures into your home life?

We’ve not been back in the US that long, so it’s hard to see what we will include, other than celebrating both US and Estonian holidays. February 22, 2018 was Estonia’s 100-year birthday as a nation. We remembered this day as special for us. Now we are looking forward to the 4th of July in America this year.

Top 2 points of advice for cross-cultural workers returning home?

  1. Be prepared to slow down quickly. Depending on the nature of your return and length of your overseas assignment, you might find re-entry exciting and want to do a lot quickly. Then all of a sudden, because you have changed and the others have changed, you may need to slow your plans to match the new place.
  2. Have someone to talk to outside of the new assignment or home front. People who are not connected to the new place might be able to give you the best kind of support and coaching through the re-entry process.

COUPLE #2

Names: They wish to remain anonymous--as missionaries sometimes need to--but still offer their demographics.

Country of service:  India
Age of service: 49-59
How long have you been "home": 2.5 years off and on (still 50% in South Asia).

What was your first (or worst) re-entry blunder?

We saved VCRs, DVDs, CDs, a slide projector - so many electronics that we don't use.

What surprised you most in your first year home?

The price of gas was outrageous compared to 13 years ago. It's hard to compare prices in India because it is per liter. Food prices are so much higher too. I love Aldi’s because it's a cheaper way to buy food than most stores. I'm always trying to cut corners. Gun violence is also so shocking, and we live in the city of Chicago now and actually hear gunshots occasionally from our condo. Thankfully, we live on the fourth floor!

What has been the hardest change to adjust to?

Winter in Chicago is brutal after our warm Indian climate.

What could pastors or friends do to make it easier for cross-cultural workers when they return home?

Help with used household items they may need. Offer help with new technology that makes life easier (or cheaper!) such as new apps for GPS or Groupon - cool things we may have missed while away.

Top 2 points of advice for cross-cultural workers returning home?

Plug into a church family, and get involved in the community.

How do you include favorite features of both of your cultures into your home life?

What are those things?  We use decorations from India (wall hangings, plates, tablecloths, placemats). We have photos on our fridge from both cultures. We eat foods from both cultures. We brought books, clothes, bed sheets, pillow covers back from India with us.

COUPLE #3

Name: Adam & Melody Mosley

Country of service:  Kenya
Age(s) of service: 36-39
How long have you been "home”: 9 months as of this writing.

What was the most important thing that you wish you had known before you got home?

We had been told, but still didn’t fully grasp, how isolating American culture is. In Kenya, we knew and were known by a lot of people, and we interacted with them on a regular basis. They were in our lives, and we were in theirs. We saw them in town, called on favors, and offered favors in return. In the U.S., even with the best of intentions, people are so overwhelmed with their own lives that it’s nearly impossible to have any sense of genuine community.

What was your first (or worst) re-entry blunder?  No huge blunders. But I think we’ve both put our foot in our mouths a few times regarding touchy subjects like politics, church, and parenting styles. Being in Kenya gave us a new perspective on so many areas of our lives and many of the people we interact with here are very inflexible with their beliefs and philosophies in those same areas.

What were a couple of things that surprised you in your first year home?

  1. It’s actually really hard moving from a place with no traffic lights to a place with an endless supply of them.
  2. In a place with an infinite number of dining and food options, sometimes we long for our one grocery store and favorite restaurant in Kenya.

What has been the hardest change to adjust to?

Because we are in a transitional season, it’s much harder to put your finger on that sense of vision and purpose day-to-day. We know this is a preparation phase more than a “doing” phase (though there is plenty to do), but without the doing, it’s easy to feel like no progress is being made.

What could pastors (or friends if you are the pastor) do to make it easier for cross-cultural workers when they return home?

That’s a tough one, especially for families with kids. My immediate response is to spend time with them - create space in your lives for them. At the same time, we had some who tried to do that for us, but the only holes in their schedules were too late in the day or on school nights and couldn’t work with our young kids. Ooh, I know, offer to babysit!

Top 2 points of advice for cross-cultural workers returning home?

  1. Ease into it, if possible. We hit the ground running and have been playing catch-up ever since.
  2. Approach this “assignment” like any other - this is now a foreign culture with a different set of assumptions and priorities. Recognize that the people around you are products of this culture. They are not better or worse - just different. So, have lots of grace!

How do you include favorite features of both of your cultures into your home life?

We still incorporate Swahili words and phrases into our everyday language. We speak of Kenya often and remind our kids of some of the great things about living there (and the great things about living here). More than that, though, we don’t fixate on either place. We regularly talk about the likelihood that we will live in yet another country at some point in the future. We view the places we’ve lived like Ohio, Texas, Kenya, and Georgia as stops along the journey, each with its own unique spices to add to the stew of our lives.

Important takeaways for long-term missionaries and their supportive communities

Missionaries:

  • It’s going to be different for everyone and every family
  • Give yourself plenty of time to adjust
  • Celebrate often all the different cultures you’ve gotten to live in
  • Treat this process like you did when you got to know the culture you are coming from: work at understanding new cultural values.

Supporters:

  • Make space in your lives for returning missionary families
  • Invite and don’t forget to invite again
  • Ask questions and be intentional about building relationship again
  • Ask what is different for them after they’ve been home a few weeks and
  • Then volunteer to help them navigate those waters of change

We hope you have enjoyed this re-entry series. Do you have your own re-entry experiences? Feel free to share them with us in the comments or on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/VUSAMissions)

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

 

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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.