The Debrief For Missions Teams - Part 1: What Is Debriefing And How Does It Work?

So you’re home from a spectacular mission trip. Now what? This blog series breaks down the what, why, and how of a post-mission debrief. For both great memories and stressful experiences, a thorough debrief is perhaps one of the most important parts of the trip. It helps solidify in individual hearts all the things God was pouring into each team member. It can also redirect a fixated memory from stressful situations by recalling  the stories and events where God was working extraordinarily.

Debrief Part 1: What is debriefing and how does it work?

Many fields and vocations have used debriefing since its origination in the military, where sessions are held to “gather information from soldiers as well as to emphasize unit cohesion and help unit members adjust to stressful incidents…(S)erving as educational sessions, military debriefings also aim to aid the cognitive functioning of the soldiers.” (1) The field of nursing uses debriefing techniques in school to foster meaningful learning practices through analyzing what went right or went wrong during an exercise and correcting the behavior, which will be used in clinical practice decision making. (2)

Helping in stressful situations, emphasizing unit cohesion, aiding cognitive function, and fostering meaningful learning experiences -- debriefing sounds pretty valuable so far.

Of course the field of psychology loves debriefing. “Mental health personnel may employ debriefing techniques in an attempt to prevent individuals from experiencing short-term and long-term anxiety disorders following a traumatic event.” (1)

D.S. Owen, while a grad student at Bangor University, states in his blog, “Debriefing provides the opportunity to gain insight into a participant’s reflection of the study (or trip in the missions world). It can be used as an opportunity to assess contentment of participation and difficulties or problems in the design” (2012). (3)

Though debriefing originated to prevent soldiers’ loss of information and adjustment from the battlefield back to regular life, and it is now widely used in recovery from traumatic events, it works really well in the positive sense as well to emphasize positive memories and experiences and incorporate them into our learning. For people entering a new culture, whether for the first time or the hundredth time, processing events and memories is helped through the debriefing process.

Human beings tend to rehearse in our minds negative things that have impacted our lives. We can focus our attention toward places/times we messed up in our actions and did not achieve our desired outcome. To a point this can be positive, because as we review, we learn...what not to do next time. It helps us gain wisdom and knowledge from our mistakes. But every time we remember or rehearse a memory from the past our brains are emphasizing that particular neurological pathway. Every time that little blip of energy found in a memory moves across your brain’s nerves and pathways it is digging the memory-ditch a little deeper, making that memory more important and emphasizing a learned way to function in the future. When we focus on positive memories, new ditches of learning and functioning and expectation (expected outcomes) are emphasized and dug in deeper. Those positive pathways become our go-to thoughts instead of negative outcomes. The more often we remember those positive things, the quicker we oust those negative pathways for good! This is easily done through telling our missions stories.

Every mission trip that includes people will also include mistakes, things we wish we had done differently. That’s ok. Hear me, you fellow type A’s that hate failure: Mistakes are OK. We can analyze what went wrong and make the correction like the nursing students mentioned earlier. But then it is time to re-route those neurological pathways!

"Consciously controlling your thought life means not letting thoughts rampage through your mind. It means learning to engage interactively with every single thought that you have, and to analyze it before you decide either to accept or reject it." (5)

--Dr. Caroline Leaf

According to Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD in Communication Pathology and a BS in Logopedics and Audiology, who calls negative memories “toxic thoughts,” a toxic thought can be wrapped in a positive memory concerning the same situation until it chokes the life out of that negative memory, then the new pathway created through that positive memory becomes the primary thought pathway. (4) This is what we want to do in debriefing. The positive memory becomes what is expected when a similar set of circumstances comes up again in a person’s life. In “Christianese,” focusing on the positive things God has done, even in dire circumstances, builds faith.

A couple of notes to those leaders who are most likely to be leading the debriefing sessions with your teams: Just because you are the leader, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to debrief. And even if you didn’t take a team with you, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to debrief. Debriefing after every international mission trip is a good idea for the sake of your soul and your future trips (and for the sake of the people who will hear your stories!).

First, you find a trust friend, because as a leader, your experience and your focus will have been different than those who followed you. As a team leader, getting your job right looks like making sure the overall purpose of God was accomplished on the trip, not doing everything yourself. You will want to assess if you were consistently plugging the right people into the right roles to be successful and stretched in their faith walk. Then once you’re home, your job continues as you are able to lead people through processing their life-changing trip. And every trip should bring about a change. Even something as simple as coming to a new understanding of the role small groups can have on your home church’s culture or seeing God in a fresh light of provision can be life changing, if we thoroughly process it and add it to our life.

A successful debrief is one where people leave focusing on the Father and all the work He did in the people and country your team just came home from, in the team dynamics, and in personal lives of the individuals on the team.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss getting a head start on the at-home debrief two weeks after returning home by using nightly mini-debriefs with your team while you are still in-country.

  1. (2018). Military debriefing techniques. Retrieved from

  2. Dreifuerist, K. (2015). Getting started with debriefing for meaningful learning. Clinical Simulation in Nursing (11)5 pp 268-275. Retrieved abstract from

  3. Owen, D. (2012). The importance of debriefing. Bangor University Blogging. Retrieved from para 3.

  4. Leaf, C. (2009). The switch on your brain five-step learning process (dvds). Switch On Your Brain.

  5. Leaf, C. (2018). Toxic thoughts. Retrieved from para 4.


The Debrief For Missions Teams

Kim Frolander

Kim Frolander, Vineyard Missions Blogger

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.