The following is an excerpt from The Upstream Collective‘s ebook, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. Used with permission.
I started to see the handwriting on the wall, and I began to get scared. Really scared…I could see my way of life was coming to an end. I didn’t want it to end. Ever. You must understand that my formative years were spent [over there]. I’d barely turned twenty when I planted my feet [over there]. Six years later I had been assimilated into the culture [over there]. I’d lived, worked, and played with the people of the land, and I’d learned to love their honest and simple way of life…I’d felt more alive than ever before. I did more living in one year [over there] than in all my previous years in the U.S.A. combined…[Over there] I was somebody who commanded great respect because of my unique abilities. Back in the [states], my unique abilities weren’t needed, and I’d be just another face in the crowd. No missions to run, no challenges to conquer. When you’ve basked in power and excitement at the levels I have, it’s devastating to imagine life without either.
Franklin D. Miller, Reflections of a Warrior
You may be surprised to know that the above quote came not from a returning missionary, but from a veteran soldier. Why start a post addressed to the church with a quote from a obscure novel on the Vietnam War? Because, like many returning sent ones today, veterans like Miller came back with hurts and hesitations. And what’s worse, they were greeted mostly with indifference and disdain. This was a peculiar era in modern American history! And yet we reflect it each time a returning sent one arrives back amidst our churches without an honorable welcome.
Our sent ones are foreign ambassadors of the King (2 Corinthians 5:20). They have gone out for the sake of the Name (3 John 7). They are not of greater value to the body of Christ, but they are worthy of a family-like reunion, and ongoing shepherding through the grueling reentry process.
Thankfully, the church isn’t left to “just figure it out”. Neal Pirolo has identified a model from Scripture for sent ones’ return to their home church (24). It is rooted in the conclusion of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Acts 14:26-15:2 describes the arrival back at Antioch, their sending church. As part of this reentry, Paul and Barnabas did five things:
- Completed their assignment: “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust,” v. 23
- Returned to their sending church: “After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed,” vv. 24-26
- Reported all that God had done: “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through themand how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles,” v. 27
- Shared life with them for a long time: “And they stayed there a long time with the disciples,” v. 28
- Became active in the church’s local mission again: “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question,” 15:1-2
If these are the basic biblical steps that returning sent ones should walk through, then what can your church do to help facilitate those steps?
Think ahead. Don’t wait until your sent ones arrive back home to take action—it could be too late. You don’t have to be ready for everything, but try to make a basic plan unique to your church. Take some time to discuss questions like this:
- Who will greet them at the airport?
- How will you help them find a place to live?
- What are your expectations for where they will go to church? (Don’t assume—rather than immersing back into their home church, many sent ones choose to live near extended family, or wherever they can find affordable housing.)
- How will you provide opportunities for them to report to the church and celebrate what God has done?
- How will you debrief them?
- What can you do to support them financially?
- How can you find out their expectations for you? (They’ll be thrilled you asked!)
- What will you do if they need counseling?
- What if they have ongoing health troubles?
- How do you want them to become active in the church’s local mission again?
- How can you love their children?
- What’s your long-term commitment to their assimilation realistically look like? And how will you involve the entire church so you don’t die trying?
If you do nothing else as a church for your returning sent ones, be present. Ask good questions and really listen. This will put you well on your way to debriefing your missionaries. Debriefing literally means talking through an experience after it has taken place (Worth Keeping, 385). For sent ones it should involve questions related to their soul, ministry, and any traumatic experiences during their service (such as those provided by the excellent resource, Returning Well by Melissa Chaplin).
Active listening involves much more than resisting the urge to check your phone. Many missionaries are afraid of losing support if they share some of their more difficult struggles (Eenigenburg and Bliss, 98). Can they really be honest with you? Would it make you uncomfortable if they confessed significant battles of the soul? If so, that may be a sign you’ve placed sent ones on an unrealistic pedestal. A culture of vulnerability fashioned by grace is crucial to the health of returning missionaries (not to mention everyone else in your church!).
Finally, do what you can to practically provide. Just as you exhort your church, give to returning sent ones not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully. Decide what you will be responsible for and what your sent ones will be responsible for. Articulate it to them as early as possible. Failed expectations can murder relationships.
Contribute something to their housing and transportation, even if it’s just a full pantry and a ride to Carmax. Whether or not you can pay for it, provide guidance toward good counseling. One missions pastors sends all his returning missionaries to at least one session with a local Christian counselor for what he calls a “tune-up”.
Make a gameplan for helping retiring sent ones navigate any financial and identity crises. Keep in mind that the amount of time a missionary served overseas is often comparable to the time it takes them to fully readjust to the states. For retiring ones, they may never fully readjust. Will your church be indifferent, judgmental, or full of grace and truth?
For all the hardships missionaries return with, they also come bearing gifts for the church. Their experience, wisdom, passion–and even their wounds–can build up the body of Christ. Veteran missionary Thomas Hale says that returning isn’t all getting–the greater part is giving, especially to churches at home (394). This is the heart behind the brief, mysterious line from Acts 14: “[Paul and Barnabas] spent no little time with disciples” (v. 28). In other words, they took off their shoes and stayed a while. They hung around long enough for deep conversations, for Antioch to see that they were still just the ol’ Paul and Barnabas they knew and loved.
Returning missionaries desperately also need clearly defined boundaries and onramps for becoming active in the church’s local mission again. It is easy for them to be either overwhelmed with too much responsibility or underutilized with too little opportunity. Church leaders who shepherd them wisely will watch both the sent ones and the senders benefit from such healthy reintegration.
Perhaps you don’t even have a single sent one from your church. Reading this article like a checklist could certainly make you feel like you are years behind. Yet there are always returning sent ones who are desperately looking for a safe place to land. Could your church be that place? It could mean the world to them.
And to you as well.