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Navigating Change: Missionary Care and the Family's Journey Back to a Sense of Belonging



40% of missionaries suffer from depression—a number roughly 500% higher than that of the general U.S. population.
Missionaries suffer from depression

This is the 2nd part of a two part series, "Issues of Belonging and the Missionary Family"


"Roughly 6.5% of missionaries leave the field every year. While this seems like a low amount, it does equate to roughly half of all missionaries leaving within the first decade. Throw in the fact that over 70% leaving for “preventable” reasons, and you’re left with the statistic that 1/3 of all missionaries will leave within their first decade for reasons that could have been prevented. Missionaries sustain an enormous level of ongoing stress, strongly indicating a major life crisis that is highly predictive (80%) of serious physical injury in the next 2 years. Other parts of the study suggested that roughly 40% of missionaries suffer from depression—a number roughly 500% higher than that of the general U.S. population."

Quote from article written on March 12, 2020, "When Missionaries Regret Being Missionaries." (https://omf.org/us/when-missionaries-regret-being-missionaries/)


Nurturing the Return


These statistics become more evident once coming home. Long-term missionary families dedicate their lives to serving in foreign lands, spreading love, hope, and faith to communities in need. However, the journey of a missionary is filled with high stress, cross cultural transition effects, traumas, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual drain. The toll on the Missionary's body becomes very heavy in the field, but especially when it comes to returning home on furloughs or permanently. These effects do not exempt Missionary families that are thriving and even those who completed their mission. As resilient as most Missionaries are, nothing can help them avoid the effects of high stress and transition fatigue.


In the last few decades Member Care personnel have been using the Holmes- Rahe stress test tweaked for Missionaries to gauge the stress they experienced. The scale of 200 would normally be the highest limit before an average American would begin to show symptoms of the body breaking down. Missionaries who were tested, however, showed a scale of 300 or higher before leaving for the field, and about 600 to 800 while on the field, and some came back from the field with a score of 1200 and above. In these transitions, the role of member care teams and home churches is crucial in providing support, guidance, and comfort to missionary families as they navigate the complexities of reintegration into their home culture and community.


Challenges Faced by Long-Term Missionary Families:


Returning home after a long period of service abroad can be a daunting experience for missionary families. Some of the challenges they face include:


1. Reverse Culture Shock: After immersing themselves in a different culture for an extended period, missionary families may struggle to readjust to their home culture, leading to feelings of alienation and disconnect.

2. Loss of Identity: Missionary families may find it challenging to redefine their identity and purpose after coming back home, especially if their sense of self was closely tied to their missionary work.

3. Emotional and Spiritual Struggles: The emotional toll of leaving behind the communities they served, coupled with the pressure to adapt to a new environment, can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and spiritual disorientation.


In many of our debriefings, Missionaries shared the loneliness they feel being back home. Partly because of the emotional and relational isolation they experience due to the lack of comprehension most people have of the Missionary journey. Its nobody's fault, it is just that most Americans never experienced living in a foreign country long term, it is difficult to relate to the stories, feelings and thinking of long Missionaries. When Missionaries immerse themselves to foreign cultures, they change whether they intend to or not. Their perspectives and culture becomes a mix bag of North American and whatever host country they are in. What makes a good Missionaries in all reality is the ability to immerse themselves almost completely in the culture. But this skill is also what makes it difficult for them when returning home. It is just counterintuitive, because one assumes that he/she will just pick up where they left off or that they know the culture they are coming back into. They do not calculate that they changed and their home has changed.


The other phenomena that Missionaries go through is that time freezes at the moment they left for the field for the very first time. There is this picture in their minds of how life was when they were leaving for the mission field; their extended family, church, town, friends, and even the country. It is as if time stopped in their minds when it comes to picturing home. The big surprise is that very little remained the same. Family, friends, church, and their city or town has changed. This is what triggers the reverse culture shock. The feelings most Missionaries feel is lost of control coupled with a sense of displacement. It is a shock because they do not expect to feel this way. On the plane back they have a picture in their minds of a decade ago, but in realtime, and they are looking forward to just picking up from that time. But most of who they know moved on. Their homecoming suddenly becomes ambivalent, happy to be back home, but grieving the losses of where they just came from, and the future because things have changed at home.


How Member Care Teams and Home Churches Can Help:


Member care teams and home churches play a pivotal role in supporting missionary families during their transition back home. Here are some ways they can offer assistance:


1. Emotional Support: Providing a safe and nurturing space for missionary families to express their feelings, fears, and struggles can help them process their emotions and feel understood.

2. Practical Assistance: Assisting missionary families with practical matters such as finding housing, healthcare, and education for their children can alleviate some of the stress of resettlement.

3. Spiritual Guidance: Offering spiritual counseling, prayer support, and opportunities for reconnection with the faith community can help missionary families rekindle their spiritual fire and find solace in their faith.

4. Community Integration: Facilitating opportunities for missionary families to engage with the local church community, participate in outreach programs, and share their experiences can help them feel welcomed and valued in their home church.


What Now:


The return of long-term missionary families on furloughs or permanently is a significant milestone in their journey of faith and service. By understanding the challenges they face and providing compassionate support, member care teams and home churches can empower missionary families to navigate this transition with grace and resilience. Together, we can nurture and uplift those who have dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel of Jesus with love and hope across the globe.


If you or your church are interested in engaging your Missionaries in a better way:


  • Thinking of recalibrating the way your church supports Missionaries?

  • Would like training in Missionary Care?

  • Become a financial supporter of Compass Ministries?


Please email us at info@compass-ministries.org to get started.




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