Your church has commissioned a missionary to serve the Lord overseas. Their picture is added to the #Missions board, their name is printed in the church bulletin to remind you to pray. This beloved person, this couple, this family, has blessed your congregation with their service and now they will move away to be feet that proclaim Good News to a new part of the world.
Then, it is time for them to return. Maybe for a Home Assignment, or maybe their term is finished; there could be health concerns, aging parents who need to be cared for, or educational needs for their kids that aren’t being met in the field. Maybe there were relationships that couldn’t be worked out, for one reason or another, and the only option is to come back. Whatever the reason, they return. But they don’t come back the same people, and truth be told, often we aren’t the same people anymore either.
These seasons of transition may not be new for the missionary, but it can be tumultuous. Waves of emotions ebb and flow. Stress, burnout and change aggressively attack rhythm and routine. Home has become a place of question, was it there, or is it here? Once they have served for awhile, there becomes a normalcy to the coming and going. I’ve even heard it said that the missionary is often most at home at an airport, the place where one season ends and a new one begins.
So, what is our goal as the church? How do we receive back our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ? How do we become places of restoration and healing for these servants of Christ? How can we provide them with a place of belonging and be a blessing in their season of transition?
What I want to offer are a few practical ways to welcome back our missionaries with love, care, and concern, based on my own comings and goings, and from friends.
Be Curious. When someone you know is sent from your church and moves overseas, there are a lot of things you don’t know, or can’t imagine, about what their life is like. Don’t be afraid to ask! Giving the missionary an opportunity to share about their new culture, their new home, is a way of caring for the deepest parts of who they are. There are people who have become their family, a building that became their home, a church who nourished their soul; their lives have been changed by these. Care for your missionaries by asking good questions about their life. You will also likely get to hear some pretty crazy stories!
One of the most difficult questions we found was, “So, how was life in Africa?” It’s a difficult question because you’ve spent a few years living there, and it’s hard to sum it up in one sentence. Living overseas can be extremely difficult, and lonely. The challenges of learning a new culture, a new language, are hard, and while the calling to ministry is a blessing and privilege, it also encompasses a degree of suffering and sacrifice; thus an answer often can’t be tied up in a neat bow. What also makes it difficult is that the question is often asked in passing, as a greeting, like “hey! how are you?” with the expected answer being “i’m good. how are you?”...even if it's not true.
Let’s ask our missionaries how God has been at work in their life, who some of their new friends are, how they are sharing the Gospel in their location, what their favourite things are about the culture where they live - and what are the things they find difficult, or how did they make their new house a home. Let’s be interested in who they are as people, curious about their new life, and encourage their souls.
A Piece Of Their Heart Didn’t Come With Them. As we seek to demonstrate love and support for our missionaries, our courtesy and politeness can unknowingly cause pain and heartache, because we can make assumptions that aren’t true. It is hard to feel misunderstood, it is hard to feel forgotten, it is hard to be back “home” when you actually don’t want to be! These are often regular feelings for the missionary when they come back to their sending country-whether for a short time, or long term. We need to understand the struggle within their soul, that an important part of their life was spent serving with their whole heart. As the famous quote by Charles Dickens goes “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and missionaries feel this struggle at their core, as they labor with the Lord for His kingdom work in the world. A place they have built friendships, and have called home is dear to their hearts; as they return, a piece of their heart has likely been left there.
As we acknowledge these wrestlings, we can approach our missionaries with compassion and understanding. Life is not easier because they are “home”, it may not be a relief to be back; whatever the reason they return, there are deep emotions and battles that they are working through. Let’s not diminish the investment of their lives in another place by assuming here is better, let’s value their obedience to the ministry God called them to and the work the Lord was doing through them in the world.
Let’s Be Intentional! Most of the time, missionaries will probably assume that you don’t know the name of the obscure city they live in, or the name of the people you are working among. Often because of different sounds in language and a lack of familiarity, it can be hard for people to remember and relate. So, what can you do to show your missionary that you care? What can you do to better relate to the people you love and support? Here are a few ideas I came up with:
- Download a map of the country they live in onto your phone. When you have them over for coffee, or have an opportunity to visit with them before the worship service, you can ask them to show you where they live, and they can show you where they fly in to, and how they travel to their location.
-Do a quick research project with your kids. Yes it probably sounds a bit daunting, but with your kids help, could you put together some facts about the country where they live, foods they eat, transportation methods, the type of work local people do; print some pictures you have found. Then, when you are hosting them for dinner, ask them about how they experienced these things in their country and if these facts are true for them in the particular place they live.
-Print your missionaries’ newsletters or updates. And dare I say...read them! Your missionary works hard and takes time to provide you with information so that you are better equipped to know them, their ministry and the needs that they see. They share stories with you about the people who they are sharing the Gospel with, friends who are struggling and they need you to be informed and to pray. Make a list of one or two names of the people they mention, keep track of their story and ask your missionaries about them and how things are changing. I was always really encouraged when someone would ask me about my friends in Tanzania, and often I was caught off-guard because I didn’t expect people to know their names, and I felt very blessed and encouraged. Just be intentional!
Reminders Are Received. The time spent on Home Assignment is not always as restful as they would like it to be. When was the last time you tried to fit in 20 couples, or families for dinner or coffee?? For the missionary, there are often way more than that! Meeting with missions committees, pastors, friends and family, I remember we had one month on a home assignment where we scheduled people in twice a day (with toddlers in tow). It was our choice, we felt it was essential to the work we were doing, and we scheduled in time to rest later on. The missionary knows how important relationships are, and they will take responsibility to balance their schedule as best they can. But if you offer to have them over, try to schedule it right away - if you can, but don’t be afraid to follow-up with them and ask again because they may have just forgotten amidst a busy social schedule. Trust your missionary to be honest if it won’t work out, don’t be afraid to remind them and try not to be offended if there isn’t time.
Practical Needs. Whether a missionary is coming back only for a few months on a Home Assignment, or they are coming back to stay, there will be practical and logistical needs, like a place to stay, a vehicle, warm clothes (if it’s winter in Canada) among other things. We were blessed on one home assignment with a grocery shower, so that our cabinets were stocked with the basics. It was a huge blessing for us! Take the time to ask and see if there are things they need that you could help them with, or help them to find. It can be a hard thing for a missionary to ask for help and depend on others, but be that blessing in their life, which can help reduce some of the stress in the transition.
There are also healthy rhythms to life that your missionary needs to practice, and these include times of rest and refreshment. Is there a way you can help them? Would you offer to take their kids to the zoo, so they can go out for dinner? Do you have a cabin they could use for the weekend, to give them an opportunity to build some family memories and have a little getaway? Are there things they enjoy doing but haven’t done yet? Get to know them and love on them by providing them ideas or the means to be refreshed.
Missionaries live a life in limbo. It takes time to process the life they have lived, and it can be a struggle to communicate it. As the church, we need to get to know our missionaries again, building relationship, bringing them into our fellowship, and giving them a place of love and belonging. We can acknowledge the immensity of emotions that whirl within them, and bless them with practical needs and friendship.
The rescue of our souls by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the hope we have in His return, compels us to be His bearers of light in the world. Some are called overseas and some to remain, yet we are one body to which we are exhorted by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5, to “encourage one another and build each other up”. Let us be encouragers and builders for our brothers and sisters in Christ as they return. Let’s welcome them with words of affirmation, and acts of love.
What are some ways you can love those in a season of transition around you? Have you lived overseas? What were some practical helps for you as you came back?