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Looking back before moving ahead

Sometimes we never realize the emotions bottled up inside of us during our time on the mission field. Difficult cultural transitions and language barriers can force us to step out of our comfort zone, and we attempt to engage in ministry while still burdened with this unresolved grief and unacknowledged pain.

I initially began to understand this as thirteen-year-old missionary kid, sitting across from my mom at a coffee shop. We had just returned to America from Hiroshima, Japan for our second home assignment. A brief conversation about our experiences in Japan had quickly turned into a two- hour long, eye-opening discovery. As we began to process our previous term overseas, my responses to prior circumstances revealed a heart brimming with anger, shame, fear, and bitterness. Eyes wide, I had stared at my mom, dumbfounded. I didn’t realize the extent of the emotions I had carefully hidden in my heart while living overseas.

My journey of discovering and processing these emotions was painfully vulnerable. During the following months of my family’s home assignment, I began to list every emotion I had felt during the past four years in Japan. I finally acknowledged my fear and anger at God and began to write letters to Him about my experiences overseas. I now realize that this process has a specific term: a ‘personal debrief.’

As missionaries, reflecting and processing each term overseas is vital to our success on the mission field. George Murray, former president of TEAM, says, “The greatest issue facing missions today is missionary retention – not recruitment.” Instead of stuffing our emotions deep inside or ignoring them as in my case, we must dig down, acknowledge what we’re feeling, and allow God to heal our hearts in order to truly thrive on the mission field.

Where to Start

John Certalic, president of the organization Caring for Others,describes debriefing as “Examining the recent past and what I’ve been through, and the impact it’s had on my relationships, all for the purpose of planning for the future and what God may have in store for me in the next chapter of my life.”

Debriefing starts with finding someone you can trust. My mom became this person for me during my personal debrief three years ago. She wasn’t afraid to be ‘brutally honest’ with me. She didn’t judge, and she chose to accept me and my mistakes.

“Debriefing is a bit like ballroom dancing,” Certalic says. As the missionary leads, the debriefer follows, allowing the missionary to go where they want. Acting like a guide, the debriefer then asks follow-up questions to ‘dig a little deeper to draw the missionary out.’

Why It Matters

Although there are many reasons why every missionary should consider a time of reflection on each term overseas, these top three reasons highlight the importance of debriefing during home assignment:

  • Debriefing allows time for our ‘souls to catch up with our bodies’

This concept is taken from an African story written by Lettie Cowman. The story describes a group of African workers who refuse to continue their labor after being pushed beyond their limit the day before. They claimed that they needed time to allow their ‘souls to catch up with their bodies.’

Many missionaries are so caught up in the busyness of their ministry that they never take time to reflect on ‘why they are doing what they are doing.’ They rarely stop to re-examine their own personal relationship with God. Debriefing during home assignment allows the rest and space to process our ministry and re-align our motives.

  • Debriefing forces us to talk about the hard stuff so that we can trust God more, not less

Debriefing is never easy. It is a specific time to reflect on painful experiences. Debriefing exposes raw, unacknowledged emotions so that we can attempt to understand and then learn from them.

In the initial stages of my personal debrief, all I could talk and write about was my anger, sadness, fear, and regret. But as I continued to process, I began to see the joy and blessings that I had missed. I began to see God’s presence and guidance during times where I had previously felt alone. This deepened my trust in God significantly as He allowed me to see through a different perspective. 

  • Debriefing brings healing

“Personal debrief is particularly helpful in times of crisis or transition to help bring closure to an earlier chapter in your life and to help you leave behind any emotional ‘baggage’ that accumulated during that time,” writes Dr. Ronald Koteskey in his article, “Why Missionaries Ought to Know About Debriefing.”

Life on the mission field is an incredible opportunity to closely observe God’s overwhelming presence and strength, but it can also be difficult, painful, and scarring. Only as we reflect on our time overseas and surrender our fears and doubts to Him, can He help us discover the root of our emotions and begin to heal past wounds.

Debriefing requires us to step forward, to risk feeling exposed, and to acknowledge past mistakes. It requires openness and vulnerability. Debriefing our time on the mission field does not equal weakness or failure, but rather a chance to look back, rely on God’s strength, and see how God is using past experiences to prepare us for the future.

Organizations that offer personal debriefing for missionaries

As more mission organizations recognize the need for personal debriefing, various debriefing programs are now available to missionaries on home assignment:

https://www.mti.org – A week-long debriefing and reentry program for missionaries entitled “DAR”

http://bluerockbnb.com/ – A five-day debriefing process at Blue Rock Bed and Breakfast

http://www.missionary-care.org/ – Skype™ or face-to-face missionary debriefing sessions

http://www.pottersinn.com/ – Varied length retreats for pastors and missionaries

http://www.alongsidecares.net/  A two to three week retreat for pastors and missionaries

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