Q & A: What's it like to the leave the overseas field with both grief and joy?
A friend and colleague is speaking at a retreat next month about transitions to and from the mission field. Her audience will be missionaries currently serving overseas and the topic will be all about transition. Anyone who has ever served overseas knows that transitions happen early and often! She asked me to weigh in on the theme of transitioning back “home” after being on the field. I emailed her my answers, but thought I would share them here too, in hopes that my experience might encourage someone.
When you left the mission field what were some of the things you grieved over?
When we left the mission field it was abrupt and we were reluctant. We had planned to live overseas forever (or at least a really long time). We especially grieved all that we had invested, knowing our dreams had not yet come to fruition. It felt like regret—like we would never know what might have been. While it was indeed our choice to leave to care for my ailing father, it wasn’t what we wanted or foresaw. We had always been passionate and joy-filled about our calling overseas. To suddenly be required to give that up was disorienting and disappointing. In sum, we grieved the calling we had been walking in for about 15 years.
We also grieved the small role God allowed us to play in the Great Commission. We knew that others’ salvation was not dependent on us. But we were grateful to be lights in a dark place. Christ in us is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27), and we were sad to be some of the few Christians in our region and then have to leave.
Finally, we grieved our overseas lifestyle. That’s all our kids had ever known. Our family memories and values and shaping influences were all related to us being foreigners in foreign lands. We loved the adventure and trying new things and finding our way, all with the help of the Lord. While at times it was unspeakably difficult, it was a unique walk of faith and we hated to leave it.
What were some joys you discovered?
Of course there were things we enjoyed as soon as we stepped off the plane back in the US. We could understand the written and spoken language, we could read the body language, we had some favorite foods and amenities that we couldn’t wait to enjoy. Things came so much easier here—the bank, the grocery store, taxes, the post office—we knew how to navigate these things. I wouldn’t call them deep joys, but they were fun perks that provided bright spots in a season of grief.
Relationships were a gift to us. Celebrations and quality time with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had been rare when we were abroad. Back in the US we were able to attend birthday parties and Christmas dinner and baptisms. It was sweet to make up for lost time with so many of our loved ones.
We dove in to relationships in our new neighborhood too. We were all hungry for friends and meaningful relationships, prompting us to host block parties and dinners and anything we could do to make connections with others. These relationships, of course, took time and were awkward at first—we were out of place and had a rare story—but months of investment brought about sweet friendships.
What did you learn about identity?
One of the most complex areas of grief for us was related to our identity. We all saw ourselves as overseas missionaries and I don’t think we knew, before relocating back to the US, how much weight we allowed that to bear. If we were overseas missionaries, then who would we be back in the US? What was our purpose and calling now?
This pruning was painful but good for all of us. It required us to refine where we put our hope and how we defined our calling. It stripped away the extra things we had erroneously added to our identity, which should have been in Christ alone all along. The truth is: Christ is all. We were created by him and for him and our role is to abide in him and bring him glory no matter where we live. Whether we are learning a foreign language and preaching Christ abroad, or if we are walking our dogs in the suburbs and meeting new neighbors in the US, Christ is in us and he is the hope of the world.
As the Lord removed various titles from us, we had to believe that he was sovereign and good and had a purpose in it. We had to believe that he would still dwell in us, and us in him, for his good purposes, even in suburban America. Our move was good for hidden (or not so hidden!) and unrecognized pride. Any pride we felt in our role overseas was removed. We had to rightly place all of our hope in Christ alone.
Were you surprised by certain things?
The reorientation and grief took awhile. It felt like our family was in a fog for many months, maybe even up to a year. Having spent our whole married life and family life and ministry life overseas, I had formed a prejudgment that we would not experience deep friendships and meaningful ministry back in the US. I had always heard from friends who transitioned back home that they never found the right church, never made deep friends, never sensed God’s moving back in the US. So that’s (at least subconsciously, but maybe consciously) what I expected.
But in time, the Lord gave us good friends. Deep friends. Friends who began to partner in ministry with us and sharpen us and provoke our growth in the Lord. The Lord arranged all kinds of providential meetings—we met new friends in all sorts of places and God allowed us to go deep with them, even start a church with them, share the gospel and our lives with them. Those friendships persist and we’re living missionally now with those friends, even in the midst of the American suburbs. I didn’t think God could ever meet me in Parker, Colorado. But he sure did. And he still does.
How would you advise others moving back to their home culture?
Transitions require so much emotional energy. The grief is deep and real and has no timeline. Anyone who is transitioning must give themselves much grace (and this goes for anyone arriving on the field or leaving the field).
There are so many little things and big things to grieve when moving to the field: you lose everything from life with grandparents in the same town all the way to peanut butter in your grocery store. You grieve the ease of citizenship, knowing where (and how!) to drive, being able to speak as a well-educated adult. When you transition, you lose your role and status and norm. Everything has to be recreated and reinvented, all while processing the sadness of what used to be and what might have been. And, of course, there are so many things to grieve when leaving the field, which I discussed above.
Bottom line: transition means grief. And grief takes time and will make you tired. Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to rest (you may want to sleep a lot, which feels lazy, but it’s necessary) and cry and share those burdens with whoever you can call or text or get coffee with. Grief knows no timeline and may take awhile. That’s ok.
Some other practical tips: If you can find a counselor who specializes in missionary care, I encourage you to take advantage of those sessions. It’s important, too, to stay in the Word of God, renewing your mind with what’s true. Corporate worship is key—God has good purposes for you as you gather with other saints. If you know of another worker or friend who has transitioned well, try to connect with her. Having friends who’ve already walked the road can be so encouraging. Don’t give in to bitterness.
It’s easy to believe, I think, when you leave the field, that your faith will never be the same. That the faith that was required overseas won’t be required back home and you’ll therefore experience God differently. Or that the people back home won’t be the kind of deep friends you had abroad or the church the kind of deep faith church you had abroad. I have learned, though, that God is God, here, there, and everywhere. And his people are good gifts from his hand. And his church is a beautiful bride no matter her context.
A transition back home is a walk of faith, not of sight. It’s believing that God will meet you there. It’s believing that he is good and has good purposes in any calling that he gives. It’s giving yourself space to grieve, while also waiting expectantly for the Lord to fill you up in new, yet unseen ways.
He really is the God who is there.