Leaving Well

“How do we help our children leave well? How do we finish up well ourselves?”, Tom* asks Liz*, their member care worker.  Tom, Nadia* and their two children will soon be leaving Chile* to return ‘home’ to Brisbane, after 11 years serving as church planters.  

What would you say or do?

Liz, who has just started working for Tom and Nadia’s agency, wonders, “What training and resourcing does the agency provide about how to leave well?”  



Tom, Nadia and their children are about to transition from one cultural context to another, a process which provides various challenges. 

Donovan (1991:182) represents the experience of major transition as similar to a river crossing.  

The cross-cultural workers were contributing prior to leaving location. Once they have transitioned, or spent some time adjusting to a new place, they will again be contributing. However, during the transition, cross-cultural workers typically feel like they are just surviving or even drowning. This disorientation or struggle occurs to a lesser or greater extent depending on the magnitude of the transition involved.  Transitioning back ‘home’ is typically one of the most difficult and lease expected ‘drowning’ experiences.

Will Tom, Nadia and their children sink or swim during their transition back to Brisbane?  How much do they need to change? And what can be done to mitigate their experience?

Leaving well can ease the stress of transition.  The acronym ‘RAFT’ is a tool to assist workers to finish up well (Pollock et al., 2017: 240-6).


Cross-cultural workers can build a ‘RAFT’ to assist then to leave well.  

R – Reconciliation

It is important for cross-cultural workers to reconcile as much as they are able. Bitterness can be caused by ‘unfinished business’. Sometimes bridges need to be built. “It’s so easy to get on a plane and leave without ever asking for forgiveness or giving forgiveness.”  (Neigh)

My story illustrates the weight that can be carried when conflicts are unresolved:

As I was about to transition ‘home’ some years ago, a conflict arose with a friend about an electrical appliance.  My friend wanted to buy it for a business venture but I had already promised it to someone else. According to my friend’s worldview, our relationship trumped my promise to sell it to another.  However, according to my worldview, my promise trumped my friend’s claim. Due to the late occurrence of this conflict, the busyness of the last few days and the remoteness of her house, this conflict wasn’t resolved before I departed.  It was also impossible for me to achieve any conflict resolution at a distance (neither phone, mail or internet was a viable way to communicate with her at that time).  After returning to Australia, memories of our conflict came to mind from time to time, and I felt sad about it. Fortunately, during a return visit a few years later, there was opportunity for resolution of our conflict.

Author, 2022

Have Tom, Nadia and their children any bridges to build before they leave? 

A – Affirmation

Affirming people during the leaving process blesses relationships. Good closure includes acknowledging the blessings that relationships have brought, appreciating them and mourning their passing. This step can remind cross-cultural workers of what they have gained in that place and can be part of thanking God for what He has given them.  “It is not only affirming to the one who receives the note or word of thanks, but it helps to cement some of the good memories” that have been experienced by those leaving (Neigh). 

Knell (2006: 39) argues that affirmation is “saying what was good about the experience” and “prevents leaving from becoming a funeral”.  This could include a celebration of God’s faithfulness during their time of service, including how God has changed people’s lives in their community.

It is important to reconcile and affirm early, as it is easy to run out of time during the busyness of finishing up.  

Affirmation occurs differently in different cultural contexts.  In some contexts affirmation may be a written note, in others a gift or in others a verbal affirmation, either publicly or privately.

Have Tom, Nadia and their children affirmed others when leaving in the past? 

F – Farewells 

It is also important to say goodbye in culturally appropriate ways.  This not only applies to saying goodbye to people, but also to places, pets and possessions.

A story illustrates the fallout that can occur if this is neglected. Once John*, a short-term worker jumped on a bus and left a team he had been working with without saying goodbye.  A little later, some team members asked, “Where’s John?”.  They expressed grief when they discovered that he had left on the weekly bus without saying goodbye. In their eyes, John’s leaving without taking the time to farewell the team reflected poorly on his relationship with them. John’s service and witness was impacted by the manner in which he left.

For parents, this process also includes taking time to facilitate their children saying goodbye to their friends at school and in other communities. When visiting places and people for the final time, it is helpful to verbalise that it is the last visit. Taking lots of photos of favourite spots and people can be a useful tool (eg. Peanut seller, monkeys).  

Sometimes saying goodbye may involve taking time off work to visit significant people and places. Barclay (personal correspondence, 2022) reported that he undertook motorbike rides around India with each of his sons before they left for Australia.

How have Tom and Nadia farewelled when leaving in the past?

T – Think destination 

Think destination refers to looking ahead to life in the future destination reminding cross-cultural workers of the importance of planning appropriately for life in their future there.  This includes thinking about housing, schooling, work and church options.  Building a network of resources, including people and agencies, can also assist with the transition process. 

Think destination also includes reflecting on the families’ expectations about their future destination. It is easy to plan a return ‘home’ with rose-coloured glasses (Knell, 2006:42).  Realistic expectations are a key factor in mitigating the stress of transition (Ward et al., 2001:77).  Friends and colleagues can assist cross-cultural workers set realistic expectations. 

So often we go into new situations, like returning to [home], either for furlough or permanently and never once stopped to think through what we expect life, future assignment, friends, etc to be like. Those of who have been in the host country for a short period of time in particular, often falsely assume everything is going to be the same when they return. 


Unexpected departures

Those who don’t have a chance to RAFT typically have a more challenging re-entry.  

“Unfortunately those who face evacuation, or emergency medical or family leave, often find this step impossible to do. When this step is short circuited an extra amount of attention needs to be given, to make sure that we are dealing with the issues and grieve the losses that have occurred” 


Negative alternative

It is important to give attention to emotions when leaving and includes coming to terms with the reason for leaving (Knell, 2016:38). There can be disappointment, anger or bitterness at the end of service.  These can then be taken forward with the move and be an extra burden to carry.

Barclay (personal correspondence, 2022) suggests that if RAFT is not done well, a negative alternative to RAFT may result:

  • Resentment
  • Anger/angst
  • Fears
  • Trauma

Bringing good closure to a period in your life enables you to make a good beginning in the new place. It also helps you build on past experiences and learn from them. Good closure also helps you find something positive in what may have been a negative experience. 

Knell, 2016:38

Time and Lifelines

As well as leaving well, time and lifelines also mitigate the transition process. You can read more about this at Barclay’s (personal correspondence, 2022) Transition River Activity.

A story to consider

Whilst returning to Jerusalem at the end of his third journey, Paul called the elders of the Ephesus church to come down to Miletus to meet with him to farewell them.  

When they arrived, he spoke to them. “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you,” he said. “From the first day I came into Asia Minor, I served the Lord with tears and without pride. I served him when I was greatly tested. I was tested by the evil plans of the Jews who disagreed with me. You know that nothing has kept me from preaching whatever would help you. I have taught you in public and from house to house. I have told both Jews and Greeks that they must turn away from their sins to God. They must have faith in our Lord Jesus.

“Now I am going to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit compels me. I don’t know what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Spirit warns me. He tells me that I will face prison and suffering. But my life means nothing to me. My only goal is to finish the race. I want to complete the work the Lord Jesus has given me. He wants me to tell others about the good news of God’s grace.

“I have spent time with you preaching about the kingdom. I know that none of you will ever see me again. So I tell you today that I am not guilty if any of you don’t believe. I haven’t let anyone keep me from telling you everything God wants you to do. Keep watch over yourselves. Keep watch over all the believers. The Holy Spirit has made you leaders over them. Be shepherds of God’s church. He bought it with his own blood. I know that after I leave, wild wolves will come in among you. They won’t spare any of the sheep. Even men from your own people will rise up and twist the truth. They want to get the believers to follow them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning you. Night and day I warned each of you with tears.

“Now I trust God to take care of you. I commit you to the message about his grace. It can build you up. Then you will share in what God plans to give all his people. I haven’t longed for anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that I have used my own hands to meet my needs. I have also met the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that we must work hard and help the weak. We must remember the words of the Lord Jesus. He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”Paul finished speaking. Then he got down on his knees with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they hugged and kissed him. Paul had said that they would never see him again. That’s what hurt them the most. Then they went with him to the ship.

Acts 20:18-38

In this, Paul’s last in-person communication with the elders from Ephesus, he weaves a review of his ministry amongst them, as well as looking forward to his future ministry, before handing the elders over to God.  Prayer and farewelling occurred at their parting, when emotions ran high. 

It is interesting to note that the form of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders is “a type commonly found in farewell addresses” at the time (Williams, 1990: 350). 

What happened? How were these cross-cultural workers cared for?

Liz encouraged Tom, Nadia and their family to review their ministry and to celebrate what God has done through them, just as Paul did with the Ephesian elders. 

Liz also encouraged the family to have fun doing the Transition River Activity, facilitating reflection on their experiences of transition including RAFT and their lifelines. She sent them the book ‘Burn Up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-entry’ by Marion Knell which contains more information about RAFT, as well as about the re-entry which is ahead of them.   

Liz facilitated Tom, Nadia and their children to reflect on their expectations about their future life in Brisbane by sending them the RAFT Worksheet  (https://www.mtwcare.org/uploads/8/9/8/6/89863841/raftworksheet.pdf). 

Liz could assess their expectations.  Are they too high, too low or realistic? For example ‘What are the children’s expectations about extended family contact?’

Liz could also ask Tom and Nadia, “Where is God in all of this?”  

If appropriate, Liz could encourage them to pray and commit their church plant and their transition to God, just as Paul did.

As Tom and Nadia hadn’t heard of RAFT before, Liz investigated the agency’s member care programme to determine what training and resources were provided systemically to cross-cultural workers leaving for and returning from location. She discovered that any resourcing and training was adhoc.  Liz decided to set up a programme to:

  • train all new cross-cultural workers about the RAFT process at least six months before their departure for location and 
  • send RAFT resources to all cross-cultural workers at least six months prior to their return from location.

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.

Recommended Reading

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Other References

Bouncing Back – Transition and Re-entry Planning for the Parents of Foreign Service Youth (2022) U.S. Department of State. Available at: https://www.state.gov/global-community-liaison-office/education-and-youth/bouncing-back-transition-and-re-entry-planning-for-the-parents-of-foreign-service-youth/.

Donovan, K. (1991) Growing Through Stress. Sydney, Australia: Aquila.

Foyle, M.F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Jordan, P. (1992) Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home. Seattle, WA: YWAM.

Knell, M. (2001) Families on the Move: Growing Up Overseas – and Loving it! Wheaton, Ill: Monarch.

Neigh, M. (unknown) ‘Closure – Building a “RAFT”’. Barnabas International. Available at: https://www.instituteofworldmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/RAFT.pdf. Accessed 2022.

Pascoe, R. (1999) Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad: A Parent’s Guide. Portland, Oregon: Graphics Arts Center.

Pirolo, N. (2000) The Re-entry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. San Diego, CA: Emmaus Road International.

Pollock, D.C., Van Reken, R.E. and Pollock, M.V. (2017) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Third. Boston, MA; London: Nicholas Brealey.

RAFT Rethinking the Transition Process for Missions (2022) Center for Mission Mobilization. Available at: https://www.mobilization.org/sender-care/season-10/.

‘RAFT Worksheet’ (2005). Interaction International, Inc. Available at: https://www.mtwcare.org/uploads/8/9/8/6/89863841/raftworksheet.pdf.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock. East Sussex: Routledge.

Williams, D.J. (1990) Acts. Massachusetts: Hendrickson (New International Bible Commentary, 5).

Culture shock – it’s real!

“At the beginning of our time in Dhaka, our senses were assaulted – taxi drivers vying for our custom, gangs of dogs, monkeys, dust, smog, waking to the sounds of hacking and spitting early in the morning from those living above us.  Smells, both wonderful (spicy food and woodsmoke) and the unpleasant (sewerage and rubbish in the streets).  Initially, we bounced around finding all the new experiences fun and exciting!  However, after a while the tide began to turn.

Stomach upsets and sickness were challenging…

Tiredness set in … 

Now we are feeling overwhelmed!  Some of the family don’t even want to go out.

I dislike the squat toilets.  The local dress I wear, including scarf, pants and tunic consist of great quantities of fabric which have a mind of their own and easily fall into the toilet. 

I hate the traffic.  “There are just no road rules here!” 

Leonie* is speaking to Liz, her member care worker, during a Zoom call a couple of months after she, her husband James* and their four children arrived in Dhaka.

What would you say or do?


Leonie and her family are experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock

Culture shock, or acculturative stress, as some prefer to label it, is used to describe the impact of a change of culture on an individual. Oberg (1960: 176), an anthropologist, was the first to use the term culture shock, describing it thus:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.  These signs and cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life… Now these cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept.  All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.

Boch (1970: x) writes that ‘the person subject to extreme culture shock is often unsure whether he has gone mad, or whether all the people around him are crazy – perhaps both!’ 

Culture shock ‘applies to any new situation, job, relationship, or perspective requiring a role adjustment and a new identity… It is a normal, inevitable reaction in cross-cultural situations. It doesn’t strike suddenly, or have a single principle cause, but builds up slowly from a series of events’ (Wilson, 1996: 444)

These events arise out of the differences experienced. 


Various differences precipitate culture shock. People and places look and smell different.  The difference may be physical including a change in diet and exposure to bacteria and viruses, precipitating illness.  Consequentially, cross-cultural workers may fear for their health and safety.  Differences in toilets, climate or housing may be challenging.  There may be social differences, with language challenges, different communication patterns, customs and values.  Social norms might be different including a different attitude to time.  Cross-cultural workers may not know what is going on, what is expected of them or where to find things.  Worship at church may be different.  Cross-cultural workers may also experience theological shock, particularly if some of their theological positions or ‘truisms’ are challenged.

Cross-cultural workers may experience a sense of loss: homesickness, support networks, routine and roles. Often cross-cultural workers experience reductions in productivity and efficiency. Cross-cultural workers are starting from the beginning with everything. They ask questions such as:

  • Who am I? 
  • How can I communicate? 
  • Where can I fit in? 
  • Who will be my friends? 
  • What can I do? 
  • What can I eat? 
  • How do I clean my teeth?

Cultural incidents 

Cultural incidents also occur during social interactions due to social differences (Storti, 2001: 61-2).

One type occurs when the behaviour of people from another culture confuses, frustrates, or disgusts the expatriate and may lead to a withdrawal from the relationship. 

Adapted from Storti (2001: 61)

The second type occurs when the behaviour of expatriates confuses, frustrates, or disgusts someone from another culture which may also result in withdrawal from the relationship.

Adapted from Storti (2001: 62)


If cross-cultural workers are expecting the differences they encounter when entering another culture, the extent of their culture shock will be moderated. Further, researchers argue that realistic expectations facilitate adjustment (Ward, 2001: 77).  Embracing these differences is the start of the process of fitting in.

Hopefully culture shock did not come as a surprise, since it is normal, healthy and critical to the process of inculturation. 

What differences were James, Leonie and their children expecting to encounter?  Were their expectations realistic?

Changing identity

Elmer’s (2002: 66) diagram shows some cross-cultural workers adjust and others don’t.

Some cross-cultural workers have corners knocked off their square heads during transition!  The cross-cultural workers who retain their square heads cause more irritation to their host community.  It is easier for cross-cultural workers to retain their square head (if they have power in their context, whether from the money they bring or the positions they hold). Cultural imperialists do this. Most cross-cultural workers want to transition to an ‘octagonal’ head, so that they don’t bump the local people as much.  

Stages and symptoms of culture shock

Culture shock feels like a roller coaster ride often depicted by a ‘U curve’. 

The first stage is the honeymoon phase, after which cross-cultural workers move into the avoidance, anger and acceptance stages. 

During the honeymoon phase cross-cultural workers are often excited to try new things, explore the new environment and have plenty of energy to do so.  

Gerald Durrell’s biography describes his experience of arriving in Cameroons, mirroring Leonie’s families’ experience.

For Gerald and his friend John Yealland every minute of those first few days in Africa – every site, every sound, every face, every creature, every plant – was a source of wonder and delight. It was as if they had been born again – nothing was familiar, nothing expected. Hither and thither they went, ecstatic and bemused, [like men in a masculine trance].

Botting (2014: 116)

It is helpful if cross-cultural workers use the energy of the honeymoon phase to develop social and spiritual supports for a healthy adjustment.  

After a while, however, people run out of energy.  Culture shock can feel like wading through mud.  There is resistance all the time, in every activity, with a cloud of uncertainty about the possible dangers ahead. Tiredness is a common symptom.  So much change is required and change consumes energy.  It has been found that people typically operate at about 70% of their usual capacity at this time. 

The tiredness, withdrawal and irritability experienced during culture shock are challenging for those experiencing it, as well as for those around them.

During the avoidance phase, cross-cultural workers are often distracted, feel lonely and withdraw.  Withdrawal is commonly expressed through the use of distractions, such as the excessive use of social media or, even more problematically, through porn or alcohol. Cross-cultural workers may feel homesick, experience significant fatigue, anxiety and uncertainty.  Leonie’s reference to finding it hard to go out is a common experience of this phase of culture shock. Unfortunately, as going out becomes harder, engagement with people in their new community is limited. Typically, people then descend further down the curve and become angry or irritable.  

Criticism is a common feature of the anger phase of culture shock.  Cross-cultural workers often compare their new culture unfavourably with their home culture, sometimes whinging with other cross-cultural workers!  Other possibilities include general grumpiness.  Leonie has become irritable, expressed in negativity about various aspects of Nepali culture including the squat toilets and the seemingly chaotic road rules. 

Fortunately, as cross-cultural workers start to adjust to the new normal, they move towards the median line again.  In the last phase, acceptance, cross-cultural workers start to have a sense of belonging.  They change to become a better fit with their new environment.  They may have developed some language competence and start feeling more like their usual selves.

Jones (2015) describes the movement from anger to acceptance:

It includes wrestling with knowing, without a doubt that your way is better . . .  and then thinking that it probably is . . .  and then wondering if it might be . . . and then acknowledging there may be two good ways . . . and then (sometimes) recognizing the new way is better.

Read more about the stages of culture shock at John Fisher’s personal transition curve


Certainly, the experience of culture shock varies from person to person. It is often not a tidy ‘U curve’.

Many variables including age, health, living conditions, language, employment and personality affect the extent of the culture shock experience. It varies according to how much change we have to undertake. You can read more about variations in culture shock including those of children.

Where does sin fit in?

‘You don’t know what is in the jar until it is bumped.’

Indian proverb

Culture shock is a significant bump! Experienced cross-cultural workers report that during culture shock, cross-cultural workers’ weaknesses and dark sides bubble to the surface. Those weaknesses, or dark sides, in peoples ‘normal’ lives, tend to be expressed in greater force at this time. 

What happens after culture shock?

The confusion and helplessness that arise from the complete loss of cultural cues central to the culture shock process, is over soon. However, episodes of culture stress which come from the stress of changing to a new way of living continue to occur for some years, although they become less frequent.  More can be read about culture stress

A story to consider

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

… So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”

Exodus 16:2-8

God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt in order to take them into the promised land.  God asks them to be faithful to Him, in the midst of competing cultures and religions. We see however, that when faced with thirst and hunger they quickly begin to grumble.  While this grumbling is directed at their leaders, the Israelites are really grumbling about God and what he has asked them to do, comparing their current experience with the comfort of their old ‘home’.  Their relationship with God is damaged.

What happened? How were these cross-cultural workers cared for?

Just as the Israelite’s grumbling at God effected their relationship with God, so too could Leonie’s and her families’ grumbling impact their relationship with God. 

Liz could gently enquire about the families’s spiritual 

Liz enquires about what training about culture shock the family received before departure.  Consequently, Liz could refer the family to the Tips for Surviving Culture Shock document they mentioned which included suggestions to facilitate a positive relationship with God.

Liz can also use the document to review:

  • the family’s self-care practices 
  • their level of social support. This might encourage Leonie’s family to pursue local relationships to assist in adjustment, as well as too facilitate the family providing support for one another through setting up a poster on their wall as pictured.

Liz could also remind the family that culture shock including its various stages is normal and that while this process of change is challenging, it is necessary to learn to fit in.

What happened down the track?

After a local friend said to Leonie, “Squat toilets are more hygienic than western ones, since the shoes are the only item touching the toilet,” Leonie adjusted her attitude and found using squat toilets easier.  She wasn’t fighting the experience anymore and in time became more proficient at managing all the fabric.

Leonie also became aware that road rules did exist in Dhaka.  She observed that the largest vehicle had right of way on the roads.

Leonie and her family have experienced the discomfort of culture shock but this is a normal process of personal transformation required to adapt well. 

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.

Recommended Reading

Saphiere, D.H. (2014) ‘The Nasty (and Noble) Truth about Culture Shock’, Cultural Detective. Available at: https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2014/08/12/the-nasty-and-noble-truth-about-culture-shock/.


Andreason, A.W. (2008) ‘Expatriate Adjustment of Spouses and Expatriate Managers: An Integrative Research Review’, National Journal of Management, 25(2), pp. 382–395.

Austin, C. (1983) ‘Re-entry Stress: The Pain of Coming Home’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 19(4).

Boch, P. (1970) Culture Shock: A Reader in Modern Cultural Anthropology. New York: Alfred A Knopt.

Botting, D. (2014) Gerald Durrell: The Authorised Biography. London: Harper Collins.

Demes, K.A. and Geeraert, N. (2015) ‘The Highs and Lows of a Cultural Transition: A Longitudinal Analysis of Sojourner Stress and Adaptation Across 50 Countries’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Edited by King, 109(2), pp. 316–337.

Donovan, K. (1991) Growing Through Stress. Sydney, Australia: Aquila.

Dye, W. (1974) ‘Stress-producing Factors in Cultural Adjustment’, Missiology, 2(1), pp. 61–77.

Elmer, D. (2002) Cross Cultural Connections. Intervarsity Press.

Gertsen, M. (1990) ‘Intercultural competence and expatriates’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1(3), pp. 341–361.

Ho, P. and Bing, P.H.B. (2020) ‘Off we go’. Available at: https://www.chinasource.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Off-We-Go-2020.pdf.

Jones, J. (2015) ‘The Seven Lies of Living Cross Culturally’, The Culture Blend. Available at: http://www.thecultureblend.com/the-seven-lies-of-living-cross-culturally/.

Jones, R. (2021) ‘Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping’, A Life Overseas: a cross-cultural conversation. Available at: https://www.alifeoverseas.com/beyond-culture-shock-culture-pain-and-culture-stripping/.

Mobbs, C.H. (2013) ‘Culture shock in children’, ExpatChild. Available at: https://expatchild.com/culture-shock-in-children/.

Mumford, D.B. (1998) ‘The measurement of culture shock’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 33, pp. 149–154.

Oberg, K. (1960) ‘Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments’, Practical Anthropology, 7(4), pp. 177–182.

Pitman, J. (2012) ‘Living Well Where You Don’t Belong’, Outside-In. Available at: https://joannpittman.com/cultural-adjustment/2012/living-well-where-you-dont-belong-full-version/.

Pollock, D.C., Van Reken, R. and Pollock, M. (2017) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston, MA; London: Nicholas Brealey.

Rabe, M. (1997) Culture Shock! Living and Working Abroad. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Saphiere, D.H. (2014) ‘The Nasty (and Noble) Truth about Culture Shock’, Cultural Detective. Available at: https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2014/08/12/the-nasty-and-noble-truth-about-culture-shock/.

Storti, C. (2001) The Art of Crossing Cultures. 2nd edn. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock. East Sussex: Routledge.

Wilson, L. (1996) ‘Women and Culture Shock’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 32(4), pp. 442–9.


“How do we sit with people who are living with extended uncertainty?  Many cross-cultural workers are suffering at the moment. I’m finding it really hard”, said Rose*, a member care worker.  Her face twisted as she said this to her member care support group.

Liz*, another member care worker, asked, “What do we say to cross-cultural workers living in the stress of extended uncertainty?  How do we respond when there are no answers?  Some people don’t know if and when they can return to Australia.  Others, are stuck in Australia and don’t know if and when they can get to location.” 

How would you respond?


An analysis of the experience of the cross-cultural workers as they live with uncertainty and a lack of control, was the focus of the previous blog post, Betwixt and Between.  Here we turn our attention to the member carers’ experience and their discomfort.

What are Rose and Liz experiencing as they sit with cross-cultural workers experiencing uncertainty or suffering?

Helplessness is uncomfortable.  Many member care workers can relate to Webb (1990: 76), a pastoral carer, who writes about dreading pastoral situations when she didn’t know what to ‘do’ or when there was nothing she could ‘do’ to help.  Similarly, Rose and Liz can’t do anything about the uncertainty their cross-cultural workers are living with in this situation.  A lack of control is being experienced by both the member care workers and their cross-cultural workers. Member care encounters like these are similar to visits to the sick in hospital by chaplains, where patients are waiting to see how nature will take its course. 

What is our role?

Companionship during suffering is a significant gift.  Schaum writes about the power of companionship, or walking alongside, those who are suffering.    

Companionship is the greatest gift we can offer another who is in pain. In the presence of one who is experiencing difficulties of any severity, our primary gift is not facilitating a remedy for the problems at hand, but rather that of being a journey mate through their personal hardship as God’s purposes are explored…  What all of us long for when life is harsh is accompaniment…  There is no greater gift we can offer someone in the midst of lasting suffering than our simple, abiding, enduring presence.

Shaum, 2012: 132

Giving ‘attention’ to, or being fully present with, cross-cultural workers as they wait, is important in order to listen well and provide good member care. Kelly (2012: 25), an experienced chaplain, writes of the importance of listening with attention, providing ‘an attuned, non-judgemental presence in our waiting with others’ which conveys our concern and compassion. Webb (1990: 76) writes of her discovery of the power and significance of being fully present with people in times of trial. Waiting attentively is costly for member care workers.  

Waiting attentively is a draining experience but even more so when uncomfortable and anxiety provoking.  Kelly (2012: 32) writes that the ability to provide a non-anxious presence is vital for pastoral care.  We may end our attentiveness prematurely due to our discomfort with the cross-cultural worker’s suffering and so limit the pastoral encounter (Kelly, 2012: 33).  It is easy to respond to our anxiety by ‘doing’ things. 

It is common to want to take action when feeling helpless or uncomfortable.  Many member care workers gain comfort in unfamiliar situations by getting busy at some activity.  Rather than simply ‘being’ with the cross-cultural worker in their distress, we might offer a cup of tea, tissues, hugs, some other physical assistance or engage in anxious chatter (Kelly 2012: 34). Sometimes jumping too quickly to prayer can be another way we avoid our uneasiness and block a member care encounter.  Kelly (2012: 33-34) recounts the story of a chaplain who just didn’t know how to respond to a patient and so asked, “Can I pray for you?”; the patient replied, “If it helps you”.  While most cross-cultural workers will want to be prayed for and certainly, prayer is a vital component of member care encounters, it can invalidate their concerns if it is offered too soon. We need to wait until it is an appropriate time before we offer to pray.

Waiting attentively with another who is suffering or sad, seeking to hold them and the paradoxes and the unanswerable questions both verbalised or sensed in self or the other and allowing all that to be, is an immense challenge for any human being… As humans, we all innately want to make things better for others and ourselves, we want to get rid of pain and regain control; our first inclination is to stick a band aid on any open wound.

Kelly (2012: 32)

Waiting with cross-cultural workers in these uncertain situations is more challenging for some than others.  Anthropologists, Lingenfelter and Mayers (2003: 79), argue that some societies and personalities are more task-orientated than person-orientated. For those of us who are from more task-orientated cultures or have a more task-orientated personality, waiting is even more difficult. Our discomfort with waiting can also vary according to our status in some cultures.  

In our society there is a direct correlation between status and waiting. The more important your status, the less you have to wait. Waiting reminds us that we are not in charge, that we cannot command instantly whatever it is we have to seek, so we have to wait. 

McBride, 2003: 22

Fortunately, all member care workers can keep growing their ability to wait and provide a non-anxious presence.  

Undoubtedly, the ability to provide others with a ‘non-anxious presence’ (Newell, 2008) in their time of uncertainty or transition is central to the provision of sensitive pastoral and spiritual care. What is key here is our understanding that it is perfectly normal at times to feel helpless or useless in the face of another situation or personal predicament, and not to feel overly anxious or guilty about having these feelings. In short, it is in normalising these feelings for ourselves, as well as others, and giving ourselves permission to feel this way that we free ourselves to some degree from being overly uptight and uncomfortable.  This can enable us to stay with another when we both sense, as carer and cared for, that, ultimately, the current situation is out of our control and has to be lived through rather than fixed or overcome. 

Kelly (2012: 32)

By normalising the discomfort we feel as member care workers, we can increase our capacity to provide a non-anxious presence to our cross-cultural workers.   It is normal, or natural, for Rose and Liz to feel helpless and anxious in these types of member care encounters.  They are living with uncertainty, just as their cross-cultural workers are.  When member care workers realise that it’s normal to feel helpless and useless, then they don’t need to feel overly anxious or guilty but having those feelings (Kelly, 2012: 32).

Our helplessness as member care workers is a ‘touching place’ with the liminal space our cross-cultural workers are inhabiting (Kelly, 2012: 32).  Both member care workers and cross-cultural workers are inhabiting the common ground of waiting and experiencing a sense of being out of control that occurs when living with uncertainty. 

Can Rose and Liz sit with their own helplessness, as well as their cross-cultural workers’ suffering?

Sometimes we are conscious of our failings as member carers after pastoral encounters.  Due to our anxiety and discomfort with waiting we might limit our provision of care by offering a tissue or chattering.  We wonder, “How much did I limit the care of this cross-cultural worker?”  This reminds me of the image of a misshapen piece of pottery, created by an apprentice potter.  Despite the imperfections, there is beauty in its form, as well as potential in the apprentice potter.

It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding. (Read more about our use of the Bible in the Theological Reflection Cycle blog post.)

A story to consider

Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Penninah, had come to Shiloh to offer worship and sacrifices to the LORD.  Eli was a priest there.  Hannah was very distressed because she was a barren woman.  Barrenness was accounted a great disgrace for a Hebrew woman; a source of shame.  Hannah’s distress was increased by Penninah, who did have children, and provoked her about her barrenness.  

Hannah went and started praying to the Lord at the Temple.  

“As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled.  I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”

She said, “May your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.

1 Samuel 1:12-18

Just as Hannah was distressed by her barrenness and Penninah’s provocation, many cross-cultural workers are distressed by these times of significant uncertainty.  

Eli’s false accusation of drunkenness was a very poor start to his pastoral encounter with Hannah!  As member care workers, we can also limit our encounters by responding inappropriately to cross-cultural workers.  Fortunately this wasn’t the end in the story of Hannah and Eli, since she corrected his mistake.

Although Eli did poorly in the first instance as a pastoral carer, he went on to offer Hannah words of comfort and blessing.  Later, after God had answered Hannah’s prayer and blessed her with a son, Samuel, and she had handed him over to Eli to fulfil her promise to the Lord, Eli also helped Samuel to discern God’s voice (1 Samuel 3).  This mirrors our experience as member care workers.  While we may block a pastoral encounter at one point, God works so that the cross-cultural workers may be in a much better place in the end.  In the long-term, God wasn’t limited by Eli’s mistake, and nor is God limited by our blockages during pastoral encounters.  We can also learn from our mistakes, just as an apprentice potter does.

Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

2 Corinthians 1: 3-4

What happened? How could these member care workers be cared for?

Rose and Liz could explore their feelings of discomfort with their support group and supervisors. Rose’s and Liz’s support group members and supervisors could provide them with validation, normalisation and reassurance about their feelings of discomfort and so reduce their anxiety. Validation is about assisting a person ‘feel that their emotions and struggles make sense and are understandable given the circumstances’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Normalisation labels something as normal or ordinary, when a person is feeling it is weird or abnormal. Reassurance is about easing someone’s doubts or fears. More about validation, normalisation and reassurance is set out in the Betwixt and Between blog post.

Rose and Liz can be assisted to improve their member care provision.

In order to improve their capacity to wait attentively and provide a non-anxious presence, Rose and Liz could regularly explore this capacity with their supervisors or member care support group (Kelly, 2012: 34).   They could reflect about if and when they might be employing strategies to avoid discomfort, such as anxious chatter, making cups of tea or offering to do something. This will raise Rose and Liz’s awareness of their practices of avoidance.

Having built an awareness of the temptation to avoid their own discomfort and having received comfort from the validation, normalisation and reassurance Rose and Liz received, their anxiety may be reduced. This in turn may increase their capacity to wait attentively and provide a non-anxious presence, and so, to provide effective member care. With the comfort Rose and Liz have received, they can in turn may bless their cross-cultural workers.

After listening to and waiting attentively with their cross-cultural workers, Rose and Liz might offer validation, normalisation or reassurance to them, if appropriate. Examples of how validation can be achieved are sentences such as, “That sounds frustrating” or “I can understand why you’re exhausted”.  Examples of normalisation are sentences such as, “It is natural to feel discombobulated during these times of uncertainty” or “It is normal to feel quite tired during transition”. To provide reassurance, Rose or Liz might say, “I’m so sorry you had to cancel your holiday, especially when I know that you have been looking forward to seeing your grandchildren.  I hope you get to see them soon.”  Reassurance is also provided by companionship, offering to walk alongside them, if that is possible (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9).

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Kelly, E. (2012) Personhood and Presence: Self as a resource for spiritual and pastoral care. London; New York: t&tclark.


Knapp, H. (ed.) (2015) ‘Emotional Communication’, in Therapeutic Communication: Developing Professional Skills. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 89–108. Available at: https://us.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-assets/61121_book_item_61121.pdf.

‘Knowing What to Say: During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Knowing-What-to-Say.pdf.

Lingenfelter, S.G. and Mayers, M.K. (2003) Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Second. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

McBride, D. (2003) Waiting on God. Hampshire: Redemptionist Publications.

Schaum, S.E. (2017) Uninvited Companion. Colorado Springs: Cresta Riposo.

Webb, K.S. (1990) ‘Pastoral Identity and the Ministry of Presence’, Journal of Pastoral Care, 44(1), pp. 76–79. doi:10.1177/002234099004400112.

Betwixt and Between

‘I can’t plan due to all the uncertainty! I don’t know if and when we can return to Peru’, exclaimed Simone*, who is talking to Liz*, her member care worker. Simone, her husband and their four children, have been back in Australia for over a year and were due for return to Peru months ago.

How would you respond?

Liz is currently meeting with many other cross-cultural workers who are also struggling with significant uncertainty. Some are overseas and don’t know if and when they can return to Australia. Others like Simone and her family, are stuck in Australia and don’t know if and when they can get to location. Some cope but others don’t cope well.


Many cross-cultural workers are living with significant uncertainty and a loss of a sense of control due to the effects of the COVID pandemic. Often cross-cultural workers’ plans have been changed multiple times due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, requiring much pivoting. This pivoting is tiring. Grief about thwarted plans is real.

Often cross-cultural workers are facing multiple challenges all at once, which can feel overwhelming.  When people feel overwhelmed it can cause inertia. At such times, coping and finding solutions feels more difficult. 

Why do some cross-cultural workers cope better than others?

Implementing healthy self-care and stress management strategies is important during times of adversity.  However, as Dyer points out, simply ramping these up isn’t enough.  What is required is resilience!

Resilience has a variety of definitions, each bringing a different perspective. Timmins (2017: 26) defines resilience as ‘the ability to make the best of any situation’.  O’Donnell and O’Donnell (2013) state that resilient people have ‘the ability to face reality: to engage with and grow through life’s challenges and adversities via inner strength, social support, coping skills, and core beliefs/values including life purpose and spiritual meaning’Carr’s description is specifically Christian.

Resilience is having strength to fulfil the call God has given us, even when it will be painful and difficult. Resilience is staying fixed on a higher purpose, motivated by love of God, our neighbour, and the world, and supported by friends while others let us down, we are carried by the one who called us. 

Carr (2012: 93)

What about cross-cultural workers who aren’t very resilient?  Can they improve their resilience?

Resilience can be learned and developed.  Evans (2016: 3) states that ‘resilience is both an innate quality and a learned skill’.  Hawker (2019: 8) argues that resilience is not static throughout our lifetime; ‘it can be depleted, but it can also be maintained, developed and enhanced’.

Is Simone living with a sense of meaning and purpose?

A sense of meaning and purpose is vital for resilience.  Dyer (2020) writes, ‘One of the primary elements of resilience is for a person to maintain a deep sense of identity and purpose when this is challenged by adversity’.  It is important that cross-cultural workers have a clear sense of purpose when many aspects of their life and work have changed.  Core values, beliefs viewed as being of central importance, bring about this sense of meaning and purpose.  

Understanding what is most important to you – your core values – keeps you from losing your way in the process of change.  Change can quickly lead you in the wrong direction if you let it pull you away from these values… Being intentionally adaptable means reinventing yourself on your own terms.

Brown (2021)

It is easy for cross-cultural workers to drift from living according to their core values when many changes have occurred to their life and work.  I am reminded of a friend’s story of his sister-in-law who was learning to windsurf during a beach holiday. She was so focused on pulling the sail out of the water, balancing, falling in the water and then getting herself on the board again, she didn’t notice that she’d drifted some distance from the shore. She had to be rescued!  Drifting from our core values causes dis-alignment with identity and can lead to a lack of clarity and fulfilment.  

What are Simone’s core values?  What gives her life meaning and purpose?

It is important that cross-cultural workers identify their core values.  As Christians, these come from our relationship with God.

True spirituality is a live, continuous, personal relationship with the creator God that fulfils my deepest human longings for inward and outward peace and gives me meaning and purpose for everyday life… True spirituality is discovered in human relationships built on the foundation of a relationship with God.

Amalraj (2018)

A sense of call, or partnership with God in service, provides a sense of meaning and purpose.  Research has demonstrated the importance of a sense of call for resilience in cross-cultural workers (Brown, 2006).  While there are different theological understandings of calling, Dallman’s (2021: 45) research among cross-cultural workers in Japan confirms that ‘knowing you are where God wants you to be and doing what God wants you to do’ is important for resilience.  Whatever their theology is, all Christians are called to ‘trust in God and to partner with God in serving him, his kingdom and his people… even though lots of the context for this might be in flux or under threat’ (Dyer, 2020). 

For cross-cultural workers, the call to be a servant of others with whatever gifts and skills God has given them, holds them steady (Dyer, 2020).  

Our relationship with God is foundational for resilience. Hay et al. (2007: 24-5), who surveyed thousands of cross-cultural workers worldwide, found that a good spiritual life is amongst the top three retention factors. Meek (2003: 344) found that resilient pastors spoke about the importance of a daily connection with God through spiritual practices and ‘their utter reliance on the power and presence of God to fulfil their responsibilities’. Spiritual practices, including daily thankfulness, enable cross-cultural workers to nurture their relationship with God (more practices are set out in the Dried up blog post).

As well as the dangers of drifting, the way cross-cultural workers tackle challenges is also important. 

Is Simone cultivating a positive challenge orientation?

One feature common to resilient cross-cultural workers is a positive challenge orientation. Marjorie Foyle (2001: 28, 279) writes that workers with this orientation view stressful situations as both a challenge and an opportunity, rather than as a threat. An important aspect of coping during adversity is to focus on the helpful things that can be done, or sources of assistance, rather than on how bad, unfair and disappointing the multiple problems are (This Way Up – Focusing On Solutions, 2020). Dyer (2020) writes that resilient workers believe that God can help them to overcome obstacles and blockages, as well as, that gains may be achieved through the crisis. Adversity brings opportunity for personal growth.

Innovation often emerges during adversity. A cross-cultural worker’s reinvention of themselves may produce beneficial results in the long-term, continuing after the pandemic ends. For example, Ma (2021: 17) argues that some evacuated cross-cultural workers pivoted to continue their work online, providing greater scope for serving in their previous location.

What are the unexpected opportunities emerging in the current adversity?  What can be gained in the long-term from embracing these?  

Is Simone exercising control?

A sense of control is important for resilience.  Foyle (2001: 28) writes that situations in which we lack personal control are much more stressful than those in which we have some control. Dyer (2020) writes that ‘resilience is associated with the ability to establish structure, systematically plan and execute a course of action’.  This skill can be learned and continue to be developed.  The COVID pandemic has provided much challenge to cross-cultural workers’ established structures, plans and execution of them; and adversely affected their sense of control.    

Resilient people can identify what aspects of a situation are within their control and those that are not.  Once this is achieved, they can schedule a plan which will make a positive difference in their situation.

Routines are important during adversity. Wright (This Way Up – Routines, 2020) argues that routines can help people cope when life is uncertain; they can help people feel more in control when life seems rather out of control. Dyer (2020) also writes that ‘redeveloping a routine, both daily and weekly, provides structure to life and will provide greater resilience in the midst of adversity’.

If these routines include plans to create opportunities to experience positive emotions, even for only a few minutes, more to the good (This Way Up – Tips, 2020).  Psychologists recommend planning at least one activity that is fun, pleasurable or relaxing everyday, as well as, one that gives you a sense of productivity, achievement, meaning or satisfaction (This Way Up – Tips, 2020).  

Is Simone planning fun and productive activities each day?

Does Simone have supportive relationships?  Is she tackling challenges step-by-step?

Resilient people have a supportive community.  A clearly identified aspect of resilience is that ‘people gain emotional support and valuable ideas from discussing and reflecting with others’ (Dyer, 2020).  Dallman (2021: 51) also found that community is important for resilience in cross-cultural workers in Japan.

One way to manage how we feel is to practice shifting our minds away from every problem that might need our attention (both now and in the future) and to focus on tackling one issue at a time. 

This Way Up – Tips… (2020)

Many cross-cultural workers are feeling overwhelmed.  Dyer (2020) suggests lowering expectations, and planning a couple of small achievable goals each day, during adversity.

It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding.  (Read more about our use of the Bible in the Theological Reflection Cycle blog post.)

A story to consider

Nehemiah, part of the exilic community, is the wine taster for King Artaxerxes.  In Jerusalem, the temple has been rebuilt, but the towns walls are broken and the gates have been burned (Nehemiah 1:3).  When Nehemiah hears the news of this threat to the community in Judah, he is greatly distressed.  He pours out his grief to God and concludes his prayer by asking God to grant him success in his request to King Artaxerxes to be part of the solution.  He asks King Artaxerxes:

Let me go to the city of Jerusalem. That’s where my people are buried. I want to rebuild it.

Nehemiah 2:5

Nehemiah demonstrates a sense of identity as one of God’s people, as well as a sense of purpose and meaning as the leader of the project to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.  

Once he arrives in Jerusalem, he assesses the situation and then speaks to the community.  

“You can see the trouble we’re in. Jerusalem has been destroyed. Fire has burned up its gates. Come on. Let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Then people won’t be ashamed anymore.” I also told them how my gracious God was helping me…

They replied, “Let’s start rebuilding.” So they began that good work.

Nehemiah 2:17-18

Gates are built one by one, and the walls are built section by section.  Little by little progress is made.  However, during the building project opposition kept coming in waves. After one such wave, Nehemiah reassesses the situation:

I looked things over. Then I stood up and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people. I said, “Don’t be afraid of your enemies. Remember the Lord. He is great and powerful…”

Our enemies heard that we knew what they were trying to do. They heard that God had blocked their evil plans. So all of us returned to the wall. Each of us did our own work.

From that day on, half of my men did the work. The other half were given spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers stationed themselves behind all the people of Judah. The people continued to build the wall. The people who carried supplies did their work with one hand. They held a weapon in the other hand. Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who blew the trumpet stayed with me.

Then I spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people. I said, “This is a big job. It covers a lot of territory. We’re separated too far from one another along the wall. When you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us at that location. Our God will fight for us!”

So we continued the work…

Nehemiah 4:16-21

Despite repeated opposition and distractions, Nehemiah kept focus on his main purpose, building the wall. 

Nehemiah pivots, remains flexible and adapts his plans to face the new challenges.  He exercises control as able, organising a schedule to provide defence against an imminent attack. 

Nehemiah relies on God when threatened from within and without.  He prays when there is exploitation within the community (5:19) and when there are threats from outside (2:2-4; 4:4-5). Finally, the wall is completed (6:15).

What happened? How could Simone be cared for?

Significant listening is always vital in member care encounters (read more about good listening in the Listening well blog post). In addition, Liz could provide validation, normalisation and reassurance to Simone.

Validation enables people to feel heard and understood. Validation involves listening to the person and ‘acknowledging how that person’s emotions or responses make sense given what’s going on for them’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). For example, Liz could say, ‘I totally get why you’re feeling frustrated’. Validation is one of the most effective ways to support another person (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Validation doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with the person or that you would feel the same in their situation; it is about ‘acknowledging that their emotions are logical, reasonable, and valid for them – that they make sense in the context in which they are felt’ (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 8). Validation is similar to normalisation which was focused on in The New Normal blog post.

Normalisation refers to ‘an activity in which something in the interaction is made normal by labelling it ‘normal’ or ‘commonplace’ (Svinhufvud et al., 2017: 196).  While the purpose of validation ‘is to honor the client’s perspective as appropriate for the client’, normalising can be ‘useful in instances when the client considers his or her condition or symptoms as unique, atypical, or perhaps distressingly abnormal’ (Knapp, 2015: 99). If Simone expressed any sense of feeling abnormal, Liz could say, “That sounds perfectly normal to me, given your situation!”

Reassurance, or helping someone ease their doubts and fears also provides effective member care.  It can involve facilitating a cross-cultural worker to view their situation from a different point of view – perhaps a more realistic or positive perspective, or reminding them of their strengths (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9). In this case, a more realistic or positive perspective on Simone’s situation might be offered, or Simone could be reminded of her strengths.

It is important to be wary of rushing this process of validation, normalisation and ressurance. If member care workers are in a rush to help cross-cultural workers feel better, this can come across as if they aren’t being listening to (This Way Up – Knowing, 2020: 9).  Psychologists recommend that we try to avoid cheering people up too soon and instead, try to empathise with them.  It often helps to imagine what you’d like to hear, if you were in their shoes.    

After listening and any validation, normalisation and reassurance that was appropriate, Liz could ask Simone, “What are your core values?  What gives your life meaning and purpose?”

If there is a lack of clarity, Liz could suggest that Simone utilise prayer, journaling and discussion with supportive friends, to facilitate reflection on her core values.  Achieving clarity may facilitate Simone keeping focus and reinventing herself in line with those values, just as Nehemiah did.  

Other possible questions include:

  • How can you serve others in the situation you find yourself in? 
  • What benefits have emerged during this adversity?
  • What routines have you implemented? Have you included fun activities, as well as ones that provide a sense of productivity?
  • What social supports do you have?

Liz might gently ask “Where is God in all this?

If it were appropriate, she might suggest that Simone try out some new spiritual habits for spiritual refreshment and to encourage Simone to rely on God, just as Nehemiah did (further ideas are set out in the Dried up blog post). Liz could recommend the Serenity Prayer as a devotional tool (below).  Praying and meditating on this prayer can be fruitful during adversity.  Focusing on one line per month can give even greater traction.

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 

enjoying one moment at a time; 

accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

taking, as He did, this sinful world 

as it is, not as I would have it; 

trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will; 

that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

forever in the next. 


Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Dyer, T. (2020) ‘10 components of resilience in ministry as we face COVID19’, Australian Christian Mentoring Network, 17 April. Available at: http://www.mentoringnetwork.org.au/2020/04/17/10-components-of-resilience-in-ministry-as-we-face-covid19/#more-3561.


Amalraj, K.J. (2018) ‘What Shapes Our Spirituality in Missions?’, in Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series).

Brown, G.S. (2021) ‘The Secret to Better Flexibility in Every Area of Your Life’, Australian Men’s Health, 11 October.

Brown, R. (2006) ‘Preparing for the Realities of Missions in a Changing World’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 42(4).

Carr, K. (2012) ‘Personal Resilience’, in Schaefer, F. and Schaefer, C. (eds) Trauma and Resilience. Condeo.

Dallman, J. (2021) Staying Well: Highlighting Hazards, Highlighting Health for Missionaries in Japan.

Evans, R. and Evans, L. (2016) ‘Building Resilience in Mission’. All Nations Christian College.

‘Focusing on Solutions: During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Focusing-on-Solutions.pdf.

Foyle, M.F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Hay, R. et al. (2007) Worth Keeping:Global Perspectives on Best Practices in Missionary Retention. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.

Horshall, T. and Hawker, D. (2019) Resilience in Life and Faith: Finding Your Strength in God. Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship.

How Routines Can Positively Affect Your Mental Health (2021) This Way Up. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/how-routines-can-positively-affect-your-mental-health/.

‘Knowing What to Say: During the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Knowing-What-to-Say.pdf.

Ma, J. (2021) ‘When Missionaries Are Locked Out of Their Fields’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 57(3), pp. 16–18.

Meek, K.R. et al. (2003) ‘Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned from Evangelical Protestant Clergy’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31(4), pp. 339–347.

O’Donnell, K. and O’Donnell, M.L. (eds) (2013) ‘Resilience, Risk and Responsibility’, in Global Member Care: Crossing Sectors for Serving Humanity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, pp. 335–344.

Svinhufvud, K., Voutilainen, L. and Weiste, E. (2017) ‘Normalizing in student counseling: Counselors’ responses to students’ problem descriptions’, Discourse Studies, 19, pp. 196–215. doi:10.1177/1461445617691704.

Timmins, S. (2017) Developing Resilience in Young People with Autism using Social Stories. London: Jessica Kingsley.

‘Tips for Getting Through: The COVID-19 Marathon’ (2020). THIS WAY UP, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney Limited. Available at: https://thiswayup.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/THIS-WAY-UP_Tips-for-Getting-Through-the-COVID-19-Marathon.pdf.

Dried up?

Desert experience

Marion* felt all dried up!  

Has God abandoned me?  I feel like God is very far away or maybe not even there at all?  I still go to church but it’s hard and I feel guilty about my lack of faith.  When I go to mission conferences, all the other ex-cross-cultural workers seem so together.  Am I the only one in such a state?

I don’t feel like praying myself.  Sometimes my husband prays for me instead.  Prior to serving overseas, I had a strong faith.  I loved serving at church and studying at Bible College.    

Whilst living overseas, I really missed understanding the sermons and Bible studies due to my lack of language.  I started feeling dry then but expected it to get better when I got back home.  However, it got even worse after I returned.  People at church seemed so legalistic and petty.  I just couldn’t see God’s Spirit at work anywhere.

My non-Christian psychiatrist, treating me for depression and anxiety, suggested that I ditch my faith, since it seemed to be connected with my guilt.  But when I considered this option, I just couldn’t imagine myself not a Christian.

Will my relationship with God ever get better or is it lost forever?”  

Marion was talking to Liz*, her Member Care Worker (MCW).  Marion, her husband John, and their four children had just returned to Australia, after living in various rural locations in East Africa, including one situation of political unrest.    

What would you say or do?


Spiritual Desert

Experiences similar to Marion’s have been described for centuries.  Matthew the Poor, or El-Meskeen (2003), identifies two types of spiritual desert experiences: spiritual aridity and spiritual languor.  Spiritual aridity is a dry spiritual experience during which prayer continues, while spiritual languor is a greater struggle and affects the will to pray.  It is associated with extreme grief and misery because of the soul’s condition. He describes spiritual languor eloquently:

If man tries to plumb the depths of his soul, he finds himself at a loss, for its depths are beyond his reach. It is as if his spiritual footing has been lost, alienating him from the essence of his life. If he tries to examine his faith and secretly measure it in his heart, he finds that it has died, gone. If he knocks at the door of hope, if he clings to the promises of God he had once cherished and lived by, he finds in what he used to find hope has now turned to ice. Hope is stuck in the cold present and not willing to move beyond it. 

The enemy seizes this opportunity, striking with all his firepower. He launches an offensive – to convince man of his failure, of the ruin of all his struggle and effort. The enemy tries to persuade man that his whole spiritual life was not true or real, that it was nothing but fanciful illusions and emotions. He clamps down on man’s mind that he might once and for all deny the spiritual life. 

Yet, amidst all these crushing inner battles, the soul somehow has an intuition that all these doubts are untrue and that something must exist on the other side of the darkness. It also feels that, in spite of itself, it is still bound to the God who has forsaken it.

El-Meskeen, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way (2003, p241-2)

Is Marion experiencing spiritual languor?  Does Marion have a relationship with God anymore or is God is holding onto Marion? 

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.  

J I Packer, Knowing God (1993, p275)

As El-Meskeen writes:

…behind spiritual languor there exists a relationship with God that, though inactive, is real and still very strong, stronger than all the whispers of the devil.  Yet until the decisive moment of danger, this relationship sleeps.  This relationship remains hidden from the soul… For in this tribulation, the soul is called to stand alone. 

The soul remains within the sphere of God’s dominion. Although unaware, it is still making progress and on the right path. It is still led by an invisible hand and carried by an unfelt power.   The tangible proof for all this is the extreme, constant grief of the soul over its fall from its former activity, zeal, and prominent effort into its present state.

El-Meskeen (2003, p242)

Is there any silver lining? 

As well as the challenges, there may be benefits associated with spiritual desert experiences. El-Meskeen (2003) argues that spiritual languor is profitable for the soul, since it provides protection from spiritual pride and can strengthen our faith, such that evil is no longer feared.

Just as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lead to post-traumatic growth (PTG), so too, can people become stronger through a spiritual desert experience.  The experience can lead to a more resilient faith (Collier, 2016). 

Not everything about trauma is negative. Indeed, it has become common to refer to the positive changes that can take place after trauma as post-traumatic growth. Changes may take place in how we see ourselves in our relationships, and how we understand God, the world, or life’s purpose and meaning. Often people who have been through trauma feel they are more understanding of others, less judgemental and more accepting, perhaps more compassionate and empathetic. 

Horshall T. and Hawker D., Resilience in Life and Faith (2019, 77)

People have 4 needs – physical, relational, emotional and spiritual 

It is important to maintain one’s spiritual health, relational health, emotional health and physical health.

Were any aspects of Marion’s relationship with God weak prior to serving cross-culturally? Would these have left her particularly vulnerable to spiritual dryness?

Typically our relationship with God has three components: intellectual, emotional and experiential.    Maybe Marion’s sending church community focused on the intellectual aspect of their relationship with God, neglecting the experiential and emotional aspects?  

A pilot study, involving ministers and ex-cross-cultural workers, suggests that six months of spiritual direction significantly increased the participant’s reported intimacy or relationship with God (Bickerton). 

The process of spiritual direction refers to help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her. The focus of these sessions was thus described to participants as “identifying, paying attention and responding to God’s personal communication with you (however that is experienced), seeking to grow in intimacy with God, and living out the consequences of that relationship. 

Bickerton, 2014

Other spiritual practices and tools which may be helpful include: 

  • Thankfulness – thanking God for ~10 gifts each day in a journal or in prayer
  • Ignatius Examen⁠1 (Calhoun, 2015) – Facilitates reflection on how God has interacted with you that day and includes the practice of thankfulness.
  • Journaling in the round⁠2 (Boyd, 2013) – a journaling reflection on the day
  • Christian mindfulness (Thompson, 2018)
  • Lectio Divina, a slow and thoughtful Scripture reading (Calhoun, 2015)
  • Reading Psalms or liturgical prayers (eg. Anglican Prayer Book – daily prayers)
  • The book ‘The Praying Life’ by Paul Miller
  • Read the Bible in a Year App (eg. BiOY)

On top of the spiritual grief Marion is experiencing, she is also returning to her home country after cross-cultural service, which is challenging in itself!

Re-entry is challenging!

After some years overseas, Marion is unfamiliar with her ‘home’ culture.  Criticism of your own culture, in this case Marion’s experience in her local church community in Australia, is typical during  re-entry⁠3.  This will be adding to the difficulty of her situation.  Marion’s re-entry may also be more challenging than usual for a variety of reasons: 

  • Has Marion got (PTSD) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
  • Has she experienced compounded grief from many moves?

Those war veterans who suffer long term injuries due to their service for their country, are referred to as those with honourable wounds.  Foyle (1987) argues that some cross-cultural workers may carry honourable wounds as a result of their cross-cultural experience.  

Let’s now reflect on a similar story in the Bible.

A story to consider

Elijah had just routed the prophets of Baal on the top of Mt Carmel…

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

I Kings 19:1-18

After Elijah’s amazing experience of God’s power on Mt Carmel, things start to go pear-shaped.  Elijah’s hopes of Israel turning back to God are dashed and on top of that, he receives a death threat from Jezebel.  In response, Elijah runs away into the wilderness, which in Hebrew, means a place of devastation, describing Elijah’s physical and emotional state at the time.  Instead of feeling victorious, he felt alone, afraid and hopeless.  

Elijah, a prophet, a Biblical hero, who had demonstrated great faith, was seriously depressed!  He had to be encouraged to get up to eat and drink. 

God met and ministered to Elijah in the midst of his struggle.  We see in this story that God has provided for Elijah’s physical needs, relational needs, emotional needs and spiritual needs.  First of all, Elijah poured out his despair to God.  God provided Elijah with rest, food and water to meet his physical needs, strengthening him for the journey to Mt Horeb.   Next, God gave Elijah an experience of his presence in the still small whisper meeting his spiritual needs.  Lastly, God gave Elijah, a successor, Elisha, providing companionship, to meet Elijah’s relational and emotional needs.  God provided a succession plan and some new work to do, the anointing a couple of kings, as well as encouragement that others had been faithful.   Elijah wasn’t the only prophet left as he had thought!

How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?

Just as God provided for Elijah’s needs: physical, relational, emotional and spiritual, so too can Liz, Marion’s MCW, seek to facilitate Marion’s needs being met.

Marion needs space and time to rest and recover, just as Elijah did during the journey to Mt Horeb.  Liz, and others, can listen to Marion, providing companionship, meeting some of her relational and emotional needs.  [Liz may also pray for Marion if that is wanted.]

Normalisation⁠4 is a powerful pastoral tool, and could well reduce Marion’s sense of failure.  El-Meskeen’s (2003) descriptions of desert experiences as a normal part of the Christian life, in Chapters 14 and 15, could be shared.  Elijah’s story might also provide some normalisation.  

The possibility of benefits emerging after spiritual desert experiences (El-Meskeen, 2003), may also be an encouragement.   If opportunity presents itself, Liz could mention that desert experiences can lead to a stronger and more resilient faith, just as those who experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can exhibit Post Traumatic Growth (Collier, 2016; Horshall T. And Hawker, 2019).  

Since the experiential aspect of Marion’s relationship with God has been very weak r, spiritual direction could be recommended.  Other spiritual habits might also assist with improving Marion’s experiential relationship with God including Ignatius Examen, thankfulness and others mentioned earlier.

What happened? 

Some years after her return to Australia, Marion reported that practicing thankfulness, Ignatius Examen and serving others were particularly helpful practices for her.  Marion couldn’t source a spiritual director in her location but her emergence from the desert had begun!

Marion started to see the Holy Spirit work in the church community.  This experience of God kick started her spiritual revitalisation. Upon reflection, Marion remembered that she had been converted after seeing evidence of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives.  The experiential aspect of her relationship God seems significant for Marion.

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity. 

El-Meskeen, M. (2003) Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.


Amalraj, K.J. (2018) ‘What Shapes Our Spirituality in Missions?’, in Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series).

Bickerton, G. et al. (2020) ‘Well-Being in Ministry Results Overview’. University of Western Sydney. Available at: https://www.buv.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Well-Being-in-Ministry-Study-overiew-and-results.pdf.

Boyd, A. (2013) ‘Journaling in the Round’, Intervarsity: Women in the Academy and Professions, January. Available at: https://thewell.intervarsity.org/spiritual-formation/journaling-round.

Calhoun, A.A. (2015) Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Collier, L. (2016) ‘Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught?’, American Psychological Association, November. Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.

Foyle, M.F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Horshall, T. and Hawker, D. (2019) Resilience in Life and Faith: Finding your strength in God. Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship.

How Can I Pray? (no date) IgnatiousSpirituality.com. Available at: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/.

Miller, P.E. (2009) A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

The Prophet Elijah was Depressed (2020) International Bipolar Foundation. Available at: https://ibpf.org/the-prophet-elijah-was-depressed/.

Thompson, K. (2018) Christ Centered Mindfulness: Connection to self and God. Sydney, Australia: Acorn Press.


1 https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

2 https://thewell.intervarsity.org/spiritual-formation/journaling-round

3 Read more about re-entry in the Good Grief blogpost, https://membercaring.org/2020/11/04/good-grief/

4 Read more about normalisation in The New Normal blogpost, https://membercaring.org/2019/09/11/the-new-normal/

Listening well?

How can I listen better?”, asks Mandy*.

Mandy, a Member Carer Worker, then goes on to recounts a few examples of pastoral encounters that had been less than ideal, to her supervisor, Heather*.

“I listened for over an hour to Jessica* while she talked about changes that had to be made to her plans: the transitions to a new role and living situation, as well as frustrations with some relationships.  I had been attentive throughout the conversation, utilising continuers such as ‘Yeah’ and ‘Mmm…’.  When Jessica finished speaking, I said, ‘That sounds challenging’.  Then there was a long silence. Mandy wondered what to say next.”

During a pastoral encounter, Janet* talked a little about how she and her husband had tried to adopt a child some years earlier.  Janet continued her story, speaking about missing out on the experience of parenting.  Then she went quiet and there was a long, long silence.  Mandy wondered what she could say to provide Janet with an opportunity to share further.”

“David* shared that he had been notified that his visa had finally come through.  There was much excitement and relief expressed.  However, sometime later, the documentation had still not arrived in the post.  His family declared, ‘It’s a sign that you’re not meant to go’.  Then, sometime later, the missing visa turned up out of the blue.”  

What would you say?


Member Carers (MCs) provide times of ‘listening’ and ‘being with’ Cross-Cultural Workers (CCWs), in order to give them an opportunity to talk and reflect about their concerns.   As MCs, we want to offer a listening ear, genuine interest and an attentive presence. We use conversation to establish a relationship, build rapport and elicit our CCWs’ problems.  MCs want to facilitate the disclosure of the CCW’s concerns about their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.  Some of these concerns may involve painful self-disclosures requiring skilful listening techniques (Harvey et al., 2008).  MCs provide attentive listening which is a rare experience for most recipients. Very few people can listen well. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid and some techniques to experiment with.

It’s not about us

It is important that pastoral encounters are led by the CCW, so as to facilitate the disclosure of their unique story.  A question worth asking yourself is, “Am I directing the conversation according to my agenda or according to the CCW’s?”  If you listen to them, you will hear what is important to him or her.  Certainly, if we, the MCs, are talking more than the CCW during an encounter, there is a problem! 


It is also important for MCs to avoid employing a change of the topic of conversation, or switch, if we are to allow the CCW to lead the conversation.  Switches can be tempting when pursuing our own agenda or we are uncomfortable with the topic raised.  It is easy to create a switch by reflecting back inappropriately or through the use of questions.  

Questions are often problematic

Questions often block encounters.  By avoiding the use of questions, MCs can remove the power inherent in being a questioner, and in contrast, allow the CCW to lead the conversation.  Asking for information can be interpreted as a threat, an imposition and the CCW may feel compelled to respond (Harvey et al., 2008).  As mentioned already, questions can be used as switches and so direct the conversation towards our own agenda. It is easy for MCs to use questions to satisfy our curiosity or to avoid something we find uncomfortable such as silence. 

Open questions are often necessary and appropriate at the beginning of a pastoral encounter. Open questions allow the CCW great scope for response.   For example you might ask: 

  • “What’s happening?”
  • “How are you?” 

So, what techniques can we use to improve our interactions with CCWs?

Establishing mutuality

Sometimes it is beneficial for the MC to undertake a little personal disclosure to establish mutuality between them and the CCW, and so encourage them to open up.  However, this should be used with caution. It is easy to talk too much about ourselves.

A little spontaneity can also be used profitably in this regard if undertaken wisely. It is often useful for building rapport in the initial stages of an encounter.

Listening techniques

Various techniques are worth experimenting with during pastoral encounters in order to improve our listening skills.  

Harvey et al (2008), undertook some discourse analysis regarding chaplaincy to identify the means by which patients were invited to disclose their concerns.  This research found that these pastoral encounters were similar to ordinary informal conversations.  However, they also identified commonplace conversational devices, elicitation hooks, which were deployed skilfully to achieve the key spiritual activities of ‘listening’ and ‘being with’ the client.  This research found that skilful chaplains use various conversational strategies, or elicitation hooks, to construct opportunities or ‘slots’ for emotional expression and self-reflection (Harvey et al., 2008).

Elicitation hooks are simple invitations to describe a state of affairs.  They include both continuers, such as ‘Uh uh’ and various reflective listening practices: verbal repetition, as well as reflection of themes that have emerged, the use of metaphors, observations and politeness.  These techniques, or elicitation hooks, are also beneficial for pastoral encounters with cross-cultural workers.

Elicitation hooks

Verbal repetition

Mandy (MCW): What’s happening?

Betty(CCW): I’m exhausted!  There’s been so much going on.

Mandy: Yeah, uh uh (short silence)

Betty: Yes, I’ve been feeling like a dog’s dinner for weeks.

Mandy: Mmm

Mandy: A dog’s dinner?

Betty: Yes (She elaborates further)

In this dialogue, the query was extended or ‘hooked’ by means of ‘Yeah’ and ‘uh uh’, followed by a short silence.  This elicited further comment by Betty on her state of being. ‘Continuers’, or ‘pastoral noises’, are extraordinarily effective during pastoral encounters for creating opportunities for the cross-cultural worker to continue to disclose their concerns.  ‘Continuers’ such as ‘Mmm…’ or ‘Uh uh’ or ‘Yeah’, have the effect of inviting more commentary from the cross-cultural worker (Harvey et al., 2008). They communicate that you are listening.

Verbal repetition is another technique which is effective for eliciting further comments by CCWs.  As illustrated above, the practice of listening for a keyword or phrase whilst a client is speaking and then repeating it, can be effective at encouraging further disclosure.  In this instance, Mandy responded with ‘Mmm’ and a repetition of Betty’s words, ‘feeling like a dog’s dinner’ (with appropriate intonation).  Harvey et al (2008) argue that repetition reveals that the listener is closely attending to the client, as well as intentionally converging the interaction, which brings a sense of unity.   

Let’s have another look at Mandy’s pastoral encounters and the techniques she chose to use in each context:

Reflecting back themes

Mandy had listened for over an hour to Jessica while she talked about changes that had to be made to her plans, including transitions to a new role and living situation, as well as frustrations with some relationships.  Mandy had been attentive throughout the conversation, utilising continuers such as ‘Yeah’ and ‘Mmm…’.  When Jessica finished speaking, Mandy said, ‘That sounds challenging’.  Then there was a long silence. Mandy wondered what to say next.

During the pastoral encounter, Mandy noticed that there was a theme of loss in Jessica’s story.

Mandy: Wow!  You are experiencing a lot of loss at the moment.

Jessica: Yes, Yes!  (This was said loudly and emphatically. There was another long silence.) 

Jessica: I’m feeling better now (Her face relaxed and her speech slowed).

Mandy reflected back the theme of loss she had noticed in Jessica’s story. Jessica’s response indicated that Mandy had ‘hit the nail on the head’ and that Jessica had felt heard. Mandy’s observation of Jessica’s face relaxing and the slowing of her speech confirmed that the encounter had been helpful for Jessica.

During another pastoral encounter, Janet talked a little about how she and her husband had tried to adopt a child some years earlier.  Janet continued her story, speaking about missing out on the experience of parenting.  Then she went quiet and there was a long, long silence.  Mandy wondered what she could say to provide Janet with an opportunity to share further.

Mandy: The adoption process is really challenging.

Janet: Yes! (Spoken with emphasis)

Then Janet spoke at some length about associated griefs of that time and beyond.

Mandy’s reflection about the challenges of the experience Janet had shared, enabled further sharing by Janet.

If a CCW has been expressing frustration, the MC might say, “It sounds like you’re frustrated”. The CCW’s response can confirm, qualify or deny the MC’s reflection.

Metaphors can also be used as reflective devices.   

David shared that he had been notified that his visa had finally come through.  There was much excitement and relief expressed.  However, sometime later, the documentation had still not arrived in the post.  His family declared, ‘It’s a sign that you’re not meant to go’.  Then, sometime later, the missing visa turned up out of the blue.

Mandy: It sounds like a rollercoaster ride!

David: Yes! (Nodding vigorously)

In this example Mandy uses a metaphor to reflect back.

If the MC’s reflection has hit the nail on the head, the CCW will usually respond with agreement such as an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, or nod emphatically, as David did in the example above.  Alternatively, the CCW can qualify the MC’s reflection.


Reflecting back an observation you have noticed about the CCW is a useful option.  For example, you might say, ‘You look a little sad’.  If a CCW has been crying for some time and then changes the topic, the MC might very gently say ‘and all these tears’, to offer them an opportunity to explore their grief.


Sometimes CCWs share a concern but don’t elaborate despite the use of continuers and reflective listening techniques.  At this point, politeness techniques can be employed. You could ask:

“Would you be able to tell me a little bit about how this is affecting you?”

The request has been softened in a couple of ways.  This phrase uses ‘hedges’; words, phrases  and clauses which help to lessen the force of an utterance.  For example, ‘Would you be able to tell me…,’ ‘a little bit’ make the speaker sound less authoritative and imposing (Harvey et al., 2008).


It is worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the outcome of each pastoral encounter. Did you notice any physical signs of a change in the CCW’s mood as a result of your pastoral encounter? A relaxation of their face or their posture, the slowing of their speech, the lowering of the volume of their voice and the cessation of tears, are all possible indicators of relief given. In the examples above, Jessica’s face relaxed and her speech slowed, confirming her declaration that she felt better.

Benefits of writing verbatims

Verbatims are a useful tool to assist us to keep improving as listeners. Verbatims are produced by writing down as accurately as possible what was said by both parties immediately after a pastoral encounter.  Then, you can read through the dialogue and note how many questions you asked, as well as to reflect on possible alternatives to your responses.  It can also be fruitful to take your verbatim to your supervisor to reflect together on how you might improve.

Offering hope

While it is best that the conversation is led by the CCW, it is often helpful to seek to offer some hope when you are about to leave a pastoral encounter. 

After Mandy has listened to Paul talking about his anxiety about an impending medical procedure, she sought to encourage him as the encounter wound up.

Mandy: I hope your procedure goes well and that you can go on that holiday you are looking forward to.

Prayer is also an encouragement and can offer significant hope when it is sensitively undertaken. It is easy as MCs to use prayer to assert our own agenda. It is even possible to abuse the power we have in the relationship through prayer, particularly if cross-cultural workers are vulnerable. Asking for prayer points and then sticking to those items requested, as well as the terminology that was used by the cross-cultural worker, reduces the risk of discouragement or worse.

Let’s now reflect on an example of a pastoral encounter in the Bible.

A story to consider

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” 

Job 2:11-13

Job’s friends did a great job of ‘being with’ him for the first week.  They had left their jobs and their lives to go to visit him.  When they arrived, they visibly expressed solidarity and identified with him by tearing their robes and throwing dust on their heads in mourning for him.  Even better, they sat in silence for seven days with him (as was customary for mourners at that time)!  

However, after this wonderful beginning, they pursued their own agenda (Job 4ff), finding it too hard to sit with the mystery of his suffering.  It is really hard to remain present with people who are experiencing suffering.  It is tempting to look for solutions.  Job’s friends gave into this temptation, trying to solve his problems through theological discussions. They discussed the theology of divine retribution, arguing that God punishes those who sin and blesses those who are faithful to him.  They jumped to conclusions about the source of Job’s suffering and  ended up ‘blocking’ the pastoral encounter.  Further, they discouraged Job.  While their earlier time of listening was beneficial, they didn’t end well.

Final Thoughts

It is often better to simply offer our ears, instead of offering our insights, our reasonings and our theology (Barnhart, 2016).  It is best to avoid pursuing our own agenda during pastoral encounters, lest we are like Job’s friends and cause harm.   

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.

Harvey, K. et al. (2008) ‘“Elicitation Hooks”: A Discourse Analysis of Chaplain-Patient Ineraction in Pastoral and Spiritual Care’, The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counselling, 62.


Barnhart, Z. (2016) ‘What Job’s Friends Did Right’, Gospel-Centred Resources from Midwestern Seminary, 26 October. Available at: https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/what-jobs-friends-did-right/.

Kelly, E. (2012) Personhood and Presence: Self as a resource for spiritual and pastoral care. London; New York: t&tclark.


I look at porn most days,” John* tells Dan*, his member care worker.  

John is married to Shirley and they have two small children.  He and his family are applying to work cross culturally with a sending organisation that has a policy of not sending those with active pornography habits (John may not know this).  The usual process for those who access porn at the frequency he is, would be to delay them, so that the applicant can to work on the issue with professionals until they are clear for 2 years.  

Dan asks John, “Does Shirley know about your habit?” John replies, “Yes.”

Then Dan asks, “What impact does it have on her?”  John replies, “Shirley says it doesn’t bother her.”

What would you say or do?


What’s the problem?  

This habit will be effecting John’s relationship with Shirley and with God, as well as the effectiveness of his cross-cultural service, should he proceed as planned.  Pornography use often leads to an addiction.  Does John’s vulnerability mean the end of his dreams? 


The use of pornography is very common both outside and inside the church.  Chester (2010: 14) defines pornography as ‘anything we use for sexual titillation, gratification or escape – whether it was intended for that purpose or not’.  Experienced addiction clinicians in New Zealand, Harris and Dickinson (2016), write ‘anecdotally, 90% of all white collar men have accessed pornography in the last year’. Donnelley (2014) reports that surveys indicate 76% of men and 36% of women watch pornography in the UK.  Covenant Eyes (2020) found that within the Christian community, 64% of men and 15% of women say they watch porn at least once a month.  

In society at large, pornography is normalised.  Some material that would have been considered pornography a generation ago, is now considered mainstream.  Covenant Eyes (2020) found that 90% of teens and 96% of young adults are either ‘encouraging, accepting, or neutral when they talk about porn with their friends’.  Merrit (2016) reports that, ‘Teens and young adults say “not recycling” is more immoral than viewing pornography’.   

Increased prevalence

Psychologist Dr Alvin Cooper (2009) argues that pornography use has increased in recent years due to ‘the Triple-A engine’, referring to the anonymity,  affordability and accessibility provided by the internet.  Cyber access has provided anonymity, such that it is easy for people to keep their pornography habit secret.  Previously, while purchasing porn, whether magazines or movies, users had to face shop personnel and there was always the risk of meeting someone they knew.  Porn is now more affordable, with much of it free.  Just as pokie machines have provided twenty-hour gambling opportunities in recent times, so has the internet increased the accessibility of pornography. 

You can’t see me

You won’t know I’m spending on it since it’s part of our normal bill

I can access it anytime I am by myself

Harris & Dickinson (2016)

Is John addicted?

He may be. Pornography use often becomes an addiction.  Addiction can be defined as 

a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities, such as gambling, eating, or working. In these circumstances, a person has a behavioural addiction. 

Felman (2018)

Addiction is a ‘primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, … and extended amygdala in the same manner as do drugs of abuse’ such as heroin. Addictions have various patterns including an escalating momentum downwards.  Harris and Dickinson (2016) argue that as an addict’s habit intensifies, they become committed to an unhealthy form of self soothing and become very protective of their habit. Watts (2008: 16) points out that pornography becomes an addict’s best friend; they spend their free time together and many of life’s activities are stopped in preference to it.

Brain Effects

The brain is rewired by porn. Watts (2008: 84) writes about the changes to the neural pathways of the brain that occurs during porn usage, such that ‘the more the pathways are exercised, the stronger the desire becomes’. He likens it to driving a 4-wheel drive vehicle on sand in a desert which is slow the first time but gradually becomes faster when the track is used repeatedly. If the habit continues, the track can morph into a highway! Watts (2008: 151) also refers to a trance like state of mind that can come about during porn use, due to the soothing and arousing effect of various hormones/chemicals that are released. This makes a porn habit very hard to quit.


The frequency, duration, severity and depth of engagement need to be explored using questions such as:

  • What age did you first access porn?
  • How often are you accessing porn?
  • What is the duration of each session?
  • How long have you been accessing it?
  • What type of material are you looking at?  (Note that the viewing of child pornography of any sort is a criminal offence).
  • Are you opening sites, downloading it, sharing, producing or masturbating whilst watching?

So what exactly is the problem for John and Shirley?

John’s habit will be effecting his relationship with Shirley, and Shirley’s relationship with John.  John’s watching of pornography involves sexual fantasies about someone other than Shirley.  Despite her denial, John’s porn habit will be significantly impacting Shirley, as well as the couple’s sexual relationship.  Her denial may suggest she feels powerless or discouraged in the relationship.

Porn encourages men and women to see others as objects to be consumed.  Chester (2010: 25) refers to a study by the American Psychological Association that concluded that pornography ‘is preventing boys and young men from relating to girls and women as complex human beings with so much to offer them. It is preventing boys from forming healthy friendships and working relationships with girls and women.’  

Pornography reduces satisfaction regarding users’ sex life with their partners.  Paul (2007) writes that many men report that ‘while using porn, they have trouble being turned on by “real” women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse’.  Pornography distorts expectations of sex and results in a view of sex that is detached from relationship and intimacy.   

In real life, sexually speaking, women are crockpots [or slow cookers] and men are microwaves. But in pornography all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight. Today, pornography is so widely used by young men, they learn these falsehoods. There’s good evidence that the more porn men watch, the less satisfied they are with their partners looks and sexual performance…

Sex in porn is just a physical activity, nothing more. But real sex, sex as God intended, is the celebration and climax – quite literally – of a relationship. Godly sex is part of a package that includes talking together, sharing together, deciding together, crying together, working together, laughing together and forgiving each other. Orgasm comes at the end of a process that began with offering a compliment, doing the chores, recalling your day, unburdening your heart, tidying the house. Sex that disregards these things is hollow. It will drive you apart, rather than bring you together as God intended. If you view sex as personal gratification or the chance to enact your fantasy, if you have sex while disregarding intimacy or unresolved conflict, then that sex will be bad in both senses of the word: poor quality and ungodly.

Chester (2010: 22-3)

Porn addiction distorts people slowly.  As Harris & Dickinson (2016) argue, porn use involves delusional thought processes that impact the reality perceived.  Chester (2010: 23) refers to a study that found an increased exposure to pornography was associated with an ‘increased tolerance towards sexual explicit material, thereby requiring more novel or bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal or interest’.  For example, distortions such as sadomasochism are seldom appealing in the beginning but may become so.

Effect on work

John ’s habit will impact his effectiveness in all areas of life including work.  For example, late night viewing results in sleep deprivation and affects productivity. Woodhouse (personal communication, 2020), an experienced member care worker, noted that typically porn users will experience an internal struggle with their integrity, consuming considerable energy.

Spiritual Effects

Shame and guilt are likely to be associated with John’s porn usage, since his behaviour is inconsistent with his faith beliefs. Lies and excuses are often employed to avoid exposure. John’s public self and his private self are at odds with each other (Watts, 2008: 41).        

Some argue that the use of pornography is a form of idolatry.  Chester (2010: 85) asserts that in spite of the shame it brings, porn puts users at the centre of a fantasy world in which they are worshipped.

Addictions are associated with a disconnection from God and a withdrawal from church. Many addicts fear the negative reactions of others which leads to isolation and sometimes the church community is unhelpful in response to addict’s revelations. Chester (2010: 38) notes that pornography use is a habitual struggle which causes some to experience doubts about their salvation.

Transition is a vulnerable time

Many applicants with John’s issue don’t realise how much more vulnerable they are likely to be during a transition into another culture.  When a person is in a pressure cooker situation, such as transition, character issues surface, and in fact, usually escalate.  A two-year study of short-term mission participants showed that most experienced a significant decline in personal purity both during their sojourn and the year following their return home (Friesen, 2005). 

Organisational policy issues

John’s organisation’s policy of delaying applicants until they are clear of pornography use for two years, may in fact drive applicants’ issues underground. The delay resulting from disclosure of a pornography issue provides significant temptation to lie about it. Some organisations take a less hard-line approach, working towards elimination but accepting there will be brief relapses by cross-cultural workers from time to time. Watts (2008: 226) reports that for Christians, the typical pattern is abstinence followed by a relapse in the form of a binge, rather than constant use of pornography. These periods of abstinence may be for significant stretches of time.

John’s attitude

A number of questions to consider:

–  Does John understand his habit is a problem?

–  Is he motivated to change?  

–  Has John tried to change in the past?  If so, what happened?

–  Does he know that there is more on offer for him?

A story to consider

It was spring. It was the time when kings go off to war. So David sent Joab out with the king’s special troops and the whole army of Israel. They destroyed the Ammonites…  But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening David got up from his bed. He walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman taking a bath. She was very beautiful. David sent a messenger to find out who she was. The messenger returned and said, “She is Bathsheba. She’s the daughter of Eliam. She’s the wife of Uriah. He’s a Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him. And he slept with her. Then she went back home. All of that took place after she had already made herself “clean” from her monthly period. Later, Bathsheba found out she was pregnant. She sent a message to David. She said, “I’m pregnant.”

So David sent a message to Joab. David said, “Send me Uriah, the Hittite.” Joab sent him to David. Uriah came to David. David asked him how Joab and the soldiers were doing. He also asked him how the war was going. David said to Uriah, “Go home and enjoy some time with your wife.” So Uriah left the palace. Then the king sent him a gift. But Uriah didn’t go home. Instead, he slept at the entrance to the palace. He stayed there with all his master’s servants.

David was told, “Uriah didn’t go home.” So he sent for Uriah. David said to him, “You have been away for a long time. Why didn’t you go home?”

Uriah said to David, “The ark and the army of Israel and Judah are out there in tents. My commander Joab and your special troops are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink? How could I go there and sleep with my wife? [I could never do a thing like that. And that’s just as sure as you are alive!]”

Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day. Tomorrow I’ll send you back to the battle.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. David invited Uriah to eat and drink with him. David got him drunk. But Uriah still didn’t go home. In the evening he went out and slept on his mat. He stayed there among his master’s servants.

The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab. He sent it along with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front. That’s where the fighting is the heaviest. Then pull your men back from him. When you do, the Ammonites will strike him down and kill him.”

So Joab attacked the city. He put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest enemy fighters were. The troops came out of the city. They fought against Joab. Some of the men in David’s army were killed. Uriah, the Hittite, also died…”

David told the messenger, “Tell Joab, ‘Don’t get upset over what happened. Swords kill one person as well as another. So keep on attacking the city. Destroy it.’ Tell that to Joab. It will cheer him up.”

Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead. She mourned over him. When her time of sadness was over, David had her brought to his house. She became his wife. And she had a son by him. But the Lord wasn’t pleased with what David had done.

1 Samuel 11

What was David doing, or rather not doing, when Bathsheba was bathing?  Normally kings were out at war.  Was he neglecting his duty? 

What was Bathseba doing?  She was performing a ceremonial washing ritual as required by the law of Moses (Richardson, 2018).

David’s sin of adultery led to an escalation of sin, culminating in murder.  Later the prophet Nathan reproves David using a story (2 Samuel 12:1-6). In response, David repents.  Despite David’s sin, he received special favour from God and was described by God as ‘a man after my own heart’ (Acts 13:22).

How was this cross-cultural applicant cared for? 

It is important that Dan honour John’s courage about being honest about his porn problem. Dan might say, “I really admire your courage in disclosing this information.”

It may be helpful for Dan to normalise John’s porn problem, if he is feeling that he is abnormal. Normalisation could be achieved by saying, “Unfortunately, many men struggle with pornography issues these days. Statistics suggest that more than 60% of Christian men access pornography.” This normalisation is not in anyway endorsing John’s porn usage.

It is vital that Dan shows grace to John, but not cheap grace. 

It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together …  For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner.  Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community.  We are not allowed to be sinners…

However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you—a sacrifice, a good deed—but rather desiring you alone. “My child, give me your heart” (Prov. 23:26). God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.”

Bonhoeffer (2005, p108)

Just as Nathan challenged David, John needs people who will challenge his behaviour. Chester (2010: 124) argues that, ‘People struggling with porn are often desperate for someone to be tough with them: to say it as it is’.  Dan asked John questions (set out above) to explore the issue.  Then John’s responses were used to determine the wisest way forward using the sending organsiation’s Porn Use Table⁠1.

Could John be encouraged to see that there is more on offer for him?  If John is willing to work on this issue with a professional, it may lead to better outcomes in his relationship with Shirley and God, as well as with his cross-cultural engagement in the future.  Dan referred John and Shirley to a counsellor for professional follow up regarding his habit.  

Dan could also encourage John to read ‘IP: DIY – Internet Pornography: Do-it-yourself treatment guide for men’ by Phil Watts which assists in understanding the issue better and helpful suggestions for tackling it. Alternatively, Dan could recommend ‘Captured by a Better Vision’ by Tim Chester (2010) which argues that greater pleasure can be found in God.

Dan might tell John the story of David.  Piper urges users to develop ‘gutsy guilt’, like David, and not let sexual failure cause them to drop out of mission or leadership (Piper, 2007).  Gutsy guilt involves confession, repentance and asking God for faith to trust that He taken away our guilt, shame and fear.  The alternative is being ‘knobbled’ in our spiritual walk.    

The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every good radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your Lakeside rocking chair.’  

Piper (2007)

It is vital that John is walked alongside through this challenge within a supportive community. Men’s support groups are often helpful in this regard.  It is a long-term struggle to escape addiction, so ongoing accountability is vital.

I’ve used accountability software. It’s been a huge help, but only because the person who receives my reports will respond appropriately – strongly, but graciously.” 

Chester (2010: 125)

Dan said to John, “The sending organisation will require a report from the psychologist/counsellor indicating that the issue has been satisfactorily followed up.  Our organisation uses accountability software called Covenant Eyes.  Please use this software and select an accountability partner who will receive reports about your internet use and will be strong and straight in his dealings.”     

At all times, Dan focused on the gospel rather than on the sin.  

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.

Chester, T. (2010) Captured by a Better Vision. Nottingham, England: Intervarsity Press.

Watts, P. (2008) IP: DIY – Internet Pornography: Do-it-yourself treatment guide for men. Perth, Western Australia: Ogilvie.

Other References

Bonhoeffer, D. (2005) Life Together, Prayerbook of the Bible, Works. Fortress.

Camp, K. (2020) ‘13 Challenges Foreign Missionaries Face’, KennethACamp. Available at: https://kennethacamp.com/13-challenges-foreign-missionaries-face/.

Cooper, A. (2009) CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 1(2). Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cpb.1998.1.187.

Donnelley, P. (2014) We have sex just once a week… 76% of men said they watch pornography, half of women read erotic fiction and it’s all the economy’s fault, Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2773035/We-sex-just-week-76-men-said-watched-pornography-half-women-read-erotic-fiction-s-economy-s-fault.html.

Felman, A. (2018) What is addiction? Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323465.

Flood, M. (2016) Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet. Wollongong.

Friesen, R. (2005) The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions, Missio Nexus: Learn, Meet, Engage in the Great Commission. Available at: https://missionexus.org/the-long-term-impact-of-short-term-missions/.

Harris, J. and Dickinson, M. (2016) ‘Addictions and Cross-Cultural Workers’. Blackburn, VIC, Australia.

Johnson, D. (2015) Sex and the short-term missionary, SEND International. Available at: https://send.org/Blog/sex-short-term.

Love, T. et al. (2015) ‘Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update’, Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 5(3), pp. 388–433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388.

Merritt, J. (2016) Pornography: A Christian crisis or exaggerated issue? (ANALYSIS), Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/pornography-a-christian-crisis-or-exaggerated-issue-analysis/2016/01/21/4486217e-c075-11e5-98c8-7fab78677d51_story.html.

Paul, P. (2007) How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. Henry Holt and Co.

Piper, J. (2007) Gutsy Guilt: Don’t let shame over sexual sin destroy you., Christianity Today. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/october/38.72.html.

Richardson, A. (2018) ‘Bathsheba Was Not on the Roof: And Here’s Why That Is Important’, On Sovereign Wings. Available at: https://onsovereignwings.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/bathsheba-wasnt-on-the-roof-and-heres-why-that-is-important/.

1 https://docs.google.com/document/d/18ApfLLAyBb7UMpUrKzk_wv24_PTx9c9ed3LMUVMlnBI/edit?usp=sharing

Good Grief!

Our family’s time overseas was overwhelmingly positive and fruitful.  It was a difficult decision to leave Peru but we had a calm and planned return to Australia.  Deputation went smoothly; it was a valuable time saying goodbye to our supporters.”   Ross* enthusiastically spoke to Liz*, his member care worker. 

Ross and his family had just landed back ‘home’ in Sydney, after ten years and he was eagerly anticipating starting an exciting new job.  Despite their auspicious start, Ross found coming back to Australia discombobulating, especially for the first year.  The following couple of years were also difficult. 

Ross spoke with great feeling about the grief he felt at leaving dear friends behind in Peru.  As well as losing those wonderful relationships, he expressed grief about the loss of the fruitful ministry he and his family had been involved in.

Ross found it really difficult adjusting to Australian culture. He recalled,

For my work orientation, a colleague seemed to have barely started the conversation when he finished and walked away.  I was left feeling really perplexed.  In Peru, a work orientation would have been given hours!  Peruvian culture is much more relationship orientated than task orientated.   Spending such a short amount of time orientating someone to a new job would be considered extremely rude.

Another day, I was walking down a street when some guys behind me started speaking really aggressively.  I thought they were about to get into a physical fight, so I turned around, bracing myself, only to see that they were just horsing around!  In Peru, people would only speak that aggressively when very angry.

I also found it really difficult to know how to greet people.  In Peru, I knew when to shake hands and when to kiss, and who to do what with.  However, in Australia I just didn’t know what to do.  I felt like I didn’t fit in.  This cultural dislocation was hard.

After two years, Ross was really thrilled to be invited back to Peru for a fortnight to speak at a conference and visit friends.  He jumped at the chance to return, to join old work colleagues and friends there.  After he returned to Australia, he said, 

I felt so much more at home in Peru.  This was really unsettling and it rocked me a bit, particularly how much more at ease I was in relationships there.

What would you do or say in this situation?



Ross and his family are in the thick of re-entry, with many adjustments to make during their transition to life back in Sydney.  Re-entry refers to the time when we leave a place where we have been serving cross-culturally and return to the place we were originally from, our ‘home’ country.  It is a form of culture shock, but in reverse.

As part of culture shock, cross-cultural workers commonly experience a feeling of alienation when they first arrive in another culture, and this is repeated during re-entry.  Feeling alien in our own culture is the essence of re-entry stress. Cross-cultural returnees often say, “We look and sound like everyone else, but inside we feel different.”  This sense of alienation is often not expected.  

When missionaries enter [a cross-cultural location], they expect to have difficulty with language, religions of the host culture, attitudes of national Christians, nostalgia for [‘home’], and maintaining their own spiritual adjustment. Who would ever expect to feel like a stranger in his own country? 

The groundwork for this obstacle is often laid during the initial phases of culture shock. When difficulties with culture shock arise, expatriates tend to “glorify” institutions and traditions of their home country. However, when [cross-cultural workers] return, they do not experience [‘home’] as they had remembered it… The psychological discomfort resulting from this conflict can be harsh.

Austin (1983)

 Re-entry is typically more challenging than the culture shock experienced when first moving into another culture, and is often underestimated.  In anticipation of their return, cross-cultural returnees commonly say, 

It won’t be that challenging!  After all, we’re Australians, aren’t we?  It should be easy coming home. Isn’t it?”  

Neither cross-cultural returnees, nor their home churches, expect the returnees’ adjustment to life back ‘home’ after cross-cultural service to be more difficult than their initial adjustment to their cross-cultural location (Pirolo, 2012).  Sometimes even their sending organisation aren’t expecting this, particularly when staffed by those with little relevant experience.  

As well as the shock of re-entry being enhanced by these disappointed expectations of the home country, they are also enhanced by bereavement reactions  (Foyle, 1987).  


I’m grieving.  There’s been a lot of change, a lot of saying goodbye.  It feels like I left part of me in a different place, and I’ll never be the same again.  So, if it seems like I’m crying for no reason over little things, it’s because I have to walk through the process of mourning things I’ve lost.  I know I said goodbye in my last country, but I’m finding there is still grieving to do…  I’m saying goodbye to people, places, foods, routines, careers…  

Ruthie (2015)

Ross’ description of his grief is similar to many cross-cultural workers’ during re-entry.  Grief is ‘a natural reaction to loss or change of any kind’ (NA, 2020).   In a study of 288 returned cross-cultural workers, the second most challenging problem identified was ‘nostalgia and homesickness’ for their previous cross-cultural location (Austin, 1983). It is not surprising that grief is a significant part of reentry since so much has been left behind.  Often, significant relationships, roles, routines and rituals have been lost.  In fact, it would be a sad reflection on the investment made in the cross-cultural location, if cross-cultural workers were not grieving after leaving.   

Wide ranging symptoms are experienced during grief.  People are affected physically, emotionally, cognitively, behaviourally and spiritually.  Grief is expressed in various phenomena including headaches, mood fluctuations, poor memory and insomnia (Smith, 2003).  Ross suffered significant migraines and lowered concentration for his first few years back in Australia⁠1.


It helps me grieve when you’re willing to listen… to what I’ve lost, to what I miss, to what is hard.  As I talk about it, I find I’m able to grieve it and move on…

Ruthie (2015)

At the risk of stating the obvious, listening is a vital part of a Member Care Worker’s role. Many returnees report that most people aren’t interested in listening to them talk about their former location. Some say, ‘others eyes glaze over very quickly‘. The cross-cultural returnee’s experience of being listened to is greatly enhanced within a relationship of trust, particularly with a non-judgemental person.

Mutual care 

A problem shared is a problem halved.

Traditional saying

As well as listening provided one-to-one by Member Care Workers and others, much benefit may be derived by Member Care Workers organising events which encourage mutual care between cross-cultural workers on home assignment, in re-entry and in location. Mutual care refers to the ‘support, encouragement, correction, and accountability that we give and receive from others’ (O’Donnell, 2002). Connections between cross-cultural workers often facilitates fruitful opportunities for listening, companionship, normalisation,⁠2 and in this way can significantly increase an organisation’s member care capacity.   

If the role of an organisation’s Member Care Worker, or team, is expanded to include the encouragement and facilitation of mutual care, the organisation’s member care provision can be significantly increased.   Former cross-cultural workers, who have been back ‘home’ for a while, as well as those who are going through re-entry at the same time, can be great supports for those in re-entry.  Hearing from others who are going through, or have been through similar experiences, can be a great comfort.  Fellowship with such people can normalise feelings of alienation and grief.

The importance of mutual care is emphasised in International Models of Best-Practice for Member Care, which set out recognised principles and performance standards for the management and support of cross-cultural workers (O’Donnell, 2002).  

A Best-Practice Model for Member Care by Kelly O’Donnell and David Pollock  O’Donnell (2002)

One Code of Best Practice in Member Care recommends that for organisations:

Opportunity is given for member interaction and mutual caring.

Mutual care is planned for, clearly defined, and its importance communicated.

Responsibility for self-care, in community, is modelled and encouraged by leadership.

Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (2002)

Research has confirmed the importance of mutual care as opportunities for self-expression and learning.

A support group can serve as a forum for exchange of information and expression of feelings… Returned missionaries claim that the following individuals, groups, and/or activities were most helpful to them upon reentry, in descending order: spouse, friends, relatives, former missionaries, church members, college missions department personnel, reading materials, personal counseling, church leaders, debriefing with overseeing church personnel, psychological testing and evaluation, reorientation program, and family counseling. 

Austin (1983)

While Member Care Workers, sending organisation staff, home churches, family, friends and professionals can all provide listening, companionship and normalisation, all are limited in various ways.  Member Care Workers, and staff from sending organisations, are a finite resource.   Home churches, family and friends are also important sources of member care but may be limited in specialised areas.  Typically, they may not have sufficient expertise regarding re-entry and Third Culture Kids (TCK), for the purposes of normalisation.  They may also know insufficient about when and who to refer returnees to, when appropriate professional help is required.  Professional debriefs and followup counselling are vital but are also limited by cost and the availability of appropriate professionals.  

Member Care Workers can encourage returnee cross-cultural workers to connect with other returnees for mutual care in a variety of ways.  They can facilitate connection through running events for the returnee community, as well as encourage cross-cultural workers to organise their own events.  Initially, returnees may lack the energy required to organise events themselves.  Typically, they are stretched by a plethora of speaking engagements, travel commitments, family reunions and the usual fatigue associated with any transition.  Member Care Workers can organise various types of community events including Bible study and prayer groups, social events, Third Culture Kid events and retreats for men and women.  

Recruiting and training a team of volunteer Member Care Workers can increase an organisation’s member care provision.  These volunteers can assist in running community events, as well as with pastoral visitation.  Volunteer Member Care Workers who are returnees and have walked the journey themselves, have a significant advantage over those who have not.

A story to consider

It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding.  These blog posts consult the Bible as part of a theological reflection cycle.⁠3

There was a time when Israel didn’t have kings to rule over them. But they had leaders to help them. This is a story about some things that happened during that time.

There wasn’t enough food in the land of Judah. So a man went to live for a while in the country of Moab. He was from Bethlehem in Judah. His wife and two sons went with him. The man’s name was Elimelek. His wife’s name was Naomi. The names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were from the tribe of Ephraim. Their home had been in Bethlehem in Judah. They went to Moab and lived there.

Naomi’s husband Elimelek died. So she was left with her two sons. They married women from Moab. One was named Orpah. The other was named Ruth. Naomi’s family lived in Moab for about ten years. Then Mahlon and Kilion also died. So Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

While Naomi was in Moab, she heard that the Lord had helped his people. He had begun to provide food for them again. So Naomi and her two daughters-in-law prepared to go from Moab back to her home. She left the place where she had been living.  Her daughters-in-law went with her.  They started out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Both of you go back. Each of you go to your own mother’s home. You were kind to your husbands, who have died. You have also been kind to me. So may the Lord be just as kind to you. May the Lord help each of you find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye. They broke down and wept loudly. They said to her, “We’ll go back to your people with you.”

But Naomi said, “Go home, my daughters. Why would you want to come with me? Am I going to have any more sons who could become your husbands? Go home, my daughters. I’m too old to have another husband. Suppose I thought there was still some hope for me. Suppose I married a man tonight. And later I had sons by him. Would you wait until they grew up? Would you stay single until you could marry them? No, my daughters. My life is more bitter than yours. The Lord’s power has turned against me!”

When they heard that, they broke down and wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. But Ruth held on to her.

“Look,” said Naomi. “Your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t try to make me leave you and go back. Where you go I’ll go. Where you stay I’ll stay. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die I’ll die. And there my body will be buried. I won’t let even death separate you from me. If I do, may the Lord punish me greatly.” Naomi realized that Ruth had made up her mind to go with her. So she stopped trying to make her go back.

The two women continued on their way. At last they arrived in Bethlehem.

Ruth 1:1-19a

Ruth was a faithful companion to Naomi during her transition back into her home country and as she experienced profound grief at the loss of her husband and sons. Naomi’s grief was multifaceted, including particular challenges for Ruth and Naomi in the culture of the day.  Ruth chose to stay with Naomi despite the significant cost to her which Naomi clearly pointed out.  

What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?

Liz*, their member care worker, listened to Ross and his family talk about what they were missing from Peru.  Ross and his family reconnected with family, friends and were embraced by their local church, providing many listening opportunities, as well as companionship.  Liz also walked alongside them, providing normalisation when opportunities arose.  Further, she encouraged them to make time to connect with other returned cross-cultural workers, particularly those who had served in a similar cultural context.  Ross reported that these connections were a positive experience for both him and his family.  Liz organised other opportunities for mutual care within the community of cross-cultural workers, both past and present.  These included Bible Study and prayer groups, as well as social gatherings.  

Ten years later Ross reflected:

“It was a very stressful period for the first couple of years after we returned to Australia, and particularly the first twelve months.  After three years I started to feel more settled.  

I still feel like I could happily hop on a plane tomorrow and return to Peru long-term.  

I found 1 Peter 1:1–9 a wonderful comfort in grief, particularly re-entry grief, because of its focus on our eternal home. The positive flipside of cultural dislocation for Christians is being reminded that we are looking forward to our true home. I carried one of those TSA locks on my keyring for years as a reminder.”

You can read more about Ross’ re-entry experience in the blog post ‘Brain Fog’.

* Names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Author’s note

Some practical examples:

During ten years as a sending organisation’s Member Care Worker, I organised a variety of events to facilitate member care for both returnees and cross-cultural workers on home assignment.  The most popular was a monthly gathering for Bible study, fellowship, prayer and an informal meal.  Cross-cultural workers often said, “It feels safer to share more deeply in this setting than in churches or with friends, since this group has so much shared experience.”  Often, organisation staff led the Bible study, since cross-cultural workers were often very stretched.  

Women’s and men’s retreats were beneficial for some.  These provided opportunities for cross-cultural workers to share their stories at greater length, followed by prayer for them.  God used this experience within a safe setting as a powerful healing experience for some.  I outsourced the running of men’s retreats to volunteers [This was part of my organisation’s strategy to expand our Member Care provision by building a member care team].   

I also organised a variety of annual social events using the resources that God provided me, including a number of wonderful volunteers.  These events included sailing days for returnees (all ages), and 10-pin bowling or trampolining events for returned TCKs.  

All of these events encouraged connections throughout the organisation’s returnee community and those cross-cultural workers on home assignment.


Thankyou to Ross for granting permission for me to write this blog post and also for his input, providing additional strength.  

Thankyou to Megan Withers for her editorial assistance.

Recommended Reading

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Ruthie (2015) ‘For Friends & Family of those Moving Back “Home”’, Rocky Re-entry, 11 February.


Austin, C. (1983) ‘Re-entry Stress: the Pain of Coming Home’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 19(4).

Chaplin, M. (2015) Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving BAck ‘Home’ After Serving Cross-Culturally. Newton Publishers.

Clark, S. E. (2003) Loss and grief in general practice: the development and evaluation of two instruments to detect and measure grief in general practice patients. University of Adelaide.

Culture Shock (2020) Collins Dictionary. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/culture-shock.

Ennis, L. and Brian, L. (2017) Receiving Them Well: a guide on how to support your loved one returning from humanitarian aid or missionary work.

Foyle, M. F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Managing Lockdown Fatigue (2020) Australian Psychological Society. Available at: https://www.psychology.org.au/getmedia/74e7a437-997c-4eea-a49c-30726ce94cf0/20APS-IS-COVID-19-Public-Lockdown-fatigue.pdf.

O’Donnell, K. (ed.) (2002) in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.

Pirolo, N. (2012) Serving As Senders – Today. Emmaus Road International. Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=_mB6tgAACAAJ.

Rabe, M. (1997) Culture Shock! Living and Working Abroad. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Ruthie (2015) ‘For Friends & Family of those Moving Back “Home”’, Rocky Re-entry, 11 February.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock.


1 Read more about Ross’s re-entry experience in the ‘Brain Fog’ blog post – https://membercaring.org/2020/09/23/brain-fog-updated/

2 Read more about normalisation in the ‘The New Normal’ blog post – https://membercaring.org/2019/09/11/the-new-normal/

3 Read more about our use of the Bible in the ‘Theological Reflection Cycle’ blog post – https://membercaring.org/2019/09/17/theological-reflection-cycle/

Brain Fog


“I’m so, so tired and my brain is just not working as it used to!”, reported Ross* to Liz*, his member care worker.

After serving overseas in fulfilling ministry for over 10 years, Ross and his family have returned to Australia from Peru*.  When he arrived, Ross was halfway through writing up a post-graduate thesis.  Based on his productivity in Peru, Ross fully expected to finish writing it within six months of their return.

Soon after his arrival, Ross commenced an exciting and challenging job.   He reported later:

“My work context was generous with what they asked of me during my first year back in Australia, giving me space to finish the thesis and adjust to the Australian work context.  Our home church was also great! Our minister said, ‘Don’t focus on any ministry here for twelve months or so. Just focus on settling into Australia.’ He took the pressure off us!”

Ross and his family decided to live some distance from his work. Their reasoning seemed sound since the area was close to their extended family, home church and good schools. When considering the extra time this would take out of his day, Ross said, “Most people in Sydney commute don’t they?” 

Unfortunately, Ross found that his productivity levels dropped dramatically after his arrival ‘home’.  His ability to sustain concentration was down.  Despite the slack he thought had been cut for him, he was really challenged to get his thesis in before the deadline.  Other physical and emotional symptoms caused him concern.   Ross’ tiredness increased and he suffered from migraines which became increasingly severe. 

Tiredness was Ross’ constant companion.  When Ross’ wife met up with Liz, she said, “I don’t have much time with Ross. He is completely thin on energy. But I have no energy to help.”

Even after his thesis was handed in, Ross struggled to manage his workload due to his lowered concentration span and the effects of the migraines.  Contrary to his expectations, Ross didn’t have much energy left for his family or his local church community.  He asked, ‘When will it end?’

What would you do or say in this situation?


Ross, and his family, are going through ‘re-entry’, which is a form of culture shock.  As is usual during re-entry, they are unfamiliar with aspects of their ‘home’ culture after living overseas for some time. (You can read more about Ross’ experience of re-entry, in the ‘Good Grief!’ blog post which is coming soon.)  Re-entry poses many challenges for returning families including unexpected drops in concentration and productivity (Palmer, 1999).

Brain affect

a frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you search to journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.’ 

Olson (2020)

People’s brains are affected by culture shock.  Olson explains the physical causes of this brain fog:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective…  When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. 

Therefore, he argues, during culture shock, the additional thinking required for routine matters typically leaves people with a chronically depleted level of glucose in their brains.  

Olson expands, referring to the first decision-making process as fast thinking, which makes those ‘autopilot’ decisions and doesn’t consume much energy.  He calls the second decision-making process slow thinking, which is not in limitless supply.

Slow thinking is great. It is what allows us to contemplate the significant things of life. To have meaningful conversations. And yet, slow thinking has its limits. You simply cannot keep using it and using it and using it and expect it to continue operating at a high level indefinitely. It’s not designed to do that. Slow thinking is designed to step-in when needed. Run it constantly and – quite simply – the sugar runs out. (In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport cites research that suggests an average adult can handle 4 to 6 hours before exhausting their capacity and requiring sleep for a full recovery.)

Olson, 2020

For someone in Ross’s situation, much of his quota of slow thinking will be consumed in navigating the many new phenomena in his ‘home’ country, not least of which is his exciting and challenging new job. This will leave less of his quota of slow thinking for writing a thesis.  

Productivity challenges

Diminished productivity is common for people during re-entry according to literature regarding missionary, corporate and army repatriates.  A GP, mission organisations’ medical officer (Selby, 2005), corporate repatriate expert (Szkudlarek, 2010; Chiang et al, 2018) and military repatriate experts (Institute of Medicine, 2013) all identified that difficulty with job performance and reduced productivity were common factors and stressors for people during re-entry.


If Ross becomes aware of this research and understands that a drop in concentration is ‘normal’ for someone in his situation, it may reduce his anxiety about what he is experiencing.  Normalisation can allow Ross, and other recently returned missionaries, to adjust to their ‘new normal’.  Normalisation could also help Ross be more understanding of his family members who may also be suffering from brain fog. (You can read more about normalisation and its benefits in the ‘The New Normal’ blogpost.)


Unrealistic expectations are an impediment to readjustment, increasing stress levels.  Ward, Bochner and Furnham (2001, pp. 76–77) emphasise the importance of realistic expectations during transition.  Are Ross’ expectations for his life during reentry, particularly regarding productivity, out of alignment with reality? 

Being aware of what is ‘normal’ for people in his situation could facilitate Ross to adjust his expectations.  If Ross reduces his expectations regarding his productivity, he may be able to make changes to his life situation to reduce future stress.   

A story to consider

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah:  “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.  You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”

So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.  The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.  Then the word of the Lord came to him:  “Go at once to Zarephathin the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”  So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”  As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”

She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family.  For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

1 Kings 17:1-16

After an intense time of service, God provided Elijah with a time of rest and recuperation.  Elijah wasn’t always super productive!  In the desert, God sent some ravens to provide for all Elijah’s physical needs.  Later, God used a widow to supply Elijah with food and water.  God’s practical provision for him also benefited the widow and her son.

What happened? How was this missionary cared for?

Liz (the member care worker) met up with Ross and his wife to touch base regularly.  She listened to them talk about the challenges they were experiencing, as well as praying with them. 

When the topic arose, Liz talked with Ross about how re-entry is typically associated with lowered concentration levels and productivity. She referred to research she had read recently in this regard.  Ross responded that while he found this information surprising, it was reassuring to hear that his experience was ‘normal’.  Although his disappointment over his lowered concentration hadn’t eased, and his deadline for the thesis and work demands remained the same, normalisation had been helpful in reducing his anxiety about what he was experiencing.  It also allowed him to adjust his expectations and his plans for the foreseeable future.  Having more realistic expectations may have reduced his stress levels.

Unfortunately, no one had challenged Ross’ expectations regarding his plans which assumed an unrealistic level of productivity during re-entry.  Preventative member care would have encouraged Ross to take more rest as Elijah did after his service. 

Liz could not fix Ross’ problems.  However, she could provide companionship on the journey and encourage Ross to seek others to walk alongside him and his family.  Liz asked,

 “Would you be interested in catching up with other ex-missionaries for mutual encouragement?”.

Ross and his family did organise to catch up with a returned missionary family who had lived on the same continent, providing informal opportunities to talk about their shared experiences.  Both families were very busy, however, so this only happened infrequently.  When they did get together Ross, reported that it was an encouraging time for both him and his family.  

As Ross’ story unfolded, Liz asked,

“Would you be interested in talking about these struggles with a counsellor?”  

Since Ross was interested in seeing a counsellor, Liz offered him contact details of a couple of counsellors.  This enabled Ross to choose one who was a reasonable fit, both theologically and culturally.  Ross’ organisation’s member care process included an expectation that all members have an independent debrief during re-entry.  Therefore, Ross had already met with one of the counsellors offered (Sophie*), for an independent debrief. 

Ross chose to see the counsellor, Sophie, since he already had a relationship of trust with her.  He told Sophie about the stresses he had faced since he had returned from Peru and the responses he had observed in himself.  Ross asked, 

“Is this normal in the circumstances?” 

Sophie was very reassuring and emphasised that Ross was reacting quite normally to his situation.  Ross found her reassurance very helpful.  It didn’t change the circumstances he was in, but it did significantly reduce his anxiety about what he was experiencing.  It answered the question of whether he was normal or abnormal.  

Ten years later Ross reported:

“Normalisation was very important for me. You [Liz] said that concentration levels are often lower during re-entry and that was helpful.  Sophie normalised my stress reaction, causing the physical and emotional symptoms I was experiencing.  That was very important.

It was a very stressful period for the first couple of years after we returned to Australia, and particularly the first twelve months. After three years I started to feel more settled and more competent.”  

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.


Thank you to Ross for granting permission for me to write this blog post about him and also for his input, which provided additional strength.  

Thank you also to Megan Withers for her editorial assistance.

Suggested Reading

Olson, P. (2020) ‘Covid and culture shock feel the same to your brain – and here’s why’, A Life Overseas: A Cross-cultural Conversation, 25 August. Available at: https://www.alifeoverseas.com/covid-and-culture-shock-feel-the-same-to-your-brain-and-heres-why/.

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Other References

Chiang, F. F. T. et al. (2018) ‘Repatriation: what do we know and where do we go from here’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 29(1), pp. 188–226. doi: 10.1080/09585192.2017.1380065.

Institute of Medicine (2013) Returning Home from Iraq and Afghanistan: Assessment of Readjustment Needs of Veterans, Service Members, and Their Families. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

McNutt, J. M. (2005) Work adjustment of returning Army reservists: The effect of deployment and organisational support. Alliant International University.

Morgan, M. (2015) Spiritual Health Victoria – Review of LiteratureSpiritual Health Association. Available at: https://spiritualhealth.org.au/download/Morgan-2015.pdf.

Palmer, A. (1999) ‘Issues Facing Returning Missionaries and How Spiritual Direction Can Help’. Spiritual Growth Ministries. Available at: https://www.sgm.org.nz/uploads/2/0/1/6/20165561/issues_facing_returning_missionaries.pdf.

Selby, S. et al. (2005) ‘Re-entry Adjustment of Cross Cultural Workers: The Role of the GP’, Australian Family Physician, 34(10), pp. 863–4, 878.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock.

Why did he do that?

Matt* talked with the interviewer about some anger issues he used to have but stated that he had realised it was all a stress response and that Cailey* had been quite difficult to live with after their first child was born. Matt graduated in 2013 with first class honours and began the application process for a mission agency at the end of that year. He and Cailey, his wife, both had interviews in November of that year.

Cailey talked to the interviewer about the difficult first three or four years of their marriage as they adjusted to life together and to the stress of sleeplessness. She admitted that Matt had been quite scary at times, yelling at her and blaming her unreasonably sometimes but that was all in the past. She also said that she had not been the easiest person to live with during that time either and they have been able to talk about it and understand each other so much better. Matt had done so well studying and had enjoyed the sense of great achievement.

During these interviews both Matt and Cailey shared some of their history with you.

Matt and Cailey were married in 2006 and their first child, Tom, was born in 2008. Tom was not a good sleeper and Matt and Cailey noticed their stress levels rising significantly in his first 6 months.

For Cailey this increased stress showed itself in her low mood and many times of bursting into tears. Matt’s stress levels were obvious as he became quite irritable and, at times, quite angry. His anger was always directed toward Cailey. He sometimes apologised for his outbursts but remained convinced that he was right to be angry with her. Cailey understood this to be because of stress and only talked to her two close friends about it.

As Tom became more settled at night Cailey noticed that Matt was much less irritable and after 2 years was rarely angry with her.

Matt left his work as a high school teacher and began to study at theological college in 2010. Their second child, Sally, was born in that year. Cailey worked hard to keep the children quiet and was the only one to get up to the children during the night so that Matt could study well.

Matt did very well at college, often earning HD’s and D’s in assignments and exams. He made several good friends and both he and Cailey enjoyed living close to other college families. Their third child, Luke, was born in their final year of college.

Are there are any red flags at this point? Would you consider recommending they stop the process at this point and seek counselling?

Missionary Training

The missionary training course began well in 2014 with Tom settling well into school and Sally into pre-school. Matt thoroughly enjoyed learning and Cailey felt very supported by the people around her. Towards the end of the term two incidents occurred that concerned the trainers.

  • In a discussion during Cultural Anthropology class Cailey had been asking some very good questions. The lecturer had commented that Cailey had obviously understood the issues extremely well. Matt said “What? Just because she is asking a bunch of silly questions that I don’t feel I need to ask?” This was said loudly enough for several people to hear him.

Cailey talked to one of the trainers about this incident but made it clear that this was just Matt being tired and a little stressed. She also said that she does ask silly questions a lot.

  • As the group was talking about making pastoral care plans it became clear to all that Matt was not seeing the need for such a plan. When challenged by the trainer about the need to think carefully about these issues Matt responded that “you only need to talk about emotions if you’re not in control of them.”

Cailey talked to one of the trainers the next day explaining that Matt had been quite angry with her the previous evening. He had said that the staff obviously think she is a star and that she should stop trying to ‘suck up to them.’ When Matt was asked about this comment he just said that Cailey had misheard him.

During the rest of the time during the missionary training course Matt was cheerful and co-operative.

Are there any red flags at this point? Would you consider recommending they stop the process at this point and seek counselling?


Fundraising began in July that year. Matt had been quite unhappy with the housing (provided by the agency) as he had specifically requested housing closer to his parents, but it had not been available. Cailey mentioned this to a pastoral care worker and explained that Matt was upset with her because she had not been clear enough in explaining their needs to the agency.

The rest of the six months fundraising went well, and Matt spoke enthusiastically and clearly about the work they were heading out to do.

Are there any red flags at this point? Would you consider recommending they stop the process at this point and seek counseling?

First Home Assignment

The family arrived in Australia four weeks ago after a three-year first term on location.

At an orientation meeting they were enthusiastic about the work they had been involved in, the language they had learnt and the church they’d joined. The children had settled well into school and had made friends. Cailey talked a lot about how much Matt is appreciated by the other missionaries and how well he has done in his role. Matt talked about some of the funny cultural mistakes that Cailey had made – they both laughed at that.

A few weeks later Cailey asks to see you. She is concerned that Matt may be a little stressed. She describes him as having become more and more angry as the 3 years went on. He struggled with language whereas she found it enjoyable. He had had a few disagreements with the team leader and had come home very angry each time. For some reason he had explained to her that she had been the problem – either because she had given them the wrong impression, or she had not been clear enough, but she found his logic hard to follow.

Matt had also been making comments about her in front of others – especially regarding language learning. They had been put-downs, but she felt unable to raise that issue with him for fear of making him angry again.

Cailey was also concerned for Matt as he had been comparing her more and more with his sister. Matt’s sister was a very attractive woman who dressed well and Cailey felt quite plain and unattractive in comparison.

Cailey wanted to let someone know so that the agency may be able to help Matt with his stress levels while on Home Assignment.

Are there any red flags at this point? Would you consider recommending they stop the process at this point and seek counselling?


Some sobering statistics are worth considering as we ask ourselves what social issues are involved in our scenario.

One in four Australian women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012.

Signs of emotional abuse

The signs of emotional abuse can be difficult to identify, especially because it is non-physical. Emotional abuse includes:

•blaming a partner for all the problems in a relationship

•constantly comparing them with others to undermine their self-esteem and self-worth

•usually being in a bad mood

•intentionally embarrassing them in public

•name calling

•yelling, insulting or swearing at them (also known as verbal abuse)

•controlling someone’s finances (also known as financial abuse)

•preventing them from seeing their friends and family (also known as social abuse)


•threatening suicide

•making them feel guilty when they refuse sex

•online humiliation and intimidation.

http://www.whiteribbon.org.au [1]

More information about emotional and other types of abuse can be found at

Whilst it is clear that physical abuse is wrong, it is not always accepted that emotional or psychological abuse can be just as harmful.  Emotional or psychological abuse often becomes physical as well.

Returning to our case study, we see that Cailey normalised Matt’s anger at various times. She was afraid of his anger and it was significantly impacting her behaviour.

Matt is exhibiting selfish or narcissistic tendencies (characterised by a lack of empathy).  If he were to have a narcissistic disorder, it is difficult to diagnose and would not usually be identified in a psychological assessment undertaken during application for missionary work.  If Matt did have a narcissistic disorder, it would also be difficult to identify early on in his missionary career because it is hard to identify this pattern of behaviour until the person is in their thirties.

A story to consider

A certain man in Maon was very wealthy. He owned property there at Carmel. He had 1,000 goats and 3,000 sheep. He was clipping the wool off the sheep in Carmel. His name was Nabal. His wife’s name was Abigail. She was a wise and beautiful woman. But her husband was rude and mean in the way he treated others. He was from the family of Caleb.

David was staying in the Desert of Paran. While he was there, he heard that Nabal was clipping the wool off his sheep. So he sent for ten young men. He said to them, “Go up to Nabal at Carmel. Greet him for me. Say to him, ‘May you live a long time! May everything go well with you and your family! And may things go well with everything that belongs to you!

“ ‘I hear that you are clipping the wool off your sheep. When your shepherds were with us, we treated them well. The whole time they were at Carmel nothing that belonged to them was stolen. Ask your own servants. They’ll tell you. We’ve come to you now at a happy time of the year. Please be kind to my men. Please give me and my men anything you can find for us.’ ”

When David’s men arrived, they gave Nabal the message from David. Then they waited.

Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are running away from their masters these days. Why should I give away my bread and water? Why should I give away the meat I’ve prepared for those who clip the wool off my sheep? Why should I give food to men who come from who knows where?”

So David’s men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported to David every word Nabal had spoken. David said to his men, “Each of you put on your swords!” So they did. David put his sword on too. About 400 men went up with David. Two hundred men stayed behind with the supplies.

One of the servants warned Abigail, Nabal’s wife. He said, “David sent some messengers from the desert to give his greetings to our master. But Nabal shouted at them and was rude to them. David’s men had been very good to us. They treated us well. The whole time we were near them out in the fields, nothing was stolen. We were taking care of our sheep near them. During that time, they were like a wall around us night and day. They kept us safe. Now think it over. See what you can do. Horrible trouble will soon come to our master and his whole family. He’s such an evil man that no one can even talk to him.”

Abigail didn’t waste any time. She got 200 loaves of bread and two bottles of wine. The bottles were made out of animal skins. She got five sheep that were ready to be cooked. She got a bushel of grain that had been cooked. She got 100 raisin cakes. And she got 200 cakes of pressed figs. She loaded all of it on the backs of donkeys. Then she told her servants, “Go on ahead. I’ll follow you.” But she didn’t tell her husband Nabal about it.

Abigail rode her donkey into a mountain valley. There she saw David and his men. They were coming down toward her. David had just said, “Everything we’ve done hasn’t been worth a thing! I watched over that fellow’s property in the desert. I made sure none of it was stolen. But he has paid me back evil for good. I won’t leave even one of his men alive until morning. If I do, may God punish me greatly!”

When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey. She bowed down in front of David with her face toward the ground. She fell at his feet. She said, “Pardon your servant, sir. Please let me speak to you. Listen to what I’m saying. Let me take the blame myself. Please don’t pay any attention to that evil man Nabal. His name means Foolish Person. And that’s exactly what he is. He’s always doing foolish things. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to see the men you sent. Sir, the Lord has kept you from killing Nabal and his men. He has kept you from using your own hands to get even. So may what’s about to happen to Nabal happen to all your enemies. May it happen to everyone who wants to harm you. And may it happen just as surely as the Lord your God and you are alive. I’ve brought a gift for you. Give it to the men who follow you.

“Please forgive me if I shouldn’t have done that. The Lord your God will certainly give you and your family line a kingdom that will last. That’s because you fight the Lord’s battles. You won’t do anything wrong as long as you live. Someone may chase you and try to kill you. But the Lord your God will keep your life safe like a treasure hidden in a bag. And he’ll destroy your enemies. Their lives will be thrown away, just as a stone is thrown from a sling. The Lord will do for you every good thing he promised to do. He’ll appoint you ruler over Israel. When that happens, you won’t have this heavy load on your mind. You won’t have to worry about how you killed people without any reason. You won’t have to worry about how you got even. The Lord your God will give you success. When that happens, please remember me.”

David said to Abigail, “Give praise to the Lord. He is the God of Israel. He has sent you today to find me. May the Lord bless you for what you have done. You have shown a lot of good sense. You have kept me from killing Nabal and his men this day. You have kept me from using my own hands to get even. It’s a good thing you came quickly to meet me. If you hadn’t come, not one of Nabal’s men would have been left alive by sunrise. And that’s just as sure as the Lord, the God of Israel, is alive. He has kept me from harming you.”

Then David accepted from her what she had brought him. He said, “Go home in peace. I’ve heard your words. I’ll do what you have asked.”

Abigail went back to Nabal. He was having a dinner party in the house. It was the kind of dinner a king would have. He had been drinking too much wine. He was very drunk. So she didn’t tell him anything at all until sunrise. The next morning Nabal wasn’t drunk anymore. Then his wife told him everything. When she did, his heart grew weak. He became like a stone. About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal down. And he died.

David heard that Nabal was dead. So he said, “Give praise to the Lord. Nabal was rude to me. But the Lord stood up for me. He has kept me from doing something wrong. He has paid Nabal back for the wrong things he did.”

Then David sent a message to Abigail. He asked her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel. They said to Abigail, “David has sent us to you. He wants you to come back with us and become his wife.”

Abigail bowed down with her face toward the ground. She said, “I am your servant. I’m ready to serve him. I’m ready to wash the feet of his servants.” Abigail quickly got on a donkey and went with David’s messengers. Her five female servants went with her. She became David’s wife.

1 Samuel 25:2-42

What was Abigail’s response? What do you notice about Nabal’s action and David’s response? What was unexpected about Abigail’s response?

Surprisingly, Abigail took action without consulting her husband, Nabal. In so doing she saved her community from destruction resulting from her husband’s foolish behaviour. Immediately Abigail recognised the danger and set about averting the disaster threatening her community. She wisely and courageously challenged David about his proposed actions in light of the sovereignty of God. David, listened to Abigail, a wise woman. He was influenced by her, such that he changed direction and avoided doing wrong. Later, God brought about a new start for Abigail as David’s wife.

Fools mock at making amends for sin,
    but goodwill is found among the upright.

Proverbs 14:9


Appropriate professional support and protection for Cailey is required immediately, since there is significant danger of escalation of abuse towards her from Matt, once he hears that she has spoken to the agency.  This may escalate to physical abuse and/or a worsening of emotional abuse.

The member care worker needs to provide Cailey with hotline information so that she can access assistance if required. Hotlines are .

Professional assistance is essential for Matt and Cailey and should be undertaken separately, initially. This should be financed by the agency or church. If Matt responds well, they may be able to move to joint counselling later.

The member care worker needs to clearly communicate to their sending organisation, whether agency or church, and that they must stop the family from returning to location.

Member care workers need to walk alongside Cailey and Matt for some years. The children will also need appropriate support.

*Note: If you, the reader or a friend of yours, is experiencing abuse, please seek help by contacting these hotlines found at https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/find-help/domestic-violence-hotlines/.

*All names used in this blog are pseudonyms to provide anonymity.


Thank you to Jenni Woodhouse and Megan Withers for their assistance in writing this blog post.