The author gave access to the books listed below to any new member care worker joining the member care team as resources for them to consult as needed. Books that proved most helpful were those about general member care, risk, spirituality, abuse and pastoral theology. Other books recommended for them to read are those books used as resources for cross-cultural workers listed here.
Doing Member Care Well edited by Kelly O’Donnell
Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Mission Retention by Rob Hay
Facing Danger:a Guide through Risk by Anna Hampton
Spirituality in Mission by Amalraj J. et al
Child Sexual Abuse in the Churches by Patrick Parkinson
Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft
Skilful Shepherds: An Introduction to Pastoral Theology by Derek J. Tidball
The author purchased the books listed below and took them with her when visiting cross-cultural workers during ‘home’ leave. Then the cross-cultural workers could borrow those that were most appropriate for them. Books that were most often helpful were those about re-entry, burnout, resilience, marriage, intercultural marriage, singleness in mission, spiritual health, anxiety, stress, third-culture kids, forgiveness and pornography.
Burn-Up for Splash Down by Marion Knell
Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving Back “Home” After Serving Cross-Culturally by Melissa Chaplin (a workbook – typically I suggest that they try to find someone also in re-entry to work through it with)
Zeal Before Burnout by Christopher Ash
Healthy, Resilient and Effective in Cross-cultural Ministry by Laura Mae Gardner
Going the Distance by Peter Brain
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver
Married for God by Christopher Ash
Your Intercultural Marriage by Marla Alupoaicei
Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls, 3rd Edition by Dugan Romano
Singleness in Mission
Single Mission by Debbie Hawker and Tim Herbert
A Praying Life by Paul Miller
Listening to God by Joyce Huggett
10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques by Margaret Wherenberg
The Anxiety Cure: You Can Find Emotional Tranquillity and Wholeness by Archibald Hart
The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress by Archibald Hart
The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living by Russ Harris
Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
Third Culture Kids
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds: The Original Class Book on TCKs by David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock
Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century by Tania Crossman
Raising Resilient MK’s: Resources for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers edited by Joyce Bowers
Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child: Practical Storytelling Tips That Will Strengthen the Global Family by Julia Simens
Forgive & Forget by Lewis Smedes
IP: DIY – Internet Pornography: Do-it-yourself treatment guide for men by Phil Watts
Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester
The author purchased the children’s books listed below (pre-school, primary school and teens) and took them with her when visiting families during ‘home’ leave. Then children and parents could borrow those that were most appropriate. Books that were most often helpful were stories about children moving, living in two worlds, friendship, difference, feelings, anxiety, change, identity, sexuality and porn-proofing children.
Preschool books (some suitable for lower primary school)
We’ll Still be a Family by Linsey Painter
Harold and Stanley Say Goodbye by Jill Dyer (OMF)
Alice and the King’s Quest by David and Emily Grace
Sammy’s Next Move by Helen Maffini
Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst
Gila monsters meet you at the airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
God is with You: That is All You Need by Larry Libby
“How do I debrief Fiona? I have no idea where to start!” Jane* exclaims.
Fiona, a cross-cultural worker, has just arrived back from Albania* where she had a very challenging assignment, and is due to have her personal debriefing. Jane just started working as a member care worker for Fiona’s sending organisation and is speaking to her supervisor, Heather*.
Jane herself returned from cross-cultural work a couple of years ago and had a poor experience of being debriefed herself. She remembers thinking her debriefer hadn’t a clue about what she had been through and didn’t know what questions to ask, so she is concerned not to repeat that experience for Fiona.
What would you say or do?
Debriefing is telling our story, complete with experiences and feelings, from our point of view. It is a verbal processing of past events… Debriefing is an opportunity to share in depth recent experiences with someone who is willing to listen and care, without judgement or criticism.
Williams (1995: 1)
Personal debriefs are distinct from organisational and critical incident debriefings.
A critical incident debriefing is a highly structured form of personal debriefing, which can take place after a traumatic experience (Hawker, 2012: 2).
An organisational debriefing provides a review of an assignment from a factual perspective and gives feedback to the sending organisation (Hawker, 2012: 2). In an organisational debrief, the organisation is the client, while in a personal debrief, the cross-cultural worker is the client (Bosch 2014: 173).
Internal and external personal debriefs
Personal debriefs can be conducted by personnel within the sending organisation (internal), or from outside (external); each has accompanying advantages and disadvantages.
While Hawker (2012: 18) suggests offering either an internal or an external personal debrief to each cross-cultural worker, the author recommends offering both since there are differing benefits for each.
The internal debriefer understands the organisations policies and procedures, can pick up trends, have influence on the future policy and practice of the organisation and follow up issues, but the challenge is to avoid being seen as part of management (Bosch 2014: 167). Donovan and Myors (2002: 304) argue that it ‘is vital that the listener be in a position to bring about change or at least to give feedback about why change cannot be made’.
On the other hand, an external debriefer provides an opportunity for a cross-cultural worker to be debriefed without any conflicts of interest, as long as no feedback will be given to the sending organisation. Thus, an external debriefer can be shared with openly, without negative consequences on the cross-cultural worker and their career (Bosch 2014: 167). An external personal debrief is best conducted by a counsellor who has been a cross-cultural worker in the past, since they are likely to have greater understanding of the cross-cultural worker’s situation.
Purpose of a personal debriefing
Personal debriefings can help cross-cultural workers to thrive and grow and show value and care for them by their sending organisations.
Research suggests that personal debriefings can be highly beneficial (Hawker, 2012:13).
Hay et al (2007: 381) studied six hundred missionary organisations and found that debriefing during home assignment correlated with retention. This research also found that about 40% of aid workers develop a psychological disorder while on location or after returning to their passport country (Hay et al., 2007: 386). Personal debriefings, conducted well, may significantly reduce this figure.
Thus, personal debriefing is important for all cross-cultural workers and yet Hay et al. (2007: 386) found that it is not always happening. Worryingly, Hawker (2012: 4) writes that 48-78% of cross-cultural workers report receiving no or inadequate personal debriefing.
Such debriefings provide an opportunity for cross-cultural workers to tell their stories. Telling stories is a powerful tool which assists cross-cultural workers to verbally process their experiences including their emotions. Since many people only want to hear positive stories, personal debriefing provides an opportunity to reflect on the dark sides of the cross-cultural worker’s experiences.
The personal debrief aims to help cross-cultural workers to ‘integrate their experience into their life as a whole, perceive the experience more meaningfully, and bring a sense of closure’ (Hawker, 2012: 2).
Personal debriefing can also provide opportunity for normalisation; the reassurance that some difficulties of adjustment are normal (Hawker, 2012: 5). For example, the debriefer can provide information about normal stress responses for those who need it (Bosch 2014: 159). More on normalisation at The New Normal (add link).
Personal debriefing can identify underlying issues and make appropriate referrals for counselling or to a mental health professional as appropriate. Personal debriefing does not involve counselling or performance evaluation; these should be kept separate (O’Donnell and O’Donnell, 2002: 316).
Done well, personal debriefings are a valuable form of pastoral care.
Cross-cultural workers need a safe space to be able to tell their stories openly and so receive maximum benefit from the personal debrief. Member care workers need to have negotiated with the sending organisation a confidentiality agreement that provides this safe space.
Feedback to the sending organisation is a challenging issue, attempting to balance the confidentiality promised with the leadership’s responsibility for the welfare of the cross-cultural worker. It requires skill to avoid breaking confidentiality (Bosch 2014: 167).
In this space, member care workers can assist cross-cultural workers to clarify their thinking and encourage them to speak to leadership themselves. Member care workers can ask the cross-cultural worker to share the ‘need to know’ issues with those who, in fact, do need to know (Bosch 2014, 184). It is important for member care workers not to speak on a cross-cultural worker’s behalf (unless a third party is required for cultural reasons), especially when there are disagreements between them and leadership (Bosch, 2014: 185].
Code of Best Practice
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Code of Best Practice in Member Care provides a benchmark to guide organisational policies and practices for the care and development of cross-cultural Christian workers (O’Donnell, 2002: 272-276) which stipulates,
Debriefing, including physical, psychological, ministry, and pastoral concerns, is required and provided…
Confidentiality is respect and balanced with accountability to the organisation, sending church, supporters, and other members.
Confidentiality and all related issues are clearly defined and made known to all parties involved
O’Donnell (2002, 274-5)
The timing of the personal debrief has an impact on its efficacy. Often cross-cultural workers are busy in the first couple of weeks with urgent matters including medical check-ups, catching up with family and other practical matters. Between one and three weeks after arrival is often the best time for a personal debrief.
A personal debrief routinely takes at least two hours. Hawker (2012: 6-7) points out that short debriefs may be worse than nothing at all, so it is important to allow enough time.
Personal debriefs should be offered as a standard practice with an opt out option. Sometimes cross-cultural workers think they don’t need a personal debrief or that it is a sign of weakness to ask for one. Thus, only providing debriefing for those who ask for it usually means that those who need it may not get it (Hay et al., 2007: 386).
Choice of debriefer
A person skilled in the area can pick up signs of depression, discouragement, burnout, marital disharmony, and other issues. If such things are addressed early and competently, they can salvage [cross-cultural worker’s] careers. Task-orientated, cognitive concrete thinkers are often not well suited to this ministry. It needs sensitivity to body language, the capacity to read between the lines, and the ability to reflect empathetically upon what is being said.
Donovan and Myors, 2002: 304
Although Bosch (2014: 153) argues that ‘anyone with two ears’ can debrief, Hawker (2012: 9-10) argues, cross-cultural workers prefer an experienced debriefer, one who demonstrates understanding, ‘cultural competence’ and who has ‘credibility’. Cross-cultural workers are looking for someone who has had a similar experience and has come out the other side.
[Debriefers need to] have adequate training in the skills of debriefing, have good listening skills, and are warm, non-judgemental, affirming and able to empathise. They must be able to maintain confidentiality. They should be comfortable with silence, as sometimes debriefees require time to reflect before speaking. They should also be able to sit with people who are showing strong emotion (e.g. crying or feeling angry). Debriefers need to recognise their own limitations, and be willing to refer people on for further help if necessary. They should receive supervision.
Hawker (2012: 17-18)
Further, Fawcett (1999: 90) argues that cross-cultural workers are looking for companionship, which is generated by being with those who have common vulnerabilities.
Cross-cultural workers are also looking for someone who has the power, or perceived ability, to influence future events, who can answer questions and point them in the right direction (Hawker, 2012:10). The internal debriefer needs to be trusted by management (Fawcett 1999: 64). The member care worker also needs to be able to trust the cross-cultural workers to act responsibly should the need arise.
Dangers of debriefing
It is possible to add to a cross-cultural worker’s pre-existing trauma during a debriefing. Asking questions of cross-cultural workers may pressure them to talk about experiences that are unhelpful for them to recall. However, if the member care worker allows the cross-cultural worker to lead the conversation, the possibility of this danger can be reduced. Group debriefings of cross-cultural workers who have had traumatic experiences are particularly problematic since one cross-cultural worker may share an aspect of the trauma not experienced by another and so add to the trauma the other has already experienced.
Personal debriefs can be structured or unstructured. If the cross-cultural worker has a lot to talk about, an unstructured debrief may be most appropriate, otherwise the use of questions (add link here) provides structure (Bosch, 2014: 174).
Let’s now reflect on a similar story in the Bible.
A story to consider
That same day two of Jesus’ followers were going to a village called Emmaus. It was about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked about those things, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them. But God kept them from recognizing him.
Jesus asked them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?”
They stood still, and their faces were sad. One of them was named Cleopas. He said to Jesus, “Are you the only person visiting Jerusalem who doesn’t know? Don’t you know about the things that have happened there in the last few days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet. He was powerful in what he said and did in the sight of God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed Jesus over to be sentenced to death. They nailed him to a cross. But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to set Israel free. Also, it is the third day since all this happened. Some of our women amazed us too. Early this morning they went to the tomb. But they didn’t find his body. So they came and told us what they had seen. They saw angels, who said Jesus was alive. Then some of our friends went to the tomb. They saw it was empty, just as the women had said. They didn’t see Jesus’ body there.”
Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are! How long it takes you to believe all that the prophets said! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and then receive his glory?” Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures. He began with Moses and all the Prophets.
They approached the village where they were going. Jesus kept walking as if he were going farther. But they tried hard to keep him from leaving. They said, “Stay with us. It is nearly evening. The day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
He joined them at the table. Then he took bread and gave thanks. He broke it and began to give it to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. But then he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “He explained to us what the Scriptures meant. Weren’t we excited as he talked with us on the road?”
Luke 24: 13-32
After appearing to the disciples, Jesus first chooses to offer them an opportunity to tell their story. Jesus listens to the disciples’ story before he offers them an alternative understanding of the events they had experienced, assisting them to put their experiences into context (Hawker 2002: 472).
What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?
Heather (Jane’s supervisor) suggested that Jane read the materials listed in ‘Recommended Reading’ below. These materials provide in-depth and practical information about how to debrief well.
Heather suggested that Jane offer Fiona a two-three hour personal debriefing about a fortnight after Fiona arrives ‘home’, as well as ensuring that the venue provides privacy and an environment free of interruptions.
Heather suggested that prior to Fiona’s debriefing, Jane explain the purpose, benefits and expectations of the debriefing process, so that Fiona had time to prepare for it (Bosch, 2014: 179).
Heather provided Jane with a confidentiality blurb which she used to inform Fiona of the confidentiality arrangement (the flow of information) at the start of the debrief.
Bosch, B. (2014) Thriving in Difficult Places. Pretoria, South Africa: Author.
Donovan, K. and Myors, R. (2002) ‘Reinventing Missionary Commitment’, in K. O’Donnell (ed.) Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey (Globalization of Mission Series), pp. 295–307.
Fawcett, G. (1999) Ad-mission: The Briefing and Debriefing of Teams of Missionaries and Aid Workers. Harpenden, UK: Author.
Hawker, D. (2002) ‘Guidelines for Crisis and Routine Debriefing’, in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series), pp. 457–475.
Hay, R. et al. (2007) Worth Keeping:Global Perspectives on Best Practices in Missionary Retention. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.
O’Donnell, K. (ed.) (2002) Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
O’Donnell, K. and O’Donnell, M.L. (2002) ‘Running Well and Resting Well: Twelve Tools for Missionary Life’, in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series).
Williams, K. (1995) Debriefing: Some Key Issues. Unpublished notes. Dallas, Texas: Wycliffe Bible Translators, p. 1.
“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.
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.
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”
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
“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, 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 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?
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.
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.’
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.”
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.
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.