“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.  

Standard practice

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.

Heather suggested Jane read the ‘Listening Well’ blog post. 

Heather provided a list of personal debriefing questions for Jane to use as appropriate.

Heather suggested that at the end of the debrief Jane ask Fiona,

“What, if anything, do you want shared with leadership?” 

For example, Fiona might be happy to share one aspect of her situation or otherwise, a generic, ‘Fiona is going well’ or ‘Fiona’s exhausted’.

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


Thank you also to David Bird for his editorial assistance.

Recommended Reading

Bosch, B. (2014) Thriving in Difficult Places. Pretoria, South Africa: Author (Chapter 4)

Hawker, D. (2012) Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries: A Comprehensive Manual. Ninth Ed. People in Aid. Available at:


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.

Hawker, D. (2012) Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries: A Comprehensive Manual. Ninth Ed. People in Aid. Available at:

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.

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:

Boyd, A. (2013) ‘Journaling in the Round’, Intervarsity: Women in the Academy and Professions, January. Available at:

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:

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) Available at:

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:

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




3 Read more about re-entry in the Good Grief blogpost,

4 Read more about normalisation in The New Normal blogpost,

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:

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:

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:

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 –

2 Read more about normalisation in the ‘The New Normal’ blog post –

3 Read more about our use of the Bible in the ‘Theological Reflection Cycle’ blog post –

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:

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:

Palmer, A. (1999) ‘Issues Facing Returning Missionaries and How Spiritual Direction Can Help’. Spiritual Growth Ministries. Available at:

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.

The Blame game

Looking under the surface

Imagine if your husband’s burning desire all his life was to be a missionary! What if, because you became unwell – your whole family had to return to Australia? How would you deal with that?

Who is to blame? How can we as member care workers care for them?

John* had always wanted to be a missionary.  He was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Ethiopia* where his parents had served.   John married Tanya* and then they both prepared to serve long-term by acquiring qualifications and professional experience that could be readily applied in developing countries.  They also attended Bible college and had a couple of children.  An opening for a position in Ethiopia came up and they were super excited to be returning to John’s childhood location.  As they set off, the family enjoyed the enthusiastic endorsement and support of their church community.  Despite this promising beginning, they returned to Australia prematurely. 

Ethiopia is a poor and unstable country.   John found serving cross culturally was not as straightforward as he had hoped and imagined.  His national colleagues found him to be patient and considerate.  After settling in the family, Tanya began working in her profession part-time. Visitors reported that the children weren’t doing all that well, with one hypothesising that this was because they stood out like a sore thumb as ‘blondies’.  After a few years in Ethiopia, Tanya became anxious and depressed. For her sake their missionary career was brought to an end.

After their return to Australia, John was careful to shield Tanya from criticism and never blamed her. However, Tanya blamed herself for ruining John’s dreams. There was no escaping the narrative that she was the ‘weak link’ who had cracked up and been responsible for their return.  People in their community were saying,  “Isn’t it a pity he married the wrong person?” 


A group of member care workers discussed the family…

Tanya may have had a tendency towards anxiety and depression

Tanya may have been overworked or too busy

Tanya may have been too busy entertaining visitors

It can’t be John’s fault because he’s really supportive of Tanya

Member Care Workers’ suggestions, 2019

What expectations did they have when they arrived in Ethiopia?

Realistic expectations about what will be encountered are the most important factors in adaptation. The closer the sojourners’ expectations about all aspects of their new life and job (social, economic, personal) approximate to reality, the happier they will be and the easier the adjustment.

Furnham, 2019

It seems that there were unmet expectations for John.  He may have had a romanticised view of mission work.  Maybe he had expectations arising from his childhood experience?  The context may have changed significantly since he was there as a child.  He may have idealised his childhood experience, or his experience may just be different as an adult.  A child’s experience of a culture often differs significantly from an adult’s experience. Children can be protected from exposure to certain elements of the culture by their parents or by society at large.

Unmet expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration or anger. When there is a gap between the imagined and the reality, this will inevitably produce an effect.  However, colleagues found him to be patient and considerate, so, his frustration was not being expressed at work.  Where was it expressed?

Root cause

A system is represented by a circle. In this case the system problem resulted in a volcanic eruption…


A system is an entity … made up of a set of units (a group of people) and the interrelationships between them … In a healthy system, perceived failure in one person is accepted as a systems responsibility, which may be pointing to a systems failure. 

Donovan and Myors, 2002

Member care workers need a systems approach when caring for cross-cultural workers. Just as a fire alarm indicates the presence of a fire, so too can one member of a family with a ‘problem’ be an expression of a broader problem within the family. Therefore, when a family has a child who is self-harming, we need to focus on the whole family, not just the child. Bowen Family Systems Theory is a significant influence in family therapy. It focuses

on patterns that develop in families in order to defuse anxiety…  The degree of anxiety in any one family will be determined by the current levels of external stress and the sensitivities to particular themes that have been transmitted down the generations. If family members do not have the capacity to think through their responses to relationship dilemmas, but rather react anxiously to perceived emotional demands, a state of chronic anxiety or reactivity may be set in place.    

Brown, 1999

Since a perceived ‘failure’ of one member of the family is understood as a family system ‘failure’, it is important to resist the tendency to focus on the individual with ‘the problem’. 

If we are from a culture which has more of an individualistic cultural orientation, it is particularly challenging to step out of our individualistic approach and focus on the family as a community. Many Western societies have more of an individualistic cultural orientation and thus, Western member care workers tend to focus on the individual with ‘the problem’ within a system (Hofstede, 2010). Cultures with a more collectivist cultural orientation are societies in which people are more strongly integrated into groups. Member care workers with more of a collectivist cultural orientation may function more easily using a systems approach (Hofstede, 2011).

Sending and partner organisations will also be more effective in their member care provision if they work with the whole system, rather than focusing on the ‘problem’ person.

… when a missionary leaves field ministry before the expected time, how do organisations respond? How much attention, in fact, is given to the possibility of failure on the part of the organisation? Often… rather than evaluate and admit our organisational guilt or ineptitude, we mission leaders abdicate our responsibility and too easily write off the individual as somehow not having measured up.

Donovan and Myors, 2002

Inadequate training, screening and inappropriate job allocation, inadequate support including mentoring and evaluation, are all common examples of systemic abuse. Donovan and Myors propose that misuse of missionaries or systemic abuse, is a common cause of attrition.

There are elements of the selection process and training of Tanya and John that might have assisted to prevent this scenario occurring, or at least have reduced its impact.  As agencies and churches, we can care for cross-cultural workers and families by asking about their expectations when we recruit them.  Cross-cultural workers need training to encourage the development of more realistic expectations, particularly if they are significantly unrealistic (Koteskey, 2020).

Member care workers visiting families in location could ask cross-cultural workers about their unmet expectations. If this occurs, problems may be nipped in the bud.

It is worth the member care worker asking, “Is there emotional or other types of abuse occurring in this relationship?” It is difficult for the victim, the member care workers and even the perpetrator, to identify emotional abuse. However, a psychologist, or counsellor, with appropriate training can identify whether this is an issue. More information about this issue can be found at

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

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’

Genesis 45:4-11

Joseph had many difficult experiences after his brothers sold him into slavery, including imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit.   And yet, here Joseph firmly proclaims God’s control over all aspects of his life in Egypt and prior to.  For those doubting God’s sovereignty, the story of Joseph, with all its ups and downs, can be a great comfort. 

What happened? How was this family cared for?

The significant impact of John’s frustration went undetected because the member care workers focused on Tanya. By focusing on caring for Tanya, they may have inadvertently increased Tanya’s sense of being the ‘weak link’.

How was this family cared for?

In addition to the usual followup provided by their church and agency during re-entry, this couple needed professional help. Tanya and John were encouraged by Jane (their member care worker) to go to a psychologist or counsellor with appropriate experience and this needed to be funded by the agency or church. Jane also organised appropriate support for the children.

Fortunately, there was no abuse identified when the psychologist worked with Tanya and John.  It seemed that John’s work stresses had been expressed at home through lengthy complaining to Tanya about his workplace frustrations.  Tanya had listened patiently to John which alleviated his stress, but she in turn, didn’t have an outlet to express hers.

The psychologist and Jane sought to bring relief to Tanya by facilitating her understanding that an individual with a problem is often an expression of a systemic issue, whether family, or organisational, or both.  A new perspective may mean that Tanya can stop blaming herself.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty could be also be helpful.  At an appropriate time, Jane suggested to Tanya and John that they might find the story of Joseph a comfort.

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


Thank you to Megan Withers for her editorial assistance in writing this blog post.


Brown, J. (1999) ‘Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Critique’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 20(2). Available at:

Donovan, K. and Myors, R. (2002) ‘Reinventing Missionary Committment’, in O’Donnell, K. (ed.) Doing Member Care Well: Perspectves and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey (Globalization of Mission Series).

Goldenberg, I., Stanton, M. and Goldenberg, H. (2016) Family therapy: An overview. 9th edn. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Hofstede, G. (2011) Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context, Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, Unit 2. Available at:

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J. and Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

Koteskey, R. L. (2020) What Missionaries Ought to know about Expectations, Missionary Care: Missions and Mental Health Resources from Ron and Bonnie Koteskey. Available at:

McKaughan, P. (1997) ‘Missionary attrition: Defining the problem’, in Taylor, W. (ed.) Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, pp. 15–24.