Leaving Well

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

What would you say or do?

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

R – Reconciliation

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

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

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

Author, 2022

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

A – Affirmation

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

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

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

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

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

F – Farewells 

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

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

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

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

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

T – Think destination 

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

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

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


Unexpected departures

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

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


Negative alternative

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

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

  • Resentment
  • Anger/angst
  • Fears
  • Trauma

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

Knell, 2016:38

Time and Lifelines

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

A story to consider

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 20:18-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading

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

Other References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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