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Copyright Statement© Shirley Ralston and Texpatfaith, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Shirley Ralston and Texpatfaith with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Grab Some Coffee! Well, first off, we do want to apologize that we have been silent for a while now. We honestly have been dragging our feet to send…Shaun and Abby Suitt – Sports Friends Kenya
Join me this week as we hear from Jenny Nuccio in Mombasa, Kenya. She writes about what it was like for her and the community she serves in those early days of Covid-19. Pray for Jenny, her family, their ministry and the people of Mombasa.
Enjoy my conversation starter recently published on the Upstream Collective.
“Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread. Through shadows to the edge of night, until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, we’ll wander back to home and bed…” – JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Staring at the choices on the grocery store shelf is socially acceptable for a minute or two, but when it becomes paralyzing – it becomes super awkward. I know it may seem odd to be stumped by choice, but when you’ve just returned from a country where choice was limited, abundance can be overwhelming. It’s only one of the signs of reverse culture shock global workers experience when they re-enter life in the United States. I’ve come to learn that my own adjustments are shared by many who live through the returned life.
My husband and I returned to the United States in the midst of the vitriolic 2016 presidential election. Six years away had increased my appreciation for being a U.S. citizen and the freedoms we enjoy. Our first overseas assignment in the Middle East had been in a country where “Sharia Compliant” signs were displayed by local businesses. So the heated rhetoric and in-your-face division during the election left me disheartened.
The new found freedom of driving my own car was tempered by having to re-learn to navigate Houston traffic. The ribbon of red tail lights that stretched out in front of me on the Houston freeways would make my heart sink and my anxiety rise (it still does).
Even worship was a challenge. My beloved home church worship services contrasted sharply with the simple church without walls we left behind in our last assignment. What would my Papua New Guinean friends think about worship on such a grand scale?
Returning after six years away turned out to be very different than what I had envisioned. My deep desire was to readjust to American life. But on many days my return left me feeling anxious, isolated and alone.
Living and serving overseas is an intense, transformative experience. Interaction with other cultures expands your worldview and facilitates spiritual growth as you become part of God’s work in far-away places.
Returning to your home country is just as intense, in a different kind of way. It’s almost like time travel in a sci-fi movie. You leave one reality and return, feeling like an alien, to a changed world. You can love it and loathe it at the same time. The loathing part sounds particularly ungrateful, but the love/hate relationship is a paradox I’ve also learned is common among returned workers. We need a safe place to manage our re-entry in a healthy way.
In our previous assignment in Papua New Guinea, the missionary community had been that safe place for us. We arrived in country, not as missionaries, but as expatriate global workers. It didn’t matter to them. They welcomed us into their lives and provided us with the precious gift of fellowship as aliens in a foreign land. They taught me much about missionary life — their struggle with isolation, fear, and separation from family, their love for their adopted country and its people, the assurance of their calling and the desire for all to know Christ. Most of all, I came to understand the tension of wanting to go home yet wanting to stay. Having a safe community to voice the trials and triumphs of living overseas was invaluable. Together we shared the unique challenges of serving the Lord as global nomads.
The community we left behind gave my husband and I the template for life and ministry upon our return to Houston, Texas. We set out to re-create a safe place for returned global workers in our city – one of the most culturally diverse in the world. Through Houston’s First Baptist Missions Department, we became involved with the Missionary Care Ministry and their network of supported workers serving internationally. We started a home group that has become a gathering place for wandering nomads who have dedicated their lives to sharing the Gospel with every nation, tribe and tongue. Today we still gather to worship, study and encourage one another in the work around the world that God has called us to do.
Global worker, where is your safe place? I encourage you to find a supportive community that understands your experience. Whether you are coming or going, the people you surround yourself with can help you adjust in a healthy way as you continue with the mission He has given you.
“and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”- Hebrews 10:24–25
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the Pastor’s Research Team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living in the Middle East and the South Pacific.
Caring for Missionaries through Connection: The Three Cs
A perfect illustration of “out of sight, out of mind” is that of the missionary serving overseas. We have heard this refrain many times in our conversations with missionaries in our church’s care ministry. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it this way: “not able to be seen, and so not thought about. Problems in remote places can be out of sight, out of mind for many people.”
Although connection may be one of their biggest desires, it is also one of their biggest challenges. A missionary’s support network usually consists of their family, friends, and church community. These are the people who know and love them and understand their purpose and work. They are key to their well-being on the field.
Paul expressed this same sentiment in his letter to the Philippians when he mentioned being “fully supplied” (Phil. 4:18 HCSB hereafter) and joy in his renewed care (Phil. 4:10). In this way, the dynamics of missionary work have remained the same over the centuries. So church, as much as it depends on us, as we send we must also support, and support means staying connected. Here are three key elements to consider in staying well connected to your missionaries.
Your missionary should hear from you on a regular basis. With today’s myriad of communication apps, this is easily done. There is no better encouragement (perhaps outside an actual visit) for a missionary than to receive consistent communication from their support network. Regular contact allows you to get to know your missionary really well, and it provides a level of personal security for them to be vulnerable and share needs.
Make it your goal to be so consistent in your communications that your missionary can echo the words of Paul: “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Phil. 1:3–5) That is the sign of an excellent partnership.
Paul had a reciprocal relationship with the Philippian church that he highly valued, made evident when he said, “because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).
This kind of relationship between the church and their missionaries can be a challenge, but there are practical, effective ways to make it happen. The following ways are taken in part from Mind the Gaps: Engaging the Church in Missionary Care by David Wilson.
- Church-wide prayer gatherings
With your missionary’s permission, include photos, profiles, copies of newsletters, and specific requests from your missionaries and their teams in the field.
- Short-term mission trips
Go where your missionary is serving. “As you might imagine, this is where people really discover the real stories from the life of the missionaries and their ministries. When you’re eating, traveling and serving together, it is a great partnership and time of bonding” (Kindle loc. 1471–1474).
- Care team field visits
These teams can be incorporated into short-term trips, or they can be separate ventures. “A field visit goes a long way to connect your hearts and build trusting relationships that show them how important they are to us. The visit opens up vistas into the challenges these tough soldiers are facing day to day for our Lord and we see it as critical to bridge the understanding and compassion gaps that can so easily exist with the miles, time, and differences in a foreign country” (Kindle loc. 1353–1354).
Have returned missionaries recognized in the worship services. In whatever way you can, make their presence known by putting together faces and names. This will bring them closer to the church community.
- Care retreats and conferences
This is an excellent opportunity for your missionaries to return home for a time of connection with the congregation and for rest and restoration. Involve the church community in planning and providing for this special time.
- Group involvement
Incorporate your small groups, Sunday school classes, youth groups, etc. Have them consider adopting a missionary. Their efforts do not have to be burdensome. Here are a few things any group can do.
- Prayers: set aside time for praying for them and their needs each time you meet.
- Photos: send one of your group.
- Phone calls and packages: Know their birthdays and anniversaries, send Christmas cards and care packages. Read and reply to their newsletters. Let them know you have sincerely interacted with their lives through the experiences they’ve shared with you.
- Preparations: if they are returning home for any reason, find out what they need. A welcome basket is always uplifting during this difficult transition period.
- Participation: include them in your group time (Skype or in person).
- Church resources
Churches are usually well-equipped for meeting needs. Examples are access to counseling, housing, transportation, perhaps even a fitness facility. Appeal to the congregation for any professional skills missionaries may need like tax or legal advice.
Above all, caring through connection means a support network that is a safe place. This requires you to be careful. Many global workers serve in sensitive areas where communication may be monitored. When you have the opportunity, ask your workers the following:
- What is their preferred method of communication?
- What is the best time for communication with them?
- What words should you use or not use so you do not inadvertently put them at risk?
Being a safe place also means a support network that is trustworthy, a place where your worker can be known and accepted. Look to Paul’s letter to the Galatians for how important it is for us to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1–5). There should be a few people in the missionary’s circle of support who share a strong, trusting relationship with them. This is so issues related to emotional and spiritual health can be discussed in confidence and additional help on a more professional level can be pursued if there is a need.
Finally, consider holding an information session for anyone who is part of the support network for your missionary community. Training is key for a good missionary care ministry. Use this time to cover the three Cs of caring through connection.
“I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).