As I stepped off the plane, my feet still stained by the orange dirt of Africa, I carried with me more than just our 10 pieces of oversize luggage.
I showed up with a fresh passion to see missionaries protected, cared for, and loved.
And now, after months of transitioning, my eyes are more open than ever to the importance of caring for returned missionaries. Whether they’ve returned for good or are on furlough, the needs of returned missionaries are unique, and the positive impact of the care they receive can be far-reaching. Unsaid needs, however, will always go unmet.
So, on behalf of fellow returned missionaries, let me suggest six ways to love us well when we return from the field.
1. Beware of missionary hero worship.
Avoid putting missionaries on a pedestal they were never intended to occupy. The hero-worship of missionaries has caused grave damage—to missionaries, to the church, and to missions as a whole. Acknowledge them, yes. Celebrate them, absolutely. Dub them a hero or superstar? Please, no.
Trust me, the faces you’ve seen on that prayer card for the past three years are very normal people. Church members sometimes neglect to engage returned workers because they seem too different. Too special.
For as many exotic days and stories they have to wow you with, they have hundreds more that are entirely mundane.
Talk to them like normal people. Be interested in the ordinary. Yes, I know that missionaries have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot by writing home with “I wrestled a cheetah barehanded and won!” stories. Just remember, though, that for as many exotic days and stories they have to wow you with, they have hundreds more that are entirely mundane. Days filled with laundry and emails and coffee with friends. See them for who they are—not for the place they live or the stories they bring.
2. Prepare for mixed emotions and culture shock.
Don’t assume returned missionaries are thrilled to be back. If they’re apathetic or grieving, don’t take it personally. Rather, celebrate that they’ve put down strong roots overseas. Recognize they’ve left a whole life—and sometimes their dreams—behind. Their time wasn’t a trip for them. This is where they’ve had triumphs and tears, pets and friends, houseplants and memories. Alternatively, if they’re thrilled to be back stateside, don’t let that convince you they weren’t thriving overseas. It’s complicated.
Spend some time reading up on reverse culture shock. Are they returning from a deeply communal culture? A slower pace of life? Open-air markets rather than well-stocked stores? The (re)learning curve might be steep. Be gracious and patient.
3. Make rest a priority.
Ask what they need to truly rest while in America—and then make it happen. Overseas, many missionaries feel they’re constantly “on.” Allow them to blend in and just be. But don’t forget about them! Invite them over for dinner. Include them in friend hangouts. Even if they say no the first time or completely miss the pop-culture reference at dinner, I guarantee it felt nice to be invited.
4. Help destigmatize mental-health concerns in missions.
This is a big one. I cannot express how many missionaries suffer silently. Many have experienced trauma after trauma, and never receive the care they need. Many are afraid to seek treatment or counseling, for fear their livelihood might hang in the balance.
Ask your missionaries if they’re in counseling or therapy. If they say no, ask if they need help to make it happen (finding contacts, paying bills, etc.). Any barrier you can remove will help.
5. Meet needs. But meet wants too.
Meet practical needs, yes. But seek to also meet wants. Insist they make Amazon wish lists. Load them up with gift cards to their favorite clothing store. (News flash: missionaries want to wear cute clothes, too!) Surprise their kids with tickets to a theme park. Order takeout from their favorite American restaurant.
It’s not that all your missionary friends care about is being showered with new shoes and snacks. If you ask how you can help, they’ll point you in the direction of some selfless cause. Hear them out on those . . . but buy up their Amazon wish lists too.
6. Above all, listen well.
Ask good questions. Be curious. Curiosity communicates interest, and interest communicates care.
Ask to see pictures. Ask the names of their friends in the photos. Probe for stories. Most missionaries I know desperately want to talk and share, but won’t bring it up themselves. Many just need somebody to listen to their experiences, their stories, their struggles, and the beauty of their lives overseas. Be that somebody.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
What wins have you had over the past few months?
What’s been hardest for you lately?
What does community look like for you here in the States and back in your host country?
Tell me what you love about your host country. What do you miss the most right now?
What’s been most overwhelming about living in your host country?
What does rest look like for you overseas? What are you doing for fun these days?
Have you had any friends leave the country this year? How has that experience been for you?
What are you most excited about, ministry-wise, over the next few months?
If applicable, ask about their team dynamic on the field. If they’re with an organization, ask about that relationship too. Listen carefully and unhurriedly. Such topics can be weighty and lonely for missionaries to broach. They rarely get brought up but they often need to be hashed out. Provide space for the hashing.
Word of Caution
If you don’t already have a relationship with a returned missionary, now might not be the time to try to penetrate to the core of their soul. Just begin building the friendship. Start walking alongside them. But then, keep walking. Over time, trust will build and conversations will deepen. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
We’ve now been back for over six months. This life I’ve described is, for the most part, no longer mine. The needs are no longer my needs. But they were, and they remain the needs of so many just like my family. Let’s care for them well.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition Blog on March 25, 2022. Used with permission.