Life is full of transitions but very few of them are as challenging as making a move to (or from) an overseas missionary assignment. Missionary transition is complex because of the nature of cross-cultural missionary service. Crossing boundaries of culture, language, religion and geography is inherently messy. Moving from Michigan to Missouri or taking a week’s trip abroad cannot be compared to packing up and moving overseas to live in a different culture.
Tying up the loose ends in one’s homeland and planning for life in another culture is very demanding.
Globalization has made missionary transition both easier and harder. Travel is much faster, but transition is correspondingly much more intense. When my parents and I went to Malawi in 1954 we took all the luggage we wanted aboard the Robin Tuxford. During the 29-day voyage from New York to Cape Town my parents had time to rest, study, think and pray about their upcoming work. Today, my children make tough decisions about what to pack into carefully weighed, expensive boxes and then spend only about 29 hours flying to Africa, where they arrive jet lagged and worn out.
For over 50 years I have observed different ways people make their arrivals and departures. Howard and Evangeline Mattison(now deceased) came out of retirement to work with us in Malawi. Their transition was made with military-like precision, with boxes packed weeks ahead of time. Then there were the Smiths (pseudonym). As their friends observed their preparations, they became increasingly uneasy. Eventually, they realized that the Smiths would only board the aircraft if there was a major intervention. Arriving in the nick of time, the missionary friends emptied the closets, packed the suitcases, loaded the cars and delivered the Smiths to the airport. When the Smiths said, “We could never have done it without you!” they were telling the truth.
In my own goings and comings from Africa, my family and I have fallen in between the Smiths and the Mattisons. I still have not mastered the process well enough to do it perfectly or to prescribe “ten easy steps.” Because the process is inherently chaotic, I doubt that there is a perfect way to do it. However, I have some ideas about how to make it a healthy process that is as fair and easy as possible for the whole family. My focus is on families, although singles may find some points helpful. The following suggestions apply to the initial trip abroad as well as to annual leave and the eventual permanent return.
- Expect that transition stress will make you a little more self-centered than usual. This implies the need to guard your own responses a bit and give your family members leeway if they are more touchy than usual. Ask the Lord for an extra gift of empathy and patience. Keep the whole family process in focus, not just your individual role. Spouses should assume that they will do their part plus supplementing the work of their mate and children.
- Try to understand the coping strategies you tend to use under stress. Some are probably healthy and others not so healthy. What might prevent you from making your best contribution to the family transition? Sometimes we escape unpleasant tasks of high priority by absorbing ourselves in more pleasant tasks of lesser priority.
- Monitor your expectations of your parents and extended family. Families have widely varying levels of understanding and ability to help. Some families function as observers and others as participants through the whole process. The ability to help declines with age, no matter how perceptive and willing parent may be. The family can have a sense of participating in your missionary service when they help with your transition. Let them help but don’t presume upon their helpfulness.
- Make departure day as good as possible with some pre-planning. Try to finish the major packing the day before so that only hand luggage remains to be packed. Besides the final packing, reserve the day for handling the inevitable emergencies, saying farewell to the family and leaving. Because checking into international flights with a lot of luggage is time consuming, plan ample time for the airport trip.
- Keep track of the transition with “how are we doing?” questions. Who needs a little extra help? Who is about to blow a fuse? Who is doing well? What can be done to cheer the troops?
- Celebrate the successful departure and take note of how the transition could be improved next time.
Serving as a cross-cultural missionary is interesting and exciting. By paying attention to the transition process, we can make it more rewarding for everyone. Good transitions facilitate effective ministry.
Gorden Doss, PhD, Associate Professor of World Mission in the Seminary at Andrews University.
This article first appeared in October 2009 in Global Connections.