All short-term trips are supposed to end. But having a return ticket in your backpack doesn’t make the journey home a breeze. Below are six simple steps you can take to weather one of the toughest parts of going overseas: coming home.
1. RESUME YOUR OLD ROUTINE
Your body doesn’t know if it’s 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., your pantry is empty and your clothes are tangled at the bottom of a suitcase. After a season of adventure, it might sound like the last thing you want to do, but getting back into a normal rhythm of life is crucial.
Sleep when other people sleep, go to the grocery store and unpack your suitcase. A well-rested mind and well-fed body will create the sound environment you need to productively process the memories and emotions of your experience.
2. EXPECT REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK
You likely felt it at the beginning of your trip when you didn’t recognize the foods on your dinner plate, and you’ll experience it again when you return. Culture shock is an emotional reaction to a different way of life. Your worldview has changed because of your time overseas, so things that were once commonplace to you might elicit anger, confusion or sadness.
Intense reverse culture shock can surface suddenly, and familiar situations like returning to worship in English at your home church may feel difficult or foreign to you. More often than not, the disconnect will present itself subtly and may remind you of a similar feeling you had when coming home from college for the first time — finding that nothing had changed, but everything felt different, especially you!
In both cases, it is important to embrace reverse culture shock as part of the reentry process and examine your response. Make efforts to share these reactions with those closest to you, even if they cannot fully understand. Moving forward, consider how God can use you as you notice things in your home culture that others don’t see.
3. EMBRACE GRIEF
No matter how brief, a short-term trip can cultivate deep relationships with people and places. Leaving these behind comes with a genuine sadness that surfaces at unexpected moments. The grief can feel especially isolating if no one else in your home environment is experiencing it.
In this season, resist the pressure to hurry through this process and “move on.” Seek personal ways to celebrate these memories. Display photos and mementos in your home, or recreate your favorite meal enjoyed abroad.
4. PROCESS IN PRAYER
Good, bad or somewhere in between, you are returning home with a swirling collection of conversations, images and spiritual insights. Depending on your processing style, it could take you a week or a year to sift through each experience. Carving out time to prayerfully process your mission trip creates the space for God to continue to shape you through your experience long after it’s over.
You might find it useful to record these prayers and insights on paper to revisit when the memories aren’t as fresh. Consider and record answers to questions like, “How has my worldview changed?” TEAM has created a debriefing journal with intentional questions to help guide your processing. You can download it for free.
5. FIND AN OPEN EAR
There’s nothing like a simple “How was your trip?” to make you launch into a 30-minute monologue illustrated with 189 of your favorite photos. About six minutes in, you see this well-intentioned friend’s eyes glaze over, but you just can’t stop. The words keep coming. It only takes a few of these experiences before you edit your response to “It was great! I saw God move in unique ways. I hope to return someday.”
In the coming weeks, set up an hour-long meeting with someone to solely talk about your overseas experience. This person doesn’t have to be your best friend, but rather should be someone who has served cross-culturally and walked through the re-entry process. Email your missions pastor, your neighbor who served overseas or reach out to a missions coach at TEAM. You can use your responses from the debriefing journal (scroll down to download for free) as a launch point. This conversation will help you sift through the details and continue on with clarity and intention.
6. LOOK FORWARD
Luke 10:17-20 records a debriefing conversation between Jesus and 72 short-term missionaries. We can imagine the 72 were wild-eyed, describing their mountain-top moments saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus cautions them to not rejoice in what transpired on their journey. Rather, Jesus encourages them, and us, to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Maybe your overseas experience was rich with fruitfulness and you witnessed a supernatural miracle or the salvation of a new believer. In light of that, resuming your normal obligations outside of ministry might feel insignificant. Or maybe you are looking at your trip in hindsight and lamenting that “nothing happened.” Both perceptions are painful.