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4 Quadrants of Missionary Debriefing

This article is a response to a number of requests to provide a consolidated piece on the subject of DEBRIEFING.

ONE - Returning and Re-starting

Almost every missionary who has ever done it will tell you that the transition back to life in America is much more challenging than the transition was to life on the mission field.

For reasons too numerous to mention in this post, re-starting life back in the U.S. poses greater dangers to the spiritual, emotional, and social health of the missionary than their original move to the mission field presented.

Based on this somewhat surprising reality, those that know, understand, and love missionaries--and the vast majority of former missionaries themselves, are now convinced that every returning missionary should receive the blessing and benefit of being debriefed.

When some people hear the word "debrief", they think about a soldier or spy being questioned after what took place as part of the mission they just participated in.

For others, the word "debrief" prompts them to think about a person who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.  When understood this way, a debriefing includes asking the victim or the witness to describe what they saw or experienced for the gathering of information or as part of the emotional healing process.

Because these are the things the average person thinks when they hear the word "debrief", it's essential to explain what is meant when the word is used to describe something that is beneficial for missionaries.

Missionary Debriefing Defined

Missionary debriefing is a relational and intentional process that provides an opportunity for a missionary to tell their story--verbally processing past and recent events from their point of view, complete with their emotional responses at the time and since then.

Although a prior relationship with the person who debriefs the missionary is important, it's not absolutely essential. What is essential is that both the missionary and the person debriefing them recognize that their time together is either the beginning or the continuation of a meaningful relationship that will be a mutual blessing and bring glory to our Missionary God.

Debriefing differs from fellowshipping or just spending time together because it has a specific goal or purpose. The missionaries that are being debriefed and the ones who are debriefing them know that their time together has a specific purpose. They have allotted an adequate amount of time and chosen a setting that will contribute to, not distract, from the goal that are trying to accomplish.

The Goal of Missionary Debriefing

The goal, or purpose of missionary debriefing is best summarized by a number of easily understandable words that begin with the letter R. A successful missionary debrief will help the missionary to be released, renewed, replenished, restored, and readied for the context they now find themselves in.

Put as succinctly as possible, the goal of missionary debriefing is to ensure these faithful servants are REFRESHED and REALIGNED--for the next season of life and ministry that God has in store for them.

At Shepherd's Staff, we're convinced that every missionary can benefit from receiving the REFRESHMENT and REALIGNMENT--R and R, that missionary debriefing provides.

TWO - The Dangers of Ignoring the Pitfalls of Re-entry

The path that missionaries walk from life and ministry on the mission field back to life back in America is bristling with dangers to their spiritual, emotional, and social health.

When the stress-filled final few months on the field, and the first few months of the plunge back in to life at “home” are piled on top of the never ending culture-stress that every missionary experiences by just living on the mission field, it isn’t hard to understand why returning is much more perilous than originally going was.

This reality is one of the reasons why every one who knows and loves them should strongly encourage returned missionaries to accept the special gift of debriefing that God has moved their fellow global servants to create and offer to them as an expression of His love.

Missionary debriefing is a relational and intentional process that provides an opportunity for a missionary to tell their story—by verbally processing past and recent events from their point of view, complete with their emotional responses at the time and since then. 

When a missionary receives the gift of debriefing, they are both REFRESHED and REALIGNED for the new season of life and ministry that God has for them.

Here are seven reasons why the gift of debriefing REFRESHES the missionaries who receive it:

  1. Knowing that a fellow believer has taken the time to understand what missionaries experience and then prepared themselves to be a good listener and encourager, and that this person has also blocked out a large portion of their valuable time in order to debrief them, is refreshing to a missionary.
  2. As stressful as fitting the debriefing in to their schedule might be, intentionally stepping off the high speed merry-go-round that life in the U.S. feels like in order to take a couple of days to unpack and reflect on what they experienced over there, and since they have returned, is refreshing to a missionary.
  3. Being encouraged that this season of feeling disoriented, misunderstood, disconnected, overwhelmed, and frustrated—is normal, and that it will come to an end, is refreshing to a missionary.
  4. Being equipped with tools that will help them navigate and cut a path through the jungle of remaining challenges they will encounter as their transition continues is refreshing to a missionary.
  5. Learning how they can view their life back in America through the same lens and with the same mindset that made it possible for them to live and minister successfully on the mission field is refreshing to a missionary.
  6. Believing that they have begun or furthered a relationship with someone who they’ve shared so much of their life and story with, and that the relationship will continue and deepen in this life and carry on in to the next, is refreshing to a missionary.
  7. Resting in the reality that what they have gone through, and what they have come to understand about God and themselves through the process, are treasures that they can draw from to bless other global servants is refreshing to a missionary.

Shepherd's Staff believes that all missionaries, but especially missionaries that have returned to life in America need to be REFRESHED, and that debriefing is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to provide it.

But more than refreshment is necessary for what God has in store for missionaries that have returned to America. They must also be REALIGNED, and debriefing accomplishes that purpose too.

THREE - Refreshed and Realigned

It's fairly easy to understand why missionaries who have transitioned from life on the field back to life in America need to be REFRESHED, and that the gift of debriefing can be a major source of refreshment for them.

But debriefing does more than just REFRESH missionaries, it also REALIGNS them for the new season of life and ministry that God has for them.

The challenge is that most missionaries, and those that know and love them, don't realize that being REALIGNED for life and ministry back here is just as important as it was for life and ministry on the mission field.

Because they knew before they left for the field that they would be living in an environment that was radically different than their own, they accepted significant portions of their life and thinking to be REALIGNED for the glory of God, the good of those they would live among, and their own spiritual and emotional health.

Although they may not be conscious of it, here are five of the key areas of their lives that they permitted to be REALIGNED:

Their life-posture was realigned.

In order to represent Jesus in relevant ways to those they went to live among, they chose to live with an observer, listener, and learner frame-of-mind.  This mindset helped them to not draw conclusions about the things the locals do before taking the time to understand why they do those things.

This approach also helped them to avoid offending people needlessly and ignited a greater love and respect for the culture and people than they had to begin with.  It also contributed to their ability to package God’s truth in a way that increased the likelihood of it being received and obeyed.

Their expectations in a number of areas had to be realigned.

How quickly they would learn to live day-to-day life, build relationships, and learn the language and culture, had to be adjusted to match the reality of where they now lived.

The amount of time they expected it would take them to become significant contributors to the lives of their neighbors and community, especially through sharing the gift of the gospel that was the ultimate reason for their being there, also had to be adjusted to fit their context.

Put as succinctly as possible, their expectations of the time required to feel normal about living there had to be realigned.

Their responses to the day-to-day circumstances and situations that are part of life there had to be realigned.

Even though they arrived on the field with a belief in the Sovereignty of God, they seldom permitted the implications of that belief to influence their responses to the unpredictable and unfamiliar incidents that are part of life on a planet where people have rebelled against their Creator.

Glorifying God in the midst of whatever impacted them or enveloped them on the mission field required their responses to those things to be realigned.

They had to view all things through a Sovereignty of God lens, trusting that whatever happened to them--from simple frustration-producing annoyances to trauma-inducing events--God had permitted it, and that the Holy Spirit would empower them to realign their natural response to what had happened in order to bring glory to God.

Their appearance to their neighbors and fellow community members had to be realigned.

Recognizing the value of not amplifying their foreign-ness, and to minimize the obstacles that could distract from the important message that they were there to bring to the nationals, they willingly realigned their external appearance in various ways.

This may have included adjusting both the length and style of their hair, the clothing they wore and the way they wore it, their mannerisms, and even their non-verbal communication skills.

Their thankfulness for how and what God provides to meet their needs had to be realigned.

The reality that very few aspects of day to day life were predictable, consistent, or reliable, moved them to realign what is worthy of thanking God for.

They learned to thank Him regularly for a consistent supply of electricity and water in their residence.  For one of their favorite foods or a snack from back home when it was either hand carried to them or it showed up in a local store once every few months.  For the driver of the car they’re riding in or the driver of any other car on the road, that actually stops and stays stopped at a red light until it changes colors.

Debriefing helps missionaries to recognize and be thankful for how many areas of their lives they already permitted God to realign in order for them to live and minister successfully over there.

Even more significantly, debriefing brings them face to face with the importance of being REALIGNED for what God has in store for them next, along with encouraging them that just like over there, He can realign them for effective life and ministry right here.

Encouraging and helping to ensure that missionaries are REFRESHED and REALIGNED is the reason that Shepherd's Staff strongly recommends missionaries accept the gift and the blessings of debriefing.

FOUR - Transitional Debriefing

Missionary debriefing is a relational and intentional process that provides an opportunity for a missionary to tell their story—by verbally processing past and recent events from their point of view, complete with their emotional responses at the time and since then. 

As the above definition demonstrates, missionary-specific debriefing is an amazing gift that God has called His people to develop and offer to missionaries who have made the transition from life and ministry on the field back to life and ministry in the states, or who desire to remain effective on the field.

At Shepherd’s Staff we refer to the debriefing for those that have returned to life back in America as TRANSITIONAL debriefing.

And as the previous two posts have revealed, those that receive the gift are REFRESHED and REALIGNED for the next season of life that God has in store for them.

But God hasn’t limited the gift of debriefing to just missionaries that have made the transition from the field back to America.

MAINTENANCE DEBRIEFING

He has also called His people to develop a slightly modified version of that same gift to offer to the missionaries who are in the midst of life and ministry on the field, or who have returned to the states for a period of time with the intention of going back to the field.

Shepherd’s Staff refers to this type of debriefing as MAINTENANCE debriefing.

MAINTENANCE debriefing also produces two beautiful and important fruits in the life of the missionary who accepts the gift.

First, it produces an encouraging CONFIRMATION that they are exactly where God wants them to be and that He is pleased with them and their faithfulness to the work He has given them to do.

When those that are still serving as missionaries tell the story of the many ways God moved to make it possible for them to get to the field, and then how He has sustained them despite the challenges they've faced, they are beautifully confirmed in their calling.

Second, it provokes them to consider whether certain aspects of their lives and ministry might need some CALIBRATION for their own well-being and the health of the ministry that God has called them to.

As the missionaries answer a few strategic questions about the hard things they've experienced thus far, their responses to them, and how they feel right now about life and ministry-related aspects of their lives right now, most of them recognize they need to calibrate a few areas of their lives and ministry for their own good and the good of their ministry.

The Difference between Transitional and Maintenance Debriefing

Transitional debriefing is best accomplished by devoting at least two days to the process. It bears the greatest fruit when the one who does the debriefing has gone through the experience themselves and/or has received intensive and lengthy training to be as loving, gracious, and helpful as possible.

On the other hand, Maintenance Debriefing can take as little as a few hours and be led by any mature believer with the right heart and a short time of being equipped to be a good questioner, listener, and responder.

Shepherd's Staff believes that every one who knows and loves missionaries should encourage the missionaries they know that have returned from the field to receive the gift of Transitional debriefing and the R & R it provides.

We also believe that everyone who knows and loves someone who is currently a missionary should encourage them to accept an on-field, or while-stateside, Maintenance Debriefing and the C & C it provides.

 

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