Sending missionaries is a right and responsibility of the local church. Too often, however, the focus of sending is exclusively on the front end of the process—getting people to the field. The forgotten reality is that almost every missionary eventually comes back home, whether permanently or for a short time. As church leaders, we do ourselves a disservice if we never stop and give attention to receiving people back in a way that honors the Lord and is loving to our missionaries.
As a pastor of a sending church, I’ve had a front-row view as our church receives people back from the field on a regular basis. Sometimes this is for a scheduled stateside visit or furlough. Sometimes our missionaries are finishing their time on the field and are moving back for other ministry opportunities.
On occasion, however, we receive people back who have either experienced burnout or are removed from the field because of significant sin in their life. No matter what reason a person comes off the field, they need a church that will receive them back with open arms and with a clear plan to help them get healthy and plugged back into the life of the church.
Here are a few principles and practices that our church has adopted through the years for receiving people back to the US. We have often failed to do these well, but having principles in place gives us something to work toward. The examples below relate primarily to missionaries coming back for a short-term stateside visit and planning to return to the field.
Communicate Well Beforehand
Returning stateside after three or four years overseas is a stressful endeavor. Often our missionaries don’t know what they should be planning for and, therefore, can’t plan properly for their time in the United States.
“No matter what reason a person comes off the field, they need a church that will receive them back with open arms.”
Where will they live? How will they find a vehicle to drive? How do they get the care and counseling they need? What about doctors or a school for their kids? All these questions can hit them like a tidal wave that causes them to delay their planning. As local churches, we have an opportunity to come alongside our people and help them think through these questions.
Start by knowing when your missionaries are coming back. Six months before their departure date, reach out and help them craft a plan for their time in the United States. They may have many of the details figured out, but if not, offer to help. Help them find a home in the community, schools for their kids, doctors, a vehicle, etc. You don’t have to have all the answers but your intentionality will be well appreciated. Make sure to follow up on occasion and see how their planning is going and how you can assist.
The First Week Is Important
The moment is here and they probably feel stressed as they get on a plane and head your way. Make their first week back a gift of love and affection. Gather a few others from the church and make a plan to receive them well. If possible, meet them at the airport with a group of their friends and supporters. This doesn’t have to be a huge deal, but your presence will show them they are loved and remembered.
If they are staying in the community, go to the home beforehand and fill their pantry. Leave a gift from the church as well. This could be a gift card, good coffee, toys for the kids, or any number of things.
“Being a sending church is more than just sending; it’s also receiving them back well.”
Seek to know the needs of your missionaries. Some people simply need a space to sleep and recharge. Others want to spend time with people early on. Either way, make sure and follow up with a phone call or visit the day after they arrive. If possible, mission leaders should have returned missionaries in their home for a meal the first week they are back. Opening your home and being hospitable this first week is a tangible sign of love that your missionary will likely appreciate.
Have a Reentry Plan
Within the first few weeks, meet with your missionary and talk through a plan for their stateside time. Ideally, you would have started this conversation months before while they were still on the field, but this is the time to solidify the plan. This reentry plan is not intended to be a job description but more broad principles to help them maximize their time in the United States. Often our missionaries will have family to visit, churches to speak in, and a litany of other things they need to do. A reentry plan helps clarify expectations for both parties. It gives clarity to the missionary on what the church expects from the missionary and helps the local church support the missionary well.
The reentry plans at our church often include the following:
- Regular times of rest and reflection. We also encourage them to take spiritual retreats.
- Several sessions of counseling to help our missionaries debrief, deal with unaddressed issues, and get healthy before returning. This is required for all our missionaries
- Pathways to invest back in the church. We help our missionaries find ways they can invest back in the church through speaking in small groups, mentoring future missionaries, attending staff and elder meetings, sharing during a service, etc. This expectation comes from Acts 14:24–28. Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch, their sending church, after their first journey and invested deeply in their sending church. This is a model we want to encourage missionaries to follow.
Stay Connected and Go Deep
Finally, it’s important to stay deeply connected to your missionaries during their whole stateside time. This sounds like a given, but often our lives are filled to the brim and we can view loving our missionaries as something to check off a list and not a relationship to cultivate. Fight hard to make meeting with and loving your missionary a regular rhythm of your life, and help others in the church do the same. One of the greatest gifts we can give our missionaries is a deep relationship with us and with their sending church.
It’s helpful to remember that being a sending church is more than just sending; it’s also receiving them back well. Do the hard work of planning your receiving ministry. This simple act of love toward your missionary will speak volumes and help the kingdom of God expand through more and better missionary sending. Two books I would recommend in this area are Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry by the Upstream Collective and Returning Well by Melissa Chapman.