We once stayed on the coast of the Black Sea on the return journey to our corner of Central Asia. After a stormy night, I ventured out for a late morning prayer walk once the rain had stopped. The downpour may have ceased, but the wind and the waves crashed in relentlessly toward the land.
This constant and steady shove of the sea winds led to me walking tilted to one side. But I didn’t really notice this until I passed one of the enclosed bus stops that periodically lined the road. As soon as I stepped behind the shelter of the bus stop, the pressure disappeared and I almost lost my footing and tumbled into the benches. I regained my posture, laughed at myself, and continued on out into the wind again. I paid attention to see if this would happen at the next bus stop. It did, I recovered slightly better this time, and I began to enjoy this unexpected pattern of this particular walk. Walk, lean, lean, stumble and correct, lean again. It was quite surprising how disorienting it was to step out of the wind and into the safety of the shelter.
This little seaside walk reminded me of what it’s like to step out of a high-stress missions environment – or really any high-stress environment. When the pressure is constant, you adjust and gradually cease to notice it. Then you step out – take a vacation, go on furlough, etc. – and boom, you find yourself quickly reeling as the pressure is removed.
“I feel like I’ve been sleeping for weeks and weeks,” one friend told me after leaving a particularly dangerous part of Central Asia. “We didn’t really realize how much stress we had until we got out,” another recently said. Others might feel numb after stepping out of their context, or they might get sick. Feelings of calling and spiritual affections might go strangely haywire. We sometimes get headaches that seem connected to the collapse of the stress and the schedule. Or, after a hard year and a 16-hour flight with small children we might simply feel like chucking it all and going to live like hermits in the woods somewhere.
What’s important to notice is that this sudden disorientation is normal. Though it doesn’t always happen, it happens enough to represent a real pattern. Missionaries stepping out of their context of service will likely face some kind of a disorienting and reorienting period, often due to the removal of the pressures of said context and the effects of reverse culture shock.
It’s important that the missionaries themselves don’t get freaked out by this. And that those receiving them keep the possibility of this kind of adjustment period on their radar as well. Right after return to the home country might not be the best time for a debrief – or at least not the main debrief. It also might not be the best time for lots of scheduled ministry engagements.
Time to get one’s bearings is important, time to let more the temporary feelings dissipate and to let the deeper affections rise again to the surface. Quick decisions about the future should probably be avoided. Instead, what is needed is sleep, steady friendship, time to reconnect with Jesus, and some plain old time to think (preferably while sipping on some good tea or coffee). If coming from high-communication cultures, colleagues may need to cover for their teammates who need to go dark for a while.
We are currently in the midst of a week like this ourselves. After a busy couple weeks of traveling (eight different beds in twenty one days), yesterday I was feeling pretty pessimistic about lots of things. Today? Things are seeming a lot more grounded and good. Nothing really about our circumstances has changed. We just got some extra sleep, some restful time in nature, and some good time to pray. A few more days of this, and we might be ready to step back into the wind, as it were.
If you step out of a high-pressure ministry context, prepare for a bit of a jolt. This is normal. And it is itself an important part of realizing how to live sustainably and sacrificially in that particular context.