What can you do with a missionary, when they stop being a missionary?
What can you do with a general,
When he stops being a general?
Oh, what can you do with a general who retires?
Nobody thinks of assigning him
When they stop wining and dining him…
Irving Berlin’s song What Can You Do with a General, When They Stop Being a General was made famous in the movie White Christmas. The main characters of the film were representative of a nation trying to find their new normal in a post-World War II era.
Soldiers came home and had to adjust back to their everyday routine, mentally needing to switch from soldier to citizen. The women, having to become, in essence, single mothers and breadwinners, had to adjust back to the homemaker life.
Everyone made their way back to the normal they had before the war, only to find the world vastly different post-war.
For men and women of authority in the armed forces during that time, the transition from military honor, power and respect would have been a shocking reality check as they faded into a sea of mediocrity and the ordinary. Their hearts were weighted with unseen medals and hard-earned victories. But their chests were bare. These medals don’t match a regular starched button up.
What can you do with a general, when they stop being a general?
This song always rings true in my ear, for I have seen a similar transition for soldiers of sorts who must return to their old normal, having found it, too, has changed.
From Moon to Mueller, from Livingstone to Elliott, missionaries have long been praised for their willing hearts and lives of sacrifice. Much like World War II soldiers, when they buy their ticket and board, everyone’s there to cheer them on and wave goodbye. When they are in the field, everyone’s writing letters and sending love and prayers.
When they come back on furlough, everyone’s bringing them meals and treating them to fine experiences. When they head back to their mission field after furlough, everyone’s there to cheer them on and wave goodbye again.
But what happens when that missionary is called back to the U.S.A.? What can you do with a missionary, when they stop being a missionary?
They fill his chest with medals while he’s across the foam,
And they spread the crimson carpet when he comes marching home,
The next day someone hollers when he comes into view,
“Here comes the (missionary)” and they all say “(Missionary) who?”
They’re delighted that he came,
But they can’t recall his name
The transition is hard. There’s so much change.
As a missionary kid, I saw this change affect my family as we moved back to the States after serving in Central Asia for five and a half years. My parents, though struggling themselves, managed to help us five kids adjust. All seven of us could tell you a different story of how hard the move was.
Everyone would hug our necks and say, “Welcome home!” This always confused me. Having spent the majority of my life in Asia, that had become my home. This country of my birth was not my home, and held much culture shock for me. Thousands of “Why” questions danced and drudged in my 10-year-old mind.
Why are there electric hand dryers in the bathrooms here?
Why does everyone have a cell phone? Should I have one?
Why do the girls dress and talk so different from me? How can I silence their stares?
Why don’t we take our shoes off at the church doorway anymore?
Why is everyone in such a hurry?
I’ve found that we were blessed to be a part of a church that loved us and provided for us fully during our move from Asia to McAlester, Oklahoma. Though I had many questions, they were often allowed to be asked and were answered gracefully. Though I had some fear, my church and home were safe places to be.
Not all churches know what to do with missionaries when they come “home” for good. I would like to offer two things congregations should not do and two things congregations can do when attempting to care for the missionaries who have been called back to the States.
Congregations should not…
…pretend things are “back to normal.” It would have been inappropriate to expect a World War II soldier to return from battle and act like they weren’t changed, or that they could simply “return to normal.”
The same is true for a missionary. Most missionaries have experienced great loss, vast change and life-altering perspective shifts. Don’t expect them to return to the States the same person as when they left.
…be disappointed in them. They may not have stayed as long overseas as they had hoped. They may have been offered an early retirement. They may have had a sick family member for whom they had to return. Don’t be disappointed in them or feel they have disobeyed God by coming back from the mission field.
…provide for their physical needs… and wants. From housing to employment, from food to a (more than likely needed) vacation. Don’t wait for them to ask for help. Simply ask yourself, “What would I want or need if I were in their shoes?”
…introduce. Help them get introduced to their new home! Take them to see the sights, try the tastiest restaurants and visit the popular hang-outs. Help them fall in love with where God has placed them. If they lived in your city before moving overseas initially, then re-introduce them to the old places and introduce the new places.
Above all, love them fiercely, utilize them in your church and empower them to press on. Missionaries who have returned to the States long-term are assets to the American church. What can you do with a missionary when they stop being a missionary? The ends of the earth are the limit.