Missionaries Ought to Know About ...
What Missionaries Ought to Know about Premature Departure
from the Field
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
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and Mary arrived back in their passport country with a sigh of relief. The
political turmoil and threat of violence were over, and their children were
safely back in school. They had planned to stay in their host country four
years, but their agency required them to come home after only a year because of
Unfortunately, within a few weeks different stresses were plaguing Dave and
Mary. They felt unneeded, sad, and guilty. Other people did not understand, and
they really did not fit well back in their home community. Such a premature
departure from the field is often much more difficult than a return at the end
of a person’s commitment.
Premature departures have been occurring for thousands of years, so let us
consider some in the Bible. What are reasons for leaving, who is affected, what
emotions may arise, and what can people do?
Did this happen in Bible times?
This happened several times for different reasons during the first term of
cross-cultural service in the book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas were commissioned
to serve, and before they sailed John Mark joined to help. They served across
Cyprus and then traveled to Perga, a city in what is now Turkey (Acts 13:1-13).
Then the premature departures began.
From Perga. John Mark left Perga to return to Jerusalem, the
headquarters (Acts 13:13). The Bible does not say why he left, and today the
official explanation would be given as “personal reasons.” He may have been
homesick, tired, or any of many reasons.
From Antioch. People from their passport country stirred up
some nationals in Antioch to expel Paul and Barnabas, so they left the region
because they were asked to leave (Acts 13:50-51).
From Iconium. Again people from their passport country and
nationals from Iconium were plotting to harm Paul and Barnabas, so they fled
from the potential harm (Acts 14:5-6).
From Lystra. The same two groups actually stoned Paul and
left him for dead. Paul survived. He and Barnabas left Lystra the next day in
the face of proven danger (Acts 14:19-20).
Cross-cultural workers have probably always had to leave their host country
from time to time. They are not citizens there, so they know their time may be
Why do missionaries have to leave?
In these two chapters of Acts people departed prematurely from their fields
because of personal reasons, because they were expelled, because they needed to
flee from potential harm or to escape a proven danger. People may leave for many
other reasons, and here are some of the most frequent ones.
- Physical illness which makes them ineffective or requires treatment at
- Psychological problems ranging from anxiety to mental illness
- Problems with children or adolescents who are unable to function in the
- Political turmoil in the host country
- Financial needs which require raising funds in their passport country
- Stress and exhaustion which make staying in the host culture impossible
- Problems with aging parents unable to care for themselves or property
- Moral failure which prohibits effective work in the host culture
- Conflict with other cross-cultural workers which cannot be resolved
This is just a sample of the reasons people leave their host countries. The
list is almost endless, but the reason for leaving has an effect on how people
feel about their own leaving and how others react as well. For example, if
people leave because they have illnesses that need treatment at home, they may
feel quite different about it, and others may react differently than if they are
caught embezzling agency funds.
What emotions occur?
The range of emotions is as varied as the reasons for leaving. Some may be
very positive, at least at first. For example, if one has just returned from a
stressful, dangerous, or conflict filled situation, the primary emotion is
likely to be a feeling of relief. However, negative emotions are likely to occur
as well. Here are some of the most common.
- Grief because of the loss of so many things such as home, friends, work,
and social position
- Anger because of having so many things taken from you through no fault
of your own
- Fear and anxiety because of the unexpected trauma and not knowing what
will happen next
- Concern for the plight of those left behind
- Guilt because you are no longer helping the people you felt called to
- Shock because everything was so sudden and you have still not had time
to process it all in your mind
- Shame because what you did was morally wrong and it hurt so many people
among your family and friends
- Depression and discouragement because you should have known better and
things seem so bleak now
- Resentment because people you believed were your friends turned on you
The list can go on and on, but, in general, people tend to have low
self-esteem, believe they are misunderstood or forgotten, and feel useless.
Who is involved?
Individuals tend to feel alone and forgotten when having to leave; however,
the premature departure has an effect on many other people as well.
- Families, including both the immediate family and the extended family.
Spouses and children usually have to depart as well, so their lives are also
disrupted. The extended family back “home” is often involved as this part of
the family returns.
- Colleagues who are left on the field and have to take on new
responsibilities may resent what has happened.
- Nationals with whom the missionary has been working may not be ready to
fulfill their roles alone.
- Agencies which have to scramble to try to find someone to take over
projects on short notice may be under severe stress.
- People back “home” who do not fully understand what has happened may
feel like you have abandoned your calling
What can missionaries do?
Missionaries who are immediately transferred to a different field face
challenges because they are usually entering a new culture even if the language
is the same. This is even more difficult than most times when missionaries go to
new fields because they have had little time for orientation before going, and
often no one is prepared to give them an on-field orientation where they go.
Missionaries who return to their passport cultures also face challenges.
Reentry is often a major transition even when it is a scheduled return. Changing
cultures is difficult for most people even when expected. A premature reentry is
even more difficult for two reasons.
First, it is often unexpected and sudden so little time is available to
prepare. Second, since it is premature, other people tend to expect an
“explanation.” Some are relatively easy, such as when there is obvious physical
illness or dangerous political upheaval. Other explanations are difficult, such
as conflict with a colleague or moral failure.
Though transfer to a different field or reentry into one’s passport culture
after premature departure is more difficult, the steps are basically the same as
after a scheduled one. If it was a sudden, unexpected departure, the order of
the steps may have to be changed slightly.
- Face the Present. As soon as possible do whatever is
necessary to bring a relatively “normal” structure to your life and the life
of your family. For example, you need to immediately get temporary housing,
transportation, and anything else necessary for living. If you have
children, get them in school or begin home schooling to bring structure to
- Acknowledge your loss. Leaving early means that you
have more losses and less time to grieve than people departing at scheduled
times. Take time to grieve these losses whether this means doing it with
others who have also had to leave or do it alone if you find yourself apart
from others who left. Remember that you lost your role, your ministry, your
plans for the future there, and so forth.
- Close the past. Although you may be able to return
after your illness is over, after the political situation is resolved, and
so forth, do not count on it. You served God there as he led, and you are
not able to continue at this time. You may be able to return as Paul and
Barnabas did (Acts 14:21-24), or you may never be able to go back. Have
someone debrief you and help you see how your premature departure fits into
your life story. Then let the past go—but be ready to return if the
opportunity comes again and you feel led to go.
- Move into the future. After you are functioning in the
present and have closed the past, you are ready to begin planning and moving
into the future. This may be anything from taking a similar position in
another country, to starting a new ministry in your passport country, to
returning to your host country, to pursuing higher education, to taking an
entirely new course that you believe is God’s plan for you and your family.