We all sign up for a set number of years, but every global worker knows the gold standard is LIFE.
Those most revered on the field are the long-termers. By long-termers, I mean lifers: the ones who raised kids overseas, sent them off to college, and had them return with spouses and then grandkids. These are our mentors—the sages. While few voice these opinions out loud, we all feel the undercurrent of this unspoken value: “To stay is to succeed, to leave is to fail.”
Our last few years in global work were brutal for me, but for my husband, the struggle had begun long before. The pressure of leadership and the beauty-sucking, life-robbing environment of our concrete city was destroying my mountain boy. After three years, we had come home for a furlough, and he had written in his journal: “Do not make me go back!” He wept and begged for God not to ask that of him.
But we returned. For three more years. We did not want to fail.
How nice it would be to tell you that during that time our ministry exploded and that people came to faith left and right—but no, there was no ministry growth. There was increased pain with our leaders; the stress of global-worker suspicion; the death of our teammates; and multiple other crises and heartaches. The misery did not abate. It grew.
We began to wrestle with God. We dislodged the lie that if we left we would be abandoning our team, our company, and these dear people. We stepped down from the pedestal upon which we had idolized our own ability and necessity to fulfill God’s work in this land. We admitted our brokenness and asked for comfort, for healing, and for an exit plan. Would God allow us to leave?
Our prayer was that we would feel compelled to head toward something, not just leave the place we were. We began to sense that we were moving on to the next stage of our lives in ministry, not escaping a season that had been too difficult. Once we determined our plan, peace filled us. God had never kept us here—our own pride had.
This shift in perspective changed the way we transitioned off our team. We were not abandoning them, for we were not essential to their success. We were not failing to serve overseas, because we would be glorifying God in our next stage as well. Humbling ourselves minimized our self-importance and rightly oriented God to the work.
Transitioning well requires great humility, but also the grace of time. Here are four suggestions for leaving your assignment well:
- When you have decided to leave, tell your team. Allow plenty of time to process, grieve, adjust, and prepare for the gaps you will leave or the transition that will occur. We told our team ten months before we boarded the plane that we would be moving back to the United States. This left several months to emotionally adjust, several more to transition out of leadership and help our replacement transition in, and then a couple of months for us to end well emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.
- Tell your supporters. Do not delay in fear of losing support. Do not drop hints for months because you realize your letters have not indicated stress or other musings of a transition. Be transparent from the very beginning so that your supporters feel a part of the process. Now on the other side, we can always tell when a family is hinting at a big announcement in their letters that is only fully revealed months later. As a supporter, I just want to read, “Hey, we are really struggling. Kid #2 needs more academic intervention and this city is wearing on us to a degree that our last furlough really did not relieve. Pray for us. We are trying to discern how long we will stay.”
- Leave time to linger. Make sure you have no regrets: visit your favorite tea shop one last time; buy that expensive carpet you have always wanted; initiate one last gospel conversation with your language tutor; and/or confirm that things are really all right with the teammate with whom you argued. In our last few weeks in country, things with our team got chaotic. It was out of our control, but if we not had such good closure, we would have doubted and questioned the timing of our departure. Instead, we were able to leave it in God’s hands.
- Go to something. While we regret not attending a debrief or going through some counseling our first year back, we are thankful we jumped right into grad school and started building toward the next stage of ministry. Too many global workers return to the United States without a clear direction; they can then struggle to translate their experience into viable jobs and meaningful opportunities. If you are taking advantage of a sabbatical year or furlough, make sure you are actively researching and lining up concrete next steps.
Richard Rohr writes, “When you get your, ‘Who am I?’ question right, all of your, ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life). Let us be people who ask the right question. Who are we in God’s eyes? The answer to this forms the foundation for all good transitions.
Question to consider: How have you seen the truth in Richard Rohr’s statement “When you get your, ‘Who am I?’ question right, all of your, ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves” in your life?