This spring we attended an intensive debrief specifically for missionaries. The program was held at a place called Mission Training International in Colorado. They say debrief is crucial for the health and well-being of cross-cultural workers (like us), since their experiences are often full of stress, and sometimes trauma, that can be very difficult to fully process on the field.

In MTI’s own words about it:

Your personal health and your vision for the future could be affected without proper personal debriefing. The missions culture tends to minimize or deny the insidious impact of high levels of prolonged adjustment and many threatened or actual traumas (even those considered minor)…Without being able to put your finger on the cause, you may feel disjointed and unable to assimilate all the things you’ve experienced, as well as the ways in which you’ve changed. This fog has a way of clouding decisions and hindering personal renewal—and can lead to everything from major depression to vocational floundering or even family disintegration if not processed.

Perhaps you noticed a little fogginess in our communications over the past few months. I know my perspective was somewhat dark at times and that weightiness could have been felt. After 3 years without a debrief, we were due.

During our week of debrief, they helped us process the stresses, traumas, challenges and joys during our time on the field. It was hard to relive some of the things that were painful, but so helpful to be in a room with a group of other missionaries who had a depth of understanding that we simply don’t find in very many places. We were all amazed that while our experiences were often vastly different, the roots of our them were so similar that we had a strong connection to each other and deep understanding of one another. Our debrief facilitators were incredibly kind and gentle which created a safe environment for us to hear truth wrapped in grace. We were empowered to share openly, receive insight, and be encouraged.

One thing we talked a lot about is paradox. Paradox is when two things are seemingly contradictory yet both express a truth. Though everyone experiences parts of life that are paradoxical, they pointed out that missionary life brings out paradox in a much more dramatic way. They emphasized the importance of allowing contradictory truths to exist together rather than trying to minimize one or the other. So they encouraged us to speak in paradox. This was particularly helpful for me as I realized how much I wrestle with this tension. Since I often write in the midst of these times of wrestling, I thought it may be helpful for me to share with you as my readers too.

For example, here are some things you might hear from me which are paradoxical:

  • I hate being so far from family. I love being part of what God is doing in Italy.
  • I’m so tired of packing and unpacking. I am so grateful for all the opportunities to connect with people during our travels.
  • The last three years have been incredibly challenging and painful. It has been amazing to see how God has grown our ministries over the last three years.

Depending on where I’m at on the journey, you may hear more about one side of the paradox and not the other, though both are true at the same time. I hope you’ll be gracious with us as we continue to speak in paradox while we share with you about our life here on the blog or wherever you encounter us.

Something else that was especially impactful for me during our debrief program was a devotional where we focused on Christ’s experience in Gethsemane. Talk about a paradox. Our facilitator reminded us that while Jesus was in extreme agony, to the point of sweating drops of blood, he was in the very center of God’s will. This scriptural account of an experience in Jesus’ life came alive to me in a new way as I felt God releasing me to the reality of this paradoxical way of life He has given me and validating my experience as I’ve felt it in my soul. Just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t where I should be. It may be painful which makes me want to quit, but for now it’s where God wants me which makes me want to stay. Then there is joy to be found in that security in Christ, regardless of the circumstances. I’m on a newly inspired journey, in part because of this debrief, to learn to receive God’s love and to live out of the overflow of that like I never have before.

Just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it isn’t where I should be. It may be painful which makes me want to quit, but for now it’s where God wants me which makes me want to stay.

The debrief was an opportunity for our whole family to process and get healthier, even Arianna. She had her own separate classes where they taught on her level about the things we were learning. We realized that our stay there made MTI the 12th place she/we had slept during the 5 months since we had left our home in Italy. That kind of life comes with its own joys and challenges for our little girl.

IMG_0991She’s been amazing at living this paradoxical life, but we were so thankful for some great insight we received from MTI staff about her and how to best support her as we walk this journey together.

It was a week of debrief, but rather than an event that is over and done, processing our experience as missionaries (past and present) will be ongoing. In many ways we just scratched the surface as there was nowhere near enough time in the week to work through all we’ve experienced during our intense 3 years on the field. But the debrief was a vital time for us to be find some clarity, be profoundly encouraged, and get tools that we can continue to draw from and build on. In short, it was an extremely draining and life giving experience (just like any paradoxical life should be)!