7 Common Pitfalls When Returning Home

March 2023
By Brian Heerwagen, CEO MissionWorks

During research into the post-trip phase of the short-term mission experience, we had meetings with short-term mission participants and organizers. These were done in discussion and survey formats to find out what short-term missionaries feel or experience when they return home from their mission trips. Below are seven common themes—or pitfalls—that emerged and require attention from us as leaders.

Pitfall 1: Too Me-Centered

Something profound came out of time with one predominately high school and college-age bunch after a mission trip. During the early stages of the discussion the group offered the usual “top of the list” items such as:

“Nobody really listens when we get home…”

“It sure seems like the church doesn’t really care about me or missions…” 

Then one lady piped up and said, “You know, I think the real problem is that we come back too me-centered. That’s the real problem.”

She’s right. Typically, short-term mission participants come back with the idea that they deserve to be listened to, that everyone will need to hear the extraordinary stories, and that somehow the church should be thirsty for the kind of life-changing, even church-changing, information they now hold.

But think about this: God gave us two ears and one mouth. That gives us twice the listening power. When you come home, make it your goal to find out how other people are doing. Ask questions about their lives and all that went on during your time away. Isn’t this one of the strategies from the trip to show people you care and to be an instrument of God’s transforming love in their lives?

It’s possible your friends and family will ask you questions too. But even if they don’t, the Bible says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Php 2:3-4).

Pitfall #2: A Self-Righteous Attitude

Holier-Than-Thou. You have been in Christian service 24/7 during your mission trip. Most likely your habits, your worldview, and your conduct have been challenged and have undergone some degree of change. Yet people at home have not had this same experience.

When you reconnect with people, you may experience tension in areas such as movies, shopping, friendships, hospitality, witnessing, time management and so on. How you respond in those moments will determine how your friends and family view and respond to you. People don’t need a sermon on what’s appropriate. Instead, simply let your lifestyle be the teacher.

Been There, Done That. Your experience was far too short and limited for you to be an expert on another culture or even the life of a missionary. Be careful that what you share with others doesn’t imply that you know it all because you’ve “been there or done that.” Qualify what you share with statements like, “In the region we were in…” or, “I know that being a long-term missionary is a lot different than my experience, but…”

Pitfall #3: Breaking All the Rules

The opposite of a self-righteous attitude is breaking all the rules. The temptation can be to “go back to the way things were.” Of course, you can let go of some of the rules related to appropriate behavior in your host culture, but don’t ease up on any of the rules that have to do with a biblical lifestyle or Christian character.

Pitfall #4: Talking Incessantly about Your Experience

If your short-term mission was as amazing as the ones I’ve been on, then I know it’s hard for you not to talk about it. The mission is the biggest thing in your life. Whenever there is an opportunity to talk, you’re going to want to talk about your team, the country, adventures, private jokes and so on. Remember the “two ears one mouth principle.” Find out what is important to other people and express an interest in their lives and experiences too.  

Pitfall #5: Post Short-Term Mission Blues

Many people will suffer some kind of let down when returning from their mission trip. If the let down effects relationships or keeps you from carrying out life’s activities, this might be a sign of depression and need for expert help. However, many people feel a more minor version of sadness we often call the blues. This could be from a number of things including:

  • Missing your team
  • Missing friends from your ministry location
  • Longing for the same spiritual depth you had while on the trip
  • Feeling like you fit better into your host culture than your home culture
  • Being disgusted about flaws in your country’s culture
  • Returning to difficult family situations at home
  • Feeling lost about your future plans

In most cases, you need to talk to someone about these feelings like your pastor, your mentor, a family member or fellow team member. A tragedy for some who suffer the blues is that they let these feelings get to them and they give up and become critical. It can poison them towards the church or toward Christian Fellowship. Some even become angry with God. Don’t let that happen to you. Get help immediately and trust God to turn even these feelings into something special.

Pitfall #6: Reverse Culture Shock

Many cultures are centered on people, family, and events. It can be disappointing when you come back and find out how much in addiction your own country is to time and money, typically at the expense of the very things that matter most in other cultures—people.

Some degree of reverse culture shock is normal and is to be expected. Take your time through the reentry process. If you pay attention, there are many lessons to be learned. If applied, these things will strengthen your relationships as well as your ministry and work.

Pitfall #7: Unresolved Conflict with Team Members

“There are only four days left. I can just ride it out and then I won’t have to face him anymore!” Or, “I can’t stand to be with her—after we get home, we won’t ever have to do anything else together—so I’m just going to get through these next few days…”

Few people like dealing with conflict. They think that maybe it will just go away after the mission is over. But that’s not how God says to deal with it. Make every effort to keep short accounts while on the mission trip. However, if you bring some unresolved issues home, you need to deal with them as soon as possible.