The Eternal Benefits of Debriefing
By Brian Martin
on Tuesday, November 7, 2023
I recently returned from RE-VIEW, a week-long family debriefing retreat, where I served as an adult facilitator and debriefer.
While there, I had the honour of hearing the stories of missionaries who have worked in the overseas ministry context for many years. And boy, did I feel inadequate for the task as some of them had faithfully served a lifetime, having much more cross-cultural experience than I have and the wisdom that accompanies such incredible life experiences.
But what struck me the most and motivated me all the more to listen, was that many of these seasoned missionaries never had the opportunity to actually share their full stories with anyone – that is their deeply personal and valuable stories, the good, the bad and the ugly. And that’s really a reflection and a limitation of our modern missionary movement; missionaries often feel obligated to share only the positive experiences and their successes, lest they be judged or misunderstood, or worse, lose vital financial or personal support.
That’s why this week was such a blessing to all, as it was a safe environment away from their own organization, but also amongst missionaries from other organizations, in a third-party environment.
The week consisted of learning about transition, grief, and loss, and also learning that it is ok to be open with God and fellow believers with the unpleasant stories that they have stuffed down for years.
What does the Bible say?
Many missionaries believe that feelings and emotions get in the way of fulfilling the Great Commission, and as a result, fail to process them. But if we take a closer look at Scripture, we see that, in fact, the opposite is true. God want us to be completely open to Him and allow other gifted members of the Body of Christ to speak to our challenges. And the Lord Himself uses all of it to teach us, make us more effective, and build His Kingdom.
During one of the first sessions of the RE-VIEW week, we find Biblical examples and support for the concept of debriefing:
- For instance, God debriefs Adam and Eve with an Open Question: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) Of course, an all-knowing God knew where they were – not only physically, but also holistically, spiritually, and emotionally. But He invited them to interact with Him, as God always wants an intimate relationship/friendship with His people. He wants them to pour out their hearts to Him.
- We also see this clearly in the Book of Psalms in the life of David - a man after God’s own heart. David did not leave things unsaid to God (see Psalm 13) or things left unprocessed in his mind. He was candid about his pain and his feelings of betrayal, even asking, ‘God, where are You? Move! Do something!’
Often believers, and even esteemed missionaries, are too embarrassed to have this kind of vulnerability with God for fear of judgment from God and other believers. But God has big shoulders, He is compassionate, He listens, and He cares.
Healing for Missionaries (and their Families)
RE-VIEW strives to create an environment where missionaries can be open with God and themselves, and feel safe with other people. I have been a part of these retreats several times now and have been struck by the healing that is experienced when missionaries dare to share their hard stories in company of someone with a judgment-free listening ear, a debriefer who strives to meet them in that space and “sit shiva”, that is, to grieve together. Healing always comes from the inside first, but we need to be brave enough to let the inside out.
The other important aspect to this debriefing week is that it is done as a family; it is not just for the well-known missionary, but for the entire family unit. Missionary kids, who are less known and often overlooked in ministry, also have the opportunity to process their deeply-hidden feelings and share them with their parents who are now intentionally listening. What a picture of health!
Ministry from the Inside Out
Ministry indeed starts from the inside out. The love for Jesus must overflow from our inner lives into our families’ lives and then into the world. Often in missions, the opposite is held true; we mistakenly believe (our core belief, underneath it all) that as long as we can learn a language, translate Scripture, and plant a church it does not really matter what is going on inside our hearts. But that is not what Scripture teaches. And while the Lord can certainly work through all things, building the Kingdom of God starts in our hearts (Mark 8:28-34).
RE-VIEW is a chance to examine our theology and iron out the inconsistencies that lie deep with our hearts and are often reflected in our hard experiences.
RE-VIEW is an opportunity to begin the process of sharing our untold stories, our hurts, pain, and grief in an authentic, God pleasing way. The Lord is already there ready to meet us, to heal us, and to transform us into the families of God he intends us to be.
Indeed, the work of careful and intentional debriefing is a spiritual practice and it can bear many eternal blessings. As God does a work in our hearts, the impact of that overflows into the world and changes lives for eternity.
6 Eternal Benefits of Debriefing
To recap, here are six eternal benefits of debriefing:
- Debriefing draws us into a deeper relationship with God. God wants to hear our stories and heal our hurts. Through debriefing, our trust in Him grows and we love Him more.
- Debriefing allows us to understand ourselves better in light of the Gospel. We learn who we are. Yes, we are sinners, but we are sinners who have been redeemed. And God also wants to redeem our stories.
- Debriefing strengthens us to share our stories with our community of faith, where we can properly mourn with those who mourn. We are commanded to be a companion to those in pain.
- Debriefing provides opportunity to grow. Through a good debrief we learn from what we have done well, but we often learn even more from what we have done wrong. Humbly placing our failures on the table is the best possible remedy for failure, because we learn what do not want to do in the future.
- Debriefing moves us closer to forgiveness and reconciliation with others. As we process and own our own failures, it is easier to reach out to others, extend grace, and move forward in difficult relationships.
- Debriefing models healthy processing for our children. Our kids can learn to be open about their struggles instead of pushing them down. Instead of feeling like they are burdening other people or harming the Gospel by sharing their struggles, they can learn that God is big enough for their emotions and their grief. They can learn to have a robust walk with the Lord.
To learn more about RE-VIEW, please visit ---- RE-VIEW: Re-entry Support for Cross-Cultural Workers
Brian Martin has served in missions for 20 years along with his wife Alicia, both overseas and in Canada. He has been serving in Member Care since 2012 and cares deeply about the health and wellbeing of missionaries and their families. As a Member Care Consultant for the MORE Network, he facilitates workshops such as Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills, Debriefing 101, and Crisis Response Training. He also provides stress coaching, debriefing, mentoring, and professional counselling. He has a Master of Theological Studies, a Master of Divinity (Counselling), and is a Registered Psychotherapist in Ontario.