When leaving the field feels like leaving your faith.

The other day someone asked me why I no longer live overseas.  “What made you move back?”.

I haven’t been asked that question in a while.  These days many of my acquaintances don’t know I’ve lived outside the Midwest.  I debated how to answer for a second.  {I’ve become good at giving different and sometimes vague answers depending on the context because there really is more than one answer.}  But that day I decided what the heck…I’ll tell him one of the deeper reasons…

“Because I didn’t feel I could continue working for an organization that focused on helping students connect with God when I was seriously questioning my beliefs about God.”

And he responded by compassionately asking… “So do you believe in God now?”

Yes.  After several years of spiritual wandering…I came to a place of feeling more settled in my beliefs {although my view of who God is has grown and changed through this process}.  There were dark days of confusion and doubt about my spiritual identity.  But eight years later, I chose to be involved in a local church community and to view the world and make decisions through the lens of faith.

This conversation got me thinking about a bigger theme:  often our spiritual journeys are greatly influenced by the re-entry season.

After living alongside people in re-entry for the last eight years and doing it myself, I’ve noticed that re-entry can often bring up deep questions of faith.

Here are some themes I’ve noticed about how re-entry can affect our faith journey:

Not everyone experiences these.  Some of us come from a background where faith is valued more strongly than others…which can figure into how much this is a part of your re-entry equation.  But for those who find re-entry brings with it a season of spiritual desolation…these are some themes I’ve noticed.

1) Re-entry causes us to question our identity.  If faith is a large part of your identity…you may find yourself rethinking that as well.

We’ve talked about how in re-entry we lose our identity. Something about being in a new place makes us think:  Who am I?  What really matters to me?  For people of faith, re-entry can bring deep questions.  We can wonder:  Is this something that we really believe in or is it just something that’s been a part of our life for so long that we have become used to it?  Maybe we wonder about our particular church or faith tradition.  Is it for me?  This church doesn’t feel like home anymore.  Maybe our ability to trust God has been shattered into a million pieces, and we’re not sure we will ever be able to put it back together.  No matter what your questions are:  It is normal when we are going through a process of evaluating our identity to wrestle with questions of faith.

What feels like a spiritual crisis may be exacerbated by culture shock.

I don’t mean to minimize the real pain of being in a place where the spiritual beliefs you’ve held for the last several years {and possibly have led you to move to another part of the world} suddenly don’t make much sense…and you wonder if all or some of it is true.  That is a challenging place to be.  But I will say that the combination of re-entry stress and culture shock can cause you to feel off kilter in all areas of your life…and so naturally a crisis of faith might come with the mix.  It doesn’t mean it’s not real, but it does mean that when the stress and culture shock subside the spiritual confusion may lessen as well.

2) Exhaustion and grief may limit our ability for emotional and spiritual connection.

I have heard people in re-entry say God seems very far away.  If you are used to feeling close to God {or seeing Him show up in big ways when you lived overseas} this can be a lonely and disconcerting place to be.  People talk about feeling numb or spiritually dry or having no desire to connect with God.  I experienced that too.  Often re-entry brings with it exhaustion and grief {which sometimes means depression too} leaving very little emotional energy for anything including energy to connect with God.  Please give yourself grace and time.  Give yourself permission to just be with God in whatever place in life you find yourself.  You may be surprised to find that He understands more than you think He does.  I have watched many tired and overwhelmed people who felt like they were struggling so much with their faith over time feel connected to God again.  It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen.

3) It may be God is present even if you don’t feel Him.

This is not a blog post about whether God exist.  We are all on a continual journey of forming our beliefs and your journey may lead to a different place than mine.  But if you have traditionally had a strong personal faith then experiencing disillusionment in re-entry may speak more to where you are at emotionally and less to who God is and whether He exists.  I found reading St John of the Cross’s A Dark Knight of the Soul very healing.  It reminded me that just because I was walking through a season of soul unrest, I wasn’t necessarily doing anything wrong.

4) Connecting with God may look different then it has in the past.

Maybe a church service we used to look forward to leaves us feeling empty.  Maybe we are ashamed that our prayer looks different from what we think it should.  Here is permission to let go of the pressure to do “all the right things” or “what you should be doing” and just let yourself rest and enjoy God in ways that work for you now.  For me…there was a long season where I didn’t do any formal “study,” but I did a great deal of walking around in the park and yelling at God {under my breath of course to avoid being stared at} for things I was frustrated about.  It may not have been my traditional way of connecting, but it helped me move forward on my faith journey.  I also know people who have found spiritual direction helpful.   The key to moving forward is to do something…but it’s OK if that something is something new that fits with the place you are in life now.

5) It can be difficult to separate our personal faith journey from our experiences on the field because the two are so intertwined.

If there’s one emotion that seems strong in re-entry it’s anger.  Sometimes it’s the anger that comes with grief.  Sometimes it’s anger about experiences that happened on the field.  Sometimes it’s anger that we had to leave the field.  When you work for a faith-based organization our view of God can be shaped by our experiences working in ministry.  Whether it’s what we perceive to be an unhealthy team environment or some action of an organization that we feel frustrated with or the suffering we saw in the lives of people in the place where we worked…we can return feeling confused about who God is.  We can wonder about His character.  We can think: How can I love a God who allowed this or that?  Living overseas often stretches our theology of suffering to the breaking point…and we are forced to rebuild it in order to move forward.

I’ve also seen this work the other way.  Sometimes we had such great experiences on the field with close community that in re-entry we feel a huge void.  We are unable to find that same feeling in the states.  We can feel alone and angry with our faith community here.

In the midst of re-entry, it can be challenging to sort out our {often unwanted} anger.  Sometimes we find ourselves projecting this anger onto God too…because we don’t know where else to go.  Please give yourself permission to talk with God about your anger.  It’s been my experience that He can handle it.

6) Shame can be crippling.

Sometimes we return from the field with feelings of failure or inadequacy.  There were days I felt ashamed to doubt my faith.  Days I felt like I had not measured up to God’s and others’ expectations on the field.  Days I was embarrassed to talk about how I was doing emotionally.  Days that I was crippled by shame.  I would not have called it shame, but looking back I can see that my shame kept me from believing that God could love me because I wasn’t sure I could love myself.  As I have slowly journeyed out from the shame…I have seen my spiritual healing come as well.

7) Sometimes we feel like God has “used” us more than we signed up for.

Often in our faith  communities we talk about wanting God to use us to bless others.  That’s why we move to the other side of the world, make sacrifices, learn new cultures and languages.  But when it’s all said and done, we can find ourselves dealing with burnout and grief…and wondering if God had “used” us without taking into consideration what was best for us.  There was a point in my journey where I realized that much of my anger stemmed from feeling “used by” and not loved by God.  I had “counted the cost” and felt like I had lost a lot for the sake of God and ministry…and I was angry.  Realizing this was a turning point in my healing.  It allowed me to begin to sort out what had happened to make me feel this way…what choices I had made along the way as well…and to ask myself who do I believe God to be. The result was coming to a place of feeling deeply loved by a God who cared about who I was and not what I did for Him.

8) It can be hard to talk about this with those in our faith community.

Seasons of spiritual confusion can feel lonely.  It can be hard if people know we work in full-time ministry to say: “I’m really struggling to trust God” or “I don’t really enjoy going to church right now.”  People don’t tend to hear that well.  They tend to want to fix you.  They can sometimes freak out.  I am sorry for this.  It’s just not what they are expecting to hear.  Please don’t let this dissuade you from finding someone to talk to.  It’s probably not best to include it in your formal presentations, but please be brave and share with a few close friends about your journey.  Verbalizing with safe people can help fight the shame!  I also found it helpful to ask people, “Why is God important to you?” or “Who is God to you?”  It gave me lots of perspectives to think about…it helped me see God in new ways…and it opened a window to talk about my questions without beginning the conversation with my personal struggles.

9) Cynicism can take you to unhealthy places…

In re-entry, we are predisposed to evaluate everything.   As we encounter things in church subculture that cause us to feel uncomfortable…cynicism can be an easy path.  On my journey, when I went from critiquing the subculture of whatever church I had decided to attend to getting to know the people who attended there…my cynicism was less, and I was a happier person.  With time I realized that even if there were aspects of the subculture I wasn’t sure about…that didn’t mean I couldn’t connect with people there and find ways to connect with God there too.  {Of course there are limits…unhealthy communities are never good…find a church that is healthy and a good fit for you…I’m speaking to the larger tendency we have in re-entry to be critical.}

10) Resist the temptation to make drastic decisions about anything in the initial stages of re-entry.

We’ve talked about it before…this propensity to want to make drastic life altering decisions in re-entry.  This can be true in our spirituality as well.  Somehow not loving a Sunday morning church service can make us want to give up on all church forever or try out a totally different faith.  It’s OK to explore these things…but the first stage of re-entry is probably not the best time.  Give it time…and then think about these bigger questions again when you are in a more stable place.

11) Develop healthy habits regardless of your faith beliefs.

Even if you are unsure about what you want to believe, it is still important to develop positive habits.   I have watch friends who have thrown out healthy habits in their life as they rethought their beliefs during re-entry.  Growth often involves reshaping some of our beliefs, but building healthy habits should always be a part of that.

Habits of connection are healthy.  If it’s not as a part of your faith community, find some way to build friendships that make you a better person.  Habits that build hope are healthy.  Sometimes grief and depression can feel like they will swallow us alive in re-entry.  Making life choices towards things that develop hope is good.  Habits of self-care are healthy.  Investing in what we need to be emotionally mature people is one of the best things we can do in re-entry.  Habits of reflection are healthy.  Meditation, space for reflection, journaling can all be healing habits in our lives regardless of our faith beliefs.  Developing others-focused habits are healthy.  Even if you don’t want to be a part of serving in a faith-based context…volunteering in some capacity is a healthy habit.

12) Time is a wonderful healer! 

I know it sounds cliché.  I know that when it comes to decisions about faith and spirituality it seems like the answer should be so much more complex.  And it is…but in the end…some of the struggles that we experience with our spirituality in re-entry may just be a result of too much going on for us emotionally.  With time…things with find an equilibrium, and you can give deeper thought to questions when you have the emotional energy to do so.

Words from further down the road…

I will end this post with something that a woman I heard speak a few years ago who had lived in Japan for many years.  She said…no matter what chaos is happening in my life I have learned to choose to filter it through the following statements:

God is.

God is good.

God is working.

God is working for me.

I know for some of us in re-entry, these sound like cliches.  It is difficult to feel these these things are true.  When I heard this woman speak, I was struggling to believe that as well…but I talked with her a bit…and I realized that she was further down the re-entry road than I was…and maybe she was seeing from a different perspective than I was…and maybe I could latch on to a bit of hope that someday these things might feel true to me again.  And amazingly…over the years…they have!

So friends…if you are struggling in this moment with your spiritual identity in the midst of re-entry…I want to lend you some hope that someday {no matter what decision you finally come to} you will feel OK about where you are at in life again to!

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Ruthie formerly served cross culturally in Central America. She had her own rocky reentry back to the USA about eight years ago. She currently lives in the Midwest where she enjoys volunteering with refugee families, shopping international grocery stores, and drinking cups of coffee with friends.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you so, so much for writing this post. I am currently in a transition period, winding down in my role in full time ministry at a church, and I found almost every point in your post relatable, particularly number 5. After some time, I sometimes still find myself angry as I think about my experiences in the past few years, wondering why God allowed some things for so long to transpire. I am not at all where I thought I would be in ministry or as “slowed down” in my work and faith as I feel right now. When I first entered ministry, I felt so full, unstoppable in a sense, and though I believe God has released me from this season to move on, I honestly feel like a failure. Was there is some “test” God gave me along the way but maybe I did not pass, and so now I am where I am? I don’t know what’s next at this point, but sensing a need a break from serving in any capacity. Thank you for writing this!

    • Carol, you are not a failure…but I do understand that it can feel very much that way. Hang in there and keep walking forward one baby step at a time…it does get easier. It’s OK to talk with God about your anger. He understands it’s a part of your journey!

  • After 21 years in NW China/Tibet I knew that coming back to live in the USA would be one of the hardest things in my life. It’s been 1.5 years now, I’m amazed at His grace in the heart wrenching struggle. Living with & taking care of my elderly mother in the midst of the transition makes it much more difficult, I just don’t have any desire to have meaningless conversation with her. How I need patience & compassion in this entirely new setting, I don’t have what it takes but He does!

    • 21 yeas is a long time, Valerie. I am so sorry that you are finding this to be a very hard season. You are not alone in that experience. I would imagine that being a caregiver in a season where you are needing to be cared for is also very hard. Hang in there!

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