As a personal record and a public service, I want to write about the things I have learned so far about traveling in the ministry. Or rather, this post is about coming home.

People who have studied intercultural work have written about how culture shock can be worse on the return home. Traveling in spiritual endeavors can be just as hard, even if you didn’t leave your home language or region. The hard thing is that you know you have changed but nothing else, no one else around you has changed as dramatically, in the same amount of time.

I haven’t traveled enough that it has become routine for me, but it has gotten easier. It seems like this last trip to FWCC took a lot less preparation than the first time I went three years ago, but the coming back was still hard. Based on these and other various travels in the ministry, I have four points of advice.
  1. Give it time
  2. Watch what you fill up on
  3. Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones
  4. Learn what’s important to you specifically
Give It Time
Think about how much time you spent preparing for your journey and try to block out a proportional amount of time to recover. Take an extra day off work. Don’t accept invitations to unrelated events the first few days. I find that the time it takes to do my laundry is good for reflecting on my experience and integrating it into my self. I like to plan some time to write about my experience: to record what I did, who was there, and what I learned. Then I like to have someone to talk to about the experience. I don’t mean making a public presentation (although that can be useful too, a little later) but someone who knew what I was going to do or who went with me. The key is that this person must be someone who I can be really honest with and tell how I really think it went, what went well, what went badly, who said what, what I would do differently another time, what I think will come of it all.

When I worked for the American Red Cross, they had a rule for their staff who went on disaster assignments. For every week you were on assignment, you were STRONGLY encouraged to take a day off. And you had to take it right away, you couldn’t save it up for later. I think that traveling in the ministry has a lot in common with emergency relief work. The hours to start with. From the moment you wake up, probably pretty early and in a strange time zone, until long past dinner, you are on call, with strangers, in a heightened state of alert, trying to discern what you need to do or say next, eating unfamiliar food, sleeping in a strange bed, and excited and scared at the same time. Even if you’re only gone for a weekend, or an afternoon, it takes a lot of energy. It’s understandable that you might be spiritually and physically tired. Which leads me to point number 2:

“Watch What You Fill Up On”
Deb Fisch and Becky Phipps, from the Traveling Ministries Program of FGC, said this to me a few years ago when we were discussing traveling in the ministry. I think this can have a lot of elements.

One is media. When you’re already full of a new experience is maybe not a good time to load up on television or reading books or magazines or other people’s blog posts. Download some of your experience, in writing, or in dreams, or in talking to other people before you fill up on other stuff, whether it’s essentially healthy or junk.

Watch what you eat – have some comfort foods, for sure, but not too much, in the mindless way that some of us eat when we’re tired. Not too much caffeine or sugar. Have some serious protein: if you eat red meat at all, now is a good time to have some, but you can adapt this advice to meet your own dietary principles. (I learned this third hand from a friend of John Calvi.)

If you can, choose carefully the people you are around while you’re in this somewhat fragile and vulnerable state. And most of all, get enough sleep. Get some fresh air and exercise, but again not too much. Which leads me to my third point:

Be Gentle With Yourself and Others
I’ve noticed that when I get home, I’m tired from my trip, but my family is also tired from me being away. My children are clingy and emotionally brittle. My husband is trying to be helpful, but he’s been doing a lot of extra work while I’ve been gone. And I feel torn between wanting to be with them and wanting to just be alone for a while. It’s easy to get cranky with each other. But now that I recognize this is a pattern, it’s easier to move through it and not prolong it with snarky comments that just make things worse.

It’s also good to be aware of and watch for the point when you come down off the high of the experience and begin to feel like it was all a failure. Elaine Emily calls it “Wednesday.” (Since much of our work is done on Sundays and it’s often about three days later that it all falls apart.) Don’t decide right then that you’re not meant for this work. A few days after this point, you may come to a more balanced view of the situation.

The fourth point is more individual. You have to figure out:

What Do You Need? (that may be different from anyone else)
I personally need to be picked up at the airport or bus station when I get home. It’s not a big deal when I’m going somewhere, but I find it really discouraging and hard to have to take a shuttle or taxi home by myself at the end of a trip. What I really want right then is for someone else to take care of my kids so my husband can come pick me up at the airport. So far, when I remember to ask in advance, this is something that people in my meeting have been willing to do to support my ministry. But I have to remember and be willing to ask.

I’m curious. What have other people learned about the re-entry process that might be helpful to others traveling in the ministry?


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Blogger Alivia said...

Robin, this is an excellent post. It is important for me to remember that I am going to have an adrenaline crash. It is a real physical thing, and I need to take excellent care of myself. One of the things you didn't mention is to have an elder with you who can help you to look after your needs. Sometimes it is important to have someone with you who can reinforce your boundaries. (prayer time, food, rest, etc) and to have someone praying for you during your ministry. When it isn't possible to have an elder travelling with me, I prefer to have someone at home who I know will be praying for me and whom I can debreif with when I return. It is excellent to have an elder with because they often catch details that I am oblivious to while I am attending to the Spirit. Thank you for this post. I hope you are coming to the women's theology conference!

5/25/2010 12:40 AM  
Blogger Liz in the Mist said...

These are great words of wisdom that I really appreciated as I will be coming off a 10 month stint in Africa in just a few weeks!

5/25/2010 1:04 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Something we used to do back in my publishing days was a "post-mortem." After a book had been off press for a few months but before our memories started to dim, all of the people involved (editors, marketing, production) got together to review the process of the book's coming-into-being. It was a very useful process that often changed the process for future books.

After this last workshop with Wess I started a post-mortem document to list all of the "lesson learned" kind of things and queries to myself. I've shared it with him and it's a place we can communicate. Quiet and often goofy Facebook comments with participants has been helpful too.

I've long noticed that my memories of any out-of-the-ordinary experience dims greatly after about six months. It really helps to give it processing time, especially written down processing. Because it's so important for lasting memory and impact, I try to give it the same kind of priority as the event itself. Not always possible of course, but it's a personal goal.

5/25/2010 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Good advice and it makes me think of a quote by Nelson Mandela in which he says there's nothing like coming back to a place to see how you've changed (paraphrase). So, while it can be disappointing to return to our old environments to the same old thing while we're on a spiritual high, maybe the lesson is more for us to see how we've changed rather than to force all of our new learning on others as tempting as that may be.

5/25/2010 6:18 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Queery, for your comment. I wrote another post about traveling with an elder back in 2007. Alas, I don't think I will be coming to the women's theology conference again this year.

Liz, I'm sure you already know that a 10 month journey will take more than a few days to readjust from. Do you know anyone else who has come back from such an experience to talk about it with? If not, email me and we'll talk.

Martin, that is a great idea. We should have done more of that last year.

Pat, very apt quote from Mandela. I think that Quaker meetings need to do a much better job of reintegrating people who've been on any kind of traveling ministry, even if that's just attending the local quarterly meeting. How can we take advantage of the enthusiasm and spiritual energy that people bring back to our meetings after some kind of gathering? If we did that better, I think more of our young people would be way more connected to their local meetings.

5/26/2010 12:46 AM  
Blogger Ashley W said...

Hi Robin,

I feel like your timing on this post is perfect, since I just got back from nearly two weeks of traveling yesterday! It is good to be reminded that this takes time. One thing that is especially hard for me when I come back from the East Coast is that my body still thinks I am on eastern standard time, so I wake up ready to go very early in the morning when I am supposed to be recovering.

On a completely different topic, if there is any chance you are still considering coming to the Quaker Women's Theology Conference, I'd like to encourage you to come! It would be wonderful to see you and to have you there (and registration is open until June 1!).


5/26/2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Ashley, I am so grateful to be of service. However, I have to say there is no chance I will come to the PNWTC this year. Maybe next time it will come at a point in my life when it will be possible.

5/27/2010 12:47 AM  
Anonymous Cathy H. said...

Robin, thanks as always for your excellent post.

I'd like to highlight for those who may not be mothers of young children how much that circumstance adds to the difficulty of re-entry. My children are now grown, but when they were younger I had to limit my travels greatly. When I returned home, my husband would be exhausted from being a single parent and would need a break. The house was usually a wreck, and the kids would be very clingy as Robin said. I had no chance to decompress but had to jump right into family life.

I tried as much as possible to use the travel home time to decompress and process, knowing that life at home would be immediately demanding.

Those who want to support mothers traveling in the ministry need to be aware of this struggle.

Cathy Habschmidt

5/27/2010 9:35 AM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Thanks for the post, Robin.

Another thing that makes it difficult for the one left at home, in my experience, is wanting to hear all about how the trip went and what happened, when all the traveler really wants is just to crash.

Cathy, excellent points. I agree that the one left at home is typically exhausted by the end of the time -- though that gets easier as the children get older.

However, in Robin's case, I believe that when she gets home, the house is at least as clean if not cleaner than when she left. That is part of my ministry to her.

5/28/2010 1:27 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Cathy, thank you for your kind words. One of the things I realized this year was how much easier it was to go to FWCC this year, just because my kids are now three years older, both in elementary school, and more self-sufficient all round. This made it easier on me, on my husband and on them too.

Chris, that is because you are an extraordinary husband and housemate. Thank you for all your support, when I'm at home and when I'm away.

5/28/2010 2:21 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I return to this post often and it still speaks to my condition.

2/02/2016 12:07 PM  
Anonymous Lee Taylor said...

thanks, Robin - this is very helpful advice, and I will aim to heed it when I get home late Saturday. I would add a couple of things: I find it useful to take a day or so R&R during travel in the ministry if I can (I'm having such a day overlooking Lake Titkaka today - not always possible of course); I try not to try to solve the problems that were at home when I left as soon as I get back (they have either gone away or need much higher quality time spent on them) - and I try not to be disappointed if most people simply say 'hello' and are not much interested in what I've been up to/any transformation. If there has been genuine change in me, it will show in how I live.

2/02/2016 2:43 PM  
Blogger I SHALL FIND GRACE said...

Thanks Robin. I read this before and found it helpful when I returned from my Pilgrimage with & among Friends in Ireland/Northern Ireland in August 2013 and find it helpful again today after having returned from FWCC World Plenary in Peru. Trying to do what's best for me . . . even when others around me don't want to let me - as they just don't understand. Blessings~

2/02/2016 5:07 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

I wanted to chime in, now that I've seen this on your Facebook page and am thinking of my busy July this year--with annual sessions of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) at the tail end and the summer Gathering of Friends General Conference at its start.

It's a wonder I ever missed this piece when you first posted it, but I know that many habits and patterns in my life have changed in recent years, including reading blogs and writing for my own.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

2/02/2016 6:36 PM  

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