The Role of Spiritual Development in the Cross-Cultural Reentry Adjustment of Missionaries

By Kimber, Thomas R. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Role of Spiritual Development in the Cross-Cultural Reentry Adjustment of Missionaries


Kimber, Thomas R., Journal of Psychology and Theology


This study investigated the relationship between spiritual development and cultural reentry adjustment in a group of missionaries. One hundred and two missionaries completed a questionnaire that correlated the Spiritual Assessment Inventory (SAI) with five cultural adaptation and transition scales. The study found significant relationship between the Reentry Distress Scale and the SAI Disappointment and Instability scales. There was also a significant relationship between the SAI Awareness scale and the Transition Change Scale. The study also explored the relationship between reentry distress and calling, regularly practicing spiritual disciplines, and returning home to a supportive community. The implications of the study are discussed in relation to missionaries, mission agencies, and local churches in order to provide meaningful care for missionaries during cross-cultural transitions.

The most recent statistics indicate that there are approximately 42,000 long-term missionaries from North America (including the U. S. and Canada) serving overseas (Jaffarian, 2008). These are defined as missionaries who have served overseas for more than four years, and include both traditional and bivocational missionaries (tentmakers). At some point, most of these missionaries will return to their home culture. While the successful transition from home culture to host culture has been the emphasis of training and research, more recent studies are affirming that the endpoint of the cultural transition cycle must include one's transition back to his or her home country. While much is understood about the challenges of learning to live overseas, researchers are discovering more about the challenges of reacculturating into one's home culture.

Many returning sojourners report feelings of isolation, confusion, and not feeling "at home" in their home culture. Previous studies have largely attempted to understand this phenomenon from a cultural identity perspective. Cultural identity is defined as the degree to which the sojourner identifies with his or her home country or country of sojourn (host country) (Sussman, 2002). While earlier studies focused primarily on culture shock and cultural adaptation, more recent studies tend to focus on the deeper issues of identity and multiculturalism (Onwumechili, Nwosu, Jackson & James-Hughes, 2003), including sociocultural and psychological adaptation (Ward & Kennedy, 1993), relationships (Martin, 1986), communication (Cox, 2004), multiple reacculturation (Onwumechili et al., 2003), and grief (Butcher, 2002). During reentry, there may be the discovery of changes in worldview (Butcher, 2002) and cultural identity (Sussman, 2000). Amidst the growing field of reacculturation studies, no research could be found that attempts to understand the role of one's relationship with God during reentry.

Missionaries and Cultural Adjustment

While research affirms that reentry stress is attributed to multiple variables and not any one single factor (Moore, Jones & Austin, 1987; Sussman, 2001), very few studies on spirituality and cross-cultural adjustment have been conducted. Studies comparing the acculturation patterns between missionaries and non-missionaries in Nepal have found that missionaries register more direct contact with locals while other expats report less direct contact with nationals and higher levels of social support (Navara & James, 2002). Studies report that missionaries and non-missionaries cope and adjust with perceived stress in different ways. When missionaries perceive higher levels of stress, they are more inclined to engage in activities such as praying, seeking pastoral support, or trusting God to relieve the stress (Navara & James, 2005). Hall, Edwards and Hall (2006) found that spiritual development in missionaries is positively related to psychological development and other aspects of sociocultural adjustment. Missionaries with lower levels of psychological development may be more vulnerable to the effects of spiritual difficulties during cross-cultural adjustment. …

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