Making the Transition from Missionary Ministry to the American Pastorate

Written by Vincent Kobosh

Distinct Differences

The author learned during his first two years of ministry in the States that pastoral ministry in America was considerably different from his missionary church-planting ministry overseas. These differences took him by surprise because when one compares the work responsibilities of the two ministries, they are the same. The differences are found in the emotional environment of those responsibilities. The missionary who is transitioning from the foreign field to an American pastorate needs to be aware of these differences and make a concerted effort to follow a few important suggestions that will allow him to enjoy a long and fruitful ministry in the place where God has led him. 

A Blended Personality

The first difference that the missionary must recognize in American pastoral ministry is that he is no longer the same person that he was when he first left for the foreign field. His missionary experience has changed him. The problem with this is that it is not something that one can look into the mirror and discover, nor is it a change that one can recognize all at once by personal evaluation. The former missionary will realize this over time. There will be hints of the change revealed to himself and to others from time to time, and the reality of this change must be accepted. Van Rheenen describes this change with a color analogy:

Their home culture may be pictured as blue and their host culture as yellow. After years in the foreign culture, the missionaries’ own culture has been blended—in their lives and their personalities—with the host culture, making them different people. A new color, green, emerges. Green missionaries do not identically match with either their own or their adopted culture.

This will cause the former missionary to see his congregation and his pastoral ministry in a different way from the pastor who has never ministered outside of America. This will cause his congregation to sense something foreign about him. On the field this was not as much of a problem because the missionary understood that he was a foreigner, and the people to whom he ministered understood the same. When the missionary returns to the United States, he thinks that he is an American ministering to Americans, but he is not. He is a blend of his foreign cultural experience and America. This can be very frustrating for the former missionary and the people to whom he ministers, especially if he is unaware of it and making no adjustments for it. The former missionary is susceptible to leading his congregation in a ministry style that was effective with the culture of the foreign nationals he ministered to but not necessarily enjoyed by Americans. The missionary may not be trying to be different but is simply doing that which is subconsciously normal to him.

The passing of time may increase the problem rather than diminish it. During his twelve years of ministering overseas in an English-speaking ministry, the author learned to exchange American idioms and quaint sayings for those used and understood by the foreign nationals. When in America on furlough, he would switch back to using American idioms and clichés. After leaving the field  and spending the past eleven years in American ministry, the author cannot remember which is which anymore and mixes them up constantly. He has experienced this blending of concepts in the brain while driving his car. He learned to drive in America and spent the first seven years of his driving experience on the right side of the road. He spent the next twelve years overseas driving on the left side of the road. He has now spent the past eleven years in America driving on the right side of the road. When not paying careful attention, it is possible to subconsciously walk to the wrong side of the car, or while on the open road, have a sense of driving on the wrong side of the road—even when on the proper side. These physical manifestations of a blended mind are no less true for the former missionary’s emotions and ministry style.

What does the repatriated missionary do about this conflict? The answer is simple. The former missionary who wants to be an effective servant leader in America needs to be a good listener and learner. On the field the church-planting missionary had to learn how to adapt his ministry style to the cultural environment of the nationals. When the missionary leaves the field, he again needs to learn how to adapt his ministry style to the cultural style of the Americans to whom he ministers. One may think that because he is an American, his ministry style is American. But it may not be. Not only has the mission field changed the missionary, but the passing of time has changed America. The transitioning missionary needs to listen closely to his church members as decisions are made and programs are adopted. Although this is good advice for any pastor, it is vital for the former missionary.  One of the most helpful tools that the author was able to use in adapting to an American style of ministry was to learn American pastoral ministry from men whom the Lord in His grace has made successful. He was able to see some of the characteristics of the change that had been made in his personality and emotions while on the foreign field. One must realize that although his life began in America before he left for the field, he is returning as a different person. He is now a blended American and needs to make the adjustments that will be necessary to fit into American ministry.

Loss of Celebrity Status

The second difference that a missionary will recognize in American ministry is his loss of “celebrity” status. The missionary is certainly not a celebrity in the world’s eyes, as are Hollywood actors and professional athletes, but he does enjoy a sense of popularity and importance both while he is overseas and on visits to his supporting churches. He may not actually realize it or know how attached he is to it until the popularity is gone.2 Jones describes how the returning missionary struggles with the sense of being insignificant after getting used to a sense of prominence on the foreign field.3 Every missionary knows the love and appreciation that is bestowed on him by the nationals with whom he ministers. They will commonly express how blessed they are to have the missionary for all the years that he serves there. The honeymoon seems never to end in his relationship with the foreign nationals. They are grateful for his sacrifice in having left his homeland and family to come to their country to reach them with the gospel. The missionary also knows the love and appreciation that he receives when he returns on furlough to his supporting churches. But when the former missionary becomes a pastor of a church in America, nobody sees this as a sacrifice, and though there may be a brief honeymoon period, all too soon the congregation will let the pastor know how blessed he is to have them. Former missionaries returning to pastor in America may have to make greater sacrifices than they made to go to the mission field. The mentality that stateside ministry for the former missionary is not a sacrifice can infuse feelings of resentment. The repatriate pastor must find his contentment in serving the Lord and not in personal recognition (Matt. 10:26). The former missionary will need to remember that ministry is not about him; it is about the Lord and His glory. He needs to understand that although it is very encouraging to receive ample amounts of love and appreciation for one’s ministry to others, it is not a prerequisite for faithfully serving the Lord. The praise of men was the longing of the Pharisees, and Jesus reminded them that they had their reward (Matt. 6:2).

American Expectations

Not only is there a loss of celebrity status when the former missionary becomes a pastor in America, but third, he will be under pressure to meet the expectations of the congregation. On the foreign field the missionary’s preaching may not be the style preferred in America, he may not see many souls saved, and his ministry skills may not be fine-tuned as a result of attending multiple pastor’s seminars, but he will still be a hero in his supporting churches and loved by the nationals he led to Christ. The missionary’s salary will be the same every month, even if there is a church split and an exodus of numerous families. This will not be true of him as the pastor of a church in America. He will need to improve his pastoral skills. He will preach to people who regularly hear America’s best preachers on the radio. The departure of unsatisfied families will radically affect the church budget, forcing him to move or find supplemental employment. His ministry style may not inhibit the salvation of souls or discipleship of believers on the foreign field, but it can empty an American church in very little time. This is not to say that the missionary’s preaching or ministry style is of poor quality, but that the style loved by the nationals on the field may not be a style that Americans appreciate.

A pastor’s competence also has an effect on the offerings of the congregation. This can be a serious concern for the former missionary, and he will need to subdue the temptation to become a people pleaser. He needs to guard against being influenced by the marketing schemes of the church growth movement. He needs to be a tactful communicator and faithful preacher of God’s Word. This is why it is beneficial for the returning missionary to spend some time as an assistant pastor before taking a church. Doing so will help prepare him to be an effective senior pastor in America. The former missionary who has already taken a pastorate can add to his ministerial toolbox by pursuing an advanced degree at a fundamental seminary.

The former missionary also needs to acquaint himself with pastors in his area and enjoy their fellowship and counsel. He should note the things that are working in their ministries and emulate them if possible. He may feel free to try new things that worked for him overseas, but not simply for the sake of being different. A repatriate may see all the other pastors as doing things the same way because they are committed to tradition and unwilling to change, but the truth is that they may be ministering in a way that is honoring God and effective in American culture.

American Complacency

A final difference that may confront the former missionary is the complacency of independent Baptist Christians. He may easily forget that he was once part of that complacency before he departed for the field. American churches are made of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation Christians, many of whom have always been independent fundamental Baptists. Missionary churches are primarily made up of first-generation Christians, eager and hungering for the Word of God. If the former missionary ministered on a field where most of the people were poor, he and his family were isolated from the temptations of western materialism. Now, when he is confronted with the state of the American church, the former missionary may find it difficult to love his congregation. He may have a hard time being sympathetic toward them, and he may feel disappointed with them. He must have a vision and move the people in that direction. The former missionary must learn to love his American congregation as they are and prayerfully lead them to where they need to be. These are the sheep that the Lord has called him to shepherd.

The Apostle Paul understood that his church-planting ministry allowed him to lay the spiritual foundations of a church. He never had to build on another man’s foundation (Rom. 15:20). This was the privilege of the missionary on the field, but now God has called him to build on another’s foundation. He must learn to love building on another man’s foundation as much as he loved laying the first foundations of new churches during his missionary ministry overseas. Jones reminds the returning missionary that the key to successful transition is seeing his American ministry as the Lord’s will just as much as he saw his foreign ministry to be God’s will.4 

The missionary undergoing these types of struggles must not be too hard on himself. His negative feelings are a common part of reentry adjustment, but they must be overcome.5 A most helpful example for the former missionary who finds himself struggling to love his complacent church is that of A. J. Gordon. When he reluctantly accepted the call to the Clarendon Street Baptist Church in Boston, he found that the church was very worldly and complacent concerning the things of God. Despite their spiritual condition, he faithfully ministered to them and after nine years began to bring them in the right direction. Revival then broke out in Boston under the ministry of D. L. Moody, and Gordon saw many converted to Christ. During the next sixteen years of ministry, he built the Clarendon Street Baptist Church into one of the strongest evangelistic and missionary-minded churches in America.6

Pastoring an existing church has a ministry characteristic distinctly different from a church-planting ministry, but whether a church is made of first-generation Christians or fourth-generation Christians, all are the Lord’s people, and He expects them all to be equally loved and cared for (Rom. 15:1-5). If the former missionary focuses too much on the general problem of complacency in the church, he will lose sight of the ministry potential of each of the individual members. As a pastor he must love the members in their present spiritual condition and prayerfully teach them to be like Jesus.

Detrimental Tendencies

As the former missionary recognizes these differences between the mission field and the American pastorate, he should try to make the necessary adjustments. He should also be aware of the things to which he is susceptible that could be detrimental to his ministry. 


First is the tendency to speak often of his foreign ministry. The former missionary has many wonderful memories and will be tempted to talk constantly about those memories. He will also have a tendency to make comparisons between the ministry overseas and his present one. One of the reasons that it is important for the returning missionary to take time to visit his supporting churches before entering the pastorate is that he can have multiple opportunities to tell his missionary stories. This is essential to his adjusting emotionally to reentry. But if the storytelling continues after he has taken the pastorate of an American church, it will be detrimental to his ministry. Americans are not going to be overly interested in the country where the former missionary ministered. One successful pastor who taught a class on pastoral ethics warned his students about speaking favorably of a previous ministry to the people they presently pastored. Pastors who do this will leave their people with the impression that their pastor would rather be at the place of his former ministry. This is no less so when speaking favorably of one’s former ministry overseas. He will give his congregation the impression that he would rather be overseas, and he will not be able to win their trust and confidence. To speak lovingly of another country while ministering as the pastor of an American congregation may also appear unpatriotic. 

It is natural to have fond memories of the foreign field, but the missionary must be careful not to speak of it in a manner that gives the impression he misses it or is longing for it. Whenever he uses an illustration from his mission-field experience, he should not name the country but generally refer to it as a ministry overseas. As much as possible the former missionary should refrain from using his missionary stories when ministering to his congregation, whether from the pulpit, on visitation, or at fellowship gatherings. Independent Baptists love to hear missionary stories from their missionaries but not from their pastor. Lest this remark seem overly cautious, a number of missionaries who were questioned on this matter all gave the same advice. One repatriated missionary mentioned that a man left his church because he felt the pastor only talked about his former mission field. Another repatriated missionary also writes of having to catch the hint that his people did not want to hear about his former country of ministry. He sensed that people determined he was arrogant when giving his missionary illustrations.7 This may not be true with everyone, and there may be variations from congregation to congregation, but having pastored in three different geographical areas in the States and having received testimony from repatriated missionaries pastoring in different parts of the States, it is recommended that the repatriate save his stories for the proper situations.

When one has a desire to tell his missionary stories, he should plan to get together with other repatriated missionaries. This is a healthy situation for exchanging stories while enjoying fellowship. He can also share his stories with missionaries who visit his home, especially those who are heading to the field for the first time. It will aid in counseling and encouraging visiting missionaries. Children also love to hear the missionary stories, and whenever there is an opportunity to minister to children, telling one’s missionary stories will capture their hearts. There also may be times when the church folk will ask their pastor questions about his missionary experience. He should keep his answers short and to the point and should be careful not to give the impression that he is longing to be on the field again.


Not only is the repatriate tempted to speak regularly about his foreign ministry, but he also faces a tendency to feel unsettled. In having worked with a number of returnees, Werkman writes, “Long-lasting feelings of being restless, out of place, rootless are typically recalled, even by those who are overtly well-adjusted [sic] to their return from overseas.” 8 The author is familiar with this problem and personally understands that the former missionary will have to exert a greater effort in overcoming the tendency to want to leave his church for another. This is a natural symptom of reentry and can be misinterpreted as the prodding of God. When something gets in one’s eye, the eye becomes irritated. Many times, even after the object has been removed, the eyeball remains irritated and feels as though the foreign object is still there. The solution is to leave the eye alone and allow it to recuperate. After a time of rest, the eye settles, and the irritation subsides. Similar to the eye, the former missionary must patiently persevere through the emotional unrest that he will experience as a natural side effect to his reentry. Prayerful patience will bring rest. He must acknowledge and subdue his tendency for “itchy feet.” The author confesses that every time he goes to an airport and sees the planes, he wishes that he were going somewhere. This is a problem that must not be allowed to influence the missionary who has accepted a call to pastor in America.


Another difficulty one must overcome is the sense of being under-utilized. The average church-planting missionary had opportunities to serve in numerous capacities. He taught Sunday school, preached in the services, lectured ministerial students, organized camps, spoke at camps, conducted children’s programs, organized youth crusades, and learned a foreign language. The missionary who was accustomed to many outlets of ministry is now confined to pastoral duties alone. He may never be invited to teach a college class or preach at a camp. When the former missionary accepts a call to a church and becomes active in his pastoral ministry, he may begin to miss all of the other service opportunities he used to enjoy. There may be times when he longs to speak the language that he learned, but it is of no use in his present sphere of ministry. Each time, he must remember that the Lord has called him to this change. The general practitioner sees patients for many ailments, but the specialist sees patients only in his specific field. The former missionary needs to become a specialist in pastoral ministry. He must cherish the opportunity to give more time to studying the Scriptures in preparing his sermons. He must utilize the opportunity to give special attention to the discipleship and development of leaders in his church. The sense of being under-utilized is an outworking of the restlessness that is symptomatic of reentry. As he faithfully perseveres, the former missionary will eventually grow accustomed to pastoral specialization.


1 Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 55.

2 It is one element of transition that can be the hardest for missionary children when their parents repatriate. Austin’s annotated bibliography includes a book entitled Return of the Rebel, which tells about a missionary teenager who became rebellious when she returned to America because she had to be normal again. When she lived overseas, the African girls had treated her like royalty. Clyde Austin, Cross Cultural Reentry, 89. 

3 M. Jones, Psychology of Missionary Adjustment (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1995), 135.

4 Jones, 140. 

5 Austin annotates an article that warns the missionary father that he may struggle the most with reentry. The article lists the very issues discussed above as the cause. Clyde Austin, Cross-Cultural Reentry, 88. Kreidel, W. Reverse Culture Shock, Paper presented at the World Mission Workshop, Dallas, February 1975.  

6 By surrendering to “the Lord’s express will” in accepting the call to Clarendon Street Baptist Church, Gordon had to leave behind “a highly successful and delightful pastorate.” David Saxon, “Adoniram Judson Gordon”; available from; Internet; accessed 17 December 2007.

7 Brad Blanton and Rick Fessel, e-mail correspondence, January 28-30, 2008.

8 Sidney L. Werkman, “Coming Home: Adjustment of Americans to the United States after Living Abroad,” in Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings, ed. Clyde Austin (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University, 1986), 12.


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