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Of Returns and Runways


What does it look like when a family transitions from a life of long-term service in China to full-time living back in their passport country?

For years, in my leadership roles in China, I was challenged and challenged others with three simple, fundamental questions on leadership, vision, and direction:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we going?
  • What’s next?

In our particular case, we had to throw those questions out the window! Life is seldom that simple, especially when moving six people and all their belongings 8000 miles and expecting everything to go perfectly. For us, the Chinese saying is true: 计划没有变化快! (Plans can’t keep up with changes.)

After close to twenty years of service in China, our transition to the US has been anything but linear, and I’m not sure you could call it normative. Over the years we have had many friends who left China and went straight into new or somewhat familiar locations and familiar aspects of new careers: ministry leadership in different parachurch organizations, campus ministries, local church leadership, missionary member care, or teaching and research in some higher education context. While each family or single moved through their transition and reentry at a different pace and with different challenges, having defined roles to move into seemed to help these co-laborers gain a sense of stability in the midst of their transition. Our situation has been much different. We returned from China and entered a time of what I have been describing as “wandering in the wilderness” without a clear direction for what was next for us. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

Why did we leave China in the first place? That is a difficult question to answer. As I wrote in the following excerpts from my hopefully, soon-to-be published memoir:

A variety of factors necessitated our return to the States in July 2015. Neither Lisa nor I could really pinpoint any one thing as the reason we needed to come back. One factor was the failing health of our aging parents. . . . [A second aspect we realized was that our] own family had reached a place where living in China was becoming more problematic. . . We began to recognize that our children were not thriving in China. . . . [Third] Lisa and I started to recognize that our vision for service and the organization’s culture were diverging to such a degree that we could no longer pursue God’s vision for our service to Chinese people and remain with our organization. This was and still is a painful revelation, yet with hindsight we can see how God redirected us through this painful process.[1]

Transition, and the rationale behind the need for and timing of transition, is seldom explained in 140 characters or less. The depths and complexities are often very difficult to put into words, especially trying to explain them to those who have never made such moves.

Thankfully, early on in our transition back to the US we were able to spend a focused time of debriefing through Mission Training International’s Debrief and Renewal (DAR). At DAR we met with others returning from fields of service and beginning transitions either back to their passport country or on to different parts of the harvest field. We gained tools to be able to put into words what we were all experiencing. Once again from my memoir:

At DAR we were asked to draw a picture that summarized our current life. The picture I drew was of my family sitting in an airplane flying in a holding pattern around a city in America. Three runways at an airport stood open, and the fuel gauge was on empty as we waited for air traffic control to tell us on which runway to land. These three runways represented three distinct ministry opportunities we believe God had placed before us in the United States.

The first potential “runway” we perceived was one of shepherding other missionaries. Every year thousands of part- and full-time missionaries leave the harvest fields of the world broken, discouraged, and depressed, and Lisa and I wondered whether walking with these missionaries through their struggles and helping them get back to a healthy place in order to return to their work either stateside or overseas might be something we could do. DAR helped us recognize once again a connection to other missionaries as “our tribe,” and our hearts certainly resonated with the need for this kind of help. . . .

The second potential “runway” we identified was for me to pursue serving as a missions pastor in a local church. Lisa and I reasoned that we could still shepherd missionaries in this role and also provide vision and perspective in order to mobilize other believers to join the work within the global harvest field. I would be able to use my passions for shepherding and equipping and hopefully inspire and launch local church members into local and global contexts to make a difference with the gospel and their transformed lives.

The third potential “runway” we considered was continuing to work with Chinese people right here in the United States. We had heard that as of 2015 more than 300,000 Chinese students were studying in American universities and thousands more visiting scholars, as well as middle and high school students, were coming to our shores. Could it be that the Lord was calling our family to continue the work we had started doing in China?

So where did the Ingles fit . . . most importantly, on which of the three “runways” was our Lord, the all-powerful, all-wise “air traffic controller” calling us to land?[2]

DAR helped us normalize the transition process and also helped us recognize that even as a family we would transition back into life in North America at different rates. One thing DAR could not do was tell us what we should pursue next, so we began exploring each of the “runways” we saw ahead of us.

People who knew us well affirmed that any of the runways were valid pursuits for us, but the member care route closed very quickly with our original sending organization as well as with other member care groups. Runway number one was closed.

Talking to the missions pastor at our sending church as well as other leaders in several denominations was honestly, very discouraging. Many of these leaders told us that “missions pastors are a dying breed, so don’t pursue that.” So we listened, and runway number two seemed to close.

Runway number three seemed to have great potential, so we eagerly jumped into full-time campus ministry with Chinese students and scholars at the University of Alabama through a local non-profit organization we were hired to help develop. While the ministry itself was fruitful, few of our supporting churches knew what to do with us. We were not really “foreign missions” because we were not overseas, but we were not really “home missions” or truly “traditional campus ministry.” Other churches and individuals decided to stop supporting us because we were no longer in China, and our ministry was therefore “less strategic” in their eyes than before, or we went with the “wrong organization.” Over the course of a year we tried to raise financial support while doing campus ministry, and although we had several faithful individuals and churches, we could not raise enough to justify continuing down this runway long term.

Our transition back into life in North America is progressing in different stages in different portions of our lives. We have found fellowship in a loving church home and are developing friendships and putting down roots in our community. The kids are enjoying activities they never had the chance to pursue while we were in China, such as participating in a home school coop, taking ballet lessons, or playing sports. In these areas, life is feeling more “normal” every day. The bigger question for me personally remains, “Who is God calling me to become, and, how does that work itself out in provision for my family?”

One thing we keep running into is that no one here (including us!) really knows what to do with a former missionary to China. I applied for multiple positions with the University of Alabama to no avail. Breaking into work in the church world has also been challenging. One denominational leader told me point blank: “Churches in our denomination are wary of missionaries.” Applying for other positions have shown me that in some cases churches and denominations view credentials as more important than experience. I discovered that even the smallest churches in remote locations preferred someone with a Master of Divinity from the “right” seminary over twenty years of shepherding experience in China. This truth hurts, but at the same time, these responses have been painfully sweet gifts from God. Painful in that they highlight the disconnect between being sent by churches to serve in China and serving in the States, yet sweet in that God’s pruning has drawn us near to him, brought clarity on who he is calling us to become and how we are to serve him, and challenged us to continue following by faith even when what lies before us looks “impossible” to man.

Another thing I have come to realize is that our transition remains unfinished because our home is in heaven. Even so, I would like to close with three encouragements for those currently transitioning from China back to their passport countries, and three encouragements for those welcoming people back from China.

For those transitioning back:

  1. Remember that God is faithful and sovereign, even when it doesn't feel like it.
  2. Find your tribe. There are more people than you think who will understand, care and walk through this transition with you. Look for them!
  3. It takes time. It took time for you to learn the language and settle in China, and it will take at least as much (if not more!) time for you to reenter a home culture that is now different from the one you left!

For those welcoming people back from China:

  1. Be patient. Life is chaotic for your friend or loved one now, but God is at work.
  2. Ask good questions and really listen to the answers. Invest in time with your friend.
  3. Be proactive and practical. Do not assume your church or their organization is taking care of your friend or loved one. Ask how you can help with housing, transportation, job search, or even some downtime at the beach! Do not let your friend fall through the cracks of North American busyness.

It has now been more than two years since we “landed” in the US, but we are by no means settled yet! In the midst of our ongoing transition, I have been trying to tell myself and anyone else who asks, “What’s next for you?” that “God knows what he’s doing—he just hasn’t told us yet!”

Over the last twenty-one years, we have walked through many transitions—some much more difficult than others. Our underlying constant has been God: the one who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No purpose of his can be thwarted in his work in China, our passport countries, and our own lives. Throughout Scripture, we see him take people through various transitions so that their faith might grow and he might be glorified. May we be found faithful as he glorifies himself!

Notes

  1. ^ Jason Ingle, I’ll Go until You Stop Me. Soon to be published. Chapter 21: “Transition is Chaos,” pp 141-143.
  2. ^ Ibid., Chapter 22: “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up,” pp 154-155.
Jason Ingle

Jason Ingle

Jason Ingle left a career as a city planner to teach English in China as a single in 1996; he left China in 2015 with a wife, four children, a masters in Christian education, and a wide variety of teaching, cultural, and leadership experience. Stops in Henan, Guangdong, Jilin, Sichuan,... View Full Bio