Cross-Cultural Transition & Adjustment

by Mike Frith
Posted on 1st May 2017

Moving from one culture to another does strange things to the mind and body! If you're not aware of these things before they happen, it can at best be disorientating and at worst, end in disaster.

Having transitioned to and from five different countries, and having led training courses on this topic for over 15 years, here are the six key things I've learnt about this important stage in the life of a cross-cultural mission worker:

1. It's a Process, not an Event

It takes time to observe, process, assimilate and adjust to any big change in life. Moving to a new culture or back home might physically take place during a flight of a few hours but the real adjustment takes months. On average, the wider process of transition and adjustment takes around a year. The 'low point' in this process is often around six months after the physical move!

2. Be Patient with Yourself

I regularly see people come on my courses who are several months into the transition process and not coping well, believing that their struggle is unusual ... but what they're going through is often normal and common to all. It's akin to when you break a bone in your body. It takes a standard six weeks to heal. You can't speed it up, so let it work its way through and see what God has to teach you in the process. You will probably also be tired most of the time, as you'll be spending extra energy on coping with the changes ... so give yourself more rest (and sleep) than you otherwise would.

3. Forewarned is Forearmed

If you understand what you might go through before it happens, you can anticipate it and cope better when it happens. It means that you can recognise the different stages of transition and adjustment and realise that you're not 'failing' or 'losing your mind'. One of the common comments I get from participants on re-entry courses is 'I wish I'd known this before going overseas'. Everyone planning to work cross-culturally really needs a heads-up about this 'before' their first cross-cultural experience. OSCAR's day courses give you a 'tool kit' of teaching, exercises and resources to equip you and help you navigate through this time.

4. Build a Good Support Structure

Raising support isn't just about finance. It's also about building a team of people who will pray for, affirm and encourage you along the way ... real partners in ministry. These aspects will often become more important than finance in the challenging times. If you focus on building a support team that provides these, the financial support will often follow. If this kind of support is lacking in your case, start building it now. Stewardship run 'Finance for Ministry' training dayswhich can help you get on the right track.

5. Find a Friend

Having someone locally who will walk with you through this time, and with whom you can talk openly, is a real help. They don't always have to have first hand experience of what you're going through ... they just need to be there to enable you to talk it through, reflect on and help you normalise the ups and downs. Those who go with their spouse usually already have this, so it's often more of a challenge for single people. It can help if you invest in a friendship early on in your transition time (before the stress really kicks in).

6. Ask for Professional Help

Most mission workers are fairly self-sufficient types, so asking for help isn't our default mode. We often leave it later than we should. If you're with an organisation that provides good support, they may make you aware of professional help that's available within the organisation or mission community if and when you need it. But even if you don't have a well resourced organisation behind you, you still have access to many experienced mission workers and professionals in the mission community. OSCAR's 'Pastoral & Spiritual' section lists many of these and the OSCARactive communitycan put you in touch with others who understand what you're going through.

There are so many more aspects of transition times that are crucial to get a handle on. Come on one of OSCAR's courses and we can look at this process together in more detail (whether you're heading to a new culture, returning to your home culture, or want to provide support for those in transition).

Transition is an uncomfortable time but don't wish it away. It can be a very profound time on your journey with God where you can hear His voice clearer on some things than at any other time in life.

Mike Frith is the Founding Director of OSCAR. Prior to starting OSCAR, he worked as a pilot/engineer with Mission Aviation Fellowship where he spent time living in the USA, France, Switzerland, Madagascar and Uganda. He has been involved in working with, supporting, training and resourcing cross-cultural workers for over 25 years.