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Models of Debriefing for Individuals and Couples

It has been more than 10 years since my husband and I went through our most difficult season in missions so far. We found ourselves part of a conflict that we thought had been resolved and became the target of painful accusations. Months went by without resolution or even progress. During this time, the two of us took hours discussing every new detail. We lost sleep; our appetites, joy, and ministries suffered. The situation had taken over our lives. After about two years, we left the (unresolved) situation behind by moving to a different location. We were hurting, deeply saddened, exhausted, and very alone. At that point, we wished we had someone we could talk to, to simply share what had happened. We longed for someone to listen to us, hoping we would find clarity and peace this way. So, I started to look around for a place to go to for a debriefing, not quite knowing even what that is. The only debriefing place I finally found invited us to come… nine months later. Unknown to me at the time, this dearth of debriefing opportunity would eventually launch me into my own debriefing ministry.

The Emmaus Model

In the gospel of Luke (24:13-35) we are told about two people who just experienced an even deeper crisis. They, like many others, were in Jerusalem while Jesus, the one they thought had come to redeem Israel, was unjustly condemned and on the same day crucified. Incredibly sad they left the city toward Emmaus. On their way they were met by a stranger, who later turned out to be Jesus, and were drawn into a conversation by him.

Listen to the Story

The conversation started by Jesus inviting these two disciples to share what had happened. A debriefing starts with that question: What has happened? It helps to have someone listen to our whole story showing interest and empathy, letting us talk and share our story the way we experienced it, without commenting or judging. Active listening and open questions like, “What happened next?”, help to let the story unfold. The two greatest gifts we can make in a debriefing is to offer an open ear and to be fully present. We do not need to provide answers, insight, or counsel, but we do need to be truly listening without a hidden agenda and without a desire to satisfy our curiosity. This sharing can take a long time but is worth it; the simple act of listening will often already bring clarity, insight, and relief to the one who shares. It may be the first time someone genuinely listens.

Sadness and an Ability to Grieve

It is not hard to imagine how the two travellers in Luke felt after those painful days. They were sad, disappointed, confused, maybe disillusioned, angry, and they may have felt let down. We know that something sad or difficult had happened because of the negative emotion that is expressed. This is part of what it means to grieve. This is how we grieve losses.

We may not be aware of everything we lost. It is often more than we realise: loss of friendship, closeness, harmony; loss of hope, trust, a vision, opportunities; loss of the truth, of reputation; loss of being important, influence, of our voice, of a future. Some of us may experience a loss of faith in God and trust in Him. We need to allow for sufficient time to become aware of our losses and the accompanying emotions.

Sadness, anger, and other emotions point to these losses. Suppressing or denying the emotions means not dealing with what happened and the pain that comes with it. Not grieving can leave us feeling numb, bitter, or sarcastic. We can become passive or develop a victim mentality. This is what then ‘overflows’ and influences the world around us. What is needed is a process of grieving which can bring healing and new life. Either we become bitter or better.

Encounter with Jesus

The most important part of a debriefing is coming to Jesus with what happened and the emotions it has caused. As we open our heart to Him and dialogue with Jesus (and with Him alone) about what happened and how we feel, we start to let go of the pain. We need our eyes to be opened and to recognise Him right there with us. For the two Emmaus disciples, this moment came as Jesus broke the bread at the dinner table. We come to recognise Jesus’ presence in a way that is just as real: in a picture, a word of Scripture, something we see around us, etc.

Experiencing Jesus being with us brings healing, freedom, peace, and ultimately new life. Sharing and letting go may take a long time depending on the magnitude and depth of loss. However, letting go and receiving healing will make room for the new.

Resurrection and New Life

At the time, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not know what would come out of the tragedy they had witnessed. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on everyone, the priceless gift of eternal life, and so much more. Just as for these two, we don’t know at the time of debriefing what will be the outcome of the sad and perhaps devastating experience we are working through.

The purpose of debriefing is to walk with those who grieve, in faith that at some point new life will come out of pain and grief. As the ones doing the debriefing, we may not get to see this new life. Even then, we may hope that those we lead through the process of debriefing experience what Job so beautifully describes at the end of his long grieving process: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5)

Meeting Jesus through Another Person

Recently, a dear friend of ours came to stay with us. The two of us went on several long walks. After not having been together in a while, there was a lot of catching up to do. I was listened to. I was asked questions. There were moments of silence followed by the freedom to continue sharing. She was genuinely interested, and it felt safe to open up, even about my deepest fears and disappointments. At times, it was me sharing and she was listening, and at other times it was the other way around. Sometimes we prayed for each other, at other times we did not. But there was always this sweet sense of Jesus walking there with us. This, too, is a form of debriefing. In this way, we can all be debriefers to our partners, friends, and co-workers, and they to us.

My husband and I somehow found our own way of bringing closure to our story 10 years ago without going through a formal debriefing. Instead, in the years following our experience, I was trained as a debriefer myself. I started to offer what I would have needed after our season of difficulty. Today, at least 80% of my ministry consists of debriefing individuals, couples, or small teams.

I would never have imagined that the work of healing Jesus did after our crisis would eventually lead to this new and deeply fulfilling ministry. Isaiah describes the kind of transformation we experienced with these words: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13). In short, it is a miracle. Debriefing can help to bring such a miracle about.

After all, the God who loves us is able to turn the most difficult seasons in life into something beautiful and restore wholeness.

Franziska Hornstra-Fuchs

P.S. If you are interested to receive some debriefing, you can contact me through the website (www.elijahsinn.org) or through franziska@elijahsinn.org. Based on the story in 1 Kings 19, we have called the ministry Elijah’s Inn.

I am deeply convinced of the value of debriefing. Our stories need to be heard and our experiences validated. Debriefing helps to reflect; it brings closure and healing. It also enables us to learn from experience, initiate change, set goals, and grow into the person God created us to be.

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