by Lyn Shingledecker-Wheeler

Transition is defined by the Oxford American Dictionary as “the process of change from one state or style, etc. to another.” Everyone makes hundreds of transitions throughout their lifetime. People in overseas ministry and TCKs are probably more familiar with this process than many other people. Although transitions may have similarities, each experience is also unique, and individuals respond to it in their own unique way.

One way to describe the transition process is by using a five-phase model developed by Dave Pollock of Interaction. The phases are Engagement, Leaving, Transition, Entering, and Re-engagement. Defining the process can help us understand the experience better and may help us move through it more successfully ourselves and be more understanding of others going through it. Please keep in mind that, although the phases can easily be named, they are not necessarily experienced in such an easily identified sequence.

Engagement describes the period of strong involvement in your present location. You have roots, know what is expected of you, have a support system, and have identified your role in relationship to those around you.

Leaving is the phase when you begin to disengage from your present life and pull up roots in anticipation of the move you expect to make. This can apply to a change of physical location as well as to a change of status or role (e.g. job change, from single to married, etc. )

Transition is when you make the actual move; your normal routine is upset, good-byes are said, you withdraw from the activities you have been involved in and move on. Feelings of personal and professional ambiguity as to your role and your relationship with others are common during this stage.

Entering involves the adjustment to your new role or environment, a reestablishment of routines and personal life or identity, and becoming a learner in your new environment.

Re-engagement is the final step. You become familiar with your environment and are an active participant in it: developing new relationships, planning for the future, and being involved in ministry, work, and family life.

Suggestions for facing transitions

For TCKs, their most challenging transitions usually involve moving to the field or returning to the home country. Each change can be daunting. Along with understanding the process, these additional suggestions may also help you and your family face changes with increased confidence and hope.

1) Talk about the upcoming move as a family. Understand that this transition is new for every family member. Allow each person the freedom to ask questions and to express their feelings. Younger children often reflect the attitudes of their parents so it is important to remember that you set the tone for your family. Good communication is always important and may need to be even more intentionally encouraged during times of transition.

2) Whether you are going to the field or returning to your passport country, investigate where you are going and consider how your life will change once you get there. Talk to those who have lived/are living there, research the country or culture through the Internet, encyclopedias, videos, or books. Take advantage of multicultural events that provide exposure to different language and culture. Make plans regarding how to integrate into the new community, make friends, learn the language, or get involved with a church. Remember that returning to your passport country may feel more like going to a foreign country to your children. Thinking through these things can help make the integration process easier when you actually arrive.

3) Look for the best ways to keep in contact with the significant people you leave behind. Today’s technology has made communication easier, faster, and more reliable than ever before in many parts of the world. Usually it is best to establish these methods of communication before you go overseas.

4) Try to maintain the basic elements of your family’s regular routine (e.g., mealtime, playtime, family devotions, celebrations, bedtime rituals, chores, discipline, etc.). This helps provide some stability in times of change.

5) Plan to take some familiar things with you and allow your kids to do the same. Pictures and knickknacks can help make your new house a home. A stuffed animal or favorite toy can help your kids adjust to their new surroundings.

6) Give each person opportunity and time to say appropriate good-byes to the people, places, and things that are significant to them. Be prepared for feelings of loss and grief associated with these farewells. Also include reconciliation of hurts or restoration of broken relationships if necessary. Although this may be painful, it is imperative not to leave any such “unfinished business” behind.

7) Plan for the educational future of your children. Investigate the school options available and the entry requirements at the school you are planning to use. Keep your child’s post-high-school education plans in mind in the choices you make. If at all possible, plan your moves when they will cause the least possible disruption in your child’s education. Discuss your plans with trusted educators and be open to their input and suggestions.

8) Recognize and acknowledge God’s love and faithfulness in the midst of the changes. Transitions can provide wonderful opportunities for spiritual growth and strengthened family relationships as you learn to depend on the Lord and each other in new ways.

Changes in life are inevitable. They can be as simple as a new pair of shoes or as complex as a move overseas. In each transition it is important to remember that God is in control and that He will lead you through. Flexibility and a sense of humor are also great assets. Transitions don’t seem to get easier with practice, but what you learn from each experience may help you face the next one with greater confidence and give you the opportunity to encourage others along the way!

Resources to Help Families with Transitions

Following are a few of the resources available to help families prepare for and move through the transition experience, whether leaving the home country for a field assignment or leaving the field for the home country.


Transitions, a conversation-starter card game developed by Global TCK Care & Education and Barnabas International to help families communicate about their transition experience.

One version is meant to be used in preparation for leaving, one after arriving in a new location, and another for any type of moving. It was developed with furlough/home leave in mind, but the questions can be applied or adapted to fit other transitions as well. Available at Transitions Resources. May be duplicated for nonprofit use.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.