“Three months! Wow, that’s a long vacation!”
“It’s great that you’ll have a rest.”
“Are you excited to go back home?”
These are some common misconceptions that missionaries hear about furlough. I’ve heard them from friends, loved ones and new acquaintances in the country where we minister and the country of our birth.
Today I want to tell you a little about the realities of missionary furlough – what it is and what it is not.
What is furlough anyways?
Furlough. Home assignment. Home ministry. The time that a missionary spends in their native country.
Most furloughs last anywhere from five weeks to one year. Ours will be three months. The purpose of furlough is to spend time with family and friends and to network with churches and other supporters.
It’s been two and a half years since our family was in the States. Our son, Titus, was born in Ukraine, so most of our loved ones have never met him. Nora has grown from a 16-month-old baby to an almost four-year-old. Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends are all eagerly waiting to get to know our kids again…well, and catch up with us a little!
Nora when we first moved and now
Titus at birth and at one year
Since we left the States, there have been family weddings, new babies born, loved ones lost. Furlough is a time for us to hold nephews and nieces for the first time, meet new family members, and finally embrace those we haven’t been able to grieve with in person. It’s a time of intense emotions – lots of joy, lots of tears, lots of excitement.
It’s also a time for visiting with churches, individuals and organizations that support us. Support comes in many forms – prayer, finances, emails, phone calls and more.
When missionaries are on furlough, it’s our priority to connect in person with those supporters. We want to hear about their lives and share about ours. It’s important to us that we maintain personal relationships with people. Supporters are invested in our ministry, so we also feel a responsibility to give them a report on what God has done and the vision we have for continuing.
We’ll catch up over dinner and coffee dates. Maybe we’ll share at home Bible study groups or business meetings. We’ll visit AWANA clubs and tell kids what it’s like to be a missionary. We’ll speak at Sunday morning and mid-week church services. There may be opportunities to set up a booth at conferences and network with new people.
Furlough also gives us a chance to eat foods we’ve missed and shop at stores we don’t have in Ukraine. We can stock up on spices and cooking ingredients that aren’t available where we live.
We’ll catch up on doctor’s appointments or healthcare needs that we haven’t been able to take care of in Ukraine for various reasons.
We’ll get to introduce our kids to favorite places from our “pre-missionary” lives, like state parks, museums, or the zoo. One of the things Josh and I most look forward to is hiking at our favorite state park and enjoying the beautiful colors of an Indiana fall.
Furlough is a privilege. Not so many years ago, missionaries left their homes and never saw loved ones again. I may not love the process of traveling back with small kids, but I’m thankful that at least we have that option. Goodbye for us doesn’t have to mean forever.
I’m thankful for every person who will meet with us in person, take the time to visit, reminisce and catch up. We’re beyond blessed by each church, business or organization that allows us to share about the work God is doing in L’viv.
But furlough isn’t really vacation.
What do you think of when you think “vacation?” Rest. Sleeping in. No schedule. Site-seeing. Laying on a beach. Hiking in the mountains.
There can be elements of “vacation” or “rest” during furlough. Sometimes we’re able to take a few days, maybe even a week to relax or see some new sites. But in general, furlough isn’t really a vacation. Why?
The schedule is packed full. Often a missionary will speak at a different church every Sunday, as well as having speaking engagements or supporter meetings throughout the week. There’s lots of travel for speaking and events. Right now, we’re communicating with people in at least ten different states.
There never, ever seem to be enough hours in the week to see all the friends and loved ones we’ve missed! We’re dying to catch up with people and often cram as many “hang-out times” as possible into a given day. Despite our best efforts, I usually end up feeling guilty or grieved that I wasn’t able to see enough of “this person” or meet up with “that person” just one more time.
We deal with reverse culture shock. I grew up as a missionary kid, and I can tell you – my first furlough as a 13-year old was actually a harder transition than moving to a foreign country.
You might think that going back to one’s native country would feel familiar and comfortable, but missionaries quickly realize that it’s not. We’ve changed, and so has everyone and everything around us.
We’re suddenly unsure about things like: how close should I stand to someone when we talk? How blunt can I be without offending? Why don’t people take off their shoes when they come in the house? Why can’t I think of that word in English?
We make embarrassing blunders left and right. Check out my earlier post for some of my family’s most comical furlough stories.
In the past, furlough also drove me to question my own cultural beliefs and values. I remember sitting in a friend’s car and weeping because I felt so guilty over my questions, my doubts about what is and what should be in life.
We’re not in our own environment. Furlough means an extended period of time living on the road or in other people’s homes. It’s often hard for small children to adjust from one place to the next, especially if much travel is involved. Sleep habits are disturbed, and the kids get cranky.
I worry about inconveniencing our hosts or getting in their way. I wonder how we should handle cooking, shopping, cleaning. For me, as a missionary parent, my biggest fears are that my kids will break things or act out (as every kid does), and that people will judge us or them.
This particular furlough, we’re blessed to have a “home base” with a dear friend who has extensive missionary experience. She will empathize with those cultural freak out moments and our whirlwind emotions. She’ll understand when the kids are jet lagging and awake at 3 AM. We’re extremely fortunate!
We’re not exactly “back home.” For me personally, this is the number one misconception. I think that’s because I’ve been both a missionary kid and an adult missionary.
Yes, I was born in America and spent many years there. I identify with my citizenship and am thankful for my native culture. I love the people that I miss there. But, it’s not completely home anymore, either.
We are thrilled to reunite with friends and family and supporters! But it’s bittersweet, because we know that life is going on without us in our new home. Just as we’ve missed important events back in the States, we’re now missing them in Ukraine. Furlough is a time of realizing that missionaries are never 100% at home, no matter where they are.
We hate the goodbyes. Over the years, I’ve found that the weeks and days just before leaving somewhere are the hardest emotionally. I would dread the goodbyes, the tears, the not knowing when I would see someone again. I’d choke back the lump in my throat, thinking about how much kids would grow before the next visit.
I don’t usually do that anymore. I rarely cry at airports. It’s not because I’m cold and unfeeling. I still hate saying, “Goodbye.” It’s just that I’ve learned that I personally cherish those last weeks more when I’m focusing on the present, not worrying about the future.
Furlough isn’t vacation. But is is a privilege and an honor. It’s not always restful. But it is a time of great fulness.
Thank you in advance to each person who reads this blog and will be taking the time to hang out with us this summer while we are on furlough!