Imagine this scenario:
You get up at 5 am on a Sunday morning. You wake your groggy teenager, who protests loudly and grumpily enough to put everyone in the house in a bad mood. You rush around to get everyone out the door by 6 am so that you can make a two hour drive to arrive at church at 8. When you arrive, your five-year-old pitches a fit because he doesn’t remember this church and is scared to go to another new Sunday School. You hiss bribes and/or threats into his ear, because you are on display and need to make a good impression.
But you put on your happy face and start shaking hands with everyone in sight. You’ve visited this church before, so you remember a few names, but many more of them know you. You wrack your brain to recall names, jobs, children as 26 people greet you. You are ushered to the front row to be ready for your seven-minute presentation, which took you hours to tweak since you’ve never previously given one that is exactly seven minutes. After the service, you are taken to an adult fellowship class where you are asked to give a 35-minute presentation. During these presentations, you are expected to give a public account of how you spent your time and your money during the last three years.
After the service, a friendly face shakes your hand and asks you, “So, how is your vacation going?”
And you want to cry or howl or kick something.
Honestly, friends, this is one of the most demoralizing questions a missionary on home assignment ever gets. They know you mean well. You are probably thinking, You get to be away from the grind of ministry! You must be enjoying the advantages of home!
But what they hear is: Wow, you get a six month vacation every couple of years. Must be a pretty cushy life. And that’s discouraging. Because a home assignment is a far cry from a vacation.
This is what is important to know: Missionaries have two jobs. One job is the one you are familiar with–their cross-cultural ministry. The other job is to build and maintain the partnerships that keep them in that ministry.
Both jobs are incredibly important. A healthy missionary has a strong team of supporters behind them, and while overseas, maintaining those relationships is a part-time job. This looks like: Creating newsletters every month, sending out prayer requests weekly, maintaining a robust social media account, writing dozens of personalized thank you notes every year, answering supporters’ emails, buying gifts for supporters, and creating videos or filling out questionnaires, or joining in on Zoom calls. That’s on top of full-time ministry and navigating a cross-cultural life.
And when home assignment (or furlough, or deputation) rolls around, that’s when this second job kicks into their full-time job. Home assignment looks like: Speaking at a different church every Sunday, meetings every day, lots of phone calls and emails. Preparing presentations, because each church wants something different. Lots of time on the road traveling. Following partnership leads, initiating relationships, hosting dinners and dessert nights.
You won’t hear a lot of complaining. Missions must be a team effort by everyone in God’s Church, and missionaries feel incredibly privileged to be the ones that get sent out. Building those partnerships is vital and they are an incredible blessing that feeds the missionary’s soul.
But being on home assignment is a job, it is usually exhausting, and it is definitely not a vacation. In fact, many missionaries would say that coming stateside for home assignment is the part of their job that’s the hardest. Though it’s called “home assignment,” it doesn’t usually feel like home. The constant travel, feeling on display, and helping their kids navigate so much transition can be wearying. Missionaries often look forward to getting back to their lives overseas so that life won’t be so crazy! That means that when someone assumes they are on vacation, it’s disheartening.
So what should you say to a missionary on home assignment?
Hug them. Tell them something specific you enjoyed about their presentation. Mention something that stood out to you from one of their newsletters. Reassure them you are praying regularly for them. Ask them the non-spiritual questions.
And if you really want to make their day? How about, I hope you’re planning a vacation while you are on home assignment. Would you like to borrow our cabin for a few days?