The Emotional Progression of a Home Assignment

The last four weeks leading up to our first home assignment were chaotic. It was our first return to our passport country after three years. Our to-do list was 38 items strong, some items as simple as “pick up extra cat food” and some as complex as “find a car.” By the time we had said all of the final goodbyes and boarded our first flight, the relief was palpable. We were finally on our way, and what was done was done. (And perhaps more importantly, what wasn’t done wasn’t.)

Our first day outside of our ministry location was blissful. I distinctly remember feeling as free as bird – and being slightly disturbed for feeling so very free. What exactly were those weights lifted that resulted in such a weightless feeling? At the end of our first week, I had identified three key cultural stress areas that had clearly been affecting me more than I realized, and the idea of entering back into those specific difficulties was more than I could bear. And so began the tumultuous emotional journey of our first home assignment.

Emotional resolution #1: I don’t think we can ever return.

Over the next couple of months, my husband and I talked extensively through these cultural stress areas. We also debriefed with our member care friend and with other close friends around us. Questions of calling began to arise. Were we serving overseas because we thought it was the most meaningful way we could serve God? Were we basically deceiving ourselves with a works-based mentality of earning favor with God? And, wow, if any of this was deeply true, should we even be doing this kind of work?

Emotional resolution #2: I don’t know if I want to be a mission worker anymore.

The ambiguity of our future increased because our return was uncertain for reasons outside of our control. And that caused us to question even more. Maybe we were not supposed to be living in that ministry area. Maybe we were not supposed to be involved in mission work anymore. We considered career changes, country changes, all of the changes. Maybe we should not be in ministry, maybe we are not qualified for ministry.

I began to tire of the traveling life of home assignment and of the lack of personal space for our family. I missed our friends and coworkers in our ministry area. All of the questioning and traveling and evaluating and discerning took a heavy emotional toll. And all of this transpired in the middle of seeking to honestly share about our life and work in our ministry area at churches, with partners and friends. The desire for my own bed and my own kitchen and my own routine was deep and strong.

My emotional resolution #3: I’m ready to go home…wherever that is.

We continued sorting through questions of calling. What did we even believe about God’s call on our lives? We talked more about God’s sovereignty and our own selfishness in making decisions and how God works in spite of all that. We talked through what we felt we were gifted at and what we liked to do. We sorted through the many needs that faced us and tried to discern where best to focus our time and energy. We began to feel renewed and rested, spiritually and emotionally, and refreshed in our roles as parents, as spouses, as mission workers. We began to regain the smallest sense of passion for the work we had been doing.

Emotional resolution #4: I think maybe God has called us to this ministry area.

Where God leads, he also provides sustaining grace. Had I not experienced so very much of God’s good grace over the last three years? Had he not sustained our family so well despite stresses and hardships? Our understanding of God’s calling matured, and our desire to serve him in ministry was refreshed, not from a place of owing God or working for him, but rather from a place of surrender of our lives, of committing to be part of the bigger kingdom work. All work is God’s work, and our role is to be faithful with the work he has given, where he has given it to us.

Emotional resolution #5: I am ready and willing, Father; use me as you see fit.

With some level of excitement, we anticipated our return, less than a month away now. The ambiguity of our return remained, but we felt confident God would bring us back to this work.

As God would have it, we received visas and the green light to go ahead back to our ministry area in March 2020. We arrived three days before our country shut its borders, with Covid enveloping the world.

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Our family has just returned to our ministry area after our second home assignment. We have now lived and worked in South Africa for over seven years, and there’s a sense of rootedness that comes with time and investment. Even still, I am grateful to have realized that there will always be an emotional progression on a home assignment. We will always need to do deep emotional work while away from our overseas home.

And while this second home assignment did not look exactly the same as our first home assignment, the stages were remarkably similar and had a sense of familiarity about them. Oh, I’ve been here before, my heart could say. In hope, I could look forward to God bringing my heart back around to willing service and obedience. And with gratitude, I can say that he did.

A Letter to My Sending Churches

To my dear Sending Churches,

We are coming to the end of our six-month furlough, and my heart is full. It is full of thanksgiving.

I am thankful for how you opened your homes and your lives to our family, loving us while we were here temporarily. Thank you for the boxes of winter clothes that awaited us when we arrived from the airport underdressed for the cold weather. Thank you for being willing to find us a car, research public school options ahead of time, and surprise us with food boxes at Christmastime.

Thank you for your love and support, which have spanned both the ocean and the years—your prayers, emails, and snail mail have been a lifeline for us. Thank you for welcoming our children into your Sunday school classrooms, embracing them with love and patience. We have experienced Christ’s love through you all.

Thank you for trying to understand our stories, for the times you asked open questions and let us try to find words to answer. Thank you for the invitations to meals, the conversations over tea, and the kite-flying birthday parties.

We are coming to the end of our furlough, and my heart is full. It is full of grief.

I grieve the painful conversations and moments of feeling judged as insufficient. Some questions reverberate in my head, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Comments like, “So what are you actually doing to fight poverty?” Or, “From your newsletters it sure seems like you focus more on communicating the gospel through deeds rather than the gospel in words.” And, “If your students do not become Christians, aren’t you just educating them for Satan?”

I want to answer graciously, lovingly, and patiently. I want to believe that you ask these questions out of love, that you still support us even if you do not understand our context or our methods. I want to try to help you understand.

But I am also exhausted. I am tired of being on a pedestal. Missionaries are not superheroes or magic-workers. We have no short cuts in solving the world’s problems. We are just trying to follow Christ, as we believe we are called to, in a different culture than you. We are figuring it out as we are going along, and surely messing up as we go—but we are trying. Please, believe that we are doing the best we can. We are on the same team—team Love Jesus.

When we share openly about our ministry, we’re not asking you to observe it with a magnifying glass, looking for errors. We’re not asking for a “grade” or a “rating.” We’re asking you to listen, to hear the pain as we share disappointments and heartbreaks on the field. We’re asking you to be patient, as we also are learning to be patient, and remember that we cannot force results. We’re asking you to be gentle with us, because we feel fragile as we prepare to cross the ocean again and re-enter all the painful realities of our other home.

Recently, a member care friend from our sending organization came to visit, and she brought two rubber duckies. A “yay duck” and a “yuck duck.” A pair-of-ducks. A paradox. We discussed the yays and yucks of life on the field and the challenge and invitation to hold them together.  I am realizing that this pair-of-ducks is not only for when I am in Indonesia, but also true for all of life. And definitely true of furlough. There are beautiful memories and painful memories. And as I think of these last six months, I will try to hold this paradox with open hands.

Thank you for loving us. Thank you for sending us. And please, keep learning about the pair-of-ducks with us.

As our furlough comes to an end and we say our goodbyes, please do not forget us. Know that your letters, your emails, your WhatsApp messages, and your times of praying for us are very important. Even as the years continue to pass and our sending churches change, it is important to us to know that halfway around the world, you care.

With laughter and tears,
until we meet again,
Anita

Home Assignment Is _________?

by Kayle Hardrick

Home Assignment is winding down. We are turning our sights towards preparing to return to our host country and to our work there. We are trying to fit in all the last visits we haven’t had a chance to make yet and purchasing the things we had been wishing we had in Cambodia with us the last few years. We are slowly starting to look at weight and space for packing our suitcases. I keep thinking about what Home Assignment is like. How do I describe it?

It is like packing up your family over and over to see people you love and feeling like each visit is not long enough with those people. It feels like fun family times in a car and new experiences because of generous friends and supporters—like driving an RV. It is getting to do things you never thought you’d get to do and being reminded of all the things you would be doing if you lived in your passport country. It is missing your host country and the things happening there while you are away. It is feeling at home in many homes because the people in each home love you like family.

It is buying groceries in many different grocery stores and cooking in a dozen kitchens. It is doing laundry in all kinds of washing machines and sleeping in so many beds of various sizes. It is hauling exhausted children to nine different states and being so proud of them for making friends, enjoying time with extended family, and having relatively wonderful attitudes throughout it all. It is meeting people you have never met in person and being so thankful they have lived this life and for the grace they have with your kids. They understand when your kids just can’t have the manners they should have that evening.

It is watching your kids feel safe and secure because they see and understand the vastness of the family of God. It is your daughter making friends in Sunday School at every different church you attend and opening up her world and her new friend’s world to more. Home Assignment is visiting so many different churches because people you love have found a community they love there, and you want to see it and engage with it. It is having conversations with your kids about all the different church traditions you have gotten to experience over your time.

Home Assignment is lots of coffee, trying old and new foods, and bonding with others. Home Assignment is encouraging others in their lives here in our passport country and being encouraged by them for our work in our host country. Home Assignment is lots of extended family time that you wish would last forever. It is finding a church you can just be in, rest, and enjoy. Home Assignment is being encouraged by the home office because you see more of the big picture within your organization. Home Assignment is far too long and far too short all at the same time.

Originally shared in a newsletter.

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Kayle and her husband Chris serve with Engineering Ministries International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they have lived for nearly six years. In addition to homeschooling their three kids, Kayle helps with onboarding and language learning at the EMI office, serves on the board of a small NGO-run school in town, and facilitates continuing education courses for cross-cultural workers around the world through Grow2Serve. She loves swimming, hiking, being outside even in the Cambodian heat, and spending time with people.

Furlough is Coming

 

‘Twas the day before furlough and all through the house,
Everybody was crazy, even the mouse.

With kilograms counted and carry-ons packed,
The dad will get asked, “Can I fit this last sack?”

With Ma on her IG and Pa on his Twitter,
They’ll update their close friends through one last newsletter.

Frazzled and frayed, the start of a furlough,
The family boards early with one last cold Milo.

Onboard entertainment will probably help
Pass the time and the sadness, and the little one’s yelp.

The children will sleep, if they’re any the wiser;
Jet lag comes for all, the great equalizer.

Arrival with greetings and baggage galore!
“Now pick up the kid sleeping on the floor.”

A welcome is waiting at somebody’s house,
Along with green grass and a bed without louse.

Selah

Awakened and rested, two weeks have now passed.
It seems like a dream the term that was last.

No VPNs needed! No guards at the gate!
And Grandma and Grandpa let parents go date.

“Another world that.” They’ll say to each other,
Debriefing and telling it all to the Mother.

Then shopping will start, making up for lost time,
Enjoying the produce and actual lines.

“The stores are so huge!” They’ll gasp and they’ll stammer,
With carts made for tonnage like fridges and jammers.
“All the things in one place?” A small child’s amused;
A TCK so he’s often confused.

The church is so clean, inviting and nice!
It’s also, turns out, surprisingly white.

The parks are amazing and so well maintained;
The trash is discarded and canines restrained.

Folks think that they’re on an extended vacation,
Relaxing and soaking up big adulations.

“Please Father forgive them, they just do not see,
The pressures and burdens of this ministry.”

The family will travel in borrowed van and,
They’ll tell all their stories and hope that you can,
Listen and care some, then get on your knees,
And join them in this work, their Life Overseas.

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Taking the Hypocrisy Out of Home Ministry Assignment

by Michèle Phoenix

Hypocrisy is a topic we don’t like to address in the missionary community—perhaps because of the unspoken reality that a little bit of deception has sometimes proven to be good for ministry. (I’m not condoning it, just acknowledging it.) But where does “putting your best foot forward” end and “misrepresenting yourself” begin?

The line is blurred in this world where personal relationships are often financial partnerships too.

If there’s one chapter of ministry that disguises the line even more, it’s HMA.

HMA (Home Ministry Assignment) is a necessary endeavor. It’s a chance for missionaries and their children to reconnect with their passport culture, to visit family and friends they haven’t seen in a while and to check in with churches and individuals who support their work.

Unfortunately, without careful management and execution, HMA can also teach observant children some unintentional lessons about relative honesty and incomplete disclosure.

We MKs learn the tricks of the trade by watching our parents.

We see them responding with a polite smile to people making comments they fiercely disagree with. We see them being more friendly with potential donors than they’d be with the grocer or a relative. We see them saying eloquent prayers in public that they’d never utter at home. We see them laughing with too much vigor or accepting offense with too much willingness—all in what we assume is an attempt to keep everyone happy…and generous.

Note: I don’t think most people set out to misrepresent who they are or what they think. It’s just one of the ways we can go off-track if we let the approval of others or fundraising mandates become the driving force of our HMA efforts.

Many MKs develop a flawed Philosophy of Furlough at an early age:

  • If supporters like us, they’ll support us.
  • If they don’t like us, they’ll stop supporting us.
  • If they stop supporting us, we’ll have to leave the field and Life-As-We-Know-It will come to an end.

Because a common MK trait is taking on the burdens of our world, we assume that the survival of Life-As-We-Know-It depends in great part on us.

So we enter into the HMA experience feeling the pressure to influence the outcome, even if that means being something other than our true selves. We try our hardest to be cute, winsome, talented, polite and well-behaved. We’ll eat the mushrooms we hate so as not to offend our hosts. We’ll recite John 3:16 in four languages any time we’re asked. We’ll do it all because we’re pretty sure we’re the persuasive props brought along for that purpose.

We live out the cynical premise that performance plus schmoozing equals getting to return home at the end of HMA.

Living in that distorted truth can be debilitating.

When I was sixteen, I sat in a service with my parents after a pre-church morning that had bristled with marital tension. I listened to my dad giving a heartfelt sermon while my mom still fumed in the pew beside me. I braced myself to sing the song that, in my mind, was supposed to “seal the deal” and ensure continued support. The responsibility was an anvil in my stomach as I got up to sing “There is a Savior” with sweet, practiced conviction. A couple ladies pulled out their Kleenexes as I finished and I felt a thrill of victory. My parents got up to make a final statement, standing close and smiling. The church applauded. Successful performance. Life-As-I-Knew-It had been preserved.

So wrong. So un-Christlike.

This mode of influence can be easily normalized in any field where image yields profit. In ministry, however, it takes on spiritual overtones…as if God Himself required it of us. When hypocrisy is attributed to God’s expectations for the sake of his work, it becomes even more sinister and destructive.

Marriage trouble? Don’t ever mention it. Missionary discord? Never refer to it. Ministry discouragement and attrition? Not something we discuss. Problems with lust, money-mismanagement, unethical behaviors? Nobody needs to know. Why? Because even we have bought into the myth that ministry requires that we present a certain image in order to fund our work.

The repercussions of this perspective on honesty and truth can be far-reaching.

If MKs have spent their childhood observing relationships in which approval (and its payoff) is obtained through something that looks like insincerity—or at the very least, careful image management—should we not be concerned about the honesty they’ll bring to the rest of their relationships? How will they find the courage and confidence to risk showing their flaws? And who will they lose to their inability to do so?

In my work with Missionaries’ Kids, I’ve encountered far too many who return to their passport culture to live long-term, believing that relationships will only be achieved through the same kind of selective self-revelation they saw in their parents on HMA. It’s a subconscious tendency that can lead to relational failure.

Early exposure to hypocrisy can affect our ability to be real with ourselves too.

We so keenly feel the pressure to live up to the expectations of others that some of us resort to hiding behind strategically crafted masks, berating ourselves when we let them slip.

We become fierce in our fakeness. Fearful too. And the habit can get so ingrained that we’re not even aware we’re living according to a destructive mandate to be something other than ourselves. It can prevent us from seeking help, maturing and finding an identity born of integrity.

At its worst, our hypocrisy—even just perceived hypocrisy—can eventually cause MKs to dismiss God, Christians and faith itself.

When the God of Truth is represented by envoys who rely on untruth to “get the job done,” it can cause a destabilizing disconnect that skews one’s outlook on all spiritual things. I’ve seen it happen. It is heart-wrenchingly tragic when it does.

How can we begin to reverse this trend? I’ll offer a handful of suggestions below, but please contribute yours too in the comments space beneath this post.

Change must begin with parents—they’re the ones who demonstrate authenticity and set the tone for HMA.

In everyday life:

  • Be real and vulnerable with people you can trust…especially in public. (Dare to defy the unspoken “be perfect or pretend” missionary motto.)
  • Demonstrate how honesty and vulnerability are healthy, especially when they lead to help, healing, and wholeness.
  • Set God’s expectations and grace as a standard, not a church’s or supporter’s approval.

During HMA:

  • Make sure your MKs know that you’re the adult, you’re the public persona, you’re the one shouldering the burden, the effort and the outcome.
  • Relieve your children of any responsibility for the results of your fundraising.
  • Tell your children what your financial situation really is, in terms they understand, so they don’t live in fear of immediate bankruptcy.
  • Validate your kids’ talents, but don’t use them as mere strategies and fundraising tools.
  • Give them the option not to participate in your HMA meetings or attend youth classes. They need to know that they have some degree of control over their part of your furlough. (You may need to clearly express this to supporters and church leaders too, if they pressure your children to be more involved than they want to be.)
  • Make sure your MKs know that you don’t expect them to change in order to be liked by potential donors. The same behavioral rules that apply behind closed doors apply on HMA.
  • Demonstrate Who and what really motivates your exchanges with the people you interact with—God and relationship, not dollar signs.

I’d be remiss not to mention the role of The church in addressing this issue.

Missionaries who have dared to be real in public settings have sometimes been met with judgment and disapproval by people who think they should be paragons of strength, resilience, virtue and unblemished character. Expressing concerns about team discord or personal challenges on the field has too often been interpreted as being unsuited for ministry rather than prompting a collaborative pursuit of solutions and healing.

In order for missionaries to be real, churches need to allow them to be fully human. The following is an incomplete list of suggestions. Again—please add yours in the comments at the end of this post.

  • Give missionaries permission to experience struggles. (You’re supporting real people who are just as susceptible to sin and weakness as anyone else.)
  • Out of relationship, ask personal questions with loving intentions.
  • Offer a safe place in which they can voice their failures and find compassionate help.
  • When they visit you with their MKs, demand nothing from the children except that they be children accompanying Mom and Dad. Let the family decide how much they’ll be involved.

I can’t end without saying that I’ve seen countless missionary families who have lived authentically on HMA! I’d go so far as to say that a majority of them do, sometimes at the cost of being misunderstood. It takes courage to be real in the face of unreasonable expectations. Let’s affirm and support each other toward that goal for the sake of the children who are watching and learning.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

When a country is etched into your soul

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When I’m in Cambodia, I assume that I think like an American and that I act like one too — because in many ways I do. But then I return to America and discover I’ve forgotten some key facts about the way Americans live in America. Things like:

  1. Americans don’t throw their toilet paper in the trash can. (Oops.)
  2. Americans pump their own gas. (You expect me to do what?!)
  3. Americans give and receive objects with one hand, not two. (Still working on that one.)
  4. Americans inherently know how to use shower curtains. (Unlike my children.)
  5. Americans don’t point with their middle fingers. (Also unlike my children.)
  6. Americans don’t get offended if you motion them to “come here” with your palms and fingers pointed up. (I, however, now am offended by palms-up gestures. Even in movies.)
  7. On the other hand, Americans may very well be offended if you ask them their age. (Oops again.)
  8. Americans in America don’t worry over torn or ripped dollar bills and will use them even if they’re not in pristine condition. (Which is one less thing to worry about at the ATM.)
  9. Americans (in Suburbia) don’t lock doors and windows obsessively like I do.
  10. Americans don’t worry about shoes in the house. (Is it because of the vacuum cleaners??)

Much more deeply than these surface-level customs, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Cambodia has been etched into my soul. I’ve encountered God so fiercely, so intimately, and so many times in Cambodia that it’s been written into my heart.

In prayer, in Bible study, in worship, and in fellowship with other believers, Cambodia has marked me. It has been for me Bethel, the house of God, a gateway to heaven. It has been for me Beer-lahai-roi, the well of the Living One who sees me.*

It’s where I’ve found purpose and calling in writing and encouraging fellow sojourners. It’s where I’ve fallen deeper in love with God and with His church. How can I not love Cambodia??

Sometimes I love God so much in Cambodia that I forget He’s also in America. My first home assignment was really spiritually dry. Almost like a desert, in fact. It made me want to hurry back to Cambodia. It also made me nervous about returning to the States a second time.

And sure enough, one morning early in this current visit, I was out on my parents’ deck, discouraged and feeling sorry for myself. God, where are you? Why are you so hard to find in America?

In the midst of my pity party, Jonathan walked out. He listened to me complain about my circumstances. Then he told me, “Remember, if you can find God in Cambodia, then you can find Him here.”

Ouch! Exhortation received, dear husband. And thankfully, I’m here to say it’s true. This time, I’m finding Him here. I’m seeing Him and I’m hearing Him. He’s not silent. He’s not far away.  He is present. And He is good.

I miss my raggedy red couch in Cambodia; it’s true. I miss my palm trees and my early morning meetings with God, drinking my cheap coffee in a room thick with heat, street noise, and river dust.

I relish the comforts of first world living — the plush carpets and the comfy furniture. And I delight in the joy of meeting old friends. But I miss the pressure cooker of God’s love and the fellowship of like minds that I’ve found overseas.

I also know that in two months’ time, I’ll slide right back into my old, familiar routines. I’ll rise on the wings of the dawn and fly straight back to Bethel, back to Beer-lahai-roi. For the present, however, I’ll continue to meet God wherever and however He shows up.

*Genesis 16:14

How has your host country been etched into your soul?

Do have difficulty finding God when you visit your passport country? How do you deal with it?