by Gail Gorfe
I hate the term home assignment. In fact, I think the term needs a complete overhaul. In recent years we’ve begun using the more modern “home assignment” as a replacement for the older idea of “furlough.” Furlough, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is defined as “a temporary leave from work that is not paid and is often for a set period of time.”
A furlough was the extended leave that missionaries were obliged take every four years to return to their home country. This goes back to a time when being a missionary was a lifetime career, a lifelong sacrifice to do God’s work. The missionaries would leave everything behind and take a boat journey across the world. The furlough was thus a one-year period during which the missionary would reacquaint themselves with their home country, spend time with family, attend meetings and trainings with their mission organization, and visit their supporting churches in order to raise enough money to return to their career calling for the next four years.
At some point in the last 20 or so years, the term home assignment has replaced the word furlough. In our modern world it is now much more common for missionaries and other cross-cultural workers to take no more than three to six months of home assignment time as opposed to the much longer furlough. The concept, however, is still the same, in that a home assignment is a period of time taken (or assigned) to reconnect in person with your prayer partners and financial partners. It is neither an extended holiday nor a time of rest and relaxation.
So why is the term home assignment so difficult to accept? In many ways it is the use of the word home in home assignment that causes many to feel uncomfortable. In this usage, “home” refers to the country where most of our financial support comes from. For many people working in missions, that country is their passport country; but this is very different from the concept of home. We can feel at home in the house of our parents or a close relative, within a neighbourhood or church community, or in a place we have never been if the people around us understand us. In the same way, we can be in a place that is part of our past and not feel at home. This is because at its core, home is anywhere you feel relaxed and comfortable, at ease, in harmony with your surroundings and on familiar ground[i]. Just the word home, in this context, inevitably brings a wide range of emotions when it is time for a home assignment.
For many in missions, this word home assignment unknowingly triggers the seven stages of grief[ii]. These seven stages of grief apply to anyone who suffers a sudden, unwanted change or major setback. In other words, a loss. We do not associate a missionary home assignment with loss, though you only need to talk to a missionary kid (MK), a third culture kid (TCK), or a person who has worked or is currently working in missions, to realize that loss exists, even if they are not fully aware of it.
So, what are these emotions in the seven stages of grief, and how do they relate to a home assignment?
The first stage is denial and isolation. This is where the word home really “hits home.” For many in the mission community, when we are told that it is time to take our home assignment, or when we realize it is inevitable (due to our financial situation), the first response is denial. It generally involves conversations like this: “We cannot leave now, there is so much work to do” or “We are just getting settled and familiar here, can’t we wait another year?” or “Our kids are in school, they cannot miss several months of their education” or “Where do we go, we don’t have a place to stay?” These difficult conversations happen between mission organizations and their members and between churches and family in the home country and their relatives across the world. But even harder are the conversations between husbands and wives, between parents and children, and among singles (who may have no one who truly understands).
As our world has become ever more multicultural, the home assignment discussions have taken on a totally new dynamic. There are families with multiple nationalities represented, and for them, the only place that feels like home is the country they are currently in. Or there are families like mine, where the place you live and serve is the home country of one spouse and where work and family obligations may mean that your spouse is not able to go along on a home assignment. This first stage is thus very isolating. There are often very few people who will understand, and that is a lonely and isolating place to be.
Stage two is anger. Even within one family, there are many ways in which the anticipated loss of home, routines, and family members brings out anger or at the very least, frustration, in spouses and children. There is anger or frustration towards the mission organization: for reminding us that we need to raise more support, for setting financial requirements that are too high or too low, for not having resources in place to assist us when we arrive. There is anger or frustration towards family on the other side of the world who do not understand how difficult it is to leave home, work, school, friends, and routines; who do not understand that a home assignment is not a holiday (even for the kids); who do not understand that living with them in their home is actually very stressful. There is frustration with the need to continually ask for more support from churches and donors, to make our work or life sound exciting and godly, to always be ready to answer questions, and to justify how we spend our money. Finally, there is inner anger or frustration for not being faithful in this journey and trusting God to provide. It is this inner frustration and anger that is the hardest to reconcile, as it often reveals a true self that we feel the need to hide. After all, how can we, as people serving God in our work, doubt Him?
Stage three is guilt. In the context of working in missions and the home assignment, guilt can linger long after the other stages of grief have been resolved. In going back to the meaning of home, it takes time to be comfortable and at peace in a new society and culture. When that culture is very different from your own, it also means a shift in values and priorities. When we come from a very individualistic and materialistic society, and we combine that with the words of the Bible, there are many aspects of the new culture that people will adopt in favour of what they have always known. This is one aspect that can bring guilt to people, including children, as it feels like a rejection of the (American, Canadian, European, etc.) citizen that we are expected to be. When this is accompanied by a desire to enjoy the Western lifestyle that is right in front of us, it can be very intense to release the guilt of those conveniences, knowing the circumstances of those we have left behind. The longer and more fully immersed you have been in the life and relationships of a different culture, the greater the guilt of leaving them behind while you move on, even temporarily.
Stage four is bargaining. At this stage we have come to terms with the need for a home assignment (whether it is a temporary or permanent return), and we are now negotiating both with ourselves and the different communities that we are a part of. It is the process of balancing the two sides to come to a personal understanding that will allow us to move forward. This includes accepting the need to leave our current home so that we can return to it in a few months with our finances in order and our relationships strengthened. For most people this includes taking gifts to the family and friends that we left behind and also bringing back with us some of the comforts of Western life — comforts which also help us pass through those moments of loneliness and isolation.
Stage five is pain. The pain of leaving this place that is home, and the pain of so many goodbyes, on both the start and end of the home assignment. The pain of decisions that we know are necessary, such as frequent travels going to different cities, living out of suitcases for far too long, and watching our children struggle without routines or friends and not understanding why.
Stage six is depression. This too affects everyone in different ways and may be short-lived for some and very ongoing for others. Frequent changes, losses, and re-adjustments to cultural norms—these all take their toll, and adults as well as children may struggle with depression after a home assignment ends. Being back home (on the other side of the world) is often the first moment of relaxation after several months away. Once again there is the need to reconcile the luxuries and conveniences of the places we have visited with the limitations of the place we call home. It is this place that is more home at that moment than the passport country that we have just returned from, where our home assignment took place. It is no wonder that there is depression and confusion, though these eventually lift and life returns to normal.
Stage seven is acceptance. There is acceptance in the early stages when we begin the planning for our home assignment, having completed the bargaining stage. And there is acceptance again when we have completed the travels and can evaluate the benefits that it has brought to our work and to our relationships. We must accept that this is the life God has placed us in, and it is the life we love, despite the ups and downs.
This is why I dread the conversations about a home assignment. I am home right here, whether that is for one more year, ten more years, or the rest of my life. God knows even when I don’t. I battle these stages of grief because I feel a loss of self, of identity, of my place in this world, when my work in missions requires me to question where I feel at home. At the same time, I know I’m dependent on the support that is needed to make a difference here. We have been blessed with the opportunity to transition between careers, cities, and even countries, yet somehow when serving in missions, we are also required to question our commitment to home as we follow God’s call on our lives.
Gail is a first-generation immigrant from the Netherlands to Canada. She moved with her Ethiopian husband back to his home country at the age of 23 and has now lived in Ethiopia for half her life. Gail ran an American Adoption agency for 15 years and has been working at a school in Addis Ababa for the past five years. She is currently working on her MBA. Gail and her husband are parents to four children and have one grandchild. Her family will soon be spread across three continents in the countries of Australia, the Seychelles, and Canada, as they are about to become empty nesters.