fur·lough noun ˈfər-(ˌ)lō
(a) a leave of absence from duty granted especially to a soldier;
(b) an antiquated word still used by churches to describe time missionaries spend in their home country.

“When is your next furlough?” the letter from First Church asks us. Furlough? Leave of absence? Here in the 2000s,  missionaries don’t get furloughs anymore. Home service, home assignment, or just a few weeks of time in the home country before returning to their REAL home, where they live and work – is that furlough?

Furlough was what missionaries did every fifth year when they took a boat to go to the ends of the earth. Like the leave of absence from duty granted to a soldier, it was a time to return from the rigors of working in a foreign land, to recover physically, to reconnect with churches and family members who had not been seen face to face for four long years.

Life has changed

Missionaries can be in daily, almost hourly, contact with friends, churches, and family in other parts of the world thanks to Facebook, Twitter, email, Facetime, Skype, etc., etc., etc. In fact, many missionaries say they could do with a little LESS Internet contact, not more — but that’s another story.

Need a mission speaker in your church? It’s not unusual for the church to fly one of their missionaries home from Europe, Asia, or Africa for a conference.

The Internet does have a downside

The constant exposure of little notes, messages, quick back-and-forth interactions means that most churches feel they know what their missionaries are doing and don’t need any extended time with them. The “furlough” updates where missionaries gave detailed reports to their supporters have turned into one- to five-minute mission moments in the Sunday service. Rather than gathering together for prayer, requests go out on email. These changes aren’t wrong, but they can leave missionaries at a loss about how to interact in-depth with their supporters and churches. Facebook is a great place to post news, but it just doesn’t cut it when there are gut-wrenching prayer needs and spiritual battles going on that could use some genuine face time.

Not a vacation

“Furlough” is not vacation, and that’s why missions call it “home service” or “home assignment.” No matter what you call it, most missions still ask their workers to commit much of their time to nurturing relationships with their support base (and often raising support) — aside from continuing education, training to further enhance their ministry, and interacting with aging parents, grown children, extended family, and close friends who live in the home country.

When someone says to a returning missionary, “I wish I got that much time off,” this reflects a lack of understanding of what the missionary needs to be doing during those three months, or one month, or even a year for those folks who keep to the traditional schedule of four years on the field/one year off the field.

“Furlough” is part of the entire work schedule of missionaries and is vital to their ongoing spiritual development, mental health, and ministry effectiveness. Have you ever discussed “furlough” with your missionary friends? Does your church understand how to use swiftly changing communication to the best advantage, while still allowing for extended face-to-face interaction when your missionaries are nearby? Do you ask your missionaries how you can strategically use them? Conversation is valuable. Communication is absolutely essential. Embrace the present and work together to figure out what works today.

Continue the conversation

If you are the returning missionary, do you understand your agency’s home service policies? Do your donors and supporting churches? Have you had this conversation with them? 

If you are the pastor or global outreach chair of a local church, do you understand the home service policies of each of the missionaries you support? Have you asked them or their agency for specific information?

Keep reading … 

How we home serviced: Our approach changed drastically as our family grew and the length of our times back in the States shrank. Find out what we did right — and what we did wrong.

A car for $1.00! (And other amazing, wonderful missionary gifts): Our workers reflect on the many, many generous ways churches and supporters have welcomed them back for home service.

Six pitfalls to avoid when welcoming missionaries on home service: A few suggestions for those of us who tend to open mouth, insert foot — maybe without even realizing it.

Banner photo by Avi Richards