Editor’s note: Ah, May. The school year’s drawing to a close. The summer months beckon. And, for many missionaries, it’s time to pull out the suitcases and dive into home service (a.k.a. furlough, a.k.a. home assignment). This month, we’ll focus on tips and strategies for making the most out of what is most certainly NOT a vacation.
I’ve heard tell that some missionaries raise most of their support from churches, but that is not our family’s story. Though we do enjoy some very generous church support, individuals make up the bulk of our team. Goodness, those folks are so kind to us! On our home services, we eagerly looked forward to connecting with the 80 or so individuals and couples who regularly and sacrificially allowed us to serve in Ukraine.
Over the past 12 years, as our family grew and our ministry roles changed, we employed four distinct approaches to connecting with our supporters. Thankfully, almost all of them lived in one of two areas of California, so putting 20,000 miles on our car in six months also wasn’t our family’s story (but traveling mercies to those of you who ARE living that story).
Here’s what we tried and what we learned. I hope our experiences might spark some ideas — for both supporters and missionaries — that will help you connect with one another!
First home service
Family: Just hubby and me, pregnant with our first.
Length: Five months
The challenge: Since it was our first time back, we didn’t know what to expect and arrived without a strategy for seeing our supporters or managing our budget.
Approach: Meet people in restaurants.
Pluses: We got to eat all our favorite foods that we’d been pining for during our first two years in Ukraine.
Minuses: Sometimes we paid, sometimes our supporters paid — either way, it was expensive. To give people a glimpse of our life in Ukraine, we hauled around a photo album and tried to look at it without knocking over water cups or sticking it in the ketchup. Conversations felt rushed, especially once the bill arrived. Eating out two times a day grew old. And we gained so.much.weight. Yes, I was pregnant, but the baby weighed 6 pounds and I gained 60.
Would I recommend this approach? Nope. Too rushed, too impersonal, too unhealthy, too expensive.
Second home service
Family: Hubby, me and first son, age 2
Length: Ten months
The challenge: Avoid restaurants; focus on relationships.
Approach: Invite couples or families, one at a time, over to our rental house for Ukrainian food.
Pluses: This approach felt so personal. We could sit around the table and talk as long as we liked. We hung a big bulletin board in our dining nook and covered it with pictures from Ukraine, which sparked discussion and made it easy to give people a glimpse of our lives there. For the few folks who couldn’t make it to our rental house, we were able to deliver a home-cooked Ukrainian meal to them.
Minuses: To keep the food prep simple, I cooked the same meal over and over (borscht and stuffed cabbage). Stuffed cabbage had been our very favorite Ukrainian food — but after this home service, it was a good year before either of us could stomach it again! This approach also proved logistically challenging; it was a lot of meetings to schedule.
Would I recommend this approach? Yes! But I’d vary the menu and would start setting up the schedule long before we landed in the States. People’s schedules fill up, so I’d try to get meetings on the calendar a couple of months in advance.
Third home service
Family: Hubby, me and two sons, ages 7 and 3
Length: Four months
The challenge: Tight time frame and young children.
Approach: Invite people, in groups of 6-8 adults, to our rental condo for Ukrainian food (but NOT stuffed cabbage).
Pluses: As our kids started attending national school in Ukraine, our home services became limited to the summer months, which meant we had to find a way to see people more efficiently. This approach met that need. We tried to invite people who we knew had some kind of natural connection (all were widows, or all attended the same Sunday school class), so the conversation always proved interesting. We made blini and served them with a variety of fillings, letting people build their own to suit their tastes. (No stuffed cabbage was served.) By this point, we’d also learned to devote one suitcase to goodies — special napkins and interesting candies — that made each meal feel unique without requiring a lot of effort.
Minuses: This approach suited our extrovert child very well — so well that it was hard to get some grownup conversation in without him around. But it proved very overwhelming for our introvert child. Much screen time ensued. Also, while this felt more personal than the restaurant approach, it definitely didn’t feel as relational as the one-family-at-a-time approach.
Would I recommend this approach? Yes, especially for a short home service.
Fourth home service
Family: Hubby, me and three sons, ages 9 and 5 and 1
Length: Six weeks
The big challenge: Ridiculously tight time frame and even more young children. Also, we realized that we were giving our families short shrift when we were back in the States, so we wanted to find ways to prioritize time with them, too.
Approach: Offer three open houses; send out a mass invite to all our supporters.
Pluses: Given the brevity of this home service, we needed to see as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Open houses proved extremely efficient. We put together one presentation and repeated it three times, on different days of the week so that (hopefully) at least one date would work for everyone who wanted to attend. We put a lot of thought into what we said, rather than just chatting with folks and letting the conversation determine what we shared. And — a big plus for our kids — the boys didn’t have to sit through night after night of dinners with people they barely knew, hearing stories they’d already heard over and over and over. This also freed up time to spend with family. (We also got the stomach flu for a week. Only the grandparents would hang out with germ-ridden us, so we ended up spending lots of time together!)
Minuses: Very impersonal. We didn’t even get a chance to talk with everyone who came to the open houses, much less have a meandering conversation about life. It was hard to know how many people to expect at each event, which made planning and food prep challenging. I get social anxiety in big groups and worry that I’ll forget the names of people I’ve known for 20 years, so I always felt really tense beforehand. Also, formal presentation don’t attract young families. As a mom of three, I completely understand, and we tried to offset this issue by still meeting individually with families with kids. We kept those gatherings super casual — just picked up pizza or bagels and hung out in a local park.
Would I recommend this approach? Not really. Given our time frame and the ages of our kids, it was the right choice for us in that season — but six weeks just wasn’t long enough to connect with lots of people in a meaningful way. (Also, I never recommend the stomach flu.)
Your turn: We’re curious, how have YOU home serviced? What challenges do you face when you’re back in your passport country, and how have you tried to overcome them? What brilliant home service hacks can you share to help the rest of us out?
And, for churches and supporters, how have missionaries connected with you in meaningful ways? Anything we could do differently?
Keep reading …
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.
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.
The Internet affects furlough, too: Being able to keep in constant communication sometimes makes it hard to know how to share when you’re face-to-face.