They sat at my dining room table looking too tired to eat as they told us about their work overseas. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that look on a missionary’s face. We’d been hosting missionaries in our home for nearly twenty years, and I’d seen it many times before. Weary eyes that crinkle at the edges as they force a smile, shoulders that slump over their dinner plate, too tired and defeated to be held straight for another moment. The little ones shifted in their seats, casting a pleading gaze at their mother, their food hardly touched. She shook her head, a silent message that was met with a pout, but submission as the boy poked the food on his plate with a fork and kept quiet.
“How long have you been on the road this time?” my husband asked.
“Well, it took us two days to get here to you from our last stop, but we’ve been on the road off and on for nearly two months. We’ve just got another week to go in this furlough, and we’ll be headed home.”
“Wow. That must be tough. Have you had a good trip?”
The missionary nodded, his mouth twisted into a wistful smile.
I could see the hesitation in his eyes.
“You can be honest with us. We know how hard it is to travel like that, and most see it as a great big vacation. I’m sure the excitement wore off weeks ago.”
That’s when his wife started to cry. Silent tears at first that trickled out onto her lashes. When she sniffled, we glanced her way, and the dam that had been holding it back for weeks broke. Embarrassed, she jumped up from the table, and ran out of the room.
For many of us who support mission work in our local churches, we have very little idea of what it is like to live as a missionary, and even less what it is like to come “home” for furlough. But this time period is not only stressful, it can be the beginning of the end for a family in missions. The stress and expections of those back home can be too much for a family, and create wounds that grow into painful issues that destroy a family, and a career in ministry.
Although it may seem like a vacation since missionaries leave their place of work behind, and get to travel around the world on an extended road trip, furlough is NOT a vacation. Ignoring the pain of leaving your work behind for two months, and for a missionary work = people, it can be extremely overwhelming to begin such an extended trip, especially if you have children in tow. Long flights, weeks of driving, sleeping on pull out sofas, futons, and guest beds while your children are sometimes left on pallets on the floor is exhausting. Everywhere you visit is excited to see you (hopefully) but they have a long list of questions, and usually they are the same questions that you just answered twenty times in a row that week. And some of the questions aren’t nice, either. Often laced with prejudice, or even veiled threats, churches and family can both feel entitled to criticize your decisions for your family, your work, and any other choice you’ve made since moving overseas.
Most missionaries are required to visit every church who donates money, even if the total amount donated that year didn’t cover the gas needed to visit them on furlough. Every church has the right, and responsibility, to ask about how the ministry is progressing, but some take this too far. However, even if every single church treats the missionary with respect and love, it can be demoralizing and exhausting having to prove your worth again and again and again for two months straight. Your wife, and children are on display, too, and they better be on their best behavior. You can imagine how a three year old acts in Sunday class after driving all day the day before to arrive late, and then sleep on the floor. They’ve been forced to say hello and good bye too many times to count over the course of the last two months, and sitting still in church in their pretty dress just is asking too much. They’re ready to go home, and be quiet and play with their old toys again, but by now they may wonder if they’ll ever see home again. Two months is a long time in a toddler’s life, and it’s not her fault the grown ups in her world are expecting so much of her.
I’ve met hundreds of missionaries and ministers now in my life, and I guarantee not a single one of them want to say just how hard it really is for them to be constantly on trial. “It’s part of the job,” a minister said to me once. It may be true, but that doesn’t make it right.
Here are some ways we can make our missionaries and ministers feel more loved when they are on furlough:
Volunteer to host a visiting family, or invite them over for dinner.
Try your best to give everyone in the family their own bed. If necessary, book a comfortable hotel suite for them to stay in during their visit to your town.
If there isn’t a NEED to have them visit your congregation, let them know you are happy to see them on another visit. Let them off the hook, but reassure them their funding is secure.
Send them away with a basket of road trip treats like bottled water, cookies, and books or games for the kids.
Ask about more than their work. Show that you care about them as people, their family, and their feelings. If they are struggling, offer to connect them with a counselor through R & R Ministry.
Check in regularly with the family, and focus on loving them. Fight their fear that funding will be cut by communicating often, and encouraging them to keep doing their good work.
Surprise them with some time alone together as a family complete with everything they need to have a REAL vacation together. Plan ahead so that they can work it into their schedule before their trip begins since most families are on a tight schedule to visit as many places as possible. Need an idea to help you get started? Book them a stay at our chateau for their return trip to give them a quiet place to reconnect with one another and refocus on their mission before going back to work.
Are you a missionary with a few furlough stories to tell? Help us show the church that a little R & R could save a family. Share this post, and your story with the hashtag #RandRmatters on your favorite social media. Together, we’re helping those who share the good news around the world.