Coming back to the States on a missionary furlough was always a strange experience. Preparing the ministry for our absence, subletting our home and arranging appointments from the field were only some of the preparation. Living out of suitcases as guests, we tried to meet with as many churches, supporters and family members as possible. Our time in America was good, and we enjoyed it, but it was work and we always looked forward to getting back to our overseas home.
This is probably why so many mission organizations have taken to calling the missionary furlough a “home assignment.” While hopefully there is time to catch up with family and friends, coming to the States is not a break. For most missionaries, us included, furloughs certainly were not vacations or sabbaticals as some suggested to us. I want to offer a list of six reasons why missionaries take furloughs.
Our Lord is relational and as His image bearers we are designed to be relational. This is why most missionaries look forward to reconnecting with loved ones while on furlough. It is an opportunity for missionary kids to reconnect and deepen relationships with extended family —and their passport culture. Furlough becomes a time to meet any new family members and reconnect with family traditions.
After their mission, Jesus pulled the disciples aside for a time of rest and renewal (Mark 6:31). A great reason for furlough is for missionaries to take time for a formal debriefing and refreshing. Some home churches require the debriefing before approving return to the field. Most missionaries, not only those who have experienced hardship or crisis, would do well to seek a debriefing.
Technology and techniques are always changing. Time off the field may be an excellent time to catch up, be trained or learn new methods of ministry.
For most missionaries, the need to constantly be adding to the prayer and support list is a necessity. It may even determine if they are returning to the field. Raising prayer and financial support is very difficult from the field and may be among the primary reasons to come on furlough.
Among the most important purposes of home assignment is to personally thank churches and individuals as they are reminded of their equal partnership in the gospel ministry God has called the missionary to. The reminder is that God is doing a great work, and their participation is counted as fruit to their account.
While furlough may not be relaxing, it gives a distance from day to day ministry on the mission field. This distance, along with conversations with respected ministry leaders, allows for reassessment of the work possibly leading to adjustment and refocusing for the next season of ministry.
Furloughs can be many things. They can be fun and exciting, and yet exhausting and expensive. They are times of engaging with many friends and loved ones, yet they are often times of pressure for missionary couples and their children. The furlough can be encouraging as the missionary sees how ministry is continuing in their home church, yet deeply concerning for the ongoing work on the field without them.
Beyond all, the missionary furlough is needed. There is much to be said on what should happen on a furlough, and how to plan a furlough, but this was meant to explain why missionaries take furloughs.
Ed Compean, along with his family, served as missionaries in Kenya and Mexico for more than 12-years. He is now engaged in church relations and communications at Shepherd’s Staff Mission Facilitators.