On Furlough: What Returning Missionaries and Home Churches Want
by Brad Hill
Ten ways missionaries on furlough and mission committees and churches can bless each other.
After serving as missionaries in Niger for three years, Ben and Flora Walcott and their three children are “home” for a year. Your church is one of their main supporting churches and they opt to locate near you. Your church wants to help, but after the initial warm welcome and move-in assistance, people are at a loss for how to be helpful. They may get two questions: When did you get home? and When do you go back? Those months between the questions loom large.
Here are ten ways mission committees and churches can really bless furloughing missionaries like the Walcotts.
WHAT DO THE MISSIONARIES REALLY WANT? THEY WANT…
1. Acceptance, not tolerance. Missionaries are trained cultural observers. Very few social nuances escape them. The church family already has its well-integrated systems intact; small groups are functioning, social patterns and friendships are in place. The arrival of this “peculiar” family tends to disrupt patterns. That they are tolerated and not truly accepted is often inadvertently communicated. As a result, the Walcotts tend to withdraw and exist on the periphery of the church life.
2. Engagement, not just opportunity. They will receive many opportunities to “share” their story and their needs. Lots of people will want to see their pictures and hear of their adventures. However, this is not engagement. Engagement happens when people really seek to enter into their lives and their mission. They will ask thoughtful questions (sure, ask if it is hot and if they have a camel, but also ask how it feels to live as a white Christian minority, or what struggles they had in choosing a school for their children).
3. Interest, not just curiosity. Missionaries can feel like they are themselves the “show and tell” time. A certain amount of this is inevitable and normal. In a sense, they are parables incarnate. Here’s a secret about missionaries: they will offer only as much about themselves as they sense genuine interest. Interest is demonstrated by pursuit past the superficial.
4. Encouragement, not solicitousness. When Ben chokes up at the men’s meeting because of his feelings for the Tuareg, what happens? When Flora admits to feeling like she has lost her identity now that she is “home,” how do people react? These things are so foreign to the experience of the church that avoidance may be the response. People will be solicitous (“I am so sorry! I can’t imagine what you are feeling!”). Encouragement comes from sharing scripture, experiences, faith and hope, and God’s promises.
5. Support, not just help. Help is momentary and timely. The church helps furloughing missionaries move in and stock their shelves. They may help procure an inexpensive car. These are “in and out” modes of assistance. Can the church be sure there are ongoing networks and systems to sustain them? Here’s another missionary secret: because they have received so much help at the beginning, they will probably not ask for any more.
6. Incorporation beyond invitation. Is this beginning to sound familiar? Your church is probably pretty good at remembering to invite the Walcotts to the Christmas dinner and the Easter Egg hunt. But are the children incorporated (integrated) into the Sunday school class? Can they just be a part of things without being the focus? Can they help set up chairs and take offerings? When you are planning your next short-term mission trip, are they part of the effort and not just advisors?
7. Intimacy, not mere inquiry. People will naturally enough inquire about their health and plans. But do the people of the church also share their lives? Are they bold enough to disclose their own needs, delights, and defeats? People may think, “I don’t want to burden these poor missionaries with my little problems.” They will not feel burdened; rather, they will feel honored.
8. Commissioning that extends past “launching.” When it comes time for them to return to Niger, the church will certainly have a farewell, a prayer, and a kind of commissioning, maybe a special cake at the coffee hour. There is a difference between sending off with our blessings and prayers and a determination to act as shareholders in their mission enterprise. Shareholders watch the prices and policies; they keep track of results and problems. All too many missionaries feel sent off and not accompanied.
9. Partnership more than base. Politicians speak of their “base”—their loyal voters. Base is good; however, voters basically give an opinion. Partners give of themselves and sacrifice toward a common goal. Many people will be “for” the Walcotts, but only a few will “strive” in prayer as fellow workers in the gospel, strengthening and encouraging them (2 Cor. 1:11; Phil. 1:9; Col. 4:12; 1 Thess. 3:2).
10. People raising, not just fund raising. The Walcotts will need to raise funds to return. Even if they were fully supported when they left three years ago (and few are), it is just a fact of life that promised support diminishes with time. They will need to leave with more support. How is the church going to respond to this? Will they wait until asked or can they be proactive? To wait is to be a “donor.” To take preemptive initiative says, “You’ve got people, not just donors; we’re watching your back.”
WHAT DO CHURCHES REALLY WANT? THEY WANT…
Now let’s turn this question around. What do churches really want from their missionaries? What are the ten needs of churches vis-a-vis their missionaries? Having served nineteen years on the missionary side and seventeen years on the congregational pastor side, below is what I have seen.
1. Continuous, rather than episodic, relationships. Missionaries may neglect their relationship with supporting churches during their years away. Then, as the time to return gets closer, they send out a flurry of emails and letters, often asking for help of various kinds. No church likes their “absentee missionaries” to just plop back in again after an extended communication blackout. “Out of sight, out of mind” works here.
2. Self-disclosure, not just project description. Churches want to get to know their missionaries as people, not just as “the Most Holy Sent Out Ones.” Some missionaries (being so humble and self-effacing) shy away from talking about their personal needs, failures, and struggles. When asked how they are, they will talk about their work or latest project. As a result, they remove themselves from the sphere of “mere mortals” and lose connection with the church.
3. Their help to be effective, not dissipated. The people want to know that their giving and praying is making a difference. The “What have you actually accomplished?” is a difficult question for a missionary. The underlying motif is this: the church wants reassurance that their support is not being wasted. They are not (usually…) asking about numbers of converts or how the mortality rate was lowered. They do understand that life on the “field” is hard, navigating culture is complex, and change comes slowly. Still, something must have been done. Tell them.
4. Connection to real people on the “field,” not just solar panels. Sure, show them pictures of the new wells and the building with solar panels. But then show how these things have impacted the lives of certain people. Show a picture of Fatima and tell how clean, readily-available water has affected her life and how this effort is a sign of the kingdom. Explain how the solar panels allow a doctor to operate at night and what better medical service means to Zabongo, who would have died otherwise.
5. Personal contact beyond impersonal means. Because the missionaries must communicate to the whole church (and several churches at that!), they sometimes tend to rely on impersonal means: postcards, mass emails, articles in the church newsletter, etc. Worse, they say, “Just read about it on our website”—putting the onus on the home church. People want some kind of personal contact: a conversation, a phone call, an email just to them, even a chance to ask a question in a small group setting. In today’s climate, resourcing depends upon relationship. Support depends in part upon the extent any church member feels that he or she both knows and is known by the missionary.
6. To be valued, not used. This is an amplification of number five. There might be a low-level nagging suspicion that all the missionary really wants is financial support. He comes to the men’s breakfast mostly to raise his profile and so gain more support before departure. She attends the women’s Bible study to get all the women on her mailing list. Missionaries need to make contributions to the lives of those in the church, to be themselves responsible and engaged members of that church, and not just temporary visiting dignitaries. They need to demonstrate that they treasure the church, its people, and its local ministry.
7. A call to partnership in a future vision, not just a continuation of the past. Ben Walcott has been working on a translation of Luke for….forever….it seems to the church. That is all they hear about. So for this next term, are they going to be excited about supporting chapter twenty? Yes, this may reflect the immaturity of the church, but this is also reality. If Ben can keep before them the vision of the completed Gospel and what it would mean, if he can share the stories of the cumulative impact this has already had with more to come, if he can show how this fits into the bigger picture of ministry and that the church is part of this, then partnership will be strengthened.
8. Probing discussion going beyond passing comments. A surprising number in the church will want to dialogue over serious missiological issues: What is Islam exactly? Why should we try to convert Muslims? What are the bridges to Christianity? What are the irreconcilable differences? Not every church member will want to delve into this, but many do. They are committed and want to understand.
9. Opportunity for hands-on engagement, not just impersonal contribution. The missionary is about “people raising” and not just “fund raising.” Part of the missionary job is to disciple the congregation in the area of missions. What can they do besides giving and getting on their knees? Can they prepare bandages for a hospital, help a national set up a website, host one of the nationals coming to a conference? Churches send out teams to do short-term mission work. The furloughing missionary could be a part of this effort from the States-side end of things, even to a place other than his or her field. Invite members of the mission committee to eat at an African restaurant. Help them sponsor a student for higher education. The possibilities are extensive.
10. To feel that the missionary is returning blessed by the year, not just glad to leave. Many furloughing missionaries communicate that this year is an interruption. They talk about how difficult such a relocation is, how hard re-entry is, how anxious they are to return. They might be highly critical of their own culture and of the American Church in general. Sometimes, it feels like a relief to get them on the plane to Niamey. However, if the furlough year was done right, it should feel like a loss to both because that year had been such a blessing to both. Tell the church how thankful you are to be among them, how you treasure the friendships and relationships. Allow them to minister to you in prayer and care; remember, it’s okay to express bereavement at departure.
The Walcotts and their home church need each other. God has given them to each other. The Church needs to have its call to global mission renewed and its innate tendency toward self-adsorption challenged. The Walcotts need support of all kinds to live and minister effectively in Niger. They also have a need—although often unrecognized—for authentic relationships at home that are not just pragmatic in nature. To the extent that these two Top Ten lists are realized, so each entity is blessed by an abundant grace, each given to the other.
Brad Hill and his wife Ruth served as missionaries with the Evangelical Covenant Church in the Congo for nineteen years. Brad has served churches in Washington State and Illinois and is occasional adjunct faculty at North Park and Fuller Northwest seminaries.
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