by Jeannette Windle
As a deputation survivor still on reasonable speaking terms with both supporting churches and family members, let me pass along a few of the survival tactics that have helped smooth our miles on the road.
My husband Marty and I, along with our eighteen-month-old son, attended Gospel Missionary Union’s candidate school in Kansas City, Missouri, the summer of 1984. The deputation period that followed was a marathon of church meetings and missions conferences – fifty-three churches across the northwestern United States in eight months. We arrived in Bolivia, South America, in May, 1985.
By our first furlough, we had added two more to our family. We visited 42 churches in nine months with three boys in tow-ages one, two and five. By our next furlough, we had added a baby daughter, allowing us the privilege of sharing that cramped furlough van with four restless children.
This summer we survived our sixth deputation tour as a family. We will be the first to admit it hasn’t always been easy, but furlough trips do not have to be a travel nightmare. As a deputation survivor still on reasonable speaking terms with both supporting churches and family members, let me pass along a few of the survival tactics that have helped smooth our miles on the road.
1. Plan ahead. Don’t let furlough travel just happen. Minimize time on the road by coordinating those deputation visits. Your supporting churches have far more flexible schedules than yours. Given enough advance notice, most are happy to work around a missionary’s scheduling limitations.
Our own churches are divided into four main regions: Seattle-Portland areas, western Montana, eastern Montana, and parts of Idaho and Wyoming. At least six months before furlough, we block out a time frame for each of these regions and let pastors and supporters know when we will be in their area. This allows churches, family and friends ample time to plan us into their calendar rather than vice versa. It also allows time for negotiation if more than one pastor requests the same date.
DON’T wait until you land stateside to begin planning and scheduling your deputation travel. Many churches plan their missions conferences a full year in advance. And don’t hesitate to pick up the phone to nail down a date. In our experience, pastors and even family and friends often procrastinate in writing back, but are happy to write you into their calendar on the spot if you take the initiative.
2. Communicate special needs in advance. Think ahead for personal family needs as well. Do you need a place to stay for three weeks in a given metropolitan area? A car for the summer? A host family with a toddlerproof home? Accommodations for a special-needs child? We have found God’s people to be amazingly generous. But the more advance notice you can give them, the easier it will be for them to meet your needs.
By the time we hit the deputation trail for any given region, we know where we will be based for our church meetings each week and have a fairly comprehensive schedule of personal visits and meal invitations.
3. Pack light. Are you and your furlough vehicle groaning under the weight of luggage, literature and equipment? We learned early on the little-known physical law (known in scholarly circles as Windle’s Theorem) that every ton pared from that load corresponds to an equal reduction in travel stress. Whether for one week or six, our checklist has been pared to the same bare essentials.
Each family member, including Mom and Dad, is allowed five changes of clothing-three suitable for play or travel, one less-casual slacks outfit for those social invitations and one Sunday church outfit. Add five changes of underclothing, nightwear, swimsuit (you never know when that host family might have a Jacuzzi) and one sweatshirt plus a coat for winter travel. We may be sick of our wardrobe by the end of the trip, but each church group and host family will see it only once. Better still, luggage for our family of six fits easily into two suitcases.
To facilitate loading and unloading, each family member’s clothing is packed into a separate bag. Cheap veteran missionaries that we are, this usually means a generic-brand garbage sack (we’ve been known to eek out the same ones for a fall summer). But those with more creative instincts may want to sew or buy real cloth laundry bags. When we arrive at a host home, it is a simple matter for each family member to grab their sack and haul it to their individual sleeping place. When clothes are washed (and you will want to take every opportunity to do laundry), they are folded and replaced in the bag, making repacking a matter of minutes.
Each child is also allowed a backpack of personal belongings for entertainment on the road. In early years, these contained coloring books, toys and stuffed animals. Today they hold CDs, Walkmans, journals and books. Add a travel bag for family toiletries, a folding display and box of literature and a cooler for snacks, and there is still room in the van for our teens to stretch their legs.
4. Include plenty of exercise. It is asking the impossible for a child to remain cooped up all day in a car, then sit still through a church service or in a host home. Your children will stay healthier-and happier-during furlough travel if they are getting plenty of exercise along the way. With four children needing regular bathroom stops, we took fall advantage of those wonderful, grassy highway reststops. Fifteen minutes of chasing each other around the perimeter of the picnic area or pet run, and our kids were only too happy to crawl back into the car and sit still.
If your children are too self-conscious to run laps in public, a brisk game of Frisbee or soccer, a half-mile nature walk or an impromptu snowball fight at the top of a pass will do the job. Possibilities are limited only by imagination. Another favorite tactic of ours was to enjoy a decent sit down meal at a family restaurant like Denny’s, then hop over to the nearest McDonalds. For the price of one cup of coffee (small), our kids could stretch their legs in the play area before hitting the road again.
Plan for exercise stops in your travel schedule (we allow for twenty minutes bathroom/exercise every two to three hours). And make the last stop shortly before arriving at the church or host home. Your children will be less restless and more manageable if they have had a chance to burn off excess energy beforehand.
5. Prepare your children for North American social expectations. When we arrived stateside for our first furlough, our preschool boys had never known a church with indoor plumbing. At one of our first church stops, they headed immediately to the nearest snow bank, scandalizing arriving church-goers and mortifying their parents. A missionary friend tells of a church nursery worker frantically calling her to deal with her two small children. She found them on the church playground, carefully picking ants out of an ant-pile and popping them into their mouth. Raised in Africa, they were simply enjoying a snack-and puzzled at the lack of competition.
The varying ethnicities in which MKs are raised may have very different social cues than the culture they will visit on furlough. It may be considered appropriate in the host country for children to run around or make noise during a church service, or eat with their fingers. Don’t assume that your children will automatically know how to shift from one set of social expectations to the other just because you do.
Our children were used to the Bolivian custom of having their plates served up restaurant-style at meals. They were waiting patiently and hungrily at the dinner table in one of the homes we were visiting when our host chided them for not starting around the hot dishes sitting in front of them. "Don’t they teach table manners in Bolivia?" was his sharp comment. We had not even noticed the gap in their education. Before our next meal invitation, we took time to explain the differences between Bolivian and American table etiquette.
Missions education in the church has come a long way and there are few churches today that will expect their missionary family to be perfect. (Adult MKs of my generation can remember otherwise!) In fact, a frank admission that your children are tired, shy or just plain full of natural sin like the rest of humankind will go a long way to elicit sympathy and understanding. But churches will expect basic courtesy, parental control and "please" and "thankyou," especially from older children. Cultural gaffes can be chuckled away, but we know at least one church that dropped a missionary family’s support because their children were rude and destructive during their visit and the parents did not intervene to control them. Good manners need to be instilled before furlough rolls around.
6. Be honest about furlough negatives and positives. As second-generation missionaries, my husband and I can empathize with the boredom of sitting through the same missions video twenty-four times (my kids counted this summer), shaking too many hands and being told for the hundredth time how much they have grown in the last four years.
Still, who says life is always easy or fun? We have been honest with our children from the beginning that there will be times when they will find deputation boring, tiring and downright distasteful. But like school or chores, sometimes life – and serving God – requires doing the less-than-pleasant and doing it cheerfully and well. Sitting through six meetings in one week is, after all, an easier contribution to the family than shining shoes or sifting through the city garbage dump like too many children they know back in Bolivia. (Okay, so that ranks up there with eating your vegetables because children are starving in Afghanistan; IT works!)
We have two simple rules for our family: 1) You can be as bored as you like as long as you don’t show it on your face; 2) You can sit in the back and mimic Dad’s sermon and Mom’s video presentation as long as your lips don’t move.
What we do require is courtesy and a good attitude. We are equally honest about the bright side of deputation. After all, even six meetings in a week fill only a fraction of the hours. And there is so much fun to be had in between!
7. Make it fun. Where else but on deputation can you as a family travel some of the most beautiful and exciting countryside in the world and write it off on an expense account? My teenage sons were astounded last summer to discover that an MK friend at our headquarters had never been on deputation. This poor deprived friend had never been to Yellowstone, explored the Seattle waterfront or Oregon coast, eaten a pig luau on a Montana ranch or hiked up to an old gold mine.
At some point they remembered to drag in the down-side of those endless missions videos and sermons. It was too late. He was hooked! The upshot of it was that for three weeks last summer, he traveled with us across the Northwest so he could experience "deputation" for himself.
From the beginning, our kids have known that the reward for sitting patiently through deputation meetings was the fun of exploring every local tourist attraction Mom and Dad could ferret out along the way. To this day, they associate a certain church in Wenatchee, Washington, with watching the salmon jump at Rocky Reach Dam and eating German sausage at a nearby Bavarian village. Seattle churches mean "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop" and the Space Needle, Wyoming-the Thermopolis hot springs.
Tight travel schedules only need a little planning to include family downtime-a lunch break at a North Dakota ghost town, a supper picnic at the sea lion caves on the Oregon coast, a slight detour through Glacier National Park on our way to that next church. Last summer we left one church at 5:00 a.m. in order to spend three hours at Lewis and Clark Caverns before traveling on to an evening potluck down the road.
Family times along the road are not the only fun of deputation. Churches have gone out of their way over the years to make visits memorable for our kids. A Tiger Woods fan in one church arranged for our boys’ first hole on a real golf course. A mission leader in another took them to their first professional baseball game. Water-skiing, sledding, go-cart racing, horseback-riding, ice-skating, the Super Bowl are just some of the experiences first introduced to our kids by the wonderful church families who have hosted us over the years.
8. Consider shorter, more frequent furloughs. The year-long furlough is a carry-over from a time when a trip to and from the mission field might take a month or two and was very costly in comparison to mission budgets. Anyone who has completed one term on the field can testify to the upheaval such a long absence creates in both ministry and family.
Today’s budget airfares and higher support rates make shorter, more frequent furloughs an economically feasible alternative-especially for missionaries with only a handful of churches to visit. Our first two furloughs lasted nine months-we were ready to go home in six! One must add to that the month or so spent packing up and winding down ministry before leaving the field, and for the reverse process upon return.
We switched to a three-month furlough every two to three years. The advantages financially, and for family and ministry, have far outweighed the additional airfare. There are no costs of storage on the field or for renting and furnishing a house stateside. There are no long-term goodbyes for our children and no major disruptions of schooling and ministry. Leaving the field requires only a housesitter and packing a couple suitcases. We hit the road, visit all our churches, supporters and family, and then head home.
The added advantage for our children is that they have been stateside often enough to feel comfortable in a way my husband and I never did as MKs. They remember churches, family and friends from one furlough to the next and have developed lasting relationships with families they have met.
9. Consider homeschooling. If schooling needs are the obstacle to traveling as a family, consider home schooling. We have homeschooled three times on the road.
Because travel itself provides so many educational experiences, formal schooling can be reduced to a minimum without scholastic detriment. Correspondence courses of the four core subjects-math, language, social studies and science-were easily completed in no more than two to three hours a day. The flexibility homeschooling offers allowed time to check out museums, national parks, zoos, city tours or anything else unique about the place in which we found ourselves.
So why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier all around for Mom and kids to settle down in that furlough rental and let Dad take care of the onerous chore of raising enough support to get back to the field? This may seem wise in the short run; but we have found that the benefits of furlough travel as a family far outweigh any of the inconveniences we have experienced.
BENEFITS OUTWEIGH INCONVENIENCES
1. Bonding with churches and supporters. Churches identify with their missionary family in a way that they do not with a guest speaker, however exciting and urgent his ministry. We are well aware that the irresistible smiles of our little ones did as much to raise our support as our carefully-prepared missions presentations. Over the last eighteen years, churches full of strangers have become family friends. We have seen whole families grow up alongside our family, welcoming us to their home every furlough, their children e-mailing ours between visits. We are their missionaries, and we now have second-generation ministry partners, as some of those children have reached high school and college and gotten jobs of their own.
All churches have not been equally involved with our family; but our children can count friends they look forward to seeing at almost every stop along our itinerary. And every furlough offers the opportunity to make new ones.
2. Seeing the world.Along with the privilege of growing up in more than one language and culture on the mission field, our children have had the opportunity to get to know the country of their citizenship as few of the citizens who have never left its borders are able to do. They have traveled from one ocean to the other, seen the Rockies, plains, deserts, Badlands, rain forests, buffalo, deer, antelope and even a few bears. They have gotten to know people from all different walks of life and cultural backgrounds. The educational value alone has been priceless. Besides, it’s been just plain fun!
3. Being together. More importantly, we are together as a family. When we are on the field, the pressures and stress of ministry often make it difficult to find time apart as a family. There are always people and needs pressing in, more that needs done than hours to do it. When we pull out onto the highway in that furlough van, we step away into another world. For all the full schedule of meetings and social invitations, there are long hours on the road together, wayside stops to explore, places to see and things to do on those free days that have become family traditions.
The truth is, we like being together. The deputation trail is a family adventure to which we look forward. If some parts are less pleasant than others (yawning through the twenty-fifth showing of the mission video or teenagers bickering in the back seat), that too is part of any adventure. We would not trade our furlough memories for all the guaranteed salaries and hassle-free vacations in the world.
I mentioned to my mother, a veteran missionary and mother of five MKs herself, that I was writing an article on surviving furlough travel while keeping your sanity. "You mean, you have?" was her skeptical rejoinder.
That remains open to debate. What I do know is that when we began planning last summer’s furlough, I received a call from our oldest son who was finishing up his first year of college. He wanted to make sure we were looking for a furlough vehicle big enough to accommodate six passengers. He didn’t want to miss out on the chance for one last deputation trip as a family.
Jeannette Windle serves as consulting editor for two magazines and works with developing indigenous writers in six different countries. She lives in Miami with her husband, Marty, vice president of general services for LAM, and their four children.
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