When I left for the mission field in June 2004, I was so excited to be on the field that I had no desire to return back to America. Nearly nine years later, I still loved being a missionary and definitely preferred to be on the field, but we left on furlough.
So, you might ask, “Why did you take a furlough?” Furlough is a concept that is sometimes questioned and even criticized, so I thought I would write a few thoughts about the benefits of furlough for Christians, churches, and missionaries to consider.
Before we look at the benefit of furlough to the missionary, let us look briefly at what furlough is. The word “furlough” essentially means “a leave of absence.” In the early days of missions, when travel was much more difficult, missionaries did not take many furloughs to go back to their home country. In recent years, most missionaries will spend 1 year out of 5 back in their native country resting, reporting in to their supporters, and reconnecting with their families. With the ease of air travel, some are able to come home more often for a shorter periods of time.
In this series, I would like to look at the benefit of furlough to:
- the missionary,
- the missionary’s wife and children,
- the missionary’s relatives,
- the missionary’s supporters, and
- the mission work.
The Benefit to the Missionary
1. Furlough allows the missionary to rest.
God has created us to work but also to need to rest. In the very beginning, God shows us the order of a 6 day work week and 1 day of rest. Rest is not just about ceasing from labour but about spending time cultivating our relationship with God, the One in whom we ultimately find rest. As God told Moses in Exodus 33:14, “And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.”
On the mission field, the missionary who is working hard will find that he can grow very tired with the work. There are numerous church services, visiting mission teams, sermon and note preparation, Bible institute/college, outreach, and the time-consuming work of taking care of basic needs. The missionary has to work at investing in people, training leaders, and building a church usually from nothing. In addition, he must keep in communication with family and churches in his home country. Combined with the spiritual-warfare aspect, mission work can be very tiring and exhausting.
A furlough, if done right, should allow the missionary to get some needed rest physically, mentally, and emotionally.
2. Furlough allows the missionary to learn and grow.
On the mission field, the missionary often neglects his own personal growth and learning. He is constantly preparing material and teaching others, so he may not make the time to learn and grow as a person and a leader.
On furlough, the missionary should take the time to read, attend conferences, talk to mentors and spiritual counsellors, and invest in his personal growth.
I have really enjoyed reading quite a few books during the last 5 months, and I am looking forward reading others. I have been able to be a part of the missionary classes at our home church and spending time with my pastor and other Godly men of God.
3. Furlough allows the missionary to evaluate and plan.
Sometimes we are so busy working in the ministry that we don’t work on the ministry. Stepping back from the mission field is a great opportunity to evaluate what you have learned, what you have accomplished, what mistakes you have made, what you would like to change, and what God’s future plans for your ministry might be.
The greatest need in world missions is not more money but more labourers. Men are God’s method for getting the gospel to the world. So if our labourers wear out, get discouraged, don’t grow and learn, or quit, the work will come to a standstill. That is why Jesus said to His disciples Mark 6:31 “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.” We must encourage those in ministry to take a furlough so they can return refreshed and the work can go on.
Often men who are missionaries are very driven, very focused, and very diligent. They thrive on overcoming obstacles and accomplishing things. The idea of “abandoning the work” that they have “poured their heart and soul into” can seem horrific. Why would they want to take a step back and go home?
However, the missionary’s wife and children, though they love the work and the field, need some time to reconnect with family. A woman is usually much more relationship-oriented than men, so seeing her parents and family is very important to her. If she has sacrificed by leaving them for several years to go to the field, it is not wrong for her to want to see them every couple of years. (And men, it would do you good to visit your family as well.)
Children also need to grow up to learn that – though they should put Christ first – family is important and to be valued. They need to be able to spend time with grandparents, get to know their cousins, and profit from the investment of other family members in their lives.
Often, depending on the country the missionary is working in, the missionary’s family may need some dental work or medical treatment. Things like life insurance, a will, retirement, and other legal details are important and should not be foolishly overlooked with the excuse that they are “unnecessary” because you are a missionary. You may be a missionary but you still have an obligation to take care of your wife and children. If you don’t provide for them, you are worse than an infidel. On a practical level, if you lose them, you lose the ministry because you become unqualified.
On a personal note, I think that our furlough was very good for my wife and children. Teri has loved spending time with her sisters, her parents, and her friends here in America. Our children have really enjoyed and benefited as well. They loved living on the field and found it very difficult to leave, but this time has refreshed them to want to return to the field ready to do even more for God. I don’t want my family just enduring the mission field. I want them to thrive, and I believe that investing in their growth and encourage is worth it.
Not only does it benefit my wife and children, but furlough also helps others outside my family. In the next post I will discuss how a break from the mission field can help others.
Have you viewed furlough in the past as a positive or negative thing? Why? What other benefits of furlough can you think of for the missionary?