Home Assignment/Furlough: “Garrison Life” for deployed Missionaries
Military service and Missionary life have poetic parallels in my world.
I’m one of those obnoxiously nostalgic veterans that prefers to wear my old, tattered unit t-shirts rather than my college sweatshirt and remembers details from the service more vividly than conversations had just last week. I still think of things in military terms. Bathrooms are heads, doors are hatches, walls are bulkheads, hats are covers, cars are POVs…you get it. And though the last thing I ever want to do is associate my current Christian calling with imperialistic aggression (think: crusades and colonialism), there is surprisingly much to be compared.
A Metaphor: Forward-Deployed Missionary Units
I was talking to a Marine friend of mine who is also serving as a missionary and we joked about how overseas Christian workers are like forward-deployed military units stationed abroad. We try to avoid pompously describing ourselves as being on the frontlines or as the Christian world’s special forces because our calling is no more special than a businessman sharing his faith to colleagues in corporate America.
(I’m second row, second from the left)
In the military, forward deployed units serve in foreign nations participating in various operations. A service member stationed abroad doesn’t make him any more of a Sailor than those that are stationed at home, or “in garrison.” A Marine is a Marine when he’s fighting terrorists in the Middle East or when processing orders at a headquartered building in California. Many National Guard Soldiers and Coasties will never leave the U.S. but they are still defending America’s freedom as part of the greatest force on the planet. Point: In the same way, a servant of Christ is a servant no matter where he or she serves.
But the truth is there are people who have an innate desire and longing…people who seem to have been specifically built and subsequently trained to be deployed. Being in the field away from home, based in remote locations, interacting with foreign cultures, sometimes working alone or with a small team, employing initiative and specialized training and not relying on direct supervision, often in harm’s way – this can describe troops requesting to be continuously deployed. For them, being home is more temporary than being away. The military thrives because of people like this and relies on their willingness to go to the far reaches of the world to serve their country.
Is the connection a little more clear? Keep reading because eventually you’ll see how the metaphor doesn’t completely do missionaries justice.
You have to come home at some point
Missionaries….err, I mean Marines and Sailors have a sea-shore duty rotation. They have to be back home for extended periods of time for a number of reasons. For morale and emotional health it is important to commune with same-culture people. Also, because living in high tension and dangerous situations can cause post traumatic stress disorder, psychological debrief is needed at times. Service members must ensure their personal affairs are still in order (i.e. power of attorney, last will and testament, finances, etc.) as well as their medical health. Visiting and reconnecting with relatives and other loved ones is a given. And in order to keep the military at tip-top shape, sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen come home to continue their education and receive further training.
It’s not a vacation. Uniformed personnel keep normal working hours, sometimes more demanding than when they were overseas. And even if reporting to base daily consists of 14 hours of administrative duty – a far cry from protecting villagers threatened by insurgents – garrisoned warriors still exemplify highly motivated work ethics. In the end, in order to be redeployed, the service member’s chain of command must re-evaluate and re-affirm his or her ability to serve abroad again before releasing motivated troops back to the field.
(Pictured Right: USS Carl Vinson Homecoming)
Going Beyond the Metaphor
You can replace the titles of marine, sailor, soldier and airmen with “missionary” in what I’ve described above. I’m not trying to insult other Christians by creating a separate, “elite” category for missionaries. And I’m definitely not trying to offend military warriors by declaring the two callings as synonymous. A missionary and a sniper are obviously two different things.
My statements above are intentionally fashioned to describe a missionary’s life through the lens of a military veteran. But this is where the metaphor ends. Missionary units (that’s what we actually call families in our industry) go through a set of experiences very few people in this world can ever relate to.
My family and I have served together as a small team on a remote island in a town with a handful of Christian workers. It’s lonely, grueling work that can be dangerous and is certainly challenging. After being away for over 4 years, our organization’s chain of command has temporarily reassigned us to Stateside duty. It’s not a vacation. But since only missionaries can truly understand the furious pace of life we must keep in this year back home, let me offer up a glimpse of life in garrison (aka furlough or home assignment) to our supporters.
We don’t earn a salary from an employer that pays out of earned revenue. Though we are technically employed by a non-profit organization, we are responsible for raising enough money to survive in a foreign country and to start ministries. We understand that God provides our every need and that He mobilizes believers to give. But we have to go forth and find those people. It’s hard to meet with individuals and families, some we know, many we don’t, and then ask for money. And it’s not like we’re PBS, NPR, or some art museum hosting a benefit for philanthropists. There’s no honor in this type of asking. Just a reminder of living in humility. Donors get nothing back in return. There’s no plaque, memorial, gift, praises, or social status associated with giving. Supporters aren’t going to see the fruit of their sacrifice in the form of a newly constructed building…only knowing that they have a part in spreading the Gospel to the nations. And trust me, that doesn’t make fundraising any easier.
We connect with hundreds of people over lunch, email, the phone, Facebook, whatever it takes. We invest a lot of money in printed materials and exhaust a lot of time to drive hundreds of miles just to meet one potential supporter. And out of the uncountable connections we make and the money drawn out of savings to invest into people, we’re blessed to find the select few who are willing to partner with us. Sometimes it takes months of stressful work to find just one person who is willing to donate .05% of the need.
But that’s the life we’re perfectly comfortable with and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if another mission organization offered to pay a hefty salary to do exactly what we are already doing, we would never go that route. Being faith-supported is a blessing and being dependent on God and His church is one of the greatest experiences anyone could ever go through.
† Reconnecting with Supporters and Churches
In the first several months of our home assignment we travelled well over 5000 miles by road to connect with people and churches that have supported our ministry. We’re only a quarter of the way through with updating/reporting and thanking those that are on our team who are scattered all over the United States. If we go to a church, we speak, we present, we preach. I am a “pulpit supplier” and I give pastors a break by providing full sermons on Sunday services. It’s fulfilling to think of myself as one of the circuit riding evangelists bringing revival during the Great Awakening periods. But I’m no Billy Graham that can come up with a good sermon on the spot. It takes time to prepare. An average pastor needs a full week to compose a sermon.
And Amy and I have to prepare more than just a message. We have fundraising packets, videos, souvenir gifts, and scheduling outlines to put together. Most weeks are a mad dash preparing for Sunday whether we’re the guest speakers or not.
Everything we own has been given to us. From children’s toys to gas money, we survive through the generosity of others. While home from the mission field we still draw a salary out of the support account that donors have put into. But can you imagine what it’s like to live in the United States on the same income adjusted for a 3rd world, rural province? Fortunately, supporters have blessed us with the necessities (we are aware that these blessings are luxury items for the rest of the world).
We have stayed in at least a dozen homes since being back and will probably stay in a dozen more before our furlough is over. Currently we’ve been blessed to live in a fully furnished house and we are settled and unpacked…at least for the next few months. We have cell phone service because of a particular family’s generosity. Friends have loaned us their vehicles. Now and until the day we leave for the Philippines, we get to use Amy’s family’s van. Benevolent people have taken us out for meals and bought us groceries. Our clothes are donated, purchased at the Goodwill, or sometimes someone gifts us with money to purchase something new. People have even bought us tickets to amusement parks!
But everything we have is temporary. Though we are stocking up on supplies to send to the province through boxes, we have to be selective due to space and finances. Even our gear in the Philippines is temporary. We can’t take it back to the States with us. It will all be given or sold when and if God calls us back to our passport country.
We have chosen the path away from the American dream and toward downward mobility, irrelevance, and obscurity. Compared to many of our friends, we are living in poverty. We call it simplicity – not a post modern minimalist approach to life, but a contentment to receive the exact amount of provisions we need from God…no more, no less.
Like I’ve said, we’re not on vacation. We have office hours and a lot of over-time to fill. Amy is the organizational mastermind of anything administrative in our household. Logistically, managing our life and ministry is as complicated as handling a small business. She pours over hundreds of files and pieces of paper to keep our databases updated and our business affairs in order. We are crossing the 500 person threshold on our email listing. People that request materials and appointments are taken care of by Amy during her working hours while simultaneously taking care of our own children. She’s superwoman.
And did I mention that we still have an non-governmental organization called the International Service Corps of Asia that we’ve established and lead? Try managing a non-profit’s business affairs from overseas and you might understand the complexity of our work.
Often, missionaries enhance their skills by continuing their education. Though I already have a master’s degree, our organization felt that the ministry could see more fruit if I completed a second one focused on International Development. So on top of the other daily tasks, I am also taking classes and completing assignments. We have books to read to keep us abreast in current missiological and church planting trends as well. And Amy has completed online modules given by our mission for further development. She is also learning how to properly home school our kids. Each class we take, module completed, and book read helps us in our mission to further the Kingdom of God, but it is certainly an enormous time commitment.
This includes brushing up or maintaining our skills for the community development projects we do. So we’ve got to learn more about teaching and maintaining computers, discovering creative ways to enhance our elementary school programs, finding new exercise and diet techniques to teach in our health and wellness initiatives (and actually doing them here before going back to the island), and creating better English class modules. I’m getting anxious just thinking about the tasks that still lay before us!
† Serving in our parent organization and with the local Church
And finally, just because we’re home from the mission field doesn’t mean we’ve stopped being missionaries. We are a part of a separate committee within our organization that keeps us busy with regular meetings and doing assignments like coordinating with leaders of other development and relief organizations. We’re working to implement ways to partner social justice and mercy ministries with church planting initiatives – no easy task. Additionally, we serve in the local church. We’re still starting Bible studies, doing evangelism, and serving the community…all of which often feels like a full time job. Just the other day we were in a Louisiana penitentiary leading inmates in lockdown to Christ and held an impromptu church service in the commons. Then we went into a bar/casino, shared Christ’s love to the patrons and had them circle up, holding hands, for prayer. In a few weeks we’re hoping to hold a seminar for our home church on organizational leadership. Serving – it’s what we do.
To be concluded…
I hope this helps many of you understand this season of our lives. Bear with us since these transitions aren’t without stress and tears. And the next time you feel the urge to say, “You’ve got time to help me right? I mean, you’re on a year long vacation,” ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a Marine getting ready to deploy.
“And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am – except for these chains.” Acts 26:28-29.
addendum: I must be very clear about this – missionaries must also come home to be restored and to catch a breath. Though we’re not on vacation for a year, this is the time to plan a vacation within our home assignment. Also, it’s important to go on spiritual retreats, attend conferences, go to counseling, spend time bonding as a family, and do other things to help strengthen our souls. Doing things we couldn’t do on the island like go to a movie, eat at a fast food joint, take a drive down a long country road, attend a men’s breakfast, have dinner with some friends, etc., aren’t work, but they are very important for preparing us spiritually and mentally to return to the field.