In my own experience, church members often appreciate partners, admire their sacrifice for the gospel, and think highly of their ministries. Yet it’s hard to understand that returning for furlough to one’s “home” country can be a highly exhausting and stressful experience for many missionary families. With the tensions of an international move, setting up a new place to live, a frenzied travel schedule, and finding one’s budget stretched to the limit, a partner faces a multitude of challenges during home assignment.
Many workers get reprimanded by their leaders to physically rest, spiritually recharge, invest in their marriages, and reflect on ministry practices. These are formidable challenges amidst busy schedules. To borrow a phrase from Henry Nouwen, many partners return as “wounded healers” who desperately need the body of Christ during their home assignment.
Recently, Jason Helopoulos challenged us to be like Philemon. The apostle Paul commended Philemon as embodying traits which refreshed the body of Christ: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (Philemon 1:7).
What would it look like for the body of Christ to refresh the hearts of missionaries on furlough? Here are a few practical ways that you can serve those who serve:
- If you are part of a Bible study or small group, adopt a worker from your church. Pray for them regularly. Send care packages, birthday cards, and encouraging letters.
- If you are a dentist, offer free or discounted dental work. If you are a lawyer, offer to update their last will and testament. If you are a counselor, offer free counseling (i.e., a marriage tune-up). Use your vocational gifts to bless the missionary body of Christ.
- Offer to host a dinner party where they can share their ministry. If there are financial needs, share those needs with the group so the partner doesn’t have to.
- Offer to keep some of their belongings in storage while they are serving overseas.
- Send them to a Christian conference or retreat where they will be equipped and refreshed for ministry.
- Offer to give the missionary couple a date night every week or two. Instead of inviting the whole family to dinner, offer to take the kids for a night.
- Own a condo or time-share? Gift a week (and spending money) to a family.
- Loan (or give) a car to a family to use during their furlough, and find a couple car seats for their children.
- Tell them all the ways you have diligently prayed specifically for them.
- If the family homeschools, offer to buy some curriculum or books for the missionary kids.
- Have your own kids adopt a family. When the family returns overseas, encourage your kids to pray for the missionary kids’ home or international schooling, friendships with national kids, foreign language learning, good health, and that the kids will come to love and serve Jesus Christ.
- Ask to see the pictures. All of them. Via photos, see their adopted clan, meet their missionary colleagues and get a feel for their ministry context. It’s cathartic for partners when people are interested in their life and ministry.
- Set up a home office for their home assignment: desk, chair, computer, and printer.
- Encourage your kids to invite partners’ kids over for playdates and take them to youth group. Remember, while the parents may enjoy long-lasting friendships with members of their home church, kids often experience all these new people as strangers.
- Let them know you are filled with joy at their service and sacrifice for the gospel.
One of the least-helpful things people often say to partners is “Let me know how I can help.” That places them in a difficult spot. Is this person just saying that to be kind? Do they really want to hear about our deepest frustrations and concerns right now? Are they asking to be on our support team?
A better idea would be to choose one or two practical ways to refresh the hearts of the missionary saints among you. Pray for them. Invest in their ministry. Become personally invested in their lives. Take the challenge: dare to be a Philemon to a partner.
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