Animated, even heated, discussions can erupt when missionaries talk about why they take long or short home assignments.
How long you go on home assignment depends on why you take one. Other important factors include the policy of your organisation, your ministry, geography, finances, children, and personal factors. I asked a few missionaries with different experiences for their thoughts on each of these aspects.
The main purpose of a home assignment can be to visit supporters, raise support, reconnect with family and friends, get some rest, or to have health checks. Of course, home assignments may include all these things. Taking home assignments could also be a requirement of your organisation. Before planning a home assignment, it is important to identify what you aim to achieve.
Policies of organisations
These vary. Some policies are strict (for example, missionaries accrue five days of home assignment for every month on the field but may not accrue more than six months); others are more relaxed.
Although independent missionaries don’t have any organisation policies to follow, they may have to follow stipulations from their supporting churches (such as attending the church conference at least once every three years).
Sending or sponsoring organisations often want missionaries to connect with the home office. They may expect you to help out with home-side ministry, like speaking at events.
The US social security system now requires some US missionaries to be in the US for at least six consecutive months every six years or risk losing their social security benefits. Other countries may have similar requirements. It is important to be aware of those for your own country.
You also need to consider what will happen with your ministry while you are absent from Japan. Does someone need to fill in for you during your absence? Is such a person available and, if so, how long for? Your organisation may be able to help with this.
Geography strongly affects how long missionaries need to spend in their sending country. A short home assignment will be easier for a missionary with one supporting church in Singapore than for one with support in all corners of the US or for an English-Australian couple with support in both countries.
As I interacted with missionaries, the importance of financial factors became obvious. One missionary said their family needed to spend an entire year for partnership development. But for some, even a year isn’t long enough; in OMF, we know missionaries who’ve taken over a year to raise sufficient support to return to Japan.
Other missionaries said that a shorter home assignment was attractive because they could housesit or stay with family, and save on financial outlay. A shorter home assignment also allows many to keep the same accommodation in Japan. This avoids the costs (including key money), stress, and inconvenience of moving house and storing goods.
Families with school-aged children must consider education. Summer home assignments can mean that children are able to remain in the same school for many years, although this may be more difficult for families with children in Japanese schools.
Longer home assignments give children an experience of their passport culture that is difficult to get in a short visit.1 “Having our children in our home country for a full school year has also helped them understand the reality of daily life,” says one missionary. “We have found ‘vacation’ mode where we just stay for a few weeks to be very different from ‘daily life’ mode where we have to readjust to the culture, make friends, fit in at school, etc.”
The emotional challenges that children face with home assignments are also a factor to consider. Changing countries, schools, and churches are big adjustments, especially for older children. But short home assignments are frequently a high-paced round of meeting people, which can also be stressful for a family.
Each missionary unit has different personal factors. If you have elderly parents, for example, you prefer to go home every year. Your own health concerns may make a longer home assignment more suitable.
Personal preferences come into this too. You may not cope well with the travel and upheaval associated with home assignment. In which case, you may choose to go less often, if your organisation allows it. Or you might find that you need more frequent contact with family and friends to remain healthy on the field, and so choose to go to your passport country yearly.
I asked a husband and wife about how a medium-length home assignment has worked for them. In recent years, they’ve taken six-month home assignments every two or two-and-a-half years. They wrote, “When we took one year in four . . . that worked okay. But sometimes we noticed that about three quarters through our time, we felt like our work was done and we wanted to get back to Japan.”
We currently have three school-aged boys. Education is thus a big factor, especially because the school year in Australia runs from January to December, whereas their school in Japan, Christian Academy in Japan, runs from August to June.
Geography is a factor, as our extended family is spread out in Australia, and so it takes many hours of driving to see them all. Our support network is also spread over a wide area: it includes churches and supporters on both the east and west coasts of Australia (about 4,000 kilometers apart).
We personally prefer longer home assignments, primarily because the disruption to our family is so big that we don’t want to do it often. Our decision is also influenced by my husband’s work as a teacher at the Christian Academy in Japan. It is a challenge for the school to accommodate frequent short home assignments, unless we go in the summer break. But, if we spend the summer holidays doing deputation in Australia, we come back to Japan exhausted—not a good start to the school year for teacher or student!
The stress can be worthwhile
There is no easy way to have a home assignment. No matter what length home assignment you choose, the time is stressful. The stressors differ: a short home assignment is often rushed but involves less packing, whereas a long home assignment, while more relaxed, involves greater emotional energy to settle more deeply into daily life in your home country.
Despite that, home assignments can be worthwhile experiences. One missionary said, “It has taken a lot of effort and purposefulness on our part to connect and reconnect with friends and our church each time, but through God’s grace and blessings we leave at the end of our home assignment with strong connections and a sense of ‘feeling at home’.”
1. For further thoughts on this, see Neigh, M., Storrs, C., Stephens, L. “Long or short? What’s better in home assignments?” Interact, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, pp. 7–11. 2005. http://www.missionarycare.com/dbFullArticle.asp?articleid=850