20 Thoughts to Consider in Providing the Best Furlough Support for Workers

Originally posted March 28, 2014

What is a funding-furlough?

In the field of global workers, often the term “furlough” is synonymous with home-assignment, funding-furlough, or offsite assignment. It is, however, not to be confused with a sabbatical or long period of rest.

It is not uncommon for workers to set aside anywhere from 1 month to 1 year for this unique period of time. Typical is a summer or 3-month stint. Historically the time was designed for face-to-face contact with supporters, to raise awareness of vision as well as gain new financial and prayer support. For many, this is often a time combined with a desire for a measure of spiritual and emotional rejuvenation as well.

Consider the fact that the average worker may have a support list of several hundred to even a thousand people! This is a blessing, for certain. However communicating with this large of a group and structuring time for meaningful interaction in a short duration of time can be a logistical nightmare! There is never enough time to connect at the level desired with each individual…

This combined with issues of re-entry shock, jet-lag, children’s needs, keeping up with logistics and life back “home” (on the field), and other expectations of work can make a furlough feel more stressful and much more “work” than regular day-to-day life abroad. Families are stretched as well, as the kids may be also be dealing with constant mobility, meeting countless new people, missing friends back “home,” and adjusting to yet another transition time.

As receivers of these workers, thinking and planning ahead about potential needs can help to make the furlough an incredible experience, as opposed to a dreaded and exhausting one. Here are some ideas of ways you can partner effectively as a sending person or church group:

  1. Ask what they need on any and every front. From lodging to transportation and rest. Give the worker several months to think about it and extend grace if they change their mind on something.

  2. Establish a main point of contact. For the sake of ease of re-entry establishing a main, reliable single source in a primary location can alleviate unnecessary transition challenges as well facilitate important communication. This person should ideally be logistically mindful, well-connected and respected in the community – meaning safe, honest and having good boundaries, both with planning and people’s stories.

  3. Have a small group of people “adopt” them in the planning phase and while the worker is in passport country. This allows people to share the responsibility of partnership and care. Categories to consider are emotional care, logistical support, & funding support.

  4. If they will be in multiple locations ask if there are needs you can help partner with others on or help think through. As much consistency as possible in the whirlwind is always helpful.

  5. If you are the point person, find out ahead of time what, if any, calendar items are important for you to know. Are there events they would like help with like an open house, or scheduling a meeting to broaden a network? Would they like other special services planned such as a “sharing time” or a “taste and see.”

  6. Give them a head’s up if any major changes have happened in the church or within your community or city. Introduce them to new members or pastors as well as others who may not know them.

  7. Be sure workers are welcomed back upon arrival. Whether meeting them at the airport, or arranging for a car to be left for them, ask them ahead of time what they might need and want. Although it might sound fun to you to have 30 people greeting them upon arrival, it may not to them if they’ve been traveling with kids for 30 hours straight. (Or it may! Best to ask.)

  8. Ask if they need help arranging somewhere for them to stay. Typically it is less stressful on the individual or family if there is a single location to stay for a longer duration. Partnering with other supporters is often a helpful way to open up other options and protect the time of the missionary from feeling like they always have to “be on.” Check with their personal needs and desires. Give them space to decline without hurt feelings. Housing needs of families and singles vary. With both however, there is a need for a sense of normalcy, privacy and balance of work and rest. Furlough can be an exhausting time filled with lots of people and lots of transition or a restful time of reconnection. Help make it the latter not the former.

  9. Stock the fridge of the place they are staying. Likely they will not get out and go grocery shopping right away. Find out if they have any food they regularly miss or any dietary restrictions. Having a home-cooked meal ready in the fridge is also a greatly welcome surprise after traveling multiple time zones!

  10. Consider technology trends that you may take for granted in your daily life routine - from phones to GPS to computers. Depending on country of location, some workers may be out of touch. A tech-minded person with access to a few items to lend and instruct how to use is a true gift. Some IT help is almost always needed during furlough as well. But don’t assume that he/she wants to adopt these practices either.

  11. Remember the children. Ask a mom or dad in your community to help you think through what they might need such as car seats, travel baby bed, etc. Consider what others in your community could lend for a short duration: Games, bikes, toys, books, even a library card. Don’t overindulge them with gifts without asking the parents first, as they likely will be traveling light and very intentionally, and luggage restrictions and fees have become very tight. (See: “Gift-giving for the TCK”)

  12. Think of creative ways to bless them. Gift cards for gas or coffee are fantastic blessings as they travel around and meet often with people. If they have young children, bless them with babysitting for a support gathering or a date night. The skies the limit on your creativity!

  13. Talk to others who have recently been on furlough or in re-entry. Ask what they had that was helpful or what they wished they’d had?

  14. Ask them if there are services they can’t access that would be helpful while they’re back. If they would like help arranging a dentist, eye doctor appointment, or back massage. Consider gifting it as a form of member care. Depending on where they are living these services may be scarce as well as often over-looked areas of self-care.

  15. Along the same lines, ask if there are new resources or books they had been hoping to access. These can make great gifts. But some will prefer to read digitally, so once again check first.

  16. Some may desire help personalizing a plan for rest and relaxation, self and relational growth programs, programs for upgrading skills, or retreats. Once again, don’t be afraid to ask. Even if you are limited on coordinating it all. Even just a few days at someone’s second home in the mountains or by the beach can help set an incredible environment for some spiritual retreat and rest, especially during entry and timezone adjustment.

  17. Collaborate on what kind and extent of involvement they would like during furlough. Don’t expect that they’re able to attend every meeting or every weekend service. Be flexible and clear to them what you would like and vice versa. Don’t expect much, or much quality from them in the first couple days on entry.

  18. If you have the capability or role, prepare the congregation in anticipation of their coming and as to the purpose of their time. Many people are confused by what a furlough or home-assignment is. It sounds like a great time of fun travel! What is it really? Send them this blog article!  As well, help them feel free to ask questions (even seemingly simple ones!). Most people when they feel ignorant of a place or topic tend to not engage, or just talk about more comfortable things. To a foreign worker, this can very easily be mistaken as disinterest, disconnection, and make them feel forgotten, lonely and displaced.

  19. If you are a skilled or trained debriefer or counselor, offer to debrief and process the furlough before the worker returns to the field. Did the time meet their expectations? What would they have liked differently? Were expectations communicated well and clearly both ways?

  20. Furloughs cost a lot of money! However, they are so incredibly important and needed, and nothing can replace the effectiveness of a regular furlough cycle, for both the worker, their home community and their families. Though it may seen like a “catch-22,” helping finance or defray furlough costs ahead of time to more effectively connect with others may be the most welcome gift of all.

  21. Reading this list can feel a bit overwhelming. These are just a list of ideas. NO ONE expects them all! Choose one. and then share this post with others who may also be able to help. Get creative and even if you are only able to do 1 thing from this list, it will likely be a huge blessing to be seen and thought of!

  22. Not last or least…Continue to Pray for the duration of their whole time on furlough. This is so key! Home assignment is such a wonderful opportunity for face-to-face contact, rejuvenation and support. This time is also filled with mixed emotions for the feelings of loss and sadness, as well. Re-entry shock can sometimes be much more pronounced than the cultural shock of going overseas. Covering prayer is needed on many levels.

What other ideas have you seen or experienced that have worked?

Making Furloughs Fun for Everyone: Think outside the Meeting Box

Are you dreading the idea of being gone for multiple months from your current context? The thought of packing and re-packing can be such a daunting endeavor that it keeps us from the enjoyment and gift that furloughs (or home assignment) can be. Although there are often an unending checklist of details to attend to, might I suggest starting with the positive?

What if instead of the dread, the feelings were replaced with anticipation over what could come? Imagine your kids at the end of the time saying “I love being on furlough” and you not feeling exhausted. What would it take to get there?

Here are a few creative thoughts for making furlough fun & less exhausting for everyone, especially for kids. 

1.    Think outside the primary reason you’re there - meetings! Create a furlough bucket-list! Start by asking each individual (or yourself) what one fun thing is that he/she would like to do while you’re away. This may take doing a little research of what there is to do in the area or could be very basic. Start by brainstorming a list, then narrow it down to 3-5 and then 1. Others may feel inspired by sharing out loud the creative options of wanting to go horse-back riding, doing a park tour through each city, getting an autograph of every person met. One year when we were planning to be in 4 states and 9 cities, with a two-year old and six year-old we each chose one thing we wanted to do in the city: Try the ice cream, go for a walk, see the moon from the unique point of earth we were on! You’ll be amazed at the ideas not to mention the joy of conversing about the possibilities.

2.    Think creatively about setting. Where we are meeting people is not limited to a restaurant or cafe. We often suggest meeting at a park or beach. Inviting people to a park is a much more casual and neutral space that requires less of everyone. For us as a family, this option allows us to play with our children and include them once again. Our kids have many positive memories of meeting people at the beach and parks where otherwise they may have been bored or not attend at all.

3.    Engage in physical activities as you meet with people. When we started planning our calendar with this in mind, the joy returned. The idea of another coffee or meal made my stomach hurt just thinking about it. However the idea of a walk on the beach, a stroll through a new neighborhood or a hike together as a family felt much more energizing. It was so good for us, our children and those who we were meeting with. Meeting and walking isn’t a new concept, sometimes it just takes a little more intentionality. 

4.    There just are times when we can’t (or choose not to) bring our children to a meeting. Set up fun play dates with local kids and families. This is a tremendous support gift and practical way that people can help. As well our kids remember the families that support us through the children they enjoy. This ignites anticipation for the next time we will see them.

5.   Speaking of no children…Host a coffee shop “open house”. When we land in an area we typically start with this as a priority. We will set up “office hours” for several hours at a local coffee shop and let everyone in the area know where we’ll be. We try to meet where people can drop in during a 3-4 hour window (late lunch hour is good). This is a fun way to see lots of different people, as well have your worlds integrate a bit. Simultaneously, this takes some of the scheduling pressure off of you. And as an introvert this idea is much easier for me than packing a schedule back-to-back with individual meetings.

6. When we are all together we try to not both be pulled in to a conversation. If one of us can solely attend to the children we try to think of creative games we can do in a coffee shop or restaurant. One of our favorites is the “who can get the most waves” game. You know it! Every person playing waves at strangers trying to get waves (or smiles) in return. Talley the points. As an adult, this is one game you are CERTAIN to lose (waving adults get fun looks though!) We have hilarious memories sitting in the window of coffee shops around the world trying to make people laugh or smile or wave. It’s a day brightener for everyone!

7.    Give your kids a scavenger hunt of things to find from their seat – whether a restaurant, coffee shop or car. (Person with glasses, child crying, strange hat, someone who looks like they’re having a good day, etc.) These can be made up on the spot by you or children. Sure this may only take 20-30 minutes in total, but it can be really fun.

8.    Enjoy the Journey. Plan a side trip wherever you may end up. As global workers one of the perks we’ve enjoyed as a family is the ability to make memories en-route to our destination. SIDE TRIP! Needing to go on furlough has afforded us stop-overs that turned into stay-overs at unique and amazing destinations. For the cost of transportation out of the airport and possibly one night’s stay, you can make incredible memories in beautiful destinations around the globe.

9.    Get out in nature by yourself. There isn’t a country on earth that God did not bless with some incredible & unique landscape. It may look like desert or it may look like marsh, but nonetheless, getting out into nature and engaging in the unique eco-systems of the world is an incredible way to declutter your thoughts and connect with your creative brain. We try to set aside one day a week for this necessary outlet as a family and 3 times a week of solo time to exercise or just reflect. We do this through taking turns and limiting our morning commitments.

10.    Be intent to try the local food. From Louisiana creole to Minnesota hotdish, not every meal needs to be pizza or hamburgers (thinking US-based here.) If people invite you over, ask what their favorite local dish is and offer to join them in preparing it. Or suggest something like, “I’ve heard there are really memorable ____here. By any chance do you know how to make them?” Learning a new recipe and eating new food is both a memorable way of engaging with people as well as the culture. 

11.  As well, you can reciprocate and bring the cuisine from your serving country and teach others how to make it. (Lesson learned: just keep it simple and make sure it’s not too exhausting of a task for you to make or carry unique ingredients for).

12.  Make a smash journal. I despise clutter, and struggle with the amazingly well-intentioned outpouring of gifts to my children. Once we had the idea as a family to “collect” memories along the way through a journal. We made space to “create” these little memory books in the form of a journal with everything imaginable stuck inside. Tickets, receipts, napkins and flyers instantly became more valuable than toys. This was a delightful way for each person to have something tangible from their trip, personalize their experience and remember their “highs and lows” from the trip using their own unique way of expressing it. As well minimized the need for extra storage space.

13.  Take a picture of every bed you have slept in! This might sound strange or bizarre, but it’s memorable. (Dogs is another option!) However, for us, it’s another memory-building exercise. Sometimes the pictures validate the wonder of exhaustion. And sometimes it acts as a memory trigger of the beautiful space that was created on our behalf. Still other times a understanding of your reason for chiropractor care! Top tip: The pictures look better if you take it before you sleep in it!

Getting kids involved from the beginning with the planning can be an incredible boost instead of a bore. Be creative and think outside the box. You’re sure to make incredible memories that only other global workers truly understand.

What other ideas have you thought of? What has worked and not worked?