What Home Assignment Means for a Missionary - Part 3

As a new missionary, there’s an excitement that comes when first arriving in your country of service. But there’s also the emotional toll of saying goodbye to family and friends in your home country. Fast forward to your first Home Assignment. Once again there’s an emotional toll of saying goodbye, this time to missionary colleagues and people you’ve invested in. OMF Japan’s Wendy Marshall has been walking us through the process of Home Assignment. Today she focuses on the emotional aspect of this process, something that long-time missionaries experience again and again throughout their missionary life.

(Listen to the companion audio discussion of this series featuring Wendy Marshall and Kesia Pain.)

By Wendy Marshall

Saying goodbyes to people and places is never easy, but it’s something missionaries do a lot. Our first goodbyes when we left Australia to go to Japan felt like a living funeral.

Additionally, we took my parents’ only grandchild with us when we left; it took me years to be able to talk about saying goodbye to them at the airport without breaking down. Going on home assignment also means goodbyes. You leave your place of service, saying goodbye to team members, friends, and people you’ve been ministering to.

When a missionary has children, each of them also has goodbyes, and it’s important to help them do that well. Much has been written about goodbyes. There are lots of strategies that both adults and kids can use. I think the most important thing is that you are deliberate about whatever you do. It’s easy amidst the busyness and anticipation to forget the emotional side of the transition, and that’s a mistake.

It’s also good to think about the goodbyes you’re saying to physical things: the place you live, the routines you’ve come to enjoy, the local food that you won’t be able to get in your home country. And even the other things that make up the totality of where you live: sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. There are even daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly rhythms that you might miss.

Letters saying goodbye

Letters of goodbye written to Wendy and David.

What I didn’t realise early on in our missionary career was that you don’t actually get better at goodbyes. You might learn some good strategies, but as the years go on, you start to accumulate many losses, which can be hard to bear.

During the pandemic, one particularly poignant memory is saying goodbye to a precious friend. She and her family were permanently moving back to the UK after serving in Japan for several years. We’d shared many deep things over the handful of years she’d lived nearby—one thing I’d shared with her was my struggle with all the goodbyes, so she actually dreaded telling me her family was leaving. The pandemic made it more difficult because, at the time they left, socialising in person in any way was discouraged. We ended up having a small picnic in a local park, serenaded by mosquitoes. I regret that we didn’t even have one final hug.

Transition is unsettling. It’s a period that lacks routine. Even something as routine as grocery shopping is disrupted. For example, I’ve found myself pondering how much rice our family will use before we leave the country, and whether I should buy a large packet or a smaller one, or whether I should buy a few potatoes instead. As things are gradually packed away, you find yourself looking for things that used to have a settled place, but are now in a box, or a suitcase, or worse: they’ve been tossed into the garbage.

It’s even emotional to pack. Our family is at the stage of downsizing: our boys are nearly finished with their time with us in Japan and will be moving on to independent life in Australia during this home assignment. Because we live in Tokyo, we have to make decisions that will allow us to move into a smaller place when my husband and I return without any children. Do we keep all these Christmas decorations? What about these children’s books and toys that our boys have loved over the years? I own a second-hand ice cream maker, but will I have space to store that in a small apartment?

It’s very lonely to say goodbye to everyone and everything in your daily life, while at the same time dealing with the turmoil of a big move. I usually find that my health is a bit precarious during these intense times of transition. I don’t sleep well, my digestion is problematic, I get more headaches than usual, and easily succumb to infections. But, in the midst of all this, there are mixed feelings as we anticipate seeing loved ones on the other side of the journey.

(Next time, Wendy talks about the the actual move and shares a “decision diagram” that’s used to help decide what to do with their belongings. Read the prior articles in this series: Part 1 – Advanced Planning; Part 2 – Preparing to Leave)

About the Author: Wendy Marshall is an Australian serving with OMF. She has been in Japan with her husband David since 2000; they have three young adult sons. Wendy is a writer and editor. She’s the managing editor of a magazine for and by missionaries in Japan called Japan Harvest. She’s also the editor for OMF Japan’s social media and blog. She and David love to camp and have set up their tent in more than 30 places in Japan. You can follow Wendy on her personal blog: on the edge of ordinary.

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