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A change is as good as a rest

09 January 2015

Do you feel in need of a new direction, or want to see if your skills can help others in another part of the world? Huw Spanner looks at career-break opportunities abroad

virginia lattul/tearfund

Practical action: planting a vegetable patch in Mpophomeni, South Africa, with the Tearfund
partner organisation Ethembeni

Practical action: planting a vegetable patch in Mpophomeni, South Africa, with the Tearfund
partner organisation Ethembeni

ONCE upon a time, people used to assume that they would spend their entire working lives climbing a single ladder, and often they lost no time in getting a foot on the first rung. Today, however, people's increasingly "portfolio" lifestyles are more likely to include not just a succession of careers, but, for many, a gap year, career break, or sabbatical or two.

Tearfund has recently launched a programme for "independent travellers" in response to demand from professional people who want to take time out. "People approach us and say: 'I'm interested in doing something overseas. Have you got anything available?'" the international volunteering co-ordinator, Tom Ranger, says. "I think that taking a career break is becoming something of a trend. Certainly, we haven't been pushing it."

Crosslinks' short-term mission co-ordinator, Claudia Chan, says: "Everyone is different, and they come to us for all sorts of reasons, in all sorts of circumstances. Some are just taking a sabbatical; some are taking early retirement; some are in between jobs. Some are testing the water for a possible move into mission; some just want a change of air. Some people lived overseas when they were younger, and now they have the opportunity of a career break, they'd like to go overseas again."

What people offer is equally varied. "Some come to us with a very specific skill set, in construction or teaching or whatever, and we find a mission partner who has a need for that," Mr Ranger says. "But we can be quite flexible. We have a married couple going out to Tanzania next year: she is a teacher, and will be going out to teach, but he has a law degree, and they're not sure how useful that will be; so he's going out to explore different possibilities. Usually, people have a clear idea of what they want to do, but we don't mind, either way."

The communications manager at CMS, Jeremy Woodham, says: "It often works best when people just offer themselves, and we try to match their gifts and skills with a situation that needs that input."

Some organisations can use volunteers with any kind of career history; other organisations will be looking for a specific skill, such as a web designer. Ms Chan cites the example of a Bible college in Namibia which is asking for a librarian: "Not just someone to stack shelves, but a proper one."

Even those approaching retirement, or who are already retired, are welcomed by Christian agencies. "People with life experience and skills are like gold dust," Mr Woodham says. When some volunteers in their fifties asked "Does CMS really want old fogeys like us?" the answer came back "Yes. And can you find us ten more like you?"

It is not important that people going overseas should feel some kind of calling or prompting from God, Ms Chan says, but people should want to serve, and to learn. "We want people to be confident, but we are also looking for humility. This is definitely about not only what they can give, but also how they can grow." Crosslinks also requires that the people it sends abroad must have the support of a home church.

How people respond to the experience also varies greatly. "Some people slot back into their old life afterwards; others take a completely new direction," Mr Ranger says. "We would hope that everyone finds the time they spend in-country challenging, but everyone reacts differently."

CMS has off-the-peg gap-year placements designed specifically for young people with little life experience, but it also offers a much wider range of made-to-measure, short-term opportunities for older people who are looking for a career break. Anything from four months to two years can be spent working in health care, teaching, project management, community development, the arts - "or something completely different", its website says - in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, or South America. Its placements "are as much about receiving and gaining cross-cultural experience as about what you can give".

Age: 18-plus.

Cost: Average costs for one person for a year are between £4000 and £8000; but, of course, it depends where you go.

Apply: Any time (though there are deadlines for specific teams).

Phone: 01865 787415

www.cms-uk.org/gap or /short-term 

Crosslinks provides personalised short-term mission placements that enable individuals and couples with professional and/or ministry skills to get a taste of what it is like to live and work in a different culture, in Africa, Asia, or Europe. You can commit from a fortnight to a couple of years, working alongside one of the agency's mission partners. In East Asia, for example, Crosslinks is looking for youth workers, teachers, school administrators, marriage and bereavement counsellors, musicians, artists, and librarians, among others.

Age: 18-plus.

Cost: Expect to pay £550-750 for your return airfare, and £400-£600 a month for accommodation and living expenses. Crosslinks will help you to work out an appropriate budget.

Apply: Any time.

Phone: 020 8691 6111


Oasis no longer offers individual international placements, but there are opportunities for professional people to give their time and expertise to one of its many "hubs" around the country.

For more details, in the first instance visit www.oasisuk.org/what/oasishubs.

OM invites young people to use the gifts and passions that God has given them to make their lives count in OM's programme "Transform". In July, OM will gather people from all over the world in Rome for a week-long conference, and then send them out, around the Mediterranean and beyond, on a variety of outreach trips, ranging in length from a week to six months. You could be "walking and knocking" in the villages of Kosovo, living among the Bedouins, doing "friendship evangelism" among the surfers on a Portuguese beach, or building relationships in inner-city Birmingham.

There are opportunities, too, for older professionals who want to take a career break of up to two years, using their skills in admin, IT, accountancy, etc., anywhere from Albania to Zambia (or, indeed, aboard the ship Logos Hope).

Age: Generally 18-plus.

Cost: Varies greatly according to how long you go for, and where. OM can offer advice on how to raise the funds. There is a £35 fee per application to cover admin.

Apply: Deadlines vary.

Phone: 01691 773388

www.transform.om.org, or www.uk.om.org/go 

Smile International's programme "Step Out" invites you to get involved as part of a team in one of the world's poorest communities. You could be working with children, distributing food aid to widows, or renovating a family's bathroom, generally in Kosovo, Uganda, Zimbabwe, or Sri Lanka. These one- or two-week placements have specific dates, but you can tell Smile's trips co-ordinator if you want to stay for a shorter or longer period (up to a year), or even go at a different time altogether.

If you are wanting to take a break from your career, Smile says, "Pretty much anything you can do in a day job can be done on a career break." And you choose when to go, and for how long.

Age: Generally 16-plus (although families can bring children as young as seven).

Cost: Smile asks for a contribution to costs of £499-599 for Step Out; or anything from £3000 to £5000 for a career break, plus flights.

Apply: Any time.

Phone: 01689 883322


Tearfund offers a range of opportunities for "global volunteering" in Africa, Asia, and South America. If you are a creative artist, for example, you could spend a couple of weeks in Malawi or Tanzania.

A new programme for "independent travellers" has been designed specifically for skilled professional individuals or couples who want to volunteer overseas for at least three months, working alongside Tearfund's partners around the world, from Haiti to Cambodia. Or you could lead a team of up to a dozen 18-to-25-year-olds in Bangladesh, Rwanda, South Africa, or (if you can speak Spanish) Bolivia.

Age: Generally 18-plus (although families can bring children as young as seven, and there may be a small premium if you are over 75).

Cost: Varies widely, from £1100 excluding flights, visas, and vaccinations. If you are on International Citizen Service, however, your ten-week trip will be government-funded. A non-refundable deposit of £100 is required with applications to cover admin.

Apply: By 19 January for ICS in April; by 1 March for summer trips; independent travellers can apply at any time.

Phone: 020 8943 7777


Time for God, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, recruits some 100 volunteers every year to spend ten to 12 months living simply in a Christian community, helping to meet the needs of the people it serves. Each placement is unique, and is a response to a specific request, whether it is working at a residential care-home in Essex, in a homeless project in Edinburgh, or at an outdoor activity centre in the Lake District; and Time for God provides training and mentoring. Most of the placements are in the UK, but there are currently some on the Continent, and in Hong Kong, South Africa, and the United States.

Age: Usually 18-30.

Cost: Time for God asks for a contribution to costs of £1200-£2000, depending on the country, plus flights, visa, and insurance, if applicable. Food, accommodation, and monthly pocket-money are provided.

Apply: By 15 March for a September start.

Phone: 01423 536248


Us. (formerly USPG)invites you to Journey with Us. for anything up to a year, on a placement with one of its partners in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean, made to suit you. The emphasis is on participation, sharing, and fellowship, and no skills are necessary: you are welcome either to bring your professional expertise, or try something new. You will be the guest of a host church, which will give you pastoral care and support.

Age: 18-plus.

Cost: For a six- to 12-month placement, you may need to raise £3000 to £4000 to cover airfares, insurance, living expenses, training, and sundry costs. Us. offers a small grant, and can advise on where to seek further funding.

Apply: Any time.

Phone: 020 7921 2214


Worldwide Evangelization for Christ (WEC) specialises in "reaching the unreached". It has a flexible short-term missions programme, "WEC Trek". It has workers in more than 80 countries on six continents, and it can offer a wide range of opportunities: you can be slotted into a team trek, for example in Mexico, Indonesia, or Taiwan, or you can create a personal solo trek to suit you. The aim is to help you learn what is involved in sharing Christ cross-culturally, and to explore whether God is leading you to something longer-term, at home or abroad. WEC provides everything from training to mentoring to debriefing.

Age: 18-plus.

Cost: Varies according to where you go, and how long you stay, from £1000 to £2000, all in.

Apply: Any time, but at least three months in advance.

Phone: 01753 884631


World Horizons focuses on mission to "the least-reached nations and peoples of the world", and is looking for people with particular gifts or expertise to join its programme "Skill Share". This begins in September with seven weeks of training in Llanelli (in cross-cultural missions, spiritual warfare, team building, and Bible study), followed by a placement of between three and 12 months.

You would be working alongside one of its teams on a specific project, and could be based in the city or the countryside, perhaps setting up a book-keeping system, doing construction work, or teaching English, Spanish, or even football. Current options include Burkina Faso, Cambodia, France, India, Indonesia, Niger, Turkey, and Venezuela. World Horizons welcomes applications from individuals, married couples, and families.

Age: 18-plus.

Cost: Approximately £1000 for the training, plus £500 per month thereafter.

Apply: By 30 June 2015.

Phone: 01554 750005


Step by step in mission

After several decades in the corporate world, a short-term mission programme in Tanzania has led to a new career for Heather Johnstone, aged 53

HEATHER JOHNSTONE was head of HR in a business-risk consultancy when, in 2011, and as a recent Christian, she had to tell more than 100 people that they were being made redundant.

Miss Johnstone's post was among the jobs lost, and that, after almost 30 years in the corporate world, felt like a catastrophe. "I feel now that God definitely had his hand in it," she says.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to recognise that my values no longer matched those of my employers, who really didn't care about people, only the bottom line."

She was looking on Tearfund's website for a vacancy in management when she spotted an opportunity to spend 14 weeks in Tanzania as a volunteer with a Tearfund partner, Go MAD (Make a Difference), building water tanks and latrines.

After praying about it with her vicar, she decided that this was what God was calling her to do next.

Miss Johnstone expected to return to corporate HR when the 14 weeks were up; but then she met a CMS mission partner in Tanzania who had been praying for someone to take over her work as head of the Rehema Project - which meant running a café, a crafts workshop, and a shop for the diocese - while she went home on leave. Miss Johnstone jumped at the chance.

"Rehema" is the Swahili word for "mercy and compassion", and the project seeks to provide women who have been abused, or who are living with HIV/AIDS, with new skills and a chance to earn money. The profit it generates benefits other women and children who have no food, clothing, or shelter.

"In my earlier career, I had a secure and comfortable life. I could afford all the trappings of holidays, and everything. Suddenly, that didn't seem important any more. I really wanted to serve these people, and I realised that, through the love of Christ, I could actually make a difference to their lives."

After a further opportunity arose to join a Go MAD venture working with a Dalit community in India, she began to feel that God had called her to short-term mission expressly to give her a taste of life in long-term mission.

As a result, this year she will start running Rehema full-time. She is hoping to open a women's shelter in the future, and a profit-making guesthouse to fund it.

Journey to the Cape 

Feeling in need of a change, Alison Dowson left her job last year to go on a short-term mission trip to South Africa for four months

ALISON DOWSON had been working as head of house in a boarding school for 12 years, when, at the age of 53, she decided that it was time for a change.

After having been left some money by her mother, and her two children having grown up, she signed up to spend four months in South Africa with Us., at St John the Baptist, Walmer, in Port Elizabeth.

"My husband said I could go for a year if I wanted to, but I'm still a mother and a wife, and I didn't want to go away for that long. I thought that four months would give me enough time to get to grips with the culture and the people. Africa had always appealed, but I'm not a great traveller, and this was a little out of my comfort zone."

The church is situated in a comfortable suburb, but operates outreach projects in the local township: soup kitchens, a play-and-learn centre for pre-school children, and a project to teach Xhosa women how to sew, so that they can get employment.

"The church was looking for an older person to get alongside some orphaned or abandoned children, and encourage them. The facilitator at Us. thought that my background in the boarding school would make me ideal for this, as I was experienced in pastoral care."

After four months, she was keen to go home and see her family again, but she still misses her South African church family, and that community. "I had such a super time: it was a real tonic."

She recommends the Us. programme "Journey with Us.". "You get so caught up with bringing up children, and this whole work-life balance thing, it is good to take time out to stop and reflect on what is going on in the world. Us. really looks at the individual, and places them where they can both contribute and learn."

Mrs Dowson is now trying to discern what to do next. "I don't want to go back to what I was doing before, even though it was the best job I've ever had. I really feel there is something else I'm supposed to be doing with my life, something else for me to be engaged with, though I haven't yet found out what it is."

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