by David Topazian
Second-career missionaries find satisfying ministries and make strong contributions, despite the obstacles.
Look twice at that couple walking along the street of your midsize city in the developing world. The gray hair and balding pate of this late-fiftyish pair belie the purpose and confidence in their step-the step of a much younger couple. Follow them for a few moments. Ostensibly from the Northern Hemisphere, they stop to inquire of a passing citizen. Appearing to struggle with the language, they persevere, receive a helpful reply, smile, offer thanks and continue on their way.
They are no ordinary couple. Both he, an upper-level management executive in a multinational corporation and she, a high school history teacher, have master’s degrees. Both have been considered highly successful in their vocations. Throughout all their married lives they have been active in the church and have maintained a participatory interest in the mission endeavor. They have served on committees and boards, they have entertained missionaries in their home and, in recent years, they have participated in short-term projects overseas.
In retrospect, this couple realizes that a basic change took place in their lives several years ago that put them on a divergent course from that of their peers in the business and professional world and from their peers in the church. They received a clear "call to mission" from the God they serve. It was subtle, but they were sensitive and listening. They took the steps necessary to allow God to direct them further. His leading had led them to a foreign culture with a different language and customs. Now, four years later, they are experiencing a rare blessing. Having achieved success and fulfillment in their vocations, they are in the process of duplicating that success in an avocation, a career of service to Christ and his church.
An interesting lifestyle change had occurred when their missions call and early retirement were first considered. Their four children were educated and on the verge of being self-supporting. Curtailing spending and learning to live on less, they began to look at consumer items as impediments to their freedom rather than as necessities. With careful planning they could support themselves on the mission field. They decided to retire as soon as social security and pension benefits were assured that would maintain them comfortably when their service, which they hoped would be about 10 years, was completed.
The path that led to their present assignment had been full of surprises. They had always been careful supporters of various missionary and relief organizations, assessing the stewardship and effectiveness of each to which they gave and upholding them in prayer. They held the mistaken notion that any of these agencies would be happy to welcome them as committed full-time volunteer workers. To their surprise their inquiries evoked responses ranging from indifference to rudeness. One mission interviewed them and promised to write with a list of opportunities. They never received follow-up. At another, they could not speak with or meet anyone in the personnel department except for a secretary who fielded and blocked all inquiries. One agency told them there was nothing on the needs list that matched their professions, even though they offered themselves for any reasonable task for which they might qualify.
They looked upon these frustrating experiences as being part of God’s direction toward where they would ultimately be placed. Four missions ultimately offered them reasonable opportunities and in all cases they had personal contact at some time in the past with a candidate secretary or a director of one of the ministries in which they would possibly serve.
One of their major frustrations had been language acquisition. They had not gone to language school, the usual route for career missionaries. In order to function in a non-English speaking environment they had spent time with private tutors and were able to conduct themselves reasonably well in the marketplace. Since most of their day-to-day activities were carried out in their native tongue, they were not immersed in the local language. Buying a car, acquiring and renewing visas, yearly I.D. update, and ordinary shopping had cost them emotionally, but had never sent them running for help. However, as more nationals became their friends, their inability to communicate at the level of feelings, philosophies, and spiritual matters had a crippling effect on their effectiveness in this area of ministry.
The confidence with which they conducted their business this day was not misplaced. After nearly four years on the mission field, they gave themselves high marks on effectiveness, and they had received sufficient feedback from the mission board through their field adviser and yearly ministry review to know that they were considered to be highly successful.
The effectiveness of this couple extended beyond the job description that had been laid out for them during candidate school. They had been able to encourage several career missionaries using the perspective, counsel, and life experience of an older couple. They had been "aunt and uncle" to the children of their younger peers. They had been able to encourage and befriend national church members. They had been effective in helping and counseling their countrymen involved in cross-cultural marriages and had used these opportunities to witness to those who did not name the name of Jesus Christ.
They had been used by the Holy Spirit to lead both nationals and internationals to faith in Christ and had then spent time discipling and growing these new believers.
There had been sacrifices, but they never thought of them as such. Grandchildren were being born and were passing through stages that they would never witness first hand. Business affairs in which they had been entangled before going to the mission field went on, sometimes badly, without the benefit of their attention or their opinion. Yet, if you were to ask them if they would do it again, you would receive an immediate and unequivocal Yes. They were where God had placed them and they felt secure in that fact.
The above profile is based on a study by questionnaire of "second-career missionaries" (SCMs) which was undertaken to evaluate: (1) the numbers of those called to serve on the mission field after completing a career; (2) the effectiveness of this group on the mission field; (3) the problems they faced in adjusting to a new cultural ambiance; (4) the unique qualities they brought with them to provide unique dimensions of service; (5) the rates of success or failure of such missionaries and factors which affected success or failure.
The numbers and effectiveness of this group are difficult to ascertain on the basis of mission board records since few mission agencies are able to easily identify the missionaries serving under their authority in this capacity.
Names of people serving after completing a previous career were collected by the author. Most names were supplied by mission agencies; others were known to the author or suggested by others interested in this question. Several missions agencies supplied information which, unfortunately, could not be used, because of incomplete addresses, illegible copy or the inability, for example, to identify second-career individuals from computer print-outs containing hundreds of names and codes. Of the ninety-nine names collected, forty-nine responded to a questionnaire, and 46 provided useful information.
Table 1 shows the age at retirement and start of service for this group of missionaries. On average they retired at 54 years of age and took about one year to reach their designated field of service. Although one respondent retired very early, the median age provides a fairly accurate picture of the age of the group.
Age at retirement:
Age at start of service:
Ten respondents were in their 40s, 22 in their 50s and 13 in their 60s. Over half had been in business and administration (30 percent) or teaching (28 percent) before serving as missionaries. Engineers (11 percent), pastors (9 percent) and medically related professions (7 percent) followed, with other fields such as merchant marine deck officer, helicopter pilot, jet aircraft mechanic, and community health worker being represented. Fifty-six percent had bachelor’s degrees and 37 percent had graduate degrees. Eighty-two percent served in a foreign country with another 8 percent having served both overseas and at home.
REASON FOR RETIREMENT
An interesting finding involved the reason for retirement from the primary career. Of the 43 missionaries responding to this question, 29 retired specifically to begin a second career in missions. Two were forced to retire by the policies of their employers, and 13 had reached "normal" retirement age, although some common responses to this question included: "superannuated"; "retirement is not in my vocabulary"; "resigned, didn’t retire"; "just changed jobs"; "we will never retire."
On the mission field, second-career missionaries did not always do a job that they had been prepared for by vocation. Thirty-five percent were engaged in some sort of support capacity such as accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, business management, secretarial work, maintenance of facilities or equipment, construction, and guest house administration. Twenty-eight percent were primarily performing pastoral duties, and 26 percent were teaching. Several combined a supportive role with teaching or pastoring and 7 percent performed a task requiring the special skill they brought to the field such as architecture or teaching the learning disabled.
Among married couples, both spouses frequently had separate responsibilities. Thirty-five percent had jobs differing from their spouses’ job such as teaching, using a special technical skill, doing pastoral work, or one of the support roles mentioned above.
Language acquisition for second-career missionaries presents some unique issues. Some respondents to the questionnaire were obviously in English-speaking countries. Others were in a work environment, such as the headquarters of the mission agency, where acquisition of the national language was not critical to the conduct of their work. Thirty answered the questions about language study. Fifteen did no language study. Eleven studied informally with tutors and self-study on the field and only six thought this to be adequate for their communication needs. Four had formal language study, and all four felt adequately prepared in the language. However, when compared with a later question about the people with whom they had the most significant accomplishments on the mission field, none of the latter had interacted significantly with nationals, whereas in the former, informally prepared group six felt that their most significant accomplishments were in the lives of nationals.
Only 25 answered questions regarding adequacy of language preparation. Fifteen felt inadequately prepared to communicate. Ten of these, however, described their new language skills as "marketplace ability." Only one of the six who described themselves as fluent had formal language preparation.
THE DECISION TO SERVE AS A MISSIONARY
What makes people plan to leave their vocation and expose themselves to the risks of a new situation and a new culture in their mid-fifties? The 45 responses to the question, "Name the 3 most important influences on your decision to serve" are summarized in Table 2. No choices were given in order to get spontaneous answers. The first choices are summarized in the table.
The results are surprising in that the conventional wisdom in the last decade has been that previous experience in a cross-cultural mission effort is a strong influence on decisions to serve.
INFLUENCES ON DECISION TO SERVE
Propaganda, conferences, missionaries in home 7 (15%)
Previous overseas experience 2 (4%)
Called by God 17 (38%)
Need to be active and available in retirement 1 (2%)
Challenged by a need on the field 3 (7%)
A desire to serve God 8 (18%)
Other (recruited, late conversion, death of mate) 7 (16%)
Furthermore, missions conferences, knowing missionaries personally and catching their enthusiasm, entertaining missionaries in the home, supporting missionaries financially and other things that are called "missionary propaganda" are thought to be strong influences as well.
Yet, 56 percent of the second-career missionaries polled mentioned "a call from God," or "a desire to serve God," as their primary motivation. The spiritual commitment and maturity reflected in these answers is a challenge to the church today, where commitment is all too often delineated by "comfort zones." It is no wonder that this corps of servants have been serving for an average of 5.4 years even though 36 percent of the respondents were in their first or second year of service when surveyed. Their deep commitment, hardiness, and single mindedness allow SCMs greater longevity on the mission field than some of their younger career co-workers, many of whom do not return to the mission field after furlough or who, for family, financial, or adjustment reasons, leave the field prematurely.
In addition to depth of commitment that results from a call, and staying power that results from years of contending in the marketplace, second-career missionaries exhibit flexibility in their assignments. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed were carrying out a task that they were not prepared for by their profession. As a whole, their subjective assessment of their effectiveness showed confidence and pride of accomplishment. No respondent felt that his or her work was valueless. One expressed frustration. Thirty described themselves as "successful" and 14 as "very successful." Feedback from supervisors and others within their organizations had given them the impression that their agencies considered them to be "successful" in 61 percent and "very successful" in 34 percent of the cases. None had been given the impression that they were "unsuccessful" although two reported a sense of indifference on the part of their managers.
Respondents were asked to check applicable statements from a series designed to uncover hidden frustrations and provide additional specifics on the effectiveness of their ministry. In Table 3 are the responses to the question: "Check those that describe your service as a second-career missionary. Select as many as apply."
Responses to the question: Check those that describe your service as a second-career missionary.
Good for cause of Christ 38 (84%)
Not worth the effort 0 (0%)
Chafed under authority 2 (4%)
Caused family turmoil 2 (4%)
Good for my marriage 19 (42%)
Drew me away from God 0 (0%)
Helpful to the national church 22 (49%)
Had difficulty adjusting 6 (13%)
Mission unresponsive to my needs 0 (0%)
Deepened my spiritual life 41 (91%)
Sacrificed too much for results 0 (0%)
The bottom line in self-evaluation might be summed up by the question, Would you do it again? Forty-five answers resulted in 43 saying Yes, no one saying No, one very introspective person who couldn’t decide, and one who said, Yes and No.
SUPERVISION AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Only three respondents felt that they were not properly supervised, although they did not indicate that this was a drawback to their effectiveness. Eighteen had received excellent supervision and 33 stated that a good and clear means of accountability was in place in their experience. Only one SCM could not get adequate counsel when it was needed.
What would SCMs do differently? Nine would do nothing differently if they were starting over. Six would have done more language and culture study before being plunged into their field responsibilities. Three would have made the decision to go sooner. Fourteen gave a variety of answers which had to do with financial arrangements, naivete in dealing with Christians in positions of power, and specific cross-cultural matters.
When asked to list the persons with whom they had accomplished most, second-career missionaries most frequently listed effectiveness with nationals, followed by effectiveness with career missionaries or their children followed by effectiveness with internationals. About 34 percent found their effectiveness with more than one of the three groups. Their effectiveness in witness and discipleship was demonstrated in response to the question, "did you personally lead any persons to Christ?" Fifty-nine percent had led at least one person to faith.
When asked to classify their ministry as "physical/social," "spiritual," or a combination of both, respondents split evenly between the three choices.
The element most often mentioned as the most important step in the evolution of the second-career candidate was personal contact with the candidate department of the mission. This often began with the decision to obtain a preliminary application and led to a personal meeting with the candidate secretary, a visit to the mission offices, or attendance at orientation or candidate school. In some cases, the mission prodded the candidate to get on with the process. In one case, the candidate department failed to follow up on a potential assignment, and only after the SCM hesitantly inquired to see if the position had been filled by someone else was the broken communication discovered. (One mission board called a candidate at work, evidently to clarify something on his doctrinal statement, and inquired, "What do you think about the Rapture?" Caught completely off guard, he replied, "It hasn’t occurred yet!")
GOOD HUMOR, PERSISTENCE
Many respondents told of humorous and unusual experiences which parallel the classics of missionary embarrassment. Some commented on their confrontation with the poverty in the world. Others commented with something akin to wonder at the way God led them during the process of preparation and service, for his supply of all their needs and for the powerful influence of the prayers of their fellow Christians. The elements of hardness and cynicism that occasionally surface among Christian workers were not evident in the responses to this survey.
Second-career missionaries apparently adjust to the confrontation with a new culture and language with some discomfort, but with persistence and good humor and usually, but not always, with success. Items:
- A newcomer to the field suffered through seven weeks of cold showers, asking the Lord daily to provide hot water so that she could wash her hair properly. She did not mention this to co-workers for fear of sounding spoiled. She finally acquired enough Portuguese to realize that the word "quente" on the funny looking shower head meant "hot" and that God’s answer to her prayer had more to do with communication than with calories.
- An SCM insensitively made a very offensive slip of the tongue in commenting about the conduct of a national believer to his face and had to go to him later on and ask for forgiveness.
- "Our biggest mistake was failing to adequately assess the emotional strains of retiring and selling belongings and failing to recognize the enormous responsibilities and the work of a career missionary which we tried to assume."
- "I was given the position of ‘Director’, which I was not adequate to assume." The result: a return to the US for recuperation and counsel followed by a more suitable assignment.
- ."My biggest mistake was not double checking that everyone understood the financial agreement."
- "My biggest mistake was not taking the language when we first went." "I would take language for the first two years, minimum" (Philippines). "I would insist on language study beforehand" (Malawi).
- "Our experiences were the high point of our professional and spiritual years thus far. After 33 years in the U.S., the seven years were blessed. Anyone who misses the call to such opportunity is the loser."
- "Many more should be doing the thing we’re doing. There shouldn’t be anything unusual about it."
- "In spite of discovering cancer during a furlough, the past 10 years have been the best of my life. Praise the Lord!"
You have continued to follow that "mature" second-career missionary couple in your overseas community. Having finished their business you see them bargaining in the market, he for a colorful hammock and she for a piece of material suitable for a table cloth. He receives the lowest price in the universe for a hammock of such safe and sound construction. She receives a confident reply to each of her queries:
"Are these colors fast?" "Yes." "Is this cotton?" "Yes." "Is this wrinkle resistant?" "Yes." "Is this a blend of cotton and polyester?" "Yes." "Is this wool?" "Yes, 100 percent guaranteed!"
They have learned to laugh at and even to enjoy such episodes. They wish their mission board had recognized the depth of their commitment and potential longevity in service by designing a modified course of dedicated language study for them before they arrived on the field. Their greatest yearning is for others in their situation to be challenged to experience God’s calling in their lives through service such as this.
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