by Gary Corwin
“Retiring and shy” as used here refers to something else—the fact that a growing number of missionaries who have retired or are in the process find themselves “shy” of needed resources.
“Shy and retiring” is an antique phrase that in an earlier time meant someone who was quiet and preferred life out of the limelight. “Retiring and shy” as used here refers to something else—the fact that a growing number of missionaries who have retired or are in the process find themselves “shy” of needed resources. The age and circumstances for retirement have arrived, but the income or housing required for a modest level of security and comfort is wanting. This raises two important questions: How did this come about? and What can and should be done about it?
HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
The number one reason this has come about is that paradigms have shifted, but the personal histories of individual missionaries have not. The new paradigms that have emerged do not adequately factor in those who are already vested in an earlier one. Individuals who joined the harvest force thirty or forty years ago most often did so without a second thought to their eventual retirement needs, believing first of all that God would provide. At that time this was generally considered the only honorable way, by the missionaries themselves AND by supporting churches. Besides, they thought, God has provided a national pension plan to care for that far-off need. In the United States that plan is called Social Security. The assumption was that it, along with the grateful assistance of the same churches that sent them out in the first place, would be adequate to meet their needs. Unfortunately this is often not the case. While Social Security is still solvent for the present at least, the mindset in churches has changed along with the culture at large.
It should not come as a surprise to the mission community that this is the case. The same demographic realities that have caused so many of America’s great companies to move away from defined benefit plans for employee retirement are also at work in the economics of missions and mission-supporting churches. The meteoric and seemingly endless rise of medical expenses alone is enough to scare any leader away from such a commitment, but the problem is compounded by the migration in church understanding of mission from being a long-term process to a short-term project.
WHAT CAN AND SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT IT?
There are important things that each of the primary stakeholders can do. Missionaries themselves can and must save more, even in their later years. Many of them whose health permits will need to keep working longer. A majority would probably do that as volunteers anyway after they retire, but agencies must find ways to enable them to do that on active status. Doing so means that they would draw down agency and personal resources later, as well as have more resources from which to draw. That is because they will, first of all, have opportunity to save longer; but they will also benefit from the annuity aspect of Social Security that increases their monthly payout for each extra year they work up to age seventy. The churches and other supporters can meanwhile feel good about what they are getting in kingdom value for their money, whatever their particular views on missionary retirement may be.
Missionary agencies can make more rational and helpful utilization of the retirement resources that they already have. The agencies that have retirement centers should be commended for the forethought and concern for member care that they represent. What is less praise-worthy, however, is that agencies have not yet pooled such resources into an association capable of assisting missionary retirees more effectively in the regions of the country from which they come. No agency has the ability to provide retirement housing in all the areas from which their members come. Pooling the resources of the various agencies under some common and easy-to-navigate joint system would be a great boon for hundreds of retirees today. There are already more accommodating standards in many retirement centers for receiving retired missionaries from other agencies, but the system, policies and standards can be made much more user-friendly without a great deal of effort. In a similar vein, there are medical insurance and other provisions that can no doubt achieve greater cost-benefits if secured by a consortium of agency purchasers.
The greatest contribution that could be made by the churches is the abandonment of one-size-fits-all policies regarding missionary support in general, but especially with regard to the needs of retiring missionaries. Generational differences are huge at this time because of the great changes in viewpoint and approach that have come about in recent years. It is cruel and unbecoming at best for local churches to declare exclusionary policies on retirement support based on current defined contribution thinking when a generation of missionaries never had the opportunity to participate during their earlier years. Individual consideration of circumstances is essential. Even government discussion of potential changes to the Social Security system take this generational overhang very much into account. Third John 5-8 and the spirit of the scriptures generally would certainly seem to argue for nothing less.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missiologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM-USA.
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