by Dan Schmidt
In the midst of so many demands, we must deal creatively, compassionately and constructively with valued older servants.
Hayward and Marlene became missionaries a year after hearing about five Christian men martyred in Ecuador. They joined an agency that had started just after the Great Depression and went to Africa where they planted churches, promoted sustainable farming methods, were administrators for an orphanage and served as house parents for a mission school. Four years ago they moved back to the United States when Hayward’s health began to worsen.
The modest, fluctuating income they received while on the field has diminished since they returned, and there is little surplus in the bank. Recently, they received notice from two churches that their support would end when each turned seventy; one church explained that although it had decided to reduce support at age sixty-five, the decision to continue another five years had been made under a “grandfather” clause. Future missionaries would lose all support at sixty-five as a matter of church policy.
From a cubicle in their mission’s home office, Hayward and Marlene try to stay focused on corresponding with others still in Africa. Almost every week they see opportunities for ministry, but they are rarely consulted for input. Because of Hayward’s medical needs, relocation is only a remote possibility. They feel stuck, and even though they will not acknowledge it directly, fear of the future is also creeping into their hearts.
“Hayward” and “Marlene” are composites of people I have met, worked with and heard about during nearly three decades in and around the missions community; their concerns and experiences raise questions for mission agencies, local churches, friends and family members. As the missionary force ages, and as life expectancy expands, it is important to focus adequate attention on these later years. In the midst of so many other demands, we must deal creatively, compassionately and constructively with these valued older servants.
An article like this cannot deal exhaustively with such a complex issue, but my hope is that the six suggestions which follow might spark further consideration among those who send and support missionaries, especially those without ties to denominations.
1. Talk about “transition” more than “retirement.” This is more than semantic doublespeak, since words shape our thinking about issues. Consider, for instance, the difference between “vacation” and “recreation.” “Retirement” is a hot word that is for many loaded with upsetting connotations: withdrawal, uselessness, hedonism, lethargy, indolence.
“Transition,” on the other hand, implies a change and carries a note of hope. Although change can be unsettling, if it is anticipated and managed, it can also be fruitful. And since we know that change is as inevitable as death and taxes, we may as well deal with it.
A quick look at the Old Testament priestly practice surrounding the later years may help. Numbers 8:25 tells us that at the age of fifty priests “must retire from their regular service”—but notice how the text continues. While these retiring priests are to “work no longer,” they “may assist their brothers” in the priestly functions. In other words, they have transitioned to a new role and have different responsibilities.
Transitions imply a shift in activity, but not necessarily a diminishing in value. One missionary who spent years in Micronesia told of how older missionaries used developed networks to negotiate with local officials. These people could also share the wealth of their experience. On one occasion, when a power supply was cut by rebels, long-termers recalled abandoned lines that could be pressed into use. In another place—a missionary retirement center in Florida—a group of women who all qualified for the senior coffee deal at a local restaurant learned to use personal computers. Because of this they could continue their Bible translation work far from the African peoples where they had spent much of their lives. These people found ways to transition which still involved making contributions to kingdom ministry.
2. Plan early for the later years. Mission work is often shaped by a sense of urgency. When missionaries focus intently on the significant work that needs to be done, it can be difficult to make plans for the future. It is common for missionaries to come to their later years without means, a plan or a place to go.
Wise leaders will make sure that these missionaries attend to the future. There must be a healthy balance between faith and planning. However, the Lord is honored when we show ourselves to be good stewards, and when we prepare according to the resources at our disposal.
This matter of responsibility begins at the start of a missionary’s career. An agency might insist, for instance, that not only does the person raise full support for service in the appointed field, but also that this support includes items such as retirement funding and a thoughtful, realistic plan toward saving for future needs. Family members can help with this, too; for example, one son became an apartment manager so that he could provide low-cost housing for his parents when they finished active field service.
3. Recognize and esteem missionary elders. There are two parts to this suggestion. The first is the idea of making a place for aging members. In Latin America older people are described as tercera edad—the “third age.” They have passed from adolescence through the intense years of building and maintaining a family and career and are easing into their next phase. This period of life is widely recognized and esteemed; those of the tercera edad routinely get preferential treatment in public and at home. What if mission agencies adopted a similar kind of terminology for describing those who have invested many years on the field? We already speak of “finishers” or “second (or third or fourth) career” people; why not recognize another category for those who have been in ministry for decades?
Perhaps mission agencies and churches could make or keep a place for older missionaries to serve for as long as they desired and were capable. Perhaps these former missionaries could be routinely solicited for their opinions and viewpoints concerning mission-related topics. And perhaps mission agencies could require new candidates to interview an “elder” or to shadow one for a few weeks or months. Missionary elders could serve as mentors; they could form the nucleus of important prayer bands.
The second aspect of this suggestion concerns celebrating the contributions these faithful servants have made. When attending funerals I listen intently to the eulogies and have caught myself on several occasions wondering whether the deceased person had ever heard such words while still alive. We do a good thing when we express our gratitude to people who have done well, and whose work has blessed others.
In some cases—like when the fields of service have been arid and stony—our voices might be the only positive indication of faithful work over many years. Perhaps one of the best things we can do for aging missionaries is to throw them a party. When we gather a group for the purpose of esteeming those who have served faithfully for years, we are enriching the kingdom that those missionaries were commissioned to expand.
4. Capture memory. This does not concern the ever-expanding, high-tech computer hard drives; rather, it concerns the use of old-fashioned art, such as scrapbooking. Whether it happens as part of a formal group or around one’s own dining table, pressing photos and other memorabilia into large folios is a spiritual activity. It reminds us of what we have come through—and how the Lord has been present in joys and sorrows. Remembering is spiritual work.
Remembering is the joy of the elderly. Of late it has also become the fascination of the younger generation who are eager to mine the memories of those who lived in bygone eras. Mission agencies and local churches can capitalize on this by formally interviewing their senior saints, and carefully recording their recollections for those who will follow.
Older missionaries can help us remember the past; from them we can re-collect not only the history of a particular agency, but other surrounding and contributing factors as well. This might work against us if we insist that a history demands a future and refuse to do the sort of analysis and make the kind of changes current factors require. But it can also work for us, as the effort to look back and reflect on a history can inform the present and shape a future.
5. Develop effective policies. Some agencies will already have clearly spelled-out standards regarding the relationship between age and responsibility; for others this will be new—and necessary—work. The benefit of a policy is that if it is constructed with wisdom and compassion, it provides an objective guideline for a matter that might otherwise be fraught with emotion. Consider, for instance, what happens when an agency determines that after age sixty-five a missionary will no longer have supervisory responsibilities, or that in order to continue serving, the missionary must annually be affirmed by both peers and supervisors. In many parts of the US there are requirements for mandatory testing in order for older persons to retain a driver’s license; might a similar expectation be established for missionaries?
Policies regarding finances are also essential and can operate alongside principles of godly stewardship. Thus mission agencies should insist that career missionaries prepare adequately for what lies ahead. This may well mean some frank and potentially uncomfortable discussions, but far better to have those earlier rather than later.
Mission agencies, particularly those with limited resources and endowments, must set good patterns early on. It can be inspiring to hear of the missionary who boards the plane for a field, trusting that all needs will be met in due course; it is quite another story when years later one’s health has failed and one’s housing is uncertain because of inadequate savings. This is where policies help; agencies should hold firmly to the position that field work requires funding not only for now but also for later.
6. Stay involved. Missionaries about to embark on their first term of service receive all manner of attention. But what about those anticipating their final season on the field? Churches regularly contact my office with requests about the support level of particular missionaries, and remind us that their practice is to withdraw or reduce support once that person retires. Apparently they assume that missionaries and their agencies are responsible for a pension plan, healthcare and all living arrangements.
While this makes it easier for one group, it becomes onerous for another. One unintended consequence is that missionaries refuse to retire, even when health or other concerns impair their ability to serve. Their effectiveness diminishes, and occasionally their witness erodes because they fear life without the support that has been customarily received.
Might churches instead commit to career missionaries for life? They could urge missionaries early on to educate themselves about pension plans, and to be part of an ongoing dialog about future finances. They could offer ways missionaries might serve at home. They could also encourage members to take a special interest in particular people. I recall one missionary’s story about a couple in her sending church who realized she had no formal pension arrangement. This couple took it upon themselves to earmark a gift to that missionary for the express purpose of starting a retirement fund. Others have benefited from the counsel of financial planners and businesspeople who come alongside missionaries to help with complex matters.
To discard or warehouse older missionaries is not a legitimate option. Nor is it reasonable to foist their care on to the state or “someone else.” Making an early commitment to a person’s ministry should entail at least the serious consideration of a long-term commitment to pray, give and help in demonstrable, practical ways.
Missionaries begin full of vigor; they plunge into difficult situations with energy and verve—often with a strong team of ministry partners who pray and give. They serve faithfully and sacrificially; they cannot imagine doing anything else. Gradually, the years bring change. Their bodies no longer heal as quickly, their minds are not as accurate and they are less welcoming of new ideas. Their support network ages and the agency which they are part of needs to retool, which involves a reevaluation of personnel.
But these changes need not prompt fear or loathing. With careful planning, regular discussion and gracious care, the work of ministry can continue, and those who do it can move through their days with confidence and joy. Following the lead of scripture which evinces respect for the elderly, those responsible for guiding mission agencies and local churches, along with individuals who support missionaries directly, can encourage thinking and practice that makes the later years of missionaries significant, manageable and even worth anticipating.
Dan Schmidt supervises US ministry for BCM International. He has pastored churches in Maryland, Chile and Costa Rica, and has written two books, Taken by Communion and Unexpected Wisdom.
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