Audio Transcript:

Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. We're so thankful that you found Missions on Point episode 117 today. This is part of a short series on special church missions issues and the second one of this series is called Missionary Retirement. Now, you may think that missionary retirement doesn't rank up very high in special church missions issues, but I constantly get questions and inquiries from churches about what do we do with missionaries that are of retirement age or on the edge of retirement or have retired and don't actually have enough income.

It is a crisis moment for missionaries and missionaries that make it to retirement ought to be honored in such a way that the transition into retirement is less traumatic and easier for them. Complicating matters, the transition from full-time ministry on the field and whatever retirement means for the missionary is a big gray area. There's a lot of different factors playing into that, and it's not an easy time for the missionary to make clear decisions about when and why and where and how it's all going to work out.

The idealistic long-term missionary says, "I would rather die and be buried on the field," and maybe the Lord would allow them to do that, but there's a lot of complicating factors having to do with financing and support and care for elderly people on the field that takes a lot of time away from other people's ministry to make sure that that happens. Most missions sending agencies have a set time in their policy, say age 65, at which the missionary has to be evaluated year by year as to their physical, emotional, psychological, mental health and capacity for doing the work on the field.

If in the view of the mission evaluation, they are actually not able to carry the load of a fully supported missionary, they are forced to retire, or at least, as we will see, leave the field. That is not an unusual thing in the working world. Many skilled positions in our working day life in America have some kind of mandatory age limit retirement or a year by year approval based on the capacity of the person to do that job. Even in that process or the decisions that are a part of that whole process, the missionary at that stage of life need some extra support and care and counsel in order to move forward with confidence and a positive attitude no matter which way those decisions may fall.

Every sending church and some supporting churches need to have that confidential but very straightforward conversation with their missionary as they approach retirement years to find out what are their plans? What are their resources for financial support and living? How does their family play into this? How does the government play into this? Do they have social security? Do they have a retirement fund? Do they have a place to live? Do they have long-term plans for their health and care?

There are still a few mission agencies out there, typically European originating mission agencies, that are full-time until death care kind of mission agencies. They have a retirement home for their missionaries. The missionaries may not have a choice about where to go when they retire and they're expected to aid and support the work of the ministry even if it's only part-time, by working in the mail room, doing odd jobs around the mission office or taking care of the landscaping or handyman work of their retirement home. They're expected to contribute something in thanks and service to the mission agency.

Other US originating agencies have created missionary retirement villages, if you will. There are residential communities where the retired missionaries can go and live among other retired missionaries and have a bit of community there, a little bit of pastoral care and just looking after the needs of each other as they are able. Missionaries who have retired from the field, say, over the last 20 years until now have not had great retirement programs in their mission.

The mission may not have had a retirement program at all and just assumed that family and churches were going to take care of these elderly saints after they come home from the field. In today's world, that's a bad assumption. A number of other missionaries, say, who have retired or coming into retirement age, say 20 years ago to 10 years ago, were actually advised to opt out of social security on a conscientious objector basis and therefore, have not had any contribution into social security and get nothing from social security.

That sounds odd today, but it's true. They were advised to do it. They thought they could save the Lord's money and be better stewards and now they're at retirement and they don't even have social security as a safety net for themselves. Having that conversation with the missionaries who are approaching or are entering retirement is very important to uncover these facts and find out exactly where they are and how they intend to support themselves in their twilight years, sometimes already having poor health issues as part of the package.

The question needs to be asked about the family of the retiring missionaries to find out what kind of expectations the family members of both husband and wife and their children may expect from the missionaries themselves and from the family to see how they may care for or look after the needs of their aging parents. Again, in today's world, it's very likely that children and the families of children of these retiring missionaries may be scattered all over the place and not have a central location and they have some hard decisions to make about how to take care of retiring mom and dad.

I remember getting a call from a pastor, frantic. From their small church, they had supported a missionary for 20 years. Now he was home and he was not in good health. He had cancer. He had no social security. He had no medical insurance, and his family were incapable of taking care of them. What are we going to do with his situation? How can we love and care for him in a wise way? It is something of a pattern of missionaries that have retired over the last, say, 25 years or so until more recent times that the retiring missionaries were completely unaware of the financial concerns and amount of finances that it might take to take care of themselves in retirement.

They went to the field, raised minimum funds, played very close with finances throughout their entire ministry career, did not live very high in affluence, and now they come home as greatly respected missionaries but with no resources to actually enter into this final stage of life. It's something of a tragedy. Therefore, we must, as churches, ask these questions of our missionaries before they get close to retirement age so that we don't have surprises and we can help them build proper expectations themselves.

So far, we've primarily talked about financial resources, but there is a lot of things going on when a missionary retires from the field after spending 25, 30, 40, even more than that years on the field. They're coming into cultural whiplash in the home side. In the past, they've made visits on furlough or home assignment and they've visited and they've been amazed by the increases in technology and the speed of travel and the expectations of church members that are not so interested in missions and now they come back and they're expected to settle in this strange cultural environment that they have not really imbibed and taken in as for themselves over the years.

The complexity and costs of medical care are staggering to them. Having to find the basic necessities and services that they need for living, for their car, for their housing, for shopping, for all kinds of things that they can do online that they may not have been aware of very much in all of their career. They actually need some training or orientation or perhaps someone to come alongside them and hold their hand and guide them through these things to get their feet on the ground and have a basic understanding of life in these United States as it is now.

Their mission agency is highly unlikely to be prepared to provide that kind of service. Then you have this gray area that I talked about. There are stages at which the missionary may retire, and it's complicated by the whole support phenomena, so when a missionary has support from a faith supportive mission agency or through a faith supportive mission agency, they don't want to go cold turkey onto having no support whatsoever. Usually, the mission agency makes some arrangement if the missionary has capability to do so, to be, say, a regional representative for the mission or do some particular office work for the mission or use their skills, personal or ministry skills, to help the missions advance in some way, thereby still get some support.

Their support may be reduced to half or even a third of what it was on the field, but they're getting some kind of financial remuneration for services provided to the mission agency and the home office by doing some bits of work for them along the way, usually with much lower expectations than say a full-time person doing the same kind of job. From the church's point of view, the missionary says, "Yes, we still need support." From the retirement point of view, maybe not. It depends on what they're actually doing and if the church wants to continue to support that.

Certainly, it is cause for reevaluation and perhaps reduction of some support without eliminating support entirely just to honor and respect their long-term service and their continuing service even in a part-time way as a retiree. Again, I highly recommend having a frank discussion and push a little bit to get underneath the surface to find out exactly what's going on and what the expectations are of the missionary and their mission and the church with respect to their retirement.

Many mission committees or missions teams have a policy that basically say once the missionary comes off the field, we will automatically reduce their support down to, say, a third of what it was for some period of time for reintegration into life in America and then reduce it to nothing when that period of time has expired. Note, I'm not saying this is the recommended policy, but this sort of policy does exist. I think every missionary relationship with their sending church should be on a case by case basis.

Letting the missionary know that policy is of great service to them to have right expectations about their relationship with the church. If the church is the sending church, the church may be more involved even in finding housing and transportation and things like that to get them set up in their new life in the US. Probably the biggest hole in the shepherding care of these missionaries is those conversations never happen. The church never talks to the missionary about it. The missionary never talks to the church about it.

The families of the missionaries never talk to their parents about it and their parents never talk to their kids about the details of it. All of these parties should know what's going on long before it happens, and it requires that these uncomfortable but penetrating and needed conversations should take place. Strangely, this episode of Missions on Point will probably spark a small avalanche of these conversations taking place across the lives of all the listening missionaries, mission leaders, church leaders, and families of missionaries that are learning that this is something that they should talk about.

Let's keep the tone warm and loving and it will be most welcomed for the good of our missionaries who have served the Lord for so long on the field. One final note, it is amazing how valuable retired missionaries can be in your church. They are used to serving, they are wise, they have ministry experience, they often are great at being understanding shepherds and certainly could be valuable on your missions team to help shepherd some missionary candidates through the process to get to the field. Please consider using them well in your local church. Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, Please preferably consider supporting this ministry. Now to God, be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus, forever and ever. Amen.

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