Missionary Retirees

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April 2020 | Volume 15 | Issue 4 | by Ellen Livingood

Missionary Retirees

How churches help them retire well

“Hidden immigrants” or “third-culture retirees” is how retired missionaries sometimes describe themselves. While they are similar in some ways to any Western retiree, most retired missionaries deal with additional unique feelings and adjustments.

Returning “home” to a country that no longer feels like home, retiring missionaries face a new set of challenges. Some have a mission agency that provides counsel and assistance, but often they are locating far from their agency’s headquarters and those interactions may be more about financial arrangements than relocation decisions and the emotional transition.

A caring local church can step into the gap. After all, a church’s responsibility to its missionaries doesn’t end when financial support stops. By understanding and thoughtfully responding to the special challenges missionary retirees face, churches can help them to transition well, and both bless and be blessed by their veteran workers.

PREPARING FOR MISSIONARY RETIREMENT

In her role of missionary care, Sandy Morad helped global workers prepare for retirement. Yet, when she and her husband Steve themselves retired from serving in Kenya, she admits that “We didn’t land in the States with as much preparation as we helped other people to get. It’s important to leave the field well. We returned tired and suddenly found ourselves in the US without an identity. That part was really hard.”

While some mission agencies provide varying degrees of guidance to workers in advance of their transition to retirement, not all have the resources to do so. Churches, and sending churches in particular, can play an essential role in helping workers begin to think about retirement years in advance of their departure from the field. Since wise financial planning starts decades before retirement, churches serve all of their missionaries well by offering to connect them to a good financial counselor. Churches can also provide advice that helps define realistic expectations of retirement options, encourage open discussions with adult children, and provide a better understanding of the local cost of living, healthcare options, and potential employment opportunities.

Churches also need to make sure that their missionaries know well in advance the church’s financial policies regarding retirement. Every church should adopt policies that are clearly defined but allow for some flexibility. These policies need to be regularly reviewed and updated. For example, more missionaries are now electing to scale back their ministry responsibilities without retiring entirely. Church policies need to address such options. Catalyst’s earlier Postings issue, Financing Retired Missionaries: How Can Churches Do Right by Their Veteran Workers? addresses many of these complex questions.

CELEBRATING A LIFETIME OF SERVICE

No missionary should enter retirement without receiving enthusiastic acknowledgement and appreciation for their work from their sending and supporting churches.

The Evangelical Free Church of Hershey (PA) plans a celebration whenever one of their missionaries retires, contacting other supporting churches and individuals and inviting them to the event. The program includes celebrating the years of service, telling stories, “roasting” the retirees, and just having fun.

Julian Linnell, missions pastor at Park Street Church in Boston, MA, highlights the benefit of such celebrations for the church: “Celebrating decades of missionary service teaches the church that missions is a long-term endeavor. Sometimes after 30 or 40 years, there may still not be a lot of visible fruit. Yet we celebrate the value of the long-term commitment.”

Thomas Willett, a Wycliffe Bible Translators retiree explains, “Every missionary has a story to tell, and they should be allowed to do that. They want to tell what God has done and invite people to rejoice with them.” The Willetts appreciated when churches invited them to take extended time to share in a Sunday school class, evening service, or special dinner held in their honor.

Telling their own story can feel self-serving to the missionary. One worker shared, “Every time we came on home assignment, we felt like we had to sell ourselves to our supporters, to provide evidence that we were worth their support. It was especially hard at the end of our service. You may look back on your life and wonder if what you did counted for anything. It’s hard to measure your own effectiveness. It would be nice if the church put together information about the missionary’s ministry and expressed their appreciation, rather than the missionary having to do it.”

What if a church did for retirees what one congregation did when their missionary’s Bible translation was dedicated on the field? The church not only sent representatives to the dedication but also captured the story on video. Back home, they developed a presentation that told the story of what God was doing through their missionary’s work that the workers could then share with other churches and donors.

As a missionary prepares for retirement, the church could send an individual or small team to the field to interview those who have been impacted by the worker over the years. The process, as well as the end result, would honor the workers and tell the story in a way that communicates well with audiences back home.

UNDERSTANDING TRANSITION CHALLENGES

To serve missionaries well across this major life change, churches need to be aware of some of the unique challenges they face. Here are three primary ones.

Identity and role issues

Cam Arensen, retired missionary pastor of an international church in the UAE, describes it this way: “If I am no longer a missionary, who am I? With the loss of professional identity comes a loss of status or ‘place.’ On top of that, retirement is also accompanied by financial concerns, and declining health and physical capacity. All retirees face these issues, but missionary retirees add the challenge of culture disorientation. At an age when learning new skills can be difficult, they are faced with learning to live in what to them is a new country and a different culture. As a result, they can feel overwhelmed, isolated, and homesick for the place where they lived and served for so long.”

Some missionaries also carry guilt for leaving their ministry and moving into a retirement status. They may mourn unfulfilled goals as they leave the people and work they gave their lives to.

A church’s responsibility to its missionaries doesn’t end when financial support stops.

Finding housing within their budget

Some missionaries may need to find a temporary place to live for a few months until a more permanent home is found. Some wrestle with the decision whether to live near family and friends, or locate to a subsidized missionary retirement center that may be thousands of miles from familiar contexts. Others must consider whether a lifetime-care community is right and feasible for their future. The options can be complicated, especially on limited budgets.

Developing friendships

Several retirees mentioned the challenge of making a new set of friends. “I had to accept that people here really aren’t that interested in what my life was like on the field,” one said. Another admitted that they had to come to grips with the fact that when they joined a small group made up of other retirees, they often discovered that the long-time local residents already had lifelong friends and it was hard to feel included. While retired missionaries may look like they fit in, their perspective has been very much reshaped by the culture where they served. This is why some retirees feel like “hidden immigrants” or “third-culture retirees” who just don’t belong.

 

HELPING MISSIONARIES TRANSITION

Discover the missionary retirees in your midst

Many missionaries settle far away from their sending/supporting churches. In these cases, some report that the new church they attend doesn’t realize, or perhaps even care, that they served for decades overseas. Do some sleuthing to identify former missionaries in your church. Because of culture shock some may withdraw and need you to reach out to get to know them and appreciate their different perspective.

Help retired missionaries find each other

As mentioned above, retired missionaries often struggle to feel as if they belong and may be most comfortable with others who are also “hidden immigrants.” Churches can help retirees find others like them, encouraging those already better assimilated to take the initiative to reach out to those more recently returned from the field.

Resource retirees to navigate the change

Former missionary-care providers themselves, retirees Jay and Carolyn Sensenig recommend Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service by Amy Young, and Finishing Well: Retirement Skills for Global Servants edited by Nathan Davis (available from CaringConnection 417.863.7717). A guide designed for anyone ending overseas service but certainly applicable to retirees is Returning Well by Melissa Chaplin.

More and more missionaries are eager and able to continue part-time ministry after they have officially retired.

Consider supporting ongoing, part-time service

Like many other retirees, more and more missionaries are eager and able to continue part-time ministry after they have officially retired.

One retired worker described what many missionaries feel: “We weren’t ready to give up all ministry. We have lots of experience and they still need us. So we are now officially volunteers with our agency.”

Sometimes such service can be carried out long distance, but often it involves return trips to the field. If so, then the church may want to create a process for retired workers to request support for return trips for ministry purposes. Before funding such trips, it may be prudent for the church to confirm with the worker’s agency that they are still wanted and needed by their former colleagues.

Engage retired workers in ministry, if appropriate

Calvary Church of Lancaster, PA, uses their retirees as mentors in their missionary development program, providing a great benefit to both the retired and prospective workers. Other churches have used retirees’ cross-cultural skills to develop ministry to immigrants in their community, launch ESL programs, or serve on their missions leadership team.

Continue caring friendships

Retired missionaries enjoy continued personal relationships with their former sending/supporting churches even though the formal support relationship may have ended. One retiree mentioned how much it meant when they were invited to return for their church’s missions conference and recognized as part of the missionary family even though they didn’t have a role as speaker.

Encourage the continuation of personal relationships that members of your congregation or missionary care team have built over the years with retired workers. Regular communication and genuine concern are very meaningful and provide retirees the opportunity to share any difficulties they face.

John Nicely, former international personnel director at TEAM, reminds churches, “Don’t stop praying because your missionary is no longer on the field. They may need your intercession more than ever as they face the challenges that come with retirement and senior years.”

Another practical way to care is by encouraging parents in the congregation to “adopt” a retired missionary to be an integral part of their family, especially those settled at a distance from loved ones. The relationship will bless both the worker and the surrogate family.

Kevin Thiessen, missions and outreach pastor at Central Baptist Church in Victoria, BC, Canada, sees the church’s role in assisting retiring missionaries as just one piece of the overall process of good missionary care. This care includes consistent prayer support, regular communication, visits, and advocacy. Central’s pastoral-care strategy identifies advocacy for a retiring worker to include one or more debriefing sessions, an individual care giver with whom the missionary can process their experience and reintegration to Canada, and a supporting community where the missionary can integrate and be cared for.

What missionary wouldn’t feel blessed to have a church walking so intentionally through the retirement transition with them!

 

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