Never too late: serving overseas in retirement
JACKSONVILLE, FL – I’ll always remember the pre-retirement seminar I attended a full seven years before what would have been my normal retirement date. I’d given thirty-five years of my life to a large corporation. And the prospects of being retired sounded bleak: loss of influence, reduced responsibility, and being relegated to nonessential tasks.
It was then that my wife and I began discussing the possibility of serving in missions during retirement. We were overwhelmed with a desire to not give God only the leftovers of our lives. We did not want to wait seven more years. When I announced the Lord was calling us to retire early and serve as missionaries, several friends, coworkers, and some family questioned us in love because of the magnitude of the decision. God graciously reassured us it was right many times during the process.
We landed overseas in 2002, and for the next six years, we wore many different hats. Our team opened a bookstore and art gallery as part of its ministry, and I worked in both. We also led volunteer coordination for the short-term teams and individuals who came to work with us. Although we eventually had to return to the United States to care for our aging mothers, we would not trade our six years on the field for anything.
Learning the Language
Serving as a retiree had its advantages and challenges. One of the most obvious challenges was language acquisition. It was without a doubt the most difficult part for us and is so for many seniors. From hardening auditory ossicles to memory retention, the struggles were real. On the bright side, there are many roles needed on the field that require less language skill, thankfully. But, relationship-building skills often depend on speaking to neighbors and new friends in their own language. It is what brings you into their circle—their lives.
“We believe the Lord created divine appointments with others who needed the gospel.”
As in so many other ways, we seniors were given grace with our language skills. Any effort by us seemed to be applauded, and core words and sentences began to surface when needed. Presence, compassion, and love also go a long way in supplementing meager language skills. We believe the Lord created divine appointments with others who needed the gospel. Even with deficient language skills, we only needed to allow ourselves to be used.
Leaving Family and Creating a New One
One of the greatest concerns we had when we began to think about long-term service on the field was being away from our children and grandchildren. What we later discovered was the young missionaries became like our kids and their kids our grandkids. And not surprisingly, our children back in the States grew in their faith and trust in the Lord. It turned out to be a blessing for us all. Although we’re easily reminded we’re not the youngest in the room, our day-to-day processes with our new missionary family made us feel and act many years younger than we are. The love and grace of the families we adopted and who adopted us sustained us. We were not unlike grandchildren—you can enjoy them and then give them back. They did that with us, and it was completely okay.
Perhaps one of the most common issues faced by missionaries is an inadequacy in skills and proficiency in the work of the gospel. I have long admired the young missionaries who give themselves, their education, their very futures to the Lord in service. And quite honestly, I felt inadequate in those areas.
A simple phrase changed that for me when it’s meaning finally settled in: God can use you. It is clear throughout Scripture that God uses whom he pleases, how he pleases, prepares them for the work, and equips them to carry it out. God prepared for me more than I imagined or deserved. And he is preparing you as well for the work to which you’ve been called as you seek to serve him.
If you are a retiree and considering serving on the mission field, try not to let yourself be victim to illogical thinking—that God can’t use you. The inclusion of the words “God can’t” in that statement should expose the error in such thinking. God, the creator of heaven and earth, can use you, even when you don’t see how.
“God, the creator of heaven and earth, can use you, even when you don’t see how.”
When we were wrestling with a possible change, we called the IMB and asked if they needed someone our ages with our specific backgrounds. Retail management and nursing seemed far from what you need to be effective missionaries. However, we were excited to discover that with the diversity of mission needs around the world, and the outstanding training the IMB provides, they could not only use us, there were actually current requests for missionaries with our skill sets. Who knew?!
Well, God did. And he knows about you too. Be open to how God may use you and understand that it very well may be in ways you absolutely do not expect. My Sunday School class lives vicariously through my wife’s and my accounts of our time living and serving as missionaries. It was a wonderful time in our lives. Many of our retired friends have never traveled abroad, or at least don’t do so at this time of life.
Likewise, were it not for our short-term mission trips back to the country we love, it would sometimes seem to be the distant past. Who could have possibly thought that the past six years would have been so rewarding? Our only regret is that we didn’t do this sooner. But we know that God led us each step of the way. He will do the same for you.
And if you are like us, it will be the best decision of your life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David and his wife have been married for thirty-eight years and have two children and seven grandchildren. After taking early retirement from a large retail corporation, David served with the IMB. Since then he was an associate pastor and administrator in Louisiana, and is now an associate pastor for pastoral care in Jacksonville, Florida. He is still looking for where God can use him.