General Douglas McArthur, in his farewell speech said, “the old never die, they just fade away.”
What happens to old missionaries? Usually there are two tracks: retirement and dying on the field.
Have you given them any thought? (Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. My husband and I didn’t until we were close to sixty.) Our co-workers retired—and they’re actively serving the Lord now. Good friends retired—also still active in the Lord’s work. A close friend passed away. Other good friends want to stay on the field until the Lord takes them home. That’s how God led them.
What happens to old missionaries? Do they just fade away?
The brutal truth is yes. As we get older—my husband says it’s the year he turned sixty-two—we physically have less stamina. We might have infirmities or not, but all of us slow down a little. This doesn’t mean men can’t pastor until they’re eighty, and it doesn’t mean older people are worthless. We just move and think slower, and our ministries need to be a little less run-run. For me, my ministry changed radically because of the needs of the church. A missionary works with the people God gives him. The ministry ebbs and flows. Our near-and-over-sixty missionary friends are doing all kinds of things. Some are starting new churches. Others are focusing on training the next generation. And, some are working on finding a pastor for the church that they began. Some are providing support and help for their adult missionary kids.
Older missionary women become mentors and teachers. It’s the way it should be. But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded (Titus 2:1-6).
To retire or not to retire, that is the question. (Sorry, Shakespeare!) Is there a right or wrong? Well, maybe it depends on your theology. (I hear some amens.) Do Christ’s servants retire? No. Once signed up, it’s for life. Is it sin to have a change of ministry? Is it wrong to leave the field because of health problems? Of course not. God leads and gives peace.
Let me share some true examples with you:
- Many years ago, a missionary friend went back home to care for his ailing parents. He was an only child, and one parent was ill and the other suffered from Alzheimer’s. Was he right to leave the field? Yes, absolutely. After his parents passed away, he founded a Hispanic church in a needy part of the country.
- A young missionary wife suffered from multiple serious health conditions. Were they right to seek medical treatment back home? Of course. I am happy to report she has since had a specialized surgery completely changing her quality of life—and she’s a published author and advocate for trafficked women. Her husband has recently begun a new ministry.
- An elderly pastor felt sincerely that, if and when he could get a native pastor for his church, he would be able to retire. It took many more years than he would have wished, but now, a young native pastors the church, and the work is thriving. The older couple retired, and now they are helping a church plant.
- Other missionary friends served on different mission fields filling in for those on furlough. God led him to represent a mission board, and now he preaches all over the U.S. and the world, encouraging missionaries as he goes.
Does God lead different people in different ways? Absolutely. It is amazing how He directs circumstances to help us see His way. Then, He confirms it.
I have no idea how God will lead you. Will you retire or will you live your final days on the field? Ask God for His direction. Follow that path, and watch Him open and close doors for you.
… And, never, ever retire from serving God!
One of my missionary heroes is David Livingstone, the Scot who traveled all over Africa, learning native languages and cultures, and spreading the gospel. When he passed away, May 1, 1873 in Chitambo’s Village, the natives didn’t want his body shipped back to England for burial. They insisted that his heart belonged to Africa. When they finally gave in, they cut out his heart and buried it under a mpundu tree. His body is buried in Westminster Abbey.
May our hearts always belong to our field, wherever God may guide. I know a great part of me will always feel Spanish-Basque. I have lived my best years here, raised my family here, and invested in friends young and old. I’ve cried my most bitter tears in this place and suffered mocking and persecution. I’ve also witnessed miracles of transformed lives and watched people get the vision to serve God. Disappointments are part of life, but they seem exaggerated when you are in the Lord’s work. On the flipside, the surprises and joys of ministry are the best thing in the whole wide world. They leave me in awe of my great God.
But, you know what? I think the best ministry God ever did here was His to me, personally. Because I followed His leadership, He graciously taught me. He held my hand through the darkest days and nights, encouraged me to meditate on Him (not on people), and used His Word in my life in a way that leaves me with my heart full of gratitude. Had I stayed home, I don’t think this would have happened in the same way.
The icing on the cake is different for every missionary woman. For me, it is art and travel. I had no idea when we said yes to Spain that we would be able to see the greatest art and architecture at every turn. On our family vacations, we saw most of France and Spain and even traveled over to Austria and Switzerland one time. The beauty of just about every town in Europe is impossible to capture in mere words or photos. For me, the history and beauty is the icing on my cake.
Old missionaries never die. They have a hope of heaven. They may fade away, and they may even move location, but they never die. Praise God for the promise of eternal life!
That being justified by his grace,
we should be made heirs
according to the hope of eternal life.
May the Lord find us faithful!
by Lou Ann Keiser, in Basque Spain since 1984