Innovations are allowing people to live longer than ever, and as potential retirees look into the future, they dream of exciting possibilities to explore. But the kind of retirement that enticed millions of Americans years ago is rapidly evaporating. In addition to the new opportunities they face, these pioneers of the new retirement look into uncertainty and a challenge to tackle, knowing that retirement will bring with it significant cost.
In the past, missionaries expected their supporting churches or their mission organizations to continue assisting them in a major way in retirement or after their days as active missionaries were finished. The missionary call of the past century included an unspoken vow of poverty—or at least frugality. As missionaries went out, there was an unwritten agreement that supporters and the mission agency would reward that life of sacrifice with ongoing support.
Coming to Grips with Today’s Realities
Those days of lifelong support are becoming less and less frequent, and long-term commitments of the past are quickly evaporating. Although age-discrimination laws prevent forced retirements, Christian organizations, local churches, and even individual donors are poised to reallocate their mission funds from older missionaries (sometimes not even retired yet) to younger missionaries who wait in the wings, passionately seeking support so that they can embark on their ministry. Others use the retirement of a missionary to switch their support to a project or program instead of an individual.
The transition for our missionaries approaching retirement and returning from years of service on the field is a major dilemma. As both our own mission culture and our society changes, finding a suitable role for “older” missionaries (both pre- and post-retirement) becomes more and more difficult. It is now more challenging to match their skills after years of international hands-on ministry to our current high-tech/low-touch opportunities. Many missionaries in the past assumed that when they returned from the field they could count on continued support from their churches and individuals and easily move into support positions in the areas where they relocated. This assumption is being tested, and we must find ways to compassionately address this challenge.
That’s the dilemma—and the challenge—facing each missionary. Because of changes in the US Church and the US mission organization (and increasingly in other countries as well), the burden of effectively preparing for the transition from active service to retirement is now on each missionary’s shoulders. Preparation for those days is a burden; however, without preparation, facing retirement will be an overwhelming prospect.
Understanding the Dynamics in the Western Church
A drastic change in the mindset of the American Church has occurred in the last fifteen or twenty years. It no longer views a missionary as someone to support in perpetuity. As churches today begin to see missionaries they have had “on their rolls” approaching (or passing) the normal retirement age, many churches become anxious to be able to withdraw their support from retiring missionaries and reallocate the funds to those young people eager to begin their ministries. The younger missionaries are usually more aligned with the locations and types of ministries the churches have chosen in their individual missions strategies for the future.
Perhaps that picture is a generalization, but the phenomenon is growing more and more common. I recently visited two very strong mission-centered churches, and in both cases their top agenda was to discuss what HCJB Global is doing about the aging and retiring missionaries they are currently supporting. They were anxious to be able to use the funds they were presently giving to our aging missionaries so that they could commit them to other missionaries focusing on ministries in which they were now interested.
The churches’ dilemma is understandable. They have only a certain amount of money to contribute to missions, and they desire to use it in a way that is most effective in reaching around the world and also in engaging their congregations in relationships with these missionaries. This is resulting in a sad predicament for the missionary who was banking on a long-lasting relationship of being supported by their churches and individual donors even after retirement.
The Role of Western Missions Agencies
Most parachurch organizations are aware of the challenge facing retiring missionaries and are investigating ways to address the issue. One step many are taking is to upgrade old-style pension plans to give participants the ability to invest in a number of options to gain flexibility in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the process has been slow, underfunded, and often “too late.”
Financial support for missionaries is becoming more difficult to raise and maintain, even for those still serving on the field and not yet ready for retirement. We have seen many missionaries choose to receive less than their salary in order to keep from going into deficit so that they can remain on the field. Some missionaries have been forced to give up mission work because of serious issues with raising and maintaining support, and a growing number are confronting this possibility unless God intervenes soon.
Mission organizations are asking if the traditional method of support-raising is in need of a major paradigm shift. It seems the US Church is increasingly more focused on short-term teams or on their own choice of locations and mission vision. Many churches are also becoming more limited in their flexibility to grant missionary support. While we do not pretend to have a clear vision concerning the future of missionary support-raising, we are certain that the situation is changing and that it will affect the recruitment of new missionaries and the future funding of existing missionaries.
The Changing Economy and Demographics of Retirement
Because people are living longer today, they need even more resources to maintain the same lifestyle throughout their retirement years. As inflation continues, maintaining the same kind of lifestyle will cost more and more. Missionaries who permanently return to the US after years of living abroad will face serious difficulties in dealing with housing and living costs if they have not prepared themselves for the increased financial need. Even those who have saved for retirement may find US living costs a greater problem than expected.
These problems are compounded when the missionary’s income is substantially dependent on donations which could easily evaporate by changes in supporting church policies or on the inability of individuals to continue their support indefinitely. Unfortunately, the days of lifelong support from churches and individuals is quickly vanishing, and missionaries need to prepare—quickly!
Today’s Missionary Reality
We have seen many churches and donors suddenly decide to no longer support missionaries after retirement age (some with little thought as to how this will affect those reaching that age). Conversely, we have seen missionaries ignore some of these realities, assuming they will always be able to count on faithful donors. They usually face disappointment and struggle mightily when donors cannot or no longer wish to continue their support.
The “totally dependent” missionary model (especially in regard to retirement) must change. Undoubtedly, the issue of God’s provision belongs in this conversation. “Doesn’t God promise to supply all your needs?” many ask. Yes! However, to use Philippians 4 as a reason to avoid any planning or forethought is a dangerous interpretation of the passage. We do not mean to imply that God is not the source of all resources—he is! However, scripture does not tell us to ignore the future or fail to prepare for it.
What Can Churches, Mission Agencies, and Missionaries Do?
This is the key question every missionary, mission agency, church, and donor should ask themselves. Now is the time to become proactive and intentional in preparing and taking responsibility for the future of our missionaries and ourselves.
Question: What should churches and mission agencies consider?
- Make your long-term missionary support policies clear.
- If you do not currently have a policy about retirement-age missionaries, make one and communicate with them so that they clearly understand your position.
Question: What should missionaries consider?
- Start an intentional retirement savings strategy today, not tomorrow.
- Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! Keep your donors informed about your continuing ministry—at least four times a year (six is even better). Be open and honest about changes in your ministry and be sure to show donors how God is continuing to use your work for him. Donors want to feel they are good stewards in their giving. Help them see that investing in your ministry is producing results.
- Tell your churches and individual donors what your retirement plans are and ask them to participate. Keep talking about it as the years go by. Keep asking for their involvement.
- Do not fall into an “entitlement mentality.” Neither your mission agency nor your donors are obligated to support you forever. With God’s leading, manage your own future.
Today is the day when churches, organizations, and missionaries need to begin working together, focusing on communicating, and defining a course that will help those who have invested their lives in the Lord’s work to finish well.
All those involved must start to dialog so that all parties understand each other’s expectations about the future. New missionaries and supporting churches must be clear about church policies regarding long-term support and ramifications of reaching a certain age or even relocation to the US in pre-retirement years.
It is vital that missionaries create a plan for achieving their retirement requirements and then act on it. Varieties of financial calculators on the internet give direction about what it takes to retire with a set amount of income. (Type in “retirement calculator” in any search engine such as Google and experiment with them.) They will help determine what information is needed by each individual to start the process preparing for the future.
Fortunately, the US government has generated a host of options for saving for the future, and missionaries should start taking advantage of them immediately. Programs such as an IRA, a 401(k), a 403(b), and contributory pension plans have tax advantages and are options that can be initiated with just a small amount of money to start building a nest egg for the future.
The future will always be full of uncertainties. Retirement seems to be taking on a new face and with it new financial challenges—but it need not be a cause for fear or dread. If you are a missionary in your twenties or thirties, take this opportunity to start saving for your future now. If you are in your forties, fifties, or sixties, and fear you are not prepared, do not let despair overwhelm you. Let God’s promise of wisdom guide you and begin a strategy for your retirement needs.