A number of pastors have asked me if their church should continue supporting missionaries once they retire. Recognizing the natural discomfort created by such a question, they usually try quickly to justify their inquiry: “After all, our mission budget is supposed to be spent on those doing mission work on the foreign field, not those living out their golden years in America. Right?”
My answer – yes, no, or maybe – is dependent on some important facts. Getting to these facts requires some effort, which is likely more work than we really want to do. But, if we are going to make good decisions regarding continued support, we must do the work, which, requires 4 important considerations: 1) What does God’s word say about honor?, 2) What was the historical/cultural context under which those missionaries went to the field?, 3) Was the missionary’s service credible?, and 4) What is the retiring missionary’s true financial situation?
Before I explain these considerations, I want to say that I realize church budgets are tight, and often growing tighter, there remains a vast number of people who have yet to hear the gospel, and there is a real dilemma whether to send mission money to missionaries in the field or to those retired in America. If these tensions didn’t exist, this discussion would be unnecessary.
1. What does God’s word say about honor?
Below are 10 verses (in no particular order) that address in some way the concept of honoring those who have given their life to missionary service. Some may argue that honoring the elderly should not be understood only in terms of money. I agree that honor applies more broadly than money, but regarding those in need, it certainly must include monetary consideration.
I Tim 5:17 – Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
Romans 13:7 – Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Romans 12:10 – Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Leviticus 19:32 – You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
Proverbs 3:27 – Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.
I Timothy 5:18 – For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.
I Timothy 5:3 – Honor widows who are truly widows.
Acts 20:35 – In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
I Thessalonians 5:12-13 – We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Romans 12:13 – Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
2. What was the historical/cultural context under which those missionaries went to the field?
In all of the cases of which I’m aware, none of the missionaries had a contract with a church regarding the longevity of their support. Neither was anything specifically mentioned between the missionary and supporting church regarding the missionary’s retirement. However, discussion of retirement seemed to them unnecessary because of at least two cultural realities of the 1960s and 1970s: 1) An overwhelming urgency to reach the lost whether because of a belief in the soon return of the Lord, the rapture, or simply out of compassion, and 2) the principle of company loyalty that existed in that generation.
I recently had a septuagenarian ask me, “How come I don’t hear people talking about Jesus coming back like I did in the ’60s and ’70s?” My first response was, “People are still talking about it.” He countered, “Some might be talking about Jesus coming back, but not like they did 40 or 50 years ago.” After some consideration, I think, apart from the upswing related to the Left Behind phenomenon (c. 1995-2007), he is probably right. The Lord’s return (or rapture, depending on your view) doesn’t seem to be so prominent these days, which might suggest a topic for another blog series.
Anyway, based on what I know of the generation of missionaries under consideration here, I think many of them were in a hurry to get to the field and went underfunded. Whether that decision was solely because of pure compassion for the lost, or was heightened by a belief in the imminent rapture of the church, or something else, the result is a number of senior citizens who gave their lives to mission work have found themselves in financial difficulty.
Some of them have told me that they were so convinced that Jesus was coming back any day, “we didn’t worry about debt. Many of us just said, ‘we’ll leave the debt to the Devil. He can worry about it!'” We can discuss whether that was foolish thinking or not, even among those of us who still sense an urgency of His return. However, where the rubber meets the road, we are talking about a generation who was consumed with getting to the field to evangelize the lost before Jesus returns or raptures the saints. And at this point in their lives, there isn’t time to correct what might have been foolish decisions made decades ago.
A second major influence on this generation’s decision not to prepare “properly” for retirement is the principle of company loyalty that this particular generation of missionaries knew and believed in when they went to the field. One of the “values” that generational studies often point out in reference to Builders and Boomers is company loyalty. This loyalty was bi-directional; employees commonly spent their entire working life at a single company and that company, in return, offered loyalty to their employees in the form of a retirement package during their post-employment years. In a generations seminar I recently attended, the presenter, who has done extensive generational research, said that company loyalty is definitely not a cultural value of Generations X, Y, Z, and Alpha. In fact, the further from the Builders one goes, the less each succeeding generation relates to the concept of company loyalty. Generations X, Y, Z, and Alpha are or will be mobile generations that move from employer to employer.
3. Was the missionary’s service credible?
For me, this is an easy question. While credible can be a very subjective term (e.g., “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”), I will give you a good rule of thumb via a single question: Did your church continue supporting this missionary throughout their working career? If so, the church has by default already said the missionary’s work was credible.
4. What is the retiring missionary’s true financial situation?
The missionary’s true financial situation might be the most uncomfortable issue to address, but it must be done. Someone – a pastor, finance committee member, or someone else – must ask the missionary seeking continued support to explain and provide documentation of their current financial situation. While asking these kinds of questions may be uncomfortable, making an informed decision requires the effort.
A retiring missionary who has made bad financial decisions – whether chasing bad investments, opting out of Social Security and not investing the money, not planning for retirement, or something else – may be embarrassed by the process, so it should be done gently and with no sense of superiority. Think of them as your grandparents. With that in mind, I will also say that a retiring missionary who has made bad financial decisions should be mature enough to own up to his/her mistakes, especially if he/she is asking for continued financial support – support that could be directed to new missionaries going to the field.
A word of caution should be offered here: The supporter should not expect the missionary to live an unreasonably low lifestyle. Neither should the missionary expect to live an unreasonably high lifestyle. In summary, you don’t want to read in the newspaper that your missionaries are digging through dumpsters to find food. Neither do you want to find out that the missionary’s children/grandchildren inherited a small fortune when the missionary eventually dies.
As a matter of kindness and honor, my default position is yes, continue supporting retiring missionaries who went to the field in the 1960s and 1970s IF they need the support. However, I don’t suggest that be the default position for future generations.
Clear communication, informing new missionaries of the ground rules up front will alleviate much of the stress and uncertainty of these types of situations.
My recommendation is for churches to do the following:
1. Tell new missionaries up front that (x amount of time) after their retirement, financial support will end. “X amount of time” may range from 1 month to 1 year.
2. Provide financial counseling to new missionaries at no cost to the missionaries.
3. Consider automatically depositing 10% of the new missionary’s support into his/her retirement account. Example: If the missionary receives $100 support, send him/her $90 and deposit $10 in their retirement account.
4. Consider matching the automatic retirement deposit. Example: If the missionary receives $100 support, send him/her $90 and deposit $10 in their retirement account, then add another $10 to the retirement deposit. In this case, the missionary is actually receiving $110 support.
5. Consider providing a $100,000-$200,000 life insurance policy for the new missionary.