RICHMOND, Va. (BP)—”Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur observed in the twilight of his long military career.
Retired missionaries, on the other hand, just keep returning to the field — or finding new mission fields at home. That’s the impression you get, at least, when you hang out with them.
I had the opportunity to hang out with nearly 1,000 retired Southern Baptist missionaries when they gathered in September at the LifeWay Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center for the International Mission Board’s “Year of Emeriti” conference. The retirees who attended served an estimated cumulative total of more than 26,000 years overseas.
Think about that number: 26,000 combined years of ministry, prayer, hope, toil, love, victory, defeat, joy, despair, tears, sweat –- and souls won to Christ.
If anyone has earned the right to sit back, relax and let others take the lead, it’s these folks. But missions is a calling, not a job. Regardless of their age or retirement status, many missionaries keep serving as long as they are physically able.
They go overseas again and again for short terms as International Service Corps and Masters mission workers. They take on special assignments because of their skills and experience. They go as volunteers and take church teams with them. They reach out to internationals in the United States. They talk about missions at every opportunity. They lead church mission committees. They teach children and young people about how much God loves the whole world. They mentor young adults and nurture the timeless call they once heard –- and still hear.
As IMB President Jerry Rankin told the group at Ridgecrest, the word “retirement” is a misnomer for missionaries.
“Your call is irrevocable,” Rankin said. “You will continue to find avenues of service as you mobilize others in our churches. Many of you will be returning to the fields. You can’t turn loose of the peoples and the places where you’ve invested your lives for many years. They’re too much a part of your heart, and your heart is still there.”
I talked to a number of retirees well into their 80s –- and several in their 90s –- who still serve at home and abroad. “I flunked retirement,” joked mission statesman Winston Crawley, 87, who went to China as a missionary in 1947 and later oversaw the Foreign (now International) Mission Board’s overseas operations during decades of expansion worldwide. He retired in 1987, but continues to teach missions in the United States and abroad.
Harold Hurst, 83, one of my personal heroes, pioneered Southern Baptist mission work in Honduras in the early 1950s with his wife, Alice. He needs a cane to get around these days, but he still preaches, still serves –- and still takes volunteers to Honduras when he can.
Crawley, Hurst and others in the post-World War II generation of missionaries are being joined by a growing number of younger workers retiring from active missionary status –- such as the 60 brand-new retirees honored at Ridgecrest Sept. 11. The group included Larry and Sharon Pumpelly, veterans of 26 years of ministry in Uganda, who will continue their groundbreaking work in battling the AIDS pandemic in Africa by spreading the message of “True Love Waits” there.
They represent the younger “Builder” generation members and older baby boomers now reaching retirement age. Many of them possess not only the desire but the energy to continue serving in missions for years –- perhaps decades -– to come. The average life expectancy for Americans is nearly 78 years, the longest in U.S. history, according to government statistics. More and more people are reaching, and surpassing, that age in relatively good health. Boomers, who have challenged so many social traditions, seem to have no intention of following the traditional route of slowing down or stopping as they age.
In his book “The Third Age: 6 Principles for Growth and Renewal after Forty,” William Sadler studied people who decided to pursue an exciting “second growth” in later life.
“If we come under the spell of aging, we will set aside ambition, anticipation, passion, idealism, and discovery,” Sadler writes. “I contend that we should not deny aging, but rather transform it with a new growth process. We have the chance to create a second half of life that is very different from what our parents or grandparents experienced. Instead of being diminished by time, our lives can become richer. It all depends on how we spend it…. This constitutes the third age, a new frontier with tremendous potential for growth.”
Veteran missionaries, who have braved all kinds of new frontiers, can lead the rest of us into exciting new dimensions of serving God around the globe. Let’s honor them, celebrate them -– and follow them.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.