An invaluable amount of manpower, experience, insight, and maturity would be absent from volunteer missions in the United States and around the world if senior adults were removed from the equation, two mission board officials say.
"Right now in Southern Baptist disaster relief and even much of volunteerism, senior adults are major players. We see them in virtually every venue we go to," Jim Burton, senior director of partnership mobilization at the North American Mission Board, told Baptist Press. "In disaster relief, senior adults have embraced the task and are serving at all levels of leadership as well as service."
The eldest generation brings a valuable work ethic to volunteerism, Burton said, and given their life experiences they possess a level of maturity that helps them be more effective on the field.
"We believe that volunteerism is the answer to the question of significance that a lot of people ask in life," he said. "Volunteer missions fills a real gap in the lives of many senior adults, particularly early retirees who have spent an entire career in some field of service from business to education or whatever and God has laid something on their heart that just won't let go."
Wendy Norvelle, associate vice president for mobilization at the International Mission Board, said many senior adults are involved in a variety of missions tasks through the IMB overseas, including working alongside board personnel or alongside national believers and church leaders.
"These kinds of projects last anywhere from a week or ten days to several weeks. Volunteers go and pay their own way, and as they are doing a particular responsibility they also find ways to share the Gospel," Norvelle told BP. "Many times it's senior adults who have the financial resources as well as the time available to go on volunteer mission trips or be involved in projects and partnerships overseas."
Seniors, Burton said, are at a point in life where they have more control of their time and finances and volunteer missions becomes a great outlet. Having worked with volunteers for more than two decades, he has heard senior adults say repeatedly that time spent in volunteer missions turned out to be the most significant and fulfilling years of their lives.
Burton's hope is that more Southern Baptists, particularly those who have recently retired, will understand how significant they can be in the completion of the missions task because they bring so much to the table.
"Many times through the years I've talked with seniors who will tell me that they felt the call to missions as a teenager and then life happened — maybe they fell in love, they got married and maybe the spouse didn't share that commitment, maybe kids came a little quicker than they expected, or whatever — and they didn't quite get there but the call of God stayed on their life and they couldn't let go of that," Burton said. "And so now suddenly they see these last stages of life and the opportunity to finally come face to face with that calling and to submit to that purpose for their life."
One of the most common ways for senior adults to participate in volunteer mission work in the United States is disaster relief, which is organized through Baptist state conventions in the wake of hurricanes, floods, tornados, and other natural disasters.
"They play a major role and are often among the first responders," Burton said of seniors. "They're often the ones that are able to stay the longest period of time."
Many senior adults also are involved in Baptist Builders, a construction ministry that assists local congregations. Burton recalled a fond memory from 1986 when he traveled to Tacoma, Washington, for a project that connected young men across the nation with senior adults to help build a Korean church that is now the largest church in the northwest.
"We just had a great week with that intermixing of generations," he said. "I remember watching those guys — this was an early impression in my vocational ministry — and seeing their passion. I mean these guys were going at it, and the young guys were having trouble keeping up with the older guys."
World Changers is a popular construction ministry primarily aimed at high school students, but Burton said NAMB always needs a host of crew chiefs, construction coordinators, and supervisors that many times are senior adults.
"We have senior adults that that's all they do in the summer," he said. "They go do World Changers, and that's their thing, which is obviously awesome for us."
Campers on Mission is another ministry available to senior adults, and in fact, Burton said, it is mostly made up of seniors in recreational vehicles.
"These are people that have chosen a very mobile lifestyle, and they want to travel for the purpose of missions. It's not unusual for them to be gone six to nine months at a time, going from mission project to mission project to mission project," Burton said. "Obviously, that's very encouraging to us. There are a number of initiatives out there that count on Campers on Mission year-round to come and be a part of what they're doing."
Though time has taken a toll on their bodies and some are facing health challenges, the twilight years for many seniors are not a time to sit by and consider their lives over, Burton said. Whether they realize it or not, he said, they are still in great demand.
"If senior adults were not in the equation, we would be hampered severely in volunteer missions. Their absence would significantly set back volunteer missions," he said. "The bigger question, frankly, is will the generation behind them embrace missions to the same extent that the Builder generation has.
"… There's a lot of evidence that today's youth value community service, and that's awesome. That's amazing. But they've got to go live their lives, and we're talking many years before they would be at the point where they could commit fulltime to a volunteer missions ministry," he added. "We may not see the fruit of that for another forty or fifty years. The more immediate thing is how will the Boomers, the children of the Builders, buy into volunteer missions and how will they sustain it? We don't know. Only God knows that future, and our hope is that we'll continue to put the challenge before them and call them out."
Seniors who want to be involved on a longer-term basis with the IMB can apply for the Masters Program designed for people fifty and over for two or three-year assignments. After an in-depth application process, participants are given a specific assignment for which they receive financial support from the IMB.
"In many cultures around the world, maturity is honored and doors can be opened because someone may have lived more years than someone else," Norvelle said. "Particularly in those cultures, someone who has a good deal of wisdom and years of experience can often make some progress in sharing the Gospel or getting a project completed that someone else might not be able to."
Norvelle recounted how her father traveled to Zambia several years ago and was able to gain access to some government offices that others had not been able to penetrate because he was retired and had gray hair.
"He was able to make some very significant business arrangements for our personnel because of his elderly status as well as his statesman's ability," she said. "That's just one example of seniors who at times can bring an added dimension to our personnel on the field."
On the personal side, young missionaries with families often find that seniors on the field are able to fulfill a familiar role such as a surrogate grandparent to their children, Norvelle said, and such relationships are a tremendous asset in mission work.
"We have a lot of folks who have been successful in life but they also want to move into being significant in what they do, and we have many folks who at retirement go to the mission field for extended periods of time," Norvelle said. "We have a number of retired missionaries who have reached the end of their career service, but they choose to go back and spend some more time either on the field on which they're familiar or going to new places."
Some senior adults may have reservations about tackling a mission project because they believe they lack the physical endurance necessary for the task — something they believe someone younger could provide more easily. But Norvelle said all types of people are needed, and seniors may be better suited for some situations than younger people who thrive on the fast-paced environment of the 21st century.
"I think in many places the pace of life may be different than what we experience here in the hurry scurry of America. So the ability to do things may be well-matched to someone who doesn't want to work fifteen hours a day," she said. "Much of the work we do is relationship building, and that is something that takes time and maybe is harder for someone who is used to being on the go all the time to take the time to sit down and talk and build a relationship. Someone who has that kind of lifestyle would be a great asset."
Obviously, medical concerns play a part in the decision-making process when a senior adult is considering mission work overseas, Norvelle noted, and the IMB is careful to send such people to assignments where there is adequate medical care.
"There are many places in the world now where medical care is as good as we have here in the States or growing in that direction or very adequate for the medical needs," she said. "There are some places in the world where it's not, and that's where we would have to make sure — we would want the health and wellbeing of people we send to be of primary importance, so we would be careful if we had someone with some kind of medical needs to make sure that they're placed where those needs can be met."
Seniors considering putting the rest of their lives to good use for the Kingdom through volunteer missions with the International Mission Board can visit going.imb.org on the Web or call the IMB at 1-800-999-3113. For opportunities through the North American Mission Board, the Web site is www.namb.net and the number is 1-800-634-2462.
"It's going to take all of us to get the Gospel to the whole world, and seniors are an important part of fulfilling the Great Commission," Norvelle said. "We welcome participation of all seniors whether or not they can go. Their being involved in knowing about missions and praying and giving is important as well as going."