Your Service Has Mattered:
Honoring the Faithful, Retiring Heroes of the International Mission Board
By Shane Bennett
The smoke and roar of the traffic were sufficient to beat back jet lag as our tuk tuk buzzed across Bangkok. My team leader and I, just a few days in the city, were on a quest to meet Bill Smith, destined-be-a-hall-of-fame missionary. After we found the right house, his wife Susan, also a hall-of-famer in the making, led us to Bill’s office. After cursory greetings and explanations, he sat on his roller chair in the middle of his file-cabinet kingdom and said, “Ask away.” For the next hour we pitched questions related to our church planting research. With each inquiry, Bill would kick off one cabinet, roll to another, and pull out a file with relevant documents.
We ran out of questions long before Bill ran out of information. But what he shared shaped the course of our team’s research for the next three months. The cashew chicken that Susan served following the interview remains the best I’ve ever had. And that was almost thirty years ago.
Bill and Susan were the first Southern Baptist missionaries I’d ever met. They set the bar pretty high. Over the intervening years I’ve become friends with dozens more around the planet. I tell classes and churches in the U.S., “I know almost nothing about Southern Baptists in America, but the ones you send overseas are amazing. In so many ways, they’re leading the rest of us.”
Changes at the IMB
I bring it up because you may have heard of the recent decision, at the same time both forward-thinking and gut-wrenching, made by the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, David Platt, to offer a voluntary retirement incentive to their missionaries over 50 years old in order to reduce their ranks by 600-800 staff. This is part of a multi-pronged effort to rectify an ongoing budget shortfall of multiple millions per year.
Platt writes, “For the sake of short-term financial responsibility and long-term organizational stability, we must put ourselves in a position in which we can operate within our budget, which necessarily means reducing the number of our personnel.”
“Words really can’t describe how much a sentence like that pains me to write. For ‘600’ and ‘800’ are not just figures on a page; they are people around the world. For many of you, they are your family, friends, and fellow church members. They are brothers and sisters whom I love, and brothers and sisters whom I want to serve and support. I not only want as many of them as possible to stay on the field; I want multitudes more to join them on the field. But in order to even have a conversation about how to mobilize more people in the future, IMB must get to a healthy financial place in the present.”
Let’s Raise a Glass
While this decision has been and will be discussed and debated ad nauseam, that is not my purpose here. Rather I want to raise a metaphorical glass to my sisters, brothers, colleagues, and heroes who have given long, good years to Kingdom service under the banner of the International Mission Board and now find themselves taking early, voluntary retirement.
My friends: There may not be a single reader of Missions Catalyst who has not been led, helped, or blessed by your collective labors, even if they do not know it. You have shown the way, not by simply pointing it out, but by sacrificially walking forward and calling us to follow in your steps. You have gone to the most challenging places and willingly raised your children there. You have embraced and implemented new ways of thinking and working. You have modeled the love of Jesus by deeply loving people who are deeply different from you.
We honor you. We are in your debt.
As you move into a new stage of life, I wish these things for you:
1. May you get the rest that you need.
I don’t know how this works out in reality, but I see you sitting on a porch on a winsome autumn afternoon, drinking coffee, enjoying a book you’ve long wanted to get to, sighing contentedly from time to time. May God help you know what you and your spouse need and how to get it. If it would help, you can come and stay for a few days for free in our garage apartment. We’ll feed you and give you some space.
2. May you have an accurate sense of your identity.
Your time has been well spent. Your value does not diminish even though your paycheck does. And you’re an ambassador of Christ regardless of who signs your check or even if you get paid for your ambassadorial service! You have mattered and you still do.
3. May you be able to maintain whatever ongoing connection to your work that you desire.
And by “work” I mean not only the job you did, but the people you’ve worked with, for, and among. Maybe it’s a relief to cut ties; I don’t know. But if you dread that, I pray God makes a way for bonds to remain.
4. May God appoint people to care for you in the way you need.
He appointed a fish to rescue Jonah, so there’s precedence! May he give you some people who know how to ask good questions then be quiet and let you answer. May he give you people who will help you re-adjust to American culture. (We’ve let some things slide while you were away!) May he bring people who will help you in all kinds of ways, particularly opening doors for the ministry God has ahead for you.
5. May hope and peace fill every molecule of your being.
Maybe you have financial concerns: I pray for abundant provision. Perhaps you’re concerned about relationships: I pray for friends and mentors, and for your marriage. If you’re concerned about what you’ll do with yourself, I ask God to fill you with a fiery, fresh sense of purpose.
Thank you for your work, your life, and your example. The world is better for your contribution. I am better. You have served your King well, and I look forward hopefully to serving shoulder to shoulder with you in future ventures.
Someday your race will be over, but today is not that day. May God grant you health, vitality, and opportunity commensurate with your skill and experience. May your long years of faithful service bear new fruit in the fresh soil of emerging work and workers. May you sense deeply the smile of Jesus as he puts his hands on your shoulders, looks deep in your eyes and says, “Well done my good and faithful servant… Now let’s take another lap!”
If you know an IMB worker, would you mind forwarding this to him or her? If you have connections to a Southern Baptist Church, please pass it along to them. Thank you.