Editor's note: Some last names have been withheld for security reasons.
Collectively, they speak more than 40 languages and numerous local and tribal dialects. Many endured persecution, war, tribal conflict and loss of property. Several had their homes burned. More than one was imprisoned. Grave markers overseas name friends and family, even children, lost while serving for the sake of the gospel.
They understand sacrifice. They understand what it means to go to the ends of the world.
But at a gathering of missionary emeriti, these stories of sacrifice didn’t fill many moments. Instead, they spent hours telling stories of countless people coming to faith and the gospel penetrating the globe’s darkest places.
In a week-long event in Orlando, Fla., the International Mission Board brought missionary emeriti together for recognition and encouragement. Close to 800 former missionaries gathered with trustees, IMB leadership and support staff for the event held every five years. Missionaries earn the honor of being called “emeritus” when they retire based on their age and years of service.
The week began with three days for the most recent missionary emeriti. The IMB traditionally has a new emeriti gathering each year. Due to COVID-19, this is the first since 2019. Sixty-six new retirees attended, who collectively spent 1,750 years reaching the nations. Sessions included worship, encouragement in retirement and practical help with things like financial planning and healthcare management.
On May 18, the event grew with close to 1,000 attenders that included all IMB missionary emeriti able to attend, IMB trustees and leadership, field leaders and support staff. The theme for the week was “A Lifetime of Kingdom Impact.” The significance of the theme was stressed during sessions that celebrated the many years of commitment to reaching the lost with the saving message of Jesus Christ. The missionaries spanned the globe with their places of service, some moving multiple times – often to different continents — during their years with the IMB.
During a testimony time of new emeriti, Elbert and Kay Smith, who served in multiple countries, shared what they treasure most from their years on the field.
“Primarily the relationships – national brothers and sisters, amazing kinship with colleagues, the opportunity to walk alongside those going to the field and mainly a deep relationship with the Father as He guided through the years,” the couple listed. “He who called has been faithful.”
The Smiths, who have a daughter serving with the IMB, are continuing their mission call with the Tom Elliff Center for Missions at Oklahoma Baptist University.
The smell of missionaries
IMB President Paul Chitwood addressed the crowd he called “heroes of the faith” on multiple occasions. He thanked them for their service, while reminding them of their unique giftedness to continue serving and encourage the next generations to follow the Lord overseas.
Chitwood shared a story he heard over dinner from missionaries who visited a church:
“I think I smell a missionary,” one young boy quipped.
“What does a missionary smell like?” the missionaries asked.
“Like an old person,” the boy said. Then the boy continued, “With the scent of the world on them.”
As Chitwood told the story, he repeated to the crowd, “Old people with the scent of the world on them. I have a hunch that not a single emeritus missionary would be offended to be described in that manner. What a fragrance!”
Reading John’s account of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with costly perfume, Chitwood compared Mary’s act of worship with the service of missionaries.
“When we understand who Jesus is, no honor is too great,” he said. “Finding Him worthy, you took up your cross and followed Him to the ends of the earth. Finding Him worthy, you answered His bid to come and die to self and go share His gospel. Finding Him worthy, some of you were in chains and some who are not with us were called upon to surrender their earthly lives.”
Chitwood remarked that as Jesus showed honor to Mary for showing honor to Him, “Those who serve the Lord faithfully and serve Him well will be honored.”
The vision continues
Numerous emeriti have children and grandchildren who now serve with the IMB. In retirement they enjoy frequent trips back to the field to join their families’ areas of service. They spoke proudly of passing on a love for the Lord, and a love for the nations, to their children and to their churches.
For Janet Graves, her legacy of missions stretches three generations, so far. She and her husband, Dudley, retired with 37 years of service with the IMB, but their history with the IMB goes back much further. Janet was born on the mission field of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to parents Gerald and Eunice Harvey. Missionary doctors Giles and Wanna Ann Fort delivered her in the mission hospital in Sanyati. Dudley served as a Journeyman to Italy but wasn’t sure of a call to career missions.
“I definitely didn’t want to be a missionary!” Janet added about her early years, explaining that life for missionary kids isn’t always easy.
But God had better plans, and He revealed them to Janet in time. After meeting in seminary, marrying, and starting their family, God moved Dudley and Janet to Germany to serve in an international church. While there, God confirmed that He was preparing them to return to Italy where they spent their decades of service. Their youngest daughter, Carla, currently serves on the mission field — the third generation in the family to represent Southern Baptists among the nations.
With 20 years of service in Southeast Asia, Al and Lora* understood sacrifice. But no sacrifice seemed as great as watching their daughter leave on a plane, following her own call to career missions.
“One of the most valuable things we left behind in Southeast Asia was our only child,” they shared.
Their daughter was a toddler when they first arrived on the mission field. They built a lifetime of service together, ministering to others as a family. They weren’t surprised that God led her to serve, but when retirement led them back to the U.S., the pain of seeing her leave was significant. They shared that when they were struggling the most, God spoke to them.
“Don’t deprive me of her service,” they felt God say.
In retirement, they will continue to faithfully serve as God leads and support their “favorite missionary.”
While many emeriti deal with the limitations that come with age, their commitment to reach the lost with the gospel remains steadfast. Retirement from the IMB has led many to second careers in local churches and associations. Others have returned overseas for short-term, and even long-term, service. All recognized the power they have to support the Great Commission in prayer and encourage younger generations to consider the call to missions.
During an extended stay in the U.S., God placed a new people group on the hearts of Mark and Alice*. They ministered two decades in East Asia, but when Mark served as a missions pastor in Texas, the church adopted an unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) in South Asia. Mark made 12 trips to South Asia in four years. When it was time for their full-time service with the IMB to continue, leadership gave Mark and Alice their blessing to move to South Asia for what would be their final term.
Now in retirement, they’ve already made plans to continue to reach the nations both in Texas and overseas. Mark and his sending church's focus in South Asia will be leadership training among pastors and establishing healthy churches. He plans to return with small groups from his church consistently.
Brad Horne, who is now a director of missions in Pennsylvania, remembers being in college when an elderly woman in his church asked him two life-changing questions. “Have you ever thought about going overseas as a missionary?” To this first question, Horne quickly answered “no.” He had never even considered it. Then came her second question: “Will you pray about going overseas as a missionary?” Reluctantly he agreed, though his prayers weren’t sincere at first, he confessed.
“But as I prayed that prayer day after day, it became the prayer of my heart,” he said after retiring from the IMB with 27 years of service in Europe and Asia.
To a room full of retired missionaries, he remarked that this simple question is something that each of them could ask to encourage younger generations to carry on the vital work of bringing the gospel to the world’s lost.
“Will you pray about being a missionary?”
Leslie Peacock Caldwell is managing editor at the IMB.