People in ministry often joke about retirement because serving God remains a lifetime commitment.
For 31 new emeriti missionaries from the International Mission Board (IMB), God plans to continue to use them, if they are willing.
IMB photo by Chris Carter*
Diane Pace, from left, Sali,* Bev Vaughn and Ann Verlander squeeze together for a selfie at Ridgecrest Conference Center during the Celebration of Emeriti for former missionaries of the International Mission Board. The ladies served together in West Africa. *Names changed
“You, like Paul, found many ways to stay in place,” said Drew Carson,* a leader with the IMB, to the emeritus missionaries gathered Sept. 11-14 at Ridgecrest Conference Center in Black Mountain, N.C.
“Paul could have left … but he chose to stay the course,” Carson said, referring to 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, a text he says has been an encouragement and exhortation to him the last couple of years. “Your ministry of staying the course has also helped the IMB stay the course.”
The gathering, called Celebration of Emeriti, occurs every five years. This year’s event brought together about 950 emeritus missionaries. Around 1,200 were originally scheduled to come to the four-day event, but weather and health issues kept some away. Hurricane Irma’s path through Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee forced several airports to close, resulting in many canceled flights.
Combined, the emeritus missionaries in attendance served 25,297 years. There are approximately 18,500 IMB alumni, of which 2,250 have emeritus status. Before IMB’s 2015 Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI), a missionary could retire using three pathways:
- Retire at 65 regardless of years of service (had to have 15 years to be emeritus).
- Retire at 62-64 with 25 years of service and receive IMB medical coverage until age 65.
- Retire at 55-61 with 25 years of service and receive no medical coverage.
Since the VRI, emeritus status is reached by serving 15 years and being at least 55 years old (husband or wife). Also, the age plus years of service must equal 80. (This policy went into effect Jan. 1, 2016.) Alumni include all mid- and long-term former missionaries.
Feel the music
Pearl Vernon,* who served 31 years in the Middle East, was one of the recent emeriti recognized in a service Sept. 11. Vernon, who is living in her home state of Florida, learned that Irma damaged the garage in the mission house where she is living, causing her vehicle to be totaled.
While she was in the Middle East, she worked in music and drama. “I knew God wanted me to serve overseas,” she said, but she waited eight years for the right request – a music and drama teacher.
While she had been a band teacher at her hometown high school, Vernon wasn’t sure she would be able to have a band in the Middle East, but she took a few instruments in case an opportunity arose.
A colleague on the mission field shared a newspaper article about a member of the ruling family looking for people with music backgrounds. That article led to Vernon being “in on the ground floor of the National Music Conservatory, and that paralleled my development of the music program at the school.”
The conservatory offered the only comprehensive music program in the Middle East. “I could have been enveloped in the music,” Vernon said. “I could have very easily lost my way as far as why I was there. God impressed upon me … I was there to share Jesus, and music was my avenue.”
She introduced a “talk time” to her students, which consisted of her sharing a parable or biblical story, and the students spent time discussing it.
When Vernon knew she was leaving, she wanted the talk times to continue. She was pleased when her successor sent her the schedule with talk times included.
“God built this program,” she told them. “You leave Him out of the equation, the program will fall.”
Back in her hometown, Vernon is looking for a position in music. She says she would love to teach at the college level again. “I know, without a doubt, God will, when the path and the time is right, … it will just open up,” she said. “When He’s ready for something, the doors open, and you go through.”
Meanwhile, she is active in her church, where she started a handbell choir.
Vernon laments that “America is not the place I left,” but she hopes she can be a light within her community for God’s truth.
“He can use a musician,” she said. “He can use a plumber. Whatever your skills and talents are, He can use that to increase His Kingdom.”
Serving in South Asia
Darren and Yvonne Cantwell* who were serving in South Asia when they retired recently, now live in Alabama. He serves as the pastor of mobilization at a church in Alabama.
Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., Darren learned about people groups and reaching the nations with the gospel while he was in college. He talked to his pastor and was introduced to the IMB Journeyman program, where he served in Scotland. He attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, where he met his wife, Yvonne.
She was raised as a missionary kid in Indonesia. Her parents served 29 years with IMB, and she would often talk about her parents’ work. “In my mind, that’s what it was, my parents’ work,” she said. But after spending time in Taiwan as a summer missionary, she felt called to share the gospel across cultures.
She was a student at Samford University at the time. When she graduated, she worked at the national Woman’s Missionary Union in Birmingham for a while before going to SWBTS.
In an interview with the Biblical Recorder, Yvonne reminisced that it was her senior year in college – Dec. 31, 1979 – that she signed a public profession of her call to missions. When she met Darren in seminary seven years later, they discovered a card he had signed one day later – Jan. 1, 1980 – indicating that he would go anywhere God called him.
When the wall came down in Berlin in 1989, Darren wanted to go, but God kept closing the door to all the jobs for which they applied.
“We prayed, ‘Lord, where in the world do you want us to go?’” he said, admitting that was a dangerous prayer.
They served in Pakistan for eight years before God called them to their next assignment. In 1999, they moved to Richmond, Va., to work at IMB as candidate consultants. After three years and several requests, the couple moved to the Pacific Rim to work with Muslims in Southeast Asia.
After five years, Darren and Yvonne were having a visa issue and had to move to Singapore where Darren was asked to be interim regional leader for that region. He later became the South Asia affinity group leader after a reorganization.
“We never thought it would be possible to go back, but the Lord opened that door,” said Darren. They were concerned about uprooting their children again, but the Lord moved them to South Asia in 2009, and they began serving in 2010.
“Every time, the Lord kind of brought these things to us, we never sought out any of these changes,” he said.
Last year both had a word from the Lord that it was time to step aside. “For me,” Darren said, it was about letting “the next generation lead.”
They were on stateside assignment for a year while Darren was working on his dissertation.
He was then offered the job in Alabama. Yvonne described coming back to America as a “cross-cultural experience.” Darren says they are still in the “honeymoon stage” where everything works, like electricity and plumbing.
Staying the course
Carson thanked the retired field personnel.
He recalled the 2004 murders of Christian workers Larry and Jean Elliott, Karen Watson and David McDonnall in Iraq. Such a tragedy brought his third-grade daughter from death to life. She decided that day to follow God.
In mentioning many barriers and adversaries that face mission personnel, Carson said the IMB tries to train workers “how to walk wisely but confidently.”
Still, he said, the “greatest adversary we have is in our own hearts.”
One day (Sept. 12) after attending the memorial service for a “dear brother” in Alabama, David Platt, IMB president, addressed the emeriti in the dining hall.
He shared of his brother in Christ, Jonathan Bean, who was on staff at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, where Platt served prior to the IMB.
He said Bean, who had been battling cancer for the last seven years, is “probably the one person who’s taught me more about missions than anyone else in my life.”
Being among so many retired missionaries makes Platt feel grateful for where God has him.
“This is what matters,” he said. “You have given your lives. I look over 170 years [of IMB history], and I see a legacy of faithful gospel proclamation. That … is breathtaking.”
He shared out of 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 and pointed to being faithful as the one criteria to judge success as a believer and a missionary. “We trust God,” he said. “We plead with God for fruitfulness.”
Platt described the local church as God’s agent for sending missionaries. IMB exists to equip churches to send out more missionaries, marketplace missionaries, retirees and others.
“We have limited ability to send out fully supported missionaries around the world,” he admitted.
But in the IMB, there’s a new push to be limitless, to exhaust all avenues of sending people to spread God’s message.
He introduced IMB’s vice presidents to the missionaries, who spoke about how IMB partners with Southern Baptists in global engagement, training, mobilization and support services. Platt talked about a plurality of leaders. “It’s never just about the Spirit of God in one person,” he said.
In another address to the emeritus missionaries, Platt preached out of Esther 4 describing himself as a dwarf standing on giants’ shoulders. “I praise God for His grace represented all around this room,” he said. Reflecting on his three years as president, he shared a couple of truths God has taught him.
- God is sovereignly orchestrating all of history for the accomplishment of His purpose.
- Each of us has a part to play in the accomplishment of that purpose.
“Nothing is outside His control,” he said, pointing to Acts 17 where God has determined boundaries. “People are longing for hope.”
Naming several world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Platt said God has them all in the palm of His hand.
With the financial realities of the IMB, Platt admits some problems needed to be addressed: using the sale of properties to pay for expenses; the chronic problem of not meeting its budget; and using reserve funds to offset the cost of sending more missionaries. “We asked everyone to … go to the Lord … put a blank check before Him,” Platt said. They implored each person to seek God individually to make those tough decisions. He talked about the challenge, heartache and emotions and pointed to Romans 8:28. “All things, even the things we don’t understand,” he said, work together for His purpose.
Esther risked her life for her people, just like IMB missionaries are asked to do.
“We’re saying we’ll do whatever it takes,” he said. Platt encouraged those making a transition. “Where you live right now is not an accident,” he said. “He has put you where you are.”
He encouraged the retired missionaries to be mobilizers in their churches, “leveraging all that God has entrusted to you.”
In the last session Sept. 14, Platt called on the retired missionaries to keep running the race. He shared from the “meaty” chapter 15 from 1 Corinthians.
“You and I are not here on this earth for very long,” he said. “Don’t waste it.”
He reminded them that there are many lost “right now, separated from God.”
“Biblical Christianity is about laying down our rights,” Platt stressed. “It’s about sacrificing comforts.
“Keep running the race all the way until the end. Make His gospel known, knowing that your labor is not in vain.”
* Names changed.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Dianna L. Cagle is production editor at the Biblical Recorder, Baptist news journal for North Carolina.)