25,297 years: emeritus missionaries mark their call
EDITOR'S NOTE: A story about the International Mission Board's Sending Celebration for 51 new missionaries follows this story.
Drew Carson*, a leader with the International Mission Board, told emeritus Southern Baptist missionaries, who recorded a total of 25,297 years of service during their careers, that the New Testament apostle "could have left … but he chose to stay the course," as recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:8-9.
"Your ministry of staying the course has also helped the IMB stay the course," Carson said.
The gathering, called Celebration of Emeriti, occurs every five years, with about 950 emeritus missionaries in attendance this year.
Around 1,200 were originally scheduled to come to the four-day gathering, 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.
There are approximately 18,500 IMB alumni, with 2,250 holding emeritus status, which is achieved if either the husband or wife (if married) is at least 55 and their years of service equals 80. Alumni include all mid- and long-term former missionaries.
For 31 new emeriti missionaries this year, their stories added to the colorful heritage of Southern Baptist global missions.
Feel the music
Pearl Vernon*, who served 31 years in the Middle East, learned during the Ridgecrest gathering that Hurricane Irma had damaged the garage in the mission house where she is living in Florida, totaling her vehicle.
Nevertheless, characteristic of her calling in music and drama, she recounted her service in the Middle East.
"I knew God wanted me to serve overseas," she said, but she waited eight years before the IMB posted a request for a music and drama teacher.
Vernon had been a band teacher at her hometown high school, but she wasn't sure she would be able to have a band in the Middle East but took along 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 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 sharing a parable or biblical story, with the students spending time discussing it. When Vernon was leaving the mission field, she wanted the talk times to continue and 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 [open a door] when the path and the time is right," 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."
One calling, numerous roles
Darren and Yvonne Cantwell* who were serving in South Asia when they retired, now live in Alabama where he serves as a church's pastor of mobilization.
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 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he met 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 recounted. 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.
"Every time, the Lord kind of brought these things to us, we never sought out any of these changes," Darren 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.
IMB President David Platt, on Sept. 12, told the retired missionaries that being among them made him 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."
Speaking from 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, Platt 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 while the IMB exists to equip churches to send out more missionaries, marketplace missionaries, retirees and others.
While "we have limited ability to send out fully supported missionaries around the world," Platt said 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 from 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 IMB president, he shared two key truths God has taught him.
1.) God is sovereignly orchestrating all of history for the accomplishment of His purpose.
2.) Each of us has a part to play in the accomplishment of that purpose.
Naming several world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Platt said God has them all in the palm of His hand.
Regarding financial realities of the IMB in recent years, Platt said some problems needed to be addressed, such as the chronic problem of not meeting its budget; using the sale of properties to pay for expenses; 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" to seek God individually to make tough decisions about their place in the IMB's downsizing. He talked about the challenge, heartache and emotions yet 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, Platt said.
"We're saying we'll do whatever it takes," he said, encouraging those making a transition. "Where you live right now is not an accident.... 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, speaking from the "meaty" chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians.
"You and I are not here on this earth for very long," he said. "Don't waste it." He reminded the emeritus missionaries that throughout the world many are lost "right now, separated from God."
"Biblical Christianity is about laying down our rights," Platt emphasized. "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."
Platt urges new missionaries to look to Jesus
By Diana L. Cagle/Biblical Recorder
BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. (BP) -- "He's called your name," David Platt told 51 new missionary appointees Sept. 13. "You are His."
The appointees, along with friends and family and about 950 emeritus missionaries were part of a Sending Celebration at Ridgecrest Conference Center in Black Mountain, N.C.
Platt, the International Mission Board's president, spoke from Hebrews 11-12, describing men and women of faith.
"God is saying to you: Never stop looking to Jesus," Platt said.
While Hebrews shares quite a list of patriarchs, early fathers and mothers of faith, but, Platt asked, "The Israelites? Would we call them giants of faith?
"They complained about everything in spite of God's faithfulness in bringing them out from under Pharaoh's rule.
"Faith isn't about what anyone can do," he said. "Faith is about what God can do through anyone.
"The whole picture is, you've got people of faith just holding on to His promises."
He reminded the new missionaries to stay in God's Word, resting on those promises.
"No matter what happens to you, He has your back," Platt said.
Listing some missionaries who had died serving overseas, Platt noted that when the appointees go to orientation for field personnel in Virginia, "you'll see a list of men and women who were living by faith when they died."
"His power will strengthen you in your weakness," he said. "His promises will never let you down. Never stop looking to Jesus."
Story after story was voiced during the Sending Celebration of how God had gripped the appointees with a call to missions.
David Flannery, for example, former student pastor at Mountain View Baptist Church in Hamptonville, N.C., credited his father's military career with opening his eyes "to the lostness in Europe" and, now, to missionary service based in Milan, Italy, with his wife Danielle and their son Kaleb.
Danielle Flannery, who is expecting their second child, said her time in France as an exchange student helped solidify her call to the international mission field.
"Through the outreach focus of our sending church," she added, "God has confirmed our call to European missions."
While all of the new missionaries have their own story, Platt emphasized, they are going out to share "the greatest news in all the world."