Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Finishing Well Page 1 of 3

restart
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Planning to Restart

Recently I mentioned to a friend that my wife and I will begin our retirement with a sabbatical. He looked at me oddly saying that sabbaticals are usually followed by a return to work. My response was that Christ still has good works for us to do in our retirement (Eph 2:10). In other words, a retirement sabbatical is a time to rest, reflect on past ministry, and discern God’s calling for our remaining years. Indeed, we are called to be a people zealous for good works (Titus 2:13-14). And there is no expiration date on that calling!

Essentially, a retirement sabbatical prepares us for a restart. The nine practices mentioned in the previous post can launch us into a fulfilling retirement. Moreover, they help us find meaning and purpose in our later years. A retirement sabbatical is an antidote to the boredom of endless vacation.1 See my first blog post in this series.

Restart

Restarting after our retirement sabbatical is a renewed expression of our identity and calling as we seek to finish well. Indeed, “calling is central to the challenge and privilege of finishing well in life (Os Guinness, The Call, p. 227). Guinness defines calling as:

retirement sabbatical
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Retirement Sabbatical: Identity and Calling

In a previous post, I mentioned starting retirement with a sabbatical. In this post and the next, I will explore the benefits a sabbatical brings at the start of retirement. Specifically, I want to describe the anatomy of a sabbatical resulting in discerning identity and calling in retirement. Then, the following post will explore coaching and mentoring in retirement. In other words, this post deals with our self-awareness, and the next post our relationship to others.

Anatomy of a Retirement Sabbatical

I have a confession to make. I’ve never taken a sabbatical. Furthermore, I’m not retired yet (that comes on January 1, 2022). Yet there are helpful guides for taking a sabbatical. In chapter two of An Uncommon Guide to RetirementJeff Haanen outlines nine practices to consider as we plan our retirement sabbatical.

1. Prepare

A retirement sabbatical needs to be intentional. Notably, Haanen suggests taking two to three weeks just to structure our sabbatical (p. 43). Likewise, C. J. Cagle emphasizes planning:

reimagined retirement is one that is planned, structured, lived, and continually reexamined in the light of sound biblical doctrine, principles, and practices. It is a retirement lived for the glory of God, his kingdom, and the good of his people.

C. J. Cagle, Reimagine Retirement, kindle loc. 814.
retirement and vacation
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Is retirement an endless vacation?

In my previous blog series, I talked about finishing well in a ministry assignment. But finishing well can also refer to finishing a career, and in our case, finishing a missionary career. Does retirement have a place in finishing well? Various voices answer the question differently. Some reject retirement. Others embrace it. Yet, many wish to modify the popular image of retirement as an endless vacation.

In this post, I will explore some realities and perspectives on retirement. In so doing, I will make a case that retirement has a place in finishing well.

Energy Levels Decline

In the series on finishing well in a ministry assignment, I used the illustration of a relay race. Interestingly, relay teams do not stay together very long. There comes a time when a runner cannot keep the pace of the rest of the team. So the runner retires from the team.

In a similar way, as we age we find our energy levels declining. This is a reality of aging that indicates retirement may be appropriate. D. A. Carson points out the most important lesson passed on to him by a few senior saints:

Provided one does not succumb to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or any other seriously debilitating disease, the first thing we have to confront as we get older is declining energy levels. Moreover, by “declining energy levels” I am referring not only to the kind of declining physical reserves that demand more rest and fewer hours of labor each week, but also to declining emotional energy without which it is difficult to cope with a full panoply of pastoral pressures. When those energy levels begin to fall is hugely variable (at age 45? 65? 75?), as is also how fast they fall. But fall they will! It follows that as one attempts at age 85 to do what one managed to accomplish at age 45, a lot will be done badly.

D. A. Carson, “On Knowing When to Resign,” Themelios 42.2 (2017) p. 255.
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Finishing Well: Cheering the Next Runner

What would you think of a relay runner who went to the locker room right after completing his or her lap? Perhaps you would think the runner had suffered an injury or had some other health concern. Aside from that, we would question their relationship with the rest of the team. A healthy relay team recognizes that success depends on the performance of each runner. Therefore, each member of the team who has completed their leg stays on the field and cheers on the remaining runners. They stay off the track and cheer from the sidelines.

In this series, we have been using the analogy of a relay race for finishing well in a ministry assignment. So, how do we cheer those who follow us as we complete our ministry assignment? How do we keep from getting in the way of their performance? Our relationship with those who follow us in ministry shapes our cheering for them as they run their lap.

Relationships Matter

Yes, it would be strange for a relay runner to go directly to the locker room. Similarly, it would be tragic for church planters to cut off the relationship with the local church leaders who succeed them in leading the new church. Tom Steffen wrote:

The seventh and final component is determining how church planters can maintain good relationships after the phase-out. They work themselves out of a job, but not out of a relationship. Continued fellowship includes prayer, visits, letters of challenge and encouragement, sending other people to visit, and cautious financial assistance.

Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, p. 18.
baton transfer

Finishing Well: Transferring the Baton

We are finally getting to the finishing part in our series on finishing well in a ministry assignment. In a relay race, transferring the baton is crucial to finishing well. For example, the US 4 x 100 meter relay team was disqualified in the 1988 Olympics for a late handoff. In a similar way, how we transfer responsibility and leadership defines to a large extent whether we finish well in a ministry assignment.

The incoming runner has the primary responsibility for the transfer of the baton. Specifically, he/she places the baton so that the outgoing runner can grasp it most efficiently. In a church planting assignment, the missionary is directly involved in the training of emerging leaders. However, in administrative assignments, there is usually less involvement in selecting a successor. Nevertheless, one can leave behind a “Policy and Procedure Guide” or a step-by-step manual for the next person filling that role. So, what characterizes a good transfer when we finish our ministry assignment?

The Transfer is Intentional

Throughout his book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers, Tom Steffen emphasizes “a comprehensive, phase-out church planting model” (p 7). From the very beginning, the church planting team intends to transfer responsibility and leadership. In other words, this transfer plan guides the whole process of church planting.

Likewise, in an administrative role, we recognize that others will follow us in the role. We are intentional in passing the baton to those who follow us. Successfully transferring responsibility may include cross-training others in the office prior to our departure. 1Cross-training is the practice of training your people to work in several different roles,2 or training them to do tasks that lie outside their normal responsibilities (from Cross-Training – Team Management Skills From MindTools.com). Furthermore, putting together an up-to-date procedural manual will contribute to a smooth transfer. Of course, we also need to spend adequate time in the transition zone. More about that later.

running well
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Finishing Well: Running Your Leg of the Race

Let’s continue thinking about finishing well in a ministry assignment. In our last blog post, we talked about receiving the baton well. So now we are running our leg of the race. We are now fully engaged in our ministry assignment. Furthermore, we have a working knowledge of our host language and culture. Yes, we will want to continue to grow in these areas as we serve. But it is now our turn to run well with the baton we have been given.

How we run our leg of the race will significantly impact finishing well. Of course, we want our ministry to further the progress of the gospel. We want to make a contribution to the contextualization of the gospel in our host culture, building on the progress of those who served before us. In the New Testament, Paul and the author of Hebrews use the race analogy to describe ministry and the Christian life. At the end of Paul’s life, he writes, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). So, what gave him a sense of finishing well? I see four ways we can run like Paul to finish well.

We Run with a Clear Purpose

Paul’s life was guided by a clear purpose. We see this in passages such as Acts 20:24, 1 Corinthians 9:23, and Philippians 3:14. In Acts 20:24 he describes his life as “my course” (the same word translated in 2 Timothy 4:7 as “race”). Notably, Paul identifies his purpose as completing his God-given work of faithfully “testifying to the gospel of the grace of God.” This goal drives him forward.1 1 Cor 9:23, Phil 3:14 He is focused on the prize awaiting him at the finish line. Eckhard Schnabel writes in his commentary on Acts,

receiving the baton

Finishing Well: Receiving the Baton

As we continue to think about finishing well in a ministry assignment, let’s return to the beginning of our leg of the race. Starting well sets the stage for finishing well. In a relay race, the team that exchanges the baton most efficiently usually wins. So beginning our lap by smoothly receiving the baton will increase the likelihood that we will finish well.

In a relay race, a runner must pay attention to the preceding runner. Particularly, one needs to know which hand holds the baton so a smooth transfer can happen. The assigned lane one’s team is running in is also essential to know. Moreover, the placement the previous runner has achieved is also important information for the team’s success.

We tend to act as if history started when we arrived on the ministry scene. I did when I came to Alaska back in 1978. Yet, it didn’t take long to realize there was much to learn from those who came before me. So, it is important that we begin our assignment by learning from previous runners. More importantly, how we receive the baton will prepare us to pass it on well to those who follow us.

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