Retirement: Working on Your Life After Work

Having “The Talk”

During my most recent visit to the USA, a pastor friend of a supporting church sat me down for what I’ve come to call “The Talk.” I’ve had “The Talk” with more than one supporting church now and with a donor or two. It is hard for these poor people to have “The Talk” with those of us who have served them faithfully for years, so I really appreciate their courage in starting this conversation. “The Talk” goes something like this:

Well, Mark, you know we love you and the work you do, but we know that there will eventually come a day when you’ll probably want to retire back to the USA. We were just wonder [stammering, looking at feet] if you…umm…have made, you know, financial plans for your retirement. You know, we’ve got someone in our church that can help you with that…and, well, you see, it is our policy not to financially support people when they retire. We want to make sure you have prepared yourself for that. You have? Are you sure? I’m glad to hear you say that, but, well, our experience hasn’t been so good with missionaries who retire. I mean, are you really sure? Because we just can’t support you into retirement.

I always leave “The Talk” snickering just a bit, because if they knew how many podcasts I’ve listened to, about the number of tax and financial advisors I’ve spoken with, and about this Vagabond Finances blogpost, they probably wouldn’t be so concerned. But it is right and good and loving that they have “The Talk” with me. They’ve noticed a problem that I’ve seen as well. In fact, it is one of the reasons I created Vagabond Finances. Missionaries really aren’t often prepared for retirement, and here are some of the reasons why:

“I love what I’m doing, so I’m never gonna retire”

I feel this way too. It’s a great feeling to be needed, to be fruitful and to be doing something you love. It’s also a great plan to never stop serving and loving others and the Lord. However, and it is a big “However,” if we live to a ripe old age, our energy will diminish, our bodies will struggle with health issues and our minds will inevitably slow. No one plans to have dementia or life-impairing injuries but those things happen as well.

It is more than likely that you will reach a point in your life in which you no longer feel capable to continue serving fulltime overseas. You may still want to live in the foreign land you love, you may want to return to the USA for some part-time work or you might want to take up some beloved hobby you never had time for. Even while you do those things, you will continue to love, to serve and to be useful, but you’ll no longer be doing that as a fulltime expat missionary or nonprofit worker.

Even if you wanted to stay in service well past retirement years, the truth is that some organizations won’t let you and, for those of us who raise our own support, many supporters will pass away and others will eventually move on. Fulltime, paid ministry may not even be an option.

The truth is that if you live long enough, you will eventually retire.

“I’m sure that’s being taken care of”

This attitude is common in all lines of work, but it seems a bit more prevalent in nonprofit circles. Perhaps, this is because we are so used to having a lot of hands in our finances. All of us serving with an agency have our wage, expenses and so on overseen by administrative personnel either back in the US or abroad and many of us have an army of donors who generously give dollar after dollar to meet our needs. Thus, there is some confusion as to whose responsibility it is to plan for a financially sound retirement. Here are some of the options:

1. Our US or Foreign Government?

The US has Social Security and many foreign countries have something similar. Do you know if the country in which you live has a treaty with the US (see Totalization Agreements)? Do you know if you’re paying into the US system or into theirs? Do you have a Certificate of Coverage? Do you know how much you’ll be paid, is it enough for you to live on and do you trust them to have the money set aside for you? If you’re not sure of the answers, it’s time to find out. I don’t think we’re going to want to depend solely on this.

2. Our Organization?

Generally speaking, their planning for your retirement is limited to offering an optional retirement account (usually a Roth 403b) into which you can put an indeterminate amount of money. If you are blessed, they may provide you with some advice, access to financial planning through the administrator of the 403b and perhaps even a small matching gift to your 403b for the first $X you put into the fund. You can put $18,000 into that account each year or $0 or you can have your 403b nest egg invested in a barely growing money market fund or in an ultra-aggressive mutual fund and they’ll never say a word to you about it. Most organizations will not pay any sort of pension or retirement benefit. Our 403b is our best shot and many of us aren’t investing enough and don’t know in what we are investing.

3. Our Donors?

As discussed above, donors pass away or go into retirement themselves. More and more churches are realizing that their “missions boards” are filling up with retired missionaries whom they are still supporting. They’ve realized they can’t be the missionary pension plan anymore. Our donors have been plenty generous to keep us on the field doing what we love while we were fulltime workers, let them support new workers so the work can go on.

Umm…well…not to put too fine of a point on it, but…

4. You and Me!

But who has the time?

“I’m too busy to worry about money”


The whole point of Vagabond Finances is to keep missionaries and nonprofit workers on the field, doing what they’re good at. If we refuse to spend a few hours a year to speak to a financial advisor or rebalance our investments or check in on our 403bs and increase our contributions, then we will save a few hours a year and, very probably, have to leave the field a few years sooner to make some “real money” and catch up. The Bible says it better than I:

The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty. [Proverbs 21:5, ESV]

It’s time to plan and be diligent! If you want to be Winning your Financial Freedom in order to serve more freely (and maybe with self-funding!), retire without being a burden on others and be ultra generous, it will take planning for retirement. It doesn’t fall on the government, our organization, our amazing donors or even on God to plan our retirement funding. It falls on us, dear friends. It falls on us to work on our life after work.

See also: 

Posts about Retiring

The Roth IRA is Not Your Friend