Last December, the SBC Executive Committee staff had the opportunity to serve some of the aged ministers and widows who receive assistance from Mission:Dignity, GuideStone’s relief ministry.
Carrying on Southern Baptists’ legacy of caring for retired ministers that began one hundred years ago in their city, the staff went out in groups of threes and fours and visited the homes of ten Mission:Dignity recipients in the Nashville area. Laden with gift cards and boxes of food and other necessities, they hoped to provide a Christmas blessing.
For Janie Hatfield, the visit was an answer to prayer.
She had lost her husband of fifty-three years over the summer. A few days after his passing, her heating and air conditioning unit broke, which required costly repairs. She was struggling to pay her bills and praying for a Christmas miracle.
“At the time I really needed the visit,” Mrs. Hatfield said. “They were encouraging to me. . . . It was a welcome visit.”
Frank S. Page, president and CEO of the Executive Committee, was one of the staff members who visited with Mrs. Hatfield. He was struck by the love she had for her husband, who served for thirty-one years at churches in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. “She still had poems that he had written her and she read them to us,” Page said. “Those were her prized possessions.”
Not only was her love for her husband evident, but also her love for her family, added Becky Chandler, senior executive assistant to the board at the EC.
The group learned that Mrs. Hatfield cares for her daughter, who has severe health issues and lives with her. When they discovered that her daughter did not have a bed that suited her needs, they ordered her a bed to be delivered.
“It was a blessing to us,” Chandler said. “We are blessed, and it’s just a blessing to be able to turn around and pass that on to other people.”
“You could tell [the visit and gifts] meant a lot to her,” said Emily Liles, staff accountant at the EC. “She was very sweet. . . . The thing that stuck out to me the most was that she had been praying for this.”
Across town, Ellen Dorris received a visit from a different group of EC staff.
“Mrs. Dorris was really proud of her husband, and showed us plaques where he had been involved in Southern Baptist work over many years,” said Janice LaRoy, administrative assistant to the vice president for Convention communications and relations. Her husband, who passed away in 2008, served for fifty years in churches in Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky.
“She was so appreciative of having someone there who cared,” said Deb Baca, administrative assistant to the vice president for Cooperative Program and stewardship.
Her daughters were also present for the visit, and shared stories about their father as well. “That was a blessing for us, to meet them,” LaRoy said, “but also a blessing for them, to know that [their father’s] life mattered, and his service.
“You could tell that the daughters had love and respect for both their father and their mother.”
Mrs. Dorris struggles with health issues and lives on a limited income. She is unable to drive and cannot attend church regularly. She seemed to appreciate the gifts they brought, LaRoy said.
“It was just a happy visit, letting someone know that she wasn’t forgotten.”
After the visit, Mrs. Dorris sent a card to the staff members with whom she had visited. “I so enjoyed your visit,” she wrote. “Living alone becomes very old. You all lifted my spirits.
“I needed everything you brought. It’s nice to be remembered.”
The Executive Committee conducted their visits in the same city where Southern Baptists began their ministry to retired ministers nearly one hundred years before.
William Lunsford, pastor of Edgefield Baptist Church in Nashville, saw how soldiers returning from fighting in World War I were being cared for by the government. He thought of ministers who had sacrificed so much in their lifetimes by serving at small churches and who in retirement were struggling to get by, and felt that these “soldiers of the cross” deserved the same kind of care.
“Our churches have created the conscience in government and industry to cause them to provide for their disabled and aged workers,” he told a local pastors’ conference in 1916. “Why don’t we practice what we preach? Those who dedicate their lives to the Gospel should have the love and care of their brethren in their retirement years.”
Lunsford’s conviction led to the creation of the Board of Ministerial Relief and Annuity, which is now GuideStone Financial Resources. The work of Mission:Dignity has remained central to the mission of GuideStone since its beginning.
Today, Mission:Dignity distributes around $7 million to about 1,800 aged ministers and their widows. Two-thirds of the recipients are widows. One in four is a pastor’s widow aged eighty-five or older.
Mission:Dignity is supported primarily through gifts from individuals, groups, Sunday school classes, and churches. One hundred percent of gifts to Mission:Dignity are used for grant assistance; a separate endowment covers all operating costs.
The staff of the Executive Committee learned firsthand the impact of Mission:Dignity and the blessings that come from serving those who have dedicated their lives to ministry.
“When you do something in the name of Jesus, it’s always more of a blessing for you than it is for who you’re blessing,” Baca said about her group’s visit with Mrs. Dorris. “Knowing that the smallest things that we do can make a difference in her life was such a blessing to us.”
Page said that in his travels, he has seen many ministers struggling financially in their retirement and struggling to prepare for the future.
“I think Mission:Dignity is wonderful. I cannot be prouder,” Page said. “Southern Baptists do a lot of things I’m proud of—disaster relief, our missions work, our seminaries. But taking care of retired ministers and widows who are struggling is just such a powerful statement of the compassion of Christ.”
This year, Mission:Dignity Sunday is June 26. Bulletin inserts and testimonial DVDs are available free of charge to churches. The materials are undated and can be used at any time. Order at www.MDSunday.org.
Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist for the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.