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Empty nesters quit work

Following the call to service in Colorado

Everence Magazine - Gordon and Sue Miller
Gordon and Sue Miller radically changed their lifestyle to take a few years off for voluntary service.

By Alissa Tombaugh

In summer 2010, I arrived at Colorado’s San Luis Valley to start voluntary service. I met Sue and Gordon Miller there, who were also starting service. But they were unusual volunteers. They weren’t young adults or retired adults – they were folks in their mid-fifties who quit their jobs to come to Colorado for three years of service.

How did they end up here? Well, they began their work life by spending 20 years in farming and teaching while also ministering in a local prison. But when Gordon heard God calling him to pastoral ministry, he followed and gave up farming for seminary. After Gordon became a pastor, the couple moved and served Mennonite churches, most recently in the Midwest.

Then, they started to feel God might have something else in store. It started when Sue began exploring the option of serving as a volunteer at her school instead of as a paid teacher. Sue and Gordon decided to meet with Everence Financial to discuss the financial side of this option.

Looking ahead, they also discussed what they wanted to do in retire- ment and what lifestyle they were hoping to maintain. They had a strong interest in doing service.

After analyzing their financial situation and needs, they found they could consider service now. Most importantly, they were able to see they could afford retirement down the road, even if they didn’t earn salaries for a few years now. They decided to pay off their home mortgage before entering volunteer service.

The next step came at an Ohio Mennonite Conference pastor and spouse retreat. During one breakfast, they shared a table with a young couple who were co-pastors with an interesting passion. The woman’s parents had quit their jobs at about the same age as Gordon and Sue so they could be missionaries in Africa. This young couple was committed to encouraging that type of service. When they left the meal, Sue and Gordon felt God could not have been speaking much more clearly.

As they started to embrace and explore the idea of service, they were propelled by the words of Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!

However, even with this assurance, there were hurdles to overcome. Their daughter and son-in-law, Sonya and Kevin, were living in Virginia and expecting their first child. In service, they would be far away from their new grandchild. Although they weren’t sure yet whether they would make a five-year commitment to international service or spend three years serving domestically, they struggled with the possibility of missing out on so much of their family life. Yet God saw a way. When Gordon and Sue discussed the situation with their children, their worries were eased by the response they received. Their children supported them wholeheartedly, feeling their service would set a powerful example for their grandchildren.

With that reassurance, Gordon and Sue started discerning a placement – where would they go and what would they do? They considered locations from Zambia to Kentucky to Israel. Not until Gordon resigned from his church – stepping out with faith in God’s plan – did he and Sue make a final decision.

Everence Magazine - Gordon and Sue Miller working at a food pantry
The Millers work at a food pantry during their service in Colorado.

They chose the Colorado Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in La Jara (which has since moved to Alamosa). Not only did it offer married housing, but it also offered an opportunity to work at a food bank, similar to a place they had enjoyed serving at their church in the Midwest. After a phone interview, and without ever seeing the place, they committed to the unit and headed to Colorado.

They felt comfortable with their financial situation as they embarked upon this major life change. They still had to figure out what to do with their house, though. They didn’t want to rent it and deal with the hassles of being a landlord, so they hoped to sell it. Then Sue’s principal said she was looking for a place for her daughter and son-in-law. The Millers changed their minds. Since Sue and Gordon already knew and loved the daughter, they were happy to rent to them. It has worked well so far, feeling like another example of God making a way.

After arriving in Colorado, they were still nervous about some parts of service. They would work for La Puente, a local nonprofit focusing on homelessness and poverty. The organization is secular, and they weren’t sure how they would share the gospel there. Plus, at the voluntary service house and at work, they would be surrounded by people much younger. How would they relate to them?

Everence Magazine - Gordon and Sue Miller relax by riding bikes
Sue and Gordon also enjoy some relaxation during their multi-year service term.

In the end, each of these worrisome concerns actually became blessings. Despite working for a secular organization, they are still able to share their faith, in overt and subtle ways. And they enjoy befriending and mentoring their younger peers. It helps keep them young! Although they chose to dip into their savings – living off more than their $50 monthly stipend – their experience still reaffirms that their happiness is not connected to money.

Gordon and Sue’s life together has been characterized by striving to follow God’s will. Since coming to Colorado, their service unit has dealt with many ups and downs: starting a new church, the death of a unit member, and a move to a different house. Throughout some difficult times, Gordon’s pastoral skills were put to good use. And Sue has connected with coworkers to plant seeds of faith that may someday flourish. It is clear God put them here. Not only for their transformation along this journey, but also for the lives they touch along the way.

Alissa Tombaugh, originally from north-central Kansas, is a full- time volunteer in Alamosa, Colo., where she is active in the Anabaptist Fellowship of Alamosa.

Photography by Mark Helms Photography