Biology professor retires to be a missionary

Retirement dreams of sitting on a beach watching sailboats and playing with grandchildren were pushed aside when Don and Janella Abbey felt the call to serve God in a new and different way.

After 14 years of service to Union College, the couple accepted the role of Asian Projects field directors for Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM). While stationed in Thailand, they will provide support to missionary couples in India, Philippines, and other South and Southeast Asian countries while and researching new projects in their region.

Their journey working for God started many years prior. The Abbeys taught at Canadian University College (CUC) for five years, went to Zimbabwe for two years to work at Solusi University, and then returned to CUC for 25 more years.

When Union College was looking for a biologist, a family friend suggested Don. In 1998, the Abbeys moved to Nebraska. They were immediately touched by the campus atmosphere.

“It is very open and inclusive,” said Janella. “The faculty and staff have always been affirming and supportive.” 

“There’s a real sense of service here, among both faculty and students,” added Don.

Don served as the chair of the Division of Science and Mathematics from 2001 to 2009 and for 13 years was the primary advisor for pre-med students. His guidance helped many become successful in the next step of their medical careers. His office bulletin board is covered with notes from past students all with the same simple message: thank you.

“I was in the first General Biology class he taught at Union,” recalled Frankie Rose, now an assistant professor of biology. “Dr. Abbey has the extraordinary ability to engage students in learning. He frequently singles out students in class to ask them questions. These questions require much more than rote memory to answer, and this gets students truly thinking about the subject matter. He is a master in the arena of the classroom.”

While at Union, Don has helped the International Rescue and Relief program coordinate summer experiences in Colorado. He also coordinated five of the Central American study tours, Hurricane Katrina disaster relief trips, and worked with John Thomas to coordinate a spring break trip after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Janella also served Union College, first as a research assistant in the Physicians Assistant program and then as administrative assistant to the vice president for  Academic Administration.

As the Abbeys prepared for retirement, AFM advertised a position opening for a field director. The mission of AFM lines up with what the Abbeys believe is Christ’s method: living among the people, finding their best interest and meeting their needs.

“We have been interested for a long time in mission work,” said Janella. “It's been clear through the entire process that this has been God working; it's His call. We can choose whether or not to join Him.”

As the Asian Projects field directors, the Abbeys will support, encourage and mentor frontline missionaries. They will also research potential projects for other areas of southeast Asia. AFM follows the "tentmaking" model of outreach, based on the example of the Apostle Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:1-4). The organization sends missionaries to study the local language and culture while practicing a profession in unreached areas. While the goal is to plant new congregations, the approach differs from historical mission work in its sensitivity to the host culture and its emphasis on personal relationships. As field directors, the Abbeys will work to support AFM missionary couples, including Union graduates serving in their territory.

“When you're working with these missionaries, you learn so much from them,” explained Janella.  “They are living directly with unreached people and within that culture. They learn how their people think.”

The Abbeys believe is it necessary to explain the Gospel in a way that makes sense within each culture and how it can apply to everyday life. “We'll work at learning Thai,” said Janella laughing. “But we won't be able to learn the language of all our territory. We're praying for the gift of tongues.” 

While excited for the next step in life, the Abbeys know they will miss the dynamics of a collegiate environment. “It’s a privileged interacting with students who want to serve,” said Don. “On the other hand, we’ll have the privilege with interacting with people who have made deep commitments to places where that service is very challenging.”

Those interested in learning about AFM can contact the Abbeys at jaabbey [at]