Mike & Denise: why serve God overseas in later life?


We’re eating Staffordshire oatcakes, but the conversation turns to curry, rice, baguettes and delicious Asian fruit.*

I’m lunching with Mike & Denise Woodward, who in their late 50s, gave up their jobs in England to spend three years in Cambodia serving as Team Centre Managers with OMF. 

The Woodwards managed the offices, meeting rooms, space for 20 guests and supervised a team of staff at the centre in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. They taught the kitchen staff some Western dishes. Mike managed accounts and ran meetings. Aged 60, Denise even swam across the Mekong river!

Mike & Denise didn’t anticipate moving to East Asia, though. They loved their jobs in UK as a computer programmer and primary school teacher respectively. Family were close by. They were committed to their local church and supporting Christian friends serving overseas. Going themselves looked unlikely.

A simple postcard changed all that. The postcard was from an OMF family Mike & Denise knew who worked in Cambodia. ‘Would you be interested in managing the team centre?’

Mike & Denise had always been open to serving God in a more full-time capacity. So, they considered this carefully. Separately, they both decided this was something they could do, but they’d have to give up their jobs, talk to their family and friends. What would they say? The family were supportive, but understandably concerned initially. Grandchildren were on the way – was it really a good time for their grandparents to head out to Cambodia for three years?

However, as Mike & Denise explored the idea further and God brought things together, it became clearer that going to Cambodia wouldn’t mean family ties were cut. Mike reflects, ‘The world has moved on from the 1800s when, if you went out as a missionary, you didn’t see anyone for years.’

With today’s video calling apps and regular letters, grandchildren and grandparents kept in touch. And when a family medical issue back home came up, Denise was able to return to the UK for a while to offer support.

The move to Cambodia was easier and smoother than they’d expected, the Woodwards tell me. They put this down to the prayers of their supporters. Language learning was difficult, trying to make sounds you never have to in English! So, Mike & Denise were thankful for OMF’s language and culture training programme which helped them get to grips with life in Cambodia.

Days at the team centre were long – they often started around 6am, opening up, preparing new arrivals at the centre, setting up for meetings, odd jobs and helping people settle in. There were often late finishes as well, locking up at the end of the day.

Yet there were plenty of opportunities to chat to people passing through the team centre. Mike & Denise fondly remember their regular guests. A couple serving with Wycliffe Bible Translators who had been serving in Cambodia for decades (having to leave when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s) came each year. The team centre provided them a chance for a holiday that refreshed them for their ministry.

Plus, ‘being older,’ Mike says, ‘we found that for the younger missionary families, we were like “grandparents” to their kids…and provided support and care’ to those coming through the centre.’

Denise also reflects on their experience: ‘it was a rich experience spiritually – we were outside our comfort zone, and you have to rely on God in a very different way when you’re outside your comfort zone. The very fact of going and being in a different country, working alongside people who were passionate about spreading the gospel, infects you.’

Besides being centre managers, the Woodwards served in other areas fitting their interests. Mike relished the chance to take up the OMF Cambodia Finance Manager role. Denise also enjoyed putting her teaching experience to good use, serving on the board of HOPE International School, a Christian school attended by many of the children of OMF workers.

Mike & Denise’s continuing love for Cambodia and desire to be part of sharing God’s love around the world is still evident back in the UK, having returned in 2016. They now serve voluntarily with OMF (UK) on the interview panel for new workers. The Woodwards make no secret of the fact that they would like to go again, if circumstances allow.

Denise says: ‘since we’ve come back from Cambodia and I’ve looked after grandchildren and my mum, I see that God does bring seasons into our lives. When Mike does finish work completely, that will be another season and God will find us something do. We’re open to see what that might be.

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*This interview was conducted in 2019 by Reuben Grace, OMF (UK) Content & Media Coordinator