I regularly get a chuckle from friends when I reported that “I’m still in midlife provided I live to be 134!” Having just reached my 68th birthday, I’ve now had to adjust this to “136,” a joyful reminder that I hope for many years of creativity ahead and also a grim notice of my mortality. I have now reached far beyond the actuarial midpoint of my life and am on my descent, at least chronologically.
Is it possible that the descent may also be an ascent and the years ahead be a time of spiritual growth and service, a Jubilee? Can retired clergy, like myself, be transformational agents and partners, promoting the moral and spiritual arcs of history, once they have left the constraints and rigors of full-time ministry?
The title of my new Alban book, “The Jubilee Years,” emerged from the insights of a small group participating in the Pastoral Study Grant Program sponsored by the Louisville Institute. When I reported that I would be studying the challenges and hopes of clergy retirement, one of my colleagues noted that in Spanish the word retirement is “jubilacion.” As I pondered her comment, I began to imagine retirement from a different perspective, as a time of jubilation, joy and exuberance.
Retirement can be the initiation of a pastoral vision quest. The Jubilee years can be an invitation to let go, forgive, and embrace novel possibilities in relationships, ministry, and mission, which inspire us to move forward to new adventures in learning, creativity, and service, unencumbered by the politics and responsibility of congregational ministry.
Over the course of a year, I interviewed approximately one hundred retired ministers throughout the United States and Canada. I discovered that although most retired clergy experience the normal physical and mental challenges of the aging process, they are also experiencing fulfillment as they pursue new personal, relational, and political adventures. Many have responded to aging by laying out new pathways toward health, intellectual growth, mental acuity, and physical wellbeing. Many retired pastors rejoice in the opportunity to deepen relationships with spouses, children and grandchildren, and dear friends. Others delight in continuing their pastoral vocation, occasionally preaching or taking congregational or regional leadership roles, without the stresses and time constraints of fulltime ministerial leadership. Many also pursue new avocations and hobbies unrelated to their pastoral careers – writing, painting, poetry, gardening, and travel. A significant number of pastors with whom I spoke are seeking to be “good ancestors” by immersing themselves in local and national politics and environmental concerns. Many looked forward to canvassing and making phone calls in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections and are now elated at the results of their efforts. Virtually all of them realized the importance of the biblical counsel, “let us count our days that we might gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12)
While most retired pastors find that they need to be more intentional about health and finances, virtually every pastor reported that they felt free for spiritual and vocational meandering and, for the most part, could – in the pre-Covid days – travel more regularly to be with family or to explore North America and the planet.
Most pastors shared that flexible planning prior to and during retirement was a significant factor in their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. The majority noted the importance of having daily, weekly, and long-term polestars to guide their daily lives. Those who had made no plans tended to drift through the first several months of retirement. For these pastors, an unplanned life wasn’t always a negative experience. For the first time they accepted the grace of a day without agenda. As Tolkien says, “not all who wander are lost.” Eventually however these retired clergy felt the need to create flexible visions for the future. As one pastor confessed, “I don’t have to preach or get involved in the community as part of my job. Now it’s pure grace with no pressure and I’m doing more in the community than I did before.”
Many retired pastors reflected on the importance of theology, spiritual practices, and service in shaping a lively and positive retirement. Time in theological reflection provides guideposts for the journey and gives us perspective in responding to the aging process. Spiritual practices enable us to experience the sacrament of each new day. Service expands our spirits and joins us with our fellow pilgrims.
Clergy retirement can be a time of abundant life and generative service. The right blend of intentionality and flexibility, service and serendipity, and solitude and relationships can make retirement a Jubilee, a season of delight and transformation, in which we claim our vocation as good ancestors for the generations to come.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including, The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement; Hope Beyond Pandemic; Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism; and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Clergy Selfcare.