A pastor contemplating retirement has a personal and professional history. In many ways a minister’s retirement is the reverse image of her or his first congregational call. Decades earlier, he or she walked to the pulpit with fear and trembling, about to preach her or his first sermon without the safety net of the seminary community or a field education supervisor. Now, hundreds of sermons and worship services later, when he or she walks to the pulpit for the last time as a full-time congregational pastor, he or she is filled with a different type of fear and trembling, the fear of letting go of a personal identity and theological practice that have defined her or his life for decades. While few pastors at retirement miss board meetings and budget sessions, the quotidian practices that structured her or his life day by day and month by month are what pastors often miss the most.
All transitions require saying goodbye, but some farewells are heart wrenching. When an elderly widow, whom a retiring pastor has visited week after week for more than a decade, asks, “Will you come back again next week to see me?” even the most self-differentiated and intentional pastor is tempted to reply, “Of course, I’ll be back next week.” When a pastor celebrates his last nursing home service and announces that he won’t be back again, the anguished looks from the residents are heartbreaking.
The caretaking and wisdom-giving void that follows these pastoral lasts is accompanied by a wide variety of feelings: For some, the feeling of relief at never having to chair another church session meeting or endure the petty conflicts of the church board triumphs over the void and its related grief. Others experience a new freedom at not having to prepare or deliver another sermon. Yet, for most pastors, the feelings of loss and ambivalence are tremendous because, despite the challenges of ministry, most pastors see a close relationship between what has been described as “soul and role.” They do not simply do ministry, they are ministers 24/7. Their vocation is a matter of character, lifestyle, and self-definition, even if they have healthy family lives, relationships outside the church, and interests outside ministry. Healthy preretirement pastors remind themselves that their choice to respond to God’s call to a lifetime of ministry has enabled God to be present in their lives and the lives of their congregants in unique and surprising ways, and they remember that God is still calling them toward faithful discipleship, albeit in yet unknown forms beyond congregational ministry.
Faith and vocation are profoundly defined and shaped by relationships. With retirement from full-time ministry, most pastors note that their relational world suddenly shrinks. Happily, phone calls no longer disturb family meals. But, sadly, days and weeks may go by without a phone call from persons who were once former colleagues or congregants. With no church office filled with congregational staff and volunteers to go to each morning, recent retirees often make visits to the coffee shop or corner restaurant to fill their days. As one suburban pastor noted, “My husband and I decided to retire in the home where we’d lived for two decades. Our children and grandchildren all lived within half an hour of home and the church we’d served for twenty years. I’m glad to be near family, but it’s painful to remain so near my old congregation. Sometimes it hurts to see former parishioners sharing lunch with the interim pastor at places that we once shared meals. As I pick up an afternoon coffee at Starbucks, I encounter my successor, former colleagues, and former parishioners, and while I’m tempted to sit down beside them, I know I have to wave and take my coffee on the road. I’ve had to let go of a congregation when I moved to another, but leaving my job and not having to go to another is heart wrenching. It’s difficult even to find a place to eat where I won’t encounter someone from the church.” With retirement from full-time congregational ministry, one pathway of life comes to an end, and developing new pathways and possibilities takes considerable effort.
The “lasts” of ministry’s winter season reminds us of the importance of work in shaping our personal identity prior to retirement and after it. According to students of the psychology of retirement, a person’s work serves a variety of psychological and structural functions in her or his life, including a sense of personal worth and accomplishment, relationships and friendships, prestige and recognition, novelty and creativity, service to the larger community, and the passing of time. From a holistic perspective on ministerial vocation in which being and doing are intimately related, the high degree of unsettledness pastors experience as they contemplate their retirement is normal, especially during the first months following their departure from full-time ministry. Even pastors well-versed in boundary training are tempted to quite innocently violate boundaries in order to hang on to some sense of their old identity. There are great temptations to drop in at the office on the way to the market or stop by the women’s or men’s fellowship group during its monthly meeting in the social hall. But after a few minutes of mutual awkwardness, the retired pastor and his former colleagues and parishioners know that it is time to go. As one recently retired United Church of Christ pastor noted, “It’s a humbling and somewhat alienating experience to know that you no longer belong in a place where you were once the center of action and the primary actor. More than that, your presence in the area may be seen by judicatory officials and the new pastor as an intrusion, undermining the authority of your successor. When judicatory officials ask how I’m doing, I feel the underlying message is ‘Are you behaving yourself? Are you staying away from the church?'”
Like a flowing stream, life goes on, and our accomplishments, at best, become the foundation upon which other pastors will build in their ministerial adventure. Even those pastors who have prepared well for retirement may experience some wistfulness as they admit that life is progressing well in the office and in the congregation now that they are gone.
“For everything there is a season.” Transformation from which new life springs is bought at the price of abandonment of old routines and letting go of old ways of self-definition. The leaves must fall from the tree to create mulch to support springtime’s renewal of life. Springtime’s new blooms eventually rise but not without the death of the old self and its habitual patterns. In such transitional moments, a pastor’s calling is to claim kairos time amid the fifty or more unstructured hours of chronos time that once defined each week’s tasks. What initially seems like a void in the few weeks following retirement may shortly thereafter become the womb of new possibilities for those who awaken to new pathways of spirituality, vocation, and relationship. What the psalmist described as numbering our days will mean embracing the joy of new adventures and new talents, rather than simply passing time in preoccupation with the past.
In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, Grandfather Austin, a retired Episcopalian priest who is now debilitated and facing immanent death, notes that at this time of his life his vocation is simply to pray for the world. When pastors retire, they do not lose their pastoral identity or their calling to serve God, but their vocation is transformed. Their calling is to discern what new creation God is beckoning them toward now that they no longer have the role of public religious figure. Just as a person’s earlier callings have many possible shapes, so, too, God’s call in retirement encompasses many paths and possibilities in one’s particular time and place.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.
Called for Life: Finding Meaning in Retirement
by Paul Clayton
Called for Life reflects on our calling to serve God and neighbor in the context of retirement. Clayton uses examples from his own experience and from others, laity and clergy, to explore retirement and the three components of our calling: our identity, our gifts, and our occupation. He also examines the role of community in our calling and retirement; the challenges of the transition into retirement; options for meaningful activity; the importance of identifying our purpose; doing and being in retirement; and the final call to death.
Saying Goodbye: A Time for Growth for Congregations and Pastors
by Edward A. White
Leaving a pastorate is hard on both congregation and pastor. Learn how to make this transition a growth experience for all. Written for congregations and pastors, Saying Goodbye skillfully weaves accounts from clergy, laity, and educators of seven denominations with White’s own insight as a former General Presbyter to create a resource for meaningful and healthy partings. Includes examples of a “farewell” worship service and litany for closure of a ministry.
A Change of Pastors… And How It Affects Change in the Congregation
by Loren B. Mead
In this revised edition of his groundbreaking work Critical Moment of Ministry, Loren Mead shares the wisdom he gained from 35 years of studying congregations as he leads his readers through the challenges of forming committees, negotiating denominational relations, and managing the search process. A revised text and introduction, an updated bibliography, and a new preface and afterword make A Change of Pastors crucial for any congregation undergoing or about to undergo a change of pastors.
UPCOMING EVENTS WITH DAN HOTCHKISS
Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant and author
“Dan was a profound influence on our Senior Staff.”
“Thank you for your insight and guidance these past two days.”
“You have such a broad range of skills!”
These are just a few of the things that folks say about Dan Hotchkiss and his leadership. Spend three days with Dan examining the profound relationship between your congregation’s governance system and its ability to pursue its mission. You will never think about congregational governance the same way again. Dan’s concepts work in all sorts of denominations, with all kinds of organizing requirements, and just about any size congregation.
This seminar will be offered twice during 2011. Your choice: Spring for Fall. Whichever you choose, you will be glad you did!
Governance and Ministry:
Rethinking Board Leadership
April 5-7, 2011
Simpsonwood Retreat and Conference Center
Governance and Ministry:
Rethinking Board Leadership
September 20-22, 2011
Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center
For a full list of educational seminars and other events, check out Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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