For a number of months I wondered how I would know when it was time to retire. I took a couple of months off two summers before I did retire, hoping that an extended vacation and time for reflection would bring clarity. But no such luck. I went back to work refreshed, with my question unanswered.
Then one day the following spring, I awoke knowing that it was time. I had only a couple of clues. One was the recognition that I had become restless about meetings. There is a gestation period for new ideas to take hold in churches, and my patience was wearing thin at the long wait from conception to acceptance. I also found myself feeling angry at small things that happened or did not—something so unlike me that I knew it was time.
But then retirement angst set in. What would I do with all the unstructured time? And what would I do for the daily interaction that was a staple of church life? Wouldn’t I miss the joy of preparing sermons and preaching them? There were also other big questions: Where would we live? How would we buy a house? And would my retirement income be adequate for the lifestyle that we had created for ourselves?
Finding My Way
Because I gave myself 15 months until retirement was to begin, I approached the process in a way that is typical for me. I addressed issues that could be dealt with ahead of time. My wife and I decided to buy a house in the town where I had pastored for 10 years, even though it would mean having to find a new place to worship. Then I called my friends at the Alban Institute, which has for many years provided consulting and educational services for pastors and local churches. I had once done some consulting for them—and wondered if they might be interested in having me do some part-time work again. Fortunately, Alban was glad to have me back. That settled two of my worries: I would have remuneration to supplement my retirement benefits, and I now had some structured time.
But I wasn’t prepared for the changes that were related to my personal identity. Who would I be if not a pastor? With retirement I no longer had a meaningful title. Outside church circles it made no difference that I was a clergyperson. In retirement there were no daily reminders that my words and behavior counted in any venue beyond my family and friends.
Even attending church brought unexpected reactions. Early on I found myself crying as I sang one of the great hymns. When I heard others preach I found myself wishing that I could preach again. I even had feelings of surprise as I observed from the pew. I would marvel at the importance of some rituals and say to myself, “So that’s why people attend church.”
I sometimes had notions of serving as a pastor again, but not in a church. I imagined starting a small congregation in my own living room when I heard pastors peddling what I considered to be shallow or wrong. I reminded myself that other pastors were doing their best, but it has been tough to endure what I have perceived as mediocrity and emptiness in some churches.
My first year of retirement was full of new discoveries as well. I spent time in hardware and home maintenance stores learning how to care for a new home. I took an art class to reclaim an interest that had lagged after college, and I attended free afternoon lectures and made impromptu trips to the movies. I discovered that I really liked grandchildren—and that I still had a zest for golf. And I could read all of The New York Times every day, a treat for a newspaper junkie like me.
In the fall the practice of consulting took hold. I liked the slow feel of it, which was akin to walking gingerly into a spring-fed lake on a nippy morning. I reluctantly said yes when my bishop called to ask if I would take on the job of interim conference director for five months. I knew that this would structure too much of my time, but it would be for a short period, and then my life could return to its new, slower pace.
That interim period has passed, and life has slowed somewhat. But the consulting has grown, and much of it is in areas that were not central to my prior expertise—requiring more “prep” time than I had anticipated. As I write this I am still sorting through how much I want to work or explore other venues. I question how well I am using my free time as I continue to search for meaningful “work” and an adequate number of friends to share time with. And I have not yet made the fundamental choices that will define the next 5, 10, or 20 years of my life. Recently I noted inwardly that not until the tragedies of September 11 did I, for the first time since retiring, feel that I should be serving as pastor of a church. For a week I felt intensely that I should—but the urgency lasted for only a week.
Other Pathways to Retirement
I recently spoke with three colleagues, who retired a year or two ahead of me, to compare our experiences. None of them has sought out formal ministry in retirement, though one briefly served as an interim district superintendent. All three cut their professional ties, and only one is now exploring options in that arena by looking at publishing a book that he wrote while working as a staffer for an annual conference.
These three pastors retired for common reasons. Each sensed that he was physically tired of full-time pastoring. Two retired, in part, because they felt that their churches needed leadership styles that were different from the ones they knew. None of them regrets his years of ministry. All three are financially secure. They miss regular interaction with the people that pastoral ministry afforded—but they do not miss the interminable meetings. And like my wife and I, two of them continue to struggle in their search for a meaningful faith community. All three rejoice in the freedom to shape their daily lives, and all now pay more attention to health concerns than ever before.
Finding One’s Pace—or God’s Grace?
These three retirees’ lack of interest in doing ministry caused me to wonder if I was odd and insecure in the freedom that retirement brings. Unlike them, did I have a need to hold on to some kind of structured ministry? I do fear that if I give up work my mind will atrophy and I will become irrelevant. By turns I feel glad to have some schedule and focus for my life—but then feel anxious about my unwillingness to allow God’s grace to direct my life.
I am glad not to be pastoring any more. But I want to share in the wisdom that comes from interacting with pastors and church leaders who are striving to lead meaningful lives in local congregations. I also relish time with my children and grandchildren, look forward to more travel when my spouse retires, and hope to deepen friendships that have developed along the way.
Retirement is a season that differs from all others. In this season we are free to determine both the pace of life and many of its dimensions. And for now I feel a bit like I did when I first started out as a pastor. I am a novice with a lot to learn. But I needed the change—and I am glad I retired.