When Retirement Is Not What You Expect
Virtually all of us look forward to the day we will retire; simultaneously we’re not quite sure what we will actually experience! We know it will be different, and anticipate it will bring time and space for more fun, enjoyment of life, and relief from the more toilsome aspects of “work.” A significant number of EFCA East pastors have recently retired or will be doing so in the next few years. From one who “crossed over” on August 31, 2018, this blog is dedicated to you! Unlike my typical blogs which focus on many executive elements of ministry, this one is personal, reflective, and confessional.
Like first-time expectant parents or Abram leaving Ur of the Chaldeans and not knowing where he was to go, retirement is one of those life transitions we’ve heard a lot about but have no real idea what it will be like. To provide some context of my career — after graduating from seminary in 1979, I spent 14 years in Christian education administration, and then 25 years serving 3 churches as an executive pastor. In the last 19 years of that run, I worked an average of 60+ hours per week.
NOT KNOWING WHERE
We know that Christians don’t retire from serving God. That continues through life on earth and into heaven. But, what does it mean for the vocational minister to leave a specific position and just… serve? That’s more complicated than merely going from paid staff member to unpaid volunteer. Being a career implementer and planner, I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep doing what I had been doing by just scaling back. I don’t know any part-time executive pastors. So, as the time got closer, I began to search for other kinds of ministries that might fit God’s design for me, and provide meaningful and fruitful service in less hours. I also really wanted to finish well. Those last months were very full, as I knew this time, I wasn’t going to come back from vacation to pick things up again. Side note: going on a multi-month sabbatical is great training and preparation for the pastor and the church as a foretaste of the retirement transition, particularly as it moves closer.
I have always been inspired by Caleb, Judah’s representative sent to spy out the land of Canaan (Nu. 13:6). Out of 12, only he and Joshua gave a faith filled report. As such, they were the only two of their generation to enter the land over 40 years later. At age 85, Caleb claimed his inheritance as promised through Moses. But, to actually own it required invading the hill country, and conquering “great fortified cities,” which he did in the power of God! Like Caleb, I want to keep faithfully serving God as long as He gives me strength to do so.
God has laid one other thing on my heart to prioritize in retirement. My wife, Terry, has been my partner in life and ministry since we married in 1975. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I have always felt compelled to put ministry first, over everything and everyone else. Over the years, I have been convicted that the extent to which I do so is imbalanced and unhealthy. I envisioned retirement as an opportunity to
address that imbalance and to honor Terry as she has sacrificed for so many years.
WHAT GOD PROVIDED
September 2018 was my first month being retired. I spent much of it finishing things I wasn’t able to complete in August. Then came an extended visit with family (including grandkids!) in Minnesota. Somewhat unexpectedly, conversations began about a possible part-time position with the Eastern district (now EFCA East). On January 2, 2019, I began serving as Operations Director.
What a huge blessing that has been for me! God created a space where I could continue to use the gifts, skills, and experience He has given me in a setting I knew, understood, and loved. Plus, it did not require as
much time! Other ministries I was involved in at West Shore Free, our home church, have continued as
well. I didn’t have to find something new I had never done before! As we are open to His leading, I believe God has a purpose and a “place” to which He calls all of us in retirement, to continue to be fruitful in building His kingdom.
RETIREMENT FANTASY & REALITY DAY TO DAY
Based on my experience, retirement is not one long vacation (who can afford that!); it’s not getting to sleep in every day (I often wake up before my alarm goes off); and it’s certainly not doing only what you want to do (chores still remain). The reality, in Eugene Peterson’s words, is that it continues to be “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” He leads, we follow. He calls, we serve. Much like I did for decades, I spend a lot of time in my home study in front of the computer or on the phone — connecting, processing emails, preparing lessons, etc. My greatest joy and privilege is to meet with EFCA East pastors and church leaders to offer perspective and coaching as they encounter the blessings, transitions, issues, and challenges of church ministry. Since our EFCA East staff team is 100% part-time and spread throughout the district, the main thing I miss is going into the “office” and enjoying the daily contact with other team members. But, it’s nice to have great flexibility with my time, wear whatever I want, and go to the kitchen any time of the day.
NAMING THE UNEXPECTED
Going back to the title of this blog, there are several things I didn’t expect. As I have mentioned, I didn’t expect that the way I served God in retirement would feel so close to what I have been doing for decades, though scaled back. More importantly, I didn’t expect my weakness and imbalance to continue in the way it has. Old habits die hard. Deep patterns are hard to break. The opportunities for ministry remain endless and compelling. I have still not found the balance I am seeking to prioritize my wife as I should. With all the constant demands on Jesus in His earthly ministry, I wonder at how He practiced perfect balance. I pray for God’s wisdom to lead me in that direction.
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE
Retirement has afforded me more time to reflect and have a fresh experience of God in my daily life. He has revealed to me more areas for personal growth:
- Moving from a focus on doing toward more of a focus on being.
- Moving into less anticipation of what’s to come and more on experiencing being in the moment.
- Practicing more intimacy with God and less doing things for God.
- More honoring my wife, based on her viewpoint and needs.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
- For those of you who are within 10 years of anticipated retirement, get in touch with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) whom you trust and who shares your values. A good CFP can help you analyze your financial needs in retirement and assess how well you are prepared. That will help you greatly in understanding your timeline.
- Also for the same group, for your sake and your church, don’t wait to start planning your transition. Have conversations with your leadership team now, even if your retirement is years away. Resources are available to guide you both.
- In the same way that marriage doesn’t solve your relationship weaknesses and flaws, retirement doesn’t fix a flawed philosophy of ministry. Work to address that now, as and when you see it.
- Be encouraged. God is with you now! He is also with you in the next season of your ministry, whatever and whenever that might be, and goes before you to prepare the way.
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Thank you, Greg! And thank you for continuing to use your excellent gifts to build the kingdom!!
So glad to hear that God is still using your spiritual gifts to bring him glory. My experience is similar in my retirement role at Push The rock but always good to be reminded . Thanks for the insights
Thank you, David! Yes, you’re still going strong! Please give my best to Julie.
Thank you for writing this article. I enjoyed serving with you and appreciated all the financial & administrative insight you shared.
Thank you, Gary! I can say the same to you… you were an excellent leader (and I’m sure still are)! Thank you so much for your service to the district. I enjoy keeping up with you a bit on Facebook.
Excellent writing, John, and a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness in your “retirement.” For me retirement is some of the same (an online missions course and international student outreach) and something new—more time with children and grandchildren and assisting friends in need.
Thank you, Roger! You’re very kind! Thanks for continuing to serve so faithfully! I think the time with grandkids is particularly fun!!
Very thoughtful, John. My experience is similar!