Reflections on the Retirement Journey

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It’s a few months since our emotionally-charged time of saying farewell to a congregation. We took what clothing we’d need, put our house in order, and headed for east. Being in a place of multiple churches, we’ve worshiped with members who support ministry shares, while expressing their worship quite differently. Meeting them means recognition sometimes and, “Oh, aren’t you a pastor?”

I’m not sure how to answer that any more. It’s the journey I’m experiencing. Am I still a pastor if I don’t have a congregation to pastor? The denomination allows me to retain the designation/title, but its theology teaches that the office is dependent upon a call. I am not called to retirement. So, it’s a courtesy, an honorary thing. It makes me wonder, “If it’s like an honorary doctorate, should I do ‘official acts of ministry’? But, I digress. It’s the retiring that has me wondering about who I am. Was my sense of being so tied into preaching and pastoring? What about my partnering and parenting? They haven’t stopped. I still do them.

Shirley, my wife, asked me, “Did you read Albert Lewis’ column in the Press’ Religion section?” Her asking it indicated that it warranted my doing so. Its heading, “Friend’s question prompts journey toward authenticity,” should have sufficed as a warning. Words like “journey” and “authenticity” are food for the soul of any reflective pastor. Rabbi Lewis’ friend asked, “…How do you see yourself living the next several years?” Similar to my being asked, “Aren’t you a pastor?” or “How’s your transition going?” 

Rabbi emeritus Lewis reveals that he’s been wrestling with his friend’s question, and occasionally discussing it with his wife, Shirley. I identified with now-my-friend-and-colleague when he wrote, “I didn’t have an immediate answer…. Two things I know: I want to become more authentically me—not more writer, rabbi or teacher, though they are parts of me—and I want to spend more time with Shirley.” Albert would understand if I said, “Amen!”

I say “Amen!” because my Rabbi friend continued, “My authenticity is critical to me because it is the deepest and most honest aspect of who I am. I have spent a career addressing the needs and expectations of others, and I have done it well.” Lewis bares his soul further when he states, “Because of my insecurities, I rarely took a day off…” and if asked, ‘So, what’s happening?’ I’d talk about work or something other than myself. …I avoided many of my deepest questions, fears and needs. I want now to make amends….” Is this a generational thing?

Rabbi Lewis’s story of the question to be asked at the heavenly tribunal hits home. We’ll be asked why weren’t we more like our real selves, why weren’t we more George or Allen, Marcia or Betty and not like someone else? Ask yourself where you’re at on that journey! I ask, why are pastors with congregations reluctant to answer a question honestly about their emotional or spiritual well-being? Gall bladders can be talked about, but what about a pit of self-doubt or a well of bitterness?

Lewis promises, “I will read books for the joy of reading and learning without any compulsion to ‘teach’ what I have learned. I know I must have alone time to enjoy myself and to experience myself, appreciate what I have done and who I am becoming.” Do I dare say the same? Dare I state my desire to simply be and not do something? Does such an admittance wreak havoc with my overworked work ethic, my need to accomplish in order to feel worthwhile? Like Lewis: “… the world of ‘being’ is inviting me to fully enter, and I am tentative and, honestly, scared.”

Life’s journey varies. Some of us look back on a wonderful anthology of pleasant experiences and people. But, looking forward to the years, experiences and people that lie ahead, I have a freedom and responsibility to make decisions regarding my sense of self, my sense of accomplishment, even if it’s only being who I am and sharing my life with those whom I love. And yet, I want to do something, use my gifts, build on my experiences, and share learned insights. Am I still too concerned about being a pastor and not focusing enough on being a person?

God calls me now to walk with him, first as a person, a husband, a father, grandfather and friend. Then as a…what? Rabbi Lewis prays daily a prayer that applies to retired rabbis and retired pastors. It’s a prayer for all of us. It goes, “O God, help me to stay open, to listen to what is rather than what I wish it to be …. And, when I am afraid, let me know you are next to me—the still, small voice that tells me I am loved and capable.” As a person or pastor, I cannot think of any way to journey with more authenticity, retired or just starting out.

It echoes Christ’s promise as he sent us out, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” With that in mind, I’ll paraphrase our Reformed confession, “My comfort, my sense of being and worthiness, is based on my belonging to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” and Paul’s doxology in Romans, “Nothing will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) Retired or rookie, that’s the assurance I need. It’s the basis for all of our authenticity.

Posted in: Pastors; Blog Photo courtesy anujraj - http://www.flickr.com/photos/anujraj/3518252658/ Image: See Credit

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Well George, I hope you find more time to write in your retirement. :) 

In the Article 17 conversation in the Classis section we got into the question of calling and Al Mulder (also retired) made some good observations. 

We have this employment layer to our existence right now in this particular cultural/political/economic context that most of the church in the world and throughout the centuries hasn't really had. It's appropriate to explore it, especially as it intersects with the question of calling. 

A necessary element of the call is always the relationship one has with a particular community. Calling is fundamentally a relational kind of thing. It is created by the relationship between us and our author, and expressed in the relationship between us and this multitude called "Christ" by the apostle Paul that he declares we are "in". 

Most of the pastors I've known and respected, including my father of course, like you have to do some theological reflection on this employment context in which we live. There is a shifting that has to be done, a transition that has to take place. How is your relationship with the church, or a congregation now different? Those are hard questions. 

In many ways you can't send a pastor out to pasture because that is of course the location of the flock. :) 

Thanks for your pondering George. Bundle up while you're out east! :) pvk

Thanks all!  Your comments and questions need to be asked by us pastors way before retirement.  Authentic living and being who you really are needs to be the journey into ministry and through it.  I agree, this needs a lot more thought and discussion and practice in the CRC context.  It seems to be one of the qualities the middle and younger generations in our churches are longing for in their leaders (not just pastors either). 

 

Colin.

Great reflections!

Like mothers who find they have no identity when the nest has emptied, many pastors have invested so much of themselves in their pastoral 'role' that the person underneath the 'robe' gets lost. Or, sometimes that person would be 'more lost' at the end because a person without a clear self-identity who is in search of one when the robe and its role are put upon them, is likely to not know where one's true self ends and when the role begins.

Sadly, in my years of observing firsthand, I have seen a number that find nothing behind or underneath the role and it's work when their time of serving officially ends. Troubling in a different way were the one or two I've encountered who planned to burn the robe and all artifacts related to it and dance and whoop in freedom and joy. Neither are healthy in my understanding today.

So, I would add this to what George says: Such a process of reflection should be perpetual and ongoing from the day one accepts their 'calledness.' If one is on a journey of "becoming more authentically me" already when the call is recognized, maybe there is less chance of encountering this jolt at the retiremement transition.

That said, the qualities of person that qualify them technically for the role, such as pastoral heart, or ability to explain - and so on - remain part of them throughout and have not disappeared upon hanging up the robe. So they can be very useful to the Kingdom work if they chose to continue to use those in various places.

The most consistent struggle I've heard in the words of newly retired ministers has been the sudden loss of power. Be careful, I would say, not to chase finding that power back... I've seen too much damage done in that persuit.

Pete

Hi George,

Thanks for thinking out loud with us.  "God calls me now to walk with him, first as a person, a husband, a father, grandfather and friend. Then as a…what?" 

Testimony, witness, elder statesman, encourager?  Those of us who have spent any time in pastoral ministry know how tough it can be.  People who reach that far shore of retirement with their integrity, sense of humour and capacity for growth, not to mention faith, are a testimony to those of us still in the thick of things, that ministry does not need to kill you.  Don't read too much into this, I love the life Jesus has called me to live and the work he has called me to do.  My family is enjoying our life too.  So that's all good.  But some days or weeks are just plain hard, and to see someone who has 'run the race well' is encouraging.   Blessings on this open road you are travelling George, and if Shirley suggests you read something, it's likely worthwhile. 

Grace to you both,

John

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