Reflections on the Retirement Journey
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.