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This resource is brought to you by Thrive and is part of a series designed for ministers who are making plans for their retirements.

One day a pastor who was approaching retirement received a note from some people in her congregation, expressing how much they appreciated her ministry. The note had made her very happy, and she found herself telling some colleagues about the experience the following week. As she was sharing the story she found herself enjoying the memory again, savoring the appreciation that had been expressed in the note, and delighting in the experience of telling others about it. And then she wondered aloud why the experience was bringing her such joy. 

Her colleagues shared her joy, and then helped her to explore it. They wondered with her how her upcoming retirement might be shaping the way that she experienced the affirmation of the note. Was the note an assurance that she was valuable and significant? And was that assurance a way to address doubts that she might be feeling about her own significance, doubts that sometimes come up during the season leading into retirement?  

Maybe you sense that these people should stop overthinking things. Enjoy the joy! But they are paying attention to something important: The looming conclusion of one’s full time ministry can lead to questions about one’s significance– particularly if you’ve found a large portion of your significance in what you do. 

Especially in Western cultures, people are strongly tempted to see themselves through the lens of their accomplishments, their track record, and their legacy (or lack thereof) of successes. Ministers can experience this reality as well. A career in ministry provides plenty of opportunity to gain peoples’ affirmation, to build a list of accomplishments, and to develop a reputation for wisdom, spirituality, ministry skill, or whatever. Retirement, on the other hand, can mean a loss of voice, status, place in the community, a loss of relevance, and a loss of the opportunity to generate still more ministry wins. 

How will you make your way through that? 

One of the themes of Jesus’ ministry is the call to diminishment. We hear it in Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:2-4: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” A chapter later we see Jesus welcome little ones(Matthew 19:13-15, and Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). Jesus isn’t looking for people who are merely cute and cuddly. He is looking for people who will trust Him– as children trust the big people in their lives. 

Why is trust so important? Because, for one thing, trust in God is the chief rebellion against the Rebellion. In other words, it’s the opposite of the pride that led Adam and Eve to think, at the Fall, that they could be equal to God. In addition, trust in Jesus and his sacrificial work on the cross particularly is the only way to be reconciled to God. Finally, trust in Jesus is the best way to find a life of fruitfulness and fulfillment no matter what your season of life  (see John 15:1-8).

When Paul reflects on this kind of thing with his Philippian readers while he is in prison in Rome, he catalogs the many reasons that he might have had to celebrate himself: He had been duly and properly circumcised as an 8-day-old baby, and so was a member of the nation of Israel (of King Saul’s tribe even!). He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, an expert in the law, a man whose religious zeal was unparalleled. He describes himself as “faultless”, with respect to the Mosaic law. We also know that, at one time, Paul had been a star pupil of one of Judaism’s greatest teachers, Gamaliel. However, as he tells the Philippian believers, in the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus he has set his fabulous credentials aside. In fact, he actually considers them to be of less worth than the material you find in a cesspool. More than anything else, he wants to know Jesus, and to find his life in Him.

Paul had learned the secret of being diminished– that being small was the way to greatness, the greatness of knowing the Lifegiver, Jesus. Spiritual growth for us today follows a similar trajectory– the trajectory of downward mobility. Diminishment may not be what Western culture values, but it is valuable in the logic of God’s Kingdom. 

The pastor in the story above wasn’t wrong to enjoy the appreciation that came in that note from her people. It was a fitting encouragement for her, and she was right to savor it. It was also a wonderful prompt to remember that her true significance comes in her relationship with God, his approval of her through Jesus Christ, and her partnership with Him in His Kingdom.

As you transition into retirement you’ll encounter the experience of diminishment. It will be challenging in many ways, but it can also be an important link to God, a call to trust that it is good that he is big and that we have always been little. 

Reflection questions:

  1. How much have I relied on the affirmation and approval of others to support my sense of my value and worth?
  2. How much have I allowed the criticisms and complaints of others to shape the way I have felt about myself and my ministry?
  3. When I tell stories about myself to others, am I the hero in most of them? The victim? 
  4. How well have I incorporated the stories of my ministry disappointments and failures into the story I tell myself and others about my life?
  5. How do I feel about the possibility of becoming “smaller” in key ways, as a result of my upcoming retirement?
  6. Are there any ways that I might be trying to make up for a looming diminishment? How am I looking for significance these days? Can I integrate these things into my relationship with Christ? How so?

NOTE: This article comes out of a study of ministry transitions, done by members of the Thrive staff of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The studied transitions include the transition from later career into retirement. The guidance here is part of a larger retirement resource that updates a 2006 resource called "Closing Well — Continuing Strong." The full updated resource, now titled “Retirement from Pastoral Ministry: Guidance for a Healthy Transition,” can be found here on the Thrive website. 

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