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This resource is brought to you by Thrive as part of a published resource called Retirement from Pastoral Ministry: Guidance for a Healthy Transition.

What Does Retirement Look Like?

The professional feeds and connection points that we have access to often have stories of people who retire early. At the time of this writing there is a story about an executive retiring at age 51. As of this writing the primary author of this resource is fifty six, and just a bit jealous. Here are some thoughts:

My hope for this retiring executive is that she’s well prepared for her retirement. 

I assume that this new retiree is well prepared financially. She seems to have gathered enough income to be able to quit her job at a relatively young age. 

I hope that she has a plan for what she will do in retirement. Perhaps she will volunteer, travel, learn a new language, spend time with family, golf, etc., etc. 

I wonder: Has she prepared herself for a life-giving retirement rather than a life-draining retirement? 

My observation is that many people fall into one of two retirement ditches or pitfalls: Some step into retirement with a sense of triumph over the drudgery of work. They’ve found their jobs to be less than satisfying for some reason, and so they see retirement as a pathway to happiness because it means freedom from the job. The reality of retirement ends up being disappointing because it can't meet the high expectations that people sometimes set for it. I wonder if the woman in the story will experience her retirement this way.

Meanwhile, others retire with a deep sense of diminishment. They’ve cherished their jobs and benefitted from the many perks that have come with their jobs. Retirement comes along and they experience significant losses: The loss of full-time income, the loss of a voice in important conversations, and the loss of an important element of their identity. 

It’s especially true in Western cultures: Older people aren’t valued, generally speaking. Fewer people ask them important questions or are interested in their opinions because of their age. So retirement becomes a season of significant grief, deep enough that a number of retirees, men particularly, wrestle with thoughts of suicide. I wonder if the woman in the story will experience her retirement as a season of this type of grief.

In both of these two scenarios retirement can lead to disappointment because of a) its failure to meet high expectations or b) deep grief over significant losses.  

What Does Retirement From Ministry Look Like?

Let’s now take this into the conversation about ministers who retire. Over the past few years I’ve talked to a lot of ministers in their sixties—people who see retirement on the horizon. I observe many of them wrestling with similar things. Some have been hanging on for dear life, barely surviving the demands of ministry and the decline of their church/congregation. Retirement looks like a heaven-sent rescue plan. Others have been workaholics for years, and the prospect of not having a regular way to overfunction and gain the approval of others is a bit frightening. They fear losing their stature in the community, their voice. They aren’t sure what will get them up in the morning.

Wise pastors who are now retired tell me that a life-giving retirement is more likely if you make a few key decisions early in your work life: 

  • If you decide, early in your career, that there is more to life than your ministry role, then you won’t evaporate when your role does. Hopefully you’ll have developed, before you retire, an identity that lasts beyond the conclusion of your career. 
  • If you decide that you are not what you accomplish each day, then your self-worth won’t disappear when your ministry “to do” list does. Hopefully you’ll have learned, before you retire, that you’re more than what you do.
  • If you decide that your self-worth isn’t going to be defined by other people's opinions of your performance then it’ll be easier to survive the disappearance of key opportunities to gain peoples’ approval. Hopefully you’ll have invested, before you retire, in a more life-giving incentive structure.  
  • If you decide that the church’s wellbeing is not dependent on your functioning, then retirement won’t be an escape from an impossible burden. Hopefully you’ll have gained awareness that only God is God, and the Church belongs to Him.

Let’s think about the importance of developing two kinds of clarity early on: 

  1. Clarity on who you really are is vital for a healthy transition into retirement. If you’re not clear on your identity as a child of God, redeemed by Christ (and that these are the most important things about who you are), then retirement will be tough sledding. It’ll mean losing yourself, at least for a while– until you learn that you’re not your performance. You belong to your faithful Savior.
  2. Clarity on your vocation is vital for a healthy transition into retirement too. If you’ve confused your vocation with your job or your career then retirement will be a challenge. It’ll mean a loss of purpose and meaning. The key is to acknowledge that your vocation has always been larger than your career. Your vocation is to bring shalom into whatever part of the Kingdom God has planted you, in whatever ways God has gifted you for– and to continue discerning that more deeply. Retirement is simply a new opportunity to pursue your deeper calling. 

Maybe retirement is still far off for you. Or maybe it’s next month– like the woman mentioned above. In any case, it’ll be more life-giving if you keep these things in mind. Retirement doesn’t have to be merely an escape and/or a diminishment of yourself. It can be an opportunity for you, a child of God, to pursue your life-long vocation in new ways, ways that give expression to your giftedness and respond to the needs of a Shalom-hungry world. 

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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