If you are looking ahead to whatever comes after full time, pastoral ministry, then you are entering a season of substantial transition. There are opportunities and uncertainties ahead. There are options for addressing them, and all of them have important implications.
Scripture is filled with stories of people who go through transitions, and their journeys are rarely straight and smooth:
Moses moves through transition after fleeing Egypt as a wanted criminal. During his transition he trains to be a leader of people by spending forty years leading sheep. He eventually returns to Egypt as a spokesman of God and shepherd of God’s beloved Israel.
Israel moves through transition after leaving Egypt as a nation of slaves. Their transition involves holiness training at Mount Sinai and a significant detour in the wilderness. It too took forty years to complete, but they eventually enter the Promised Land as a come-and-see nation of God.
Ruth leaves a collapsed life in Moab, moves through transition by immigrating to Israel with her mother-in-law, and finds a new home with Boaz in Bethlehem.
David is anointed, by Samuel, to be the king of Israel, while he is still a shepherd boy in Bethlehem. He transitions into manhood, and finally ascends to the throne of Israel in his new capital city of Jerusalem.
Elijah is called by God to be a prophet, but at some point is called to anoint his replacement, who turns out to be Elisha. He transitions into a season of mentoring and ministry conclusion.
Esther transitions from being a member of a captive nation to being the wife of the Emperor.
Jesus moves through a forty day transition after his anointing by the Holy Spirit and before his earthly ministry begins.
The woman with the bleeding condition changes from being a community outcast to being a community member.
Jesus’ disciples move through a three-year transition after being called by Jesus to follow him and eventually being filled with the Holy Spirit to go to all the nations.
Transitions are challenging. They often bring the experience of chaos. William Bridges, in his work on organizational transition, talks about the “neutral zone” that exists between letting go of an old identity and the emergence of a new identity, new energy, and new purpose. In that neutral zone lies the work of saying “Goodbye” to certain things, of living in chaos for a time, and of envisioning new possibilities. It is a place of “psychological realignments and repatternings”
For a pastor who is embarking on the transition into retirement there are plenty of psychological realignments and repatternings for him or herself: “How will I picture myself after I leave full time ministry?” “How will others relate to me when I no longer have this role?” “What will be my contribution to the world?” “What will I do with my time?” “Where will I/we live?”
The process of addressing those questions can often feel chaotic, untethered, and mysterious. And all of that takes a toll on a pastor’s sense of self-reliance, self-assurance, and self-confidence– which is just where God wants you.
Ever since Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, God has been calling Adam and Eve and their descendants back from self-reliance, self-assurance, and self-confidence. It’s hard getting through to us when all is going well and our lives are stable, because we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control. But when we’ve been knocked off center, as we are when we are in transition, we naturally become more open to God’s invitation to rely on Him. We are ready to see life as it is– a fragile treasure in the hands of a sovereign God.
Be careful here: Humans are tempted to resent the uncertainty and chaos that transitions bring. We are tempted to rush towards superficial clarity and counterfeit stability. It is very likely that God wants us to pause, to savor the transitional season, and to reconcile ourselves to the reality of uncertainty– as an act of faith in Him. It is an opportunity to place our confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever gracious Immanuel.
You have likely spoken this very message to others during the course of your ministry life. Now it’s time to live it yourself again, in the context of the transition out of full time ministry and into whatever is next.
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". Stay tuned for a series of articles related to retirement coming soon.