Keith McCord is an ordained minister of a conservative Protestant denomination. Five years ago he retired from active service and moved with his wife to a small city where they joined a 175-member congregation. The past five years have been pleasant ones for Keith. Relieved of the burdens of full-time ministry, he now has time to enjoy the things that often got crowded out during his years of active service. He plays a lot of golf, does a lot of reading, and generally enjoys life. At the same time, he is active in his local church, teaching a Bible class, visiting, and occasionally conducting the midweek prayer service. An able and effective speaker, he also preaches from time to time.
Recently there has been a rumor that the McCords may move to another State to be closer to their children. The entire church is hoping that this rumor is false. The McCords are well-loved, highly regarded members of the church. They would be missed by everyone.
David Nixon has never met Keith McCord, although he has been an ordained minister of the same denomination for most of his adult life. Like Keith, David retired not long ago. He and his wife are now members of a congregation approximately the same size as the one the McCords belong to.
The Nixons, like the McCords, attend church services faithfully, and there are smiles on their faces, but the smiles hide heavy hearts. David takes little part in the activities of the church. He never preaches, though he would love to do so. His relationship with the pastor and with a large part of the congregation is very strained. After the service, there are the customary smiles and handshakes, but the smiles are cool, the handshakes perfunctory. Many in the congregation seem to avoid David. He knows that part of this is probably his imagination, but he also knows that part of it is all too real. There are a few who cluster around him, but he draws no comfort from this. He knows why they are there.
Every pastor, except for those who die in active service and those who leave the ministry for some other type of work, will someday retire from full-time pastoral work. Probably all of them assume that their retirement will be like Keith's. Most of the retirements probably will. But some of those retirements, tragically, will be like David's. Why? What could cause a pastor's retirement to disintegrate into such an unhappy experience? Let's take a brief look at both of these retirement experiences.
When David and his wife first became members of their congregation, the other members welcomed them cordially. The Nixons were happy, outgoing people, and David's long experience in the ministry would certainly be an asset to the church—especially since their own pastor, whom they dearly loved, was rather young and inexperienced.
A recent death in the congregation had left a vacancy on the church's executive committee. The deceased member's term , on the committee had several months to run, and David was asked to fill this vacancy for the remainder of the term. At the time, the church was considering the erection of a new wing on the church building. At one of the first meetings David attended, the pastor handed out a rough draft of his proposal for the layout of the new wing. As David glanced through the proposal, his years of experience told him that it had been hastily compiled and that parts of it needed considerable work before any decisions could be made. Eager to bear his responsibility as a member of the committee, and eager also to prevent the church from making unwise decisions based on incomplete information, David carefully pointed out these shortcomings. Not wanting to appear critical, he used his lively sense of humor to take the sting out of his remarks, and there was much good-natured laughter.
Though David did not realize it, he had made a bad mistake. The pastor, in spite of his appearance of confidence and enthusiasm, was keenly aware of his youth and inexperience. He was also very sensitive about them. The laughter at David's witty critique of his proposal hurt him deeply. He felt that he had been embarrassed and humiliated in the presence of those whose good opinion mattered most to him. He bitterly resented what he considered an attempt to undermine his position and to hold him up to ridicule.
David, who had no idea that he had already made one serious mistake, soon made another. There was a small group in the church who had welcomed the Nixons with special warmth. This group invited the Nixons to their homes, sought David's advice, said nice things about his maturity and experience, and even hinted that his presence in the congregation was providing a stability that had been lacking in the church. Later (too late), David realized that he had found all this attention rather flattering. He had discovered that while retirement meant relief from the cares of the active ministry, it also meant that he was no longer at the center of things, no longer the focus of attention in the church. Though he was sheepish about the fact, he had found himself feeling a little resentful of this. The attitude of these new friends had relieved his vague feelings of boredom and disappointment.
When the members of this group asked him to present suggestions to the executive committee, David was happy to oblige. He did not learn until later that the other members of the committee had heard these proposals before, that they immediately recognized their true source and that the proposals themselves were carefully designed to decrease the influence of the pastor and to increase the influence of their originators in several areas of church administration and activity.
David also did not learn, until too late, that this group had been a disruptive element in the congregation for some time. They had actively opposed the present pastor from the day he arrived. Before the Nixons' arrival, in fact, they had even attempted to persuade denominational officials to remove him.
David's close association with this group had been noted. His advocacy of their proposals now established him firmly in the minds of the church members not only as a member of the group but as its spokesman, and possibly even its leader.
David is now labeled by most of the church as a malcontent—a retired pastor who wishes to reclaim his former position of prominence by dominating the congregation. Nothing could be further from the truth—but nothing is more firmly believed by the pastor and the congregation.
Keith has carefully avoided the pitfalls that have brought David so much sorrow. His congregation also has a young pastor, and Keith has given him solid support.
There is no really rebellious group in this congregation. But there are a few members whose feelings have been hurt, or who are dissatisfied with the way things are done in the church. Inevitably, some of these pour their troubles into Keith's ear. He handles these cases with a tact born of long experience. Where he can, he smooths ruffled feathers. When he feels that the pastor is in the right, as he usually does, he defends him (gently, of course, to avoid offending the complainer). When he is inclined to agree with the plaintiff, as occasionally happens, he remains carefully noncommittal. Mostly, he just listens.
Keith has firmly resisted the temptation to give the pastor advice. When he feels that he knows a better course than the one the pastor has chosen, he bites his tongue. There have been times when he has had to bite pretty hard, but it has paid off handsomely. When the pastor has asked for counsel, as he has done once or twice, Keith has given it. The rest of the time he has held his peace.
Only once, when he felt strongly that the pastor was on the point of making a very serious mistake, did he violate this self-imposed rule. On that occasion he talked with the pastor privately (so privately, in fact, that to this day no member of the congregation even knows that the two men discussed the matter). At the end of their talk Keith was careful to assure the pastor of his continued friendship and support, whatever decision the pastor might make.
The result of this careful approach to pastoral retirement is that Keith's relationship with the entire membership of the church, including the pastor, is one of warmth and trust. At the pastor's invitation, Keith conducts the service in the pastor's absence. Other pastors in the area, on the recommendation of Keith's pastor, often ask him to speak in their churches when they must be away.
All in all, the five years of his retirement have been among the happiest of Keith's life.
If you are approaching retirement, or even if you are already into it, here are some guidelines that may be helpful to you:
1. Remember that once you have retired, you are a layman. Do not try to exercise pastoral influence or authority. It is true, of course, that your ordination to the gospel ministry is for life, and your denomination probably still permits you, after you retire, to perform ministerial functions such as baptisms and wed dings. However, your position in your local church is that of a layman. Do nothing that might be construed as an attempt to usurp the pastor's authority or function.
2. Remember that even though you are a layman, you are not like other laymen. You are, in fact, a very special kind of layman. Your years as an authority figure in the church have given you a status and prestige that do not entirely disappear upon your retirement. Your words and opinions have greater influence than those of other laymen. Weigh them carefully.
3. In the matter of giving advice to the pastor, the following rule will apply approximately 99 percent of the time: If he wants it, he'll ask for it. If he doesn't ask for it, it is very unlikely that he would follow it if it were given to him. Remember that in your own ministry there were some things you had to learn by experience. It will be the same with your pastor. You made your mistakes, and you probably carry the scars of some of them even today. He will make his mistakes and carry his scars too.
If a situation should arise where you feel very strongly that you must give advice, even though it has not been asked for, pray. Pray long and earnestly. If after earnest prayer, you still feel that you must give him counsel, give it. But' do it with great care. Talk with him in private. Tell him that you have come to him only after much prayer. Assure him of your support, whatever decision he makes. Then give him your counsel. And after you have given it, keep quiet about it. Do not tell others that you have talked to him. Resist the temptation to say, "I tried to tell him it was a mistake, but he wouldn't listen to me." Invariably, such a remark finds its way back to the pastor, and you can be sure it will not promote feelings of warmth and gratitude!
4. When you first arrive in the local church where, for the first time in many years, you will be a layman, be cautious. Remember, it takes time to become familiar with local situations and conditions. As you know from your pastoral experience, there are tender spots and touchy areas in every congregation. These do not, for the most part, lie on the surface to be seen at a glance; instead, they are buried like land mines. You can find the land mines in a field quickly, of course, by simply walking through the field until you step on one. You can also find the "land mines" in a local congregation by blundering into them. But the blunder method is always painful. It is much better to wait and watch. In time, you will learn where the sore spots are. If David Nixon had remembered this, he could have saved himself much heartache.
5. Remember that your pastor will be watching you with a certain amount of apprehension, and the younger he is, the sharper this apprehension will be. Do not be offended by this. You would feel the same way if you were in his place. (In fact, it may be that you have felt the same way, and for the same reason, at some time in your pastoral career.) Your attitude now will be very important in determining your future relationship with him. Do not be either aggressively friendly or coldly withdrawn. Be friendly, but not forward. Make a point of speaking to him after the service and at social gatherings. Let the congregation see you in friendly conversation with him. Make it clear to everyone, not so much by word as by attitude, that you are on good terms with him.
6. Because of your maturity and experience, there will almost certainly be some in the congregation who will prefer to talk with you rather than with the pastor. Unless you are prepared to be rude to them, there is little you can do to prevent this.
If they talk with you about personal matters, you may be able to help simply by listening sympathetically. If they talk about matters that concern the church, you may need to refer them to the pastor, and remind them tactfully that he is the one who should deal with the matter. If they have complaints that involve the pastor in any way, you are on dangerous ground. Be very careful not to give the impression that you feel that their complaint is justified (even if you do).
Defend and support the pastor whenever you can, and remain tactfully neutral when you can't. Your years of experience at trying to keep the various members of your congregations happy will stand you in good stead here.
7. If there is a genuinely disaffected element in the congregation, be doubly careful. Remember that you are a natural focal point for such people, and they will probably zero in on you very quickly. Do not be flattered if they shower you with attention and hang on your every word. Be on guard at all times when you are in their company. Even in casual conversation, weigh your words carefully. Be pleasant to them, but do not become intimate with them. Be especially careful if they ask you to do some apparently innocent favor for them. They may make determined efforts to bring you into their circle. Don't let them do it. As David Nixon discovered, there is no faster, more effective way to alienate yourself from the pastor and the congregation than to allow yourself to be perceived as a member or active supporter of such a group.
The position of the retired pastor in the local church is, unavoidably, a somewhat uneasy one. In some ways it is like the position of the mother-in-law: Whatever you do, no matter how good your intentions, it's likely to turn out to have been the wrong thing. (This, at least, is the impression that mothers-in-law and retired pastors often have.)
Like the mother-in-law, however, the retired pastor is also in a position that has real possibilities. The mother-in-law can often, through tact, love, patience, and a certain amount of smiling when she feels like screaming, win a warm place for herself in the hearts of her family. The retired pastor can also, by the exercise of these same qualities, win a warm place for himself in the hearts of his pastor and his congregation.
May it be so with your retirement—and, someday, with mine.