Over the years, I have had the privilege of observing some pastors who retire with grace and others who make a disgrace of this transition. Some ministers eagerly approach retirement with well-tailored plans while others view retirement as the curse that removes them from "the real world."
What makes the difference? It seems that both attitude and aptitude are vital ingredients for approaching retirement as a blessing. The appropriate attitude does not view life as ending upon retirement, and the appropriate aptitude prepares for new challenges and new opportunities.
Recently I had the privilege to discuss how to prepare for retirement with a group of retired pastors in the Southeastern California Conference. As these retirees honestly bared their souls and shared their wisdom, it became clear that just as challenges come with growing older, blessings also abound, especially for those who expect to receive them.
Benefits of retirement
Among beneficial experiences, these retirees prioritized their appreciation for the time to pursue long-standing areas of individual interest—from writing a book or articles to compiling a family history— complete with photographs for their grandchildren—to learning a computer, ham radio, or fishing. Others noted their joy in not being tied to the rigors of an over-stressed schedule and their freedom to accept or to decline requests without feeling guilty. They see their flexibility and choices have been widened, not restricted.
This retiree group enjoys opportunities to help others in ways that full-time ministry precluded, such as longer visits with friends and fellow members, relaxed conversations, and less pressure to move quickly onto the next item of business. Several cited their increased joy in companionship with their spouse, rediscovery of their delight in marriage, and even better sexual relationships.
Children and grandchildren in close proximity to retirees was seen as a plus as well as time and opportunities to pursue recreational hobbies such as golf, gardening, games, and gatherings like this convocation. They also mentioned the opportunity for travel as well as the free choice to stay home if they are weary.
Continuing education in a variety of areas—spiritual, intellectual, manual, and emotional—was not overlooked in their observation of the benefits they were enjoying. This group truly sees themselves as lifelong learners with greater time to pursue their passion for growth. For example, one pastor said retirement brought the time to study theological issues more deeply, and another described his fun in learning to use the computer. A pastor's wife enjoys reading aloud with her husband, and another expressed her delight in taking some college courses "just for fun." One pastor's wife even described how she had learned car maintenance by taking a class at a community vocational school.
Rather than sitting around with nothing to do, retirees noted their eager participation in short-term mission trips, developing new and deeper relationships with friends, and growing in their appreciation for the Lord's blessings in their lives.
Challenges in retirement
This does not mean these retirees see the world only through rose-colored glasses and fail to notice real challenges that any older individual faces. Citing deteriorating dexterity, potential health problems, loss of loved ones, and the certainty that fewer years await them on this earth than they have already lived, these retirees are realistic about the necessity of coping with major transitions in their lives. However, without exception, the Blessed Hope of Jesus' return was seen as the balm that could soothe any pain and help them face any uncertainty.
Preparing for retirement When asked about steps to take in preparing for retirement, this group suggested a number of crucial areas to consider, as well as specific recommendations. These include:
Health: Place the emphasis more on prevention than on remedial. Take action well before retirement to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. Exercise was noted as the greatest prevention routine available.
Find health-care providers in whom you have confidence and update your personal health-care benefits regularly. Although reality suggests that physical challenges will increase with age, avoid giving "organ recitals" of all your medical traumas and focus, instead, on the fact that the alternative to growing older is far worse than your ills!
Finances: Do everything possible to retire with a fully-paid mortgage. Limit use of credit cards. Maintain awareness of both governmental and denominational retirement plans. Be consistent in pre-retirement savings. Check the accuracy of your denominational service record well before the final calculation of service years and retirement benefits.
If your energy and interest permits, develop an income-producing avocation in your first years of retirement. I have retired friends who have served as travel agents, restaurant managers, realtors, caterers, chaplains, editors, couriers, and church secretaries. I observed a group of retirees operating the office of a major congregation—phone messages, mail handling, duplicating, bulletin preparation, etc.
Family: Take joy in your family relationships, but recognize that the extra time you have does not give your children increased leisure time. A number of retirees noted their joy in more time with their children and grandchildren but realistically warned against relocating "to follow your children," whose work might require repeated moves. In fact, several retirees wisely suggested no uprooting of your established home and circumstances for the first year or so of retirement.
One very wise retired administrator shared the mistake he made when they waited until retirement to build their dream house. Afterward, they discovered it was too large for their needs and took far too much time, energy, and money to maintain. Now they have dramatically down-sized and reap the benefits of less responsibilities and upkeep.
Some wives expressed their delight in the "help around the house" from their husbands— yardwork, cooking, house work, errands, and shopping, while others felt their partners were much too involved and wished they would just "get out of the way" one day or so per week.
Clear out your excess items before losing sufficient energy to accomplish the task and give heirlooms and keepsakes to your children and grandchildren now rather than after your death. Intentionally focus more on your family relationships than the time full-time employment may have provided. Allow your children be the parents that God has appointed them to be and refrain from second-guessing their parenting processes. Don't overstay your welcome when visiting distant relatives whose lives and work responsibilities must continue. Discuss and plan together for the best times to visit.
Emotional: Prepare in advance for the challenges of change and seek pre-retirement interests other than your work. Be willing to relinquish the limelight of leadership and face the facts that leadership has passed to another generation.
Stop driving your car when your children first suggest it might be time to "leave the driving to others."
Develop lists of plans rather than reacting to "too much time." Learn to play again and to truly enjoy hobbies, music, travel, fellowship, and meaningful service. Determine that you will remain, or become, an interested and interesting individual.
Church relations: Noting the challenges of leaders being suddenly thrust into the role of followers, these retirees advised "let the pastor pastor and the administrators administer" without second-guessing decisions and without dividing the loyalty of the congregation.
Relinquish the control your leadership has provided you and offer cooperative support for the pastor and all facets of church life. Encourage and affirm younger workers and recognize that they will, indeed, do things differently. I once observed a retired pastor who found little to value in the succeeding four pastors. Instead of finding fault, rejoice in the success of your pastor and refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Remember, free advice is worth every penny that it costs.
Accept interim assignments as your conference might request, but avoid taking the pulpit where you have pastored or becoming an ongoing conduit of information for the members who are accustomed to your pastoral nurture. One administrator said that retired pastors, like the dead, should not return. In fact, it was noted that one denomination actually requires its pastors to move at least 150 miles distance from their final assignment before they receive their last salary or their first retirement payment.
Long-term planning: Think through issues and preplan for the end of your life. Essentials include making a will (you will not die one day sooner with a will than without appropriate estate planning), a living trust, documented plans regarding medical heroics and organ donations, financial and medical powers of attorney, funeral expectations, an executor for your estate, and a clear explanation to your family regarding disposition of your property and resources.
If you should lose your marriage partner, the group's greatest recommendation is to avoid major changes and enter into no major relationships for at least eighteen months to two years following the death of a spouse. This provides the opportunity to process grief and to avoid the pitfalls of hasty, unwise decisions.
Put off sorting personal or household items until well after the funeral and allow time to grieve your loss just as you have often recommended to your parishioners. Join a grief-recovery group and experience the specific process that your pastoral leadership would recommend for anyone else who has suffered loss. Do not assume that because you understand how to help other grieving people, you do not need to experience ministry to your own life in time of loss.
Involve your children in plans that affect relocation or potential marriages after the loss of your partner. Avoid romantic entanglements that become mere anesthesia for your pain rather than a real, vital relationship. Determine whether you and any potential spouse share common ideals, values, customs, and priorities. Carefully consider the counsel of your family, peers, and long standing friends before moving into relationships that you will regret.
Spiritual: Exercise spirituality with the keen sense that neglecting spiritual disciplines weakens continuing growth. Retirement does not mean you have arrived at sanctification but, rather, you continue in the journey of God's work in your lifetime.
Above all, do not permit a root of bitterness to damage your relationship with your Lord or His church. It is too easy to camp around your disappointments or the failures and slights (real or imagined) of others and to forget the One in whom you have believed.
The Ministerial Association is initiating a process to appropriately honor retired ministers. Beginning with this issue, Ministry inaugurates a recurring column that will note those who have honorably retired (see page 31). In alternate months, we will also note those who have been recently ordained and/or commissioned to the gospel ministry.
Approach your final years with gratitude for God's blessings and recognize that your retirement comes both as a reward for faithful service and as a foretaste of the great reward that Jesus is preparing for His good and faithful servants.