Graceful retirement

What could “graceful retirement” look like?

Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as pastor and chaplain. He now lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.


Retirement is a forbidden word for those who say, “I’ll be a pastor until the day I die.” For others, retirement cannot come too soon; they are more than ready to escape the pressures and expectations that so often robbed them of sleep. Some retired pastors resemble ships drifting; they have no sense of purpose. A few hang around large churches, ready (should they be asked) to fill the pulpit.

Graceful retirement looks different for every pastor. The view from this retiree’s perspective will, I hope, erase a few negative thoughts about retirement.

Give it 100 percent

Work, especially as a pastor, deserves your best efforts. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccles. 9:10, NASB). Drifting through employment sets you up for drifting through retirement.

A hospital chaplain once said, “I’d begin a new program for the community, but I’m three years from retirement. It is a little late to start something new.” Three years, without innovation and creativity, could well pave the way for a dull and purposeless retirement.

Long-distance runners would never think of slackening their pace during the last lap of a race. They do their best until after the finish line. A pastor would be wise to be fully engaged in his or her work as retirement nears as well.

Put family first

Pastors are not called to trample over their families in order to save the lost in the community. Family is the first and most important mission. Neglect family before retirement and you may spend retirement devoid of family intimacy. Memories of family togetherness during employment years enrich the years of retirement. Looking at family photographs— without seeing yourself in many pictures—will not be good in your retirement, that’s for sure.

Develop other interests outside of work

The importance of the pastor developing other interests outside of work cannot be overestimated. Take time to leave the study and church committees. Every pastor needs to take a break from normal work activities. These interests may carry over into retirement, making those years more enjoyable. Avocations developed before retirement often blossom afterward. One retired pastor restores antique tractors. He is often seen driving a noisy relic down the road, his floppy hat and ear protectors defying anyone to call him a preacher. A revered evangelist accomplished a long wished for motorcycle trek along the west coast of his country. School children are fascinated by the stories of this long-time missionary. She shows them unique items from the land where she served. A college religion teacher putters in his garden and takes his prize-winning produce to a local fair competition. Village children gather around an elderly minister playing musical instruments. Neighborhood children visit the home of a retiree when they do not know how to tune a guitar or when they want to learn the high notes on their musical instruments.

Retirees who always live in the past make boring company. Developing other interests after retirement accomplishes two things: (1) you are happier and more fulfilled, and (2) you have contact with others, which opens opportunities to be a good influence.

Health clubs and fitness centers sometimes offer memberships at a reduced rate to retirees. Some insurance companies arrange with fitness centers to give memberships to retirees at no cost. One retired pastor enjoys regular exercise routines at a university center. He is challenged to push the limits when a young student races on the treadmill next to him or when a muscle-bound fellow presses more than his body weight. The camaraderie keeps him young.

Make room for new leaders

The pastor of a large institutional church complained about the retired preachers who freely added their opinions about everything from homiletics to exegesis. A veteran pastor has valuable insights that could increase the effectiveness of a current pastor. The wise retiree, however, gives advice only when asked. Learning to give advice, but only when asked, comprises one quality of a pastor who has retired gracefully.

Make way for young men and women in ministry. Shortly before you retire, compile records and pertinent church information that will be useful to your successor. Befriend and encourage them. Gain their trust. Allow them to choose their mentors.

Embrace every day with a purpose

Just as there were no excuses for laziness when you were a pastor, there is no room for laziness in retirement. You can always find a neighbor who needs help in the garden or with the lawn. Volunteering in community improvement projects is an excellent way to make new friends. I met a retiree who repairs cabins and vehicles at a church summer camp. Staying busy is not a problem for those who look for opportunities.

Retirees often say, “I am so busy since I retired. I wonder how I accomplished anything when I was working.” This is healthy. Filling your days with activity gives you reason to arise early.

Increase your mental capacity

Do not buy books. Good libraries are built with you in mind. College and university libraries are especially useful. Many libraries dedicate a section to newly published books. Stretch your interests. If you liked history in college, look for new books in the history section. If you want to travel, go to the travel section of the library and plan a trip.

Adult education classes offer a wide range of topics. Auditing classes at a college or university is an excellent way to keep your mind sharp. Be adventuresome. Learn to play a musical instrument. Attend an art class. Visit all the local places of interest.

The lead trombone player of a large symphony orchestra encouraged me to learn to play a trombone. “It is a good way,” he said, “to keep your mind alert.”

Recognize that the needs are great

A retired pastor sees a mission field everywhere. When she goes to the market, she talks to other customers. She learns to know shopkeepers by name. One retiree taught a young store clerk how to make pies. Lonely and hurting people need a friend who listens. Being friendly opens the way for others to share their heartaches about a death, divorce, loss of a job, or troubles with a child.

The world becomes the retiree’s church. When he or she no longer works mainly within the walls of a church, nothing separates him or her from the larger community. Retirees in my community are involved in community choral groups, mentoring programs for school children, quilting classes, volunteer departments at a local hospital, and home improvement projects. Their friendliness and unselfish service demonstrates a clear testimony to God’s grace.

Stay young with the young

Retired pastors have time to take interest in children and young adults. A pastor in Michigan attended an open house for a high school graduate. There, the pastor saw a young man standing at the edge of the tent. He was alone. The pastor introduced himself and asked the young man about his interests. For a half hour the young man talked about his interest in electronics. His vocabulary was full of technical terms, but the pastor listened intently. When the pastor had to leave, the young man said, “Thank you for listening to me. I appreciate the time we’ve spent together.”

Retirees can take young people into their hearts. If you do this, you will come away blessed. The young will offer genuine friendship and add to your understanding of a worldview different than your own.

My story

In retirement, I have found extreme joy in associating with children and young adults. I am the chaplain for a seventh and eighth grade class in a local elementary school. Once a week I spend fifteen minutes telling stories, demonstrating musical instruments, and sharing life-enriching principles. They asked me to attend outdoor school with them. One girl, who always listened carefully to everything I said, caught up with me as I walked toward the cafeteria. She slipped her arm in mine and asked, “Is it OK if I call you Grandpa?” I knew I had won her heart. When I learned about her broken home, I realized that God had used this old retiree to fill a little space in a somewhat broken life.

Once a month I meet with residents of a home for challenged seniors. Upon early arrival, I give each person time to share joys or sorrows. We sing songs from their era. I tell stories, and we laugh together. I often play instruments like dulcimers, ocarinas, and harmonicas. My heart leaps for joy when a resident afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease sings familiar hymns. Frequently I tell them they are part of my family.

For me, retirement is just the beginning of a new chapter. Countless doors open to me. I am able to come alongside of God and participate in what He has already begun in the lives of the young and the old.

Retirement is what you make it. Start planning for it now.

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Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as pastor and chaplain. He now lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

April 2011

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