Several years ago I officially retired. In my country the rules are quite clear: Once you are 65, you are expected to quit full-time employment. This also coincides with retirement timing preferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. So, I dutifully retired at age 65. Retirement ages differ, however, from country to country. In some countries, the pensionable age is as low as 58 or 60; in others, 67 or 68. Other nations, such as the United States, make it (theoretically, at least) up to the individual. Whatever the case, retirement meets most of us at the end of our working life.
For more than 40 years, I worked for my church in various assignments in different countries. Therefore, what I say may be helpful to you who are about to or have already retired from denominational employment. I do not know to what extent my own experience really typifies others, but I assume there must be some similarities.
When retirement comes
For some, the idea of retirement sounds like heavenly music. Finally, the long-awaited moment has come. The golden years will begin. At last one has the time to travel and enjoy a round of golf at least twice a week. Thus begins the period of enjoyment in a new home located in an area where one always wanted to live. At last you have ample time to enjoy the company of your partner, children, and, especially, grandchildren.
These dreams may come true; often, though, they remain just a dream for many reasons. There may be health issues. Your children may live far away. Or you cannot sell your house. You may not be as happy as you thought, for you soon actually miss your work and the social interaction. The retirement savings may not be enough for a comfortable living. Shortly after my retirement, we moved into a comfortable apartment in a pleasant small town. Although I continued to be quite active (actually, a bit more than I anticipated) I must admit that it had taken a bit of adjusting to get along with less income.
Of course, we are not all the same. I have not found it very difficult to make the switch; it was not as drastic for me as it had been for some. I am still involved with a number of church-related assignments. I preach on most Sabbaths. I do some lecturing and writing. I get invitations to present seminars and still get around. And, recently, I have even taken on a new administrative assignment on a temporary basis. I have not (yet) fallen into “a deep hole,” as many say they have after their regular work stopped.
Yet, there is no question that, during the past few years, I did miss some aspect of work. I missed the sense of involvement in the day-to-day running of the church as I had during my assignment as the president of our union. I missed the daily camaraderie of colleagues. And, yes, I missed being up to date on the latest denominational news. (Some of that will be relieved, at least for a while, because I serve as an interim conference president.)
For some, retirement liberates them from stress. Toward the end of their working lives, some find it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of ministry. They need the physical rest of retirement, and they need the possibility to distance themselves from a busy daily routine. Some have reached the limit of what they can give and are exhausted, and retirement does not come a day too early.
Others, however, hate the idea of retiring. They have lots of energy but no hobbies and do not know what to do with the days, weeks, months, and years ahead of them. Most of us are somewhere in between and may have mixed feelings about this drastic change.
Retirement: an entitlement
Just a generation or so ago, the status of a retiree was looked upon quite differently from how we see it today. In the past, the denomination recognized that ministers would, at some point, have to diminish their work load and then quit altogether, and it was clear that the church needed to provide a measure of support. Church workers, therefore, received “sustentation benefits,” which could be seen as gesture of compassion, a favor rather than an entitlement. In many places, this monetary support was not only quite low but also subject to various restrictions.
Often, if one’s denominational career had lasted less than 10 or even 15 years, there would be no benefit whatsoever. And those who decided to leave church employment before reaching retirement age and/or at some point left the church might not get anything, even after decades of denominational employment. Sustentation benefits were given after what was termed “faithful” service!
Today, as a rule, almost anywhere in the world, denominational workers are entitled to retirement benefits. Elaborate policies govern these benefits, and the uncertainties of the past have disappeared.
In other important ways, the attitude of the church toward retirement has changed. Although a minister remains a minister for life, generally members and leaders recognize that a person who has served the church for a substantial period of time and has reached a certain age is entitled to a new phase of life. Saying farewell to church work when one has reached 60 years of age—perhaps older—when one is still in good shape and still has lots of energy and ambitions, may not be seen as a negative, as if a person has gradually lost the sense of calling that kept him or her going. People may regret the fact that their pastor wants to retire, but they usually do not blame him or her.
This entitlement to retirement should be recognized as important and respected. The denomination should not put any undue pressure on people to stay on working if they want to retire. Nor should it plead with someone to come out of retirement when the person concerned has grave misgivings about such a move but may give in out of sheer loyalty. Whatever a retiree does should be a matter of his or her personal choice. If someone seems happy to carry certain church assignments, blessings on them; if someone chooses not to take on any pastoral or other duties, that should be just fine also. Being retired means that you are now the full master of your time.
Retirement is a time for looking forward, toward a new future. But, inevitably, we take our past with us because, to a large extent, we continue to get our identity from what we were and what we did. Our past is, however, usually a mixed bag. We must accept that we did not always succeed. We must not feel any bitterness about the fact that we did not always reach our goals or the position for which we may have hoped. We may sense that our gifts were not always sufficiently acknowledged by the church board or conference committee. We may think that for some reason we did not have as much “success” as many of our colleagues.
Anyway, we must be determined not to start retirement with resentment or frustration, for much went well during those years. We were a blessing to the many people to whom we ministered. And there was much joy and friendship and many good things to remember.
As we look back, we may regret some major mistakes. If so, we should take comfort: in the area of making mistakes, we are not alone. We may be always assured of God’s grace and forgiving love despite those mistakes.
Many have to come to terms with the sad reality that our own children are not following in our steps and have turned away from the church or even given up on their faith; this remains one of the hardest experiences. We must leave this with our Lord. If we failed them in some respects—possibly because we were always busy doing church work and neglected our family—we must pray for forgiveness and then continue on without guilt.
Unfortunately, at times retired workers begin to feel differently about their church once they retire. They now feel free to say things that they felt they could not say when they led in an official role. Sometimes all active involvement ceases and even church attendance becomes irregular or worse. This is tragic, for it indicates that there is a definite need for pastoral support for those who have retired from the ministry. It is also tragic because this attitude will color the way in which others look at the retiree’s past, which may take away many of the potential joys of retired life. A ministry of several decades can become an experience they have endured rather than enjoyed.
And, of course, when retired ministers lose their enthusiasm for the church, this affects many people around them in a negative way. Few things as are demotivating as when a leader loses his way.
Living with change
Our life changes as a result of retirement; hence, we need to adjust. But, as time goes on, we must deal with something else: change in the church. While workers are in active service, they are in the midst of the changes that constantly occur, and may even initiate some of them. But once persons retire, they become further removed from where the action is, from where changes are discussed and made, and are often uninformed as to why those changes were deemed necessary. I regularly meet fellow retirees who are extremely critical about certain developments. They do not understand many of the changes they see. They are adamant that the church is heading in the wrong direction, wonder about decisions made by the various committees, and openly criticize younger ministers.
Of course, not all changes are wonderful; some, I think, are not good. But, in general, retired workers must be relaxed about it. The church will continue to change whether we like it or not. The way our younger colleagues work will constantly change as they face the challenges of contemporary ministry. There will be changes in the way the church “does” theology, in the way people worship, and in the way they relate to their culture and authority. As retired workers, we may have our doubts and worries, but our basic attitude should be supportive. And we ought to resist any impulse to openly interfere or to organize any protest or lobby.
We had our time when we were responsible, and when we were looking for support and encouragement. Now others are at the helm. Our present role is one of counsel (when asked for), but mostly one of prayerful support and encouragement.
Active church members
One particular change may be painful but inevitable. Many of us have been rather visible in the church because of the role we had. For some time after we retire, we may still be invited to the pulpit or asked to participate in other assignments. But we must be prepared: this will not continue forever. After a while, the people who used to invite us may not be in charge and their successors no longer know us. Or we may gradually no longer be the much-sought-after speaker we once were because (perhaps imperceptibly?) we do not exude the same energy or manifest the same degree of originality as before. Let us listen to those who try to tell us that our time is up and make sure that we really stop before people start saying behind our backs that we should no longer be allowed to stand behind the pulpit.
There is, however, one important aspect we should never lose sight of. We remain ministers, even when we no longer receive invitations for public activities. As ordained ministers, we may still be asked to perform an occasional wedding ceremony, to baptize a person with whom we have had a special tie, or to officiate at the Lord’s Supper. Other than that, our public role comes to an end.
However, we are not only ministers but also church members. Every church member has a calling to be active in the church and use their talents to the best of their abilities and to the extent that they have physical strength and available time. Always a niche exists where a retired person can make a useful contribution and be an active part of the body of Christ.
Though not all of us will have a long retirement period in good health, many will. If we are in that category, let us make the most of it and make sure that we do things we enjoy. It is all right to say “no” to certain requests and demands, even though some of us may find that difficult. We no longer have to be busy all the time. We should enjoy the company of our loved ones as much as possible. We should enjoy our home, hobbies, and books. We should cultivate our friendships and be active in our local church. We should enter retirement as computer literates and find ways to enhance our digital skills. Email, Skype, and the Internet, in general, are wonderful tools for retired people to remain a part of the world and stay in touch with family, friends, and the church.
But above everything else: Look after the spiritual side of yourself. The best years of spiritual growth may still be ahead. You may have the opportunity to read and study as never before. At last you have time to write that book that you wanted to write for the last twenty-five years.
One more thing. Look out for each other. Count your blessings, if you still have your partner. One day, one of you will depart, leaving the other behind. Stay in touch with your friends and colleagues who have already experienced this loss. Pray for them. Do what you can to alleviate their loneliness. You can hope, too, that you will experience the loving attention of others when you come to that decisive point in your life. We all know that our lives are finite. Retirement will constantly remind us of this fact. Death will catch up with us, sooner or later. But while God gives us life and strength, let us make the most of it—especially in our retirement years.
No question, if we are blessed to have lived long enough to retire, we will face some new challenges and new joys. Though, as in every stage of life, we will confront in retirement things that we cannot control. The crucial question? The attitude we have toward them. Your retirement will be what you allow it to be. Allow the Lord to help you make it as fruitful and rewarding as possible.