Questions for pastors as they prepare for retirement
The worst thing a pastor can do when preparing for retirement is nothing. Retirement needs thought and intentional preparation.
As a pastor, I had not thought much about retirement, and any thinking tended to focus on having enough money. I did not know how much was enough but figured we (my wife and I) would somehow survive.
Then, in my early 60s, I was asked to write a book about preparing for retirement. That is when I began to understand that preparing for retirement deserves a whole-of-life approach. The book, Retirement Ready?, 1 became a four-year writing project. It took research, but I learned most by interviewing professionals within and outside the “industry” and academics who study retirement.
That said, I make no claims of being an expert in this field, but I have learned how individuals can create their best retirement. The following is a series of questions that could help you as you plan your retirement.
What is your plan?
What do you plan to do in retirement? There is a growing trend for individuals to plan to work beyond retirement age. Is that your plan? Full-time or part-time? Or both by gradually reducing your hours? Does your conference allow or encourage this? When will you have a discussion with your president or ministerial secretary?
What will you do in retirement? One way to begin thinking about this is to work out how many hours a week you currently work. Is it 40 hours, 50, 60? More? When you retire, you gift yourself this many hours a week. What will you do with them?
You need a plan: “Retirees who had a game plan for both the fiscal and the often-neglected non-fiscal aspects of retirement and who frequently revisited and updated that plan were the most satisfied with their lives.”2 You need a plan that gets you out of bed every morning looking forward to the day.
To help with your plan, analyze your passions, interests, and priorities. What are they? How will they fit into your retirement life?
Add to that your bucket list (the things you want to do before you kick the bucket!). And remember that the simple act of writing down your goals will help you achieve them.3 Review them from time to time.
When I interviewed researcher-academic Joanne Earl from Flinders University about retirement, she told me that many ask about how much money they need for retirement.
“I say to them, ‘Wrong question.’The question is: ‘What do you want to do when you retire? Who are you going to do it with? What sort of activities are you going to do? What would a typical week look like for you?’ That should then drive a lot of other decisions, including where people live.”
How will you prepare financially?
It is difficult to be too specific about finances in a magazine with a world-wide spread. Many countries have government pension plans available that support retired people. But there are also countries where no government support exists at all.
Pastors in both situations need to evaluate how they will cope financially after they finish receiving a wage. Those in countries with little or no government support may find it quite difficult. The question will be, Are you able to put aside some money now for then?
Those in countries where an option exists of government support (a pension, perhaps) along with the expectation that you are responsible for helping fund your retirement may need a financial planner or financial advisor.
A registered financial advisor will understand the complexity of the retirement or pension system and changes that may come. Financial advisor Melanie Tull told me that the Australian government rewards retirees who put their money in the “right structures.” That may also be the case elsewhere.
As a rule of thumb, whatever your situation, you should be thinking seriously about your finances for retirement about 15 years before you expect to retire—and working on a plan to fund your retirement. That plan would include being debt free before retiring.
Being debt free also means owning your home before retirement. About 25 years ago, my wife and I noticed several older pastors retiring without owning their homes who then struggled financially. That was incentive enough for us to set the goal of owning our home before retirement—a goal we thankfully achieved.
You may be able to work on into the retirement years. That will keep an income stream flowing, but what happens if you become ill? Or if you discover that, as you age, the pressures of ministry make it a chore to continue to work? That would make it difficult.
Are you talking to your spouse?
When I interviewed sex therapist Bettina Arndt about the kind of issues couples face as they age, I asked what she found was the biggest sexual issue. Her answer surprised me. She said that sex was too often the “classic elephant in the room when couples become anxious about their sex life and stop talking about it. It is incredibly important that people learn to talk about sex.”
If couples do not talk about their sexual problems, frustration exists. If there are sexual issues—for whatever reason—they need to be talked about.
Sex is a natural part of a healthy marriage and sometimes needs to be worked on.
Here are some other questions couples need to talk about:
How is our marriage? When you come to the retirement zone (before and after retirement) there is a risk that the marriage may be in trouble. Couples in the 50 plus age group are divorcing at an increasing rate. Marriage therapist Bryan Craig pointed out that over the past 20 years the divorce rate has increased by 100 percent in the United States and 25 percent in Australia. The fastest-growing divorce rate in the United Kingdom is among baby boomers.4
Will we retire at the same time? Fewer than 20 percent of couples in the United States retire at the same time.5 If you and your spouse retire at different times, how will that work for you? What will the retired one do while the other continues to work?
What are our plans in retirement— together and separately? This is where you dream together. Dream and share. Some things you will naturally want to do together. Others are personal interests. As a couple, we are kept busy with various projects, but we reserve Sundays and Wednesdays to do things together—on Sabbaths we care for a Sabbath School class together.
You might be surprised what other questions come up as you talk about these four areas of your life.
How will you stay healthy?
What are you doing now to be healthy when you retire? You will want to be healthy as you go into retirement rather than get there and try to recover.
I suspect I do not have to belabor here the advantage of a plant-based diet and avoiding fats and sugars; the benefits of exercise; the importance of sleep; and regular medical checkups. They are all important.
You should also check your family history to find out what negative health possibilities there may be. This can be helpful. I discovered how helpful when, a few years back, two days of serious headaches led to MRI scans and the revelation that I had had a minor stroke.
It took several weeks to discover I have atrial fibrillation (AF)—irregular heartbeat. It is probable that a clot formed during a missed beat and went to my brain, causing the stroke. It would have been helpful to have known that AF runs in my family. It is now well under control, but I have added it to my conversation at family gatherings.
What about your brain? Mental lapses are more frequent in people 40 years old and older. I was relieved when clinical psychologist Deanna Pitchford told me, “Forgetting is a normal part of aging.” It is natural and not a sign of dementia.
The good news is this: “Our brains do gradually age along with our bodies, but we all possess the power to slow, stop, and possibly reverse the brain aging process.”6
The question is, What do you need to do now to arrive at retirement in as healthy a state as possible?
How positive is your attitude?
If you wanted to rank attitude, health, and money, I suggest that money matters. But health matters more. There is not much value in retiring to be the richest person living in a nursing home bed. And attitude matters most. If your money and health are gone, a positive attitude will keep you going.
Psychologist Kendra Cherry says, “Positive thinkers cope more effectively than pessimists.” They tend to look at what they can do to fix the problem. And they “look at the situation realistically, search for ways that they can improve the situation, and try to learn from their experiences.”7 This is healthy.
And a positive attitude toward aging will help you live longer. More than 1,000 people above the age of 50 in Oxford, Ohio, USA, were surveyed on their attitude toward aging in 1975. In 1999, another researcher checked the death records to see what this attitude did for length of life. Those with a positive attitude toward aging lived an average of 7.6 years longer. That is a huge difference. It is more than if they had been able to cure cancer within the group.8
What will you do with your calling?
I was talking to a pastor in his mid-50s who has a demanding but successful ministry. He surprised me by saying he would love to retire. He would like to volunteer to care for a small country church while renovating houses.
I asked the obvious question: “Why don’t you?”
“What do you do with the calling?” Good question.
Retirement does not mean you are giving up on your calling. It will bring change. As a retired pastor, I am involved in my church, but I am home most nights, I no longer chair major meetings, and I am no longer the go-to person for church issues.
The advantage of retirement is that you can mostly choose to do the ministry things you enjoy. Or work on ministry projects close to your heart. Or follow or even create ministry opportunities.
No two retirements will be the same, but I find that I am now more focused on my skills and giftedness in retirement than I ever could be in pastoral ministry. There is incredible satisfaction in this. And that, I believe, can be the experience of most pastors.
Your retirement is your retirement. It will be what you make it—it needs thought and planning.
I remember the father-in-law of one of my pastoral colleagues advising me to retire as soon as I could. That is what he had done—at 65. He had been a pastor-evangelist and departmental director in two divisions.
He told me his retirement years had been the best of his ministry and he had traveled widely, speaking overseas and at home without the administrative pressures he once had. He had just flown to the east coast of Australia after doing a series of meetings on the west coast. He was in his early 90s.
Reality check. Ministry can be difficult. Some pastors find that their ministry has burned them out and they need to withdraw in retirement to recover. Retirement allows you to do that. Take the time you need. Seek the help you need. Do the things you need to do to stay close to God.
I cannot think of anything more tragic than the comment from an elderly, retired minister involved in a University of Florida study. He was asked whether he engaged in spiritual activities. He responded, “Well, not as much anymore, I’m retired.”
The researcher reported, “He ended up not being very spiritual at all.”9 How sad.
Sidebar: Ellen White on pastors in retirement
The concept of retirement as it is now known was not a widely practiced or understood concept in Ellen White’s time. Only in the 1920s did retirement begin to spread widely through a variety of industries in the United States (she died in 1915). The expectation—and her expectation as found in the compilation from her writings The Retirement Years—was that pastors would continue to work until physically unable to.
Having recognized that, she makes several comments about aging pastors. She urges “our old and tired laborers” to rest but to “keep the armor on till He [God] bids you lay it off.”10 She told G. I. Butler, “Let us—you and Brother Haskell and I—grow old gracefully”11 and later tells him, “I greatly desire that the old soldiers, grown gray in the Master’s service, shall continue to bear their testimony.”12
Aged and worn pastors have counsel “of the highest value.”13 “It is better, far better, to die of hard work in some home or foreign mission field, than to rust out with inaction.”14
Old pastors should boast not of past glories, “but show what you can do now. Let your works and not your words praise you.”15 They should encourage and never speak “lightly or disparagingly” of younger pastors.16 And they are warned that the “inclination to criticize is the greatest danger of many.”17
To Stephen Haskell (73 years old; she was 79) she wrote that neither of them should be under “continual strain.” She encouraged him to avoid “taxing labor,” to keep in a “rested condition” with sleep in the daytime to be able to think more clearly so that his words would be “more convincing.”18
1 Ellen G. White, The Retirement Years (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990), 16.
2 White, The Retirement Years, 23.
3 White, The Retirement Years, 24.
4 White, The Retirement Years, 33.
5 White, The Retirement Years, 39.
6 White, The Retirement Years, 40.
7 White, The Retirement Years, 48.
8 White, The Retirement Years, 73.
9 White, The Retirement Years, 125.
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1 The book is intentionally secular and published by the South Pacific Division Signs Publishing Company. The idea started as a request from literature evangelists for such a book. It is also available in Adventist Book Centers and secular bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, and online at bookdepository.com.
2 Frederick T. Fraunfelder and James H. Gilbaugh, Retire Right (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2009), 15.
3 Ashley Feinstein, “Why You Should Be Writing Down Your Goals,” Forbes, April 8, 2014, forbes .com/sites/ellevate/2014/04/08/why-you-should -be-writing-down-your-goals/#3525d8af3397.
4 Paul Clitheroe, “Retirement and Its Impact on Relationships,” ipac, November 21, 2011, ipac .com.au/blog/retirement-and-its-impact-on -relationships/#sthash.sWXreFYB.dpbs.
5 Miriam Goodman, “How to Avoid Living Unhappily Ever After in Retirement,” nextavenue, March 6, 2013, nextavenue.org/how-avoid-living -unhappily-ever-after-retirement/.
6 Gary Small, Two Weeks to a Younger Brain (Palm Beach, FL: Humanix Books, 2016), 1.
7 Kendra Cherry, “The Benefits of Positive Thinking for Body and Mind,” verywell, last updated August 31, 2017, verywell.com/benefits-of-positive -thinking-2794767.
8 Lea Winerman, “A Healthy Mind, a Longer Life,” Monitor on Psychology 37, no. 10 (November 2006): 42, apa.org/monitor/nov06/healthy.aspx.
9 Cathy Keen, “Religious Orientation Influences Elderly’s Fear of Death, Study Shows,” University of Florida News, April 18, 2006, news.ufl.edu /archive/2006/04/religious-orientation-influences -elderlys-fear-of-death-study-shows.php.