When Pastors Retire: Intimidating transitions - potential rewards

By Louis M. Tamminga

(First appeared in the April 3, 2006 issue of the Christian Courier.)

During the April council meeting of First Christian Church of Greenville, Pastor Elmo announced that he and his wife had decided to retire a few months hence. The council did not seem unduly upset. The vice-president spoke a few words of appreciation and the council and pastor soon agreed on a definite date of the farewell service. The secretary proposed that a committee be appointed to help in the calling of another pastor. Before adjourning the meeting, the council took care of that too.

All that was some thirty years ago.

Through the years churches and pastors have come to see that there is a better way to handle retirement. Careful preparation for retirement brings major advantages for pastors and congregations both before and after the actual farewell event. Many denominations and pastors have studied the matter of retirement with care. The following is a summary of some helpful findings on their part.

The entire retirement process should always involve both pastors and congregations. Pastors, when married, need to make sure that their spouses are part of the reflection and planning process.

We may distinguish three stages in the process: early preparations, daunting transitions and retirement years

Early Preparations

The key idea is: start planning early!

The pastor and council should agree on a retirement date at least three years before the actual event; four is even better. They will not regret taking that much time for preparation and planning.

Pastor-couples will benefit significantly from some intentional reflection on their years in ministry. They should consider questions such as: What was your ministry like through its various stages? How do you remember the congregations you served? To what extend were ministry ideals realized? Were specific ministry patterns developed through the years? How did your marriage fare? How did you do spiritually? Are there regrets that need facing? Such discussions, when conducted in a spirit of honesty and acceptance, will deepen a pastor’s resolve to complete the ministry with determination and energy.

Once the council and pastor have agreed on the three or four year time-frame that will precede retirement, they can begin serious planning for the ministry program during that unique chapter in its history. All programs deserve evaluation as to their effectiveness. Steps can be devised to enhance their functioning. Both external and internal needs should be reviewed. Some program parts may be eliminated; some new ones accepted. Attention needs to be given to the pastor’s gifts and interests. Areas in which the pastor functions strongly may be allotted more of his/her time. Tasks for which he/she is less suited may be taken over by elders or volunteers. The process will be concluded by setting goals, outlining resources, finalizing job descriptions, and appointing volunteers. The pastor, elders/deacons, and program leaders may come together and renew covenant toward devoting themselves to excellence. Such planning will enhance the ministry of the remaining years. And to finish well is to finish strong. The council may wish to appoint a small task force to assist in guiding and implementing these steps.

Planning as sketched here actually creates an interesting scenario. The pastor from here on serves under what resembles a term call arrangement: his/her stay is no longer open-ended but bracketed by starting and termination dates.

Preparing for retirement is undoubtedly somewhat sad—thinking of parting always is. But it is exciting too when ministries may confidently work toward a promising conclusion and hope for good retirement years.

Daunting Transitions

The retirement date is now less than a year away. Again the pastor and council will remain in close consultation. They will aim toward effective ministry that will add so much to the quality of the actual retirement years and the future of the congregation. The ministry program now needs another round of assessment, evaluation, and probably refinement. The pastor at this stage will survey his/her ministerial responsibilities and prioritize his/her activities. The pastor will also consider what the emphasis of his/her sermons from hereon should be.

During this closing year the pastor will continue to reflect on relationships. What has the congregation come to mean to him/her? Are there people to whom the pastor owes special gratitude? It is good to express those in personal visits rather than from the pulpit. Are there people who seemed to have opposed the ministry? Forgiveness is important. Holding grudges is deadly.

Spiritual and physical health also deserve careful attention. Spiritual self-care is very important. Prayer time needs to be guarded. The pastor asks: how does this sermon speak to my needs? Physical health also needs attention. A thorough physical examination should precede retirement. A regimen of physical exercises will produce many benefits. A sensible diet is important.

This is also the stage that personal finances need reviewing. The management of investments, savings, and tax matters requires expertise which probably only a financial advisor can supply. Denominational pension authorities need to be consulted and governmental retirement provisions need to be explored. Advice also needs to be sought in matters of health insurance.

Pastors who have lived in church-owned parsonages will have to arrange for their own housing, an exciting reality but perhaps intimidating too. Most congregations have experts in their ranks who will gladly assist.

The pastor should not postpone writing that important farewell sermon. The Word will remain central but brief analyses of the pastor’s ministry are certainly a-propos.

Throughout this last year before retirement, the pastor and council need to remain in consultation. Council members may show their discreet interest and offer their help in any way they can.

The council and the pastor will cooperate in organizing the farewell service. A separate small task force may be appointed to assist in its planning. Other farewell events need to be agreed upon and planned. Various people may make unique contributions and need to be recruited.

The matter of a calling the next pastor will soon occupy the council’s mind. The elders may consult with the present pastor but his/her role must remain discreet. No need to hurry. Being without a regular pastor for a season enables the membership to come to terms, emotionally and spiritually, with the absence of the pastor they loved. The council would do well to consider appointing an interim pastor who will serve the congregation for half a year or so. This may be especially helpful for congregations struggling with relational problems.

Retirement Years

Retired pastors now face very different life situations. They are no longer part of a community that provided esteem, sustenance, challenges, and even authority and power. No longer will their activities and convictions affect an entire community. Time itself assumes a different quality. Pastors need no longer account much for its use. Deadlines are fewer. The urgency of getting things done within stipulated time-frames has diminished.

The matter of church-membership in retirement is important. The pastor-couple would benefit greatly from joining another congregation. However, if they stay in the area and there is no other church nearby, they should be careful not to be involved in ministry. Church membership, following retirement, will have a different feel to it. Retired pastors are among fellow-members, not parishioners. They may experience that as a loss of an identity that they held as precious.

All of this has a spiritual component. As pastors they held a special office. They ministered to believers who needed to grow in their office of all believers: prophets, priests, and kings. Pastors knew, of course, that they themselves needed to grow in that office of all believers, but the demands of the special office were so prominent. Now in retirement pastors must learn to cherish the treasure of being no more than God’s dear believers. That will take much prayer, meditation, self-denial, and Bible reading. For all retired believers the emphasis shifts from doing to being.

Retired pastors will also discover that they have privileges unknown to them in the regular ministry. They can read for sheer enjoyment. They can take their time doing a cross-word puzzle. They can go to a neighborhood café for a cup of coffee and talk with people who are really different. Retired couples will want to strike a balance between relaxation and imaginative initiatives.

Health remains a concern all during the retirement years.  A sensible diet and a regular exercise regimen will add greatly to the pastor’s vitality. But health is not ours to enjoy forever. Trials will make their entrance. In 2 Cor. 4:7-18 Paul speaks of that diminishment of health. But he adds that the suffering of believers is connected with the suffering of Christ. In the end, the years of retirement are God’s choice time-frame of preparing his retired servants for eternal service in his new Creation. Retired pastor-couples will come to see more clearly that it was God who all the while played a loving role in all their reflection, planning, and acting.