The pastor and retirement

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Social Issues Bulletin. Download the whole Bulletin.

This article follows on from my previous writings on ‘What does the Bible say about retirement'. That first piece explained what we mean when we say ‘retirement’ and how the Bible helps us understand what retiring for the glory of God looks like. In this second part, we will focus on how pastors are to retire well and I will offer some practical suggestions along the way.

Accepting retirement

The Levites retired at 50 – it was a fixed point in their lives (Numbers 8:23-26). The age at which they began their service varied from 30 to 25 to 20 at different times in the history of Israel. On the other hand, for Pastors, there is no fixed age for retirement, although some churches illogically prohibit men over 70 from functioning as Elders (probably based on Psalm 90:10, but that surely refers to something very different than how long a man may serve). I would suggest four considerations that may be applied in determining when we should make the transition into retirement.

a. A consciousness that ministry ending

It is the experience of some men that they increasingly feel their ministry at the church where they are ministering has come to an end and due to other factors, it is time to cease full-time employment as a Pastor. Discussion with fellow leaders and possibly with the church shows agreement with that conclusion. It may well be, and often is, that in this situation other ministries are opening up which can more effectively be pursued.

b. Reducing capacities

Alongside ministry ending, as we get older, our capacity for demanding physical work and effort reduces and physically, and maybe intellectually, we begin to experience increasing limitations. Often this is in the areas of concentration, weariness, reducing strength and perhaps memory. There may also be the development of other physical limitations such as hearing or eyesight. Such things come with advancing years and are perfectly normal. This progression of the years needs to be recognised and an honest assessment of personal capacities undertaken. There has to be a recognition of the impact of age. It is not spiritual to ignore physical signs and press on irrespectively. At the very least adjustments to responsibilities and programmes may need to be made to accommodate the reducing capacities.Barzillai is a beautiful example of this in 2 Samuel 19:32-35. He rejected the opportunity of returning with David to Jerusalem and the honour that would involve because of his advanced age. He simply recognised that all that was involved was beyond him due to his age. He knew his prime responsibility at his age and with increasing frailty was to prepare to die. The advance of the years will often be why someone retires from a settled ministry, even when the approach of death still appears to be some way off.

c. The best interest of the congregation

Hebrews 13:7 & 17 and 1 Peter 5:1-4 emphasise and encapsulate the essence of caring and service that is central to pastoral ministry. There is surely, therefore, a duty on pastors in later years to recognise that there is a time when we must lay down the responsibilities of ministry even though we are deeply attached to them and find great satisfaction in them. The issue becomes the needs of the congregation and our capacity to meet them adequately.

d. Evaluating ministry

It may be the role of caring and courageous Elders or fellow leaders to exercise discernment and to speak to the pastor with love and firmness. Pastors are human and can find it very difficult to make a dispassionate assessment of their own ministry and its adequacy for the congregation. Years of effective and valued care for the flock can blind a man to his own reducing effectiveness. And love and sentiment amongst the congregation can give false support to continuation when the very best for the church is for the pastor to step down.

In addition, excessive love of the ministry and the role a pastor fulfils can seriously colour our evaluation of our own situation. It is not unknown for a congregation to begin to diminish because of growing dissatisfaction with the pastor, and for that pastor to convince himself and his fellow leaders that the causes of the departures are other things than himself. Those who leave the church may understandably temper their explanation for leaving to spare the pastor, especially when in the past they have gained many benefits from his ministry. No doubt there may be other circumstances at play which lead to people leaving, but too often they can be used by the pastor as an excuse to avoid facing the unwelcome reality. These are not common situations, but they are real ones that do happen, and they must be faced.

Of course, on the other hand, there are men who feel their inadequacy so acutely that they seriously devalue the impact of their ministry. Such men may feel like retiring almost every Monday morning!! Wise fellow leaders, and caring members of the congregation, are vital in reaching this decision. Deciding to retire may mean significant self-denial, but as in all aspects of Christian service, retirement involves sacrifices.

In saying these things I am simply suggesting that these considerations influence the end of a ministry. Physical losses and limitations, the best interests of the congregation, and perhaps a recognition that effectiveness and suitability are diminishing can assist thinking as we contemplate the possibility of retirement. No doubt there are other reasons that will arise in individual cases. For some the care of a wife or another member of the family may necessitate ceasing full-time ministry. For others, some changes in personal circumstances or other situations may arise which necessitate stepping down. What should always be remembered is that retirement is not a move into uselessness but a change of the sphere of usefulness. We strive for that until our final hour of life.

Preparing for retirement

It is well accepted in industry that there is great value in making careful preparations for retirement. I would suggest that it is even more the case for pastors and Christian workers. There are not only personal reasons that apply to the one contemplating retirement, but also significant implications for the people in the church from which someone may be retiring.

In identifying the best time to retire, serious thought should be given to succession planning and deciding well in advance enables the church to look for someone to take over. As a part of this pre-planning, it is also important to develop an Exit Strategy. This may sound rather formal and calculated, but it is important to think in these terms. If we look at the Lord Jesus we see him doing something like this prior to his death. Of course, there is not a parallel, but his approach is certainly an example. Think of the three occasions when he spoke to the disciples about what would happen in Jerusalem (Mark 8:31, Mark 9:12, Luke 9:22) and then that glorious teaching in John 13-17. Careful preparation for leaving them was prominent in his thinking. That is the essence of an exit strategy. Let me suggest four areas that are vital in preparation.

a. Letting go graciously

Over the time, whether months or years, between announcing the intention to retire and the actual retirement, ties have to be loosened. During a time of ministry deep ties are made with the people and also with fellow leaders, and so there needs to be a gentle process of getting people used to the fact of your departure or, at least, change of role. (Obviously this also applies to any occasion when a pastor leaves his church.) If someone else has been appointed to be the replacement, and maybe even begun their work in the church, it enables that new pastor to begin to develop his own emphases.

Among the steps that may be considered are clear steps like phasing in changes in responsibilities as the incoming pastor progressively takes on duties the outgoing brother had done. One very practical element may be for the retiring pastor to progressively reduce his preaching role in the church. He may take more engagements outside the church. In this way, the congregation gets used to seeing him less often in the pulpit. Similarly the retiring pastor may begin to develop those interests and activities that he hopes to pursue in his retirement. Perhaps some changes may begin to be made that reflect the incoming pastor's emphases. In this way, the congregation gets used to the idea that changes will come, for they must.

The principal point is that these progressive changes are made with joy and a clear sense of thankfulness to God. A retiring pastor who presents an unhappy and even a slightly resentful disposition will cause sorrow and distress to the congregation and can undermine the acceptance by that congregation of the incoming pastor. Sadly these things do happen. A gracious spirit in the retiring man will help the people adapt to changes.

b. Involving the whole church

Of course, the changes that will be made will be discussed with the membership so that everyone is informed and involved. Returning to the picture of the Lord preparing to leave his disciples we find him keeping them well informed, speaking to them about what was to follow, and insisting that his going was entirely in their best interests. There is brilliant communication so that they knew what was happening. In a similar vein, we find Moses inaugurating Joshua well before he finished his leadership (Numbers 27:12-23). Moses then continued to be involved in a wide range of activities which included preparations for the new regime. The point being that the people knew what was happening as Moses prepared to leave them and Joshua prepared to take over.

c. Avoiding pre-retirement grief

The retirement of the pastor is about entering into new opportunities and activities for him, and for the congregation, it is about a new era in the life of the church. This process of separating from a group of people you have loved and cared for is emotional as well as practical. Loosening ties is a matter of the heart and the head. The anticipation of separation and change can produce moments of real sorrow that can amount to a grief experience so the heart has to be guarded (Proverbs 4:23). Repeated expressions of sorrow at departure by the retiring pastor can produce a variety of reactions in the people which can be troubling and even destructive. What happens in private is unavoidable and should be seen only by close family. In public there should be tempered emotion that acknowledges the years of affection and reflects thankfulness, and also expresses the hope of future meetings and joyful anticipation of a positive future for all involved.

d. Deciding where to live

Should you move home and church, or should you stay in the area where you have ended your ministry? There are vastly differing viewpoints on this. In the end, it depends on each pastor’s personality, the needs and views of the incoming pastor, and the attitude of the church. Men have stayed in their church and ended up being a centre of dissent and trouble, while others have stayed and developed an excellent relationship with the incoming pastor and been an untold blessing to the congregation. In my experience, the former has outweighed the latter.

Indeed one godly pastor who I knew very well and respected very highly was adamant that the retiring pastor should move away from the area where he finally ministered. He called it the final sacrifice the pastor has to make for the flock he has lovingly shepherded. Personally, I tend to that view. But in the end, it is about being totally honest with oneself and doing what is best for the church in the short and long run. This is a matter for deep thought, earnest prayer, and careful discussion with others.

As I say there are conflicting arguments. Some men step down from being pastors but become functioning elders and do so very effectively. Others stay in the church but have no role, and then find they get people continuing to come to them with their problems, thus excluding the incoming pastor. Others stay in the church and manage not to become embroiled in people’s problems or discussions about changes that have been made. There is no single template to follow. It boils down to personalities, the style of ministry the retiring man engaged in, the church’s structure and values, the incoming pastor’s approach and personality, and so on. Leaving the church also has a range of challenges. This is why there needs to be pre-planning and discussion.

One matter that is not often discussed, but needs to be born in mind, is that packing up a home after years of ministry can be a very emotionally draining experience. That is always the case when anyone moves home, but for a pastor who is retiring, there are so many extra sources of disquiet. Happy and blessed memories, sorrowful and sad incidents all come to mind and the enemy of our souls is not slow to take advantage of the situation to our detriment.

Part of the preparation for retirement is about preparing yourself for the challenges, and the unexpected joys and blessings that come with that transition point in life.

Practical implications

We must turn now to a few of the issues that need to be addressed if retirement is decided upon. I do so on the basis of conversations I have had with fellow ministers over many years of observation, especially as I have taken a special interest in issues around ageing. It is not possible in a single article to deal with all that is involved but there are a few pointers that may be considered.

a. Financial arrangements

Every situation is different and needs personal assessment. Many pastors now have pension provisions and churches are more aware than they were a few years ago of their responsibilities to their pastors in this area. There are Christian charities (some of whom are members of Affinity) which are designed to help pastors who have inadequate financial arrangements. Similarly, there are agencies who can help with advice on State Pensions, Benefits and Concessions that can be claimed. The larger church groupings, like FIEC and Grace Baptists, are able to signpost the best sources of help. On the non-Christian front AgeUK and Citizens Advice are good generalist organisations who can both advise themselves and signpost for more detailed advice.

In addition, it is never too early to think about Powers of Attorney, both for health and financial matters – Advanced Directives, and paying for long-term care. If you decide to do this it is important to get expert advice. There are solicitors who will do a highly professional job at a reasonable charge. It is important to look around and research the market. There is a temptation to leave these things until physical decline is really starting to have an effect on life. Sadly when that happens it can be more difficult to actually address the issues.

Beware of organisations who tout for business in this area. Many older people find themselves being defrauded by rogue companies. Use the well-known, the tried and tested. But always take good advice.

b. Relating to the last place of ministry

If the decision is to continue in the church after retirement then there should be some gap between finishing ministry and becoming a part of the church so that the fact of retirement can be established in everyone’s mind. But if you do move, how should you relate to the church from which you have retired? It is not always as simple as it appears. I think it was John Wesley who required that when a man left a circuit he should not return, even for funerals, for at least a year. Some recommend that it should not be for two years. A good brother I know retired from his church and came back about a year and a half later to preach. As he stood at the door several people going out said ‘now we realise what we have been missing’. He wished he had left returning a while longer. If there is any danger of such an outcome it is better to delay longer than to satisfy one’s own desire to see people you love again. There is no standard answer, but there should be much thought and prayer before returning for the first time, after that it can become much easier.

c. Using time well

It is our duty to use our days as well as we can (Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5) therefore it is important to develop good habits early in retirement. It is easy to waste time and justify it by convincing oneself that you need a while to recuperate. Drifting can become a destructive way of life. And then frustration and disappointment set in. It is one thing to take a holiday, or a more protracted period of recuperation, and another flopping around in an unplanned and unprofitable way.

Even before retiring an outline plan of what you want to do should be drawn up. For most men that will involve preaching, and alongside that will be new activities or long-established ones that are now brought to the forefront. Some aspects of what we anticipate doing in retirement may actually be formed in that period before retirement as I have already suggested. Involvement in a local church should have a prominent place. In our retirement, we should put into practice as church members the lessons we preached and taught during our pastoral ministry. Think how often you encouraged your congregation to attend the prayer meeting, and so make sure you are there as often as you can be. It is surprising to notice how many men, once they have retired, rarely attend their new church’s midweek activities.

d. Accepting differing attitudes

The pastor has a high level of respect and even deference in other churches where he is known. Retired pastors don’t always get that and possibly rightly so. They are after all just ordinary Christians and members of a congregation. Having said that, there is an impact on us when we retire. ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, so said the wife of a retired pastor who missed the special roles she played in the churches where her husband served. It is important to remember that as your role changes in regard to the church from which you retired, so also your role in the wider church changes. Accepting the losses and serving as widely as you can is the answer. John the Baptist was highly successful when he preached and baptised before Jesus began his ministry. But then Jesus began his ministry and attracted even greater crowds. John’s disciples found it difficult to cope with whilst John handled it brilliantly (John 3:22-30). There are valuable lessons to learn from such accounts.

It is important to note that the pastor’s wife also has to accept all manner of changes when her husband retires. While she may have had her own area of employment outside the church she will often have fulfilled a significant role in the church. So she faces challenges and dangers and needs much support from her husband, friends and family.

e. Taking opportunities

Retirement does present a wide range of opportunities. A pastor when he retires has developed skills and experience which can be used across a variety of activities. The wider Christian world needs the godly influence of older men. There are many Christian organisations that would benefit from the godly input a retiring pastor can make. For some, the pulpit can be replaced by the pen for the great blessing of the Church. There are opportunities to move in different directions, and as I have already said some of these should be prepared before retirement takes place. Again I say the local church to which you become attached will benefit so much from your humble and gracious input. No one owes you an opportunity, but everyone should welcome the contribution you make as a Spirit-filled man of maturity and love. And of course, the retired pastor can be used by the Lord to be an example of godliness throughout retirement and to death. We are to prove Philippians 1:6 and be like the Apostle in 2 Timothy 4:7-8.

What we are is more important than what we do

Older men of God are invaluable to the Church of God. Pastors in retirement should focus on being that sort of person. What we are is more important than what we do. Indeed what we do is given quality by what we are. This article has been designed to give material for thought and prayer to those who may be approaching retirement age, or who are wise enough to look to retirement even though it may be a while away. The goal is to help pastors gain the maximum benefit from retirement and to make the best contribution to the kingdom of God that they can in retirement. May God be glorified in our later years as in our former years (Ecclesiastes 11:6).


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