December 7, 2021
When do pastors retire? Or, in the opinion of some, can Christian pastors actually retire?
If you’re looking for answers to this question in the Bible, you will find it’s not specifically addressed. Retirement is a relatively modern concept. In earlier ages, women and men were expected to continue contributing to the family and common good as they were able, even during their winter years.
This added a type of dignity to many of their lives. It is not that the crippled or dependent were viewed as something less, but there was an expectation that as long as a person had something valuable to offer to others, it was wrong to waste it.
Pastors are in a unique position. Most believe they have been “called” by God in some manner to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters, created in his image. If God actively calls you, does that vocation (from vocatio, calling) expire on some set timeline?
It’s curious how people refer to some arbitrary age such as sixty-five as time to retire. Many Western nations have institutionalized that rather capricious practice by determining an age at which you can begin collecting money from the government’s coffers.
Some, like the U.S., have recently adjusted that beneficent accomplishment (i.e. becoming a senior citizen eligible to receive “social security” payments), in light of increasing lifespans, and political policies not suitable for discussion among the genteel audience of Mere Inkling.
Most secularists naturally think retirement – like everything else – is about them. One financial adviser said, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”
C.S. Lewis described one such person in a 1921 letter to his brother. He describes a mutual friend’s in-laws as ironic.
As you will never meet them (nor indeed will I), it is no breach of confidence to touch on the grim humours of his future ‘in-laws.’ A mother . . . who has all the money but is nevertheless incapable of resisting her husband, a retired army officer, busily engaged in trying to see if his constitution will ‘keep’ by being sufficiently soaked in spirits.
This indeed has been his life work, and the devil of it is that it seems likely to ‘keep’ a good bit yet.
The frame on my auto license says “Semi-Retired Military Chaplain.” After retiring from active duty in the Air Force, I anticipated providing “pulpit supply” for vacationing pastors and serving an occasional “vacancy.” An interim or vacancy pastor covers the months between the departure of a congregation’s pastor and the call of a new pastor. I’ve served three, one of which was more than a year long.
Now that I’m a bona fide senior, I thought my vacancy days were over. It appears, however, that God may have other plans. This week I’ve been approached by a congregation interested in calling me to serve them in that role.
Please pray that God leads them in whether or not they should formalize that call. And, please pray that I will clearly discern God’s desire in this matter. Right now it appears to be one of those “Matthew 26” moments where “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Can Anyone Truly Retire?
So, do pastors ever really retire, in the sense of ending their ministry? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” What’s more, if you are a Christian, you don’t get to retire either.
Here’s the catch – this vocation to actively serve God all of our days doesn’t just apply to pastors. You see, all Christians are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Consider 1 Peter 2:5 where the apostle writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
While you usually hear the truth of the “priesthood of all believers” from Protestants, the fact is that it comes directly from the Bible and applies to us all. As one prominent Roman Catholic journal puts it:
The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. . . . this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.
Retirements or Transitions?
So, whatever we would like to be true, the fact remains that retirement is not part of God’s plan for his children. But that shouldn’t trouble us. Because the Lord not only promises to give us the strength to do anything he asks of us, he also leads us into different fields of harvest at different points in our pilgrimage.
Thankfully, he doesn’t expect me to be as effective working with youth as I was in my thirties (although some of the best youth workers I’ve seen were in their seventies).
Just as I can’t rapidly deploy to a warzone with members of my flock as I once did, I possess the maturity, patience and compassion to care for those in the twilight of their lives far better than I did decades ago.
An interesting testimony to these shifts in ministry focus is found in the Old Testament. God set the tribe of Levi apart to oversee all details related to the worship of God in the Temple. But their ministry in the holy place (the Temple and the Tent of Meeting which preceded it) was of a specified duration.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.
They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties” (Numbers 8).
This passage is fascinating. At fifty, the priest step down from their ceremonial religious duties. But they do not drift off into some lazy retirement. They assume new responsibilities. A role God deemed better suited to this stage of their lives.
So too, wizened old pastors still have a role in God’s church. For some it may be serving during seasons of congregational vacancies. For others it may simply be to pray.
In a 1930 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis offers a delightful description of a “retired” pastor who is still about the business of caring for others. The fact that Lewis wrote this while an avowed atheist makes it all the more moving.
I walked as usual after lunch, dropping in on the way to see if old Foord-Kelsie would accompany me. I think I have mentioned him to you – a retired country parson of 80, who drives his own car, carpenters, and mends everyone’s wireless.
He is an irreplaceable character . . . as redolent of English country life as an old apple in a barn. He is deliciously limited: cares for no poetry but Shakespeare, distrusts all mysticism and imagination, and all overstrained moods.
Yet you could not wish him to be otherwise: and inside this almost defiantly human and mundane framework there is such tenderness of heart that one never feels it bleak.
He was in his workshop when I arrived, with shavings all about his ankles, making a cover for the font of old Headington Church.
He would not come out, and I stayed to shout conversation for fifteen minutes above the thudding and singing of his circular saw. We had a bit of everything: an outburst against Shaw, a broad story, and then, as always, onto Tristram Shandy. ‘Wonderful book–oh a wonderful book. You feel snug when you read that–you get in among them all in that little parlour. . . .’
I wish you could have seen him saying all this, bending down as he shoved a beam of wood against the saw, with one dear old wrinkled eye screwed up and held close to the work. You must hurry up and come and see me before he dies, for he of all people should be added to our stock characters.
Lewis does, indeed, portray his walking companion, the Reverend Foord-Kelcey, as a “stock character.” But he does so with evident and sincere affection.
So, our vocations do not forever remain constant. They may change over time, but God’s call on our lives does not wane.
We may approach these transitions with some trepidation. I am not ashamed to admit I do so at the present moment. I hope you will join me in seeking to hear God’s call and respond with joy and enthusiasm, just as the saints before us – “Here I am! Send me.”