Thoughts on Retirement
Retirement is a debatable concept in Christian ministry circles. Some think retirement is not a biblical concept and that pastors should never retire. Yet the Lord gave terms for the ministry of the Levites to seemingly get the best years of strength out of his servants (ages 25 to 50). After 50 the Levites could help their younger brethren by keeping guard, but not do regular service. This gives us a Biblical paradigm shift in how we serve the Lord when our strength wanes.
Numbers 8:23-26 - 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.”
When I was approaching 65 and talked about retirement, people said things like, “Pastors don’t retire.”
I agree that disciples of Jesus never retire, we never stop following and serving Christ, yet our service changes. When I was 60 I was still playing softball and could still run, hike mountains, etc. But sometime in my early 60s I hit a wall physically and mentally. When I turned 65 and retired, I felt in my heart that there is a good reason why society picks 65. It is the average when we feel our strength depleting.
To be an effective pastor requires spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental strength. I have found that my spiritual strength is still growing, while the others begin to fade. Pastoring requires many hours of work and eventually our strength wanes. God knows this and thus put limits on Levitical service. Dealing with people’s struggles, the ravages of things like Covid, and dealing with division sap our emotional strength. Trying to adapt to rapidly changing times, shifting morality, and new technology can feel like a race of hurdles that you just can’t overcome. Mental energy can decline as well. Some older people reach their heights of intellect in their old age, but not everyone does. I don’t know when I reached my peak mentally but now I know that peak is behind me. Focusing and remembering are harder now.
I’ve met with many pastors during the Covid pandemic and every one of them, younger and older, has struggled with its challenges. For all it has been difficult, and for those in their late fifties to sixties it is making them seriously think about retirement. I don’t think we should feel bad that we are not up for all these challenges. It is just a fact of life. God expects us to faithfully steward all of our gifts.
All our days are numbered, and Psalm 90 says “the years of our lives are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” Now-a-days people tend to live longer, but the average age for men in Canada as of 2019 was 79.9 – 84 for woman. So if you live to 80 you are average. Moses prayed, “Lord teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” We need wisdom for the next steps in our life.
So what would be wise for you? Some guys may serve in ministry until they are 80, but can you, or do you want to? More importantly, what does God want you to do? That is the ultimate question each one of us must wrestle with. As your strength weakens, how best can you serve the Lord in your older years? How can you make room for younger men to succeed your leadership? How can you best influence your family, community and younger generation as an older man? We can’t just sit and watch life pass us by either – we need meaningful things to do, and the Lord’s work never lacks for servants. Ask Him what He wants you to do. We can effectively serve in some capacity without burning out.
I think the 6 stages of a man’s life as described by John Eldredge give us wisdom:
- Beloved son (boyhood) — A young boy needs to know that his father delights in him.
- Cowboy stage (begins at adolescence) — A time of adventure, hard work, and taking risks
- Warrior stage ( early 20s) — Young men need a mission, a cause, something worth fighting for. This stage is best entered before the Lover stage.
- Lover stage (20s to 30s) — The awakening of the heart. This could manifest as a love of poetry, nature, music…and eventually romance.
- King stage (40s to 60s) — At this stage, the character of the man and his wholeheartedness has been shaped enough to be entrusted with power, money, and influence. This is a beautiful, demanding stage that requires wisdom and selflessness.
- Sage stage (60s and beyond) — The silver-haired sage steps aside to let younger men carry the load, but he’s sought after for his wisdom and counsel.
The King stage is when we are at our best to lead, even though we may be leaders as young men. Maybe it should be ages 30 to 60’s, but however we define it, our roles can and must change. The Bible exalts the calling and position of elders and expects his people to honor the wisdom of the aged.
Leviticus 19:32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
1 Peter 5:1-14 “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” ...
I have several suggestions for how we can prepare for retirement. They are best implemented when we are younger – just as investing is wise when we are younger. But the problem is many just don’t get around to it. Don’t let that happen to you, or you will pay a price for it when you are older. Your pastoral development will not be complete without adequate preparation for finishing well and living fruitfully after your pastoral ministry. I’ve added some resources at the end for you to consider.
Health - Today I turned 68. That is not young, no matter what people may tell you. Health has become very important now, whereas 20 years ago I just took it for granted. I found out at 65 I have major blockages in my coronary arteries. So far it is treatable with drugs, but it definitely limits what I can do. Some of it was due to my sinful lifestyle in my twenties, but a lot is also due to the sedentary lifestyle of a pastor: sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, sitting while visiting, sitting in meetings, etc. We do too much sitting, and it is bad for our health. Get a stand-up desk and at least make sure you walk several km every day. Put away the chips, chocolate bars and fast food too. I am paying the price for lack of personal discipline, but also the heredity from my father, who died at 54. Whatever your situation, make changes now while you can. You will thank yourself later.
What are the health signs you need to heed? How about erectile dysfunction? Haha, nobody wants to talk about that! Couple that with shortness of breath and cold extremities and you must admit you may have heart or circulatory trouble. Know your cholesterol and triglyceride counts and be honest about your diet and exercise activity. We who purport to be wise can so easily fool ourselves! Remember we all have blind spots. Find a balance or you may hit retirement age and be unable to enjoy it.
Wealth – We are bombarded with scary information about personal financials and retirement. I never had a great salary as a pastor. For many years we just scraped by as we raised our family. Saving money gradually became a priority as I got older, but it wasn’t and isn’t much. One thing we did have as we entered retirement was owning our own house and being debt free. My retirement income is about the same as my early income as a pastor 30+ years ago, but we have no big debt. We have lived frugally, and we still do. But we can travel some and enjoy the luxury of a 20 year old RV. So my biggest recommendation is to own your house and be debt free when you retire. If not, you may have to keep working, long after you do not want to. That is not the best place to be, for yourself or your people.
Replaceable – Yes it is true, you are not indispensable! Most of us would not admit having any sort of a saviour complex, but I think all pastors have a bit at least. It is true that people and ministries do depend on leaders, but we know that Jesus is the leader they ultimately depend on. We are replaceable and we will be replaced. I find it instructive to see how quickly the world moves on after a leader moves on or someone dies. Beyond our immediate family, that is what will happen to us when we retire or pass into eternity. Be willing to give up the authoritative leadership role you have been given.
Obscurity – Most of Jesus’ adult life was lived in relative obscurity. We know basically nothing of his life from about 13 to 30. He just lived his life without revealing the details to us. We get to enter obscurity after our working life. I see it being a spiritual discipline and part of the journey into Christlikeness. Pastor, you are going to miss the pulpit and being the preacher/teacher. You will miss the ‘atta-boys’ and “thank you pastor” at the door. You will miss being the face of the ministry; you will miss being needed. You will retire to being comparatively obscure, especially if you live outside your final church community. Personally I don’t believe that is a necessity, as long as we are highly supportive of the next pastor and don’t interfere or seek undo ongoing recognition. (Read this chapter on "Obscurity.")
On the bright side, you won’t likely miss trying to be all things to all people. You won’t miss conflict and church bosses. You won’t miss being in over your head in counseling. You won’t miss the long hours.
I got called all the time as a pastor, but that happens infrequently now. I can walk into worship on Sunday mornings, and no one needs me. We become sort of an average church member (albeit one with the respect of having been their pastor), and that takes some getting used to. If we identify being Pastor xxxx, how will we view ourselves when we are just Mr. xxxx? We need to prepare for this because we are more tied up in our identity as a pastor than we realize.
Serving – Glenda and I went on a 6-month RV road trip to the south-west USA when we retired. It was simply magnificent! The following year we spent a February in Florida, and it was wonderful to get away south in the worst winter month. When I returned I asked the Lord what He might have for me to do, since I wasn’t sure what was next. You may think being on permanent vacation is the goal of retirement, but this is not feasible or reasonable. I was also missing my ministry life and community of pastors. Then I got a call to be the Regional Director for Fellowship Atlantic. I agreed to do this for 2 years, and now that is starting to wind down. I have greatly enjoyed visiting pastors and churches, preaching and taking people out to lunch. But all ministry involves stress and exertion, and I can tell my heart is feeling it.
I am making it a priority to live to see my grandchildren grow up, so I get to plan in some way how to spend my strength. We will continue to serve in less formal public ways. We have led a small group in our area for the past 3 years and enjoy seeing people being discipled, encouraged and engaging our community. My goal is helping others lead the group and reach out. I still plan to serve the Lord, but I don’t feel the need or have the calling to always lead something. I will gladly be available to be a ‘sage’, but that is something that is asked of us, not something we can expect or ask for. Thankfully the Lord still works His will in our hearts, so we can trust the Lord to inform us of what He wants from us and give us the desires of our hearts. (Phil. 2:13; Psalm 37:4).
Rest and Reward – Our ultimate rest and reward will be found in heaven when we die and in the resurrection. I also think it is to be claimed in our later years. Joshua and Caleb instruct us. When they were old they fought battles, and then found their rest in their selected inheritances in the promised land when the battles were over. Battles do not end when we hit 65 – in fact they may increase. People we love get sick and we lose people. Health issues multiply and they take a toll. We fight self-control and faithfulness issues until we die! But there is a time for leaders to hand the baton of leadership to younger men who have the strength to meet the battles and challenges of church life, especially so in a new and daunting age. The church needs pastors who are able to meet the demands of the times. I don’t think there is anything wrong with looking forward to sitting in the shade in the heat of the day like Abraham.
We have normal desires of the heart that we should not consider carnal or selfish, especially when we have given the Lord our best years of service.
Calling and Attitude
Deuteronomy 34:7 - Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone
There are many scriptures that give wisdom as we age and consider the Lord’s calling for the rest of our lives. He may call us like Moses to lead when we are 80. He may changes us dramatically like he did with Jacob at 80. We may succumb to temptation like Noah when we are very old. We have to continue to practice the spiritual disciplines and habits that got us this far. Whatever our calling may entail, we will continue to follow Jesus until our final day on earth. So enjoy the journey and grow old with grace. Aim to be a happy old guy, not a miserable old miser or cynic!
2 Cor.4:16 - Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
Psalm 71:18 - Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.
Psalm 92:12-15 - The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.
Don’t lose heart over the transitions and changes that will come your way. If you haven’t prepared well up until now, then do what you can today to meet the challenges of tomorrow. I must tell you that retiring is often very satisfying. Sleeping in, if you can sleep in, is a blessing. Not having to plan an event is a good thing. Not attending meetings is life giving! Not being the go-to-guy for everything is liberating. Seeing how the Lord faithfully cares for you and yours into old age is reassuring. He will bear fruit through us even in old age, so embrace the journey! You now have the time to really get intimate with the Lord, not just read the Word with possible messages in mind. You now have time for pursuing a lifelong desire or meaningful hobby. You will have time to really study something in depth. You have time to truly notice and absorb the goodness of God in creation and hopefully grandchildren. And one more thing - time truly flies as we age. Don’t be in a hurry to retire before your time. Engage each part of your pastoral journey with courage and joy.
Remember, pastor, God the Just is satisfied with you, always.
Hopefully you can glean some wisdom out of these following resources. You may not agree with everything these people say, so bring to the Lord what speaks to your heart.