Retiring With Grace

Grace is at the heart of the Gospel. It should be at the heart of retirement as well. But unfortunately, that is not always the case. Despite our best intentions, the closer we get to actually retiring, the greater the struggle can be. For some, this is so much so that they continue postponing their retirement, with some ending up working longer than they should have and/or until their health breaks. This is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Jesus’ offer of abundant life does not have an expiration date on it. His words in John 10:10 are as applicable to the life stage we call retirement/aging as they are in any other stage.  Of course, life will be different; it is in every new stage. But by grace, retirement can be as valuable and meaningful as any other previous stage has been. Among the many things which grace does for us as we approach retirement, one is that it prevents us from making some mistakes, which can keep us from retiring with grace. Here are a few grace benefits.

First, grace helps us not to equate our life with our career. We are not what we do; we are beloved daughters and sons of God. Our identity is rooted in our being made in the image of God and being the apple of God’s eye. No title in front of our name can top that. When we retire, we do leave familiar territory and the tasks, which have become routine to us, but we do not leave behind our sacred personhood or the gifts and graces which enabled us to live as we have.  Carrying them with us, we can find new ways and means for expressing them. The world needs what we have to offer, but we must be willing to package it in new ways.

I have a friend who has had a heart for missions throughout his ministry, and the churches where he has served have benefitted from it. Now, in retirement, he has been able to connect with a mission-sending agency that uses volunteers to both promote the ministry and to be involved in it. Another friend has taken her love for children and now expresses it through volunteer work in a local elementary school. In both people, grace freed them from careerism while preserving their passion. They have continued to live abundantly through new channels.

Second, grace provides us with the wisdom not to leave our retirement open-ended. In ordained ministry, there is always more that can be done. Our work is never finished. If we make no plans for retiring, we can always postpone it. Psychologically, this can turn into denial. But practically, it defers attending to the details which make retirement feasible. We can end up rushing key decisions because we waited too long to give them the time and space to develop into a good retirement plan. Naming a retirement date does not force us into it if circumstances change, but it gives us a trajectory to follow. Waiting too long creates a jolt instead of what God intends to be a journey.

I have a friend who announced his retirement a year before he actually did it. He later told me, “If I had not announced my retirement, I would never have gone through with it.” When the time came, there was no pressing need to retire. He still felt good, and things were going well. But his announcement created a realistic vision and a healthy accountability to his intention, and it gave him the time to add specificity to his decision. It also gave his congregation time both to celebrate his ministry and to make good plans for their next chapter.

Third, grace gives us the time and the space to see retirement for the comprehensive experience that it is. In the previous point, I alluded to the many details that need attention in the years leading up to retirement. In this point, I want to emphasize that retiring is a whole-life experience. It includes the threefold humanity that St. Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 5:23—spirit, soul, and body. Not all three of these aspects of our lives are ready for retirement in precisely the same way. We need to spend time getting each aspect in good shape. Spiritual direction combined with practical advice results in a positive whole-life retirement.

Another friend told me that when he decided to prepare for his retirement, he began to have conversations with clergy who had retired well. These visits, he said, were filled with wisdom and practical advice. He also connected with a financial advisor who helped him construct a good plan. In his case, he was fortunate to have people in his congregation who worked every day in some way with people who were retiring.  Doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, etc. became confidants. He picked their brains for valuable counsel, and in doing so found some of his closest friends to be those willing to walk with him toward retirement with joy and guidance.

Fourth, grace prevents us from mentioning it over and over.  Retirement is not a termination, it is a transition. Retirement is not a funeral. It is the opening of a door to a new world of time and opportunity. Grace helps us end one phase of our life with gratitude and begin another one with anticipation. We do not have to always be looking back as we move toward retirement. We can be facing forward into a future God has in store for us.

I knew a person who saw his retirement as a “death.” During his final year, he would repeatedly say, “Well, this is the last time that I will _____” filling in the blank with whatever activity he was performing at the time. Honestly, he wore us out. In the final several months, every time he walked into a room, the social atmosphere was clouded with his grief statements. He fought retirement to the end. This does not have to be so. Grace helps us build a bridge from the past into the future, making our retirement days ones of new beginnings.

Finally, grace enables us to walk away. One of the worst things we can do is cast a shadow over the place where we have served and over the one who has come to succeed us. Grace helps us to recognize that we served our time; now, it is someone else’s time. We were not deprived of anything; we must not impede the freedom of our successor to do his or her ministry. Will things be done differently? Of course! But we did them differently than those who preceded us. We give our congregation and the incoming clergyperson a great gift by creating the space for them to minister, just as our predecessors did for us.

My friend, Dr. David McKenna, says it clearly, “Go away and stay away.”  His words are not those of a begrudging leader who reluctantly retires. Rather, they are the words of one who knows how to leave a legacy that is healthy. Grace enables us to capture the precious memories that have characterized our ministry over the years, cherish them, and then put our hand to the plow looking forward to what lies ahead. As I said in my book, retirement is a time for stepping aside so that we (and those we have served) can move ahead.  Grace comes to us in retirement as a perspective and a power for doing so.

Steve Harper is a retired theological professor, having taught for more than thirty years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. He is also a retired Elder in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. His book, Stepping Aside, Moving Ahead: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom for Clergy Retirement, released in April 2016.