I’m several years on the downhill side of retirement from being the pastor (OK, the ‘senior,’ ‘lead,’ ‘head,’ or ‘big dawg,’ pastor) of a Southern Baptist Church. I’ve thought about retirement in a concrete way for about 15 years now, starting about a decade before I pulled the trigger, resigned my church, and retired. My state convention (and probably all the others) has retirement planning seminars starting at age 50. I attended several. Hey, they were free and I learned a lot. These are some of the best things my state convention does.
Since I am reading that the average age of protestant pastors is 56, or about six years younger than the minimum retirement age where you can draw Social Security, I surmise that many of the folks that roam around the SBC sites are well within striking distance of retiring and are giving it some serious thought.
So, may I share a few thoughts?
- It is almost di rigeur for we conservative, Bible-believing Southern Baptists to say that we really don’t think retirement is biblical. I’m OK with that and would say the same thing. I’m not retired from serving the Lord and His churches or from proclaiming the Word, or from Christian ministry. This “retirement is not Biblical” business is a flexible concept. Some may mean that a pastor should always be the pastor of a church. That’s fine. Just don’t try and impose that on everyone. Almost every pastor will die while not being the pastor of a of a specific church. That’s our culture and clergy act in the same ways as non-clergy in this regard.
- Planning for retirement should start at the latest at the pastor’s first church, on his first day. My first church told me, “This is how much we can pay you. You can divide it up any way you wish.” I set up a retirement account and started making payments the first month even though it would have been helpful if I could have had the whole sum to spend on baby births and living expenses. Very soon, I persuaded the church to pay GuideStone directly to my account. Most pastors who put off making retirement payments until they think they can afford it will never catch up and be in a poor financial position later in life.
- When to retire and resign from your church is almost always a totally subjective matter. It’s not unlike knowing when to relocate from one church to another in that some principles apply but no one is around to tell you it’s time, unless you get fired and then it is time. There are multiple factors involved in retiring: health, finances, church related, family related, and more. In my case, I felt it was right for both myself and the congregation. I didn’t get a directive from my wonderful wife, or pressure or a pink slip from the church, or a letter from God. I prayed, pondered, and patiently ruminated over the matter, in a general fashion for a couple of years but more intensely for a few months prior to making a decision.
- Finances are certain to figure into the decision…and there is nothing unspiritual about that; however, if money is the primary factor then there may be difficulty. Do church folks recognize when the pastor is just hanging on? Undoubtedly so. It’s far better to have planned for decades for retirement so that you aren’t backed into a corner at 55 or 60 or 65 where you will not have enough income unless you hang onto your pastorate. Fact is, most retirees continue to do some work that generates income. GuideStone has good advice on the minister and his retirement plans. Consult them.
- The pastor should make a healthy and honest assessment about his own physical and emotional health and the health of his present church. Having a close, honest, knowledgeable, and reliable friend with whom you can speak candidly about the matter can be a great help in understanding how the congregation views their pastor. The pastor’s spouse should be able to give him a good reading. Listen to her. Get a hearing aid if you need to. Most of us know numerous fellow pastors about whom we could say, ‘They stayed way too long.’ That’s not a good way to end a pastorate.
- There is a lot of bad counsel bouncing around our circles on retirement. Our entities and news outlets offer quite a number of retirement articles and advice. Beware of the high profile pastors and leaders who give retirement advice. Their frame of reference is different than yours and mine. While they may think they are in touch with the average pastor (that’s the single staff guy with 125 or less on Sunday, or the median church size guy which is 70 or so), the advice is often off the mark. If you have served the Lord by leading one of his churches for decades, then you should be far more attuned to what He wants for you than the latest advice from the Olympian heights of those who haven’t actually pastored a real congregation in decades.
- Don’t make a hasty decision. Maybe make it a rule that you will not settle on a decision on a Monday, or while in a church crisis, or when frustrated
Can I be forgiven for being personal about all this? I did not envision that five years after retiring I would be doing what I ended up doing. I am preaching less than I thought I would but doing more assorted ministry to help my pastor and church outside of the pulpit and not on Sunday. I spend less time fishing than I did when active. Regardless, I feel as satisfied and fulfilled where I am now as I did when I had charge of a congregation, although I miss in some ways regular preaching and pastoral care and interaction with the people.
The experts say there is a tsunami of clergy retirements coming. We Baby Boomers have driven social trends in the US since 1945. I hope yours is smooth and satisfying. The decisions you make five, ten, or more years prior will probably dictate how smooth it is.
God bless you in your work.