One of the more difficult questions to answer in a pastor’s life is determining when it’s time to retire from ministry. When should a pastor retire? This is a tough question for a number of reasons, but mostly because it all depends on a number of circumstances. Thus, there is no one set answer for this question; it ultimately calls for wisdom. I cannot personally answer this question with a great degree of certainty because I am nowhere near ready to retire. So I can’t speak from personal experience, but I can address the question from Scripture, from observing others who have retired, and my own motivations and desires.
First, what does Scripture have to say about retirement? The short answer is, not much. The Bible does not specify an age for retirement. But one thing the Bible constantly reminds us of is, our union with Christ should ultimately define who we are. Our activities, as I said in last week’s post, should not define who we are. Our vocations and circumstances in life might regularly change but our union with Christ does not. Find your sense of self-worth and identity in Christ, not in what you do. This is the most important scriptural truth we must remember when we begin to think about retirement.
Second, just because you retire does not mean you are no longer able to serve in Christ’s church. I know of many ministers who retire and continue to serve the church through pulpit supply, at presbytery or classis, or even at the synodical or general assembly level. In many respects retired ministers are a great asset to the church. I know of retired ministers, for example, who have served as interim pastors for churches that do not have a minister. In such a capacity, they have been a huge encouragement to a needy congregation. But even then, just because you retire doesn’t mean that you have actively to serve. After thirty or forty years of ministry you may be ready for some peaceful rest. You have spent decades sacrificing and now need time to spend with your spouse, family, and grandchildren. Purposeful rest, I believe, is a legitimate use of one’s retirement.
Third, there are my own personal considerations regarding this question. I hope to be able to function as a minister as long as possible. I remember talking with a pastor who was well into his early nineties who was still preaching each Lord’s Day. When I asked him what he enjoyed doing, tears welled-up in his eyes and he said, “Preparing my message each week is the greatest source of joy!” Right then and there I signed-up to preach until I drop dead. In reality, I know I may not have the privilege. I once, for example, had the unenviable task of being appointed by presbytery to talk with an aging pastor to inform him that he no longer had the mental facilities to preach. He would preach the same message twice in the space of thirty minutes. He was crushed, and I was humbled, but someone had to tell him it was time to retire. In that vein, my wife has strict instructions to confront me should I begin to lose my mind (I am serious here and not joking). I also will know that it’s time to retire if I no longer have the zeal to preach or teach God’s word. If studying the word becomes a chore or something I dread, if I no longer have the enthusiasm to study hard and keep up-to-date with the latest theological issues pressing the church, then I know it’s time to retire. If I’m unwilling to do the work, then it’s time to retire. I see too many pastors who want the paycheck, prestige, and honor, but are in cruise-control and are phoning in their sermons and counseling sessions. These are just some of the things I presently take into consideration as I think about what things will lead me to retire.
If you’re young and think that retirement is too far down the road to contemplate, don’t be fooled. Don’t wait until it is upon you to try to decide what will trigger your retirement. Think through the issues now. Determine what are the objective things you need to decide to persuade you to retire. When the time comes, God willing, it will be a relatively easy decision to make because you’ve done your best to think through the issues.
In the end, pray for wisdom so that you know when it’s time to retire from the game. And once you do retire, give thanks to the Lord that he let you serve Christ’s church for many years. It’s definitely an honor and privilege to be cherished.