I was surprised when I heard a conference staff person reflect that upwards of 80% of the conflicted churches with whom they were invited to help facilitate resolutions involved a retired clergy who was a member of the congregation. Whether the previously mentioned retired clergy was at one time the pastor of the church in conflict or was just now member of the conflicted church, they had been pulled, cajoled or just inserted themselves into the conflict in such a way so as to hinder a resolution. And, much to the consternation of this conference staff person, all this when there are clear ethical guidelines in place to assist with the boundaries when a minister leaves the pastorate. In a recent article in Christian Century, this challenge concerning the role of retired clergy was lifted up by sharing examples of new succession models of transition between retiring clergy and a new pastor. Not all are ready to erase the guidelines that separate all professional and personal relationships at the time of retirement but given the increase in both number of retired clergy and the number of churches who cannot support a full-time pastor, perhaps it is time to consider a new narrative.
Consider the numbers. According to the 2016 UCC Statistical Profile, there were 4,952 ministers currently employed in 2015 and 3,950 who were already retired. This group of retired ministers has increased by at least 500 every 10 years for the past 30 years. Given the larger demographics of our culture, this number is not going to slow for another couple of decades.
Retired UCC leader, Rev. David Moyer, was interviewed for the Christian Century article. Concerning the guidelines that suggest that retired clergy not stay in the same community where they last served and continue in their previous congregation as a member, Moyer suggests that he “would like to see us move from a rule-based system. Why can’t we treat clergy as responsible adults and give them the guidelines for a relationship that transitions from professional, so that personal relationships can remain?” Given the observations of the conference staff person mentioned above, it appears that there is still much work that needs to happen in order for retired pastors to learn how to be wise members of the congregation.
Perhaps another way of thinking about this is to move away from the term “retirement” and look at another term that others in the culture are embracing: “Inspirement”. When we retire, we are leaving the day to day professional tasks, but the spiritual grounding of our calling remains. We don’t leave our “ordination” with the vows which we took earlier in our lives. The challenge is how to discern the ways in which our experience and gifts can be used to continue to inspire and build up the body of Christ at work in the world beyond the confines of the pastoral office.
In a recent workshop, I asked the participants to reflect on those individuals who serve as role models or heroes of successful aging.The late Rev. Bill Barndt’s daughter, Kathy, was in the group. She talked about how her father’s calling following his career as local church pastor and denominational executive continued to flourish. His passion for social justice continued through his almost 30 years of retirement. I remember well how he attended all clergy meetings and association meetings and shared the opportunity for those of us serving local congregations to help support Pastors for Peace and contribute to the sharing of resources around the world through the many organizations that he helped to support. He also served as an interim pastor along the way for most of the churches in the association. His post-professional years truly were inspiring for the rest of us as he would pass out the latest flier for the next justice event or meeting.
Yes, the number of retired clergy is growing. But I hope that we can find ways to change the narrative from this being a burden on the church and a probable source of conflict. Retirement is not necessarily a time when everyone sits back and only reflects on some period of the past as being the bar for ministry today. The challenge needs to be seen as one of opportunity to find ways for the church to benefit from the energy and wisdom of those who have served faithfully and who are now free from the confines of the pastoral office to give voice in new ways to help inspire, support, mentor and reflect with those who are following in the same calling.
Perhaps, instead of only thinking about the boundary that marks leaving professional ministry with retirement, we need to consider how to prepare clergy to step into their new reality as a time of Inspirement. What ignites their passion? How might they embrace new opportunities to express their faith? And what are the best ways for them to use the gifts that are still ripe for sharing?
To paraphrase Dr. Bill Thomas, older adults are the only natural resource that is actually growing. Ministers who have moved into the time of their lives when they no longer desire to work full-time are a part of this number. What if we saw this group as an asset? Let’s not waste this resource of wisdom. Because perhaps, such wisdom, when paired with the energy of younger hearts, may just be the collective combination to help the church move creatively through this time of uncertainty and into God’s future.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.