The Abundance of Retired Clergy

Over the past century, American life expectancy has increased by nearly 50% (as seen here). We in the U.S. now have multiple generations facing significantly longer lifespans than their parents and grandparents. The fastest-growing population here is, in fact, people over 85 years old. This has literally never happened before in human history, and we, therefore, have very little understanding of what life is going to be about for entire generations at such an age. Consider, for example: if someone retires this year at the age of 65, what are they to expect life will be like moving ahead, knowing that it is entirely possible that they will be retired for almost as long as they were working?

As a clergyperson in the UCC, I am especially curious about life for our retired clergy. 

Source: http://www.pixabay.com “All signs point to retired UCC clergy outnumbering working clergy within the decade'”

And it’s not just the length of life for an individual clergyperson; it’s the sheer numbers of us who are living longer. The UCC’s Statistical Report for 2019 is quite revealing on this front. In 1985, there were 7,218 employed clergy compared with 2,240 who were retired / emeriti. As of 2018, there were 4,628 employed clergy and 4,120 retired / emeriti. Said another way, the ratio of employed clergy to retired clergy has changed over the past 30+ years from more than 3:1 to nearly 1:1. At these rates, retired clergy will very soon outnumber employed clergy in the UCC, especially when considering that more than half of the active, non-retired UCC clergy are at least 60 years old. (FWIW: we’re hardly alone on this front as a denomination, as a 2017 Pepperdine University study revealed.)

What will it mean for the UCC to have more retired clergy than working clergy? What expectations do we have for retired clergy? And what gifts might retired clergy have to offer the UCC, especially in such large (and increasing) numbers? A handful of our most famous retired clergy (like Jeremiah Wright and James Forbes) travel across the country to preach and teach in diverse settings. Most of our retired clergy, however, simply don’t have the national renown to do what Wright and Forbes are doing.

So what are they doing? To find out, I interviewed a few retired UCC clergy.

Rev. Peter Luckey. Peter served for several years in the Chicagoland area before accepting a call to Lawrence to serve as the Senior Pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, Kansas. After serving Plymouth for 24 years, Peter retired in 2019. A first-career minister, he followed his father’s footsteps into ordained ministry.  Now, though, Peter faces the possibility that he will be a retired pastor for nearly as long as he was a working pastor. What will he, or any of his peers, do with this knowledge?

In Peter’s case, he began trying all kinds of things: yoga, advocacy, writing letters to the editor, etc. But volunteering at a local shelter in Lawrence has really become a big part of his life. Instead of spending his days working on sermon preparation and stewardship campaigns, Peter now finds himself caring for the homeless from the shelter’s front desk — the very shelter where his former pastoral role meant that he was on the board. Where his father’s generation might have thought about a quiet retirement to enjoy their remaining days, Peter’s generation now faces years of good health and active living.

Peter’s spending his days volunteering, which is a blessing to the shelter. But I can’t help wondering: if the UCC had a clearer role for retired clergy, could we be reaping major benefits from those who have decades of work experience, and decades more to serve in retirement? “The minute you retire,” Peter told me, “it’s not like your call goes away. It’s stronger than ever.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Tellström. Paul retired from Irvine United Congregational Church in Orange County, California. He had previously served congregations in Los Angeles, including First Congregational Church and Mt. Hollywood Congregational UCC. While he had planned to retire in a few years anyway, health concerns and encouragement from his doctor caused him to retire last year. With modern medicine, he now enjoys spending his days with his husband Carl, even as he misses the ministry.

While Paul was still a pastor at Irvine, he regularly found himself recruiting the retired clergy in his pews to lead projects they loved (as seen here). Once Paul retired, he was disappointed to learn that Irvine was the exception, not the rule, when it came to finding roles for retired clergy in the local church. He told me that his peers were remarkably active, doing a lot of international travel or mission work. Speaking of his retired clergy colleagues, Paul said, “These are people who just will not stop.”

When I asked him what he made of the changing ratio of working to retired clergy, he said, “[Pastoring] is not a sustainable model for making a living anymore,” adding that he sees more and more working clergy being bi-vocational.

Both Peter and Paul agreed that their peers had tremendous vitality to still offer the UCC, even as they longed for both grace and clarity about how to offer that vitality in a meaningful way to the church. They both retired in place, staying in homes where they’ve lived for years rather than moving away to a retirement community like Pilgrim Place or one of the United Church Homes. Accordingly, they still have a lot of connections to friends and colleagues in the areas where they live.

Source: http://www.pixabay.com “How will retired and energetic clergy live out their call in the coming years?”

As for figuring out their calling in retirement, they both agreed that retired clergy might be particularly helpful in mentoring younger clergy. Paul suggested that the UCC could create a discernment program to parallel what NGLI is for younger clergy and CREDO is for mid-career clergy. Having such a program might not only help retiring clergy; it might also be in the self-interest of the UCC as we learn how to receive the gifts retired clergy could offer for years yet to come. When asked, Peter didn’t have a specific role in mind for retired clergy, though he did say, “It’d be great for the UCC to make use of us. We’re cheap!”

Our retired clergy are increasing in both numbers and vitality. They are traveling, teaching, volunteering, learning, advocating, and so much more – but they’re not necessarily doing so under the umbrella of the United Church of Christ. So how might we as the UCC receive the gifts they have to offer, especially since they will very soon make up the majority of our ordained clergy? The United Nations reports that the trend of Americans living longer on average (as seen here) has no end in sight. UCC clergy are part of that phenomenon. How we receive the vitality in our increasingly abundant numbers of retired clergy — and the abundance of gifts and experiences they have to share — will only become a more pressing question as the century unfolds.

David LindseyRev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.

3 thoughts on “The Abundance of Retired Clergy

  1. David a part of the problem is many well meaning clergy have caused many rural parishes to provide a housing allowance rather then a parsonage, (a mistake I made also) so now they have no housing for the pastor, especially if the pastor doesn’t have the money to buy their own home or the housing market isn’t that good in that area. This is why I’m suggesting we have to go back to almost a missionary attitude of going where the need is at whatever the personal cost. Not very practical in today’s world but totally within the bounds of the Faith and traditional Ministry. I also believe the larger church, seminaries and other branches of the church need to be involved in find answers.

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  2. I’m 71 and in another month I will rejoin the ranks of retired clergy. Tried it once and I got bored and I got a call. Was it from God? I don’t know but I first heard about this parish in the late 70’s. I’ve spent the last almost 9 years living in one of the most beautiful places with world class year round fishing. Where driving my three church circuit allows me to see eagles, deer, bear, various kinds of weasels, wolves and coyotes, and moose. We live as much off my pension and my wife’s salary as we do my salary but yet I leave with a sense of regret. I know in May one of the schools in my parish that still has a baccalaureate will have as possibly it’s only speaker one who preaches anti-Semitism in the Name of Jesus. The article I write for the local newspaper will go silent and my voice which has been the only one speaking out for progressive Christianity and challenging current government policy will no longer be at the ministerial table.
    What I’m driving at there is a mission many clergy could take on across much of rural America speaking out on issues of justice and peace, serving congregations either full or part time and speaking out against the hatred of today. Maybe fishing isn’t your game. Where I am moving has world class golf course and nearby are small UCC congregations being served by my class mates from seminary. Perhaps we in the UCC need to get back the missionary Spirit that sent clergy to Hawaii or with the spreading railroad across the Midwest and the Great Plains.

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    • John, thanks for taking the time to read and reflect on the blog post! I one day hope to be a retired clergyperson, so I’m always eager to hear what folks like you are planning to do in the coming days.

      As for your reflections, you’re tapping into some larger structural challenges that we (and a lot of denominations) are facing — namely, the gaps between deployment and opportunity. More than 2/3 of our churches were founded before 1900, when the majority of Americans lived in small towns and rural communities. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans — more than 80% — live in urban / suburban areas. Our clergy (retired and working) are thus far more likely to live in metro areas, while available pulpits are more likely to be in small towns and rural areas. How might we help retired clergy serve in such areas?

      I am reminded of a friend who retired 15 years ago. He had served for decades in a metro-area church, retired, eventually got bored, and went into interim ministry. The congregations he served — all within the same conference — were often 2-3 hours from the home he and his wife owned. If the churches hadn’t had parsonages where he could stay, he might not have been able to accept these positions (what with paying for two homes).

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