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I retired a few years ago, said goodbye to my last congregation in Zürich, Switzerland, moved to Holland, Michigan, and started a new life.
I became active in a lifelong-learning organization connected to Hope College (HASP), taught classes there, started CrossFit, wrote a book, walked the Camino de Santiago alone in March, learned to cook, constructed my family tree (with the help of Ancestry.com), did some guest preaching (more than I expected), and generally adapted to a new way of life.
Successfully, I thought. I was so pleased with myself.
And then, last spring, I was contacted by a church about being their interim pastor. I had several meetings with them – even went out to dinner with the committee chair who traveled to Holland to talk with me about the job – and in the end withdrew my name.
The work seemed way too much like what I had done for more than 40 years. “Not to go all Marie Kondo on you,” I remember saying, “but there isn’t much about this job description that sparks joy in me.” I felt relieved with my decision.
Within a month, another church contacted me, and this time the meetings led to a commitment. I agreed to be their interim pastor.
During the interview with the other church, the one I am serving now, a search committee member asked, “Why do you want to do this?” A good question. My wife had asked the same question, using more colorful words.
The answer came easily. I heard myself say, “I love the church. And I know that it has gone through a difficult two years – with Covid and everything. I would like to help where I can.” Nothing about joy. What I felt instead was a commitment to something that I have devoted my life to. Throughout my life I have felt a strong, occasionally overwhelming, sense of call. I’m glad I said yes.
But, here I am, 4,000 miles from home, entering the seventh month of an interim pastorate, and I am wondering what comes next. The search process is winding down, a candidate for the senior pastor position has been identified, and soon I will be getting on a plane and returning to my old life.
Or will I?
Several times in the last year, I mentioned my desire to go home, and church members have invariably said, “Pastors never retire.” Some of them have said it with a knowing smile, as if I am the one who is slow to catch on. “It’s really a lifetime commitment,” they seem to be saying, even as they make plans to leave their jobs and enjoy their pensions with travel, sailing, and more.
Is it true that pastors never retire?
Looking back, I think I treated my own retirement like a kind of sabbatical. I did everything I had ever dreamed of doing in retirement, and I did it in a single year. It’s in my personality to do things that way, but now I wonder if I just needed a break, time to explore, some space to breathe. I had one sabbatical in 40 years of ministry, and I could have used several more.
I love my work, but stepping back and doing other things was helpful and restorative. That one time I took a sabbatical, I came back refreshed. I re-entered my ministry with a new vitality and energy. A leader at that church said, “If we had known how energized you would be, we would have suggested it much earlier.” (For the record, I asked for the sabbatical, and the request was met mostly with skepticism.)
At the church I served in Wheaton, Illinois, more than 25 years ago, an older pastor started to worship with us. He had just moved to a nearby retirement community. He didn’t like it, and said so, but he was making the best of it. I remember him saying, referring to his retirement community, “This is my new parish.”
I deeply respected that man and his wisdom. I felt honored when the family asked me to participate in his memorial service a few years later. And I have not forgotten his words. All those years ago, I remember thinking that he was onto something. I may not serve another church – my wife will be glad – but I will find my next parish wherever I am.
In that sense, I do not expect to retire.