I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues. This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying. The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up (three of us are retired, three of us are active).
(Note to my non-Lutheran readers: in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary. We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)
So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area. Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them. But what is his role there after he retires?
Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time. This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end. Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”
Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman. This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above. It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints. Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.
The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends. Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor. Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor. We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!
Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:
As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement. The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”
We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.” Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).
Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah). For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.
Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king. While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that. But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he? So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading. Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”
Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.” David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself. Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.