The call to retirement

39 years ago I left Spurgeons College in South London, having undergone three years of preparation for the Baptist ministry. Since then, apart from a few months in 1978, I have been continuously working as a minister in Baptist churches. Moves between churches occurred when I accepted an invitation from a new church to come and be its minister, believing it to be a call from God. Now, for the first time, Rita and I are moving, not because of such an invitation, but through personal choice. Our new home is not attached to any church; no congregation awaits our arrival. I am not fond of the notion of retirement, but that is the conventional description for what I am doing.

The ending of any meaningful relationship is a significant moment, and can be emotional. Leaving a close knit community like a Baptist church is such an event, especially for its minister. Retirement brings an extra dimension of finality, and raises particular issues. Housing can pose particular challenges, especially for those who, like me, live in a “tied house”. When the work comes to an end, the provision of accommodation does too. Possibly for the first time, the minister is faced with the choice of where to live.

Important though they are, the practical questions are less profound than the psychological and social ones. When the minister’s special role in the community of a local church comes to an end, it involves the loss of a position of status and respect – unless, of course, the minister takes up a “retirement pastorate” in a church. But it is not simply a matter of status. Ministers are in a highly privileged position, sharing deep moments of joy, grief and anxiety with members of the congregation. They play a central role in marriages, funerals and baptisms, as well as in other major life events such as divorce, major surgery and redundancy. Leading a congregation as its minister also inevitably involves struggling with collective decision making, working together on major community events, sorting out personal conflicts, etc.. All this is not easily left behind.

This personal bond between minister and church has been affected in recent years by a trend to regard ministry as a profession similar to other professions. This amounts to a tendency to think of the minister as an employee, which naturally affects the impact of retirement. A distinction is made between ministerial responsibilities and the minister’s personal life, a distinction which has a profound effect on the nature of the relationship with the church. It becomes more formal and defined; less open ended. While retirement still involves the breaking of personal ties, the emphasis, when it occurs, is more on relinquishing ministerial duties than the ending of the communal element of a minister’s life.

Any minister needs some degree of personal independence from the congregation, for their own well-being, but a relationship of mutual openness and trust, which the move towards a professionalized ministry threatens, is worth nurturing. The close bond between pastor and church has traditionally been central to Baptist ecclesiology, and is one of the gifts we can offer, not only to other church traditions, but also to wider society, where relationships of all kinds are increasingly contractual and superficial, and where loyalty is undervalued. By making themselves vulnerable, ministers may make it more likely they will be hurt, including at retirement, but by doing so they can also offer churches the opportunity to build a community based on personal commitment and love, rather than defined roles and duties.

It may be true that moving from one church to another is different from retiring from pastoral ministry altogether because of the absence of a call from a church, but perhaps this misses the real point. For any Christian, God’s call is involved in all major changes in life, whether these are chosen or imposed. To accept an invitation from a church to be its minister is to recognize it as a call from God, but retirement from pastoral ministry too is a call from God. None of us can escape the responsibility (and privilege) to hear and respond to that call, for God’s interest in the service we can offer him never disappears. The Christian life offers freedom and hope through hearing the invitation God gives, at every stage of life. Retirement is more than an ending. It is a chance to hear again God’s call to something new.

Peter Shepherd (September 2016)

The greatest show on earth

It was exciting to watch Team GB perform in Rio over the summer. Laura Trott didn’t disappoint; Max Whitlock in the gymnastics was most impressive; then there was Nick Skelton, who showed that age is no barrier to sporting prowess. He may not have been using his own legs to get around, but nevertheless his achievement was pretty amazing.

The athletes’ reactions to winning was often the most moving part. Four years or more of anonymous and sacrificial hard work come to glorious fruition in a moment. The joy, gratitude, relief and surprise on display were deeply and genuinely felt.

Now it is all over – apart from the Paralympics, of course – and already seems a distant memory. Other sporting achievements have come and gone, and world events, which seemed to take a break for those few weeks, have regained their familiar, and usually rather depressing prominence in the news. Which makes me wonder about the significance of the Olympics’ emotional high, driven as it was by superb and seemingly omnipresent coverage on the BBC.

On returning from Brazil, one of the Olympians said that the athletes’ village felt like the Big Brother house – the subject of massive media interest but at the same time largely insulated from it. Common to both shows are intense rivalries, conflicts, successes and failures, interspersed by personal interviews given at times of high emotion. The scale, cost and history of the Olympics lift them above other reality shows, but that is essentially what they are. But there is another disturbing dimension to it all: political ambition.  For Brazil, as the host nation, but also for every other country taking part, seeking status and recognition through their position in the medal table. Our Olympians did us proud, but the final league table in no way means that Great Britain (are we the only country to designate ourselves as “great”?) is superior to our European neighbours, or even to those countries, mostly among the poorest in the world, who won no medals at all. The search for national status and pride inevitably means that powerful hidden forces behind the scenes are at work, through means fair (if massive financial support, the prospect of public shame in the event of failure and the promise of big rewards for success can be regarded as fair) or foul.

Winners are praised as national heroes, which is for some, no doubt, a mixed blessing. But what about the others, who may have worked just as hard and sacrificed just as much, if not more? And what about those who, despite their best endeavour, never even made it to Rio? For some, the joy and satisfaction of participating, of doing their best, will be sufficient reward. Some will be inspired to try again – only another four years! For others, the dashed hopes and sense of failure will be devastating. For every medal winner there are countless others, who for a host of reasons, mostly having nothing to do with their own commitment or talent, are left with a sense of disappointment and “what if?”

Genuine competition, with its attendant winners and losers, is compelling entertainment, and can give us much to admire and aspire to. We wonder at the achievements of Rio, but the scale and intensity of media attention on the few who win was out of all proportion. It is easy to forget that success, in any field, is born not only of ability and hard work, but also of money and opportunity, which are available to only a few.

I expect our medal winners will receive honours in the New Year’s distribution. The whole honours system is highly dubious at the best of times, having more to do with social control than recognizing people’s proper deserts, and to reward medal winners in this way reinforces the exaggerated hero worship we saw in Rio. If anyone deserves to be honoured, it is those who gave as much and won nothing. Courage, commitment and skill can be found in many walks of life, most of it unacknowledged.

We enjoy the entertainment that sport brings, and share in the joy of those who win, but our perspective on what is important in life should not be  be distorted by the way the media exalt a few lucky and talented individuals. And for goodness sake, let’s abandon the silly nonsense of giving out honours, especially to those whose success has already been very well recognized.

Peter Shepherd (September 2016)