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)