“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets (or the squares) of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. 5 And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. “– Zech 8:4-5
It was my third year in ministry when I first began wondering, “When?” In the context of complaints and push-back from members, the question began to surface in frustration. The question was, “When can I retire?” Having that conversation with fellow pastors was always a source of amusement as though retirement was the solution to the struggles of life. We needed to laugh because ministry is hard and solemn work. I had more than three decades to go before retirement could even be considered.
The “more than three decades” have passed. The years have flown by. Now laughter about retirement has changed and taken a serious turn because I am retiring. There is an important question to be asked: “How does a person retire from the ministry?” Notwithstanding all of the forms to be filed, phone calls placed on hold, personal budgets to be worked again and again, and lifestyle decisions to be made (no small issue), how does one leave an office that calls not only for a joyful response to the gospel but one that has an eternal impact in the lives of people? Perhaps one doesn’t. But at this point employment is not the question. The question does not regard an office but rather a vocation. Here is where the challenge reveals itself for me as a professional church worker who is transitioning to private life. Who am I as one of God’s creatures? What is it that defines me in this body called the Church? That is a scary question to face. For years, week after week, I calendared and planned professional study, preparation, and proclamation of the Word. This all changes with retirement. What is to become of my joyful and yet professional response to the gospel? How will this impact my personal faith? Truths that I lived in and proclaimed day in and day out do not change because of age or station in life. But Zechariah observed that the old men and old women did not play in the streets any longer, (they retired) and at the same time the boys and girls did play in the streets. I learn that things change and that no one is indispensable in ministry. A new generation is raised up and it is always hopeful in God’s kingdom!
Still, this is not an easy thing to do. I have heard pastors say that in retirement they would be glad to continue guest preaching but if a congregation cannot produce a large crowd to listen then don’t bother inviting me. I have heard pastors say, “If I don’t stay in the pulpit, I’ll just die.” Still, others resist retirement observing, “There is no such thing as retirement in the Scripture. It’s not biblical!” This is more than simply avoiding Shakespeare’s sixth of The Seven Ages of Man shifting into “lean and slipper’d pantaloon with spectacles on nose and pouches on side.” Each of these begs the question: Who am I in God’s kingdom? What is it that defines me as a follower of Jesus?
The answer to the question is simple though perhaps not easy. It is not what I have done professionally or personally, but rather what Jesus has done. It is the cross that brings definition. The cross reveals the truth that the most amazing thing in history is that Jesus accepts this breaking vessel unconditionally by grace through faith whether or not I have a pulpit or a position or an office. This is the source of eternal laughter. This alone is the source of unrestrained joy and even giddiness. In addition to that, I have a vocation. I have a call. I am to love God with everything I have, and I am to love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27). The transition from a weighted professionally applied, yet authentic faith that people would see publicly from the pulpit to a personally embraced confession that is not measured by common metrics can be dangerous. But it can also be rejuvenating, filled with spiritual discovery, emboldening faith, and rich in blessing.
Inevitably, realities do drive circumstances. As for me, energy fades and the gait inexorably shortens. There is more in time and space behind me than ahead of me. But the call to the joyful response to the gospel remains as well as the truth that our hope, our life, indeed, our future is in Jesus alone.
By Rev. Steve Misch
Mission and Ministry Facilitator, Area A