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Where do pastors go to retire, if they should/could?

I am reaching my personal jubilee and have started thinking about things which I never did; such as retirement.

In the current ever-new world with a possible economic shift, where do pastors go to retire?

Actually, I don’t believe in retirement. The reason is simple: work is a gift and a mandate given by God. It is part of our imago Dei, it gives dignity to our humanity. But of course, as we grow older; we just may not be able to do the same work we have been doing – because of energy levels, failing health, changing circumstances {such as people preferring ‘online’ church?*}

What skills do pastors have to re-invent themselves in order to still be ’employable’? Professionals who have funds can set up private practices and become consultants and coaches. Those who are entrepreneurial may find it all about a fresh learning curve to move onto a new industry. Others may be able to move onto teaching in colleges or a more niche role in a parachurch organization or NGO.

The thing is, most pastors are generalists; and often many do not have extensive training or a wide berth of qualifications and training.

Rare is the instance where a pastor grows old with his congregation and have the immense privilege of passing the baton on to a younger minister or a son with a smooth and successful transition.

Let’s face it. The organizational, human resource perspective holds sway in many churches; and pastors are mostly ’employees’, hopefully, loved and respected ones.

Some church systems have retirement schemes, and they are busy redefining it to catch up with longer life spans and the lack of pastors. Many others have no such protocol in place. Yet some systems have a voting scheme where pastors have to step down if they are not re-elected.

Clearly pastors are not immune to employment threats.

But that’s not commonly thought about. In fact, the reverse is true. During the Asian financial crisis, my skeptical brother had said to me, “You are lucky as a pastor! People will always need spiritual services!” After the initial offense, I thought about what he said.

Are pastors always needed?

Will they always be paid for their ‘services’?

Not only does it betray how we are viewed; it is also important for us to be aware of what Pastor John Piper wrote about, “Brothers, we are not professionals” – the very real danger described by Paul as peddling the gospel {1 Cor 9v18-23} — where we change gears when it no longer pays us the due we feel we deserve.

Pastor, you have to work out your conviction about your work. If you subscribe to the commonplace view that work is drudgery and retirement is the end of the long trudge through the sludge of necessary toil; then retirement becomes a real allurement. Pastoral work, arguably one of the toughest jobs on earth, can be a real slog and it’s understandable that we sigh TGIM when Mondays roll around.

pastors-office-corridor-projecting-sign-se-6542

About eight years ago I stepped away from a pastoral position I enjoyed immensely due to a set of circumstances I could not manage. The loss was very palpable. I remember sitting at my desk at home, staring at my computer screen, and asking God, ‘what now?”. I no longer had my salary. No one would call me ‘pastor’ I thought. I missed my church community and interceded with anguish at the valleys they would have to endure. I wondered about my calling and my identity.

In those days of prayer and thought, I received an insight I did not get from my training or my busy work-life. I received a fresh affirmation from God. He had called me to himself and to the work of a pastor. He alone affirms and qualifies me. Not only that, our vocation – our response to His Voce (Latin for voice) – is the obedience that opens the way for Him to work mysteriously in us to mould us into the being we truly are. In that sense, a pastor is not what I do, but who I am.

I recognized then that I would always be a pastor whether I had a title, office or a pay packet. I would be a pastor wherever I go. I checked my new insight with respected theologians and church leaders. They resonated with it. This gave me immense freedom to explore where God may be opening doors and the ways He joins the dots of my life for me.

So pastor friend, if God has called you to Himself and his work of feeding the flock; don’t stop doing it – even if you find yourself ‘unemployed’, ‘retired’, ‘not re-elected’. Be faithful. Be yourself, work hard and raise your family.

This reminds me of a friend who stepped down as a pastor several years back to do what he loves with more freedom. It turns out what he loves to do is encourage people; and he does it so well! He pastors total strangers, leaders and those in need with his amazing gift of encouragement; strengthening hearts and faith. He did not necessarily need to do it with the pulpit and all the attendant aspects of a pastor’s work.

As we grow in ministry experience; it is important to become comfortable with what we are good at and enjoy. What gives us life will spill life onto others. You may need to ‘re-invent’ or ‘retire’ – and that may be the best thing to happen to you.

*this is a whole different topic for another time: the online church.

we need to get in the trenches!

Do we have any idea how easy it is to lose our way – in the thick of serving God no less.

This post is being prompted by a few things:

1. my son is fascinated with all things army-like: the brotherhood, the tough stuff, the strain and the glory. It’s a guy’s dirty, glorious dream: to be a hero, to make a difference, to have a buddy, to save a life. (it used to be the girl’s version was to be a mother-hero, built a great home, gal-friends and raise a life…but the script has changed alot. We save that for another time).

2. the daily reality of meeting people who are just – plain – struggling: not sure how to navigate work, feeling unsure about kids, sad and unhappy in marriages, not at peace in ministry, ‘why our kids are leaving the church’…..  the list is long and I have not included climate issues, Boko Haram, ISIS and Wall Street.

3. the quiet question in many hearts about why the church has pastors who do business, who are always drinking and eating (their facebook posts), who seem …unreal, unlike the rest of humanity; sweating it out in the trenches.

4. my, our ongoing search to live well and leave a legacy.

Many years ago as a young pastor, a church member asked me a brilliant question. She was tentative but she really wanted to know; so she took the risk and asked, “what do pastors do all week?”.

What are we doing pastors? 

It’s a question I continue to ask myself and sometimes trouble other pastors about. But first –

if you tend towards guilt, this question is not to induce guilt.

if you tend towards sloth, this question is not to induce work

if you tend towards not upsetting the status quo, this question is not to induce fear

This question is to incite you to hit refresh on that ‘purpose’ button of your life! 

Why O why do you do what you do? Why do you spend time the way you do? Why have you responded/reacted? Why have you held back?

Above everything else, pastors must be a small step behind the Great Shepherd and a small step ahead of the flock.

What do i do all week? In order or priority:

1 / Talk to the Great shepherd; mostly letting him set the agenda. Turns out he mostly wants to talk about me. He said my work is the overflow of my life. So the spotlight’s often on the stuff I dont enjoy paying attention to: my shadows; yet it is liberating and freeing to know He sees it all and still loves me. In other words, I tank up!

2/ Listen to people. This is like my strength (no!)….but it needs to be done. I jump to conclusions (you too?). I’m too smart many times. I finish people’s sentences and map out their spiritual paths in my image. Hasn’t worked well; so I am learning to listen. To real people. To thought leaders. To the leaders God has asked me to work with.

3/ I work at whatever plans I have laid out. None of them perfect; but giving up too quick means I never learn what truly works. So give stuff time to work. This is hard I know. The results are not often quick enough, there will be disagreement. I get impatient. But, I fight the distractions to compare and compete and just hunker down to do my work.

4/ I throw out my plans when  something very obviously better comes along. It doesn’t happen very much; but it does. The Spirit sometimes prompts you to pay attention to someone or something; and from experience — JUST DO IT! You will be so glad you did; because it’s not just for the person; it’s to revive you as God’s ministry co-labourer; restoring your joy that you are working with God. It’s sweet!

5/ I don’t calendar full days all week. You heard that. You will soon red-line (which is the beginning not of wisdom but burn-out). I plan ‘space’ times: time i give myself permission to read, to do something that refreshes my soul. There is designated family times, there are seasons to cut back because the children need me more. I take my Sabbath. YES! As a pastor-writer-mother, a full 24hr Sabbath rarely happens; but 4-5 hours can be planned for. To make up for it, I have extended Quiet Times in the week, an annual personal retreat, and date nights with the spouse. Actually, I have a time slot each week to review my week and adjust my calendar!

6/ I pray regularly that God will lead me to the needs and help me to make a difference. As a pastor, our call according to Ephesians 4 is to equip God’s people. We may not join the Justice League, draft bills against trafficking, speak at Ted… but we may! Let God carve the path for you as you daily dig in and enter the trenches to comfort the afflicted, soothe their wounds with Truth and Love, set their sights beyond their limited horizon, lift them up and strengthen their feeble joints. Pastors get to champion the people’s dreams, cheer them on to success, sit with them in sorrow, bury their sins and resurrect their hopes. Along the way, many pastors have refined their calling and sharpened their sword.

 

So, get in the trenches. Like that old story of the man who picked up that one star fish? It made a difference to that star fish; and who knows, that star fish may tell others later as it bobs in the sea, ‘don’t get marooned on the shore’.

 

Spirit-led Leadership: reflections from pew & pulpit no. 1

Starting with a broken heart

I will never forget my first pastorate. The anticipation and apprehension imagined will never match the actual experience. Those who interviewed and assessed me had been convinced, as I was, about my calling. God had provided for what He called me towards.

But I began with a broken heart. In fact, I expected the interview to be difficult. After all, just months before, I was shocked when my own church had rejected me as I was not who they wanted: a happily married man in his forties with years of experience. I was a single woman of twenty-eight.

 

Trudging alone

Once in the thick of ministry however, I realised that my calling, critical as it may be as an anchor for my soul, cannot help me forward. I felt like someone had shoved me centre-stage and my eyes were blinded by the bright stage lights. Everywhere I turned, I smelled expectation; and God seemed to have left the scene.

My gender did not help me. I looked around desperately for models but there were so few. Those who were in close enough range were struggling as I was.

The plot thickens when churches today seem sloshed with notions of leadership; and women, are traditionally, not considered leaders. A female colleague of mine found that she had to explain how she could lead a congregation, which her husband was a part of, and not be the leader at home. Minefields were waiting at many turns.

My own experience proved leadership gurus right: I was duly addressed as ‘pastor’ when the person needed prayer, but causally referred to by my first  name otherwise. Respect was not automatically handed to me with my appointment. Respect and fellowship appeared when providence cleared the way through my involvement in the person’s life, that is, a member was willing to come to me for help, and felt helped.

The terrain was truly formidable. Hence, over time, it became less and less shocking to receive a call from a friend or colleague who was in distress and the verge of calling it quits.

 

Clearly, we have to make sense of this. I didn’t want to ‘get used’ to something that is more human foible than Kingdom norm. So I continue to think, pray and make notes as I go.

Our self-understanding and how we lead is intertwined with our congregations, traditions and current challenges, no doubt; but leaders and pastors have the unique privilege of bringing definitions and clarity – if we ourselves are clear.

Let me share with us a series of notes I have taken in the foregoing years on the person and role of the pastor.

1. Which comes first ?

It appears that  our calling – to serve – has been hijacked by the use of titles which usually equate power and authority. So we become confused and we guard those titles and positions. Coming from an Asian context, relational security and seniority become added dimensions to contend with. It is easy for a church to consider an older person who has ‘more friends’ to be the better choice; only to find that in the end, the person may have the title, the seniority and even strong relational ties,  but not the needed competencies. The Peter Principle of management has crept in once again: we have over-promoted someone.

Indeed, even competencies cannot provide the entire lens for our understanding; as our current fascination with numerical growth and leadership practices tend to lean us. The entire dimension of servant-hood – Jesus’ poignant and dramatised last words to those who would succeed him in leadership – is often missing, when it should be the background canvas for our brush strokes.

 

If we are truly taken by the theological understanding that to lead is to serve, it would revolutionize our meetings, our ordinations proceedings, and certainly, it would open wide the tight gates of ordination to sisters.

 

Titles are needful for they place us; but we must not forget that the purpose of titles is what they call forth from us.

Pastors and leaders who do not convey the substance of their office have this effect on the flock: members retreat into a personal piety that is not outreaching or kingdom focused. But a pastor who leads in order to serve, cannot possibly get the order of things wrong.