What is Successful Retirement for a Minister?



I never stopped doing anything [when I retired], I stopped getting paid for it. — Bill Chavannel

Three Fundamental Retirement Questions

When 89-year-old Rev. Duel Tanner was asked, “For you, what was the scariest aspect of retirement?” he quickly responded, “Facing it. I really didn’t know what to expect.”

Many ministers (especially missionaries and chaplains) scarcely know what to expect as they face retirement. Transition can mean excitement, adventure, a sense of fresh leading from the Lord, and a brand new, long-anticipated opportunity. Like your initial training in ministry, however, you will greatly benefit from thorough planning and hard work. We hope this book will help you through that planning process.

As you progress through this book, we hope to help you answer three fundamental retirement questions:

  1. What does it mean for a minister to retire successfully?
  2. What can each minister do to successfully accomplish this important life task?
  3. In what ways can your agency make changes to enable ministers to retire more successfully?

Since the transition process varies greatly among individuals, you may not need to address in great detail some issues discussed in this book. However, do not ignore the other parts. The process of working through the material that seems less important often prevents more serious issues from developing at a later stage of transition.

What is Successful Retirement?

As described in this book, successful retirement occurs when an individual is able to thrive physically, vocationally, socially, and spiritually in retirement. This book attempts to move the prospective ministerial retiree toward an intentional application of skills to thrive effectively in retirement.

Only two percent of North Americans consider the age over sixty as the best in life, while thirty percent of those between age eighteen and sixty-four consider retirement age as the least desirable (Harris et. al., 1975). Therefore, the first step in successful retirement is to break out of the “disease treatment” approach so common in the North American culture and redefine “successful retirement.” Although thirty percent of North Americans describe retirement as the least desirable stage of life, successful retirement is NOT a treatment plan for individuals who, because of age, have finally grown inactive, disabled, or marginalized. That is, retired ministers are NOT infected with some disease called outdated or old age! Contrary to common belief, successful retirement has nothing to do with the medical or emotional treatment of individuals who have finally passed an age threshold. That mentality simply enables psychological abuse of one of God’s most promising resources.

In Japan, where I was raised as a missionary kid (MK), the culture highly values and honors the elderly for their wisdom. The strong cultural value of seeking advice from the elderly provides them with a highly valued role in society. Corporations seek the elderly for leadership positions, and newly married couples regularly seek advice from the eldest in the family. In Japan, the elderly truly live an esteemed role.

In comparison to many world cultures, the North American culture often systematically destroys the self-image of retirement age ministers with an “illness treatment” mentality. In North America, the elderly (and especially ministers) are commonly pushed into retirement sooner than others, as if they contracted some terrible disease. Retirement age ministers tell me that even other ministers sometimes treat them as “has-beens.” Many local churches question the ability of retirement age ministers, and endorse the young ministers as the most desirable. The outlook for retired missionaries and chaplains looks even worse.

Fifty years ago, the average sixty-five year old retiree retained less than five years of life expectancy. Due to his short life expectancy, the culture of that day considered a sixty-five year old retiree as old. Currently, the average sixty-five year old still retains about one-quarter of his or her life expectancy. Therefore, age sixty-five to eighty is no longer considered “old”—it simply offers new opportunities. No one gets old until he or she passes eighty years of age, at the least. Many do not consider themselves old until age ninety or later.

This book probably will not help ministers who consider themselves old. It is intended to help those who consider themselves seniors—those nearing retirement who still remember their call into life-long ministry and service.

“Old Age” is a psychological notion— it is not a numerical age.

In contrast to the common image of retirees in North America, successful retirement embodies the intentional planning and development of a new transitional lifestyle in which the retired minister grows more productive and thrives more than any prior chapter of life.

Many successful retirees reach their most productive years after they reach status as seniors. For instance:

  •  John Glenn, America’s first astronaut, was seventy-seven years old when he made his last journey in space. Prior to that, he became a U.S. senator, but only after he had retired from NASA.
  • Doris Haddock was ninety-one years old when she walked 3200 miles across the United States.
  • Grandma Moses began to paint in her late seventies.
  • George Bernard Shaw continued to write until his death at age ninety-four. One of his most popular works is “My Fair Lady.”
  • Agatha Christie penned mystery novels for more than fifty years.
  • Golda Meir was sworn in as the prime minister of Israel at the age of sixty-three.
  • Michelangelo, at age seventy-one, completed his greatest work—St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate to sign the Declaration of Independence. He lived to be eighty-four years old.
  • Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace both served as prime-time television personalities beyond their eighty-eighth birthdays.
  • Dr. C. Everett Koop served as one of America’s most outstanding surgeon generals from age sixty-five to age seventy-three.
  • Ellen Glasgow, who won the Pulitzer Prize at age sixty-seven, said, “In the past few years, I have made a thrilling discovery…that until one is over sixty, one can never really learn the secret of living.”
  • Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of sixty-nine. Afterward, she continued working and establishing new missions on several continents until she died at age eighty-seven.
  • John Bertram Phillips, a well-known Bible translator, published The Wounded Healer at age seventy-eight.
  • At the ages of 104 and 102, sisters Sarah and Dr. Bessie Delany wrote the New York Times bestseller, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. At the ages of 105 and 103, they published a sequel. At age 107, Sarah Delany published another sequel, On My Own at 107.

Gene Cohen, Director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, reports: “Creative output is influenced more by experience in a field—‘career age’—than by chronological age” (Cohen, 2000, 108). If what he reports is correct, it is reasonable to expect that the retirement age minister is at his or her creative zenith.

No wonder that seniors in the above list accomplished their greatest feats after age sixty. The minister who successfully transitions into retirement can offer more to the Kingdom of God after retirement than at any previous time of life.

In this book, four critically important support legs (edited from Rowe and Kahn, Successful Aging, 1999, 39) sustain successful retirement:

  1. Physical health
  2. A growing intimacy with God
  3. Social interaction
  4. Meaningful ministry

The Four Support Legs of Successful Retirement

What is Successful Transition?

Transition is a phase at which events and environment alter our roles, relationships, routines, and assumptions. Although ministerial life involves many transitions, retirement transition significantly alters the roles, relationships, routines, and assumptions for almost every minister, especially for missionaries and chaplains.

Retirement transition has the potential to alter your future more positively or more negatively than any other life transition. Unfortunately, many ministers spend mental and emotional energy worrying about the change that thrusts them into retirement. That change may include loss of physical health, loss of job, loss of status, loss of social prominence, or any number of other causative factors. The change results from an external factor, event, or environment mostly outside of their control. Although a change may stimulate your transition into retirement, focusing your energy on factors that remain outside of your control usually remains unproductive.

Change results from an external factor. However, we refer to transition as an internal factor. Transition reflects an internal adjustment of attitudes and assumptions. You are the only individual who retains control over your attitudes and assumptions.

This book invites you to process the normal retirement transition emotions caused by change and to choose new attitudes that refocus your energy and resources on transition. The objective of this book is to empower you with skills to control not your change but your transition.

Debunking “Disengagement Theory”

Rowe and Kahn (Successful Aging) provide the following explanation of a commonly accepted distortion of truth:

Thirty years ago, something called “disengagement theory” was influential among gerontologists. This theory defined the main task of old age as letting go. The argument was that old age was a time at which people were required to give up their jobs, could no longer take part in the more strenuous forms of recreation, and sadly, had to say farewell to many old friends and family members. The final act of relinquishment was letting go of life itself (1999, 46).

In short, disengagement theory portrayed successful retirement transition simply as a time for letting go. Since “letting go” represents only a minor aspect of retirement, it is an untruth (a lie promoted by secular society) whenever it remains unbalanced with the more significant truths about retirement. Indeed, a treatment to help retirees “let go” without the offer of positive replacement behaviors almost guarantees dysfunction and emotional disease among those transitioning into retirement.

Disengagement theory ignores a central retirement truth: you, the prospective retiree, can substantially alter the effects of age through lifestyle choices that increase your well-being, developing an even more meaningful ministry. There is little reason for you to focus on “letting go” during retirement, except to let go of middle-age behaviors and attitudes that hinder you from thriving physically, emotionally and spiritually. There is every reason to focus on replacement attitudes and behaviors that will help you thrive like never before during retirement. For instance, Rowe and Kahn (1999) eloquently present the following insights:

  1. It is often assumed that individuals will gain weight as they age and that weight is affected by heritability. However, two-thirds of weight is governed by lifestyle choices involving diet and exercise. So, there is no reason for you to focus on “letting go” of the expectation to maintain a healthy body weight. In similar fashion,
  2. Triglyceride levels substantially affect one’s susceptibility to heart attacks, but triglyceride levels are determined entirely by lifestyle choices, not genetics. Thus, it appears that lifestyle choices cause heart attacks more than genetics or age. There is no reason for you to “let go” of the expectation that you can maintain a healthy heart after retirement.
  3. Lung function substantially predicts one’s longevity, but lifestyle choices almost always affect lung function more than genetic influences.
  4. Even mental acuity is affected by your lifestyle choices as much as by genetic influences.

So, there is little reason for you to “let go” of health expectations during retirement. As a retiree, you retain lifestyle choices that substantially control all four of the support legs of successful retirement.

Successful transition is a process of planning and implementing successful lifestyle choices that promote your wellbeing in the next phase of life. Although this certainly includes “letting go” of some previous lifestyles, it also invites an intentional selection of constructive replacement lifestyles. In short, successful transition invites you to plan for change in nearly every aspect of your life.

Pursuing Physical Health

Transitioning from a full-time ministry to a retirement lifestyle offers an opportunity for you to improve substantially the components of physical health. For instance, old age usually prolongs recovery from ministerial stresses and occupational disabilities that you contracted over the past few decades of ministry. However, in retirement transition, you control an opportunity to plan intentionally how to pursue health and prevent additional disease and disability—this remains a lifestyle choice.

My (Nathan’s) missionary parents illustrated some lifestyle choices that promote retirement. Although this couple persisted as active missionaries for over a decade longer than most ministers, they eventually found difficulty with traveling. Physicians diagnosed each of them with a different but incurable and progressive life-threatening disease. Discontent with relinquishing their call to missionary service, they armed themselves with volumes of material on slowing the disability that commonly goes along with their respective diseases and armed themselves with knowledge on how to avoid other diseases. They chose a new lifestyle of strict medications, healthy diet, daily exercise, frequent medical checkups, and intentional social interaction, all of which are shown to slow the symptoms of their particular diseases. Long after retirement, they continue to mentor younger Christians. Although this couple will eventually grow physically unable to continue even with this ministry, they made intentional lifestyle choices to pursue health, including as much as possible, preventing additional disease and disability. Even though they contracted incurable diseases, they chose to retire successfully.

Depending on your climate and cultural exposure, you may or may not successfully avoid disease while serving in your previous assignments. However, each minister retains a lifestyle choice to take positive steps to prevent additional disease after retirement. Successful retirement is based largely on that choice—a choice to pursue positive lifestyle changes.

Pursuing Meaningful Ministry

Retirement, job change, and a change in geographical locations may also alter your cognitive function and meaningful ministry. However, as a minister in retirement transition, you retain the opportunity to identify new sources of cognitive stimulation and ministry—it is a lifestyle choice.

Missionary “B” provides a great example of this. Following her missionary husband’s untimely death, she transferred from a remote area to a missions-based university. When, five years later, she met and married a non-missionary, she had to resign from full-time missionary status because of policies then in place at the agency. Nonetheless, she agreed with the university to continue her work stateside. She has continued this ministry for over thirty years, helping to develop many courses. Over the past three decades, thousands of foreign students have been blessed by her work. Now in her late-seventies, she is still as mentally sharp and productive as at any previous time in her life. When forced to make decisions about her future, she made lifestyle choices that enriched her life with meaningful ministry. And several years ago she embraced yet another challenging missionary ministry, at which time her mission agency restored her full missionary status. While in her retirement years, she continues to produce valuable work at a high cognitive level.

Many ministers (especially missionaries) retire earlier than expected due to age-related diseases and other factors that they never anticipated. Factors outside their control prevent them from continuing in their previous ministry. For them, to retire successfully simply means that they retire (transition) to a different ministry than their previous ministry. However, it never means giving up ministry altogether. As individuals called by God, they simply transition to new avenues in which to serve even with their unexpected restrictions. As they become less able to fulfill their ministerial call, they gradually transition to yet another ministry. They retire successfully and thrive cognitively because they adapt to the never-ending process of ministry transition.

Pursuing Social Interaction

Retirement usually dramatically changes a minster’s social and support networks, especially those of a missionary or chaplain. However, in retirement transition you can develop opportunities to identify and pursue entirely new patterns of social support—this remains a lifestyle choice.

Couple “C” offers a positive example of this. Upon reaching age sixty-five, their agency required them to retire. Discontent with the prospect of isolation from their longtime friends, they purchased a home with a large walk-out basement. After remodeling the basement into fairly luxurious living quarters with a separate entry, full bathroom, living room, and modern kitchen, they offered the new apartment to ministers who need pastoral care and to missionaries on furlough. For the past ten years, they have enjoyed ministering to a constant rotation of close friends returning “home.” Recently, they purchased several acres and another home in which they hope to expand their ministry. Instead of languishing in isolation with little social support, they created a strong social support network with what they call their “true” family—other minister friends.

Successful retirement almost always requires lifestyle choices that result in dramatic lifestyle changes. Retention of your past lifestyle rarely results in a successful retirement. Indeed, the success depends on your willingness to adapt to a lifestyle of change. This involves a series of choices to prevent additional disease and disability, engage others socially in a widening support network, and thrive cognitively in meaningful ministry.

Successful retirement transition occurs as you intentionally plan and rebuild each of the above four support legs into a new lifestyle, one that retains and promotes each leg as much or more than at any prior time of your life.

Pursuing Ever Greater Intimacy with God

When Dr. Jim Davis retired after forty-eight years of successful missionary service, he was asked, “What is your greatest regret after reflecting on your previous years of missionary service?” He replied, “That I didn’t spend more time with God, getting to know Him more intimately.” (Dr. Davis’ response seems even more notable to me since I consider him as the most spiritual missionary I know.) Yet, Dr. Davis’ regret probably represents the most common response among ministers, worldwide, who transition into retirement. After a lifetime focused on service, they refocus their priorities to their highest priority—a growing intimacy with God.

Due to age, ministers often feel unable to travel and endure physically the rigors of a youthful ministry. However, many retired ministers report a closer relationship with God than ever before. Their ministry grows more dependent on spiritual intimacy than on physical endurance. Without any doubt, their most meaningful ministry occurs as the retiree draws ever closer to God, letting Him lead and inspire every aspect of life. Life-stage transition often impels them to reassess their intimacy with God, as noted by Dr. Beth Davis, missionary director of Healthcare:

We met on our first day of class—clinical pastoral education. It was a small group—six of us who would travel together in hospital chaplaincy training for at least one year. As my colleague shared his story with the group, I learned that he had spent twenty-five years as a Presbyterian minister and military chaplain. He loves a good Bible study, and confesses to getting up at 5:00 a.m. each morning with his wife to watch a fiery, female TV evangelist. He is the kind of person who has natural pastoral skills. He exudes warmth and openness; he is approachable—the kind of person most anyone would go to in a crisis to find an understanding heart, a listening ear.

Some time into the middle of our year together, my colleague contracted a terminal form of cancer. From that time on, he became even more transparent with our small group than in the past. In one of our discussions, he exclaimed, “What I wrestle with the most is that I do not love God!” He went on to explain that he loves his wife, his children, his friends—because he sees them, touches them, and interacts with them in tangible ways. However, God is not “there” and does not seem “tangible;” so, how is he to love Him? Wow, I was dumbfounded. How could this godly man, for whom I had so much respect and even love, admit that he did not love God?

Many years later, my colleague’s honest and startling statement continues to plague me. Do I love God? Do I know how to love God?

Both the Old and New Testaments instruct us to love God. Jesus said that of all the commandments, the most important is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Yet, it is so much easier to approach the second most important commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As my colleague pointed out, “neighbors are tangible.”

So, life-stage transition often causes ministers to reflect on their most meaningful relationship. Most ministers well know how to connect with God. We simply get too busy to pursue it consistently. Retirement transition offers a great time to build new habits for spending consistent and prolonged time with God. Dr. Davis continues with another reflection:

Even before walking into the six-year-old patient’s room, I had read her medical diagnosis: acute leukemia and Down’s Syndrome. As I arrived that morning, her little body twisted and turned as the nurse struggled to adjust her IV. Her mother looked up and quickly came over to greet me. She was a warm, outgoing person, and we easily struck up a conversation. She explained that her daughter had come into the hospital for a blood transfusion; her greatest fear was the IV needles. At that point, her daughter began to scream, and the mother quickly went to her side, attempting to calm her down. Obviously, it was not a good time for a pastoral visit. I quietly left the room. I visited a couple of other patients, and then returned when things had calmed down.

When I returned, this six-year-old patient was an adorable and happy little girl, now waiting to go home. Her mother explained to me that due to so much illness, her daughter was delayed in her ability to speak. Therefore, the whole family studied sign language. From the time when she was just a little over one year old, she was able to understand and speak with signs. Soon, her mother began teaching her about Jesus, and how to pray. At one point, when she was still very young, her mother signed to her, “Jesus lives in heaven.” The little girl quickly signed back: “No, Jesus lives here,” covering her heart with her little hand.

The patient’s mother and I talked a bit about the beauty of children and their understanding of faith. It seems that her daughter did not need anyone to tell her that Jesus lived inside her! Her mother continued to tell me that her daughter loved to pray and seemed to have a great deal of faith. I then began to talk with the little girl about her world, so full of its ups and downs. The conversation flowed naturally as the family prepared to leave the hospital. I wished them well, and then I asked the child, “Would you like to say a prayer with me?” “Sure,” she answered. (That was her usual reply—she was a contented and easy-going child who answered “sure” instead of “yes.”) “Well,” I said, “would you like for me to pray, or would you like to pray?” “I’ll pray,” she answered. Mom, Dad, and chaplain joined hands with the six-year-old patient, and she began to pray for her parents, for Oma and Opa, for her friends, for me, for her cat, for her dog, and basically for the whole world. It was a long, beautiful prayer. We hugged, and I was immediately hooked on my newfound ministry in the children’s hospital.

A few months later, I was called to the pediatric intensive care unit. An infection had spread throughout the girl’s body, and it had put her into a coma. She now lay dying in her mother’s arms. Life support was disconnected, and her little body was shutting down. I went to comfort, only to be comforted by her parents. They would not trade anything for their life with her and all that she had taught them about living and loving. Their daughter truly knew God, and now she was “at home” with Him.

That day I learned an important lesson: Although adults often find it difficult to shut out the busy world to spend time with God, getting to know God remains simple enough that any child can do it. It is merely a choice.

Transition as a Never-Ending Process

Some ministers retire with an expectation that their transition will function as a single point in time, or at most, a slightly longer phase of passage. They expect to emerge from this process as a finished, new product labeled “retiree.” While this expectation might ring true for many transitions, it remains a huge fallacy for retirement transition. Instead of seeing it as a point in time, you will discover that retirement transition functions as a never-ending process lasting until death.

As physical constraints progressively affect your ministry and social network, you will experience a never-ending process of retirement transition. This is not simply a process of “letting go.” It is a never-ending process of partnering with God to refocus yourself, constantly discovering new avenues in which God can use you, and constantly learning new, deeper ways to facilitate communion with God and others. Thus, if you view retirement transition as a point in time, the process breaks down as soon as you need a further lifestyle change. If you view retirement transition as a never-ending process, however, you will finish well, thriving with God’s help until your last breath. Those who fail to retire successfully often fail because their transition never became a lifestyle process of never-ending transition.

Ministry couple “D” offer a sad example of this. His discovery that he suffered from a progressive incurable disease forced him to retire. He planned the initial phase of his retirement rather well, and found a large church in which he could minister as an assistant. Although he transitioned into his new ministry extremely well, he failed to adopt retirement transition as an ongoing lifestyle. Therefore, he never planned on altering his ministerial functions as his illness progressed. When his illness reached the point at which he could no longer accomplish the function assigned in the local church, the church dismissed him. Without an alternative plan for further meaningful ministry, he and his wife grew deeply depressed.

Many ministers with chronic diseases find that they constantly need to reinvent their ministry due to the progressive disabling effect of their disease. For them, they barely adjust to their new roles before they need to begin transitioning once again. Unlike other transitions, successful retirement transition requires a choice to adopt transition as a never-ending lifestyle.

As a “retired” minister, you will reinvent yourself again and again as you progress through the process of finishing well.

In the next chapter, we will discuss the retirement transition model and skills to successfully transition into each step of the model.

© 2013 Nathan Davis

7 thoughts on “What is Successful Retirement for a Minister?

  1. I am a retired minister, who has served near sixty years. This is chapter very interesting. I would recommend it to all ministers, even the younger ones, but especially.those appraching their retirement I would certainly like a copy. Please send the price and availability. Every blessing.

  2. As a 76 year old pastor still pastoring I find this very helpful. We have incorporated a Hispanic to work with us. Thanks for the information that every aging pastor needs to consider.

  3. This article, or chapter from the book is excellent and very helpful. How can I find a copy of the book from which it came? I really would like to have the book, but cannot find it by the title of the article.
    Thank you,

  4. Please email me the following next chapter of this article
    retirement transition model and skills to successfully transition into each step of the model

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