Editor’s Note: When O. Benjamin Sparks (no stranger to Outlook readers) retired as pastor of Second Church in Richmond, Va., last May, he and his wife, Annette, received a number of tributes and honors for their years of service. For almost two years, Ben served concurrently as Second Pres pastor and interim editor of the Outlook. At the church’s celebration for the Sparkses, T. Hartley Hall IV of Asheville, N.C., offered this observation.
The Presbyterian Book of Order has always, and quite properly so, suggested that in the process of being installed into a new work, the minister should endure a brief “charge” appropriate to the nature of the new tasks that he/she is assuming. And for this to be properly done, the presbytery attempts to enlist the services of a colleague who is at least reasonably competent, and intelligent, and insightful, dedicated, articulate, even winsome and inspiring — along with all sorts of other admirable ministerial traits. This we all know.
Today, however, marks the inauguration of a seismic liturgical shift in the long history of American Presbyterianism in that the Unseen Powers of Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va., have determined that at the culmination of his ministry here, The Reverend Doctor O. Benjamin Sparks, having once received a charge, should now get a “discharge” from these labors; that Ben should hear a reasonably brief personal and/or theological word that could perhaps mollify his abandonment of a lifetime of familiar sabbatic labors, and then (possibly) encourage him as he sails off into uncharted waters, towards the terra incognita of ecclesial retirement.
And for this novel task — this discharge — these same Unseen Powers have wisely bypassed any number of available and proven Presbyterian spiritual athletes, to settle for the services of a now barely-remembered clerical has-been — one surely questionable in many respects, but one who has enjoyed an unparalleled success in the practice of ministerial retirement. And that, of course, is me.
It took a little doing along the way, but I have managed somehow to become incredibly good at doing nothing. It’s been an uphill struggle against a doggedly ingrained Puritan work ethic; but through the gift of grace I have mercifully managed my own rehabilitation to overcome this earlier, more responsible way of life; and now am entered into a post-presbytery life of relative ease. Ben, you are looking at a man who, against all the odds, has come to embrace retirement with a verve and gusto that is almost immoral.
Now don’t — please don’t cringe in Reformed disgust at such a possibility. Because the surprising truth that our fathers-in-the-faith so successfully hid from the young clerics we once were, Ben, is that in at least eight out of ten diehard Calvinists there is, just under the skin, a closet hedonist impatiently waiting for an excuse to come out. And retirement provides this excuse — with a vengeance!
What is a preacher’s retirement like? Well, having given this considerable thought over the past decade or so, it seems to me that more than anything else, retirement is like having tenure on a seminary faculty. In retirement (as with tenure) it makes no difference whether you work long and hard or do nothing at all; or whether what you choose to do is worthwhile or patently destructive — who cares? At the end of the month that check is going to be there, regardless!
Retired preachers! I do know that of which I speak. When I left Richmond more than twelve years ago, I retired to Black Mountain, N.C. And in Black Mountain, the Presbyterian church then had on its rolls 69 Presbyterian ministers affiliated with that congregation, at least two-thirds of whom had dismally failed their basic course, their “Retirement 101″ — the cardinal principle of which is that in retirement you back off for a while and give Jesus a chance to exercise his Lordship over the Church and in the world without your help, advice, or meddling. A lot easier said, for many ministerial folk, than done.
Justifiable pride or hubris?
Hardly any active minister worth his/her salt “suffers fools gladly.” We all learned to suffer fools — and did it regularly and of necessity — because God in her inscrutable wisdom has sprinkled them so liberally among our presbyteries and congregations. Suffered them, yes, but not gladly. But guess what? In retirement you don’t have to suffer fools at all. Never again will you have to put up with anybody you don’t like, or respect, or enjoy just because she’s a lifelong member of the congregation and has the ear of every witch-y woman in town, or because without his pledge you’d never be able to meet the budget. Suffer fools? Never again — except, of course, for those among your wife’s relatives. Even retirement won’t change that.
If I could, Ben, I’d like for this brief discharge to serve the useful purpose of disabusing you of any notion that your justifiable pride in the quality of your distinguished ministry here has any links at all with the sinful pattern of hubris that besets so many men and women of the cloth.
Justifiable pride is not hubris, which is that dimension of human depravity so aptly described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:3 as “think of yourself more highly than you ought.”
With your leadership, Ben, this congregation long ago opted for the high road. It refused to join the ranks of so many others that succumbed to the seductive siren song of the suburbs. Instead, and lashed to the mast, it heard and heeded the prophet’s call in Jeremiah 29:7 to pray for the city where you are with its amazing promise that in its welfare you would find your own. For no good reason except faithfulness, you deliberately chose to embrace the city — this downtown, inner city — with all the problems that proximity presents, and you’ve shown us all what a vibrant community of faith can mean for a metropolitan ministry, and the outlines, at least, of what the Kingdom of God just might look like in an asphalt environment. And so you may, Ben — no, you must — take this quite justifiable pride with you into your retirement.
Occasionally curious, younger, still-employed preachers, wondering about their own uncertain futures, will hesitantly ask me if I have any hobbies — hobbies that they assume can provide the brief interludes of enjoyment that will make their working miseries endurable. After I’ve offered that I have no hobbies at all (and suggest, moreover, that for me, even in retirement, hobbies would be an unconscionable waste of the little time I have left) they venture: “Well, then, what do you spend your time doing?” There is only one answer: “I spend it doing what I damned well please. I do whatever, but only whatever to me seems good to do.” That’s retirement, Ben. And from where I sit, it looks like it was made for you. So. Now it is official. You’re dis-charged. And welcome to the club. Good and faithful servant. Feel free, because you are free, to enter into the joy of your Master.
T. Hartley Hall IV was president of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (now Union-PSCE) from 1981 — 1994. Prior to his presidency, he served pastorates in Connecticut, North Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee.