David McFarlane remembers the first Board of Pensions retirement seminar he attended. He was chairing the Committee on Ministry for Western New York Presbytery, and one of his responsibilities was to encourage pastors nearing retirement age to attend the seminars.
So it was suggested that he go himself — the argument being something like, “You’ll never convince anybody to go unless you go yourself.”
McFarlane, then in his 40s, did go. He and his wife, Ann, walked into the room, sat down next to an older couple and struck up a conversation. The older man said he was intending to retire in about three weeks. He had not said a word to his session. The couple was living in a manse, owned no home and had no idea where they would live. They had made no plans.
“We were just stunned,” McFarlane said. “My glory, three weeks away … I said, ‘No matter what else we do, we won’t do that.’ “
Now, after many years and after retiring themselves, the McFarlanes are among a number of “consultant couples” who speak at retirement seminars sponsored by the Board of Pensions. They don’t offer advice; in other words, they don’t tell people what to do. But they do walk people through questions they’re likely to encounter as they consider retirement — questions such as where to live and how to use their time when they step aside from the pulpit. They try to help them envision what, for them, retirement might be like.
The Board of Pensions offers 35 to 40 of these seminars each year, as a free benefit to ministers and others who participate in the Board’s retirement system, and to their spouses. It’s typically a two-day event, including a presentation from a financial planner. The Board encourages ministers to attend the seminars more than once so they can start planning early and let their ideas percolate over a period of time, said Cindy Beach, director of member education.
Most people start off thinking they want to talk about financial issues, Beach said.
But often they begin to realize the value of considering questions such as, “Where am I going to live, am I still going to work part-time, how am I going to balance my life?”
Bruce and Beth Archibald are a retired couple from Cincinnati. He worked as a minister, she as principal of a school. They tell people at the seminars that “retirement is your pilgrimage,” a journey into something new.
To some extent this pilgrimage presents a theological question, Bruce Archibald says.
“We’re all called by God,” he said, yet questions arise about calling as people face the next stage of life. “How does your call change in retirement? You’ve been a pastor for 30 years — now you’re no longer a pastor. What are you?”
Making the break
Among the particular challenges pastors face when they retire is redefining their connection with the congregation. The basic rule of thumb is: Make a clean break.
“The hardest sentence I ever wrote in all the 40 years of preaching was, ‘I will no longer be your pastor,'” McFarlane said. What he meant was, “I will respond to your crises as a friend, but do not invite me to come back” in any kind of official role, such as to perform a funeral or a baptism. “I will not come back. It’s a terrible sentence. It violates everything you ever thought of yourself” as a pastoral leader.
But it has to be said, he contends, to make space for the congregation’s new leadership.
When they retired, Bob and Mary Bankhead decided to live in Carolina Beach, N.C. — not far from the church at which he had been the pastor. But the congregation was amenable to that, Bob Bankhead said. And despite the geographic proximity “we have broken the relationship pretty sharply,” he added. “We have not gone back to the church” except occasionally, when invited by the leadership, and “we have been very careful about not doing funerals or weddings or showing up without an invitation” from the pastor.
Maintaining that separation can be difficult for the pastor’s spouse as well, Mary Bankhead said. Too often, if a pastor’s wife has been active in the congregation, “she wants to keep going to the circle meeting and she wants to keep up with the friends she’s made there,” because with ministers moving frequently, it can be difficult for their spouses to make long-term friendships.
Often, “the wife can’t seem to let go, and doesn’t seem to feel that it matters” if she doesn’t, Mary Bankhead said. “It really has caused a lot of problems that we have seen. Of course the minister hates to let go too — that’s his identity.”
But some retired ministers have learned to navigate the waters — acknowledging and even grieving the loss of authority and connection, but celebrating a new freedom and sometimes new professional challenges.
“I talk a lot about leaving an institution,” said Beth Archibald — who knows what it feels like, having retired from a school she loved. She and her husband talk about walking out of the office for the last time, giving that last sermon, and “what it feels like on Monday morning when you’re not on the e-mail list any more,” she said. And “you don’t have a copy machine,” her husband laughed.
Making those changes typically means that the retiring pastor has to find a new congregation with which to worship. Or there can be other choices — some ministers take an interim position after retirement, or sign up to be a supply preacher. Bruce Archibald said he’s also spoken to ministers who say, “I’d like to not go to church for a while” — they don’t want a commitment to have to be anywhere on a Sunday morning.
With retirement can come changes in relationships as well — within a marriage, and with others.
Where the Archibalds used to both rush off to night meetings, now they’re more likely to spend evenings at home together.
The McFarlanes have sustained some close personal friendships from churches where he previously served, but those relationships changed in some ways. The friendship with one couple, whose children grew up with the McFarlanes’ children, “deepened after I left that church, because I was no longer their pastor,” he said.
These couples also have found the need to form a new sense of identity and new connections that are not based on where they work. How that plays out can vary a lot, depending on circumstances.
The McFarlanes moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and much to their surprise found themselves living in a neighborhood near a number of retired ministers who’ve become close friends.
When the Archibalds retired, “we moved into a community that had nothing to do with the church,” Bruce Archibald said. “They didn’t know who we were.” And he discovered that when he reveals he’s a retired pastor, “that’ll end a conversation fast” in the secular world.
But in time, the Archibalds did find their place. They visited new churches and found one they like. Some neighbors warned them not to say “yes” to every volunteer opportunity, “otherwise you’re going to find yourself inundated with what other people want you to do,” Bruce said.
So they’ve learned to pick and choose — gravitating towards commitments that seem worthwhile and energizing.
When to go
For a pastor, another issue to consider is how to decide when to leave — and when to inform the congregation. There’s no one way to do it, although some of the consultants suggest that the executive presbyter can be a good sounding board in the right circumstances.
“Some folks will give their congregations two weeks notice and they’re gone,” Bruce Archibald said. He also had a friend who gave two years’ notice, “and was a lame duck for 23 months.”
Archibald also cautions “there’s no such thing as confidentiality in a church. If you talk to the session about it, the rest of the church will know in 48 hours.”
McFarlane, at his last church, kept the prospect of retirement on the radar. He spoke openly of his age. “Every year, people knew exactly how old I was,” he said. When he turned 65, he sat down with the pulpit committee and said, “I’d love to stay until I’m 70. But I don’t know if I’ll have the energy to do that.”
The pulpit committee appointed two men to discuss the issue with McFarlane, telling them: “The three of you work it out. You don’t need to share anything with us” along the way. “Just keep us posted” when the time comes.
Ultimately, that group of three made a decision, kept it private for half a year, then went public with it about six months before McFarlane intended to retire. The congregation then began a long-range planning process, from which he disengaged.
Many pastors also consider, when they do retire, whether they want to keep working in some capacity.
“You have utter freedom” to accept supply or interim positions or other professional work — or to decline, McFarlane said. “There are no expectations at all. There are opportunities.”
After he retired, Bob Bankhead worked for four years at the International Port of Wilmington, as a chaplain at the seaman’s center. He has taught a New Testament course for commissioned lay pastors. But other possibilities — working as an interim pastor, for example — do not appeal to him.
“My favorite thing is I can say ‘No’ and I don’t even have to have an excuse,” Bankhead said. “I have said ‘No’ when people called if it doesn’t suit or I just don’t want to go.”
Many of the retirees say they’re grateful for the freedom to travel, to spend time with their children and grandchildren, to not be in charge all the time. Sometimes the pleasures are small ones. Mary Bankhead enjoys being able to take trips, and not have to be back home by Sunday morning.
McFarlane considered becoming an interim pastor, but decided, happily, that “I don’t want to do anything every Sunday ever again. We had grandchildren to go visit.”