Christians & Retirement

When do pastors retire? Or, in the opinion of some, can Christian pastors actually retire?

If you’re looking for answers to this question in the Bible, you will find it’s not specifically addressed. Retirement is a relatively modern concept. In earlier ages, women and men were expected to continue contributing to the family and common good as they were able, even during their winter years.

This added a type of dignity to many of their lives. It is not that the crippled or dependent were viewed as something less, but there was an expectation that as long as a person had something valuable to offer to others, it was wrong to waste it.

Pastors are in a unique position. Most believe they have been “called” by God in some manner to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters, created in his image. If God actively calls you, does that vocation (from vocatio, calling) expire on some set timeline?

It’s curious how people refer to some arbitrary age such as sixty-five as time to retire. Many Western nations have institutionalized that rather capricious practice by determining an age at which you can begin collecting money from the government’s coffers.

Some, like the U.S., have recently adjusted that beneficent accomplishment (i.e. becoming a senior citizen eligible to receive “social security” payments), in light of increasing lifespans, and political policies not suitable for discussion among the genteel audience of Mere Inkling.

Most secularists naturally think retirement – like everything else – is about them. One financial adviser said, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”

C.S. Lewis described one such person in a 1921 letter to his brother. He describes a mutual friend’s in-laws as ironic.

As you will never meet them (nor indeed will I), it is no breach of confidence to touch on the grim humours of his future ‘in-laws.’ A mother . . . who has all the money but is nevertheless incapable of resisting her husband, a retired army officer, busily engaged in trying to see if his constitution will ‘keep’ by being sufficiently soaked in spirits.

This indeed has been his life work, and the devil of it is that it seems likely to ‘keep’ a good bit yet.


The frame on my auto license says “Semi-Retired Military Chaplain.” After retiring from active duty in the Air Force, I anticipated providing “pulpit supply” for vacationing pastors and serving an occasional “vacancy.” An interim or vacancy pastor covers the months between the departure of a congregation’s pastor and the call of a new pastor. I’ve served three, one of which was more than a year long.

Now that I’m a bona fide senior, I thought my vacancy days were over. It appears, however, that God may have other plans. This week I’ve been approached by a congregation interested in calling me to serve them in that role.

Please pray that God leads them in whether or not they should formalize that call. And, please pray that I will clearly discern God’s desire in this matter. Right now it appears to be one of those “Matthew 26” moments where “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Can Anyone Truly Retire?

So, do pastors ever really retire, in the sense of ending their ministry? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” What’s more, if you are a Christian, you don’t get to retire either.

Here’s the catch – this vocation to actively serve God all of our days doesn’t just apply to pastors. You see, all Christians are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Consider 1 Peter 2:5 where the apostle writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

While you usually hear the truth of the “priesthood of all believers” from Protestants, the fact is that it comes directly from the Bible and applies to us all. As one prominent Roman Catholic journal puts it:

The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. . . . this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.

Retirements or Transitions?

So, whatever we would like to be true, the fact remains that retirement is not part of God’s plan for his children. But that shouldn’t trouble us. Because the Lord not only promises to give us the strength to do anything he asks of us, he also leads us into different fields of harvest at different points in our pilgrimage.

Thankfully, he doesn’t expect me to be as effective working with youth as I was in my thirties (although some of the best youth workers I’ve seen were in their seventies).

Just as I can’t rapidly deploy to a warzone with members of my flock as I once did, I possess the maturity, patience and compassion to care for those in the twilight of their lives far better than I did decades ago.

An interesting testimony to these shifts in ministry focus is found in the Old Testament. God set the tribe of Levi apart to oversee all details related to the worship of God in the Temple. But their ministry in the holy place (the Temple and the Tent of Meeting which preceded it) was of a specified duration.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.

They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties” (Numbers 8).

This passage is fascinating. At fifty, the priest step down from their ceremonial religious duties. But they do not drift off into some lazy retirement. They assume new responsibilities. A role God deemed better suited to this stage of their lives.

So too, wizened old pastors still have a role in God’s church. For some it may be serving during seasons of congregational vacancies. For others it may simply be to pray.

In a 1930 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis offers a delightful description of a “retired” pastor who is still about the business of caring for others. The fact that Lewis wrote this while an avowed atheist makes it all the more moving.

I walked as usual after lunch, dropping in on the way to see if old Foord-Kelsie would accompany me. I think I have mentioned him to you – a retired country parson of 80, who drives his own car, carpenters, and mends everyone’s wireless.

He is an irreplaceable character . . . as redolent of English country life as an old apple in a barn. He is deliciously limited: cares for no poetry but Shakespeare, distrusts all mysticism and imagination, and all overstrained moods.

Yet you could not wish him to be otherwise: and inside this almost defiantly human and mundane framework there is such tenderness of heart that one never feels it bleak.

He was in his workshop when I arrived, with shavings all about his ankles, making a cover for the font of old Headington Church.

He would not come out, and I stayed to shout conversation for fifteen minutes above the thudding and singing of his circular saw. We had a bit of everything: an outburst against Shaw, a broad story, and then, as always, onto Tristram Shandy. ‘Wonderful book–oh a wonderful book. You feel snug when you read that–you get in among them all in that little parlour. . . .’

I wish you could have seen him saying all this, bending down as he shoved a beam of wood against the saw, with one dear old wrinkled eye screwed up and held close to the work. You must hurry up and come and see me before he dies, for he of all people should be added to our stock characters.

Lewis does, indeed, portray his walking companion, the Reverend Foord-Kelcey, as a “stock character.” But he does so with evident and sincere affection.

So, our vocations do not forever remain constant. They may change over time, but God’s call on our lives does not wane.

We may approach these transitions with some trepidation. I am not ashamed to admit I do so at the present moment. I hope you will join me in seeking to hear God’s call and respond with joy and enthusiasm, just as the saints before us – “Here I am! Send me.

30 thoughts on “Christians & Retirement

  1. God apparently aint finished with us yet! Praise him, something to get up for in the morning.

    And wisdom for you and the congregation in your joint-decision, under his sovereign direction.

    1. Was it George Barna who indicated recently that about 40% of American pastors are seriously thinking of throwing in the towel due to stress/health factors – I had to chuckle at the pic above. Years ago I had one member rebuke me for watching a Dr. Phil show during my lunch hour…

      1. That stat may have come from Barna’s research. Few people realize how stressful and demanding true ministry is. I am referring to earnest ministry provided by a person with a genuine shepherd’s heart. Simply going through the motions and preening in the trappings of a religious leader requires nothing… aside from hypocrisy.

  2. Come to central Louisiana! We lost our Pastor to cancer in October. He was a faithful servant and was still employed by the USDA (48 years!) at the time of his passing. He preached the Sunday prior to his entrance into heaven on Friday. We have many vacancies and no “retired” pastors available for a vacancy in our area.

    1. Sorry to hear about your pastor, Denise. The lack of available pastors is a broad problem. In fact, the congregation I’m likely to step in to assist had to turn to our Synod because they had no access to a candidate from their own denomination (the AALC).

      We enjoyed our military assignments in Texas and Alabama… but I daresay that any trips we make to Louisiana will only be for vacations. :) Delores and I will add your pastoral vacancy to our prayer list.

  3. The Rabbi of my hometown synagogue, whom I had known since childhood, had his plans to retire within 5 years. The congregation was happy for him, although sorry to know they would eventually lose him and he was an incredible teacher and leader; his shoes would be very tough to fill. Sadly, before he could do so, he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and passed away weeks later, before he had the chance. His loss was shocking and devastating.
    On the one hand, if you’re devoted to working as a faith leader, you’re never fully retired. But on the other hand, it makes sense that your work and focus will change during different life stages.

    1. Sorry to hear about your Rabbi. Last year we buried one of my friends from USAF chaplain years who had retired to this area and was serving a local congregation as their vacancy pastor. Just a couple years older than me…

      As we read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, for Christian readers), “For people don’t know when their time will come any more than fish taken in the fatal net or birds caught in a snare; similarly, people are snared at an unfortunate time, when suddenly it falls on them” (CJB).

      I hope you enjoyed a meaningful Hanukkah this year.

      1. Thank you. This happened several years ago; I should have clarified. It was definitely hard for a while, and hard for the synagogue to find a replacement Rabbi. They eventually did. I feel like both the congregation and myself reached the Acceptance stage of grief. I do feel as though the community is doing well overall and that my childhood Rabbi would be proud.

        Chanukah was very nice, thank you.

  4. Jeffrey Lynn Neuberger

    Rob – Nice to ‘hear’ you speak again through this insightful article. May your discernment be equal to your willingness!

  5. As a christian I believe retirement ends the day we are laid in the grave……… But then is our work over since we have inherited eternal life? Yes it does for we then enjoy our rest in the Lord. Be Blessed.

    1. Quite true, Julia. Our activities after the Resurrection will wondrous and “restful,” and whatever they encompass, it will not be “work” with any hint of the labor which was part of our inheritance after Eden.

      P.S. – I love the husky in your personal logo/avatar… a beautiful, and uniquely noble breed.

      1. You have written well! We will have eternal rest without work. The logo/avatar is a picture of my Dog Sassy who passed 6 years ago and is missed greatly. God Bless and Keep You Always.

      2. I know just how you feel as you remain acutely aware of the absence of Sassy. I’ve written in Mere Inkling about the pain we experienced with the loss of our own dogs.

        I’ve also shared in the past my hope (hope–not belief) that the Lord allows the pets who have trusted and loved us so sincerely, to share in some manner the eternal life God gives to us. It is most certainly within his ability to do this, after all, he created them in the first place.

        What we do know without doubt, however, is that what God has in store for his children will vastly exceed our greatest dreams.

      3. Isaiah 65:17ff comforted me a few years ago when we tragically lost our beloved miniature daschund pet, Lulu – a ‘hope’ for us also. But more so, the passage I believe sheds some light on the balance of rest and activity in the new creation. I personally believe there will be joyful activity/creativity in communion with Christ, our Creator and Redeemer, in that future life. Not being dogmatic (pun intended) on this issue, but just a personal reflection…

    1. Yes, in terms of necessary “adjustments,” it seems there must always be an element of humble tentativity about the plans we mere mortals make for ourselves.

      Yes, I know tentativeness is the proper word, but I like my neologism better.

      It’s still a tad early for me to think about Christmas, but allow me to extend to you as well my best wishes for Advent and our impending celebration of the Nativity miracle!

  6. Pingback: Christians & Retirement – NarrowPathMinistries

  7. I published my first book at age 75, the second the day before I turned 77, the third has been started! They are about Grandma Leora, who cheerfully lived to the age of 97, in spite of what she faced during the Great Depression and WWII. (She lost three sons during the war and was widowed shortly afterwards.) If the Lord gives me that many lucid years, there are more semi-mapped out. Aging gratefully.

    1. Congratulations, Joy.

      What a joy it is to preserve our family’s legacy, made even better in your case because: (1) the stories are fascinating and (2) it is shared so skillfully.

      1. When I realized the WWII story needed telling (hardly anyone in central Iowa knew anything about a family who lost three sons), I realized I’d been in training to do just that. But I also needed a crash course in WWII, as I wasn’t a history fan until meeting a woman who’d just received copies of an ancestor’s Civil War papers. I had no idea that was even possible. I chased ancestors until our son was born. Now that he has a family of his own, I’m so enjoying telling the stories from when the first ones came to Iowa. I’m the fourth “oldest daughter” in a row, so ended up with all the photos, postcards, letters, clippings, etc. Very few heirlooms, but oh, those stories!

      2. The photos and papers are the important things, I’ve come to recognize. So good to see when family members protect them, rather than allowing them to be lost, or sold for a few pennies on ebay.

  8. As a child, sorely overburdened by a few household chores, I heard the doctrine of never-ending work and permanently lost my zeal for life and the hereafter. Perhaps *that* was the origin of my never wanting to be a mother; I didn’t want to be anything but retired, with someone else to do the cleaning.

    I still resent it.

    We are taught that work never ends, as you pointed out, even after death. If anything, it likely increases.

    1. Retirement is nice. I just left that grand estate this month when I accepted a “call” to serve again as an “Interim Pastor.” It’s likely to last at least a year — less if I can help the congregation get to the point where they’re able to call a full-time, “young” pastor again.

      For Christians, we look to an afterlife without “work…” certainly without any of its negative connotations. The Edenic curse will hold no sway, and humanity’s harmony with nature and one another will be universal.

      1. I associate many negative connotations with work, despite the obvious benefits to a work of order and purpose. While wanting some time off after a full life, I doubt I’d wish for a literal forever of leisure.

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