What virtues should characterise ministers who have retired from ministry? Having in a previous blog sought to identify virtues desirable in ministers in active ministry, I thought I should turn my attention to the retired. At this point, however, I immediately ran into a major difficulty. My experience is limited – for I retired less than a year ago. I therefore wrote to a number of minister friends who had been retired a little longer and received the following replies:
- Thankfulness, recognising that we have all received much more than we have ever been able to give; honest memory, involving not idealising the past, remembering whatever we may claim to know now we only gradually learnt, from others and through experience; a readiness to let go, but remaining available for service; readiness for the new; discipline; a large perspective; capacity to dream (Keith Clements).
- Thankfulness, friendship, self-awareness in the sense of being aware of personal weaknesses and past failures, as well as how one comes across to others; meekness and humility, avoiding the temptation to think one knows best; forbearance in the sense of bearing silently with that which I would never do; quietness and brevity, being aware that one has been too used to the sound of one’s own voice; steadfastness in the faith (John Colwell).
- Acceptance that one is no longer at the centre of things; support and encouragement of others; steadfastness of faith; patience when others re-invent the wheel; thankfulness; readiness to step down; listening, rather than talking, to others about ministry (Bryan Gilbert).
- Humility expressed in handing over to others; encouragement of others; hope; discernment of a larger perspective, grace and endurance; adventure (seeking for new understandings and experience), acceptance that one is no longer at the centre of thing (Brian Jenkins).
- Wisdom, humility, insight, courage, faith, contentment, love (Andrew Knowles, who went on: Wisdom seems to me to lie at the heart of the older Christian’s reflection and ministry. We can seek after wisdom and grow in wisdom, despite advancing years. It also has the advantage that we can do it sitting or lying down).
- Energy, stamina, good health, perseverance, patience, adaptability, wide and deep sympathies (Julian Reindorp, who recognises that some of this not about virtue but ‘good fortune’).
- Confidence in the Holy Spirit (inner security); humility; open-mindedness, recognising the good in others with new and different ways; compassion; optimism (a determination not to be cynical); self-control; industriousness in any form of continuing ministry, and in the cultivation of one’s mental and spiritual growth (Malcolm Smalley).
The above is just a summary of the responses I received. As John Colwell observed, one of the difficulties in drawing up a list specific to ministers is whether or not one should include the virtues that should be common to all Christians such as faith, hope and love. What I found fascinating was the considerable overlap in the responses I received. Having reflected on these responses, I now offer the following list of what for me seem to be seven virtues for retired ministers:
- Wisdom. To grow in wisdom is to look back on the past and make sense of our lives. Hopefully looking back will create a sense of pride in one’s achievements, but it will almost certainly involve coming to terms with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams.
- Thankfulness for God’s goodness in the past: ministry has indeed been an amazing privilege, and God has blessed us beyond our deserving. Also thankfulness for the present: instead of grumbling about church life today, we should thank God for the new freedoms that are ours.
- Attentiveness. It is all too easy for retired ministers to talk about themselves and their experience of ministry, rather than lending a listening ear to others who are in one way or another seeking to serve God today.
- Encouragement. Ministers need to become angel’s advocates, celebrating the achievements of the next generation.
- Patience and Forbearance. Even when we fundamentally disagree with new ways of doing church, loyalty in ministry requires that we refuse to criticise others, even to our friends.
- Steadfastness of faith. Even although we are retired, there is still a race to run and a Lord to serve.
- Hope. Let’s resist the temptation to be ‘sunset’ people looking back, but rather ‘sunrise’ people looking forward – both to this life and the life to come.
- Love. Let’s radiate the love of the Lord Jesus not just to those of our generation, but to the future generations – and not least our own grandchildren, who all too often do not know of God’s love for them.
The retired, it has been said, are those who no longer belong to the ‘ruling generation’. Yet as retired ministers we are still called to serve God by serving others.