Although retirement is a challenge for everybody, for retired ministers can be a particular challenge. For ministers, immediately upon retirement, have to move and start life afresh in a new community. Most lose not only their role and status, but also – having lived in ‘tied accommodation’ – their home and their friends. It is a time of real ‘bereavement’.
Some ministers manage well the transition and are happy and fulfilled in retirement. However, as I have discovered through my research into how ministers experience retirement, subsequently published as Retirement Matters for Ministers (College of Baptist Ministers 2018), many find it difficult in adjusting to retirement.
To compound what is already a challenging experience, often local churches do not help the retirement process. Not all retired ministers feel welcomed when they try to settle in a local church. Some feel treated with suspicion – both by the minister and by members of the church. In my research I found that
- 40% of retired minister feel they have no support from their local church
- 43% said the minister was not their friend
- 19% said they felt ‘at the edge’ or ‘very much at the edge’ of the church
- Around a third have not been invited out in the previous six-months to a home or restaurant by church people, and a further third only once or twice in that period.
A complicating factor is that most retired ministers believe that God has still a call upon their lives, even though they recognise they are no longer pastors with churches to run. When they retire, most want to find new opportunities to serve God – but not all local churches are willing to help find appropriate outlets for their gifts and experience.
So how can churches become more effective in caring for retired ministers?
In the first place, churches need to welcome retired ministers and their spouses. Put yourself into their shoes. Many newly retired ministers will feel very self-conscious when they enter a church. This is the first time for many years that they have been at the receiving end of a welcome. To make them feel at home a warm handshake at the door with a brief word of greeting is not enough. Introduce yourself to them. Tell them how glad you are that they have moved into your community and how delighted you would be if they decided to make your church their spiritual home.
If coffee is being served after the service, take them to the coffee station and introduce them to others. Note down their address – and ideally pop round with a bunch of flowers during the week.
If the retired minister and spouse return a following Sunday, then the welcome needs to be accompanied with an invitation to your home for coffee – or even better for a meal. This is the moment to extend an offer of friendship.
A visit from the minister – or if no minister, then from one of the lay leaders on behalf of the church – is necessary to reinforce the welcome. This initial visit is for the minister/lay leader to introduce themselves and the church, and to get to know the retired minister (and spouse). This is not the moment to talk about opportunities for service. The newly retired minister needs to be given time to settle down.
Once it has become clear that the retired minister wishes to settle in the church, then the minister/lay leader needs to visit again with a view to discovering how the church can help the retired minister continue to live out God’s call. Some will prefer to explore new avenues of serving God in the local community, but some will be looking for opportunities to preach, to help with pastoral care, or perhaps to lead a home group. Initially, however, it may be enough to be to part of a home group where there is a confident and experienced leader. Every retired minister and every church is different – but what a difference it makes if a church is willing to recognise their experience and in this light explore possibilities of service.
Although ‘it takes two to tango’, churches need to continue to be proactive in the care of retired ministers and their spouses, not least when it comes to hospitality. A one-off invitation to a church newcomers’ lunch is not sufficient. Because making friends in later life is not easy, it really does help retired ministers to be regularly invited for a meal in people’s homes.
For retired ministers a meaningful relationship with their new minister can make all the difference in the world – it can also prove supportive to the minister too. Good relationships do, however, need time to develop. In view of the particular duty of pastoral care for their retired colleagues, ministers need to diarise a visit at least once a year (before I myself retired I used to visit retired colleagues once a term).
Churches need to remember that the retired ministers amongst them have been one of Christ’s special gifts to his church (Eph 4.6). In responding to God’s call, they will have given themselves unstintingly in service to others. Now is the time to honour their life-time of service by truly caring for them.