Throughout my adult life and ministry, I have been a hopeful and mostly positive person. In fact, “encouragement” shows up as one of my spiritual gifts for leadership and ministry on every profile. Therefore, I was understandably surprised at what happened to me in the early months of retirement.
My decision about retirement began with an intentional plan. I was blessed with good health and a reasonable amount of energy. I decided not to retire at sixty-two or even sixty-five as some of my colleagues had done. Mandatory retirement for United Methodist clergy was seventy years of age. I determined to stay until age sixty-eight—beyond the traditional age, but before I was “forced out” by the rules.
As my sixty-eighth birthday approached in mid-2007, I was ready. I had spent forty-three years under full-time appointment to three United Methodist churches. They very large church I had served for the past twenty-seven years had reached the stage where a healthy transition seemed both possible and appropriate. I announced my decision to retire in the early fall of 2006. The new season of life would begin on July 1, 2007. I sent letters to my bishop and church members without any conscious regret or reservation.
I knew the possibility of some uneasiness and even misgivings when I stepped away. I anticipated what it might be like to move out of leadership in a large church and out of the appointive process of our denomination. Yet I felt quite secure in my decision.
In the final month, I preached four sermons from biblical texts in the letters of Paul where he writes, “And now, finally, brothers and sisters...” I thought—perhaps with a little too much pride—the series of messages to be both clever and appropriate. For its part, the church was gracious and affirming. I could not have asked for better send-off recognition.
I was unprepared for much of what followed.
At first I felt a certain freedom—from a controlling schedule, administrative oversight, staffing issues, evening meetings, phone calls, and sermon writing. My wife, Elaine, and I left almost immediately for a week of vacation in Washington D.C. That first Sunday of retirement, we attended worship at the National Cathedral and heard a marvelous, challenging, and well-delivered message by the lead pastor of the Cathedral. I realized I was not sleeping well at night; but I attributed that experience to the normal adjustments to a new life situation.
Within a very short time I began to miss the staff with whom I had worked for nearly a quarter century. They were extended family. They celebrated my retirement with ingenuity, humor, and great love. Now they were moving on to welcome a new leader and a new chapter in the life of the church. I missed the interaction, the laughter, the visioning, the family ties, and the conversations on a day to day basis. I missed their laughter in the halls and their voices outside my office door. I recognized these feelings as a kind of grief. I tried to rationalize my feelings and sleepless nights—and even a few unexpected tears—to a “textbook” understanding of grief.
I characteristically “analyzed” the enormity of what had happened: I had suddenly, precipitously moved from being in charge of everything (a 3500 member church and a staff of 30) to being in charge of nothing. A growing sense of emptiness and restlessness invaded my usually positive spirit. I did not regret my decision to retire. I did not yearn to return to my former position. But I was lonely and anxious in a strange new world.
Within less than one month, a second major life change took place. Our youngest son and his family found a forty acre farm for sale in the northeastern corner of the Pittsburgh area. They asked if we would we help them buy the farm, move there with them, help with child care, and set up a Community Supported Agriculture business with them. Our son would complete the C.S.A. effort as part of his Ph.D. project and thesis at West Virginia University.
My wife was elated; living only a few feet from our grandchildren was a dream come true. Her answer was an instant “yes.” I was catapulted into a whole new arena of emotions. Could we afford it? Would this shift radically change some (or all) of our retirement travel plans? Would the costs consume all of my pension and retirement savings? Would such a farm succeed? How could I learn to farm at my age? (I had lived all of my sixty-eight years in the suburbs.) Was I ready to leave a secure town-home community with virtually zero maintenance (where we had lived for the past ten years) to a high maintenance farm? Was this a true adventure, or was it utter foolishness? Throwing caution to the wind, we made an offer on the farm. The offer was accepted. My family was ecstatic. My own sleeplessness became even more pronounced.
Then came a third change. I was approached by my bishop to consider a part-time job in retirement. Would I consider taking on the task of coordinating leadership development for new lead pastors of larger membership churches and new young clergy under the age of 35? I would work directly for the bishop and meet with his executive team monthly. The position provided no staff, no office (I would work from home), and a modest stipend. The bishop and I would “invent” the job description together.
Though the bishop asked if I could start right away, I was wise enough to beg a postponement of this decision. I tentatively agreed to begin in about six months. I had no idea what I would do or how to structure this new position. Everyone who learned about the proposed position affirmed me as the right person at the right time. I almost felt guilty as the positive responses came my way. Would I let them down? Would I be able to function effectively and faithfully?
The following fall and winter were a long and arduous journey. We moved to the farm in November. I sensed it was a good thing to do in my head, but my heart would not yet rejoice.
Somewhere in the background of my mental health training, I remember learning that a healthy person can handle one major life change reasonably well. (Relocation, marriage, divorce, job change, the death of a loved one, etc.) Two such changes could cause some major stress. Three changes might push even the strongest person over the edge. I had always considered myself a strong person with a durable faith. But I now wondered if I was “going over the edge.”
I lost about twenty pounds—mostly because I was not hungry. I experienced what were probably moderate anxiety attacks combined with intermittent spells of real grief. I could only compare what was happening inside of me to the months following the death of my father nearly thirty years earlier.
I knew the counsel of experts: even a modest grief resolution takes at least six to eight months. More than two years later, I am slowly but clearly emerging into the other side of the process. I still have residual doubts about loss of ties with my church staff, about our new life on a farm, and about the new leadership development position. However, I also believe I have received a marvelous opportunity and a worthy journey for the next few years. I am slowly learning to be grateful for something new and challenging in my life. I am entering a new future with growing hope.
A colleague reflected with me: “Retirement is really a form of repositioning.” I like that expression. I am repositioning for a new stage of my life and ministry.
Elaine and I return to my former church for worship on occasion. I now know that I no longer want to be in charge. I miss the staff family, the discipline of sermon planning and preaching, the celebrations, and even the struggles. But I know a rising contentment and budding enthusiasm for my life and direction in these days—after some restless, strange, and uncomfortable months. I sense an emerging appreciation for my place in this retirement calling. I believe that a good and gracious God is part of the process with me. And I patiently await some healthy, worthy visions to unfold.
Brian K. Bauknight is a retired elder in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. This article was first published in Circuit Rider (May/June/July 2010). Printable PDF available here.