Job said, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” (Job12:12)
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:8)
A few days ago, a friend told me, “You are failure at retirement!” I understood this as a rather backhanded compliment, but it did start me thinking about what success and failure at retirement look like.
Angela and I had a friend in the town where we grew up who was a committed Christian but had a very time-consuming job. He had a passion for mission and said repeatedly that once he retired, he planned to dedicate himself to the Lord’s service. He longed for retirement. Sadly, a week after he retired, he dropped dead of a heart attack and was never able to fulfill his dreams of ministry. Much later we had other friends at Truro Church whose dreams were a little different – they were both Christians and worked hard in challenging careers. Their retirement dream was to move to Florida and play golf every day. They did just that. They sold their house and moved south. Three years later they moved back. They were utterly bored by their new retirement lifestyle and missed their old friends and church community.
My maternal grandfather – always known to me as “Grandad” – never retired. He was a farmer and worked hard every day. He did slow down as old age took its toll, but he was always busy. In his later years, Grandad became a Methodist lay preacher, and he and Granny would travel to small country churches where she played the harmonium and he preached.
What exactly is retirement and what is its origin? Retirement began to be widely adopted as a concept in the United States after the Industrial Revolution, because older factory workers began to show signs of aging that hindered the work: slowing down assembly lines, taking excessive sick days, and preventing the company from hiring more youthful, more profitable workers with families to support. The Great Depression exacerbated things.
Though retirement was viewed by some as an essential adjustment, many among the older populace resisted the idea. 1 By 1935, the idea was that, in order to get older individuals to quit working for pay, their employers must pay them enough that they could afford to quit working. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Social Security Act of 1935, which made individual workers pay for their own mandatory retirement! While it proved to be a brilliant political move and Social Security payments have been a great help to many, the economic realities and increased life expectancy of today make it a less-than fully effective program.
Another driving force for mandatory retirement was a rather dubious assertion made in a 1905 valedictory address to the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The eminent Canadian physician William Osler expressed his conviction that a man's best work was done before he was 40 years old, and that by age 60, he should retire. He called the ages between 25 and 40 the "15 golden years of plenty." Workers between 40 and 60 were tolerable because they were "merely uncreative." But after age 60, the average worker was useless and should be put out to pasture. So much for following the science!
Moses is, of course, my favorite counter example of a successful retiree. He began his illustrious career at the age of 80! He took on the leadership of the Hebrew people to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, through 40 years in the wilderness and up to the border of the Promised Land. On the way he met with God himself on Mount Sinai, where he collected the stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments. Not bad for an old man!
So where does this leave us, members of the clergy? For those who were formed in an earlier generation, there was an unwritten expectation that clergy and their families would be “taken care of” throughout our active ministry and beyond. The Church Pension Fund is still the gold standard of traditional pensions, and it now claims assets of more than $17 billion. Our ACNA alternative program falls far short in comparison. And then there is the issue of housing. Angela and I lived in church-owned housing all of our ordained ministry prior to my becoming a bishop. It was a great blessing and afforded us the opportunity to live in the immediate neighborhood of each church and share our lives with the members of the congregation. But it denied us the opportunity to build up any housing equity. And that leads me to another story of God’s miraculous provision.
Between our ministry in Lafayette, Louisiana (1983–1988) and in New York City (1988– 1991), we spent six months living at a retreat center in Santa Rosa Beach – operated, at that time, by St Andrews-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. It was a wonderful time of preparation for us, but as we got ready to head north, Angela informed me that she was determined that we have somewhere to return to as we continued with our increasingly nomadic ministry.
We had no savings, but after much prayer with a friend who was a realtor, we purchased a small piece of undeveloped property in a nearby neighborhood for a very modest down payment and a $200/month payment. Over the next 10 years the value more than quadrupled, and the sale of the property allowed us to put a down payment on our present home in Miramar Beach, Florida. We know that it was God’s provision for this season of our lives.
In my next letter, I will reflect on how best to prepare for and effectively use these so-called retirement years. But I conclude this letter with two quotations from familiar friends:
“Preparation for old age should begin not later than one’s teens. A life which is empty of purpose until 65 will not suddenly become filled on retirement.” – Dwight L. Moody
“You are never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream.” – C.S. Lewis
Your brother in Christ,