There comes a time in the life of every lead pastor when the hand off or time to retire has to occur.
Many pastors remember the days in the beginning of their ministries when thinking of age 65, 70 or 75 seemed light years away. Saving for retirement was a nice option in your twenties but certainly not a necessity—particularly when you were making barely above minimum wage and had 6-month-old and 2-year-old crumb-crunchers at home to feed.
In days gone by, preparing for the future was tantamount to not believing in the return of the Lord. The problem for some elderly pastors is that the Lord hasn’t returned yet, but their days of effectively moving the church forward are over or close to it.
In conversation with a couple of pastor friends of mine—David Thomas in Ohio and James Ruddy in Pennsylvania—they shared with me their observations. As lead pastors age they tend to overstay and too frequently see the church decline. In particular, David noted to me the four reasons he has observed that cause this to happen. My consulting with pastors has afforded me a vantage point from which I’ve seen these happen over and over. David gave me permission to flesh them out for you in this article.
The pastor’s present ministry in the local church is his or her only identity. While it is important that we focus on what God has called us to do, this is too single-dimensional in that it does not develop a life outside the church. In fact, in some cases it could be seen as arrogant. The church needs me so badly that I can’t afford to develop any other part of my life. The church will crumble without me. Few verbalize this but their actions speak louder than words. Fortunately for the church, it won’t crumble when you leave. Unfortunately for you, you have an unhealthy view of yourself. It is unfortunate for everyone in that the church can’t be all it was meant to be because the pastor is not healthy.
The pastor is not financially prepared to step away. We look at wonderful gray-haired men and women who seemed so prepared for anything as they aged—but sadly, they are not. Pastoring has never made the Forbes list of highest-paying careers in the past and the forecast for the future isn’t much different. These wonderful servants of God gave of themselves to the church sacrificially for so many years. As they near retirement they may be making a reasonable amount of money but the value of saving for retirement is in the younger years when one has decades to grow the nest egg. An older pastor can seldom say it but one of the primary reasons they don’t step away is … they can’t afford to. They need the church paycheck to live. By the way, church boards should take note of this reality and take care of their fiduciary responsibility to set in place retirement funding for all their pastors, even the young ones.
Distorted Work Ethic
There are men and women in ministry who have been taught, and they believe, that to work hard is a high virtue. I concur completely. “Work, work, work” sounds good and noble. But the problem is some of these same pastors believe wrongly that to burn out is better than to rust out. This issue is another that is fraught with pride. If I don’t do it, nobody will. Certainly no one works as hard as I do. David Thomas asks whether there might be a better third option: “How about to transition out and to do it well.” I have wise, older pastors in mind right now who have looked themselves in the mirror and said, “I’m not as young as I used to be and I need to transition this church and in doing so transition me.” This is a good thing and it oftentimes takes years to do. These pastors are not lazy. They have extremely strong work ethics. They live to serve and they live to see the church flourish. And they realize there is life beyond the pulpit. There is no time like the present to think about it … and if you’re over age 55, start taking action!
Pastors who do not spend time considering the future of the church and the new leadership that will be necessary to move it forward shortchange everything. Our model should be Paul raising up Timothy. It is an ultimate legacy. Timothys don’t necessarily look or think like we do. They are another generation. Timothys take time. They take energy. They sometimes make messes. Lead pastors who are insecure or who feel tomorrow will be a good day to start thinking about training up a Timothy either don’t transition, do it too late, or do it poorly. When trained and empowered properly, a Timothy can do amazing things for God. Here is where the pastor can have an injection of valid pride. When an older quarterback goes to the sidelines, if the quarterback who takes the field is the younger one he has mentored he should burst his buttons with pride—the right kind of pride. To see God accomplish the transition and use the pastor along the way to His end is a wonderful thing.
Here are my recommendations to avoid the four scenarios above. This will create a plan to finish healthy and well and to leave the church with a bright future in the good hands of your successor.
- Get a hobby like yesterday. If you need help with this, ask a friend or family member to start helping you think in terms of life outside of church. Don’t sit there and say you don’t like to do anything else. That’s a problem. You have trained yourself to only care about one thing … and some of you have made yourself out to be extra spiritual for having done so. You’re not. You’ll be extra spiritual if you broaden your interest and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Start saving money today. You may say, “It’s too late to make any difference.” It’s never too late. If you’re 70 years old and have never saved, start today. If you’re young, it’s never too early. Also, if you are in the position to opt in or out of Social Security, you should opt in, unless of course you are like no one I’ve ever met who has a religious objection to receiving money from the government. Never opt out. No Congress or president in the future will ever have the political stomach to eliminate Social Security regardless of the naysayers. If they do, then it’s all over for the whole country and won’t make any difference anyway. Save for retirement now.
- Examine whether the pride of working hard has overtaken the wisdom of rest. If you are offended by this suggestion, I suggest you look deep inside. At minimum, start with our model from Genesis and rest one out of seven days. Most pastors who do not have this in place are violating this instruction from the Lord to take a Sabbath rest. Be smart and delegate. Look for paid and lay leaders to do the work of the ministry. Jethro had something to say to Moses about this in Exodus 18.
- Throughout your ministry life, you should always be investing in younger pastors. Once you hit your 50s, you should begin to examine the landscape for the purpose of identifying your successor. Have one selected by the time you’re age 60, and begin sharing the pulpit until, by age 70, you are out and they are fully in the saddle. If you read this recommendation as “life is over,” I strongly suggest you go back to recommendation number one and get a grip on the fact there is life after lead pastoring. It’s just a new station in ministry. Enjoy it!
It is critically important that lead pastors finish well. In order to do so, they need to regularly think in terms of their own spiritual health and that of the church. At the end of the day the question will not be, How successfully did you run yourself into the ground and leave My church in a state of decline? It might be more like, Did you do what I asked you to do and did you hand off My church to the person I’ve chosen to lead it to the next level? I know what I want my answer to be. How about you?
Note: Special thanks go to Pastors David L. Thomas at Youngstown, Ohio, and James Ruddy at Littlestown, Pennsylvania, for their valued contributions to portions of this article.
Dick Hardy founded The Hardy Group after nearly 30 years of service to the church as an administrative pastor, church business administrator, chief operating officer, pastor of ministry development, non-profit executive director, and college vice president. Visit www.thehardygroup.org for more information.