My Retirement Diploma: Reflections on an Early Ministerial Retirement
On the last Sunday of my last pastorate, as my family and I drove away from the church, my six-year-old granddaughter handed me a rolled-up certificate with a string tied around it. She called her creation, “Papa’s diploma.” The handwritten diploma said, “You have completed preaching at church. Good job.” And with that, four decades of vocational ministry came to an end. Although it proved a good retirement, it occurred years earlier than planned. This article tells some of my story before, during, and after my necessary ending as a parish pastor.
My initiation into ministry occurred at age fifteen, when I preached my first sermon at a youth-led Sunday. My cousin asked me what I wanted him to play for the offertory. Without thinking about the radical incongruence of the request, I asked for a medley of my two favorite songs: John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the hymn “He Lives.” Luckily, no one in that conservative Baptist congregation recognized the newly released heretical song that imagined a world without religion, nations, or possessions.
My official entry into paid vocational ministry came during college. I served as a youth minister, the preacher for a student revival team sponsored by my Baptist university, and an associate pastor. After graduation, seminary plans got temporarily sidelined by love, marriage, parenting, and a stint in the insurance business. When I finally decided to leave my lucrative sales job in order to go to seminary, my father shouted, “You’re a damn fool! You could have been president of that company. Instead, you’ll waste your life baptizing babies and burying old folks.” Ironically, baptizing babies and burying old folks were two of my favorite pastoral duties. Thankfully, my father later changed his tune.
After seminary, I accepted a call to a southern, county seat “First Church.” Other than minor complaints about a few of my sermons on race, earth care, and peacemaking, I enjoyed three years of pastoral bliss. I then went to a larger congregation, earned a doctorate, began to publish, got on the clergy speaking circuit, and ended up as a preaching and worship editor/consultant for the Southern Baptist Convention. My four-year gig at denominational headquarters represented my dream job for which I was well suited. However, as the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC became more toxic, I could no longer keep my job while keeping my integrity. I resigned the position and accepted a pastorate in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I kept a surfboard in my office and another one at the parsonage. However, even in paradise, I could not escape the fundamentalist drumbeat in the SBC. After grueling internal debate, I finally made the painful decision to depart my denomination.
My family and I returned to Nashville, Tennessee, where I began PhD studies in homiletics and liturgics at Vanderbilt. After investigating half a dozen mainline denominations, the search for a new church home narrowed to either the Episcopal Church or the United Methodist Church. The Episcopal bishop offered to place me in a three-year aspirant program, with no guarantee of a parish after the process ended. The United Methodist bishop offered me a parish beginning the next Sunday. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
In the years that followed, I served churches of all sizes, from a student pastorate with a few dozen members to the senior pastorate of a megachurch with ten thousand members (adults and children). I also mentored young clergy, spoke at numerous events, and continued to publish. Life as a United Methodist minister felt good for a long time. Unfortunately, it didn’t last as long as I had hoped. In my mid-fifties, at the peak of my career, my vocation, at least on a spiritual and emotional level, came to a painful end. Several factors contributed to this sad reality.
First, in a brief but brutal pastorate, my vocation suffered a fatal blow. I received relentless condemnation from a small but dedicated percentage of the congregation who told me I wasn’t a good enough preacher, leader, or pastor. No doubt some of their criticism was valid. I’m not a perfect pastor. However, this pattern of ruthlessly trashing the senior pastor had been going on for decades in that congregation, with sad and even tragic results. Although I left that appointment and served another church for six additional years, the mortal wound inflicted in that abusive setting continued as a slow bleed, eventually draining every ounce of joy from my work. I once had a vocation I loved and thrived in. I now had a job I tolerated. Although I did the job with competency, I no longer enjoyed it.
Second, I finally came to grips with the overwhelming failure of institutional religion. For decades I managed to avoid this reckoning, but I finally came to the place where I could no longer do so. Like most clergy, I knew church history, including power politics, the inquisition, witch burnings, religious wars, and the crusades. I also knew the sordid history of American religion, including support for the genocide of American Indians, unyielding defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to the civil rights movement. During my own career, I saw the rise of the religious right—including partisan politics, toxic nationalism, rejection of science, denial of climate change, oppression of women, and hatred of gays, Muslims, and immigrants. I lived through and was deeply wounded by the cutthroat fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. I watched in horror as the pedophile priest scandal unfolded, with virtually no accountability for abusive priests or the bishops who covered it up. I watched my own denomination fracture over human sexuality in a spirit of hostility and rancor. The final blow was watching evangelicals, in the name of God, overwhelmingly support the most anti-Jesus president in history. I finally lost heart for institutional religion. I also knew that I played my own role in the many failures of the church. For example, I could have spoken out more forcefully against the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. I could have played a bigger role in fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community in the UMC. And I could have more forcefully challenged racism in my southern churches. I certainly attempted to move the needle and have the scars to prove it. However, I could have risked more in the fight for justice. Sadly, there’s plenty of blame to go around in the dismal failures of institutional religion. But clearly, the church as we’ve known it, both historically and currently, is not what Jesus had in mind.
Finally, my decades-long faith struggle could no longer be contained. Since college, my favorite verse was, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I now felt unbelief slowly gaining the upper hand. For example, The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds became more and more problematic for me. Although I still loved Jesus, I struggled mightily with many traditional, orthodox doctrines. Like Bishop Spong, I knew that “the heart cannot worship what the mind cannot believe.”
All three of these factors—an abusive congregation, the never-ending failure of the church, and long-term faith struggles—finally came to a head one night in a vivid dream. In my dream I found myself working at a church. For some bizarre reason, they met on the top of the building, on a steep-pitched roof. As hard as I tried, I could not keep my balance. On multiple occasions I almost fell off the roof. One time I had to grab a tree branch to keep from falling. Another time I slipped and almost fell to my death but managed to grab the gutter just in time. Other people navigated the roof without any problem, but not me. When I woke up, the message felt vividly clear. I could no longer keep my balance in church work. I planned on working full time to age sixty-five and part-time to age seventy or beyond. But those plans and dreams did not survive. With the blessings of my financial advisor, I took early retirement at age sixty-two.
Sort of. Seven weeks into retirement, my district superintendent called and asked if I would be willing to serve as an interim at a small, part-time rural church about twenty miles from my home. I had spoken there on several occasions over the years, liked the feel of the place, so agreed to serve for a few months. I soon fell in love with the congregation and agreed to stay longer. Although the church was just 1 percent the size of my largest pastorate, I found it far more enjoyable. It felt like a gift from God, a way to end vocational ministry on a positive and joyful note. I recently wrote down nicknames for all of my churches. I called this one “the good-ending pastorate.” I remained there for a year and a half until I had a major flare-up of my lifelong vocal cord disorder. That, coupled with other issues already noted, forced me to admit that my shelf life in church work had finally expired. So, for the second time in two years, I retired from vocational ministry—and received my graduation diploma from my granddaughter.
Like most pastors, the church both abundantly blessed and deeply wounded me. However, after fifty years in church, and after forty-two years in ministry (including part-time positions), the math is clear. The church blessed me far more than it wounded me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the church saved me in every way a person can be saved. The church introduced me to Jesus. The church became the family my dysfunctional family of origin could not be. The church loved and affirmed me. The church educated me. The church gave me a meaningful vocation. The church provided a living for me and my family. And the church gave me exceptional opportunities of service in two different denominations. So, regardless of my deep disappointments with institutional religion, which are legion, I’ll always be exceptionally grateful for the many gifts it bestowed.
Early retirement feels good and treats me kindly. I’m enjoying family and friends, keeping physically fit, pursuing nonwork-related interests, and doing a lot of reading. I’m also continuing my lifelong avocation of writing. I’m currently working on my first novel and my eighth nonfiction book. The Talmud says that over a lifetime a person should have a child, plant a tree, and write a book, and I’m glad to have done all three. While my wife and I won’t have any more children, I do hope to plant more trees and write more books.
However, my future in congregational life feels uncertain. After the pandemic finally recedes, I’ll check out the few mainline options in my mostly religious-right community in search of a church home. Given the dynamics already mentioned, it’s possible I’ll eventually become postchurch. But even if I do, which seems unlikely, I’ll never become post-Jesus.
Last year I watched the 2016 film Silence. The movie tells the story of a seventeenth-century priest who did missionary work in Japan. For years he struggled with the silence of God in the midst of great suffering and persecution. He grew weary of trying to advance Christianity in Japan with little success. Finally—primarily to save his congregation from deadly torture by government persecution—he publicly renounced his faith. He left the priesthood, married, and pressed on with a secular life, although you wondered if he still secretly held an affinity for Jesus. At the end of the film, the ex-priest died. His body was placed in a large wooden casket. Before they took his body for cremation, his wife placed a small crucifix in the palm of his hand, one given to him when he first arrived as a missionary in Japan. As the cremation fire began to burn, the last image of the movie was the crucifix in the hand of the former priest.
I wept as I watched that scene. Like that ex-priest, I will take Jesus to the grave with me, grateful for his life-giving impact on my life. However, before that day arrives, I am a husband, father, grandfather, friend, writer, follower of Jesus, retired clergyperson, and whatever else the next chapter brings. And it is enough.