Book Review: Clergy Retirement: Every Ending a New Beginning for Clergy, Their Families, and Congregants
The problem of clergy retirement makes clear the real challenges that everyone probably faces when they leave paid work, and it does this because being a minister is most obviously about matters of meaning. For the vast majority of us, there is no stage in the human life span that is likely to be more dramatic in its personal, social, financial, and existential consequences than retirement.
When a man or woman retires they instantly become an old person to many other people. Those still in fulltime employment tend to judge retirees by their own standards; which are often concerned with competitive “busyness;” and some refugees from the workforce exhaust themselves trying to meet external expectations. To fill the void in their lives, retirees typically seek interest and relationships in travel, part-time work, grandchildren, volunteering, and life maintenance. The special advantage that the clergy can have is that they will more often know that the principal issue in retirement is individual purpose. Frankly, it would be unexpected if a clergyperson’s working life, which is consumed with the crises of congregants and furthering the faith, led to a retirement defined completely by golf, gardening, fishing, or belonging to a service club.
In Clergy Retirement, Rabbi Daniel Roberts and psychologist Michael Freidman contend that retirement is the ultimate opportunity to discover yourself and to be yourself. There are phases to retirement, which may begin with the emotions that usually accompany a sabbatical or a holiday. But then, loss of work structures and patterns can have destabilising effects, and less welcome thoughts and feelings can emerge; like sadness and regret, and even envy and resentment. According to the authors, these negative emotions can be represented as a desert or wilderness in which each of us needs to find his or her own path. Close friends and professionals may provide us with invaluable support on our journey, which has as its destination the chance for each of us to be more than he or she has ever been before. Underlying this aspiration and optimism is the fact that older people can go forward with the advantage of hindsight and experience, while often also possessing strength and passion; and with the prospect of ten, twenty, and or even thirty years more of active life. The rediscovery and reactivation that occurs does not necessarily involve a renewal of faith, although it does demand a depth of understanding and awareness. Critically, it is concerned with extending persistent personal themes, and getting the last act in life right by honouring our particularity and authenticity.
As we know, a good theory can be a great guide to practice; and this probably applies to self-actualisation in retirement when it is enacted within the bounds of individual circumstance and capacity. However, Roberts and Freidman also address the everyday questions that should be considered when a clergyperson and a congregation have to let go of each other. The authors assert that “[m]uch as the gardener tills the soil as winter ends in anticipation of spring planting, the retiring clergy’s generous departure can be one of his most meaningful gifts to his community” (23). But equally, the laity and church administration should evidence understanding and compassion for the clergyperson’s “disenfranchised grief” (12), and for the reality that he or she is likely to waver between wanting connection with the congregation and seeking new opportunities. More often than might be acknowledged, careers end because of health issues or interpersonal difficulties. In all situations, letting go needs to be carefully planned with appropriate rituals and ceremonies; and with the retiring clergy guiding congregants in this major transition. When such provisions and engagements occur, both the minister and the church may be more likely to move forward to a new and consequential stage of development.
Peter Stanley is a retired Counselling Psychologist, who lives in Tauranga, New Zealand.