What’s next for an old pastor? We get this question on occasion. Here’s the most recent one in an email. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m 51 years old and have pastored the same church for seventeen years. I love being a pastor — and I wish I could never retire from this work. But I know this is probably not the best idea for the long-term health of my church. My question is this: What happens to us old pastors? What should happen to us? I don’t have a ministry like yours. I cannot publish a book any publisher would want. And I get no invitations to speak at conferences. What work is there for me to do?”
Well, I think often about this question, probably because of my age (74) and the fact that I’m indeed privileged to be part of a ministry that grew up alongside me while I was pastoring. But I often imagine what it would be like and what I would be doing if there were no one giving me structure to my life and expecting me to earn my salary at Desiring God. This is the position of thousands of pastors who’ve finished their pastorate at 65 or 70 or 75. They have good years left. But what should they do? The first thing I want to say is foundational, and then I’ll get more specific.
Finishing the Race
Don’t believe in the world’s view of retirement, which usually revolves around recreation: fishing, golfing, cruises, resorts, shopping. There’s not anything like that in the Bible: minister for forty or fifty years, and then indulge yourself with worldly leisure and play for the last chapter of your life as you prepare to give an account to the Judge of the universe, while putting all the accumulated knowledge that God has given you over the years on the shelf, unused. That’s insane. It’s not biblical, and we are being duped by the world to buy into it, I fear.
Paul came to the end of his life saying,
I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6–8)
The race that he’s talking about — the race of life, the race of ministry — did not end for Paul until he hit the finish line, and the finish line was death. The final bell in the fight that he was fighting is rung at death. So, the foundational thing I want to say is this: Don’t think in terms of retirement. Think of pulling back from one kind of ministry when the time seems right, but pursuing other ministry when that happens. And I think it’s possible for anybody and everybody.
Abound in the Lord’s Work
I’m tempted to list here formal kinds of ministry, like
- interim pastorates,
- staff positions in senior care,
- diaconal services for the sick,
- discipling young men,
- serving in an inner-city service ministry,
- doing more extensive evangelism,
- and on and on and on.
Missions of all kinds would be happy to take a 70-year-old to do certain things. I’m tempted to go there, which I just did, but I’ll stop.
It seems to me that the real issue is this: Are you committed to what Paul calls “abounding in the work of the Lord”? That’s a phrase from 1 Corinthians 15:58, which is not addressed to vocational ministers, but to the church as a whole in Corinth. It’s based on the hope of the entire chapter of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, not the hope of retirement.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
So, abounding in the work of the Lord is doing lots and lots of it. That’s what abounding means: filling our days with work that has the Lord as its conscious source and the Lord as its conscious goal. That’s the work of the Lord.
Keep Doing Good
And what I would want to say to every pastor coming to the end of his pastoral years is, Are you steadfastly committed not to drift? Not to coast into heaven?
Are you saying with Paul, “Forgetting what lies behind . . .”? (Now, for me that would mean, “Don’t begin to sit on the laurels of 33 years of pastoral ministry and try to sort out how good or bad it was.”) “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” are you “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14)?
So, my suggestion is that you mainly think not in terms of formal ministry with a title — though that’s great; if a door opens, do it — but that you mainly think of what the New Testament calls good works.
These were mainly efforts on the parts of ordinary Christians to do some good for others. It may have been very individual and personal, or it may have been that it developed into a very significant caring institution, like an orphanage or hospital or school or recovery center or emergency shelter or whatever. But mainly, the emphasis in the New Testament is that Christians have in us an impulse to do lots and lots and lots of good for others — lots of good. We get up in the morning and say, “I want to do something good for somebody today. I’m not content to sit around and watch TV or play games. There is in me this Holy Spirit–given energy. I want to do some good in the world.”
So, I would say, ponder often texts like these:
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).
“Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).
“I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8).
“[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people . . . who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He died so that so-called “retired” pastors would be full of good works.
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). It’s why you’re made, and you didn’t stop being made for this when you turned 70.
God Never Wastes His Children
Let me close by doing for you, or for pastors in general who are approaching this transition, what a wise father in the faith did for me when I was 28 years old. I was jobless. I was eager for ministry and had no place calling me. And he wrote to me. I was in Germany at the time, so it was hard to make contact with people back in America, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had a wife and a child to support, and there were no doors opening. What am I going to do?
And he wrote to me and he said, “Read 2 Corinthians 4:1 in the Greek, and what you’ll notice is this: ‘Therefore, having this ministry [and then he translated it this way], just as we received mercy.’”
“Having this ministry, just as we received mercy, we do not lose heart.” And he said in the letter, “‘Just as we received mercy’ means that just as God was merciful, John, to save you and keep you, so he will mercifully give you a ministry.” And I was so helped by that in my faith. Yes, amen! If your heart is all-in to fill your days with good works as God has given you gifts and health, God will not leave you without a significant work to do. He does not waste his children.
I think 2 Corinthians 9:8 carries the implication not only of God’s supply of grace to have what we need for good work, but to have the good work itself, so I’ll read it: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”