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Reflections on Retiring

June 30, 2014

Yesterday, among many other wonderful gifts, I received a Furman University rocking chair. It is an appropriate symbol for the next phase of  my journey.

I am nearly seventy years old. I preached my last sermon as Senior Pastor of Morningside Baptist Church on Sunday, June 29, 2014. I have officially retired, yet, the word retirement still sounds strange to my ears. My grandfather never talked about retirement. He worked at his lumberyard every single day until he was physically unable to do so. After one stroke and two heart attacks he gradually turned over the responsibilities to my dad. In the last two years of his life Pappy would go to the lumberyard and find his place in the seating area especially designated for him. Customers and salesmen often stopped by to hear his stories and enjoy the vigorous wit of a man in declining health.

After nearly forty years taking his turn at running the family lumberyard dad found his place in much the same way. He never retired. He went to work every day and sat in a comfortable chair and entertained the customers. If no one was around to listen to his stories, Dad simply took a sitting-up nap. When visitors entered he quickly became alert and charmed them with his wit and his wisdom. My models for what to do in retirement have been Pappy and Dad, two men who did not know the meaning of the word. The Bible only mentions the word retirement one time. In the book of Numbers God tells the priests that they should retire at age fifty to allow their younger protégés to take over their work. Oops! According to that bit of Biblical wisdom I’m twenty years too late!

I have witnessed examples of other people who have retired from public life. Brett Farve had trouble making up his mind, keeping his family and friends thoroughly confused.

Johnny Carson broke the hearts of millions of Americans who were addicted to his late-night antics when he retired.

Now David Letterman has announced his retirement, probably much too soon. The process seems to be dragging out, punctuated by reruns.

Pope Benedict XVI surprised everyone by announcing his resignation from the papacy, a rare act in Roman Catholic history.

I have tried to observe those who have retired. How do you retire with grace, integrity, and dignity, allowing your professional contributions to become your personal legacy? I started thinking about this question in earnest about a year and a half ago. I knew the time for me to step aside was approaching. The church I served had completed a major renovation project. I wanted the congregation to settle into a pattern of worship, missions, and giving that would sustain the church through a period of transition. I also wanted to have a well-prepared ministerial staff able to lead and steady the congregation through that transition.

In my forty-eight years in ministry, I have seen retirement done very poorly. I have known pastors who announced their retirement so far ahead of time that the congregation was exhausted from too many goodbyes. I have known pastors who retired so quickly that the church felt betrayed and abandoned. I have also known pastors who retired from serving their congregation but remained a haunting presence, if not actually striking terror in the heart of the next pastor, at least making the ministry more difficult for the new clergy.

More than a year ago I was directed by a retired colleague to an organization committed to assist pastors and congregations through the transition of retirement. I contacted the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was introduced to Les Robinson and Gene Derryberry, both former pastors who work at the Center. They have been a tremendous help to me and to the Morningside congregation. Upon the advice of the Center for Congregational Health I made my retirement announcement official on Sunday, April 13, 2014, giving the church two-and-a-half month’s notice.

My resignation letter was mailed to all members of the congregation the following day. The tone of the letter was affirming, expressing my gratitude for the church and my hope for their future. My determination was to leave on a high note, being as positive and as encouraging as I could possibly be. I wanted to tie up loose ends in the hope that I would not leave the staff with any unfinished business. I have served this remarkable church for eighteen years, and I deeply love these people.

Beyond my concern for the well-being of the church, I was also determined to take care of my family. I retained the help of two trusted financial advisors who offered good direction and a clear plan. I made sure that I had a checkup with my several physicians. Having literally been examined from stem to stern, I am glad to know that I am in reasonably good health for a man almost seventy.

The call to pastoral ministry never ends. While I am retiring as Senior Pastor from Morningside, I am not retiring from active ministry. I look forward to teaching two courses in the religion department at The University of South Carolina-Upstate in the fall semester. I have rented a small office building with the idea of offering short-term pastoral counseling and consultation. I will be available for supply preaching, not only in Baptist churches, but also for other congregations as well. Of course, I plan to continue writing this column, and I have several new books in mind. I feel compelled to write.

For a pastor, retirement poses a major quandary. Relationships must necessarily change. I have been clear with the Morningside congregation that after retirement my role will be different. I will be glad to hear from them, but other very competent people, not I, will take care of their needs for pastoral care. As I have prepared for this day I have tried to remember that this is, for me, a bend in the road and a new chapter in my spiritual journey.

Though the Bible has much to say about Sabbath rest, pastors rarely get a full day off. The month of July is literally going to be a month of Sundays for me. In fact, one way to think about retirement is that it is, above all else, Sabbath time.

The Creation account in the book of Genesis tells us that when God finished His work of creation, He looked back and declared, “That is very good.” This is a time to savor the work that I have been able to do for forty-eight years of active pastoral ministry.

That being said, I still have more work to do. Now, however, I have the freedom to pick and choose. Both Clare and I are looking forward to the future years we have together. We have been blessed with twelve grandchildren and one – that we know of – who is on the way.

The words of Robert Browning, in his poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” perhaps best express my sentiments about what lies ahead for us:

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith “A whole I planned, Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2014
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