By: George Brown Jr.
My wife Willa retired at age 63 and now, seven years later, I have retired at age 70. Our experience reflects something of the diversity in expectations for retirement of those engaged in religious vocations.
Some years ago at a pre-retirement workshop for pastors and spouses, the facilitator asked each couple when they planned to retire. Willa, who at the time was serving as the associate for children’s ministry for the Reformed Church in America, announced her plan to retire at age 62. As a seminary professor teaching at a denominational seminary where the typical age at which faculty retired was 70, I gave that as my retirement age. Given the disparity in our expectations, several in the room thought we needed to see a counselor!
Retirement expectations have changed dramatically from when I was a teenager in the late 1950’s. Then, age 65 was the norm for retirement. My recollection is that some people died before they reached retirement age. For others, death often followed shortly after retirement. These days it is not uncommon for people to delay retirement well past the once normative age sixty-five. Today retirees often enjoy 20 to 30 years more of active living.
When serving as minister of Christian education in a local church in the early 1980s, I was stunned when Roy, a 55-year-old member, complained that because of his employer’s circumstances, he would have to wait one more year before he could retire. How was it possible, I wondered, to contemplate retiring at such a young age? Moreover, why would one want to retire in his mid-fifties? Mary, who worked for a downtown clothier, continued working into her nineties because she loved what she was doing. Hub lost his job as an engineer in his late fifties. Unable to find another job in his field, Hub cobbled together part-time jobs until he reached the minimum retirement age. The age at which one retires can vary greatly, depending on circumstances such as health and wealth, desire, and opportunity.
A former colleague shared a model of vocational discernment that I have found useful and which is adapted here as a resource for answering the question, “At what age may Christians retire?” Imagine a river channel with three lighted buoys that help ship captains navigate safely around sandbars and rocky shoals in the river. When a ship’s captain sees the three lighted buoys as a single light, she knows the ship is on the right course.
Each of the lighted buoys represents a different factor that affects the decision to retire from one’s life work. ABILITY represents a constellation of personal circumstances such as health, wealth, competence, and so forth. Having the ability to retire is not enough. One must also want to retire. Hence, the second buoy: DESIRE. But these two factors are insufficient. The OPPORTUNITY to retire must also be present.
Roy had the ABILITY to retire—he had sufficient savings to pay expenses once he stopped receiving a regular paycheck. Roy also had the DESIRE to retire. While circumstances did not allow him to retire at age fifty-five, the OPPORTUNITY did come a year later. At age fifty-six, the lighted buoys of this discernment model finally lined up. Mary, on the other hand, while having the ABILITY to retire at age sixty-five, had no DESIRE to retire then. It was not until she was in her nineties that the lighted buoys eventually lined up. For Hub, the opportunity to retire was largely determined by circumstances beyond his control.
While the Bible does not explicitly address the question of when one may retire—retirement is a term that did not enter the English language until the 1500s and the concept of retirement as we know it is relatively new—Scripture does offer some perspectives for thinking about retirement from the working life. There are texts that speak of sabbath as rest from work (Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 20:8-10ff., Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:12-14ff.). “Rest” in the Old Testament is not limited to a time-frame of days. It extends to include larger periods of time—months (Leviticus 16:29-31) and even years (Leviticus 25:2-7; 10-11). So the 10th day (the day of atonement) of the seventh month of the year, is to be a “sabbath of complete rest” (Leviticus 16:31). After six years, the land itself is to be given rest (Leviticus 25:2-7) and after49, the 50th year is to be a year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-12). Scripture encourages—in some places commands—rest from one’s work. Even the land is to be given a rest from agricultural production.
The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament stretches the notion of rest beyond time to eternity (Hebrews 4:1-11). Here one comes even closer to the rest reserved for the faithful at the end of a life of faith and service.
Thinking of retirement in light of scripture offers a helpful counter to contemporary views of retirement as an entitlement that is earned or deserved. Rest is God’s provision, not a result of our efforts nor a reward for our achievements. It is to be viewed as both a gift and an obligation.
The 20th century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said that the paragraph-long answer to the Heidelberg Catechism’s question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” could be answered in five words: “That I belong to Jesus Christ.” The catechism’s reminder that we are not our own cuts against the grain of North American individualism and a morality of personal rights. Because we are not our own, discerning and deciding when to retire should be a prayerful process carried out in the supportive context of community.
Also seek professional advice. Four years ago, after I had been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Willa and I were faced with deciding whether I should retire then or wait four more years which is when I had originally planned to retire. We made use of a “wealth management” service offered by our bank. This “bank within a bank” provided us with a team of specialists who helped us assess our present situation and our long-term future needs.
The term “wealth management” did not seem to fit our financial situation—that perception was accentuated when, on arriving for our first meeting with the team who would work with us, we met one of our community’s well-known philanthropists who was just leaving the office. We were certain we were in the wrong place!
However, our work with the bank’s wealth management team was a learning experience, and proved extremely valuable. We learned that it would not be wise to take an early retirement, but to continue working as long as health permitted. Yes, there was a cost—not an insignificant amount—for this service, but it was well worth it.
Retirement is more than an entitlement or private matter. It is a gracious gift and religious responsibility that is more communal than individual. It calls for prayerful discernment in the company of others. Gather some close family members, friends, or colleagues to help you discern when it would be best for you to retire.
George Brown Jr. is G.W. and Eddie Haworth Professor Emeritus of Christian Education at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. An ordained minister of word and sacrament and General Synod Professor in the Reformed Church in America, George retired on December 31, 2012, after 19 years of pastoral ministry and 24 years as a member of Western’s faculty. He was named APCE Educator of the Year in 2012. He may be addressed at firstname.lastname@example.org.