The new "Caregiver Relief Ministry" would, after a year of recruiting and equipping, begin serving its first clients. In fact, shorty before I left the congregation, the team partnered with its first two families to offer its ministry.
Following through on such a project gave me at least two saving features of ending things well. First, it kept me focused, centered, and aligned with my core values. Second, it was an opportunity to leave behind a functioning ministry team.
What else did I learn in the last 18 months of ministry?
I learned the importance of remembrance. One, it is important to claim the power of your ministry narrative. This is about both the last year but, more importantly, the longer witness of your service. The most meaningful ways of marking my retirement was the observance at annual conference. Those who are leaving light the candles of the those who will be newly ordained- then extinguish theirs. It was a telling event, marking both an ending and beginning. I discounted this observance in years past, until I was the one retiring!
Too, the congregation's reception was a great opportunity to share. I was lifted by the simple and sincere words of gratitude and blessing. There were many honest words of encouragement. from those I had worked with for all or part of 16 years. (3)
I learned that ageism is alive in churches and their bureaucracy. All the more, resist it and claim the truth of your story. One of the drawbacks of downsizing tenured clergy staff (which I was) is that it minimizes the previous years of collaboration and accomplishment. For the downscaling motif to be credible, your story is overlooked, marginalized. (4) When your story is diminished, so is the congregation's. Our work together was shared and never a solo accomplishment.
Your leaving may be couched in terms of "stewardship" or "faithfulness," or "family needs." However, your life's work too is an example of stewardship and faithfulness. There was time well shared and given, there were gifts employed for the good of others, there were opportunities to love and be loved. And, yes, there is faithful management of resources in all of that.
Tell your story, with honesty and encouragement. The official church media or gatherings are probably not the best venues- and they may not be open to you. I threw a dinner party at a favorite restaurant. I invited those with whom I had close connections in ministry and life: former colleagues, friends, family, mentors, etc. It was my best chance to express gratitude and appreciation. I will long remember the stories, joy, and laughter we shared. Your celebration will be different from mine. Still, discover what is a unique theme in your work and find ways to affirm it!
Finally, retirement is difficult work and can't be done (well) alone. Welcome the help and support of people who know you and care for you: friends, family, a spiritual director, a therapist. Ironically, we who teach and preach about God's love and peace are tempted to go it alone. Don't do it. Live out the truth that God's mercy, hope and faithfulness are available to you.
It's up to you to finish well:
- Focus on one important thing you can accomplish with the time you have left in full time ministry.
- Participate in the official observances provided by the larger church and the reception the congregation offers.
- Witness to your core values. With gratitude, tell your ministry story by celebrating with those most important to you.
- At all costs, resist the default to endure this passage alone. Keep reaching out to God and to those who know and care.
(1) I am indebted to classes and conversations with the late Suzanna Waters Castillo, who, at the time was the Distinguished Faculty Associate, The University of Wisconsin, Madison. The certification program that she directed, "Mental Health and the Older Adult," was unique in its research-based, best practices approach to geriatric care.
(2) CarePartners worked with us to tailor a ministry to provide limited, trained, and congregational care givers for our parishioners. In the best way, we became partners in ministry.
(3) I will long remember one member telling me, in essence, "The time before my retirement was harder than I could have imagined."
(4) There is scant research on finishing well in ministry. A piece that raises good questions is Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to Retirement, Church Answers, featuring Thom Rainer.