Advice from 14 ministers on finding fulfillment in retirement
By Mark A. Taylor
We asked Mark Taylor, retired editor of Christian Standard, to contact retired ministers in our movement to ask what they are doing now and share their advice.
“Retire to, not from.”
It’s a popular recommendation, and more than half of the retired megachurch ministers we interviewed for this piece repeated it.
As our summary shows [click here], all of them have followed the advice in one way or another.
Their accomplishments and activities include filling guest speaker slots, serving in their local congregation, representing a parachurch ministry, and intentionally seeking younger ministers to encourage and mentor. Don Wilson formed a whole new ministry, Accelerate, to help young ministers. Bob Russell conducts nine weeklong retreats every year for this purpose. Ken Idleman went to work with The Solomon Foundation to do the same, as did Dick Alexander (with CDF Capital), Alan Ahlgrim, and Steve Reeves (both with Center for Church Leadership). If you are or you know a discouraged preacher, any of the fourteen on our list seem ready to listen and advise. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson, through the e2 ministry, is devoting his energy to revitalizing and educating elders in local churches.
All of them have given their whole careers to ministry, and for many that meant decades in the same church (Ahlgrim, Dennis Bratton, John Caldwell, Bob and Vicki Cherry, Johnson, Reeves, Ben Merold, Russell, Wilson). Each of them still has a heart for ministry.
Leave or Stay?
This doesn’t mean they all offered the same advice. Some, for example, told retiring ministers they should leave the congregation they had served. For example, Caldwell advised, “Once you’ve retired, get out of the way. I’ve been back only when invited by my successor.” Wilson says he’s seen “situations where the former pastor creates a major problem by staying on and undermining his successor’s ministry.”
But Ahlgrim remains as a member of the church he served. “If the retiring pastor (and his wife!) do not have an ego need to be upfront and visible, they can still continue to serve effectively and fruitfully behind the scenes,” he said.
Reeves wrote, “When you leave the local church, leave. Don’t do or say anything to sabotage your successor.” But he’s one of at least two on our list who meet regularly with the man who followed them. So does Cherry, who has also been recruited to mentor elder candidates at the church he served. His wife, Vicki, who also served with the Northeast staff, is an active volunteer at the church.
And she’s not the only volunteer. While many on our list travel nationally to encourage, preach, consult, or represent, it’s good to see how some are staying home and serving their local congregations. Glen Liston delivers meals, helps set up for Thursday-night services, and teaches Bible studies. Octogenarian Merold with his wife, Pat, leads a Bible study twice each week, once in the morning and again that evening. Idleman helps with the men’s ministry and seniors ministry.
Work and Pleasure
This isn’t to say they may not have slowed down or allowed time for personal, pleasurable pursuits. Several mentioned the joy of travel. Caldwell and Cherry lead Holy Land Trips, and Lawson lectures on cruises sponsored by a Christian tour company. As Ahlgrim has observed, many of them work every day, just not all day.
Vicki Cherry has advice for women retiring from ministry: “Stay connected to your girlfriends. Reach out to them. Plan lunches and coffees. Do Bible studies with other women.” One way she follows her own advice: “I meet regularly with four women for accountability.”
Lawson observes, “Retirement is the ideal time to catch up on your reading, to explore new fields of interest, to write your memoirs—and add new memories to include in them, and to savor the remaining years with friends and family.”
Family is a recurring theme. “Don’t become so busy you don’t have time to travel with your wife and spend time with your children, grandchildren, and extended family,” Reeves advises. Caldwell mentioned he lives close to grandsons and enjoys getting to their games.
Several combine family connections with ministry opportunities. Liston and his wife are active at the church where their son Tim is the preacher. Cherry spends time talking goals and strategy with his daughter, Stephanie, who heads the community ministry at Willow Creek Community Church. Two of Bratton’s adult children are part of the leadership team at his KORE Foundation, “an unexpected blessing,” he says, providing “solid leadership for KORE in the future.” Wilson and his wife, Sue, lead their Accelerate ministry together.
Two mentioned an experience they didn’t expect, the challenge to maintain a healthy spiritual life in retirement.
Cherry advises, “Be highly aware of your soul. When I retired, my time with God began to become rather sporadic. This surprised me. It took me three to six months to figure out how I would relate to God not being in full-time ministry.”
“A couple of years after retiring from local church ministry, I realized I wasn’t as sharp spiritually,” Alexander said. It wasn’t that he had backed off from his regular habit of Scripture reading and prayer. Actually those had increased. “But I realized that while preaching almost every week, I was filtering the Scripture through my mind all week as part of sermon preparation. When that changed, I lost a bit of a spiritual edge and needed to compensate in other ways.”
All these ministers seem happy to be retired. Maybe this is because all of them continue to discover meaningful ways to serve and engage with others. “Find something to do!” Merold says. “Surely some congregation can use you. Teach Sunday school. Lead a Bible study. Call on people. You need something in the Lord’s work to look forward to each week.”
Idleman echoes his thought. “Retiring may mean throttling back, slowing down, and reflecting more,” he said. “But it does not mean quitting!”
“If you have a pulse, you have a purpose,” Rendel said. “As one of my church members likes to remark, ‘I’m not dead so I am not done!’”
Mark Taylor, Christian Standard editor 2003-17, retired in June 2017 after almost 41 years with Standard Publishing (Christian Standard Media). He serves in his home congregation north of Cincinnati, Ohio, and continues to find opportunities for editing, writing, and speaking.