Certain kinds of questions come my way by email fairly regularly—every few weeks, every couple of months. One of these regulars runs something like this: “How do I know when it is time to resign?” If this is being asked by a pastor who is still young, it is usually prompted by a difficult situation that he longs to flee. Circumstances of that sort are so diverse that I won’t attempt to address them here. What I have in mind is the pastor who poses this question at the age of 55, or 60, or 65, or 70. This pastor is wondering when it is time to lay down the burden of local church ministry, and consider something else—itinerant ministry, perhaps, or teaching overseas for a while, or working with a mission agency, or half-time pastoral work, perhaps as someone else’s associate. Are there any biblical and theological principles that should shape our reflection on these matters?
(1) In one sense, this is the right question to ask. Here is not someone who has reached some long-awaited ideal retirement age and is looking for an excuse to withdraw from ministry in favor of buying an RV to spend the next couple of decades alternating between fishing lakes and visiting grandchildren. After all, there is no well-articulated theology of retirement in Scripture. Rather, this is a serious question from someone who has borne the heat of the day, and who, for various reasons, wonders if it is not only permitted but right to ask if it is time to move on.
(2) In recent years, I’ve been passing on what I’ve picked up from a few senior saints who have thought these things through. The most important lesson is this: Provided one does not succumb to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or any other seriously debilitating disease, the first thing we have to confront as we get older is declining energy levels. Moreover, by “declining energy levels” I am referring not only to the kind of declining physical reserves that demand more rest and fewer hours of labor each week, but also to declining emotional energy without which it is difficult to cope with a full panoply of pastoral pressures. When those energy levels begin to fall is hugely variable (at age 45? 65? 75?), as is also how fast they fall. But fall they will! It follows that if one attempts at age 85 to do what one managed to accomplish at age 45, a lot of it will be done badly. Frustrations commonly follow: old-man crankiness, rising resentments against the younger generation, a tendency to look backward and become defensive, even an unwitting destruction of what one has spent a lifetime building up.
Three things follow:
- As long as God provides stable energy levels, one should resist the glitter of common secular assumptions about retirement—e.g., that there is (or should be) a universal retirement age, that somehow your work entitles you to a retirement free from all service, that the end of life should be dominated by pleasurable pastimes emptied of self-sacrifice and service. This is not to argue there is no place for, say, time devoted to creative tasks of one sort or another; it is to argue that it is sub-Christian to imagine that our service across the decades entitles us to a carefree retirement.
- Once energy levels start to decline (whenever that might be), then, assuming that neither senility nor some other chronic disease is taking its toll, the part of wisdom is to stop doing some things so that with one’s remaining energy one can tackle the remaining things with enthusiasm and gusto. I can think of two or three senior saints who have become wholly admirable models in this regard. In their late 60s, they slowly started to put aside one task after another, with the result that, now in their early 90s, they can still do the one or two remaining things exceptionally well. One of them, for instance, will still preach, but never more than once a day. And he won’t fly anywhere: travel to the place he is to preach is either by car (with someone driving him), or by train. But when he does preach, you can close your eyes and listen to a man thirty or forty years younger.
- There is another element in such decisions that is partly subjective, partly temperamental, partly a reflection of one’s sense of call—and of the ways these various factors interact with one another. John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, at the age of 54. All his life he held himself to the most rigorous, punishing schedule. That stunning self-discipline, a reflection of his passion for the glory of God and for the promotion of the gospel, was used by God to make the man astonishingly productive. On the other hand, all the biographies I have read of him speculate that if in his latter years he had slowed down a little, he might have lived a good deal longer—and had he lived another decade or two, still with stable health, he may well have produced a great deal more. But who are we to tell John Calvin what he should have done? Human motives are usually mixed. On the one hand, there is something hauntingly exemplary about a person who wants to burn out for Christ, to waste no time, to serve others, “… fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” (Kipling); on the other hand, there may be a wee touch of workaholism in such a stance, in which our very self-identity is tied to the number of hours we put in or the number of things we produce. On the one hand, it might be a careful and thoughtful stewarding of our declining energies that makes a wise calculation about dropping certain responsibilities so as to maintain more important priorities; on the other hand, who is to deny that there may also be a touch of entitlement, or a cooling of youthful ardor, a dangerous love of mere ease? Each of us will have to give an answer to our own beloved Master, who knows us better than we do. It is probably not too much to suggest that if we are temperamentally drawn to one or the other of these extremes, we should be especially diligent to explore our motives most carefully.
(3) All things being equal (and of course, they never are), one should not leave one’s ministry until one or more of the following conditions is met:
- One has to leave for moral reasons. Sadly, such failures are not restricted to young pastors. The older one gets, the more one should pray for grace to finish well.
- Serious health issues mean that one can no longer discharge one’s pastoral duties fruitfully, with no realistic hope of returning to full strength (e.g., What is the prognosis after a serious stroke?).
- One is clearly called by God to some other ministry. All of the usual complex factors have to be borne in mind.
- One judges that it would be a good thing for this ministry if the baton were passed to a younger leader in an orderly way. There is no absolute rule, but the rule of thumb is that the longer a person has stayed in one ministry, and the more fruitful that person has been, the wiser it is for that pastor to help arrange the transition to a successor before bowing out. It is not hard to think of exceptions, of course: e.g., an old man merely trying to deploy a bit of nepotism or control the future while neither consulting anyone nor using the transition to train church leaders. Generally, however, the rule of thumb proves valuable.
- One senses one’s energy levels are declining, and it seems wise to let go of some responsibilities so that one can the more faithfully discharge remaining responsibilities. In some cases that can most easily and fruitfully be worked out by taking on a reduced load in the church, while someone else steps up to the primary leadership; in other cases, the only way to opt for reduced responsibilities is by resigning from that charge and taking on a smaller and different assignment.
- Sometimes one must relinquish one’s position and work because of the declining health of a spouse. I have known several pastors who reduced their work dramatically, and finally resigned, to look after a spouse suffering from advanced dementia.
- The final condition that may justify leaving one’s ministry is precipitated by a developing crisis. In some instances pressures build up among the elders that reflect differences in vision and priorities. These disparate visions may harden into deeply opposed camps. One may argue that the situation should not have been allowed to develop so far—but there it is. At their worst, such situations are extraordinarily difficult for outsiders to analyze accurately. Has the problem arisen primarily because one or two elders are power-hungry and are wanting to become ecclesiastical bosses—people who, quite frankly, need to face discipline? Or because a senior pastor has become entrenched in the conviction that he is always right and has nothing to learn from anyone? Or is it a case of a Barnabas and a Paul unable to reach an amicable agreement on a pastoral issue where both sides feel strongly and can marshal compelling arguments? In some instances of this sort, one should not leave, but try and sort it out before stepping down and leaving a potential mess to a successor; but in other instances, one should step down, conscious of the fact that the differences of opinion, while deep, are not about orthodoxy or morality, and the strong action that would be necessary to restore unanimity among the elders is likely to split the church for little if any gospel gain. It may be best simply to step aside with humility and grace, committing the elders and the church to the grace of God.
(4) Finally, the frequency with which pastors move from local church ministry to itinerant ministry is a topic that deserves more study than it has received. Clearly this can be a wise move. I know former pastors and professors who “retire” into carefully selected teaching ministry in the Two-Thirds World, where their years of accumulated experience benefit many people who do not otherwise have ready access to excellent teaching. Others very fruitfully take on a series of interim ministries, where the fixed end of the interim period greatly reduces the stress but provides an opportunity to provide strategic help. Many others set up independent non-profit organizations that specialize in niche ministries—on the family, for instance, or on repentance and holiness. Many of these non-profits solicit funds to support the ministry. The former pastor becomes a niche guru on the selected topic.
It would be both uncharitable and mischievous to suggest that all of this is intrinsically bad. But it would be naïve not to perceive that there are some dangers to these developments. Some forms of itinerant ministry generate indolence: you preach the same “package” wherever you go, with the result that you quit studying and growing in your knowledge of holy Scripture, and in your ability to teach parts of it you’ve never taught before. Being a guest preacher tends to garner thanks and commendations without the criticism and rebukes that regular ministry in a local church or seminary tend to provide as a counterbalance—and an exclusive diet of praise is not good for anyone. In short, sometimes itinerant ministry appears to be green grass on the other side of the fence, with too little awareness of the rattlers lurking in the undergrowth. As always, there is great value in testing our motives.
What all of this boils down to is that there is no formulaic answer for pastors who pose the question, “How do I know when it is time to resign?” Nevertheless there are some guidelines that many find helpful, guidelines bound up with the glory of the gospel, the primacy of the local church, the honesty to admit when we are aging, the urgency of training up the next generation, the passion to glorify Christ in our senior years, and the hunger to teach the whole counsel of God.