Thoughts on a Pastor's Retirement (As One Spouse Sees It)
by J. Yvonne Knauff (July / August 2004 — Volume 20, Number 4)
A pastor's retirement affects many people, often in unexpected way. This reflection, from a pastor's spouse, offers some ideas on what kinds of preparation may help those who are approaching retirement.
I missed my pastor. He retired, and although I was delighted for him and relished the celebration, I did not give much thought to the immediate or long-term impact on me. Much consideration had been given to the protocol sent by the ELCA to the congregation, which basically requires that the retiring pastor step back entirely and not participate in any aspect of congregational life. This is deemed essential, as the members must go through needed study and preparation prior to calling the pastor who will follow.
It seemed simple, and yet it is a complex process. I understood it, but it was difficult to accept on many levels. This person who had been my pastor for so many years had seen a multitude of members through the best and worst of times. He met every definition of the servant role. He was a good steward of his God-given call to ministry and never failed to be at the side of any parishioner who needed him.
He was active in the community and at large, serving on a plethora of committees and boards. He was a shepherd, friend, role model, and teacher. He was a good administrator and visionary for his congregation and the church-at-large. He was a better-than-average preacher. At his retirement celebration, he was designated Pastor Emeritus, an honor bestowed on few.
|I felt tossed out and abandoned, and I had no forum in which to grieve my loss.|
It was hard to see him go into retirement knowing that this pastor-parishioner relationship was forever severed. On a very personal level, I felt like an orphan, abandoned and adrift.
The pastor is my husband. He had started talking about an early retirement following cardiac bypass surgery. He told me a year and a half before he retired that he was weary, not in the sense of tiring of his ministry, but physically and mentally. He had never taken a sabbatical, just some brief study periods, which were refreshing and renewing, but nothing to truly rest mind, body, and spirit.
Early in my husband’s ministry, I learned that I could not be the “perfect pastor’s wife,” nor would I attain my identity through him and his work. At age 30, with three small sons in the parsonage and my husband’s support, I pursued a graduate degree, then returned to the pursuit of my professional career. Role models for a clergy spouse had been my mother-in-law and my own pastor’s wife, both stay-at-home wives and mothers who, because of their generation, seemed to be more appendages of their husbands than separate people. For my own generation of women, I coined the term the “bridging generation,” firmly believing that those of us now in our 60s and 70s bridged the gap between our parents’ generation and our children’s. I used to say that I was going to write a book about my transformation and title it The P.P.W.: The Appendage Syndrome (P.P.W. meaning “perfect pastor’s wife). Thankfully, the paradigm has changed over time.
My husband has been a genuine partner in our marriage. He believes that he is a better father because our dual careers required his sharing equally in the care of our sons and devoting more time to them than he might otherwise have. I agree with his self-assessment. Our sons thrived.
In his years of ministry, he served three parishes, the last one for 22 years. During those years I held a variety of positions, changing jobs when he changed parishes. We enjoyed the freedom of a double income both for the present and for planning toward our retirement years. At age 45,we left parsonage life behind and purchased our own home. We no longer had to wonder where we would live after retirement and could enjoy the benefits of being homeowners.
In exploring retirement, we attended an ELCA retirement seminar, looked at our financial status, and decided that we had lived on a lot less. We could surely pay the bills by eliminating some frills and not indulging our children and grandchildren quite so much.
|I prayed for guidance as sadness and loneliness were countered with anger at myself for not anticipating and planning better for this development.|
Part of the seminar was spent assessing the changes that take place in relationship after retirement. We concluded that our love would sustain us and that 40-plus years of marriage was testimony to that fact. Because we owned our home, transition from a parsonage would not be necessary.
What emerged, however, is that I was still employed and intended to be for some time, and we would continue to live in the same community. We briefly discussed whether we would continue to keep our membership in my husband’s former parish. Because he held the honorary position of Pastor Emeritus, he felt that he could, after an appropriate amount of time, have some role in the church such as assisting with an occasional worship service or teaching a Bible study. We knew pastors who had successfully maintained their memberships and others who had decided to join a different congregation upon retirement.
My husband wanted to stay, but I was unsure. Would we be able to be full, participating members if we stayed? That critical issue had not been addressed by anyone at any time, and we had not given it much thought. We decided that we would not change our membership but would not worship there on a regular basis for a while, and we would honor our financial pledge.
Should I keep my commitments at church made prior to retirement? When my altar guild partner of 20 years called to ask, I was hesitant, but after she threatened to quit if I did, I completed my commitment for the year. Should I attend the women’s Christmas breakfast? I was invited. In the end, I was spared that decision because I had to see a dozen patients that morning.
When I was performing my altar guild duties for the last time, one of the members yelled glibly across the room, “Hey, what are you up to?” Anger overcame my usual good humor and I retorted,“ I’m doing the altar. I’m still a member of the church, you know.” My posture, with elbows akimbo and arms outstretched, betrayed any composure, and my unanticipated response left her turning away. She meant no harm, but I took it as a challenge to my presence, and I displayed defensiveness instead of common courtesy. In tears, I apologized.
Grief and Loss
During the first six months of my husband’s retirement, I worshiped at other local Lutheran churches a total of six times. I was unsure where to go, as I was a stranger in every congregation in the area. Not all churches are warm and welcoming to visitors. I missed my faith community. It felt very lonely, but it was necessary to stay away from my own church. I felt tossed out and abandoned, and I had no forum in which to grieve my loss. I wondered if other clergy spouses felt as I did, and if they had experienced the same naiveté about leaving a congregation at retirement. I had a discomfort that would not go away. The impact hit hard and unexpectedly. I was not the one who had retired!
At a university alumni dinner, I had a chance to talk to another clergy spouse and again found myself in tears over my losses. Having known her peripherally for many years, I felt comfortable expressing my grief and discovered that she was going through the same process following her husband’s recent retirement. It was comforting to know that I was not being silly and was not the only one who had experienced these overwhelming feelings. A conversation with another clergy spouse, however, begot no understanding, empathy, or sympathy whatsoever but rather an assumption that my identity was tied to my husband and his career, and that I should “get over it.”
I prayed for guidance as sadness and loneliness were countered with anger at myself for not anticipating and planning better for this development. I thought that, as with any loss, time would heal all if I did my grief work well. Because I had my own career, I thought it would be easier. It wasn’t. I was emotionally unprepared to leave the congregation.
How can a clergy spouse prepare for leaving a congregation at retirement? Based on my experience, I offer these suggestions for consideration:
- Assess your relationship with your faith community and what it means to you.
- Give prayerful consideration to what it will mean to leave the congregation.
- Talk to retired clergy spouses about their experiences and feelings.
- Acknowledge any feelings of grief and loss as normal, valid responses.
- Attend a retirement seminar with your spouse and use this forum to explore commonalties with others approaching retirement (refer to a schedule of seminars at www.porticobenefits.org).
- Seek a positive attitude about your next, but different, “call.”
I believe the church has become more aware of and sensitive to the needs of clergy spouses and the impact of retirement. The new pre-retirement seminar curriculum, “ReFirement,” offers the opportunity to explore this aspect more fully.
I was caught unawares by this (yes!) monumental event, and so have other clergy spouses been. To those facing retirement, be consciously aware of all aspects of the changes necessary to make this transition. God has walked with me through many changes, crises, and challenges over the years, and I continue to rely on God’s leading and guidance. But even my foot-on-the-floor common sense and usual pragmatic approach to problem solving did not get me easily through this one.
The author, J. Yvonne Knauff, and her husband, Lowell, of Annandale, Virginia, continue to serve in various ways as they ended their full-time work of nurse practitioner and pastor, respectively. They are both part of the Board of Pensions’ teaching team for “ReFirement” seminars.