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Coming In To Land

By Andrew Knowles.

There’s a tipping point at which retirement becomes inevitable – rather like the moment you feel an aircraft dip slightly as the long descent to landing begins. The time has come to turn off your laptop, fold your table, and fasten your seatbelt .  .  .

My tipping point occurred, unheralded, during a Harvest Festival talk at a family service. I had written a little parable about an endlessly generous mother and her dysfunctional and home-trashing family (our abuse of God’s creation and our own broken relationships), and for some reason I could hardly read it. It would be nice to think that I was being moved by my own peerless prose, but no-one else seemed to share my sentiments. Rather, I was experiencing the hint of a breakdown: a simple family service talk was some sort of ‘last straw’ on the back of forty years of ordained ministry.

Preparing for retirement

While our situations differ (as do our personalities), there comes a time when we must consider either stopping or at least changing pace. This becomes increasingly important if our retirement date has receded by a few years because the terms of our pension have changed, or we have insufficient savings or pension provision. Even if we feel ourselves brimming with energy and not at all inclined to stop, an ‘event’, such as an accident, ill health, or a change in circumstances, may bring retirement hastening towards us.

I compared notes with my contemporaries in ministry. Without exception, we were finding the last years before retirement unexpectedly testing. One was exhausted, another had suffered a mini-stroke, and others were experiencing ill-health. Some of the factors of ‘clergy stress’, so often noted in ordination training, were now our first-hand experience, not least the ‘core’ fatigue caused by weekly, monthly and yearly responsibilities recurring with relentless regularity. For me, a Harvest talk had proved the tipping point – a straightforward-enough task at any other time. For others it was the Christmas Fair, or Lent, or a holiday club, or chairing the Church Council, which loomed as a seemingly impossible mountain to climb.

The ‘Human Function Curve’

A talk by Stuart Taylor, at a ‘Ministry Today’ conference in 2003, had offered timely wisdom. Stuart was the pastoral care adviser for the Anglican Diocese of Bristol, with a special interest in the care of clergy approaching retirement – and their families. He spoke about the ‘human function curve’ which shows that we can’t achieve more simply by working harder. He observed that ‘tied accommodation’, whether it be deanery, vicarage or manse, is as much a curse as a blessing if anxiety about our retirement house is becoming an issue, or a marriage is on the rocks. He noted (rather obviously) that we don’t have the energy of our younger selves and (rather bravely) that the spirituality that excited us in our youth might not sustain us in our later years. Above all, it may be that we have grown tired in an institution which itself has lost its energy.

Suddenly, ‘retirement’ seemed not so much an eventual state to be dreaded as a natural stage to be welcomed. But what sort of retiree would I be?  Would I emulate the bluff octogenarian I met at the crematorium, who had covered interregnums in 27 parishes; or take as my model the disaffected introvert who quietly closed his vicarage door for the last time and joined the Society of Friends? Would I, like some retired bishops, continue to serve on diocesan and national bodies; or would I float mournfully in limbo with those fellow retired-priests who never get over ‘the loss of an altar’?

Biblical guidance

Many a biblical study of old age offers the Old Testament example of Caleb as an ideal. Hale and hearty, despite his advanced years, he urges Joshua: “Give me this hill country – let me drive giants from their strongholds!” (Joshua 14.11-12). In most congregations there are to be found these doughty warriors of the Lord, ‘green and full of sap’ as the psalmist says (Psalm 92.14) and, for all I know, as virile as Moses (Deuteronomy 34.7).  But what about the rest of us – mere mortals who have fought the fight, run the race, and now feel ever-so-slightly knackered? The ‘Burn Out Rather Than Rust Out’ brigade overlook the provision for the Levites, who were to retire from their duties at the age of fifty, after twenty-five years of service, and restrict their activities to “assisting their brothers” (Numbers 8.23ff). While some indefatigable Christians argue that ‘the Bible knows nothing of retirement’, I dare to wonder, cautiously, whether it is okay not (per Caleb) to press on, regardless, with the unfinished campaigns of the past, and whether there might be an altogether different and more spacious approach.

Needing a rest and facing the challenges

One thing I was sure of: I not only needed rest, but I was entitled to rest. Not the brief, often-breached respite of a ‘day off’, but a proper, long, deep sabbath in the spirit of jubilee: a joyful, positive, God-prescribed rest. Looking back over our first year of retirement, this is what my wife and I have tried to observe; and we have experienced many remarkable blessings. We found a house we liked and, with the help of our Church’s Pensions Board and generous friends, we were able to retire on my sixty-fifth birthday and move to within a few miles of our daughter and her family. The dream of worshipping at a local church was quickly realised: ‘incognito’ so far as being ordained was concerned. Our reasonable health, a home of our own, and the joy of our family and new setting, were riches beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

And what were the challenges? The first was that it takes time and energy to plan for retirement, and it’s not easy to achieve while travelling at full ecclesiastical tilt. Fortunately, we benefited from preparatory sessions laid on by our diocese, which alerted us to the issues of housing and pension, as well as helping us get our heads (and hearts) around the changes we were about to experience. We discovered major differences of temperament and approach between colleagues – and indeed partners. While some prospective retirees couldn’t wait to report for duty to their new incumbent, others were vehemently vowing to do ‘nothing – followed by nothing’. An already-retired archdeacon, still resplendent in clerical stock, assured us that our reading “would really take off”, but warned us against the time-wasting seduction of the daily newspaper (and crossword). A youthful financial adviser recommended that we spend at least part of our retirement sum on “a good holiday”. Overall, these sessions were important, helpful and informative. Without them I wouldn’t have given retirement a thought. As it was, we began to put aside some extra savings and to address the difficult decision of where we were going to live.

The next challenge, after finance and location, was vocation. Who was I, now that I was no longer a professional Christian with a particular place and role in a community? In the event, it was exhilarating to become a ‘private’ Christian once again, shedding my impressive diocesan title, and sloughing the weighty skin of responsibilities and expectations. But other people didn’t necessarily see me that way. On the first Sunday at our new church, in conversation over coffee, someone expressed the hope that I would soon take my place on the rota of services. As the well-worn mantra ‘Once a priest always a priest’ fell from their lips, I felt my wife’s fingers close on my elbow like a claw! The diocesan bishop, too, through a senior colleague, approached me with a flattering list of tasks I might undertake. While grateful for his confidence in me, I knew, in the pit of my stomach, that a jubilee break was not only a priority, but a necessity.

Spiritual habits

Old habits (no pun intended) die hard. Away from parish and cathedral, I still wanted to say Morning Prayer and to keep a spiritual journal. To this end, I continued to get up early, which became a point of discord, as my wife felt that I wasn’t really ‘stopping’ and was still beholden to an institution. Suffice it to say that I now rise later – and prepare the breakfast. But it was good to surface my need for specific time and space with God. I wouldn’t feel able, in due course, to lead worship and preach and teach and counsel, if I was no longer ‘walking the talk’. Again, comparing notes with others, the onset of retirement for couples can mean they are suddenly much more in each other’s company and there may be some negotiation of priorities, duties and boundaries. ‘Two into one’ doesn’t necessarily go when it comes to sharing a desk/car/smaller house.

But ‘time together’ my wife and I had in plenty: making a home, exploring our new environment, and enjoying time with our family and friends. After forty years of Sunday duties, we experienced the wonder of weekends - and leisure. One particular morning will live long in our memory, when we went on a ‘Wordsworth Walk’ around Grasmere with a professor of Romantic Poetry from the University of Lancaster. The ‘retirement’ penny didn’t really drop until we did that – and, on another occasion, attended a lecture by Sir Andrew Motion on the poetry of Edward Thomas. We saw the Church in a new light as well, from the other side of the communion rail. As we walked to church together, we realised what a very great gift is the rhythm of weekly worship and fellowship, and how important is the presence and service of a church in its neighbourhood, and what a privilege it is to be a part of it.

Gradually and cautiously I accepted invitations to speak. Some Holy Week addresses for a friend came rather too soon and proved stressful; but a Cursillo weekend with my sister and brother-in-law was an ideal rehabilitation into ministry. Finally, after more than a year, I presided and preached at a Eucharist in our local church – a step, by then, so natural that I felt I was once again offering my gifts in the service of friends.

I am who I am

When retirement first loomed, I wondered whether I might take the opportunity to be something (even someone) completely different: an environmentalist, a journalist, a volunteer guide to stately homes, or a ‘man with a van’ who cut hedges and lawns. Those who knew me expected me to write books, or lead trips to the Holy Land, or top up my suntan as a chaplain on cruise liners. The range of choice was such that it felt more like leaving school than embarking on one’s autumn years. But part of the adventure of entering retirement has been to discover that ‘I am who I am’: I don’t have any desire to be someone or something else. Unlike Caleb, I’m not still trying to complete ‘unfinished business’ for God. Unlike my Quaker friend, I’m not looking to abandon my Anglican orders. But nor am I hoping to do ‘more of the same’ and shoulder again the almost unsustainable burdens of the past.

The essential quality of retirement is not its displacement from the world of work or loss of status. Rather it is the astonishing gift of freedom: and not so much ‘coming into land’ as a ‘journey into space’. One of the Bible’s early and enduring images of salvation is “a broad place” (Psalm 18.19), exemplified for the Israelites when they entered their Promised Land. The Promised Land, in turn, is expounded in the Letter to the Hebrews as “the rest of God” (Hebrews 3.18). This ‘rest’, according to the writer to the Hebrews, is an ongoing inheritance and invitation: it is still ‘open’ for us to enter its promise and it is still possible for us to ‘fail’ to enter it (Hebrews 4.6). According to Hebrews, God’s ‘rest’ is a state of sabbath which is to be entered-into and enjoyed by the people of God in this life. If we are wise, we will practise the grace of ‘sabbath’ during our working days, so that all our time and all our work are hallowed by a sense of the presence of God. But how much more are we free to practise ‘sabbath’ in retirement? In a world and church where busyness, even hyper-activity, is the norm, we have much to offer by cultivating the still centre of ‘resting in God’. By so doing, we confront the scandal of trying to save the world by our own unceasing efforts. Instead, we risk that watching and waiting for God which is at the heart of all prayer and service.

Wider issues and implications

Having laid out this somewhat self-absorbed account, I believe there are wider issues to address. The first is that highly-motivated and hard-working clergy are being asked to serve for a longer period before retirement: some, perhaps, into their seventies before they qualify for their ‘full’ pension. My own experience was that, at the age of sixty-five, I was ready to finish. If clergy are to work more years, the church must consider such measures as a shorter working week and do much more to encourage and enable days off, holidays, study leave and sabbaticals. Because the mundane duties of parish life can become repetitive, the older clergy should be offered the opportunity for further study and the stimulus of supervising, mentoring and encouraging younger colleagues. And if retired clergy are expected to continue to minister (and many a parish and deanery seems to depend on it), then they should be paid accordingly and not simply regarded as already remunerated because they are on a pension.

I have had the privilege of a year of ‘rest’. Far from being bored or listless, I have found it exciting to be free to receive each day with its events and opportunities. I realise that in many ways I am extremely fortunate: I am blessed with a wife and family, a lovely home, an adequate pension and a welcoming church. Far from feeling a loss of role, I’ve enjoyed getting in touch with the ‘me’ that isn’t a parson, pastor, tutor or council member. It has, however, been wonderful to be a husband, father, grandfather and neighbour.

Of all the many impressions, it is the feeling of freedom that is the greatest – and I don’t want to dissipate it by rushing into too many fresh commitments, however praise-worthy or needed. Yet in due course, some commitments will be right and necessary, at least to family, neighbour, church and community. It is as we mesh with others in the love of God who is relational, that we are able to contribute to the life and service of God’s people in the world. But this article has been about the priority of ‘rest’. The adage applies: “Rest that you may pray better; pray that you may work better”. There will still be work, even in a state of ‘rest’, and there will be more to do, even though all is accomplished.

Ministry Today

You are reading Coming In To Land by Andrew Knowles, part of Issue 59 of Ministry Today, published in November 2013.

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