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Ministers who don’t retire at 65 . . . are smarter than I thought

By Michael Webster

We’ve all seen him. Some ancient minister doddering up to the pulpit — still preaching a 20-minute-long, three-point sermon, hasn’t read any theology in 20 or 30 years, stopped challenging the congregation decades ago, doesn’t know the difference between Facebook and FaceTime, and can’t stand still at the church rummage sale because someone might mistake him for an antique and make an offer. It’s past time to step down, and everybody knows it but him.

I never want to become that old guy. But here I am, officially a senior citizen now, with the pension cheque and faltering memory to prove it, and still climbing into the pulpit every Sunday. I can’t get used to the idea of conducting a funeral for someone younger than I am, but it’s happening more often.

It wasn’t that long ago (well, actually, it was — another sign of old age, when “not that long ago” is measured in decades) that I would have been forced to retire at 65 — to move out of the way for someone with youth and energy and fresh ideas.

Things have changed since those days. First of all, there aren’t many young ministers anymore. The most recent statistics are that the average age of newly minted ministers in our church ranges from 49 (order of ministry) to 52 (lay ministers). Not many 20-somethings in that crowd. Indeed, the choice in ministers for most congregations these days ranges from “old” to “older.”

For some, this is cause for alarm. After all, 55 percent of United Church ministers currently serving a congregation are 55 or more years of age, and 70 percent are 50 and older. Even allowing for those, like me, who won’t know enough to quit, the next dozen years are going to see clergy retirements en masse. At annual meetings of Conference across our church, more people will attend the retirees’ dinner than will be at Youth Forum.

I’m not convinced, however, that this will lead to an epidemic of empty pulpits. The next dozen years are also going to see a lot of church closures. Fewer preachers, yes, but fewer pulpits too. Across the United Church, 1,085 ministers are 55-plus years old, but 1,040 pastoral charges attract 50 or fewer worshippers on an average Sunday. The problem may take care of itself.

Another factor is that we pre-retirement ministers are all baby boomers. Of the generation that had everything and still wanted more, we have been prodigal spenders and undisciplined savers. We may have to keep working whether we want to or not. And with increased life expectancies, it turns out we boomers aren’t particularly interested in 20 years of doing nothing more exciting than leaving our turn signals on as we drive to the golf course. We still have work to do and a desire to do it.

Certainly, that’s how I feel about it. Having gotten a late start at ministry, I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for it. Why should I let a birthday stop me?

One answer is that I just don’t have the energy I once did. Working past 9 p.m. is out of the question. I still go to the gym, but I’m no longer fit; instead, I’m fit for my age. Big difference. Not only that, but I’ve got grandchildren I would like to spend more time with. Unfortunately, ministry is not a vocation well suited to easing into retirement.

This year, with the congregation’s blessing, I am taking a couple of months off in the form of unpaid leave. It will give me a chance to practise retirement, and the congregation can experience life without me. Nobody knows what will come of it, but we’ll sit down together and work something out. It’s the first step toward not being that old geezer who overstays his welcome.

Rev. Michael Webster is a minister at St. Martin’s United in Saskatoon.

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