Is retirement biblical?
I’m most surprised by how many of my friends or acquaintances have reflected the decided opinionby Freeman Miller
Since I officially retired from my bishop oversight duties and college teaching a few years back, I have had the strange pleasure and puzzlement of hearing a variety of responses to that news. Some have said such reassuring things as, “You certainly deserve it” or, “This is a long-overdue rest.” Others have said, “You look too young to retire” or, “I never thought of you retiring” or, “I can’t picture you sitting around doing nothing.” But I’m most surprised by how many of my friends or acquaintances have reflected the decided opinion that retirement is not biblical.
One older church leader from another community asked bluntly, “Where in the Bible do you read about retirement?” Some of the younger generation have opined that mine may be the last generation of Americans that can afford to retire. They may be right.
Let me clarify up front that I wholly agree with many of my sincere church friends who say that one never retires from serving the Lord. I can also appreciate many of our Asian American pastors’ conviction that when called by God to serve the church, one must give one’s all without reservation. However, I don’t take this conviction to the same extreme as some of them, insisting that only full-time, fully trained and fully supported people can be ordained to the ministry and must serve for life. Neither do I share some of my black pastor friends’ staunch position that white pastors can burn out, but black pastors simply burn up. (One pastor actually died of a heart attack in the pulpit.) This view reminds me of my grandfather, who was an Old Order Amish preacher. I remember him often saying when I was a young boy, “I would much rather die with my boots on than rust out in my rocking chair.” (He was also a semi-
retired farmer who still helped my dad around the farm in addition to regular preaching as long as he was able.)
But these many reactions have caused me to do some soul searching. Also, I have searched the Scriptures more diligently to see what God might say about retirement. I have tried to pay special attention to themes recurring in the sacred pages, more than simple proof texts—bumper sticker verses plucked from Proverbs or other wisdom texts.
Most of us grew up memorizing verses about persevering to the end, about putting our hands to the plow and not looking back and about pressing on for the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus. Mennonites are especially fond of quoting the refrain that we are called to be faithful, not necessarily successful (this often comes up when discussing evangelism and church growth). We also often spiritualize clear teachings of Scripture instead of obeying them literally. (“My whole life is a prayer.”)
Imagine my surprise when I came upon this clear passage while reading through the Bible, this time from Peterson’s The Message:
“God spoke to Moses: ‘These are your instructions regarding the Levites: At the age of 25 they will join the work force in the Tent of Meeting; at the age of 50 they must retire from the work. They can assist their brothers in the tasks in the Tent of Meeting, but they are not permitted to do the actual work themselves. These are the ground rules for the work of the Levites’ ” (Numbers 8:23-26).
Mandatory retirement at age 50? “Ground rules” for the work of God’s church leaders? This is obviously much more than a casual suggestion; this is the word of the Lord for the work of the Lord. Why had I never heard any sermons or read any Christian self-help books on this passage? I wondered if Peterson took some “dynamic equivalence” liberties and read his favorite bias into this text, so I checked it against other translations and discovered that the translation is rock solid. The NIV Study Bible has a footnote observing that in Numbers 4:3 the age window for serving in the temple is 30-50 and that the rabbis suggest there was a five-year apprenticeship before full levitical service was taken on. (It also notes, perhaps wryly, that by the time of the monarchy, King David reduced the age of initiation to 20 to match the changing demands on the Levites. [See 1 Chronicles 23, especially vv. 24-27.])
This discovery triggered a whole new line of reflection for me. It was at once obvious that these passages about the Levites were focused on official leadership structures among God’s faith community—the people of Israel. God clearly spelled out job descriptions and duties for leaders in the tabernacle (later the temple) system of worship. While general laws and precepts applied to all Israelites, God spelled out a system of special rules for the leaders.
It occurred to me that most of the memory verses I alluded to above apply to all believers. Might God have some special instructions for church leaders today? And why this age restriction? Do leaders lose their leadership abilities after a certain age? Or are those skills dulled over time, raising the need for fresh recruits at all times?
The effects of aging are well documented today but seldom applied to the effectiveness of church leadership. I have heard far too many laments about aging leaders who refused to let go and turn over their duties to younger leaders. If God’s preferred retirement age of 50 were enforced for all pastors today, what difference might it make in the church? (Save your hate mail; I’m not ready to draw categorical conclusions on this question, just raising a different perspective.) Perhaps we need to rethink our ecclesiology.
This raises a host of related issues: How does our view of retirement relate to the Protestant work ethic? To the American ideal of leisure and pleasure? To the whole notion of serving God as vocation? To the ideal of discipleship? (Paul’s instructions to Timothy to entrust Paul’s teachings to younger leaders who will teach others, for example (2 Timothy 2:2) To workaholism? To the current lottery craze and the illusion that one can “get rich quick” and never have to work again? Should we absolutize Paul’s admonition, “He who does not work should not eat,” even for retired people? And how do Old Testament instructions apply in New Testament situations? Does progressive revelation point to new models for NT leaders, models that make OT standards obsolete? And are there different retirement standards for leaders and for nonleaders? (Or does Jesus see all his followers as becoming leaders? “Follow me, and I will make you recruiters.”)
A verse I have pondered often after years of various leadership positions in the church is Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” I am especially challenged with a morning prayer connected to that verse that I have long carried in my Bible: “I know that I must take care of myself if I am to be of any use to those I am called to serve. Grant me grace to walk in health and wholeness this day.”
Surely “health and wholeness” include regular times of prayer, reflection, retreat and renewal. Knowing when to speak and when to listen. Keeping the inner springs of living water flowing so that I have something to offer to the thirsts around me. Learning the discipleship art of training younger leaders, delegating real ministries to them and releasing them to serve. Knowing when to retire.
This leads me to the important subject of Sabbath and sabbaticals. Pastors today need regular Sabbaths and sabbaticals. Few public positions are higher stress and higher risk than the position of pastor. This is well-documented in the health-care community. But somehow we have internalized the fiction that pastors must be on call 24/7, never sleep and never get sick.
Even God rested after creating the universe, and he commanded us to rest regularly as well. But today’s church often drives us harder than our workplaces. The priests serving in the temple had their allotted times and duties, which is why the angel knew exactly where to find Zechariah—and when—to announce the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1).
Jesus regularly got away from the crowds, often escaping to the mountains to pray, to maintain focus for the many pressures of his ministry. And he commanded the disciples to “come apart and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31), since they were too busy with ministry even to eat. (Someone quipped about this verse, “Either you regularly come apart and rest, or you simply come apart.”)
The word Sabbath is simply the Hebrew word for “stop” or “rest.” We all need to have regular times of rest to remain at our best. And God gave us the gift of the Sabbath to remind us that our Creator and Sustainer takes care of us. We do not need to kill ourselves with constant work. God took care of the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness. (Even when they had no work, God commanded them to keep the Sabbath and not even gather manna on the seventh day.) Judeo-Christian principles in Scripture undergird the idea of days off, vacation, recreation, sabbaticals and retirement. Whoever gave us the idea that pastors should be superheroes, never needing time off or sleep or Nyquil, needs to reread their Bibles.
The Sabbath principle was instituted for all God’s people, not only God’s leaders. After all, leaders are to model and teach principles that apply to all God’s people, to “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians. The pastor should be able to say, with Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” even into retirement. All of us, from the president to the principal to the pencil pusher to the parent, need regular times off, the “seasons of refreshing” promised by God to us. And retirement can be the most refreshing of all, as it releases us to focus our energies into special ministries of “assisting” those younger leaders who benefit hugely from the service of seasoned volunteers or part-time employees. And here I agree with my Grandpa Joe: I don’t plan simply to sit on a rocker and rust away. I can seize fresh opportunities to serve, just without all the high stress and responsibility. Carpe diem.
Freeman Miller is a retired bishop who lives in Philadelphia and attends Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
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