The Five Secrets Of Serving Strong And Ending Well

“I rather wear out than rust out.”
Dick Bass, Mountaineer

There are decision points, transition times, inherent in the life-cycle of vocational pastors. One such time seems to be about ten years before anticipated retirement. This is when many pastors find their momentum slowing, their energy for ministry decreasing, and their interest in pastoring declining. They tend to emotionally and spiritually reach a low point; a point from which their future is shaped. This is the time when they turn toward renewal for ministry – or start moving toward retiring in place.

This Spring I’m watching several partners in ministry (who’ve become friends) retire. These are those pastors who discovered the fresh winds of the Spirit when they encountered their pre-retirement decision point about ten years ago. There is no doubt they are ready to retire, yet I hear them describing a wistfulness about leaving since their pastoral imaginations about what the church is becoming are still engaged. They are like the quarterback who’s body says it’s time to go, but who’s heart still beats for the game. These pastors serve as role models for those coming behind them; embracing the pastoral calling, living it out vigorously until the mantle is passed.

Simultaneously, we have to admit, some pastors become dinosaurs. Just like leaders in other vocations, they neglect or resist self-development, moving their skill-set toward extinction. Change is difficult, including updating our cherished church paradigms. Plenty of pastors are currently skilled at leading the kind of church which is aging-out. When these pastors recognize the gargantuan learning curve involved in adapting to this Postmodern world, they consciously or unconsciously decide to ride it out the best they can.

So what did these invigorated pastors do to finish so strong? Conversely, how do we prevent ourselves from becoming pastoral dinosaurs (whatever our age)?

Engaging In A Pastoral Makeover

Perhaps this sounds too radical, but it’s been done, with effectiveness. When I worked as a therapist, my clinical supervisor did a vocational makeover. Bob Boston had served as a therapist for about 20 years at this point, after several successful pastorates. With about 10 years to go before retirement, Bob appeared burned-out. That’s when he discovered Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. Bob was captivated by this newer effective approach, becoming an expert in SFBT. He became the go-to guy in our state, training and supervising many professionals in this approach. Bob eventually reluctantly retired, after a very successful run with his new therapeutic paradigm. There are pastors who also discover a new approach to ministry which redefines their ministry, leading them to a pastoral makeover.

Engaging Robust Learning Experiences Outside Your Norm
Several of these pastors who are retiring well have been involved in robust learning communities and atypical intentional growth relationships over the last ten years. These are the pastors who used their familiarity with pastoral ministry as a strong foundation from which to explore new possibilities. They didn’t do a Pastoral Makeover (like those described above), since they had not discovered a compelling new paradigm. Instead, they intentionally engaged in learning and growth experiences outside their norm. These included engaging learning with other denominations, making themselves vulnerable with colleagues, and challenging their own assumptions. They put themselves in learning and growth situations which they knew would force them to change and grow, tolerating the discomfort for the sake of growth. As I’ve watched these pastors in our training groups and pastoral cohorts, I see them serving as role models for younger clergy. “I want to be like him/her when I grow up,” is a frequent comment from those clergy observing these invigorated retiring pastors.

Experimenting With New Approaches To Ministry
Previously, this pastor was a manuscript preacher…always had been. Then she decided to experiment with preaching without notes. I remember her excitement when sharing with her cohort about this new experience. Her growth in preaching generated great energy for her and for her congregation regarding worship. Another pastor decided to approach funerals differently, directly addressing the family in a personal way. He was anxious about managing his own emotions well, yet pushed through his anxiety to find a new, very comforting way to care for grieving disciples during funerals. Pastors who finish well are those who experiment with new ministry approaches up until they are finished.

Challenging The Congregation To Grow Toward Mission Fulfillment

This has been fun to watch. Several of these invigorated, nearly retired pastors, are leading their congregations to stretch and adapt right up to the end of their tenure. They are sharing books with the lay leaders, integrating discussion about new concepts and options into the lay leadership team meetings. They are engaging their staffs with new ideas, examining their roles in light of emerging movements of the Spirit. Their actions are communicating to their congregations that there is great purpose for these churches and ministry to be done in the coming years. They are helping their congregations remain focused on God’s mission in the world.

Intentionally Integrating The Effectiveness Conversation Into Church Culture

The pastor’s effectiveness in the last ten years of ministry can easily become the elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge it’s there, yet it’s on everyone’s mind. These invigorated pastors have cultivated the ego strength and solid spirituality which allows them to move the unspoken to spoken. They find ways to make the effectiveness conversation a regular part of leadership group discussions. Effectiveness in this sense includes everyone. How well are we fulfilling our calling as a church? How well are each of us serving in our roles, which influences how well we fulfill our calling as a church? These courageous pastors are able to intentionally go there since they are strengthened from the actions described above.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like them when I grow up.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA