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Finishing Strong/Ending Well:

Leaving Congregational Ministry at the Top of Your Game

By Roy M. Oswald

Pastors nearing retirement often find themselves living the paradox of possessing a rich reservoir of accumulated wisdom and yet feeling constrained by a depleted spirit. But the 5 to 7 years prior to retirement should be a pastor’s most productive and creative years of ministry. He has increased knowledge and experience, which makes him more effective in ministry. He knows how to work smarter, not harder. Many pastors might be asking themselves How can I remain vital in the years leading up to retirement? While there are various personal and ministry issues that must be addressed, there are ways to finish strong and leave a lasting legacy.

Most pastors are motivated to finish strong because they want to move into retirement feeling good about their ministry. The worst thing a pastor can do during his last 5 years of ministry is coast into retirement. The congregation may love him and therefore not fire him because of the great things he has done in the past, but they will wring their hands while they wait for him to retire. In a situation like this, most pastors probably sense they are letting their people down. People know their pastor is not offering his best, so they are being patient with him until he retires.

I have discovered through conducting Finishing Strong/Ending Well workshops there is no such thing as a lame duck in ministry. This corporate and political term does not apply to congregational life. In fact, as a pastor’s tenure in ministry increases, a congregation wants more, not less, from him.

To prevent a pastor from coasting in the last years of his ministry, I recommend that the congregation and pastor enter into a contract. A pastor needs to announce his resignation 5 years in advance and then enter into a planning process with the board and congregation. He needs to tell his board, “Five years from now I will retire. I want to focus on the things I do best. Let’s take 6 months and develop a strategic vision for where we want the church to go in the next 5 years. I want to leave the church in the best shape possible.”

In Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, (Alban Institute, 1996), I explain how to arrive at specific, measurable, and attainable goals that have a broad base of support in the whole congregation. When key leaders are involved in selecting goals, they are more likely to support them.

The congregation also needs to be involved in this planning process. When the congregation is involved, their ownership of the vision is much higher. As soon as the vision and strategic plans are in place, the pastor takes a 3-month sabbatical to gear up for this last thrust of energy.

Not only does this planning process cover the last 5 years of the retiring pastor’s ministry, it also informs the congregation about what they need the interim pastor to do before that phase of their transition is over. Any goals the pastor was not able to complete provide a clear idea of what the church needs the interim pastor to do.

I recommend that the church utilize an interim pastor, especially if the retiring pastor has had a long-term pastorate. (See the article, “Transitioning Out of Retirement To Help Transitioning Churches.” One weakness with interim pastors, though, is most do not have a contract with the congregation. Often, the congregation has not thought through the tough issues that need to happen in the interim period. When these issues are thought through, and the interim pastor has taken care of them, the new pastor can spend the first 9 months being a lover and historian. He can get to know and empower people, build a base of support, and find out the crucial changes that need to take place.

This process of planning for retirement with an interim pastor works best in a long-term pastorate. Church-growth statistics show that in growing churches the pastor has been there an average of 12 years. High clergy turnover diminishes momentum. It takes 5 to 7 years to get to know people, build trust, and get the building blocks in place so significant growth can take place. These important things cannot take place in a short-term ministry.

Pastoral Self-Care — A Life-Long Commitment

Your spirit can become depleted as you reach the 5 to 7 year period prior to retirement. To finish strong, you must learn how to rejuvenate your spirit early in your ministry.

Most congregants have no idea how demanding ministry is and how demanding some congregants can be. When younger pastors are just starting out in ministry, they think: This feels good. These people need me; they value me. But over time, always being on call can wear you down. A crisis is always just one phone call away. Younger clergy feed on that; older clergy do not.

If your congregation knows you are vacationing 50 or 100 miles away, they may not hesitate to call you back to conduct a funeral. This is a sticky wicket. You may be accused of not caring when you say, “No, I’m sorry. I’m on vacation. I’ve made arrangements for another minister to take care of funerals and hospital visitation in my absence. Please call him.”

Some pastors are reluctant to refuse to come back from vacation for church business for fear if word gets out that they did not come back to conduct a funeral, the people will be disgruntled. When a pastor has been in the ministry for 30 years and has had to be strong for other people in their times of weakness, the wear and tear becomes too much. He never can get out from under this demand.

Congregations expect pastors to have the finest programs and to preach brilliant sermons. When one Sunday’s sermons are over, pastors must start thinking about next Sunday’s messages. After 30 years of consistently feeling the pressure to preach inspirational sermons, pastors becomes worn down, particularly if they have not had time to replenish their own spirit. They are driving on empty. This is when sermons or certain themes begin to be repeated.

A congregation that does not give its pastor significant chunks of time away to rejuvenate his spirit is hurting his long-term effectiveness. A pastor cannot develop spiritual depth by putting in 60 hours a week fixing everybody’s problems without replenishing himself.

The role of the sabbatical in life-long self-care

As a pastor, you need to engage in self-care that leaves you fit for the long haul. This is where the sabbatical becomes important. The sabbatical is central to your long-term effectiveness.

In reality, the planning process that I suggest prior to retirement needs to happen every 4 years. After 4 years, the church needs to evaluate how well they achieved their previous goals and then develop a new set of goals for the next 4 years. Then the pastor immediately takes another sabbatical.

Time for learning

The formula that includes a sabbatical every 4 years will challenge a congregation to set goals and close the gap that develops between pastors and congregations in a long-term pastorate. A sabbatical every 4 years will revitalize your ministry and give you opportunity to do things you might not do otherwise, such as visiting other congregations.

A sabbatical plan needs to include opportunities for learning. Your congregation and church leaders should understand that you learn from other churches as well as from other educational opportunities that can be beneficial to the church upon your return. The concept of allowing you to visit other churches, attend seminars, conferences, or a seminary class often escapes church boards and the laity in general. Congregational and societal life is changing rapidly, and the educational opportunities a sabbatical provides will ensure that you are not left behind.

The educational component should only be one-third of the sabbatical. Two-thirds of the sabbatical should be set aside for a real sabbath’s rest — where your vitality is restored from plenty of R&R as well as doing the things you enjoy.

Time for maintaining spiritual vitality

Your spiritual vitality is the most important quality you have to offer your congregation. Your life becomes a walking symbol of the messages you preach Sunday after Sunday. You exemplify what you preach. When you speak, people listen; they see the joy and peace you have and sense that you have something they do not have.

It is hard for a pastor to preach a message of peace, love, and joy when he is burned out. Being in front of people out of duty is the last thing a burned-out pastor wants to do, especially when he is exhausted, cynical, disillusioned, and self-deprecating. When a pastor is burned out, he can quickly become a symbol of a different message. Soon congregants will begin to sense that the content of his sermons is not consistent with the life he lives. Consequently, they may wonder if his ministry is of any value to them.

The desert fathers went to the desert because the simplicity of life there did not distract them. In the desert they returned to their prayer life and were reconnected with God. After they were refreshed, they came back to the congregation to teach, preach, and provide pastoral care. Then they returned to the desert for another period of refreshing. This oscillation between desert and ministry time needs to happen for today’s busy pastor.

Some believe that when a pastor comes to a church he should wait about 8 years before he takes a sabbatical. I can see the wisdom of waiting until the seventh or eighth year, but my bias is that sabbaticals should start after the first 4 years. From then on, sabbaticals are every 4 years. A congregation that does not offer a sabbatical to its pastor will eventually be the loser in the end.

The best time to negotiate a sabbatical is before you officially begin your ministry in a new congregation. Establish the terms up front. Explain to the board, “This has been my policy, and I know the church will get the best out of me if every 4 years I have a 3-month sabbatical.” If this policy is not negotiated up front, later, when you ask the board for a sabbatical, you appear to be begging.

If a church wants to retain quality pastoral staff, this sabbatical policy needs to apply to staff pastors as well. A church needs to be known as a Sabbath-keeping congregation, and a sabbatical is part of the sabbath rest. There is a commandment to rest. “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work (Exodus 23:12).

Some people in the church might say, “I do not understand why the pastor gets a sabbatical. I don’t get one.” But clergy rarely get a Sabbath Day when you consider most of them put in a 10-hour day on Sunday. In the secular workplace, most employees get a two-day weekend. Unfortunately, many of these same people believe pastors are supposed to survive on just 1 day off. If pastors do on their day off what most people do on Saturday— shop, yard work, house repairs, cook, and laundry — then pastors aren’t really getting a day off after all. This is where we can learn from our Jewish friends. To have a real Sabbath, a person needs a day to prepare. By Friday night at sundown Jewish people have all their work done. The house has been cleaned. The food is prepared. The lawn is mowed. Nothing needs to be done during the 24-hour Sabbath Day.

Clergy also need 2 days off a week and to keep their workweek under 50 hours. That is still 5, 10-hour days — 10 hours more a week than the typical person works. How would 2 days off a week affect clergy vitality? I get a chuckle when I ask pastors, “When’s the last time you had a long weekend?” In the ministry, there is no such thing as a long weekend. Pastors work hard all day Sunday, and on Saturday they prepare for Sunday. They may relax a little on Monday or whichever day of the week they choose to take off.

Most laypeople get about 11 long weekends a year. This means they are off work from late Friday afternoon until Tuesday morning. If we multiply these 3 days by 11 weekends and then multiply that number by 4 years, we have the equivalent of a 3-month sabbatical. In this sense, pastors are not getting any more time off than the average layperson when they take a sabbatical every 4 years.

Sabbaticals need to be talked about with some clarity brought to the issue of rest so you can stay healthy and be enthusiastic about your ministry. This way when you arrive at your last 5 years of ministry, you are not totally burned out.

Making Mid-Course Adjustments

When you are more than half way through your ministry, you may become dissatisfied with the foundation upon which your ministry has been built. This can lead to feelings of guilt and depression. Here are some things to consider in the event you need to make a mid-course correction.

Some people go into the ministry and later realize they do not belong there. They do not have the gifts and graces required to be an effective pastor. These individuals need to revisit their call and ask themselves, Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with the rest of my life? Am I equipped to be the kind of servant of the Lord that I need to be, or does something else seem to call me?

I have seen pastors resign their churches after evaluating their call because they were burned to a crisp. This many not be the best time to evaluate the legitimacy of your call. Ministry evaluation involves spiritual discernment. If you sense you have not given full time and energy to the ministry, you may need to ask yourself: Why am I not motivated; why am I not more effective? Spiritual discernment comes when you spend time praying and fasting to get a clear sense of God’s direction for your life.

I met a minister who said, “I was not effective or focused on what my role was. I am now in my 50s, and I realize I have either wasted time or spent too much time on the wrong things.” He changed by learning what is essential to being a transformational pastor in the business of converting non-Christians into Christians. He learned how to implement that philosophy in the congregation so new people felt welcome. A pastor who needs to make this mid-course adjustment may also need a mentor or support group to help him discover and change his misdirected priorities.

A pastor also needs to be very clear on what is the essential nature of his call and how he is to fulfill that call. The congregation may want its pastor on a leash to do what they want, but the pastor needs to sense whether God wants him to work in a different way. The pastor’s work is to transform lives. If the pastor and the church are not concerned about transforming lives, then the church is only a social club. If the pastor can come to an understanding of what is essential, he will shift his priorities and start going about his ministry in a different way.

Keeping Yourself Spiritually Fit

One of the paradoxes of ministry is when pastors were laypeople they fed themselves spiritually with Scripture, prayer, and worship. But when these become the tools of the pastor’s everyday trade, he can become too familiar with them, and they stop feeding him.

There is almost no accountability for you to take care of your spiritual life. Your congregation does not say, “Pastor, we are so excited that you spent the morning in prayer.” The only thing that motivates your spirituality is your own hunger for more intimacy with God.

As a pastor, you must continually figure out how to keep yourself spiritually fit. This is the key to a long-term pastorate. Your spiritual life needs to be taken very seriously. Self-care is important. Self-care is the first thing that goes when you start putting in 50 to 60 hours per week. Evaluate your workload, and then make the necessary adjustments to sustain yourself spiritually.

Every pastor needs a spiritual director who prays for him and who meets with him regularly to discuss his spiritual life. Your spiritual life is different from those in your congregation. A trained spiritual director knows how to tailor the spiritual advice he gives you because he knows your personality and temperament. Don’t discount the value in having someone else monitor your spiritual journey. When you take time to meet with a spiritual director, his investment in you is to keep you spiritually alive and fit for the rest of your ministry journey.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

ROY OSWALD, M.Div., is a senior consultant and seminar leader with the Alban Institute. He is author of eight books including Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry.

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