We are winging it

Along the journey of my career, I have had several mentors who have shown me the way. Being a church camp kid, I knew a lot of ministers in my growing up years. My parents were active not only in our local congregation, but in the Conference, so we often went to church meetings where I got to renew my friendships with the pastors I met at camp. When I went to college, I met other ministers, some of whom were professors. When we got married, we had the luxury of two ministers, both very special people in our lives, who shared the officiating role. In seminary, I met other ministers and served internships with some excellent mentors.

One of the lessons of my early years as a pastor in rural North Dakota was that the leadership structure of the church, at least the part of the church occupied by the United Church of Christ, is not hierarchical. There were some great mentors and models for our pastoral work, but not all of them occupied positions of power in the Conference or the National setting of the church. Sometimes the people who had positions in the structures of the church disappointed me. There were, however, many other pastors with whom I served who were guides and models for my ministry.

Throughout my career, I’ve been in on many discussions about pastor to pastors. If the pastor of a local church provides support and nurture to the people served, who provides that support and nurture to the pastor? My father died the third year after I was ordained, so the question was very real. I turned to the pastors I had known growing up for the care I needed. I also found that I had a very supportive colleague who was serving a congregation of another denomination in our town. When our son was born, we were fortunate that one of the ministers who had officiated in our wedding was willing to travel to the congregations we were serving to officiate at the baptism. Not long after that, I served on the search committee for a new Conference Minister for our conference. Finding someone who could be a pastor to our pastors was a high priority for me and it became a priority for the committee. We made our choice and that minister became a pastor to us. He baptized our daughter when the time came.

I also had experiences when those occupying positions within the church disappointed me. I clearly remember turning to a church leader for support when I was serving as the moderator of our Conference. In hindsight, I found out that the leader was enmeshed in a personal and professional crisis, but I was unaware of that struggle at the time. I was overwhelmed with disappointment when I got no support from the place where I thought I would find the support I needed.

Since I have had pastors for friends and colleagues for all of my life, I have watched a lot of them move from active careers into retirement. Some have made the adjustment well. Others have struggled. One of my colleagues felt he was pressured to retire before he was ready. He found great meaning and provided a great service to the church by serving in multiple interim pastor positions. He became very good at serving congregations in the time between one pastor leaving and the congregation calling a new person to the position. He traveled all around the United States, serving congregations in many different Conferences and found great meaning in this new phase of his life. When health forced him to settle down and stop that work he was ready. Having responded to the call of the church to go where he was needed, he struggled in this new phase to figure out where to live. It seemed like he and his wife moved every couple of years for a while. Once, when they were in the midst of a move, he said to me, “I never thought I’d be homeless, but now I have no home.” I admire his dedication to the church and his choice of a path of service, but I grieve his sense of being lost and homeless at the end of his life. He was a good mentor and model for me, but I have chosen not to follow in his footsteps.

For us, after 42 years of going where we were called, the place of our retirement became important. It isn’t that we had a favorite place to which we returned, but rather that we wanted to live close to family. The closest we lived to other members of our family during our active careers was 300 miles. Fortunately for us, my mother and Susan’s father both chose to move to our city near the ends of their lives so that we could provide the love and support they needed. Other than those years, we have always lived a long way from family. So we decided that our retirement would mean making a move to be close to family and chose the town where our son works. We aren’t completely settled yet. We have a lovely rental home where we will live for a year while we evaluate the housing market and choose a more permanent place to live.

It is interesting to me that our choice is different from any of our mentors or colleagues. We don’t really have a model that we are following. And, because we have moved a long way from the place where we were serving, we don’t know very many pastors in this area. There are a lot of retired pastors in this region of the country, but we’ve only met a couple. The pandemic has altered church life and changed how we connect with others. Livestream church isn’t the supportive community that we have experienced in other phases of our lives.

So we find ourselves creating our own path rather than following the example of mentors and models. Looking back, I realize that some of the ministers I have known and respected during their professional lives weren’t very good at retirement. It may be that our best models for retirement come from lay persons and not from ministers. Time will tell how we travel this part of our life’s journey, but for now we’re “winging it.”

And that, my friends, seems to be a good way for us.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!