Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Masks, Roles, and Retirement

I dreamt, on a recent night, that I was no longer a pastor.

It was, as I considered it over the next morning's coffee, the subconscious manifestation of a thought that I have on a recurring basis: what am I going to do when I retire?  There will come a point, and it's not far off, when I'll be of retirement age.  In just over a decade and change, as I step into my late mid-sixties, I'll be sufficiently far along in this mortal coil that my denomination encourages folks to step aside for a younger and nominally more vital generation.  

It can be a difficult thing, making the transition away from a profession that comes to define your identity.  We're used to being thought of in a certain way, and standing in relationship to others in a certain way.  We take on our vocation as a mask, one that defines how we are seen, one that comes to shape our personhood in ways we're reluctant to release.

This conflation of our work with our identity can make the process of aging more spiritually challenging.  Who are we, if we are not the thing that fills our days?  Where does our sense of self lie, when the mooring lines that hold us release?

It's be nice to say that those in spiritual leadership handle this transition more effectively than other souls.  Because as we all know, pastors and rabbis, imams and priests and gurus?  Utterly without ego. To which, I hope, you uttered a sad, knowing little laugh.

More often than we'd like to admit, those of us who fancy ourselves leaders of faith folk pour so much of ourselves into our role that we can't imagine being anything else.  We don't allow ourselves to be anything else while we're in that role, as we become utterly consumed by the needs of our community.

This doesn't work so well.  Assuming burnout doesn't immolate our sense of vocation, that compulsion to be needed leaves us poorly prepared to slow down when age requires it.  Who are we, if we are not the One With The Answers, the Manager of Everything, the Putter Out of Fires, the Conduit to the Divine?  When that mantle is lifted from our shoulders, it's easy to find that we no longer recognize that lined face in the mirror.  Who even is that?  Who are we?

It's necessary to ground our souls on something more solid.  To prepare for what is to come.

First, it's essential that we develop a sense of self that rests on more than just what we "do."  I love my vocation, I do, but there are other facets to my person.  I read, wantonly and wildly, and enjoy few things more than settling in with a library book.  I tend to my garden, puttering about weeding and seeding and watching the miracle of life rise from the soil.  I game, enjoying virtual narratives and simulated worlds.  I write, spinning out my thoughts in blog posts that five people read, or tell stories that I want to hear told.  I enjoy film, both classic and current.  I enjoy live performances, and travelling with Rache.  

I've done these things for years, because waiting until one has retired to develop things that bring you joy is a fool's error.  So long as God is willing, I will continue to do them.

Second, I understand my vocation as both a calling and a season.  When I dreamed I was no longer a pastor, it was a good dream of a coming season.  I was working with others in a church, as we prepared for an upcoming event.  Being a dream, that event was a little hazy, something to do with a meal that was open to all.  In that dream, I was working with others, but I wasn't running the show.  I was just one of the laborers, as the group discussed and planned.

I was, in other words, in a place where I was simply a Christian, one disciple among many.  It's a good thing to be, and living into that grace has always been the extent of my faith-aspirations.  It's what I teach, and what I preach, and how I try to live.  With the emphasis on "try."

I've always understood pastorin' and the ordination to my role within the church as a functional thing.  Meaning, I'm a Minister of Word and Sacrament only as long and insofar as I preach and baptize, teach and serve at the Lord's Supper.  That ordination is a question of function, not inherent and permanent authority.  Once I'm not doing those things, I am not a Minister.  I can stop the cosplay, take off the silly collar shirt and my careworn academic robe and return to being one servant among many.  I will remain a Teaching Elder into retirement, but not a pastor, not unless I am doing pastorly things.

In my little congregation, almost everyone has been ordained to serve as an elder at one point or another.  That's just the way little churches roll. They're all still Ruling Elders, technically speaking, but functionally?  You're only Buildings and Grounds Elder when wrangling aging HVAC and mending leaking roofs is your specific responsibility, thank the Good Lord.  You're only the Worship or Stewardship or Mission Elder for a season.  After that, the ordination goes fallow until another season of labor is required.

Should I have the good fortune to reach the moment of Honorable Retirement, With All the Rights and Privileges Thereunto, I will be content to be simply another servant among servants, one living in my sabbath season.