On timing and the loneliness of leadership
I arrived early for the Council Board meeting last night. The Scout Executive greeted me by saying that my retirement had caught him by surprise. I pointed out that we clergy tend to hold the date of our retirement (if known to us) very close, for as soon as one has announced a date for one's retirement -- or other change of appointment -- then all one's effectiveness as a leader is at an end. People start looking past you, to the next person who might fill your position.
I know that in many fields, this is not so. Many people in industry talk openly of their retirements, and it doesn't seem to be a problem. Teachers, who work on a contract-year basis, can talk about retirement, but so long as they are teaching in the current year, they are as effective as if they were going to continue on for many years.
Meanwhile, politicians nearing the end of their terms are known as "lame ducks." After one's successor has been chosen, not much gets done. Well, in the clergy, the appointment of a successor isn't even necessary. If I had known the date of my retirement three years in advance, my announcing it as such would have meant the end of my effectiveness almost immediately; I wouldn't have made it to the end of the three years without being moved to another appointment or retiring earlier than planned. Power, clout, confidence, continuity, relationship -- call it what you will -- can only continue in the clergy racket so long as its end is indefinite.
One of the things one gets asked over and over in the pastorate is, "how long are you going to stay here?" People don't like to make commitments when things are changing, and a change of pastors is a big deal. Prospective members delay their decision to join the congregation; current members put off accepting leadership posts; governing boards punt on critical decisions. The people you want to move forward get cold feet, and the people you've been holding back feel like the hounds have been loosed.
When asked how long I would stay, I have always answered truthfully, "I am here until I am no longer here." In my last appointment, I would add, when pressed, that I was hoping to make this particular pastorate my last. But I would also point out that I had enough years of service already to retire that year, whatever year it was -- and also lots of room until maximum retirement age. So to say that I hoped to retire from EFUMC, while true, gave no real clue to my plans. I didn't even discuss it with my children. Only maybe one or two of my friends and colleagues had a real inkling, and then only in the run-up to the final decision last year. Only Deanne really knew where things stood with me. It's a lonely thing, leadership, and some decisions have to be made all by yourself, with almost no outside help. But then,
They only can do it with my lord who can do it without him,
and I know that he will have about him only those.
I announced my retirement as late as I could get away with, on the first Sunday in February. That left almost five months to wrap things up and say good-bye. It was too long, and I knew it, but I also knew the Cabinet would insist that I hurry up and announce so that they could start consultations with my Staff-Parish Relations Committee on a replacement. So when I wrote my letter to the Powers that Be last December, stating my intention to retire, I also specifically asked for permission to announce on the Sunday I had chosen. They gave me that freedom, but I don't think I could have held out for longer.
In any case, when I made my final decision, known at the time only to Deanne and still reversible if I changed my mind, I sat down and wrote out my final list of ministry goals. In the time that I knew I would have left, I set myself to accomplish certain things. I am proud to say, I got them all done before my last day. I did not coast to retirement, and I left with no unfinished business. Between that and getting ready to move after eleven years in the same appointment (ten years in the same house), I was about done in by the time I reached the end. But I crossed the finish line with all my flags flying.
People now ask me how I feel about retirement. I feel good. No regrets, either about past appointments or about not having one to keep my hand in with. And perhaps some of that is attributable to the way I managed my exit. It was a hard and lonely slog to get to the announcement and it was a wearisome and bittersweet denouement, but God was with me and I can look back on my career as a more or less finished work. I can now turn my attention to other things, trusting that God will be with me in this strange new land, even as he was in the forty years I spent leading the children of Israel through the wilderness.