my full-time gig comes to a close in five days...

In less than a week I will end my calling as a full-time minister in the United Church of Christ. After 35 years of ordination, I will move into a very part-time gig involving 20 hours a week. And while I will still be serving my current congregation for the foreseeable future, inwardly this is a huge change for me. For many, the external manifestations won't look all that different.  I will still preside at Sunday worship, attend and consult with our lay ministries, and offer pastoral care and support to those in need. I will continue to celebrate Eucharist and Baptism, bury the dead and visit the sick, too. But I will do so in a highly circumscribed manner. And it is this radical shift in how I will now use my time and energy, I suspect, that feels so all encompassing.

Over the past two years I have been reading about colleagues in ministry moving into retirement. Some have loved it while others have fought it. Many say they are not yet ready to give up their public identity as clergy. I am experiencing something a bit different, I think, as I sensed I was ready to let go of my public persona as pastor two years ago during our sabbatical in Montreal. There, for the first time in three decades, no one knew me as a minister. No one had any preconceived expectations of who I was or how I should act. I was just the old dude speaking crappy French, loving jazz and grooving on a world class city with abandon in the company of my sweetheart. For the past two years I have wrestled with what to make of all this:  can I be pastor without becoming trapped by others expectations?  (Not really!) Is it possible for me to do ministry in new ways without being dragged back into old and life-draining habits? (A little bit.) What do I want to do differently as I continue to serve God in community? (That is still emerging.)

Two clues continue to take shape and form, however, and I am now ready to explore them with gusto. On Wednesday next, February 1, 2017, I am officially retired. I will still work part-time in our church for a season or two, but only Sunday, Monday and Tuesday each week. That gives me four days out of every seven to direct my life towards:

+ First, the study and practice of spiritual direction:  Almost 20 years ago I discerned that I wanted to do spiritual direction. I started the doctoral program at San Francisco Theological Seminary with that in mind and was working in their joint spiritual direction/doctor of ministry track when I melted down.  When I returned, I postponed the spiritual direction work for a time so that I could concentrate of becoming a more compassionate pastor. That eventually led to our leaving Tucson. For ten years I have explored trying to meld music, spiritual direction and pastoral ministry together in ways that are creative for others and life-giving for me. It has been a good run and I have been mostly blessed by the entire ten years. But now it is my time to take the next step into more rigorous one-on-one spiritual development. So, I'll be reading and exploring Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen and some of the Enneagram masters over the next few months. I'll be heading out to L'Arche in Ottawa, too so that I can experience how Jean Vanier's commitment to tenderness works transforming lives in community. My hope is that by July 2017 I might start to seriously work in this field in a part-time capacity.  

+ Second, the practice and playing of all types of music:  I have two friends playing wildly different types of music with whom I will start to collaborate next week. I want to help people dance. And sing. And experience solidarity across our differences. And I want to do some experimental jazz work in prayer and interfaith compassion, too. So, now I have dedicated time to getting my bass chops back and seeing where the Spirit leads in this realm. My reading in Bonhoeffer of late suggests that this is one of those places where his notion of "religionless Christianity" might take root. The key is nourishing and encouraging people of good will to feel their common ground - and then act from that place rather than their fears and habits. 

I know this is an important, life-changing moment for me that is largely invisible to everyone else. I was with a younger colleague yesterday in support of her candidacy for ordination in our United Church tradition.  After the regional body affirmed the movement of the Holy Spirit in her life, the meeting's chair said to me, "Good work, man, you brought in another winner." I had been thinking about that for a few months and replied, "Yep... one every three years since I arrived!" My pastor when I was in high school, Sam Fogal, once said to me while I was in seminary, "If you can replace yourself in ministry before you retire, you are doing the Lord's work." At the time I wasn't sure I even understood what that meant - but 35 years later I do - and I am grateful that I have encouraged at least five people to enter this crazy life of service to Christ. 

Maybe I'll find a way to do that through spiritual direction or a new dance band, too! Time will tell.


Alan said…
good luck my's a difficult change to make, but i am confident you have what it takes.
ddl said…
Best wishes to you and yours as you make this transition! And many thanks from one who gives thanks for your ministry, encouragement, and blessing.
Chris Cummings said…
Chris and I wish you the best in your retirement. Enjoy the next part of your life journey. Blessings!
Stephen Wayles said…
Best thing First UCC Phoenix did for me, was to insist that in my last year of ministry I take 2 days off per week, instead of 1 and that I cut back on my hours and duties so that I was not "speeding at 100 miles per hour - then coming to an abrupt halt at retirement." Spent more time with my husband. Read more for fun. Did some music. Worked on my Spanish. Spent time with people outside the congregation. It was great. I will always be thankful for the wisdom of the Church Council. On my own, I would have tried to cram all the ministry possible into that "last opportunity" like the condemned person gorging on the last meal!
Congratulations on your upcoming retirement, James, and on the steps you are taking to enter it gently and with kindness to yourself, your family and the congregation who needs to start getting used to your not being available. Enjoy!! Retirement Rocks!

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