Aging Well: Theological Reflections on the Call and Retirement
by Jack L. Stotts


The occasion for writing this essay was the kind invitation to meet with the Retirement Planning Consultants and Regional Representatives of the Board of Pensions at their annual gathering in San Antonio, Texas in December 1997. These folks provide leadership for the Retirement Planning Seminars sponsored by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for Presbyterian ministers, lay employees and spouses. David C. Rich, Director of Education and Communications for the Board of Pensions, invited me to share some theological musings about retirement and engage in discussion about what is our calling when we don't have a call as retired pastors. My thanks to him for encouraging me to make these remarks available more widely.

The invitation to write about my theological reflections about retirement was in many ways a gift to me, for it provoked me to put in order what had previously been random and fleeting thoughts about the subject. Having retired August 1, 1997, I was and still am a relative newcomer to "retirement land." So some of my thoughts and proposals may be premature. On the other hand, perhaps as a recent arrival I can point to some things that others with a longer tenure simply ignore because they have become familiar and taken for granted. Whatever the case may be, I appreciated the opportunity to think about some of the issues related to faith and retirement.

Thinking While Writing

One element of having to discipline my thoughts is that I think by and while writing. My former colleague at McCormick Seminary, Carl Dudley, when asked what he thought about some issue or recommendation would often reply, "How do I know what I think until I've said it?" I invoke a variant of that. It goes like this, "How do I know what I think about some issue or question until I write it down?" How I envy those who think on their feet. Not the quick retort for me. I have to put you on hold until my pen and yellow pad tell me what I think about a subject or idea. My mind is connected to my writing hand, not to my tongue. That is one reason I am grateful for this opportunity to write down some theological reflections about retirement. What follows, then, are probings into understanding and a positioning of myself in terms of what I think about retirement, from a theological point of view. I hope you will think along with me about this important issue.

Retirement, initially in its broadest and secular sense, is that period in our lives when we are no longer employed and compensated on a full-time basis. That is not all that one can or should say about retirement. It is a starting point only, waiting for theological content to flesh out its meanings.

A Magical World

My initial conclusion about retirement is that it is a magical world. Now each month checks appear magically in our bank account, courtesy of wire transfers. The economic threat has been tamed, at least for now. In this magical time of retirement, the burden of "dressing up" for work every day is whisked away. I can select my own uniform. Now I can ask, "What do I want to do?" rather than, "What do I have to do for the seminary today?" The boundaries of my little world, small though it was, have collapsed. The terrain has shifted. I am free to erect different boundaries, to rearrange the landscape of my life. And that is just the problem. For in retirement I not only can but must reorder my life. In that sense the magical world of retirement is also threatening.

A Threatening World

As threat, retirement forces me to examine again such basic questions as, "Who am I?" and "What am I to do" as a citizen of this magical world? These queries demand answers, for my self-understanding, my sense of worth, my identity and my community have been wrapped up with fulfilling what I have believed to be an appropriate and vital response to God's calling, to serve God by serving the church, and more precisely to do so in the field of theological education. Now that call is no more. I have no specific call to order my day and night, at least no call in the sense of an ecclesiastical call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. Previously my work has been the primary sculptor of my life, giving shape and form to "fill up my time," giving those hours and days a pattern of familiarity. Now that is gone. What now will sculpt my days, giving them order and meaning? Those are the starting points for our theological reflections about the issues of calling, call, and retirement. What is my calling when there is no call?

The first two words--calling and call--are elusive and suffer from definition sprawl. The range of understandings goes from the trivial and common place "give me a call when you have a chance"--to the profound--"God's calling is to a life of servanthood"--to the arresting and provocative, as when Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts in The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a person, he bids that person to come and die."

My first task is to clear away some of the definition clutter, and provide a pathway through the forest of possible meanings. Lodged in the understanding of theology as reflection upon how we are to order our lives in response to God's ordering and reordering of our lives, individually and corporately, these theological definitions are somewhat arbitrary, though not without being informed by the tradition. They are not taken down from the shelf of agreed-upon definitions, but custom-made for our reflections. As theological definitions they are provisional and tentative, open to correction, but they may provide some common ground for thinking together.