IV. Retirement: Re-considering One’s Call

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

IV. Retirement: Re-considering One’s Call

One call in responding to God's calling comes in and through the structure called church. It is the call to become a Minister of Word and Sacrament. The temptation among many, both those who occupy or have occupied ecclesiastical calls and also among those who are "ordinary" members of the church, is to collapse calling into call when it comes to the ministerial offices of the church. Yet what excited or gripped those of us who occupy or occupied those positions was not initially the call to a particular role, to a professional call, but to participate in God's work in and through both church and world. To say yes to the ecclesiastical call was subordinate to saying yes to God's calling, the calling to give thanks for God's reuniting in Jesus Christ of the separated, including ourselves, and the privilege and responsibility of participating in that calling.

Calling and Ecclesiastical Call

However, we and others so often invest our ecclesiastical call with such meaning, importance and commitment that we equate calling and ecclesiastical call. We make the penultimate ultimate. This is not what we would say or want to say, but it is what our behavior often reveals. It is, of course not just clergy who make that unhappy identification. It is rampant as a temptation among all the professions. When that occurs, the subordinate or secondary call becomes what defines us, gives our lives meaning and standing, identity and community.

But when calling and calls are understood as one, when it comes to retirement, we descend into a state of anomie, a sense of displacement, of loss of standing, of meaning. Slowly or quickly we acknowledge that we have over-depended on our filling a particular call as a source for identity and satisfaction. We can become disoriented because we have no settled place of authority and power, with all the accompanying benefits, financial, social, emotional, and spiritual. When we retire we may have a title, but it is disconnected from the power and status generally associated with a call. Our lives may be deconstructed. If we are fortunate we may still have a title as a last remnant of official identity. So we become, for example, a president emeritus of a seminary, which gives us something we can put on our "business card." But we have no business, as such. And when we are introduced it is often by referring to what we used to do. We become the person who used to do something worthwhile. I personally cannot count the number of times I have been introduced as the former president of Austin Seminary.

Our identity anxiety is closely aligned to community anxiety. Our work companions--staff, colleagues, church members, students, etc.--have been in large part our community. Now they are gone, with only the memory lingering on. That memory can be, though it need not be, a polluted memory of remorse and regret. That is an unfortunate way of holding on to the past, and specifically to the last remnants of a particular kind of a call. It may also be symptomatic of our hunger for identity and community. So we are called to redefine ourselves, to listen and to look for how God is calling us now through all the potential new calls, what we are to do, where we are to do it, who we are and what are the locations for a call or calls that are being sounded all around us.

Identity and community are, of course, two sides of the same coin. The malaise and depression that often accompany retirement may be just as difficult for other members of one's family as it is for the retiree.