Retired and Still Developing

“There is no retirement in the Bible,” said yet another colleague when I announced I was retiring. I categorized the statement with other credulous truisms neither reflected in the scriptures nor the realities of aging, but which permeate the evangelical culture in which I predominately worked. I have always looked forward to retirement, in part my expectations were shaped by my dad, and other mentors who in retirement developed their mentoring, teaching, and relational skills. These mentors contributed to the development of others in retirement in ways they could not before retirement because of the demands on their time in the positions they held. My dad moved from a full-time professorship to pastoral ministry and adjunct work that had him working with young emerging professionals, prisoners, and other pastoral and lay leaders. Another mentor left the corporate world as an internal development coach/engineer to become a friend to pastoral leaders and a discipler of emerging professionals he found in his engagement with a local congregation.

Allow me to lay out two recurring themes in my reflection on retirement. First, what biblical foundations exist for shaping a healthy view of modern retirement and second, what developmental tasks do retirees face?

The modern Western concept of retirement isn’t found in scripture, nor is it possible in many developing contexts. However, transitions that come with aging are modeled in scripture for leaders and there are healthy and unhealthy examples. On the healthy side, I look to the instructions given to Levitical priests regarding temple service.

This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they[a] shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting.  And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister[b] to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” (Num. 8:24-26; ESV)

The reasons for the restriction of older priests from temple service allow for a release from the taxing physical labor of temple service. But it also codifies a continuous transition of leadership/service to a new generation of priests. God established a pipeline of multi-generational leaders. Many organizations could benefit from such a pipeline that captures the experience of its aging workforce and invests it in the emerging generations. Nothing in the text presumes older priests are ineffectual or irrelevant. There is an indication that their value as individuals and priests are celebrated in releasing them from the demands of the job while encouraging their ongoing participation in supporting an emerging generation.

The benefit of this forced transition stands in contrast to poor transitions of leadership also found in the Jewish Scriptures. The transition of Saul to David is a poignant case study of a transition poorly done. Yet, David apparently didn’t learn as much about transitions as he could have as the end of his reign is filled with unnecessary conflict and intrigue. When transitions away from active leadership do not occur in a healthy way conflict, relational damage, organizational dysfunction, and broken generational links often occur.

Is there a definitive developmental task for retiring leaders – or retirees generally speaking? One of my mentors, J. Robert Clinton, analyzed leadership transitions throughout their careers. He codified stages of development and the developmental tasks of those stages in his landmark book, Leadership Emergence Theory (1989). So, while reflecting on my retirement, I returned to his book to review what he said about retirement or what he calls “After Glow.” I was disappointed in the summary he offered, “honor God’s faithfulness.”[1] My disappointment rests in the lack of specificity, not my disagreement with the general statement. To be fair, Clinton assumes that a leader builds upon each successive stage of development so that prior developmental tasks are not forgotten but become an indelible part of how a person addresses their career/calling.

In reflecting on my own experience, I identify four core development tasks in Afterglow.

  1. Refine and define core life lessons. The initial shift in daily routine is shocking to every retiree I know, myself included. The move from direct responsibility for organizational and financial competitive health to the loss of power, prestige, and privilege inherent in leadership or a successful career is jolting. The jolt is amplified by the ageism of our culture that seems swift to relegate the retired to irrelevance. We live in a competitive society, business, jurisprudence, and governance all have a fundamentally adversarial (competitive) flavor. I include religious governance/service in this as we are not exempt from the cultural influence in which we live. The initial task then of retirement is how to conceptualize and then reproduce those life lessons that transcend the functional skills of leadership and the market in which we worked that helped us define purpose and meaning rather than mere success. This takes work since for many the formation of purpose and meaning was done on the fly and not always with a conscious enumeration. To the degree that purpose and meaning were consciously defined and conceptualized the initial stage of retirement seems less jolting because the transition to retirement is not a movement away from one’s primary contribution but a movement toward its undiluted and unfiltered expression.
  2. Process disappointment and regret redemptively. I don’t know an honest person who hasn’t experienced disappointment in their expectations around their career nor some regret at things they would now approach differently. Processing disappointment and regret redemptively is rooted in the act of forgiveness. This includes forgiving others as well as giving/receiving forgiveness for oneself. We can process disappointment and regret because we are dynamic rather than static individuals. If retirement had no developmental tasks the exercise of deliberately defining disappointments and regrets would be an act of futility.
  3. Exercise gratitude for a career well done. The power of gratitude is thoroughly documented. Being grateful for the successes, failures, relationships, resources, connections, and potential inherent in a life-long endeavor is an important transition exercise. Janice and I have had some fun doing this and have found that our perspective has shifted from past to future as we see an increasing sense of expectation commensurate to our gratitude. The nature of this expectation no longer frames itself in the sometimes-limited sense of our past (career growth, income, recognition, etc.), but has branched out to the recognition of the significance of friends, the contribution of experience, and the satisfaction of enjoying the fruit of our labor and the new relationships this enjoyment is generating. While many of our expectations about where we would go in our careers were radically assailed and changed by events, people, and circumstances well out of our control, hindsight gives us a wonderful perspective of the diversity and impact we have had on the lives we have encountered. Gratitude isn’t limited.
  4. Be present. The steps of reflection and transition represented in the first three developmental tasks lead to the most exciting task, being present. As we have engaged in new avenues of endeavor including local and state government, clubs, a  new city, grandchildren, neighbors, and new professionals in our orbit, we have found the most exciting task is simply being present where we are. It is amazing what doors of encouragement, coaching, and friendships. The only limit we have discovered to our current influence is the failure to actively engage in the developmental tasks of this stage of life.

Retirement isn’t a process of mothballing our existence or influence. Instead, it has become a means of amplifying our influence and our flourishing in life. We have found the promise of John 10:10 to be at work. There is a task retirement engages and the satisfaction of this stage is dependent upon whether one openly engages in that task.

[1] J. Robert Clinton. (1989) Leadership Emergence Theory: A Self-Study Manual For Analyzing the Development of a Christian Leader. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 313.

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