By Robert Price
I was nonplussed when my dad told me over decade ago that he was retiring after 39 years of congregational ministry. I’m certain that deep down it was because our dads are always young and indestructible to us, until they’re not. After all, retirement is followed ineluctably by, well, you know…. And that’s a glass of cold water in the face to any child, even, or maybe especially, an adult one with kids of his own. Anyway, that’s my excuse for being insensitive — the more accurate word would be “a jerk” — and reacting as if he had somehow just barely missed the cut for the track team because he stopped one lap short of the mile. “Couldn’t you do just one more, and finish with an even 40?” I asked in complete earnest. Being the pastor (and dad) he is, he took it in stride: “Even St. Paul received the 40 minus one,” he quipped.
My anticipation of the retirement of other Boomers, however, has been more sanguine. I’d even say enthusiastic. As a Gen Xer, blaming the Boomers for the conflicts in and failures of the Church (would you get over Vietnam and bra burning, already?!) and hoping that they would shuffle off before burning the whole house down in their relentless pursuit of purity in either Truth or Justice is a bit of a pastime. As an excuse, I should note that we were encouraged to do this by Boomers themselves as they spoke to us in seminary 20 years ago about how with the coming clergy shortage half our class would be called to do Great Things (while not mentioning that one of those things might be to turn the lights off after everyone leaves), or warned one another and us that unless the Decade of Evangelism or the next Five Year Plan of BHAGs worked marvelously well, the institution was as good as dead. As for the first, I remember the words of my mentor and earliest Anglican inspiration, the World War II-generation Dean Michael J. C. Allen, “The time is coming when being an Episcopal bishop will be like being an admiral in the Swiss navy.” Of course, in his day, they had real bishops! Additionally, Gen Xers — the famous “slacker generation” — is less than impressed by five-year plans, and we found the predictions of doom less than inspiring. Clearly, we would have to find our own reasons to get out of bed in the morning, rather than to “change the world” or “save the Church” or “include all” in congregations that include fewer and fewer actual members.
But I’ve recently had a change of heart, and it’s the coronavirus’s fault. Actually, it has more to do with the opportunity to serve my bishop and diocese as the canon for congregations for a year and a half. But the two are very much related. As the diocesan transitions officer, I saw firsthand how the pandemic dramatically accelerated retirements. Clergy who in February of 2020 had every intention of going three more years in full-time ministry are stepping away: frustrated by the need to master digital forms of communication; exhausted by the stresses of keeping a parish together pastorally and financially when everyone had to be distant; wounded by the truly unfair criticisms of both sides of the safety debates of Coronatide that created a no-win game of scorekeeping; unable to do the things they learned as the basics of ministry; starved of the positive relational feedback that helped them to carry on. They are done. Some waited until they “got their people through it,” which we all thought was when the vaccines rolled out. But that only slightly delayed their departure from their cures.
The stories can be replicated and multiplied across the entire deployment system. The shortage is here; with the increased retirements there are not enough clergy to go around. Perfectly sound parishes with an ASA under 100, especially ones in smaller towns, are finding it nearly impossible to find a rector to call. Parishes that only five years ago had a pool of a half dozen hireable candidates now have no suitable applicants and can remain empty for two years or more. In the meantime, the lack of clergy leadership and energy creates a vicious cycle as the loss of momentum and financial support makes it more difficult to attract a new full-time priest as each month passes. Transition officers find themselves accused of willful negligence, as if they are “sitting on a treasure chest of golden resumes and refusing to share them,” as one colleague put it. There is simply no one to send even for an interview.
So, to my Boomer friends and colleagues I now say: please stay. Please. For the love of Pete. Even one year. Two would be awesome. Making it to “mandatory” would be saintly. We need you. It’s that simple. Stay.
This isn’t coming from parental transference in your case, my friends. Rather, it’s from the knowledge that if you are the rector of a parish with under 100 ASA, you may not be replaced until you are replaced by a vicar. Even larger, stronger ones — if they are not in a metroplex with the amenities that younger clergy frequently stipulate as a condition of their service — will have significant difficulty. Please stay in place as long as you can to give dioceses time to raise up the young clergy who can serve your people. For clergy in program or resource parishes, or serving on diocesan staff in either purple or black shirts, staying just a little longer can reduce the upward draft in the system, allowing younger clergy to gain the experience needed to successfully take on your roles.
Another key need will be experienced associates in program or resource parishes: these churches are competing directly with smaller parishes for younger talent. If you truly cannot serve in the first chair any longer, can you extend your ministry by serving in the second chair, and offer a younger clergy person the opportunity to be “mentored from below”? If you are already retired, can you contact your diocesan bishop or canon, and make yourself available to serve a parish for reduced hours at “pension max” salary? Or serve on a resource staff in a similar way? Your gifts in ministry, your wisdom, your experience, are desperately needed across the system. If a widespread move was made in this direction by the Boomers remaining in active full-time service, I think it would make an appreciable and enormously positive difference in the church, as a whole. Cumulatively, if each of you stayed on a year longer than you might have meant to, or wanted to, but did anyway for the sake of the gospel and Christ’s Church, it would help the long-term stability of the parish deployment system and prevent scores of parishes from becoming missions or ultimately dissolving.
The Church Pension Fund has an important role to play here, as well. Rules that were originally intended to protect clergy from parishes taking advantage of them in their late 60s need to be loosened. CPF needs to trust the oversight of diocesan officials and their protection of clergy’s interests and give clergy and parishes the flexibility to have “retirements in place.” Yes, certainly have time limits: one year, two would be better. But CPF can give clergy the tools to stay in ministry as long as possible and minimize the disruption in parish life that I think is happening systemically in TEC. We are in a new set of circumstances: CPF should adjust to the realities of this market.
Finally, Boomers, a word of encouragement. As I said above, we need you. The basics of ministry and leadership are coming back and in many ways are more important than ever. You have something to teach and wisdom to pass on. Yes, you can do that in retirement, but there is no replacement for being able to work side by side with you in the daily toil. What you may lack in technological acuity and social media legerdemain, you more than make up for in a mature hermeneutic and institutional know-how. As someone who is in the second half of life, but perhaps still early in the third quarter, I know the joy that comes from feeling like one has less to prove than when one started. I have to think you have a double share of that joy. Don’t worry about saving the Church — that was never your job, Boomer! — just give us a year or two more of serving the Church, and let us profit by your example. The risen Jesus works beside you, and he is known for saving the best wine for last.