I work on staff for a denomination, serving in middle management for a regional office supporting outreach to young people and communications. I don’t share this to impress anyone, or to suggest I have much sway or power (I have neither). I mention it to provide context to the words that follow.
While I am not a denominational power player, my position has required me to pay attention to what is happening in the church I work for, and to catch the occasional sideways glance at what is occurring in our sister denominations.
My position has also afforded me opportunities to meet a number of the leaders who do have positional and relational power within our structure. They are, with rare exception, faithful, talented, and well-meaning people who work very hard.
In my time serving within this denomination, I’ve rarely met an individual who would say that our best years are still ahead of us. Sure, I’ve been privy to the aspirational sermon or two, but the lofty goals rarely hold fast in real talk grounded in what is actually happening. Too many of the numbers we measure are heading in the wrong direction for that.
Instead the conversations gyrate between the next innovative plan that will pull us out of our tailspin of decline, and declarations of our impending death at a time in the future just past imminent, but dangerously close (something like the church equivalent to Social Security’s default date).
Most ideas and organizations have a lifecycle. They are born, experience some usefulness or vitality, and then eventually they transition toward death or obsolescence. Dynamic, and dare I say transcendent, ideas like church, experience new birth(s) at some point in this process, taking on a form that makes sense for the day. Church itself is undergoing some radical reformation; this is even more the case for the ways said churches choose to connect.
All this being said, denominations aren’t dead yet but our constant vacillating, between the next strategy to regain our former vitality and the despair of an imminent death, is only undermining our ability to move forward in any positive direction. Is this bifurcated reality truly the only, or best, way to look at things? Do we not still experience God at work in and through us?
Let’s consider an alternative.
Most people tend to hit their generative and creative peaks in their forties. For the majority of mainline denominations in the United States, this metaphorical peak was somewhere in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Being as we are somewhere past this time, but not dead yet, why haven’t we ever considered retirement as an appropriate way of looking at the state of our denominational life?
Of course, personal retirement is often a choice, though I suspect we all know someone who waited too long or whose plans to retire were delayed for one reason or another. If we were to consider ourselves retired, or to actively choose this state, what are some of the priorities we might liberate ourselves to spend more time on?
1. We could get our house in order.
As financial resources have dwindled, mainline denominations have had to make tough decisions, sometimes at inopportune moments. Deciding what the missional priorities of today are, and accepting that we need to let some legacy ideas go even while they still function, is essential to increasing our ability to be agile and adaptive to the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. We have to be realistic about our diminished energy and be deliberate in what we do. Allowing things to run until they are done isn’t a strategy; it is the lack of one.
2. We could prepare churches to be more independent and to connect in different ways.
It is a hard reality that denominational identity simply isn’t what it was thirty years ago. The same is true for the ways churches work together. We can brush it off as creeping congregationalism but these shifts have had an impact on how people connect beyond the local church and in how they seek resourcing. Shaming those churches that no longer find value in promoting, or strongly claiming, a diminished denominational brand isn’t helpful.
Instead, our time might be better spent discerning where working together still makes sense and encouraging our churches to connect horizontally to maintain a relational web to supplement what is lost in the reduced structure of the future.
3. We could sell the three bedroom and get a smaller, more manageable, home.
Denominations have already divested themselves of a lot of property. But there is a difference between selling property because one has to, and in letting it go, deliberately, because it doesn’t serve a purpose for the church of today (or tomorrow).
By adopting a retirement mentality, we can be more proactive in relinquishing our cherished relics before the inevitable estate sale offers us mere pennies on the dollar. These assets can then be repurposed to support new work and to train and prepare the leaders that may be necessary.
4. We could spend more time with the Grandkids.
While we may love to hear how Grandpa and Grandma first met, few are long enthralled by endless stories of yesteryear and remorse over vitality lost. The church of tomorrow is already taking shape today but we are bound to miss it, and possibly drive it away, if our focus is always on what we have lost.
As retirees, we can practice the art of spending time with the grandkids. Some of these grandchildren may disappoint us but a few of them may just surprise us. After all, doesn’t God continue to work through people today?
We don’t have to like our grandkids’ music but we should love that they still want to sing.
5. We could bake cookies.
One of the blessings of those who have planned well for retirement is the opportunity to be generous. When they learn their granddaughter is struggling to pay for her books for college they can write a check. When they hear their grandson is a bit lonely, they have the time in retirement to take them out to lunch.
This type of generosity could be a great gift for the church that will follow but we’ll never have the resources of time and money to share if we are always planning our next strategic revitalization of the denomination.
6. We could travel more.
While the stories of retired friends on yet another vacation can make us jealous, they also can reveal that, for some, learning is a lifelong process. Those who are able to experience new things, without a proscribed end result, are particularly blessed. In retirement, our denominations might find themselves similarly liberated to engage new ideas and ways of being.
7. We could work on the Bucket List.
While personal bucket lists can often degenerate into experience collecting, our retired selves might still find some value in the concept for denominational life. In the decades of ministry we still have in front of us, being liberated from the notion that we need to exist in perpetuity, might we not find ourselves newly open to God’s bucket list for us? What kin(g)dom work might we be uniquely gifted or positioned for?
Some closing thoughts
The hesitancy many might have to this way of looking at our denominational life is understandable. In a culture where people often struggle to define their value outside their employment, there are barriers to seeing retirement in a wholly positive light. Claiming retirement would also require us to admit that most of our best years really are behind us. But by doing so, would we not also open ourselves up to experiencing our current reality in healthier ways?
There are a number of examples of our denominations engaging in the process of reformation and right-sizing already. As I mentioned at the start, there are a lot of faithful, talented, and well-meaning people hard at work within the church. God is still at work in our antiquated structures because there is still much to do.
The decision before us is one of how we choose to look at the changes ahead. With the prevailing way of viewing denominational health, every program cut, or building sold, is yet another in a string of defeats. Each hurts as any loss might, but the unnecessary framing adds the additional injury of failure to the mix.
But if we truly honor our place in the lifecycle by appropriating the right interpretive lens – if we can own our retirement – the actions of relinquishing and repurposing can be seen as faithful and necessary to create space for what God is doing next. Despair can be replaced with anticipation and we can work more diligently to support the inheritors of our faith and the great work God will call them to.
So, those are my thoughts. What are yours?