“Retirement” and this thing called ministry

I’ve been using the word “retirement” for the last few years mainly as a joke, as though it were some distant possibility, certainly not something that I needed to worry about any time soon.

And then, last week, what had seemed so distant and unlikely suddenly became a reality. I am planning to retire early next year, six months from now.

Speaking the word aloud – as in “I am going to retire” – turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I nearly cried the first time I told someone. I don’t know what I expected. I suppose I had expected to grin and pop open the champagne. Certainly not tears.

I have been a pastor for nearly 40 years. I will observe the 37th anniversary of my ordination in September, and before that I worked in churches as a “student pastor” and “graduate intern,” carefully chosen titles which no longer communicate much to me. In any case, when you add it up, I’ve been doing this thing called ministry in a church setting for nearly 40 years without much of a pause along the way.

“This thing called ministry” was not what I imagined doing with my life. I resisted it for what seemed like a long time and only surrendered to it when it appeared that I had no choice. I had seminary classmates who were so eager to get started that they proudly wore clerical collars on their first day of class. That was not me. I sort of backed into this life and even felt mildly embarrassed that first year when I would wear my only suit and funeral directors would call me “pastor.”

Over time, though, I grew into the role. The church people I served taught me how to love them, and I did.

Today I can’t imagine having been anything other than a “pastor,” but those early memories of hesitation and awkwardness are vivid ones. This was not what I wanted for myself, but when I embraced it and started down the long path that has led me to this point, I threw myself into it. I tried to be the best pastor I was capable of being. I am proud of what I’ve done.

And now, suddenly, or so it seems, this life as a pastor is coming to an end. I realize that in many ways I will still live out this role in the months and years to come. There is no way to retire from an identity like this particular one. But I plan to spend my time doing a few other things that I have not been able to do, things not having to do with church.

I’ve already learned a new language – or at least made considerable progress toward learning one – so that’s no longer on my bucket list, but there are a few other things that I have wanted to do.

Being a grandfather would be at the top of that list. I’m happy to say that I had two good role models earlier in my life. And I’d like to do it at least as well as they did it for me. Offering a lot of unconditional love (and having an endless supply of candy) can’t be a bad way to spend the next few years of my life.


About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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18 Responses to “Retirement” and this thing called ministry

  1. Sharyn Wiehe July 31, 2017 at 1:18 am #

    Hi Doug. You don’t know me but my husband and I spent our winters in the Lauderdale area and attended the First Pres church on 15th. By far and away we enjoyed your sermons more than any other pastor we have heard. We have been married for 50 years so that is a lot of sermons and a lot of pastors! We were sad when you left Lauderdale but wished you well.

    I have followed your Blog since you went to Switzerland. It sounds like you have had the experience of a lifetime. I am very happy that you and your wife will be coming home to your family and especially to your grandchildren. Grandchildren are the best and deserve to have their grandparents around.

    We live in Cincinnati so if you ever are coming to my town as a guest speaker, I hope you will include that information in your Blog that I hope you will continue writing.

    Wishing you the best – Sharyn Wiehe

  2. Sandra Steffen July 31, 2017 at 6:32 am #

    WOW Doug, I’m very surprised about your “retirement” but only wish you & Susan the very best in the next chapter of your life!!! I know a church that is looking for a new Senior Pastor and it is in a warmer spot than Holland MI!!! Any interest??!!
    Sincerely, Sandy Steffen

  3. Jeff edwards July 31, 2017 at 7:06 am #

    Doug, if your anything like me you will be just as busy, find things that are as meaningful, and expand your experiences. Grandkids, consulting, making your own daily and overall choices of what you want to do are amazingly freeing. For me, no long and sometimes meaningless faculty meetings has been wonderful.

  4. Clayton Murphy July 31, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    Doug, let me first congratulate you on your long and very successful career as a pastor. Julie and I were part of your congregation in Wheaton for only a few years, but you and your staff did so much to make us feel at home. Thank you. I was stimulated by your sermons and am so glad to have had you for my pastor.

    I have been retired for five or six years due to health problems. In that time, I have found a wealth of things to do. While we do not have grandcjildren, I have been able to reconnect with my children as they are now adults. It has been a wonderful adventure watching there little ones that we brought here from Russia. They have their own lives. They have chosen to include us in them and I couldn’t be happier.

    My decision to retire was somewhat forced on me, but retirement is a wonderful time. Julie and I are able to spend more time with each other. I am looking forward to a couple years from now when Julie retires and we have even more flexibility in our schedules.

    Blessings on both you and Susan. Enjoy the names Grandpa and Grandma. And enjoy the next phase of your lives.

    Clayton Murphy

  5. Rick Oppenhuizen July 31, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    Thanks for helping me express my feelings as well, Doug. I will be retiring at the end of the year and I have to say it’s a wierd feeling. On the other hand, I’m anticipating finally doing some things I’ve only been thinking about until now. God will lead us. Blessings in your time up to the big day!.

    • Doug July 31, 2017 at 10:21 am #

      When I move back to western Michigan, Rick, I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee and listen to you describe your ministry…if you’re willing to talk about it. (And then we can talk about how the new generation of pastors isn’t very good and how they’re ruining the church. That should make us feel better.) Am glad for your friendship!

  6. Tom Worden July 31, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    How fortunate Barbara and I were after the trouble at Coral Ridge and we attended First Pres.
    Your sermons were some of the best ever. We are truly grateful for the experience.
    Thank you so very much.
    You will now have more time to cheer for the Tigers. Enjoy your retirement.

  7. Fred Anderson July 31, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Dear Doug,

    As Adam said to Eve upon leaving the garden: “Dear, I think this is called transition.”

    Welcome to another transition!

    The most helpful, unsought advice I received concerning retirement was: “Don’t accept anything new for at least one year. No preaching assignments, certainly no interim invitations (and there will be many), no invitations to join this or that board, much less serve on this or that committee, but simply take on the spiritual discipline of sitting in the pew and listening for what God has in store for you next.”

    It was not only helpful, but invaluable. I was not prepared for the number of invitations that come, once people know “you are free.”

    I’d add only two things more: “For better or for worse” does not necessarily mean “for lunch.” It was very helpful for Questa and me to remember when had not spent this much time together, ever, since our honeymoon–and this lasts much longer! Remember what the Carters wrote about their first year out of the White House–they thought they just might end up in divorce court. So, be kind to yourselves.

    Second, sitting in a pew on Sunday is a spiritual discipline that can be hard that first year (and I’m not talking about the pew). But, it is a wonderful opportunity to listen, and think about being Christ’s in a new way. That is one of the things I have most enjoyed.

    Other things:
    — not getting up until I wake up (those 5 am mornings take their toll)
    — no more committee meetings
    — no more deadlines
    — time to pray about more than the latest kerfuffle in the congregation.

    There’s lots more, and it is all good.

    For now, simply enjoy the ride, for I suspect you have already learned that once the decision is made and the word it out, things relax a bit. And, enjoy the adulation. Its a bit like being present at your own funeral, to hear all the wonderful things said about you from people you didn’t realize felt that way!

    Any idea where you are going to live?

    Lots of love to the both of you!


  8. SallyMcClintock-Snyder July 31, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    May God continue to bless you on the next phase of your life. I always loved your sermons soaking in God’s love. Stay well.
    Sally McClintock-Snyder

  9. CYNTHIA BOONE July 31, 2017 at 1:46 pm #

    When I was a visitor at 1st Pres your weekly messages touched me like no other. Then I became a member and the Lord lead you over seas much to my dismay. I have missed your lessons and will always have very fond memories of your last few years in Ft Lauderdale. Enjoy your grandchildren and your retirement

  10. Mark July 31, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

    Ah, my brother. It’s not that far down the road for me, either, and your post has me looking ahead. I’m not sure what this means for when we will see you again, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later. God bless the months ahead. May the gifts you’ve blessed many with over the decades return to bless you with a deep satisfaction of faithfulness and grace.

  11. Hbg July 31, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    Dear Doug – as for most of us, somehow big steps are not made so often, and do not come along easily only. Congratulations to your early retirement decision!

    Your feelings while announcing this step first time have been same for me, at the time. I had also been working for 40 years in the same field in different countries and places – and had to reflect of what would “go off” once retirement would “take on”.

    Well, the most significant I can see is and remains this kind of “not to have job-related obligations of any kind” anymore. It has to do with the fact that you will be free to do things if you wish and not do them if you so wish. What a change to your present status in which IPC Zurich expects an every week sermon and a bunch of other activities besides, too!

    New interests will show up, I guess – and first time in many years you will have freedom, energy and time to make them activities of your own choice. Being spouse and grand-parent in such a situation is a privilege not so many may enjoy and has thus to be valued with an extra-thanks to Him I think.

    What you will not get, however, is more free-time. You will fill time with new things – and time will continue to fly by just as quickly as it does now.

    Strength for these last 6 months as pastor. Wow. Enjoy it all and be blessed on the way to your big change.

    But first enjoy your holidays back home / see you after your return to good old Europe 🙂


  12. Marianne Nestor July 31, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

    Doug, this takes me by suprise. But knowing you, this will be a great time to do all the things you love to do that did not always fit into your schedule: ie family, writing, jogging, and whatever. It is amazing how retirement presents us with an open door to also pursue new interests. It is wonderful. Emabrace and enjoy.

  13. Lynn Cofer-Chase July 31, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    Wow! And we didn’t get to Switzerland to see you yet!

    We’re still very happily married thanks to you and hope to see you if you ever get back to the Chicago area!!!

    Love, Grandmawannabe and Grandpawannabe….Lynn Cofer-Chase and Chuck Chase
    Sounds like a blessed plan!

    • Betty Strunk August 1, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      Congratulations, Doug, on your upcoming retirement. I wish you and Susan much joy. I hold many memories of your time here in Wheaton. The top had to be your availability in my time of need. Your sermons, many which I copies and saved, still speak helpfully. God bless you and the family.

  14. Kathy Bostrom August 1, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    Wasn’t expecting this – Greg didn’t give me any clues after his visit with you! Or maybe he didn’t know. I won’t put him on the spot to ask! I went through a huge identity crisis after leaving the ministry at WPC to pursue my writing. I wrote about it for Horizons. It was much tougher than I thought. But now, in hindsight, I have no regrets. Just give yourself time, and if you need a fellow “retiree/writer” to talk to, I’m here for you!

  15. Leslie Wells Rambin August 2, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    Hello Doug……. just look at this as a surprise snow day and you mom has come to awaken you and announce that there will be no school today. ?Now, no school for many days ?. Take time for yourself and plan to do things you love. I don’t know how much time you and Susan had to travel while you have been over there but that would be a great thing to do. Youth hostels and Bedouin tents are all an adventure and life should be an adventure. ? I really think you will enjoy retirement more than you think you will. You were such a caring and compassionate minister and person in general. I really hated to see you go but was so happy to see your dream of going to Switzerland come true. I think you will find this transition much easier than what you were expecting. Please keep writing because there are so many of us that truly enjoy what you have to say. Bottom line, I think you will enjoy retirement much more than you anticipate. ?

  16. Juvena yeung August 4, 2017 at 11:50 pm #

    Hi Pastor Doug, congratulation for your retirement ! Of course, i like your sermon very well and miss you in ipc as well. Life is too short as we could go for something is missing like your grandchildren, your family they also need you much.
    I wish you all blessings.
    Juvena Yeung