“Taking the Long View” Reflections of a Retired Pastor

Presiding(This is a talk I gave to “The Saints” which is the United Church of Christ retired clergy group in the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. The talk was in Cromwell, CT on May 14, 2015)

I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.

My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.

I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”

I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase. 

Let me reassure you that I don’t come today as some kind of expert on retirement. An expert has been described as “someone with a briefcase who lives over a hundred miles away.” I don’t have a briefcase and I did a MapQuest search to discover that Cromwell, CT is only 81.5 miles from where I live in Pittsfield, MA. So now that we have that out of the way, I’d like to share some of my reflections on retirement from the ministry.

I never wanted to be retired. I loved being a pastor. Not that I loved everything about it or that my soul wasn’t from time to time disquieted within me. But on the whole my lines landed on pleasant places. Then 15 years ago while coming down a mountain I flew over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. Nothing has been quite the same since. Especially my head.

My neurologist told me that I had suffered a traumatic brain injury. She sent me to a neuropsychologist for testing. She discovered that I had some severe cognitive deficits. My “executive function” was compromised, the part of the brain that let’s you multi-task and deal with complexity. She advised me I would need to make lifestyle changes. “Keep life simple,” she said. “Avoid complex situations and stress.” “You’ve just described my job,’ I told her.

Yet retirement was so unthinkable to me that I just kept on working. I had already been serving that congregation for 18 years. I loved them and they loved me, so I continued my ministry as best I could. But it wasn’t pretty. People didn’t want to hear that their pastor wasn’t right. If I showed up with a tie on and looked like Rick Floyd I must be all right.

But I wasn’t all right and I struggled every day just to catch up with my pastoral work. I started making adjustments. First, I resigned from all my outside boards and committees. Then, I stopped my ecumenical work. My wife, Martha, and I stopped entertaining. But finally, there was nothing left to give up except my position as pastor.

And that is what happened. Four years after my accident, in September 2004, I was struggling so much every day that Martha and I scheduled a meeting with my doctor to talk about new strategies. We had an early morning appointment so I put on a tie planning to go to church afterwards.

We got there. I talked. Martha talked. The doctor listened. Then he said, “So what I hear you both saying is that Rick can’t do his job anymore, is that right?” We both nodded. “So what are you going to do about it?” I sputtered on for awhile about how I had to see a family that night about a baptism on Sunday, and how we had an important long-range planning committee meeting I had to go to.” He said, “Let me ask you something. If you had had a heart attack what would you do?” “Well, if I had a heart attack I couldn’t work,” I said. He looked at me for a long moment and said, “You’ve had a heart attack!” And we knew he was right. I couldn’t work anymore. We drove home, stopped for coffee, and had a good cry, and when we got home I took off my tie and I never worked as a pastor again.

So, not only am I not an expert on retirement, I was one of the least prepared people ever for retirement. It was a big shock to us and to our congregation. They were wonderful to us. They had a service of thanksgiving for my ministry and a lovely dinner in which many said good things about me, and they made me pastor emeritus. And I was done.

So then what? On one level it was an enormous relief to be relieved of the stresses and strains of the ministry, but what now? All at once I had lost my job, my calling, my community, and even my home, for we lived in a parsonage. What was I going to do? Who was I going to be?

It’s a long story but I’ll try to keep it less long. There were some very hard years for me, and for my family. We had always lived in church housing, so we had to find a place to live. I call it “a stupid minister trick,” buying a home with no equity at the height of the real estate market. But we did it. I received disability from the UCC Pension Boards and from Social Security Disability Insurance. I want to say a word about the Pension Boards. They were so good to us. They paid our health insurance. They really kept us afloat. All those years I had stood in the pulpit and promoted the “Christmas Fund/Veterans of the Cross” I never dreamed I would be on the receiving end of the offering. I used to joke about the UCC: “In case of schism I go with the Pension Boards.” Now it was no joke. We had some serious grieving to do and we had to make many adjustments. We had to move out of a 16-room parsonage into a ranch house. I thank God for my wife, my family and friends for their support through this difficult chapter in our lives.

That was over ten years ago and I have little by little adapted to my disability with a lot of scaffolding around me from my family and my doctors. My health has markedly improved and I can do so much more than I could even a few years ago for which I thank God.

I have always been a writer, but after my resignation and in the absence of pastoral responsibilities I started writing more and more: Writing for myself to no one in particular. Writing to express myself. Writing to get better. I had chronic sleep problems, and sometimes after a sleepless night I would write a hymn, something I had never done before. It is as if I had a different brain, and in a way, I did.

I started by accident to reinvent myself as a writer. Writing is something you can do at your own pace. I have good days and bad days and so I write on the good days. Then people started inviting me to write. I was asked to write a theological blog for the Confessing Christ movement in the UCC. Then in 2009 my friend Martin Langeveld, former publisher of the Berkshire Eagle, suggested that I start my own personal blog, so I did. It was called Retired Pastor Ruminates. I just wrote what I wanted to write about: theology, the Red Sox, brain injury, recipes, remembrances, book and movie reviews, essays. It was a wonderfully creative outlet and I found it lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of purpose. One of my earliest blog posts is still one of the most popular. It is called A Prayer for a Retired Pastor, and it still receives thousands of hits every year.

I have always loved to cook, so I started taking pictures of my dinners and putting the recipes on my blog. When I had a few recipes I started a second blog called Rick’s Recipes: Home Cooking from My Kitchen to Yours. The motto of the blog is from the movie Casablanca, “Everyone comes to Rick’s.”

I started writing more and more about pastoral ministry, especially about the loss of morale among some of my colleagues who were still in the pastorate. I would sometimes get angry about the way they were being treated by their congregations. Some of these posts I wrote as satire, such as Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing Your Pastor’s Morale. That one got picked up and reposted by the Episcopal Café and went viral. I don’t know if Episcopal clergy have worse morale than the rest of us, but it seemed to strike a chord. In these writings I began to see for myself a role as a friend and supporter of colleagues still in the pastorate. I call this “the ministry of encouragement” and I still feel called to it.

And I rediscovered what I had to offer as a pastoral theologian. I had always been a pastor/scholar and had had three sabbatical in Britain during which I wrote books and articles. I started archiving some of my published works, essays and papers, and writing new ones. I began exchanges on the Internet with a handful of young theo-bloggers from around the world who were interested particularly in my writings on the Atonement and the British theologian P.T. Forsyth.

I realize now in retrospect that my writing was the rediscovery of a calling; that I was slowly finding my way by doing what I had always done. I was like Ralph planting apple trees in his orchard. Then in 2011 a colleague of mine, Eric Elnes, who some of you know from Darkwood Brew, told me I should change the name of my blog. He said, “You’re not retired. Your writing is a ministry.” I came to see he was right, so I renamed it “When I Survey . . .” after the great Isaac Watt’s hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” which is also the name of a little book on the atonement that I wrote.

Then a couple of years ago I was invited to contribute to the UCC Still Speaking Writers’ Group and in that capacity I have contributed many Daily Devotionals to their electronic subscription service, which has 30,000 subscribers. Here was a new genre for my writing: a three-hundred word devotional on a Scripture text from the Daily Lectionary. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not in the soul of every preacher! But I found I really enjoyed writing these, and I could draw on my decades of experience as a preacher and teacher in the church to inform them.

In 2013 the UCC asked me to contribute to their Still Speaking adult Bible Study Series. I have recently completed co-authoring a Bible Study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans with Michael Bennett, who once served here in Connecticut,  which should be out later this year or next year. So you see, while I have left the role of pastor behind I have discovered a new chapter in my ministry.

It has been quite a journey. Martha and I were ecclesiastically homeless for a few years. We tried for a year or two to be Episcopalians, unsuccessfully. We visited dozens of churches, but never quite felt at home in any of them. We heard some good sermons and some bad ones. But even though we went to church we weren’t part of a church. There’s a difference. Eugene Peterson makes the distinction between “tourists and pilgrims,” and we were definitely “tourists” as we visited churches. This was very difficult for us as we are such died-in-the-wool church people, “church nerds” as one of my daughter’s clergy friends would describe us.

We just weren’t ready. Church made us sad; it made us cry. We were still grieving for our former church home. You have to to be ready to find a church home, and eventually we were and we did. In 2013 we joined a great local UCC congregation in Stockbridge, MA, about a half an hour from our home. We love our church and our pastor, and Martha is now a deacon. I teach some adult education, and preach now and again. But mostly I enjoy worshipping, attending to good sermons and listening to good music.

And I support my pastor any way I can. I understand this support as part of “the ministry of encouragement.” My pastor, Brent Damrow, is so wonderfully deft in dealing with the handful of retired clergy in our congregation. He invited us all to dinner this winter and asked us how we wanted to be involved in the congregation. Not every pastor is comfortable with having retired ministers in the congregation, but I am blessed that mine is.

And I try really hard to behave myself as a pew-sitter. I had some fine mentors who taught me how to be a retired minister in a congregation. Two of them served here in CT, so you might know them. David Jordan, who after he retired to the Berkshires from Mt. Carmel Church in Hampden, was our part-time Minister of Visitation, and Luther Pierce, who once served the church in Monroe. I was their pastor, but I treasured them as colleagues and friends. They would stop by and chat and I could share burdens with them about my ministry that I would never have shared with congregants. They also knew from experience the grandeur and misery of pastoring.

As you can see it took me a while to discover my ministry after retirement. After all those years of preaching that we are all part of God’s great story I somehow lost sight of that for myself when I stopped being a pastor. I thought my story had come to an end, and I couldn’t imagine the next chapter. But, of course, I never stopped being part of God’s great story at all. You all know the story I mean when I speak of God’s great story: the story that begins “in the beginning” and ends in the holy city with “God in our midst;” “The old, old story of Jesus and his love.” That’s the story that you and I are a part of, and one of the critical tasks of a minister is to tell people that story and remind them that they, too, are part of God’s story.

I’d like to end my remarks today by reading the end of that daily devotional “Taking the Long View:”

(In planting apple trees that he would never see bear fruit) Ralph was taking the long view. His words remind me of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in response to complaints of factions in the congregation around different leaders. Some followed Paul, who had founded the church, while others followed a charismatic itinerant evangelist named Apollos. But Paul chides them for this cult of personality. “I planted,” he said, “Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” As I was retiring I worried aloud about the future of the congregation I had served for 22 years, and one of our Conference ministers (Dick Sparrow) said, “Rick, it was Christ’s church when you got there, and it will be Christ’s church after you leave.” When we watch the vast sweep of the Christian Story from creation to consummation we see the various players in the drama of redemption walk on and off the stage. They play their part, they do their thing, whatever thing God has called them to do, and then it is time for the next person. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” Hope trusts God to finish the project. In the meantime, which is our time, we take the long view, like Ralph with his apple trees, like Paul with his beloved Corinthian congregation, like all of us with those projects to which we have given our life and labor.

Prayer: O God of time and history, who holds the future securely in the palm of your hand, remind us that nothing we do that is good and loving and true will ever be lost, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Photo by Cindy Todd Brown. Easter Sunday, 2015 at the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, MA)

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4 thoughts on ““Taking the Long View” Reflections of a Retired Pastor

  1. Thank you, Richard! So many feel they have nothing more to give, but you have learned that God’s love never fails and it keeps on giving no matter what is going on in our lives.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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