Part 2: Expectations and Opportunities

This is the second of three blogs looking at opportunities for congregations to accompany those who are planning for and in the midst of retirement. The research inspiration for these conversations comes from a recently published study conducted in partnership with Edward Jones and Age Wave. This research began prior to 2020 and has been continued throughout the pandemic.

So, what does retirement look like in the 21st century? Researchers have identified four different images of retirement. With each image creating very different scenarios for support and encouragement. Some may look like the retirement of previous generations. While others are intentionally different.

An Extended Vacation

According to the 2021 report from Edward Jones and Age Wave, 28% of retirees are ready to sign-up for those cruises and golf lessons and other opportunities for rest and relaxation. Some of these individuals have been saving their travel plans for just this time in life. Others are just plain exhausted and need to begin this transition in ultra-sabbatical mode. I know one couple who regularly embarked on multiple cruises every year. They had the flexibility of taking advantage of last-minute deals from the cruise lines. They were able to enjoy this lifestyle until the pandemic hit and their health declined.

For some, the rest and relaxation really are more like a sabbatical than a decade long vacation. They just need time to be still before energy re-emerges for a new passion or interest. They need reassurance that rest is okay—particularly if their jobs had been high stress—like, for instance, ministry. One colleague surprised herself and everyone who knows and loves her. She spent almost a whole year being still. For the 50 years prior to that she was always in motion. One year late after “retiring” from ministry, she emerged with renewed energy for a part-time position that connects her first career in nursing with her second career in ministry in whole new ways. She needed an extended sabbatical.

Much of the Same

In contrast, 9% of individuals over 65 say that they want a continuation of what life was. These individuals will continue to work full-time either because they need to for financial reasons, or because they continue to feel passion and energy around the work they are doing. There are some occupations that are more susceptible to this than others. Lawyers for instance, often work well toward 80. Some clergy prefer to taper their workload away from the routines of congregational ministry and work well past their mid-sixties. From interim positions to pulpit supply, there will be increasing opportunities for those who want to work less than full-time in congregational settings if they feel so called.

Writing a New Chapter

However, 56% view life after their primary career as a new chapter in life. How that chapter is written is as diverse as the individuals who stand at that threshold of waking up each day without an alarm. The new chapter may or may not involve downsizing, but would benefit from thinking about “right sizing”. For others they will move to a completely new community for a wide range of reasons.

The new chapter may include working in a completely different field—preferably with flexible hours and less physical stress. Or it could include volunteering for an organization or a cause which previously was not a part of their weekly work schedules. Grandchildren can become sources of delight and occasional responsibility. As can picking up former hobbies or learning something new. The challenge is preparing for and embarking into these new pursuits.

Downhill from Here

Finally, there is another 7% who look at retirement as the beginning of the end. This generally is not a very positive attitude to engage for several decades. It is an outlook that could benefit from some alternative ideas. How one thinks about their own aging affects not only their health, but the length of their life. This can also be a very challenging individual in terms of providing pastoral care. It is difficult to live without purpose and to just look forward to death. In 2019 36% of deaths by suicide were men over the age of 65 in the U.S. How can we better support those older adults who might be living in this hopeless frame of reference?

Ministry Opportunities

Do you see any possibilities for connection with your ministry?

For those who are looking forward to rest and relaxation, they might also need to let go of previous “jobs” they have held at church. They may develop different patterns of engagement as travel and leisure take them away from more regular attendance in worship. But they will need to continue to be connected when they are in town. Perhaps streaming worship on-line will be an increasing link for these individuals.

Those who are just waiting for the end, may have a long and frustrating life ahead of them. One of the most difficult pastoral conversations can be with the person who says, “I’m ready to meet Jesus”. A difficult question made more so when their physical health remains steady and ready to support life for a long time.

What are the larger spiritual issues with this individual? Whether or not this outlook on life is new or a continuation of a pessimistic view on life, there needs to be the continual invitation from the congregation and those providing pastoral care of alternative perspectives about aging in general.

There are ample possibilities for ministry with those who are seeing life after working as this new life chapter. There are unlimited ways to accompany these individuals as they write what lies ahead.

There can be ways for us to help frame this exploration through the lens of faith. How might your congregation offer seminars or support groups for people to offer companionship with each other and learn from those who are ahead of them with a little more experience in this new life stage? In a recent article in Forbes, Joe Coughlin from MIT’s Agelab notes that “During every previous life stage you have had parents, coaches, counselors, advisors, supervisors, and even books to advise on ‘what to expect when….’. Where are you seeking advice today on how best to live in older age?” Could the church have a role in this endeavor?

NEXT Steps

Here is an unapologetic plug: The Parker Center, in partnership with the Walker Leadership Institute at Eden Theological Seminary, offers a 14-week non-academic on-line course, NEXT Steps: Midlife and Beyond. Together with others who are planning for their next chapter, the participants begin to think about their preferred future of what they would like in their post-retirement chapter. Participants have shared that having time to examine what is important in this new life stage has been extremely helpful as they live into this new chapter. And to do so with others who are facing similar questions and options is empowering.

There are other resources, books and programs that are increasingly available. The point is, as much as some look forward to retirement there are others who dread it. But we don’t have to enter this time completely unprepared or alone.

How might your congregation help your members engage their imaginations for this time of their life? How could you provide resources to help them research what is possible? And how could your congregation receive the gifts of those retirees who already participate in your community’s life? Are you willing to welcome others who are in need of companionship and support in this life phase? Of the 10,000 people who retire everyday, only about 30% of them are currently connected to a faith community. These individuals could be a great source of church growth. And if they join your congregation around the time of retirement, they could be active members for 10, 15, even 20 more years.

Or what about those who are asking these big faith questions related to meaning and purpose for the first time? How could your congregation accompany them as they frame these queries and search for others to accompany them?

In the next blog in this series we will look further in the research and discover some connections which could be significant observations for ministry opportunities.

About the Author

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, Executive Director of The Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins is the Executive Director of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging. She is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, musician, fiber artist, and mother of two adult children.

View all articles by Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, Executive Director of The Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging