Friday, November 29, 2019

What Chapter are You Writing?

Over the years, one of the most frequent question that I have been asked is by clergy pondering whether to stay in their present position or consider moving to another; “should I stay, or should I go?”  My answer to this is to ask the clergy friend to consider that they are writing a book about their life and vocation.  Then ask the question “What Chapter am I writing now?”

This means thinking of the natural divisions of your life and ministry which usually overlap and giving each one a name.  I suggest that if the chapter you are writing now best fits the place you are serving at the present time, then stay and finish the chapter.  If you find that you have finished a chapter and are ready to start another one, the you may need a new place to do this. Often, I hear, “I realize in answering this question that I am approaching the end of a chapter, but have some things I need to do to finish off this one.” 

For example, shortly after I accepted the call to become Dean of St. Matthew’s in Dallas, I was asked to enter a Bishop’s election process.  After asking myself this question, I knew the answer was to finish out this next chapter until retirement as Dean.  It was an easy question to answer even if I had the temptation to think of what I might do should I become a Bishop. 

However, when I served on the staff of the Diocese of Texas and we were approaching the election of a new Bishop, this was a hard one to answer.  The reason was that I loved working in the Diocese, but I had known for about a year that my chapter had come to an end.  While knowing this made leaving clear, the next chapter was harder to define.  I would say that it took me almost three years to answer it. During that time, I was in two bishop elections including one where I should have been elected, and no it wasn’t Texas. 😊

My point in these two examples is that answering this question is not always easy.  It is always important.  Since I have written on this topic before, I want to use this blog on a more personal level and talk about how I am having to answer that question in retirement.

In working with three Bishops, I learned something about the chapters clergy often face regarding retirement. I found that “Retirement One” involved a time of anxiety as parish clergy approaching retirement age worried over the question “Will I still be a priest when I retire from parish ministry?”  This, of course, is a question about identity because if you serve parishes being a priest and parish rector are pretty much linked.  Some clergy get downright depressed over this. One example of this anxiety is clergy telling folks a year ahead of time about their date of retirement.  The clergy often say that “they” (the congregation) need this kind of time to prepare.  The truth is that “they” don’t need more than about 3 months, but the clergy person and spouse often need this time to prepare.  

This first retirement almost always has a good resolve as we clergy discover that we are still priests and now we can do in retirement only those things that are most fulfilling to us.  For me, this is preaching and teaching with writing being a part of the teaching identity for me.  Therefore, I haven’t done interim work because I don’t care if I ever run another vestry meeting or oversee the repairs on a heating or air conditioning system!

Then at about 75 years of age, the Diocese receives a call from the retired person saying, “take me off the supply list.”  I call this “Retirement Two, the sequel.” This is the point when because of age, or health, or spouse’s health, or tiredness, or whatever, the clergy person is saying that now by retirement I mean I am content to really being retired.  I am still a priest and may function from time to time, but my regular working days are over. 

Knowing this, I have always had my 75th birthday in mind for considering changing to Retirement Two.  Well, as many of you know, two years of on-going health issues for both me and my wife has gotten me to this point early.  (I’ve always been advanced for my age!)  Recent health issues have confirmed this for me.  I am on a health sabbatical now and after the first of the year I will enter the next chapter.  For me this means mostly not traveling so much for work related issues.  I want to stay home and when I travel, do it with my wife for fun, help at our local church from time to time, continue to give advice when asked, and lastly, as long as I can, write.  BTW, if you work with congregations or are thinking about doing some consulting work, I would love to support you in any way that I can during this next chapter. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

Finally, during all this chapter work, you can give the book a title.  What is mine?  I have a few ideas, but I haven’t decided yet.  Perhaps those of you who know me would like to suggest one. 

Have a blessed Advent and joyful Christmas season.  I will be writing, the Lord willing, in the new year.