The prophet Jeremiah continues to be one of my favorite Bible characters. At some point after writing his journal of laments, Jeremiah (in his mid- to late-60s) was approached by Nebuzaradan, commander of the imperial guard. Nebuzaradan had been instructed by King Nebuchadnezzar, his commander-in-chief, to take care of Jeremiah.
The implication seems to be that Jeremiah’s health had deteriorated during his string of recent imprisonments. Indeed, he was still in chains when Nebuzaradan found him, along with others about to be exiled. Everyone knew the exile was God’s judgment on the people’s sin of disobedience—the sin against which Jeremiah had repeatedly, passionately preached.
So, in obedience to the king’s directive, Nebuzaradan approached the aging prophet with a proposal: “Today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please” (Jeremiah 40: 1-4).
Basically Nebuzaradan was giving Jeremiah a “blank check” as to how he would like to spend his retirement years. Because of his position in the Babylonian army, Nebuzaradan would have been a man of considerable wealth.
Jeremiah could have reasoned, “After all that I have been through, it’s about time I get a break. I am more than ready to just sit back and relax in Nebuzaradan’s mini-palace. I also won’t have to deal with God’s stiff-necked, hard-hearted people any longer. They have been a thorn in my side for more than 40 years. I’m ready to retire.”
Yet that wasn’t Jeremiah’s decision. Instead of retreating to Babylon, he chose to stay behind in Judah and begin a new ministry among those who were left behind (Jeremiah 40:6).
A time of eternal purpose
According to gerontologists today, retirement is the most crucial life change for the older adult. And it’s a complex time period—both an ending and a beginning, a symbol of passage into a new era.
In his book Transitions Through Adult Life, Charles Sell makes a significant observation: “Retirement must be seen as a period with something to do, not merely as a period with something to not do.”
Over the years, I have met many choice servants of God who, like Jeremiah, resisted the temptation to head straight for a life of ease. Jim Copeland retired after more than 35 years in mining, aircraft and computer industries. In the years following, he remained open to new opportunities—including helping to plant an EFCA church in his hometown and then developing a church-planting project that lead to the establishment of more than 100 EFCA congregations across the country.
Jim once wrote, “Retirement should be a time governed by an enduring or eternal purpose. If our lives are surrendered to God, He will direct and, perhaps unknown to us, prepare us for more service.”
Former EFCA Pastor Harold DeVries also helped shape my thoughts about retirement: “Though you may retire from the responsibilities of the pastorate, you never cease to be responsible for your time and your talent. But don’t be envious. Remember, you had your turn. If you are not on the first team any longer, sit on the bench and root for the team.”
Jeremiah evidently embraced that same mindset. He said no thank you to a life of ease and yes to a life of pain and poverty with his people. His loyalty to them was amazing: He remained committed to praying for them and staying with them even when they entered Egypt in disobedience to the Lord.
Eyes open for opportunities
Jeremiah’s approach to his retirement years provides us with some practical insights—whether we are pastors, missionaries or lay leaders in local churches. If we, like Jeremiah, are going to “bear fruit in our old age,” we must resolve now to remain open to opportunities, or we’re likely to miss them.
For pastors especially, as you look to the future, consider:
- When deciding where to live, be proactive. In addition to living close to family, why not base your decision on the presence of an EFCA congregation? From efca.org you can identify congregations in a particular geographic area.
- Resist the temptation to blend in as a spectator. Instead, meet with the pastor of your new church and learn more about its ministry. Extend a “blank check” that he can cash at any time: preaching for him when he is on vacation or ill, or simply offering a listening ear.
- Once you relocate, became a faithful member, giver and attender—everything you once hoped the members of the churches you served would be like.
- Unless God clearly leads you otherwise, decline invitations to become an elected part of the leadership team. Instead, offer to always be available as a consultant. Never let yourself say, “Well, if I were the pastor, we would do it this way.”
- If there is a regular meeting of area EFCA pastors, ask to join their group. Let them know you’re available as a resource.
The EFCA needs loyal senior shepherds. Will you commit to being one, resisting the urge to simply ride off into the sunset while God is still at work all around you?
Highland Goodman is chaplain emeritus with Elim Care and former pastor of South Suburban EFC (Apple Valley, Minnesota) and Trinity EFC (Woodbridge, Connecticut). He is currently a member of Snohomish EFC in Snohomish, Washington.