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WESLEYAN WISDOM: Should we ‘call to action’ more retired clergy? Donald W. Haynes, Mar 14, 2012
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
My much younger UMR columnist colleague, Andrew Thompson, has dropped the “Gen-X Rising” name for his column, admitting that his generation of young adults has been replaced by ones with other experiences and other voices. Funny, how short a span of life constitutes our “young adult” years.
Andrew’s brilliant mind merits an even larger readership. Dr. Richard Heitzenrater once told me that Andrew Thompson was one of his best students, with the potential for superlative contributions to our Wesleyan heritage. So as he “grows in wisdom,” we welcome Andrew’s sharing his research and insights with all generations.
We all see life from a different perspective as we grow older. I must now write from the vantage point of a septuagenarian. The older I get, the more I feel that there is “so much to do, so little done.” I tell my congregation that every sermon must be my latest insight into the “gospel truth” because they are the last audience I will have for proclaiming the greatest story ever told. The words “eternal life” are not chronological like “everlasting life,” but qualitative, beginning when we are “in Christ” here and now.
Some child commented that “scars are what we have left after we get well.” That is a wise statement containing both bad news—the scar—and good news, in the healing. Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” How true! This can be one of the gifts we give to younger generations—assurance that by God’s grace, we can heal and, like a welded beam, we are stronger at the welded point. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”
When Wesley was 83, he boasted that he could still mount a horse as quickly as ever. When he read a small-print book on a return trip from Holland in 1786, the author, Sophie von La Roche, wrote, “If the Methodists’ principles keep their sight as clear as that to the age of 83, then I wish I had been educated in their sect.” Sadly enough, according to Dr. Heitzenrater, that was the last year Wesley could read. In 1789, at 86, he wrote, “I now find that I grow old. . . . I am an old man, decayed from head to foot. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 303.)
As spokespersons for various generations remind us of the wealth of their knowledge and creativity, at age 76 I must speak for my generation. I love the words of Wesley’s covenant, “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee.” Many of us love being “employed.” While many clergy simply quit upon their official retirement, most are like an old Dalmatian dog when the fire bell rings! They are ready to jump on the truck and willing to serve at the point of need.
As the Call to Action report looks for ways to economize, my dream is for every bishop to look more creatively at ways to tap the experience, energy and dedication of retired clergy. What a marvelous opportunity for appointments at and between annual conferences if every bishop had a current file on the ways in which each retired clergyperson has offered to be “at your service.” Some, like Mr. Wesley, are bright of mind and healthy in body well into their 80s, and beyond!
We have thousands of station churches that simply cannot maintain a full-time pastor. Today many churches have delayed building maintenance to the point of deterioration. Most churches threatened with being “put back on a circuit” would much prefer to remain a station with a part-time retired pastor. Retired clergy on multi-staff churches is commonplace, but like Abou ben Adhem, “may [their] tribe increase.” We require no pension, little or no medical insurance supplement, and no housing! Many of us love visiting home-to-home.
One creative movement in United Methodism is TIMS (Transitional Interim Ministry Specialists). Kenneth Lambert of the Texas Conference had this vision which became a reality, and is now in the Book of Discipline and associated with the General Board of Higher Education and Ordained Ministry. TIMS are trained clergy—retired or younger—with special gifts for conflict resolution, helping a congregation recover its vision for ministry, and other interim needs. I have had five of these appointments since my retirement in 1999 and all have been positive experiences.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster tapped Dr. Peter Graves from the British Methodist Church to serve for two-and-a-half years as interim at Centenary UMC in Winston-Salem, N.C., after the senior pastor went to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. As I write, Bishop Goodpaster has interims in several key appointments. Bishop Janice Huie has been highly influential and successful in developing this option for some who virtually make a career of “interim ministry.” In Arkansas, Ed Matthews has assisted Bishop Charles Crutchfield in developing this model, and Ed has been interim at one of their largest churches. Many other bishops see TIMS as a trained pool of clergy for turning churches around, leading them through difficult periods, helping them relate to a changing community, or resolving conflict.
The other phrase of Wesley’s covenant prayer must be noted. Having said how valuable we retired clergy are to the connection, I should add there is one area in which we are a financial liability—voting privileges at annual conference. When the General Conference determined that annual conference lay membership had to equal clergy membership, it meant that for every retired clergyperson, there had to be a lay member “at large.” This puts a challenge on the Committee on Annual Conference to find a location that can seat the total membership who are eligible to register and vote.
Reality is that many retired clergy do not attend their annual conference session. Many have moved out of the geographic area and are serving in some capacity in churches and communities far from their own annual conference. One example is Marvin Arnpriester, who is now in Arizona and “up to his eyeballs” in church and community work, but might not go to the expense of returning for Annual Conference in Iowa, where he was a leader for so many years. Yet the Iowa Conference must have a lay member to counterbalance Marvin’s potential vote. And there are thousands more like Marvin, especially in retirement meccas like Florida, Arizona, and the Sun Belt beach and mountain communities. The United Methodist churches near Lake Junaluska, N.C., have retired clergy from all over the country in their congregations, many of whom do not attend their home conferences.
We retired clergy owe our dearly beloved United Methodism a debt which we can never repay, but relinquishing our vote might be a way to be helpful. Most of us have enjoyed guaranteed appointment from seminary graduation to retirement. During that time we had the safety net of the Equitable Salary Fund. All of us receive the benefit of a most generous pension. We enjoyed the benefit of either a parsonage or a housing allowance and most of us enjoy comfortable housing in retirement. Many have more income in retirement than they did before!
Now might be the time to relieve the church of the enormous fiscal burden of matching all retired clergy with lay members of the annual conference. Can we, like the retired bishops, have “voice but not vote” at annual conference? Another option would be a covenant model—to elect a lay member only for each retired clergy who signed a covenant to be in attendance at the ensuing annual conference “unless providentially hindered.” The bottom line is that if retired clergy did not have the right to vote, the balance between active clergy and lay members would be more equal when the typical vote is taken.
Retired clergy were described in Bishop Asbury’s day as “wore out,” leaving the itinerancy at an average age of 38! Today, even at 80, we who were ordained for task rather than status are blessed with experience, and often blessed with energy and willingness to work. We pray that if we are simply “laid aside” we will be gracious in not being used, but if we are to be “employed” in some capacity, we can provide effective ministry with remunerative benefits already provided by a benevolent connection.
There is an old gospel song, “Work for the night is coming. . . . Work for the night is coming when [man] can work no more.” Work is my therapy, whether planting a tree or writing today something that might be of benefit tomorrow. Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Let us anchor ourselves in our tomorrows rather than in our yesterdays. Mr. Wesley’s dying words are apropos for every day: “Best of all, God is with us.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He’s the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.