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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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I Want to Be Like George W. Bush

We Baby Boomers move through life in generational cohorts, focused on common questions and concerns. Where are you going to college? When are you getting married? What will you do after your graduate? Did I settle too soon on a career choice? Have you picked out your Lamaze coach? How are your kids doing in pre-school? How am I going to pay for my children’s college? What am I going to do about my aging parents? Younger generations have different kinds of questions, sometimes confusing those of us now in our sixties. And obviously quite distinctive, individualized questions intrude. But gather folk together in similar age groups and the discussions are often remarkably predictable.

These days my friends have retired, or are talking about retirement. And the inevitable question is, “What are you going to do when you retire?” Among pastors there seem to be some characteristic responses. Some really aren’t retiring, though they may be leaving a long term position. They jump immediately into interim or supply work. Of these, some do it because their retirement income is woefully inadequate. They need the money. Others just can’t imagine themselves outside the role, as if their identity is only connected to “being the pastor.” Some worry about what one former colleague called “audience deprivation!” Had sad for both of these groups, it seems to me. Isn’t life more than a clerical collar and the identity and responsibilities that go along with it?

Some stay active in ministry not because they’re desperate for the money, or worried about having no personhood outside of pastoring, but because they genuinely love doing the work of ministry. Good for them, as long as they can choose how much, and when, so as to allow time for other pursuits. Others don’t need to be a pastor, either financially or emotionally, but find reward in contributing, perhaps helping a younger colleague take a sabbatical or have a Sunday break, perhaps supporting a congregation through a temporary rough patch, perhaps taking on a judicatory project others in “active” ministry simply don’t have time to handle. They make themselves available, with some carefully drawn boundaries. Good for them as well.

And then there are those who explore something completely new, or take up a long dormant interest there was never quite time to pursue. A volunteer gig outside the church. A creative endeavor. A recreational activity. One friend took piano lessons and joined a community theater chorus. A seminary professor studied to be an art museum docent. Another friend became passionate about attending “senior college” at a local university, studying literature, history, science, and the arts. No theology! Another friend is experimenting with a wide new range of fabric art. Most of these still pitch in to help in the church from time to time. But it’s not the main thing in life. They don’t do ministry from some sense of compulsion. And they don’t let it intrude on the new things that are bringing joy and satisfaction, revealing creativity, or making life a time of discovery rather than mere repetition.

This weekend an art exhibit opened at the George W. Bush Presidential Museum and Library – thirty of the former president’s paintings of world leaders. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/arts/design/george-w-bushs-art-exhibition-at-presidential-center.html. Putting aside for now the debates over his presidency, I would like to celebrate someone who has been able to leave behind a prominent public life and find delight in this most private aesthetic endeavor. The President retired, wrote the big book, opened the library, pretty much left the public arena, and took up art lessons. The paintings are quite remarkable for someone who just started a couple of years ago. And they suggest a man who has reached a point in life where he doesn’t need to be somebody, to prove something, to manage anything, or to justify anything. How great is that! When I retire I want to be like W. I’ll bet you never thought you’d read that in one of these blogs!

This takes a certain risk. It’s easy to continue what we think we do well. It’s tempting to try to stay in the public eye, or the congregational eye where we get affirmation and acclaim and have our ego stroked. It’s risky to paint and then let the art critics poke fun at your work, or the psychologists invent all kinds of unflattering revelations from your work. There are going to be many who aren’t kind to W about his paintings. I, on the other hand, choose to see a model for retirement. I don’t expect to take painting lessons. But I hope I’ll be spending a good bit of my time doing something new, risky, stretching and, yes, fun.

Baby Boomers studied Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development in college and graduate school. According to Erikson we should be about through the stage shaped by the struggle between generativity and stagnation. Yet that seems to me to be precisely the question we face on the edge of retirement. I don’t plan to drop out of the church when I eventually retire. It’s been a rewarding arena for my life journey for half a century, more than forty of those years in ordained ministry. I look forward to having ways to contribute, here and there, now and then. But when I get together for coffee with the guys after my morning workout, I hope I’ve got something more to talk about than what’s happening in my tenth interim!

John H. Thomas
April 10, 2014

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