With care, retirement can be a meaningful season

Columnist Emily Carson says the months around a significant change of leadership deserve extra care.

Holy Everything — Emily Carson column sig

People retire from their jobs. For the person retiring as well as their family, friends and colleagues, it can be a time of both excitement and uncertainty.

In a congregational setting, the time period before and after a pastor departs is important. The months around a significant change of leadership deserve extra care. A couple of key practices contribute greatly to helping individuals and groups approach transitions wisely. While these suggestions are geared toward pastoral retirement, hopefully they apply across professional fields.

Incorporate rituals. Rituals are activities with established forms and can include actions, words, gestures or objects. The blowing out of candles on a birthday cake is a ritual. Saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison before Holy Communion also is a ritual.

Rituals are experiences intended to help people make meaning. It is especially valuable to utilize rituals in times of uncertainty because they can bring a sense of order amid chaos. When people participate in a special blessing of a retiring person, it can help them to feel more connected to one another and to the season of ministry that is now concluding. Rituals around retirement, whether special prayers or blessings or group activities, give people the opportunity to express in community that something special has taken place and that season is now concluding. This clarity helps everyone to move forward with openness.

Express gratitude and appreciation. Many studies suggest that when individuals utilize practices of thanksgiving, overall well-being increases. There are also benefits when groups of people practice gratitude and express appreciation for one another. Retirements are ideal opportunities for pastors and church members to express thanksgiving to one another. When we express our thanks through our spoken and written words, that doesn’t mean that we pretend everything is or always has been perfect. We can express appreciation authentically. Sometimes our thanks is for the lessons learned, tensions resolved, or difficult roads traveled together.


Practice patience. Retirements create uncertainty in a congregation. We wonder how to navigate staff vacancies. We worry about how all the ministry needs will be fulfilled during the interim time. All retirements, even when joyful and anticipated, add a dose of uncertainty to the system. This ambiguity intensifies emotions of all kinds. Our highs are higher; our lows are lower. We feel things all the more deeply in times of transition, and the people around us do, too.

In the liminal space that exists around retirements, practicing patience becomes especially valuable. Big feelings are likely to come up. Regret. Frustration. Joy. Sadness. Excitement. When a pastor retires, and all kinds of emotions are arising, be gracious with yourself and others and trust that it’s all a normal part of the season your congregation is journeying.

If your faith community has the retirement of a pastor on the horizon, take time to prepare. With a good measure of gratitude, a sprinkle of ritual, and a spoonful of patience, this will be a meaningful season for the whole congregation.

Emily Carson is a Lutheran pastor. Visit her website, .

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