As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
At age 57, I stepped down as senior pastor of a church I had served for 26 years. Before that, I pastored one church—a small one that grew smaller under my “able” leadership. My second church, also small, grew steadily, with success in touching lives for Jesus beyond my wildest dreams. But toward the end, I burned out. Mine was a high-octane life. Coupling that with sleep and health issues left me burned out and depressed.
I was off a couple months, got some help, and came back to work.
The story is complex and hard, but things had changed while I was gone, and it became clear that my time there was done. Jesus had someone else to lead that church and had other things for me. I resigned with a year’s sabbatical from the church as a final gift, with no idea what would come next.
There I was, close to 60, a 30-year career under my belt, the busy years of raising our five daughters done. I was still in recovery mode but basically healthy, gifts and faculties intact, trying to figure out a next chapter. I could easily live another 30 years and had energy for productive work.
Some call the chapter I was stepping into the third third. The first third is for growing up and getting started. The second third is for going hard—having a career, raising a family, engaging church and community. But what about the third third? What is its purpose?
Generations ago that wasn’t a significant question—few people lived that long. But now, many of us head toward 60 in good health, financially stable with a lot of life ahead of us. The time may or may not coincide with retirement, but retirement looms. How will we deal with those years?
The third third tempts us. Coming out of a season that has been demanding, we feel tired; now we need time for ourselves—rest, travel, play. First we grew up; then we gave ourselves away; now we reward ourselves—no doubt seasoning in family time and service. But nothing too strenuous.
Interestingly, many at our church assumed I was retiring. In our environment, that is typical. A CEO who built a successful business comparable to our ministry success usually gets bought out in their late 50s. This is the message: You have served long and well. It’s the next generation’s turn. Go enjoy yourself.
Retirement made no sense to me—I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want it. With a lifetime of experience and good health, surely God had something for me. Plus, as Billy Graham famously said, he couldn’t find retirement in the Bible.
I sensed my life as an upfront pastor was done—30 years was plenty. I poked around—seminary positions, denominational stuff, business opportunities. What seemed easiest would have been patching together my skills—speaking, writing, coaching, consulting, interim work. Using my gifts, paying the bills, but low-key. Sort of a semi-retirement—a reward for decades of very hard work.
Jesus had a different path for us. Several months after stepping down, I rode my motorcycle down East Colfax Avenue in the Denver metro area, the poorest and most diverse part of our city. From people who are homeless to motel-dwellers to immigrants and refugees and the working poor, East Colfax is broken, yet beautiful. Riding, I felt like I had come home. For months, every time I came to Colfax, I heard the insistent whisper of Jesus, “Here.” As in, “Here is where I want you to give your life away.”
So we came here. Other than the voice of Jesus, no one called us or sent us. We had no plan, financial or strategic. Just a few whispered directions from Jesus. What has happened in a couple years is remarkable. At a time when downshifting would have been easy, my wife, Diane, and I have found a beautiful, challenging, and invigorating new chapter. Jesus drew our hearts to the poorest of the poor—those in the ratty old motels and on the street. Most of the time, we live in one of the motels—Room 36 at the Ranger. Our friends—many of whom are desperately poor, mentally ill, addicts, prostitutes, or drug dealers—have become our second family. We have found what I call “Church Elsewhere”—not church in a building but church on the ground. A Christian community is forming at the Ranger. We have purchased a couple of buildings for ministry and have gathered volunteers. A stunning ride!
For us, the third third means more fully giving our lives away, putting a lifetime of experience to work in a new setting, here among the urban poor. Challenging as it is, we love the life we now have.
Our story, of course, is just our story; it is not yours. But, thinking broadly about the third third, I am struck by a few things.
One is this—we seem less intent on surrendering our lives to the lordship of Jesus in the third third than in the first two. I felt the temptation—serve Jesus, yes, but mostly a time for me. I would ask: Is Jesus Lord of your third third?
Interestingly, the most vital people I know in the third third are all giving their lives away in service. They exude life into their 70s and 80s. Conversely, those most focused on themselves seem a bit purposeless, even bored. What is true in the first two-thirds is also true in the third—it is in losing our life that we find it.
One more: We in the third third are rich in skill, experience, and wisdom, sometimes also in money. But too often that abundance sits on a shelf, used only minimally. What might happen if we in the third third unleashed a lifetime of experience to do the work of Jesus? Who knows? We might change the world!
Of course, there is no one model for the third third—we each need to follow Jesus’ lead. And, having time for family and friends, time for rest and renewal is also important in this stage. All things to affirm. That said, this question haunts me: Will we surrender our third third to Jesus? If we won’t, our broken world will lose; sadly, so will we.
The Gift of Retirement
Pew or Canoe: The Unexpected Black Hole