After four decades as an ordained Pentecostal pastor, I didn’t know how to be a layperson, writes Garry Milley.
By Garry E. Milley. Reprinted with permission. First published as “On Turning the Chapter” in SAGE magazine (fall 2019). Photo courtesy Garry Milley.
What are you supposed to do when retirement doesn’t quite work out the way you envisioned? Or: Life sucks and other illusions
I haven’t found life’s transitions easy. It’s been like the old game of Snakes and Ladders – more snakes than ladders. A transition may be a ladder, but most of the pain in our lives come from uninvited transitions. They can put us back to square one. You can imagine a pressured early retirement, a job loss, an unexpected illness, or the death of a child or spouse. Such events leave one vulnerable.
I am no different from anyone. I’m not made of wood or stone and while I have been following Jesus for many years, I have done more than my share of grumbling and complaining during transitions.
My chapters include university chaplain, pastor, Youth for Christ director, professor, pastor and now retired (kind of). Between each chapter, life seemed to be put on hold but, then, the page turned. It was exciting, for the most part, because I never had to depend on pushing resumes around. Others over me in the Lord called on me, and I stood up ready to serve in each new chapter.
But this last chapter from pastoral ministry to retirement has been a royal pain, as we say. I have not handled it well. I expected be busy filling in weekly as a guest preacher, for example, so that I could easily supplement our retirement income by doing what I love to do – teach and preach. But it hasn’t turned out that way. It’s been more famine than feast.
Challenges during transitions
These last couple of years brought a number of challenges that I am still working through. Truthfully, I’m rather embarrassed to admit to it. I never expected it of myself. I was always a man in a hurry, a workaholic, a natural optimist, and a person of faith and courage. But recent events left me rather spiritually dizzy. Over the years I gone from being “Brother Milley” to “Doctor Milley” to “Pastor Milley.” I liked the tags! I loved the tags! Ego? For sure. But, now, I don’t have a tag. What do I put on a business card?
You can be excused for saying, “Oh, Garry, get over yourself!” Okay, fair enough! But my transition to retirement, factoring in my own spiritual weaknesses, was accompanied by several strong emotional challenges.
I felt a profound sense of disconnection. It was like the umbilical cord was cut. It didn’t know how to breathe on my own without my people. After four decades as an ordained minister I didn’t how to be a layperson.
After four decades as an ordained minister I didn’t how to be a layperson.
My reason to be where I currently live was due to a call from another province to pastor a wonderful church. We sold our home, transferred my ordination, and entered fully into pastoral ministry. Now, retired, we have no real reason to remain in the area. And, we suddenly, because of ministerial courtesy, are disconnected from several hundred people who we loved and to whom we ministered.
I felt gnawing moods of being forgotten. I had been a Bible College / seminary professor for many years. I continued, occasionally, as adjunct even during ten years of pastoring. But I moved from the classroom to the pulpit in 2006. More than a decade later few students will remember me but no one currently in the academy has a clue who I am. I felt deep melancholy. Maybe all my work in church life didn’t really matter.
I also felt challenged by the loss of idealism. I always prided myself on being a “company man.” I valued loyalty and considered my denomination as “my tribe and my family.” I wrote articles on family loyalty and the significance of denominational faithfulness. But, here came the thoughts – Was my loyalty misplaced? I never contended that our way of serving Jesus was the best way, but it was the way I knew best. And, as I said to my students repeatedly, “I can’t make you tow the party line, but I can help you know it.”
I wanted to be a soldier that the general could count on. I’ve lived long enough and know enough to prove that the folks in my denomination are as sinful as any other group of Christians. It is simply a fact of history. But in those moments of doubt and fear, all the nasty stuff rises out of the dark to haunt you.
I recalled that I kept confidences and took pains to protect victims and even the guilty. Was that naivety? Did I have a romantic view of the church? Was I unwilling to speak truth to power? Was my commitment worth it? I didn’t want to be an old curmudgeon. But the temptation was real. Grass started to look a bit greener in other parts of the Lord’s vineyard.
Yes, I spent a great deal of time praying, reflecting on my situation and trying to see myself from the outside. But the reality that every day I was waking up unemployed was very difficult for me. Having to admit to myself that I was experiencing despair, discouragement and depression (finally I was able to say that) was difficult.
The reality that every day I was waking up unemployed was very difficult for me.
I had always prided myself on being the main breadwinner and, now, here I was not an adequate provider. I was reduced to walking by faith. I was reduced to depending on the Holy Spirit—just clinging to Jesus. And I wasn’t good at it.
How am I doing?
I’m starting to turn the pages now to the next chapter. It’s a bit like walking out of a fog. Several things have helped.
First, I have had a great friend, Jim Sutherland, with whom I have shared my feelings and told my story in much more detail. He has me to reflect objectively. His listening skills have helped me assess accurately. That friendship enables me to avoid reading the previous chapters over and over. I have been enabled to avoid the trap of bitterness and rebellion. Thanks be to God!
Secondly, I have learned to use my hobbies as ways to engage people with whom I rarely get involved. One of my former pastors, Murray Lincoln, is a master woodcarver and my inspiration. He reflected on the question that God asked Moses: “What’s in your hand?” It was a stick. But that stick became the staff of God. Murray, in his retirement, is now the editor of Ontario Woodcarver magazine.
He and Alida are engaged weekly with people whom they would never know if they were still in pastoral ministry. Retirement, for them is full and fruitful. What’s in my hand? A camera! A vintage fountain pen! What’s in your hand?
Thirdly, I have learned to retool my gifts. I have tried to keep focused on certain subjects, for example systematic theology and church history. Life is too short for one person to read everything, and so I narrow my serious reading.
Opportunities are emerging for some overseas teaching in our seminaries, recently Ukraine and Cuba. I’ve registered as a Volunteer in Mission with GlobalEd (a department of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada).
I’m still at my best in the classroom and God seems to be enabling me to be fruitful even in this emerging chapter. I have written a new book and one more manuscript is nearly completed. Who knows? Maybe it’s not an epilogue. It could be just another chapter which, by God’s grace, will be even better than the ones before.
How are you doing?
Christine and I enjoy binge-watching TV shows from time to time. At the beginning of each new season there is always a recap of the previous season so that one can catch up on the storyline. Then the new season begins. How horrible if we get stuck in a repetitive recap of the last season!
God wants us to enter a new season. To switch metaphors, we are living inside a big story and God, the author, invites us to write parts of it by our obedience and faithfulness. We are weak characters, that is true. We are dependent every day on grace.
Are you having a few rough days between transitions? Talk to a friend, engage the world through your hobbies. And, retool your gifts. To live fully and fruitfully, to stay alive spiritually, we must turn the page to the next chapter. That’s crucial to hope, faith, and love to God and our neighbour. Go ahead! Turn that page.
Garry E. Milley of St. Thomas, Ont., is an ordained minister with The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. His books include Seven Shades of Sin: Unmasking Temptation (2017); An Inconvient Cross: Proclaiming Christ Crucified (2010); and Prophetic Voices in an Age of Upheaval: Meditations on the Minor Prophets (2004).