Passing the Mantle: Crisis or Opportunity?


Four years ago a new bishop came to serve our area. For the first time in my ministry, I was older than my bishop! Around the same time, I turned fifty. These two events led me to think anew about my calling and my hopes and dreams for my life and ministry.

One of the things I discovered was that I wanted to finish my ministry the way I started — with a sense of purpose and with passion. I did not want to spend my last years of active ministry with regrets and looking forward to retirement. I wanted these years to be my most effective in terms of the skill and practice of ministry developed over many years.

But those of us coming to retirement in the next ten to twenty years face our own challenge — will we meet the challenge of ending our ministries well?

Lately we have heard a great deal about the “crisis of younger clergy.” I am thankful for that attention to the declining numbers of young clergy, because so many Baby Boomers are moving into the prime retirement years. The transfer of leadership in the next fifteen years will be like passing the mantle from Elijah to Elisha. And many are asking, “Will there be enough young clergy ready to accept the mantle?”

I am saddened when I encounter peers who are angry at the placement of younger clergy in strong churches, some of which are much larger than we have ever served. Some resent the intentionality with which first and second appointments of younger pastors are made in this era of so few young clergy. I hear their anger and, behind it, the pain; but I know that no good can come from bitterness in the last chapter of one’s ministry. It is difficult to reconcile the anger with the kind of faithfulness and love that ministry demands and which these colleagues have regularly exemplified in their ministries.

But those of us coming to retirement in the next ten to twenty years face our own challenge — will we meet the challenge of ending our ministries well? “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyesight was sharp; he still walked with a spring in his step.” (Deut. 34:7 The Message)

Baby Boomers in all fields face the question of how to end our careers well. Will our remaining years of service be passion filled? Will we live out our calling with grace and wisdom? Will we still be in love with God who called us into ministry and the church that confirmed our calling? Finally, will we be healthy enough to do the demanding work of ministry?

Here are some things I have done to revitalize my ministry for this last chapter. First, I continue to read to keep current. I have engaged church officials to help me reflect on ministry for improvement. I work carefully with laity to ensure we have a shared vision for the future. I also spent a week at the Davidson Clergy Center in North Carolina to revision my ministry. They helped me think about my own health and well being. They helped me write a ministry plan that enabled me to envision where I wanted to be in five years.

My first challenge was to get my health in order. My situation was serious. I had high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and, as hard as it is to admit, I was obese. So I developed a health plan that has evolved over the years. I announced to my congregation my goal of walking three to five miles a day. I combine that with weight lifting four to five times a week. It took some time and many other steps, but I have lost a large amount of weight and virtually all of my health issues have improved significantly. My congregation has been very supportive and encouraging. So I am healthier, happier, energized, and ready to go to work. I feel better about myself.

The church I serve has gone from 180 in worship to 300. We have added a worship service, completed a building project, and have a new master site plan. My improved health and good energy, I believe, have made me a better steward of my ministry with this congregation and have helped us grow together in these new directions.

I am confident that in ever changing times, God will take care of me, and I have planned accordingly for retirement. I expect with God’s grace that I will be able to serve until I am 65. I may serve part-time in my retirement. I will do everything in the meantime to serve faithfully and well.

My hope is to start a conversation about how we pass the mantle. Is there is a way for clergy of my generation to be in a holy conversation about these later chapters of our work? I think it is important to have a way to talk about life and ministry that allows us to understand how we can support one another and finish ministry the way we started — with confidence and with God’s great grace and mercy.


About Author

Robert Howard was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Joplin, Missouri.