I was nineteen years old when Jenn and I got engaged. She had just graduated from college and was about to start teaching. I wanted to be a youth pastor but couldn’t afford Christian schools so I was pretty much surfing a lot and taking random classes at a local community college. Our rationale was that if the roles were reversed, we wouldn’t hesitate to get married so it was actually sexist for us not to go for it. It wasn’t just a marriage anymore, we were making a stand for gender equality. Did I mention I was nineteen?
Anyhow, as young as I was, I had some small understanding of my lack of life experience and general wisdom so I decided I would try and gather as much insight about marriage as I could–mostly from strangers on the street. Wherever I went, I would look for men wearing wedding rings so I could ask if they had any sage advice to offer me. Of course there were a couple guys who told me to run away while I had the chance or buy a puppy instead, but many of them were willing to offer something they wished someone would have said to them–or did say to them–before they got married. While I’m not sure I would recommend the “man-on-the-street” method of mentorship as the best way to gain knowledge, it did turn out to have some value as I set out on what has now been 28 years of shared life with Jennifer.
Today I find myself in a different stage of life. My kids are starting their own lives (it has not escaped me that my daughter just turned nineteen) and I spend more time looking for swelling in my bad knee than signs of chiseled-ness in my abs. Even so, I’ve recently discovered a new opportunity to glean spontaneous sagery from total strangers. As it turns out, coffee shops are great places to meet retired pastors who are more than willing to share their stories and have all kinds of advice to offer from their lives as ministers. So, I’ve started introducing myself and asking if they would be willing to sit down and answer my six million questions.
This morning I met with Jerry. It was fascinating to hear about his childhood as a missionary kid in Belize (known at that time as British Honduras), the three churches he pastored and that today is his 39th wedding anniversary. He’s lived a full life to this point to be sure. What I’ve been most interested in asking people about is how they made the transition from life as a pastor to life in retirement or simply to not being a pastor anymore–since “benefits” for pastors often amount to character building experiences and a small tax break. Jerry had some interesting insights that I thought I’d share with you since I imagine they might be relevant to more than just nosy middle aged preachers lurking in coffee shops.
One thing he talked about was how God always seemed to provide for him and his family. Even when he and his wife took jobs driving school buses to make ends meet, they watched God meet their needs in whatever place or situation he had them. He credited this provision with allowing him to pastor smaller churches that might not have otherwise been able to hire a pastor.
Another thing Jerry said (which I’ll likely be mulling over for quite a while) was that after he stepped out of the pastorate he was grateful that God “kept him busy” while he found his footing in this new stage of life. He loved being a pastor–the people, the studying, writing sermons. As he was talking I could see it in his face even more than his words. Leaving the life of a pastor behind was one of the hardest things he had ever done. It was sad and painful and something he grieved for a long time. However, in the midst of the transition, Jerry was able to put new focus and time into his art. He showed me pictures of his pen and ink drawings, sculptures and paintings. His work is beautiful–a lot of western scenes of cowboys, bears and elk. There were also some amazingly detailed clay sculptures of Bible characters and even one of his daughter when she was a year old. He was also excited to tell me about the novel he just finished writing that is being published in the next couple months. It’s a book idea he had in 1975 that he worked on through the years starting with pencil on paper, then a typewriter (mechanical-before electric), a floppy drive computer and finally a modern desktop with the cloud.
What strikes me about Jerry’s story is that there were parts of his life, outside of his job and daily responsibilities, that became instrumental to the process of finding out who he is without what he did for a living. If being a pastor was who Jerry saw himself to be, he would essentially have ceased to exist when it was time to step away from his life as a minister. I’m sure there were years and seasons in his life where he didn’t do much artwork. He certainly hadn’t planned to wait until he was 75 to publish the book he started 47 years ago. Even so, his art was part of him all along. Of course, Jerry’s art is not “who he is” any more than being a pastor was, but it is something about him that did not have to go away when he wasn’t a pastor anymore.
I’m having to think harder than I’d like to admit to come up with things in my life that would remind me of who I am if I was not a pastor. It makes me wonder how many of us, without realizing it, are mistaking what we do with who we are. I don’t want to step into the next season of my life and feel as if I have ceased to exist just because my job–as valid and wonderful as it is–is no longer there to define me. I know enough to see this is not as simple as just finding a hobby. Even so, I have a feeling Jerry just dropped some big wisdom on me today that I need to consider and put to good use. It also makes me more curious about what I’ll get out of the six-million-question session I have scheduled with Monty next week.