Faith and Work: For Retirees

We all want to know our place and work in the world, no matter what season we are in, matters. People in our church pews need to hear the truth of the gospel on a regular basis. They also need to hear that work pleases the Lord through Christ, whether we work in corporate or rural America, in an office or a garden.

Our work reflects God’s work, and contributes to society and the church. While we often think of work in compensated terms, a season of retirement is ripe for productivity, contribution, and work as other years of labor.

The rest of us

One Sunday morning in Silicon Valley, I shared a message about God’s work in the world occurring through people who work. After the service ended, a woman from the congregation approached me, asking if she could discuss something from my message. What followed remains etched in my memory.

“Pastor, thank you for the wonderful message,” she said. “I am sure it was encouraging for many. But what about the rest of us?”

I asked her to explain, and she continued, saying “You see, my husband and I are retired. We have a modest income and help care for our grandkids when we can. Your message about the goodness of work, creating value and wealth and helping the neighborhood was great, but how do we fit in? Some days it is hard to do more than a few chores. We pray for people and try to give what we can, but we are getting up in years. How do we fit in to what you are saying?”

This conversation is not a new one. Many writers have explored the idea of fruitful retirement, yet pastors still struggle to minister to and validate the retiree in a different season of work and contribution to society and their neighbor. It is wonderful to see pastors and entrepreneurs discover common ground and bridge the sacred/secular divide. But my Christian sister’s question deserves a substantive answer for “the rest of us.” How would our conversations and engagement change if we included retirees? If we affirm all work is good, how can pastors acknowledge retirees and encourage them as they work as unto the Lord in often unseen or unappreciated ways?

Divine reassignment

We answer the how question by remembering that in God’s economy there is no retirement — only divine reassignment. The biblical story provides us with an example through the Levites. In Numbers 8:23-26, God commissioned the Levites to work — to carry wooden poles, slay animals for the daily sacrifices, and gather water for the sacrificial worship. But when they turned 50 years old, God provided a break from their labor. Yet in place of this service, God reassigned the Levites to serve their younger co-workers. God relieves the Levites of what they grew physically unable to do. Their pace changed because of their limited physical capacity and stamina.

In addition to the Levites, the author of Ecclesiastes reminds readers and workers that God orchestrates a season for everything, which includes a season for compensated work, and for retirees a season of contribution that isn’t often noticed (Ecc 3:1-8). Later in Ecclesiastes we read that the chief end of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments,” (12:13). As pastors and ministry leaders, we need to remember that each season of life is a time for productive activity and opportunities to love one’s neighbor through our work (Matt 22:34-40). Scripture may not address retirement directly, but the principles remain the same: Fear God, obey his commands, and work heartily in whatever we do (1 Cor 10:31). This provides the purpose and meaning to our days, as mundane tasks fill our time and pace of life slows as we age. God provides us with purpose in every season and time.

Divine reassignment illustrated

Jim, a violinist in a church orchestra, asked his pastor to pray for his upcoming job interview. The pastor struggled to hide his surprise because Jim was 88 years old. The musician smiled and said he was tired of job discrimination as he applied for jobs. He had “been out of work” for three years and needed to wake up each day and be productive. The pastor prayed for him, and Jim went to work in a local bank for three years. In Jim’s case, it was not financial distress, but daily work that mattered.

Pastoring a growing populace

Dozens of studies over the past half-century affirm that happiness and longevity are tied to meaningful activity, work included. We define work as “all moral and meaningful activity — paid or unpaid — apart from leisure and rest.” God, the ultimate worker, designed humanity to engage in meaningful activities to reflect him, so it makes sense that retirees’ happiness and longevity is tied to meaningful activities. Perhaps that explains why the Apostle Paul encourages the older women, and presumably retired, to mentor young women (Titus 2:3-5). Retirees who wake up each day with purpose often live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Our faith and work discussions must engage this growing populace — not just as sources of volunteer labor — but as valuable assets of Spirit-empowered skill and wisdom, a new source of economic flourishing, and above all, mentors of the next generation.

Our faith and work movements are part of a coming awakening. This awakening will not be one ecstatic bonfire, but millions of brush fires as we connect Sunday worship to Monday work within our churches and ministries. When we realize that personal conversion includes community inclusion, and that God cares about “the rest of us,” we become empowered partners in God’s mission.

Welcoming and empowering retirees may compel a cynical world to take notice and glorify our Father in heaven as we ascribe dignity and worth to all work. Perhaps these steps of hospitality and thoughtfulness for the “rest of us” are providential conditions for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Topics: Pastoral Care, Retirement, Theology of Work

About the Author

Charlie Self serves as director of learning communities at Made to Flourish. Charlie is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has served as an associate and senior pastor in several congregations in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and has served as an interim pastor six times. He currently also serves as professor of church history at The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where he teaches courses in apologetics, church history, mission history, leadership development, and discipleship. He is also co-developer of discipleship dynamics, a new research-based tool for churches and individuals to assess the effectiveness of their discipleship programs. Charlie is the author of three books: The Divine Dance, The Power of Faithful Focus (with co-author Les Hewitt) and his most recent work with The Acton Institute, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship. He has an M.A. in history on the church and social change in Latin America (1992) and Ph.D. in modern european history, with foci on Belgian Protestantism and studies in virtue ethics and the holocaust (1995), from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also has an M.A. in philosophical and systematic theology from The Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Charlie is married to Kathleen, a professional artist, and they have been married and on mission for 36 years. They have three adult children.