The last post: a gift for priest and parish

by
22 April 2016

In their final appointment before retiring, the clergy could have the chance of a fresh approach, argues Philip Welsh

IN THEIR first post, clerics get a great deal of attention. The same cannot be said when it comes to their final post, although this has its own special character, and its own distinct opportunities. And, although it is not always clear at the outset whether an appointment will be one’s last, it is generally clear that it might be.

For many of the clergy, their last post brings an incentive to have one more go at doing it well — not in the sense of trying to go out with a bang, or of indulging in fantasies of completion, but of making the best use of the opportunities that they have been given, for one last time.

They might discover a new source of energy: the energy they are no longer diverting (more than they probably realised) into preparing for their next move, not just in prayer and self-examination, but in day-dreaming, and freshening up skills, contacts, their profile in the diocese, and their acquaintance with the end pages of the Church Times. Now, they no longer have to make their mark, or try to catch the bishop’s youthful eye. This time, they can settle down, and get on with the job.

When the end of the last post approaches, you have a unique opportunity to leave well. Instead of maintaining a conspiracy of silence about ever leaving, and then suddenly giving three months’ notice when you get a job that few people knew you were even thinking about, plans for retiring can be talked about much further ahead.

Priest and people can work together over time to bring the church into a good position for a confident interregnum, and can support each other in moving positively towards their respective next stages.

 

IN ONE crucial respect, however, the landscape for the last post has changed. Until recently, clergy could retire at 65. Now, they will not normally retire until 68 — their final post extended, in effect, by the entire length of their first post.

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This may not matter to those who were already expecting to carry on until the maximum age of 70. To many others, however, this extended trajectory changes the character of this stage of ministry, requiring them not so much to hold their breath a bit longer as to pace themselves differently. This is a new situation, and calls for fresh thinking by the Church, as well as by older clergy.

Two scenarios can be foreseen. First, there will be some clergy looking for a post at a later age than would previously have been thought realistic.

Second — and possibly to a larger extent — there will be those members of the clergy whose final post will last longer than they might have been used to in their previous ministry, or than they might have chosen.

Take the first scenario. Conventional wisdom has been that clerics become harder to place after their mid-fifties, as they are assumed to be running down towards retirement. But now there will be those who are the best part of 60 available for a further post, and with a decent number of years to offer. Those making appointments might need to reconsider their assumptions.

Parishes, for example, are often keen to find qualities in candidates that are more characteristic of those in the first half of life: enthusiasm and energy, innovative approaches and up-to-date communication skills, an aptitude for driving projects, and a personality to put the place on the map.

These are the very qualities that many posts will need. But they have a way of displacing a different range of virtues that are more characteristic of those in the second half of life. You do not often see ads for the clergy who will slow down and have time for people; who can bring long experience of ministry; and whose understanding of Christian faith and of human nature has seasoned over time.

In recent years, we have been introduced to slow food, slow sex, and (less excitably) slow television. Perhaps we sometimes need slow ministry. And those making appointments need to recognise situations where the kind of wisdom that is more characteristic of those approaching their last post may be exactly what is needed.

 

MANY older clergy, however, will be in my second category. For them, the issue is not getting a fresh post, but staying fresh in their present post, particularly as the years pass.

In many professions, progression is marked by being given more money, or more responsibility — and generally both. The clergy have just as great a need for a sense of progress and of recognition in their ministry, but do not generally enjoy the same means of calibrating development.

It becomes easy to assume that progress has to be measured by moving on to a new appointment. It is more difficult to find affirmation while remaining in the same post — particularly as those in authority find themselves increasingly absorbed in sorting out problems and celebrating innovation, and are in danger of leaving the less remarkable clerics simply to get on with it.

There is a critical point in an incumbency when you have dealt with the unfinished business of your predecessor, brought the parish — as far as you can — to a new stage, accomplished a significant project of some sort, grasped a nettle or two, and begun (especially if you are a task-focused type of person) to feel a bit bored. Something new is called for.

Previously, this might have been a signal to begin thinking of moving on. This time, however, in what is likely to be your final post, and with some years to go, you may conclude that you do, indeed, need to move on — while staying in the same place.

Now might be the time for slow ministry. It is impossible to generalise, but this could mean: a moratorium on initiatives; letting other people do things their way; a patience with loose ends; not feeling obliged to look busy; trying again to be a good listener, and giving time to the people who get taken for granted; a renewed valuing of daily prayer; claiming proper time for yourself, and for repairing neglected friendships; going back to the books that shaped your life; and taking a good look at what you really believe, and what you really want to get across in your preaching — in many ways, recovering what got you into ministry into the first place, but with what the Franciscan author Richard Rohr calls “the second simplicity”.

 

THIS is easier said than done. Jung may have told us that “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning,” but making such a transition mid-post and around life’s tea-time is a challenge.

What the Church classically provides to help people manage transitions in life is rites of passage, and the Church would do well to consider what kind of processes or events could enable its clergy to navigate this particular stage creatively.

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One obvious candidate is a well-timed, well-thought-out sabbatical, on a scale sufficient to enable you to let go of the parish and of the routines that have come to define you, and to get in touch again with those parts of yourself that have got buried over the years; backed up by discerning support — not only in the planning, but, critically, at the re-entry.

A more modest option is a sensitive ministerial review that is not, for once, an appraisal of performance and the agreement of goals, but an invitation to answer God’s first question in the Bible — “Where are you?” — and a stimulus to name what it will take to move on, and perhaps to stop making excuses. (It was only after his trousers had caught fire that H. G. Wells’s Mr Polly came to the discovery that “If the world does not please you, you can change it.”)

 

THE most comprehensive opportunity for intervention, however, is to rethink what most dioceses offer as retirement preparation, and perhaps to give it a new name.

Typically, members of the clergy are expected to attend a pre-retirement course some years before their probable retirement, because of the importance of addressing questions of financial and housing planning at an early stage. But timing that makes good sense for finance and accommodation can be far too soon to look usefully at many of the future issues of life and ministry in retirement.

Surely this is the time not to look ahead to the future, but to look at the present, at precisely those issues that currently characterise one’s final post, with its particular challenges and its distinctive opportunities — not least at the invitation offered by a longer appointment to move on while staying in the same place.

It may turn out that helping the clergy to make the most of their final post, and to enjoy it, is itself the best form of retirement preparation. Those extra three years could be — both for the priest and for the parish — not so much an imposition as a gift.

 

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London. His last post was as Vicar of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, in Westminster.

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