As ordained Baptist women, we have long had “many things in our care,” recalling the words of Jesus in the parable of the faithful steward (Matthew 25:23). It has been said, from ages past to this very day, that churches succeed because of the dedication and hard work of women. It has been an evolving struggle, of course, for Baptist women to be ordained and then to engage in a determined effort to find places of ministry.
Tenacity and patience led to many fulfilling ministries for ordained Baptist women who thrived as ministers in varied roles: pastor, chaplain, theological educator, pastoral counselor and others. Now a generation of baby boomer, ordained Baptist women is asking, “Do we really want to retire?”
It is a question I ask myself often. My colleagues of a certain age ask the same question. Our journey to ordained ministry was sometimes grueling, and the ministry positions we held were precious commodities. We remember a time when only a few Baptist churches would ordain women to pastoral ministry that involved preaching. We remember when even fewer women served as pastors of Baptist churches, and virtually no female role models existed in seminaries and divinity schools, at least not in professional positions. Actualizing our call to ministry required commitment and perseverance, often over many years.
Many of us stubbornly prevailed, and we were fortunate enough (or divinely destined) to end up in fulfilling places of ministry. So, given that struggle, why would we want to give up that gift by retiring? Of course Baptist women are not the only ones facing the retirement conundrum. Women who serve in other denominations feel much the same struggle, although their denominations for the most part are more intentional about supporting retired female clergy.
In 2014 Religion News Service remembered the “Philadelphia Eleven.” Forty years earlier, these 11 women broke rank to be ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. In retirement, most of them continued to serve in various ministries. One of them, retired priest Carter Heyward, offered this advice to female clergy: “Stay aware of ways in which the church does and does not empower women to be fully who they are.” She urged them “to really work to celebrate the things that have happened on our behalf and really fight for the changes that are needed.”
“What happens to Baptist female ministers in retirement may well be one of those changes we need to fight for.”
What happens to Baptist female ministers in retirement may well be one of those changes we need to fight for. After a lifetime of service, what can we do to look at retirement as a fresh chance to offer our gifts by continuing ministry in some capacity?
For me, retirement came far too soon because of illness. Yet, when I have conversations with other retired sisters in ministry, many of them mirror the same emptiness I feel. They are grieving the last church they served, or the hospital they served as chaplain, or the theology school they served as professors. Or they are grieving more generally the loss of ministry and their identity as Christian ministers.
After decades of being ministers who “had many things in our care,” many of us now experience chronic angst that feels a lot like an empty nest. Mary Zimmer, former Baptist Women in Ministry president, now retired and affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, told me in a recent conversation that she feels the “displacement” and wishes BWIM or another organization would host a retreat for former board members and other female ministers of her generation who “kept things going when the denomination was falling apart.” She added, “Maybe it was that we didn’t have a ‘full’ career in Baptist life, and that causes us to despair in retirement.”
“As we create a hope-filled retirement, the path ahead must emerge from silence, stillness, contemplative prayer and listening for the voice of God.”
This is where many of us are today, experiencing a sense of despair and lostness. Feeling discarded and displaced. Wondering what our call from God now looks like as we face the inevitability of retirement and aging. “Out to pasture” is a label that doesn’t fit us well. So where might we go from here? When the joyous strains of the retirement celebration in fellowship hall fade into a faint echo, what do we do next?
I think about possible remedies. Like forming a formal association of retired Baptist female ministers (although the acronym RBFM sounds like a radio station’s call letters). Or creating a group page on social media. Or hosting webinars, podcasts and other ways of cyber connecting. In the end, it is all about finding ways to flourish in retirement and to seize upon a re-discovered ministry. Word has it that a minister can never retire from God’s call. That may be a reality that weighs even heavier on ordained Baptist women.
The retirement challenge for ordained Baptist female clergy can be addressed positively in at least three areas:
First, the minister herself must discover ways to find meaning and purpose in retirement. Starting points might include focusing on health and well-being; realistically assessing the realities of aging; discerning both vocation and avocation; making space to reflect on good memories by intentionally taking stock of a ministry well-lived; and being open to unusual, even unorthodox, ways of continuing her life calling.
The second place to consider is the church. Are there ways local churches might use retired ministers to benefit both the minister and the congregation? Are there possibilities for part-time ministry positions for retired female ministers? In the way that many churches stepped out of their comfort zones in years past to call women as ministers, could they now be more conscious of retired female ministers who offer a wealth of ministry possibilities?
A third place that could offer positive remedies are denominational systems, along with faith-based networks and nonprofits. Could retired women find ways to serve in these areas? Would denominations consider a proactive approach, reaching out to retired female ministers to provide support, community and possibilities for continuing ministry? Within the progressive Baptist community, might organizations like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Women’s Ministries, Progressive National Baptist Convention and Baptist Women in Ministry develop tangible ways to celebrate and amplify the gifts of retired female clergy?
I choose to believe, my sisters, that there really is life after retirement. We do not have to languish with feelings of detachment or displacement. As it ever has been, it may be up to us to persevere. The way ahead may include writing memoirs or creating blogs or podcasts, becoming politically engaged, or working in the local community. Retirement may present us with new opportunities to create art, music, poetry or prose. It may fling wide the doors of creativity in ways we have not fully explored in the past. Some of us may serve as spiritual directors, mentors or life coaches. Others might serve as interim pastors or part-time church staff ministers or chaplains.
As we create a hope-filled retirement, the path ahead will emerge from silence, stillness, contemplative prayer and listening for the voice of God, who may whisper to us possibilities far beyond our dreams. That whisper, while it may lead us towards new ways of ministry, may also proclaim, “You have done well. You are a good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things. I will put many things in your care. Come and share my joy.” (Matthew 25:23, NLV).