On December 22, 2009, I crossed the threshold of the ripe old age of fifty years old. My daughter Madison, who is fifteen going on twenty-five is mortified her father was born in the Fifties! In my defense, I spent only nine days in the Fifties and most of those were in the hospital!
I have received my fair share of well meaning wishes, and practical jokes these past few days. My “former” youth minister read a satirical poem at the close of our church services last week noting that I entered the world when Alaska and Hawaii joined the United States of America! I am still trying to let that sink in. In my front yard is a sign celebrating my birthday complete with “black balloons.”
Many of those who cross this threshold before me had shared words of encouragement to me like “fifty is the new thirty” or maybe the new “forty.” Who are we trying to kid? Fifty is fifty. I am getting older. I have already received my AARP card in the mail, but who gets to retire at fifty years old any more. I suspect I will have to work until I am at least seventy—that is if I can find a church willing to have an older pastor in the cult of the young.
In Numbers 8, the Levites were commanded to actively serve from twenty-five to fifty, but at the ripe old age of fifty a change was called for.
“This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the Tent of Meeting, 25 but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. 26 They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the Tent of Meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.” Num 8:24-26 (NIV)
This transition implies the “older” leader was to pass the mantle on to the next generation of leaders who would claim the next day. I wonder if this principle still holds true today for those of us who have served our time on the front lines?
In the recent past many pastors left the “active” pastorate to serve the LORD in a number of different ways in religious life. Among Baptists, these effective pastors became denominational leaders and consultants, Directors of Missions, college and seminary professors, or other forms of investing ministry that had less of the day to day grind of the pastorate. However, most of these traditional paths no longer exist or have lost their savor. My generation will have to blaze a new path, but what path will we take? Better yet, what path will I take?
This change in the landscape of ministry also coincides with a looming pastor shortage especially among traditional smaller churches across the land. Young men and women no longer have a sense of calling to the traditions of the past and are venturing out in new ministry forms and structures leaving the local traditional church in the lurch looking for leadership. Sadly many of the leaders who are willing are not really able to be effective pastors and think ministry is an easy escape or life. True effective leaders ready for the rigors of communal life are few and far between.
This year I am completing thirty years of active ministry, and twenty-seven years of being a full-time, on-call, pastor. Last week I met a former pastor who had completed twenty-five years of being a pastor and who was thrilled to be an auto mechanic! He joked he would never had to attend another deacons meeting or conduct another business meeting. Burn-out is a real challenge for the veteran pastor. The day to day grind of useful ministry takes its toll on the pastor and his wife. I fear I have hit the wall from time to time in recent years.
As I venture into the new world before me, its my prayer that I will have the passion of Joshua and Caleb and that God will allow me to inspire a new generation of leaders by finishing well. I realize now whether I continue to be a pastor or take another form of meaningful ministry I need to pour myself into the next generation. The challenges of tomorrow will demand the best of all of us, I pray I will continue to grow so I can be up to the challenge of speaking into a new day.
As I enter my fifties, I believe the best days are yet to come. I like what Robert Browning wrote:
Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.
I am especially challenged by the words of John Barrymore who wrote:
A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.
It’s my prayer, that I will always be a dreamer!