Do ministers ever retire? Can anyone?

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Do ministers ever retire? Can anyone?

May 17, 2022 - Chris Elkins

© carballo/stock.adobe.com

© carballo/stock.adobe.com

Many ministers wonder if in retirement they’ll run out of money before they run out of life?

Good question.

But it’s also important to consider the scenario of running out of life, even if there’s plenty of money. Both are important considerations about retirement that require being proactive.

Ministers are certainly not immune to the first consideration.

But the second impacts us every bit as much.

The three “P” rule

I served for more than sixteen years with GuideStone Financial Resources (the employee benefits agency of Southern Baptists) and assisted thousands of pastors and other ministers with their retirement accounts in individual appointments, onsite group meetings, and online seminars.

Some pastors and ministers I met exhibited some skewed thinking about money, finances, and retirement. A banker once told me that the “Three ‘P’ Rule” was fairly common knowledge among bankers: Never loan money to poets, painters, or pastors.

That’s sad for all three, but particularly for pastors.

In a brief, insightful article a few years ago, pastor Bill Newton wrote “Why banks see pastors as bad credit risks.” I urge you to read it.

Of course, being a bad credit risk is not true of all pastors, but the “one bad apple” rule often impacts others. A pastor’s integrity is vital to every facet of life.

3 notes for retiring pastors

I want to focus for a few minutes on retirement.

Some pastors have interesting ideas about it. With each point below, I have included a link to more detailed information. I encourage you to read this entire article first, and then click on links about which you’d like more information.

First, some ministers see themselves as never retiring

But the reality is that not many churches are willing to have seventy-five-plus-year-old pastors, especially if they are in bad health.

Granted, part-time service in a church may be possible, but will it provide sufficient income? (Which becomes especially challenging if a minister has opted out of Social Security. See my next point below.) Most of us will need 75 percent (or greater) of our pre-retirement income in retirement.

Of course, God’s call on a minister’s life doesn’t end at Social Security’s full retirement age.

Failing to plan for retirement can mean you’re planning to fail. But if pastors have been financially wise and frugal, “retired” ones are freer than ever to do everything God has called them to do and go anywhere he sends them.

Retirement doesn’t mean quitting ministry. In the best-case scenario, it simply means you don’t need to be paid any longer.

Next, some ministers have “opted out” of Social Security

This option is available briefly to ministers after ordination. But it’s available only to those who conscientiously object to the government providing public insurance to citizens, not to those who simply object to paying the 15.3 percent self-employment tax. Most pastors I know don’t meet this requirement. A minister is required to sign an IRS document attesting to this objection.

Opting out of Social Security is irrevocable and it eliminates the eligibility of benefits for your family if you should die young or become disabled. It also eliminates eligibility for Medicare at age sixty-five unless you have enough credits earned in Social Security in non-ministerial employment.

Unless ministers who have opted out have aggressively saved for retirement (15 percent or greater of total income) or purchased additional disability and life insurance to protect their families, many find themselves in desperate financial situations in retirement.

At retirement, most ministers I know who opted out of Social Security have regretted it.

Finally, retirement is as much about health, relationships, and purpose as it is about finances. 

If at retirement your health is poor, your relationships weak or fractured, and/or your sense of purpose in retirement unclear, then it will be challenging, even if you have sufficient income.

So, across employment years, ministers must not only save for retirement but regularly exercise, eat right, and find ways to release stress if they want to experience retirement years as “golden.”

Ministers also should take good care of their primary relationships—family and friends—and not be continuously absent or consumed by the needs of parishioners.

As well, each of us must have projects, goals, and aspirations for our retirement years. I remember hearing it said that many newly retired pastors’ wives often felt they had “too much husband and not enough income.” Our spouses likely don’t need us to micromanage their lives.

Defining a great retirement

So, what will your retirement years be like?

Engaging? Secure? Fulfilling?

It’s common wisdom to begin with the end in mind, retirement included. Personally, I don’t have to look very far to see a good example of a great retirement.

My godly, ninety-year-old mother delivers meals to the “elderly.” After Dad died, she moved to a senior living community and still lives independently. Graduated care is available whenever she may require it. She and Dad purchased long-term care insurance decades ago, which has served them exceedingly well, especially in Dad’s declining years. My mother’s well-being is no accident or happenstance.

She’s made a world of new friends. She goes to social functions regularly. She sends me texts every single day. She’s active in church and continually reads. She’s always asking how she can help. Her five grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren adore her. She’s generous and kind. And fun and funny. Psalm 92:14 describes her well, “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.”

Yet, her eyesight is failing and her hearing is frustrating. Her arthritis is painful, and her scoliosis bends her over. Celiac disease limits what she can eat. She often requires a cane to walk. But she doesn’t let these “momentary afflictions” define or confine her. She prepared for these eventualities and is living with few to no regrets.

She and Dad scrimped and saved during their work years. They worked hard and prayed harder, always with the end in mind. They were faithful to each other and to the Lord. My brother and I have advanced college degrees because during our childhood years they set the example and made the sacrifices necessary for us to go to college. They always exercised, ate wisely (even when that wasn’t vogue), and found ways to be hopeful in hard times.

Dad died with dementia a few years ago, but, not surprisingly, my mother pressed on. She is the epitome of Isaiah 40:31: “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

I’ve heard it said that every end is also a new beginning. Think of retirement that way.

It can be the beginning of a wonderful season of life—even for ministers and pastors.

The power of retirement savings is in compounding returns on investments over time. Non-monetary investments—health, attitude, and relationships—compound, too.

“Invest” wisely.

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