Aging Matters

Don’t Retire from Your Calling

R. Paul Stevens

The other day an old friend, and a former member of my home church, phoned me up. He said, “Paul, will you do my funeral?” I responded, “Barnie, are you thinking of dying?” He said, “I’m going to Israel on a tour and it is very dangerous.” I told him that I have been several times and it was not as dangerous as it seems. There are guns and soldiers everywhere. Nevertheless he insisted that he might not come back. I agreed. But he ended with an interesting thought. “It will have to be held in a large church.” I asked why? He said, “Most of the bicycle couriers in the city will be there.” Barnie has in his retirement from business become the unofficial pastor to the downtown bicycle couriers.

Here is someone who has not retired from his calling. Yes he did stop working for a giant multinational. But in that context he was a person who cared for fellow workers, and employees as an unnamed and unordained pastor. His calling is to pastor people. But he didn’t need to go to seminary and become an official pastor of a local church to fulfill his calling. In fact, when they promoted him in the organization to a position in which he did not have access to people he eventually asked for and got a demotion. His argument was that what he had to give to the company was his care of people. In passing I am intrigued with the idea and actual practice of being a marketplace pastor, not just a chaplain in the marketplace but someone who is employed within a company and functions in a pastoral way even with people who are not yet followers of Jesus. But this raises the question of calling, what it is, and what it is not. And critical to this question is whether the Baby Boomers who are now retiring en masse from remunerated employment are retiring from their callings.

Calling Is Much More than a Career 

It is a way of life ordained and summoned by God uniquely for each person. Unlike a career which we choose, a calling is something for which we are chosen. In normal speech we tend to use the word “vocation” as a synonym for “occupation” but the word “vocation” is actually the same as “calling” in its root meaning. But the beautiful difference between using the word “vocation” and the word “calling” is that the latter invites the question, “Who?” “Who is calling?” Two psychologists who are Christians but writing for a broader audience define calling as: “Calling is a transcendentsummons experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life rolein a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purposeor meaningfulness and that holds other-directedvaluesand goals as primary sources of motivation.”[i] This is not a garbealagupe definition. It emphasizes that it comes from outside (from God), concerns a life role, gives a sense of purpose, and is other-directed. And the beautiful thing is that God calls everyone, as Ephesians 4:1 indicates. Paul is writing to the whole church (not just the pastors) when he says: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”  

Calling is Universal

So calling is not just for pastors and missionaries. Calling is concerned with the whole of life, not just remunerated work. Calling is something that motivates us, gives us joy; it is not just a duty to perform. As Fredrick Buechner famously said, “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need most to do and the world most needs to have done…. Thus, the place God calls you is the place your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[ii]So calling is a particular way in which each one of us is summoned (delightfully) to serve God and to love our neighbours in a special way. Herb is just an example. Someone whose calling is to bring order out of chaos is another. Still another will be someone who makes beautiful things. Still another someone who fixes things. And on it goes. Calling brings joy. We have a feeling of oughtness. We lose a sense of time when we are doing this. Indeed many not-yet-Christians say things like, “I was born for this” or “this is my calling” which gives us an opportunity to ask, “Who do you think is calling you?”  

And we do not retire from our callings. They persist until our last breath in this life and then, in our resurrection life in the New Heaven and New Earth—guess what?—we persist in our callings. Heaven, the New Heaven and New Earth, is not just where we sing the same worship songs a million times but where we will work and minister!

No Retirement Allowed!

So there is no place for retirement in the Christian vocabulary! There is only one reference to retirement in the Bible. In Numbers 8:23-26 the Levites (who attended to service in the tent of meeting) were to retire and fifty and spend the rest of their lives mentoring younger men and women in their service.

Retirement, however, is a big issue today, not just as to whether we can afford to stop working for money—a very contemporary problem—but also what it means to set aside the rhythm of structured work and rest, the collegiality of fellow workers, and the intellectual stimulation of constant learning. Some die shortly thereafter. It is no wonder that many people are refusing to take their “freedom fifty-five” (if they can) or even their sixty-five “out,” not just because they cannot afford to  but perhaps because they instinctively know that playing golf nonstop until they drop, or travelling until there is nothing left to see, is not life-giving. I make the unpopular proposal that we are supposed to work until we die, though we do not have to be earning money through it. Work brings meaning to life. It is a practical way of loving our neighbours and, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said cryptically, it gets us out of ourselves. The work might be voluntary or partially paid but, according to our physical and emotional energy, it is something that links us with God-the-worker and is a continuing source of spiritual growth. Imagine winning the lottery and never having to work again. Would that be a good thing spiritually? So by speaking of continuing to work we are on the edge of exploring a life-long calling. But there is more.

Calling is the way we live out our lives practically and purposively in response to the summons of God and God’s purpose for his people in the world. Of course, it is a good thing when newly retired people—in the formal sense of retirement—find in the church an amazing opportunity for service, even turning aging into sage-ing by mentoring younger men and women. But calling post-retirement is not simply turning from secular work into religious work. It is discovering the continuity in our lives, the ongoing hint of God in our heart desires, the sweet passion that God has invested in our souls to invest our lives in the kingdom of God whether in a so-called secular context or a church context, or both. 

A Puritan Perspective

Nobody was more eloquent on this than the English Puritan William Perkins in his Treatise on Callingswritten in 1626.[iii]Everyone, Perkins argues, has a personal calling:

Adam as soon as he was created, even in his integrity, has a personal calling assigned to him by God, which was to dress and keep the garden…. And therefore all who descend from Adam must need to have some calling to walk in, either public, or private, whether it be in the church, or commonwealth, or family….    

Damnable is the estate of those enriched with great livings and revenues, [who] do spend their days in eating and drinking, in sports and pastimes, not employing themselves in service for church or commonwealth. 

Perkins speaks about entering our callings:

Every person must enter in such a way that he can with good conscience say that God has placed him in this calling even though there are crosses and calamities associated with it. We know this by discerning the gifts God has given us and have been empowered to taken them up by others. 

Finally Perkins maintains that we are accountable for our callings:

We must give an account of our calling on the last day of judgment – in which every person will be presented before God, the works we have done will be manifested, and everyone will be regarded according to his works.  How then can we give a good account of ourselves before God on that day? We must calculate our blessings, weight all that was defective and then cleave to the surety of Christ, his death being all the satisfaction God needs.

So, don’t retire from your calling! It is your life-blood for service in this world—yes and for the next life as well!

Gwen was a high level administrator in a school district. She has an earned doctorate in education. And her calling is to educational administration. She has been doing this as a volunteer in the church even while working for the school board. But when she reached 65 and got a pension she gave herself to a new virtual university which needed her skills in designing educational programmes, in empowering teachers and students. They needed her passion to help people learn and grow as whole persons. As with all education, or almost all, subsidies were needed for this new venture and for a long time she gave her service without pay until the university became more established. And what will she be doing in the New Heaven and New Earth? I can hardly wait to see!  

 Previously published in Vocatio as “Calling Never Retires, in Faith Today” (January/February 2018), 44-46.

[i]Bryan J. Dik and Ryan D. Duffy, Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2012), p. 11, emphasis mine. 

[ii]Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, rev and expanded edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 398.

[iii]William Perkins, The Works of That Famous Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge(London: John Legatt, 1626), pp. 755,756,779.