Is Retirement Biblical?

As president of GuideStone Financial Resources, the sponsor of the Church Retirement Plan in which tens of thousands of Southern Baptist churches participate, I get asked one common question regularly: “Where in the Bible is the concept of retirement?”

Think about it: “Retire”…the very sound of the word carries with it the connotation of resignation or retreat. For many in our modern world, retirement seems to be synonymous with an attitude of “settling down”—or even “settling in”—to a lifestyle that often buries our talents and treasures and that can inevitably lead to becoming content with a life that, all too often, can result in just meaningless monotony.

Is retirement biblical? There is certainly not a prohibition of it in the Bible. The truth is, it simply is not discussed in any degree of context. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is only one reference to what we understand as retirement in the Bible. This is found in the book of Numbers in relationship to those involved in the Levitical priesthood services of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the Bible states:

This is what applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall enter to perform service in the work of the tent of meeting. But at the age of fifty years they shall retire from service in the work and not work anymore. (Numbers 8:24-25 NASB).

The reason God gave this directive to the priests of the Temple is shrouded in silence.

My point is a simple one. If, in fact, you are a part of the tribe of Levi and engaged in the Levitical services of the Temple, then your retirement is biblical and you must obey this biblical directive. If you are not a Levitical priest serving in the Temple, then retirement may not be as biblical as some of us have surmised and imagined.

Nowhere do we read in the Bible where the Christian minister is to “retire” from his calling or his service to Christ and the church. While it is true that most of us must retire “vocationally” from church service, this does not necessitate our retiring from Christian ministry.

It may be a surprise to discover that the idea of retirement is a relatively modern phenomenon. My own great-grandparents knew nothing of the concept of retirement. Their generation worked as long as they were physically able, and for most of them, right up until the time of their death. The early 20th-century Industrial Revolution moved people from their farms into factories where they became wage earners. In the first few decades of the last century, life expectancy increased more rapidly than at any other time in recorded history. Then came the Great Depression and the political pressure to pass the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided for benefits to be paid to workers at age 65. As the decades unfolded and mindsets became more and more entrenched, Americans began to view their retirement at age 65 as more of an entitlement.

And yet, nowhere do we read in the Bible where the Christian minister is to “retire” from his calling or his service to Christ and the church. While it is true that most of us must retire “vocationally” from church service, this does not necessitate our retiring from Christian ministry. Consider:

  • John, the beloved apostle, was over 90 and still preaching and writing while exiled on Patmos.
  • Polycarp, the pastor of the Smyrna church, testified at his martyrdom as the flames consumed his body, saying he had served Christ for “eighty and six years.”

The real issue at hand is not what to do in your retirement years but instead to motivate you to make ready for that season of life so you will have the financial freedom to serve Christ in new and expanding opportunities, even after your “vocational” retirement. No minister of the Gospel should think about “retiring” but instead should put the focus on “retooling” for the most productive years of life and ministry, which could potentially take place during those “retirement” years.

Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, offers a simple yet poignant insight into how we should prepare for the future. He challenges you and me in Proverbs 6:6, “Go to the ant you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise. Which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.” Winter is coming! And with it will surely come the need for added provisions that are not readily obtainable. Storing financial resources in our productive income-producing years, that is, during the summer and fall seasons of life, is smart and logical. And, as Solomon reveals, it is also biblical. If this is good advice for an ant,  it is good advice for those who are active in serving in Gospel ministry.

Does retooling, rather than retirement, appeal to you? Maybe you dream of serving a church that can’t afford a pastor of its own. Maybe it’s moving to the inner city and meeting the immense physical and spiritual needs there. Maybe it’s serving on mission around this globe. Those are all within the realm of possibility—if you prepare. The wise minister recognizes that preparing for retirement is not a sprint. It’s more like a marathon.

Successful marathon runners know there are four stages to the race. Initially, you must get off to a good start. Next, you must set a constant pace over most of the route. Then, you must pick up the pace as you get nearer the end. Runners call this the “kick.” Finally, you must sprint the last few yards to the finish line. The wise pastor en route to a financially successful retirement incorporates all four of these stages along his own way to vocational retirement.

The most important thing in running a marathon is to get off to a good start. Retirement planning is the same way. It demands that we get started right and early on in the ministry we have received from the Lord. The wise seminary student and first-time pastor who goes to the ant to consider her ways realizes this. For example, a 30-year-old pastor may need to contribute an amount equal to 6 percent of his pay to receive a retirement benefit equal to 50 percent of his final annual salary at age 65. However, if that same pastor waited just 10 years to begin contributing to his retirement account, he would need to contribute 11 percent of his pay until he was 65 years of age to receive the same 50 percent benefit. This illustrates the principle of compound interest and the necessity of a good start to retirement planning.

The most important thing in running a marathon is to get off to a good start. Retirement planning is the same way. It demands that we get started right and early on in the ministry we have received from the Lord.

If you want a retirement where you can serve, it’s your responsibility. Social Security alone won’t help you survive—though you should not opt out, though it will be tempting to do so. You must prepare for the future with resources like those from GuideStone. Thousands of ministers are marching through life today without giving any thought to the vital discipline of saving for the future. For many, it is increasingly beyond their perceived reach as they seek to exist on meager salaries. However, for some it is also the result of a lack of discipline to save and “store” for the future because of the compelling quest of immediate gratification in our consumer-driven culture.

Every day, we at GuideStone see a tragic epidemic growing among thousands of our dear retired pastors and, in too many cases, their sweet and godly widows. They are not financially ready for their retirement years. Thousands of them who have served Christ faithfully through the decades are now living on $200 or less in retirement benefits each month. Most of them pastored out at the crossroads in very small churches and are anything but “sluggards.” They simply were never able to make financial preparation.

However, there are those, unfortunately, who find themselves in this predicament because when they were able to do something about it in their earlier years, they did little, and in some cases did nothing, as they postponed this responsibility. We are privileged here at GuideStone to be able to be Christ’s hand extended to thousands of precious people who were unable to make adequate retirement preparation by helping to meet their needs and expenses through our Mission:Dignity ministry.

At GuideStone, our desire is to help move men and women who are called into Christ’s service to see the urgency and necessity of making adequate and consistent preparation for their retirement years. For the most part, the next two generations who are coming to retirement are going to have 20 or more healthy and productive years to serve the Lord after they “vocationally retire” from their churches or places of service. If we can partner with them in helping them get to this place of vocational retirement with adequate financial security and dignity, we are going to help unleash on our world the greatest force of volunteers on mission our world has ever seen!

Our prayer is to see a new generation of God-called ministers who will not so much be giving thought to what it means to “retire,” but instead, giving attention to what it means to “retool” for a new season of life and ministry.