From a Michigan reader I received the following questions: “How can we determine when a minister should retire? Who should take the initiative when such a case does arise? Should our churches develop a policy that would deal uniformly and impartially with all retiring ministers?”
That’s quite an order! To answer fully and to explore all the possibilities would surely require more than one article. But I will try to make a few suggestions.
Perhaps the first thing we ought to do is to get before us the data of our Church Order on this subject. Article 13 of our Church Order lays down the governing principles: “Ministers, who by reason of age, sickness, or otherwise, are rendered incapable of performing the duties of their office, shall nevertheless retain the honor and title of a minister, and the church which they have served shall provide honorably for them in their need (likewise for the orphans and widows of ministers) out of the common fund of the churches, according to the general ecclesiastical ordinances in this matter.” Article 14 is also pertinent in part: “If any minister, for the aforesaid or any other reason, is compelled to discontinue his service for a time, which shall not take place without the advice of the consistory, he shall nevertheless at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.” Finally, there is the Constitution of the Emeritus Committee (a misnomer, by the way!), which regulates much more than the work of a committee. It does two things: 1) It regulates the procedure to be followed in retiring (Articles 3 and 4). !2) It regulates the procedure to be followed by all concerned in the granting of retirement support. As to procedure in retiring, it is worth noting that Article 3 of the Constitution seems to be more restrictive than the Church Order itself: “The minister shall present his request for emeritation to his consistory who shall decide upon his request with approbation of classis and synod. . .” (Incidentally, emeritation is not a word; neither isemeritate.) For the rest, the Constitution deals mostly with various regulations and restrictions which are not pertinent to this discussion.
Let me begin with the last question of my questioner. I take it for granted that we all understand that to an extent we already have a uniform and impartial policy; that is, all cases of retirement must be dealt with in the same way under the Church Order and the Constitution of the Emeritus Committee. Besides, it may be expected that our churches will also deal even-handedly, under these rules, from a financial point of view: “. . .the church which they have served shall provide honorably for them in their need. . .” There is one aspect of retirement, however, in which we have no policy: retirement on account of age. Our churches have set no age at which retirement becomes permissible; neither have they set an age at which retirement becomes mandatory. The question is: should we have a uniform policy in this regard? And if so, what should the policy be? Should we, for example, adopt a rule that any minister mayretire when he is 65 years old, and that he must retire when he reaches the age of 70? Or should we, perhaps, simply have a flat rule requiring retirement at the age of 65?
Most denominations, I think, have some kind of rule about this matter. And I believe that in most instances the rule has been adopted in order to meet some problem. In some instances the problem has been a surplus of candidates, and mandatory retirement served to clear the old men out of congregations and to provide places for the young. This problem we have never had as yet. In some instances a rule is adopted in order to prevent the abuse of earlyretirement: ministers who are not truly dedicated and who look for a life of ease may be tempted to retire when they are still fully capable of working. In such instances churches found it necessary to say: you may not retire (if you are healthy) until you reach the age of 65. Also this problem we have not as yet had in our churches. A third possibility is, of course, that a rule like this is adopted in order to relieve all concerned (minister, consistory, and congregation) of the necessity of making a decision in this matter. It can readily-be understood, I think, that the matter of retirement can be rather traumatic and even embarrassing. This is possible for a minister, especially for a minister who is thoroughly dedicated to the service of God and who has worked and battled hard for many years. On the one hand, it may look good to him to lay down his labors and to enjoy some. leisure; but perhaps his sense of dedication (rightly or wrongly) holds him back. On the other hand, it may not look attractive to him suddenly to be “put out to pasture.” He may also be of the opinion—even when others have a different opinion—that he is quite capable of doing his work very efficiently, perhaps even better than “those young whippersnappers.” He may even reach the stage that he boasts a bit that he feels well enough to go on for a few more years, and fail to note that his boast is not met with enthusiastic agreement from those to whom he speaks. And it is also possible that a man simply reaches the stage that he does not know enough to retire when it is perfectly obvious to everyone else. And thus, of course, it can ultimately become very embarrassing for a consistory and congregation, when there is no fixed retirement age, to feel that it is getting to be time for their minister to retire, when he does not seem to realize it or does not want to admit it, and to be very reluctant to talk to him about it or to ask him to retire. From this point of view, I can see merit in adopting a fixed retirement age. This will avoid problems, and it will avoid any possible charge of partiality.
The other side of the coin, of course, is the fact that a rule of this kind holds for all; and it is a fact that there are also men who are very capable of doing fruitful work even well after they have reached the age of 70. The solution to that, however, might be in the fact that retirement does not mean that a minister may not be called upon to do some work, either in his congregation or for the churches at large.
Nevertheless, we have no such rule at this time; and the only way in which we can get such a rule is by overture to synod. Perhaps our churches should consider this. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it.
There is one area, however, in which I feel strongly that we should have a fixed retirement age, namely: in the seminary. Why there? My reason is, in the first place, that in a school there must be continuity, and therefore advance planning and provision. This is especially true when the faculty is small. If suddenly a faculty member is incapacitated in our seminary, this means that one-third of the curriculum cannot be taught. Now this can happen, of course, in case of illness or accident; but it need not happen because of old age if there is mandatory retirement. Then the Theological School Committee and Synod can plan in advance that in such and such a year Professor X will retire and must be replaced. If in such a case Professor X is still quite capable of teaching well and vigorously, then he can be engaged on a year by year basis to teach a limited amount; and this will also give the new professor time to break in. My reason is, in the second place, that twice in our history the instruction of our school was seriously disrupted by the infirmities of age, so that twice emergency provision had to be made, and twice professors had to be called pell-mell. This can be avoided, and it ought to be avoided. Moreover, the time to make this rule is now, when it cannot be said that the making of any such rule is aimed at getting rid of any man, because all our professors are either young or comfortably middle-aged.
The next question is: who should take the initiative in the matter of retirement? The answer, under our rules, is that as long as we have no fixed retirement age, it is the minister himself who must apply for the status of emeritus when he is rendered incapable of performing the duties of his office by reason of age, sickness, or otherwise. We may note in this connection that our rules (Constitution of the Emeritus Committee) are more restrictive than the Church Order. The Church Order itself says nothing about the question who initiates the procedure. Our rules state: “The minister shall present his request for emeritation to his consistory. . .” I call your attention to the fact that this rule as it stands is too restrictive. For example, it does not allow for a case of a minister who is in an auto accident and who becomes an unconscious invalid, or for a case of a minister who has a stroke and is left senseless and speechless, or for someone who becomes insane, or for someone who becomes senile. It is perfectly obvious in all such instances that another party must take the initiative; and the proper party is undoubtedly the consistory. And this leads me to point out that after all it is the consistory (with the judgment of classis and synod) which has the deciding voice in this matter. The consistory is the governing body in the congregation; and the minister is also subject to the rule of the consistory. And this implies, too, it seems to me, that if instance arises in which a minister ought to retire (whether because of age or other reason) but does not apply for retirement, then it becomes incumbent upon the consistory to act. Of course, such action must be with the necessary discretion and sympathetic understanding. But a consistory must also remember that the all-important thing is the good of the congregation. The congregation may not be allowed to suffer damage by reason of the fact that the work of the ministry is not being properly and adequately and fully done.
The last question—about the how—will have to wait until the next issue.