This article “Retiring From Ministry: Is It Biblical?” originally appeared as a feature article on OPC.org
By Brett A. McNeill
Over the years, I’ve heard this said (more than once) by people in the church: “There’s no retirement in the Bible; ministers should never retire.” Considering that one of the things the Committee on Ministerial Care (CMC) does is help ministers prepare for retirement, we thought it wise to address whether or not retirement is a biblical goal.
Retirement in Scripture
While we wouldn’t want to draw a direct line between priests in the temple and pastors today, it is important to acknowledge that those who served in God’s house did retire. This was especially true for those who had more physically demanding jobs, like moving the tabernacle and its furnishings, as the sons of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari did (Numbers 4). But it was also true of other priests:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years, they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service.” (Num. 8:23–26)
It wasn’t just priests who retired. King David handed rule of the kingdom over to his son Solomon when he became too old to rule: “When David was old and full of days, he made Solomon his son king over Israel” (1 Chron. 23:1).
This simply means that the Bible recognizes that not all leaders can continue their labors for God’s kingdom until they die—at least not in the same way. Age and health make it so that there may come a time to pass the baton to new leadership.
One of the ways we show honor to our leaders is by helping them to prepare for that day. When it comes, we want them to be ready to step aside and still have their needs met. We don’t want to force them to labor beyond their years of ability and fruitfulness just because they need to pay the bills. After your minister has served God’s people for decades and his stamina fades, we want him to be able to take a breath, enjoy his family, and figure out what serving God’s people looks like in this new chapter.
What Will Retirement Look Like?
Numbers 8 describes a partial retirement for priests. They continued to serve in some ways but had the burdens of the daily service taken off their shoulders. Some ministers might do something similar, preferring partial retirement to full. That might mean serving as a part-time associate, occasionally teaching Sunday school and filling the pulpit, serving as an interim pastor for a church in transition, or filling a pulpit so that the pastor can take a sabbatical. That can be a great blessing to the church, while at the same time acknowledging that the minister ought not to carry the lion’s share of ministry any longer. Ministers don’t stop being ministers simply because they retire. They continue to have gifts and opportunities to serve with those gifts (1 Pet. 4:10).
But if they live long enough, the time will come to step away completely. Some OP ministers live well past 100. Some suffer from dementia and other infirmities that prevent them from teaching or preaching. Consider also the minister’s wife. Is she provided for if her husband should precede her in death? Whether the retirement comes all at once or in stages, the CMC wants ministers to be prepared.
This is why our committee urges churches to include contributions to their minister’s retirement account in the call and the annual budget. This is why we encourage ministers to add to what their churches give and to speak to a financial adviser that can help them prepare for when God calls them to transition out of full-time ministry. Whatever that transition looks like, with foresight and preparation, ministers can welcome it with confidence and gratitude.
The author is pastor of Reformation Presbyterian in Olympia, Washington, and member of the Committee on Ministerial Care.