What’s Our Oxygen?

In an article about the travails of Andrew Cuomo over the weekend, one reporter wrote:

Everything about Mr. Cuomo — his home, his legacy, his identity — is wrapped up in a governorship now under siege. On Friday he was seen striding the mansion’s grounds, draped in a blanket, his cellphone pressed to his ear. Being governor, in other words, is his oxygen.

I get this.  Being governor is his oxygen.

What is the oxygen that keeps us breathing? What is our home, our legacy, our identity?

In my world, I see professional ministers who have no friends outside of their church.  The same is sometimes true for their spouses. They work with parishioners, they socialize with parishioners, they play golf with parishioners.  They might even travel vacation with parishioners.

Their legacy is based on their ministry, often in the same town, in the same church for decades. Their identity everywhere is “pastor” or “pastor’s spouse.”

Serving the Church is their oxygen. And it’s a recipe for personal and institutional setbacks.

What happens when this pastor retires? It can be gut-wrenching leaving the people you’ve loved and shared life with for many years.  And even if retiring pastors agree on paper to “separate” from their congregations, what are their spouses to do?  Make new friends outside the congregation at the age of 65 or 70 or 75?  How do you replace friends with whom you’ve shared weddings, births, illnesses, and deaths for decades?

Young pastors: please plan now for retirement and not just financially.  Unlike other life callings, professional ministry involves deep personal connections among the people we serve that need to end when the professional relationship ends.  Yes, you can still be friends, but even so, your role has been “pastor.”  You will always be seen as “pastor” even after you retire and even if you try to be “just friends.”

We need to plan now to have non-church interests and people.  


If for no other reason, it slows down a congregation’s vitality.

It’s one thing to appreciate the ministry of a beloved pastoral leader and it’s another thing to cling to that pastor’s leadership.  When parishioners want the previous pastor or the retired pastor to officiate at their family events, it’s impossible for the new pastor to establish those same connections that made the previous ministry successful. It undermines the authority of the new pastor.

Please, beloved church people: do not ask your former pastor to serve in your future pastoral moments.  Do not even ask because it puts them in a difficult situation.  Your former pastor doesn’t want to disappoint you.  But you are keeping the new pastor from developing relationships.

Please, beloved former pastors: just say “No.”  No to weddings, funerals, sick beds, and baptisms.  Don’t say, “I’d love to if the new pastor agrees.”  (That puts the new pastor in an untenable situation: to say ‘no’ makes them the bad guy.  To say ‘yes’ sabotages their authority.)

What’s the oxygen we breathe?  And do we need some fresh air?

Whether we live and breathe wholly for our families, our work, or our sports career, our identities are bigger than any of those single things.  We were created for abundant life.  Our identity is ultimately Child of God.

And our life’s calling doesn’t end when our children grow up and leave, when our high school or college sports career ends, or when we retire.  It just shifts.  And it’s hard and it’s also life-giving even if we can’t see it yet.

God created oxygen.

One response to “What’s Our Oxygen?

  1. Patricia Brannon

    Excellent advice for retiring pastors. I have seen not letting go play out in very hurtful and harmful ways. It’s just not fair to the new pastor nor to the congregation that you say you loved.


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