What Happens to Retired Clergy?

A couple months ago, I ran across a study—not scientific but still revealing—about retired clergy from mainline Christian ministries. There were three groupings:

  1. Those who affirm traditional theology and stay within the church. I was surprised that only 19 percent of retired clergy do this.
  2. Those who don’t affirm a traditional theology but participate in a church. That number was 40 percent. I would have been included in this category for the past fifteen years.
  3. Those who don’t affirm nor participate. That number was 41 percent. This is much bigger than I would have guessed.

Some 59 percent went to church regardless of the theology and doctrine. Why? Primarily the community was of like-minded people, but they also liked the rituals or the pastor and didn’t have a major problem saying the creeds, the Lord’s Prayer (which isn’t actually the Lord’s), or some of the silliness in other prayers. Unfortunately, as a progressive clergyman, I do have a problem with all of the above, which makes going to church difficult.

I found the responses of the 41 percent who no longer are involved interesting: “The church refuses to change,” “The church has always been political but now has become a political pawn,” and “The church is trying to force the government to be Christian.” Many errant clergy see the church as “racist, judgmental, and unaccepting” and ignoring the strong command and marching orders of Jesus, which are to love God, your neighbor, and yourself. A few felt that the church has become a “club” of like-minded people who want to maintain the club but not do the work of Jesus. Another criticism was that the church is willing to help others but only if they join and subscribe to that church’s thinking.

I found this statement the most revealing: “The church had abandoned the teachings of Jesus and allowed power, polity, man-made theology, long-term traditions and its doctrines to run the institution.”

Probably my biggest criticism as a retired pastor is that so many churches demand that everyone (clergy also) leave their brains at the door and forget about critical thinking. The church feels that it has done the thinking for you and demands blind obedience.

The consequence: Ancient thinking is running the twenty-first-century church.

Here’s my story: I retired in 2003 from my secular job as well as my part-time job in an Episcopal church. We could not find a progressive church, so my wife and I joined “Saint Mattress,” which met every Sunday in our bedroom. Eventually, we did find a progressive congregation and became involved, but we are now ready to leave the second category listed above and join the third. Church has become boring and irrelevant.

My biggest question is, as the institutional church tries to straighten the deck chairs on the sinking ecclesiastical Titanic, why can’t they listen to the 81 percent of the retired clergy who spent their lives trying to make the church relevant rather than following the 19 percent who seem oblivious to the fact that the institutional church is dying?

Any ideas?

Peace Love Joy Hope



Photo by Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (public domain)

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