My wife, Ruth Ann, and I had been married 41 years when I decided to retire from my role as senior pastor at Hope Church. We both knew that what lay ahead would affect me professionally, but we were unaware of how much this decision would affect our marriage. We had a very good marriage, with our comfortable routines and rhythms. But, once I transitioned out of my ministry, life changed dramatically. As I look back on it, I see three distinct phases, and want to share some of the knowledge I gleaned from walking through it.
Phase 1: Vacation Phase—We celebrated the end of my ministry with great appreciation and joy. And shortly after our last day at Hope Church, we were off on a pre-scheduled road trip. It wasn’t strategic, but it turned out to be sweetly providential. We drove 3,000 miles over three weeks visiting family, friends, seeing the sights, and we even took in a training conference. At the time, we had no idea how important that vacation was. But looking back, if we would have stayed home, it would have turned into a time of grief and loss. It was good to get away from it all.
Phase 2: Turbulent Phase—I wish I could say we returned from our trip and everything was great. But, the reality was, it was a confusing and disorienting time for both of us. It felt like new topics of discussion Ruth Ann and I never imagined we would need to address emerged almost daily. Thankfully, some of those topics were enjoyable, like spending more time together, more freedom to see family and having the ability to be spontaneous. But, other topics were discussed more intensely, like financial matters, personal and couple priorities, what friends to spend time with, how much time should we spend alone, how much time should we spend together, and even where we would now attend church.
No one prepared me for this. Throughout our marriage my wife and I had worked hard to communicate clearly and kindly, but during this turbulent phase, we failed to serve each other and communicate well. We both were miserable, and tension was high. I wish I could say we handled all these changes like mature adults, but sadly, there were many days when we whined and fought and then withdrew from each other.
Ultimately it came down to the fact we were grieving the loss of our church family. For 36 years we had poured ourselves into Hope Church and they into us. They were our friends, and many of them we viewed as family, and now everything was different. We felt cut off from those we loved. My wife and I struggled with our new identities. One day I’d be wrestling with who I was now that I was not a pastor, and the next, Ruth Ann would wrestle with her primary place of impact being gone. Thankfully, this phase didn’t last for many months, but it felt like it lasted for years.
Phase 3: Soft Landing—Phase three felt like a plane making a soft landing after a turbulent ride. We finally realized we needed to go back to doing what had worked for so long in our marriage. Even though there were still many unanswered questions of what exactly our future would look like, we made a choice to start communicating and stop whining. We sat down together and reassessed our goals. We made lists of what was important to both of us, and discussed it calmly. We turned to prayer often. We began to relax and regain our emotional balance. Serving each other, communicating and keeping our goals out in front of us helped restore the joy and peace that had disappeared. Today, we still occasionally have to have a difficult discussion about some unanticipated topic, but we now know how to get through it.
I never want to relive Phase 2, and would love to help you get through it easier than we did. Here are a few bits of advice I’d like to give:
- Do whatever is within your budget (don’t want to add more stress) to get away from all the reminders of where you’ve been and won’t be able to return to. Only by the serendipitous grace of God did we make our road trip. It was such a positive experience.
- Anticipate the turbulent ride. Don’t be blindsided like I was. Lean into the changes rather than deny them, fight them or avoid them.
- Establish a transition team of friends. We chose a handful of friends and asked them to be part of our support network. This “team” was a wonderful blessing to both of us. We were able to lessen the stress on each other by also confiding in friends the sadness we were feeling while we felt separated from our church “family.” They provided insights and perspectives that we couldn’t see because of the confusion we were living in.
- Enjoy the new life you have together. I was surprised by how hard it was to slow down. As pastors, we daily live with intensity and stress. Those thoughts don’t just go away because you are no longer in your ministry position. I still experience “phantom” anxiety related to the intensity, stress and demands of the past. Now, I’m dealing with trying to teach myself to relax and slow down. It’s not easy, but I’m getting better at it, and you will too. Let supportive people into your life. Accountability is a good and necessary thing and will make the transition easier.