What kind of old person do you want to be? It’s a question you never think about in your twenties, rarely in your thirties, and only occasionally in your forties. But at least in my case hitting the big five-zero caused me to ponder this question with great frequency.
Turning fifty flipped an inner switch; I found myself asking a lot more questions. Not about next year’s vacation or the kind of car we might purchase or whether to change from ground beef to ground turkey. I found myself asking more life questions, legacy questions.
I became more self-reflective and introspective than ever before. I developed a growing awareness that the clock was ticking, and it was like I could hear the sweep of the second hand as it clicked off moments I would never recapture. I have reached that stage of life where more ministry road is in the rearview mirror than in the windshield.
It was during this new season of self-reflection that I picked up Gordon MacDonald’s The Life God Blesses. A seasoned ministry veteran with a lot of life insight, he asked the question, “What kind of old man do you want to be?” He’d been reading the story of Caleb, who at eighty-five was described as following the Lord God of Israel “wholeheartedly.”
MacDonald started looking around for other older men who were at their very best in their twilight years. “One thing quickly became clear. I have known a lot of old men, but my list of ‘emulatable’ old men was alarmingly short.”
This was true for a variety of reasons. Some had drifted into self-centeredness, while others had become impatient and cynical toward the next generation. Some had let the later years sour them into becoming grumpy and critical. Many simply lived in the past and were no longer leaning forward into the future. “When the list was finished, it included just a few names. In fact, I could count the names on the fingers of one hand.”
Securing a spot on MacDonald’s list of “emulatable” old men had virtually nothing to do with achievement or success as we often define it. It had more to do with character and attitude and “being.”
Having served in ministry more than three decades, I find myself less enamored with accomplishment and the bravado that often accompanies it. I am more drawn to men and women who live well than to those who live big. But those who’ve been in ministry a long time and are living well aren’t that easy to find. Why aren’t there more whose twilight years are their highlight years?
I think Henri Nouwen gives us a clue.
I began to experience a deep inner threat. As I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?” After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.
I’m intrigued by that statement: “my success was putting my own soul in danger.”
I’ve thought a lot about those words. When we have accomplished a measure of success, we can begin to coast. Pastors write thousands of sermons, lead thousands of meetings, and prepare thousands of budgets. (or at least it seems like it). Twenty or twenty-five years of pushing and striving and leading take its toll. We can feel drained, fatigued, and even jaded. The thought of one more vision message or capital campaign just doesn’t crank up the adrenaline like it once did.
At this point in life we’re very capable of leading out of our experience and knowledge rather than the deep well of a healthy soul. On the outside we have the answers, but on the inside we have questions. To further complicate matters, our physical stamina begins to diminish.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying passion for ministry goes away. I am saying it feels different than when you first started. As a twenty-five-year veteran, you face a whole new set of challenges. The triple-A of adrenaline, ambition, and achievement aren’t enough to sustain you anymore.
Here’s the irony. At just the time most people look at you as the picture of success, you are aware of some desperately broken places in your life. Like Nouwen, we have to admit that decades of ministry hasn’t necessarily made us more like Jesus. Our sermons are better, our leadership is better, our staff management is better, our planning is better, but our intimacy with Jesus? Not so much.
We have a gut-wrenching choice to make. We can put our ministry on autopilot and move into image-management mode. Or we can do the hard work of reinventing ourselves, of reworking the last chapters of life. If you have been drinking at the well of ambition and success and drivenness . . . that well will run dry. It’s time to drill a new well that will sustain you as you get older.
For many of us in ministry, our challenge is quite different. It’s not success that threatens our soul but the perceived lack of success that now becomes the threat to us as we age. Ministry hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. We’ve done the best we could, but more often than we want to admit, ministry has been more babysitting than leading, more mundane than miraculous, more life-taking than life-giving.
Some days we want out. We daydream about what it’s like on the outside. We fantasize about a prison break from the constraints of ministry. We wonder what it would be like to have a “normal” life. We ponder how it would feel to have weekends off. We dream of not being constantly scrutinized.
If ministry hasn’t turned out like you expected, I want to ask you the same question. What kind of old man or woman do you want to be? I’m not asking what kind of ministry you want to have. I’m asking about you, as a person, as a Christ follower. You can’t undo the past, and you can’t control all of your circumstances, but you can plot a different trajectory for your future.