Are We Being Good Ancestors?

As we live through yet another wave of Covid-19 and face new variants of the disease, I am reminded of another period in our history which put fear into the hearts of many of our parents and grandparents back in the 1940’s and 1950’s: the polio epidemic. My family knew children who died from this dreaded disease and many of us have had friends who have had to live with its life changing and often devastating effects.

I was reminded of this when I read a recent CBC newsletter forwarded to me by a member my congregation. (Thanks, Maria!) Author Nicole Mortillaro builds on the research of philosopher Roman Krznaric, who recently published the book The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term ThinkingQuoting Krznaric, Mortillaro notes that Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine back in the 1950’s, was also very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In a warning he issued to his fellow world citizens, Salk asked an important  question, “Are we being good ancestors?”

This is a good question for us Boomers and older adults too. “Are we being good ancestors?” This is true of so many areas of our lives, but nowhere is the question more urgent than as it relates to the current climate crisis.

Mortillaro outlines how the First Nations’ understanding on decision making is something we urgently need to employ. Indigenous cultures around the world always keep one question before them: how will their present decisions and actions affect those living seven generations in the future? In other words, what sort of legacy are we bequeathing to our children and grandchildren and their great-great-great-great grandchildren? “Are we being good ancestors?” More importantly, what kind of world are we leaving to them and how can we bequeath to them a healthier world by changing how we live now?

I hope you will read Mortillaro’s essay. As Baby Boomers many of us have enjoyed a remarkably affluent lifestyle, filled with far more stuff than we need, while others in our land and in the world have suffered untold misery and poverty. It is time we found ways to cut back so that others today can have the essentials that we take for granted – and so that future generations may simply have life period!

A “Senior’s Moment” or a Normal Brain Function?

They say that you know you are getting older when you stand in front of the open refrigerator door, asking life’s most profound theological question: “What am I here for?”

I have to confess that I do this sort of thing all the time. I will head off to some part of the house looking for something and then, by the time I get there, I cannot remember why I came. My daughter always says, “Mom, this is concerning!”

Or is it? I recently read a piece by John Valters Paintner in which he talks about doing this very same thing. He says that, interestingly, current scientific theory suggests that this may not simply be a “senior’s moment”, but rather a very normal part of brain function. In a book that he co-writes with his partner, Caroline Valters Painter, The Soul’s Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, he writes:

When we walk across a threshold, a door or other barrier of some kind, our subconscious minds recognize that we are going from one environment to another. To prepare us for the possible dangers of a new space, our brains do a quick short-term memory dump in order to free up more active cerebral computing space so we can more quickly adapt and react to whatever we encounter….You aren’t losing your mind. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that allowed your ancestors to survive and you to be here now.

Don’t you just love that! That’s going to be my response going forward whenever any of my kids tease me about my “senior’s moments!”

Satisfying Retirement means being “Just Rushed Enough!”

Back in 1994, Wade Clark Roof wrote the following about Baby Boomers:  “We are all leading lives of quiet desperation.”

Similar findings were noted by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, whose studies over a lifetime have shown that, while Canadian Baby Boomers made significant advances over their parents in terms of educational achievement and standard of living, there has been little or no correlation in terms of increased happiness. The primary challenge for them, he found, has to do with the issues of “purpose in life.” Seeking to make a difference in their communities, Boomers have always invested large amounts of time and energy into their work.

Now that a large number of Boomers have retired or are soon to retire, the question of meaning takes on even greater significance. As many retirement coaches have observed, retired Boomers often struggle with too much leisure time on their hands, even though they had for many years looked longingly for a life without the long hours, harried schedules, and heavy demands of their jobs. Indeed, one of the biggest problems retired Boomers face, now that their lives are not defined by the job, is what to do with all the ‘unstructured time’ retirement brings?

This is why an article by Derek Thompson in this month’s The Atlantic, caught my eye: “How Civilization Broke Our Brains”.  Quoting researcher and sociologist John P. Robinson, who reviewed more than forty years of happiness, he discovered that genuine happiness is not a life without stress, as much as we may often complain about not having enough time to do everything we need to do and feeling ‘too rushed.’ The real cause of most discontent is the absence of any schedule. As Robinson says, “Happiness means being just rushed enough.”

Thompson quotes a recent Pew Research Center survey in which people were asked about the secret to happiness. Interestingly, of the people who responded to the survey, who by the way were of all ages, most “ranked ‘a job or career they enjoy’ above marriage, children, or any other committed relationship. Careerism, not community, is the keystone in the arch of life.”

Thompson then goes on to review a new book by James Suzman, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time. It is worth the read. But for now I would like to invite you to consider the points raised above. Is it possible, for example, that the very thing many western people dream of – Freedom 55 – may not actually be the answer to but in fact the cause of the anomie from which a large number of Boomers suffer? Could it be, moreover, as Robinson asserts, that “happiness means being just rushed enough” and that the secret to a satisfying retirement is to structure time and energy into projects that bring both meaning and purpose? And, finally, what does it mean to be “just rushed enough”?

Retirement as Reformation and Jubilation!

Happy New Year, Friends! The past year was certainly one like we have never experienced before! But hopefully, with a new vaccine available to fight the deadly Covid-19 disease, we can look forward to better days down the road in 2021! I hope to make more appearances on this webpage too. (Covid-19 meant that I had to direct much of my time and attention to other pastoral matters!)

At the moment I am in the process of planning two webinars for retired — or soon to be retired — clergy. One of my colleagues, Rev. Kevin Steeper, who is part of the planning team and on the staff of our local United Church of Canada region, recently forwarded me this article by Bruce Epperly. Have a read and then look out for his book too! I know I plan to read it!

You will note that Epperly talks about retirement as jubilation. I think it is interesting that the Portuguese word for “retired” is “reformado” or “reformed”. I would like to think that our later years can be a time when we re-form ourselves!

Blessings for a safe, happy and healthy New Year,


Bruce Epperly: The Jubilee Years

Posted on December 17, 2020 by Alban

I regularly get a chuckle from friends when I reported that “I’m still in midlife provided I live to be 134!”  Having just reached my 68th birthday, I’ve now had to adjust this to “136,” a joyful reminder that I hope for many years of creativity ahead and also a grim notice of my mortality.  I have now reached far beyond the actuarial midpoint of my life and am on my descent, at least chronologically. 

Is it possible that the descent may also be an ascent and the years ahead be a time of spiritual growth and service, a Jubilee?  Can retired clergy, like myself, be transformational agents and partners, promoting the moral and spiritual arcs of history, once they have left the constraints and rigors of full-time ministry?

The title of my new Alban book, “The Jubilee Years,” emerged from the insights of a small group participating in the Pastoral Study Grant Program sponsored by the Louisville Institute.  When I reported that I would be studying the challenges and hopes of clergy retirement, one of my colleagues noted that in Spanish the word retirement is “jubilacion.”   As I pondered her comment, I began to imagine retirement from a different perspective, as a time of jubilation, joy and exuberance. 

Retirement can be the initiation of a pastoral vision quest. The Jubilee years can be an invitation to let go, forgive, and embrace novel possibilities in relationships, ministry, and mission, which inspire us to move forward to new adventures in learning, creativity, and service, unencumbered by the politics and responsibility of congregational ministry. 

Over the course of a year, I interviewed approximately one hundred retired ministers throughout the United States and Canada.  I discovered that although most retired clergy experience the normal physical and mental challenges of the aging process, they are also experiencing fulfillment as they pursue new personal, relational, and political adventures.  Many have responded to aging by laying out new pathways toward health, intellectual growth, mental acuity, and physical wellbeing.  Many retired pastors rejoice in the opportunity to deepen relationships with spouses, children and grandchildren, and dear friends.  Others delight in continuing their pastoral vocation, occasionally preaching or taking congregational or regional leadership roles, without the stresses and time constraints of fulltime ministerial leadership.  Many also pursue new avocations and hobbies unrelated to their pastoral careers – writing, painting, poetry, gardening, and travel.  A significant number of pastors with whom I spoke are seeking to be “good ancestors” by immersing themselves in local and national politics and environmental concerns.  Many looked forward to canvassing and making phone calls in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections and are now elated at the results of their efforts.  Virtually all of them realized the importance of the biblical counsel, “let us count our days that we might gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12)

While most retired pastors find that they need to be more intentional about health and finances, virtually every pastor reported that they felt free for spiritual and vocational meandering and, for the most part, could – in the pre-Covid days – travel more regularly to be with family or to explore North America and the planet. 

Most pastors shared that flexible planning prior to and during retirement was a significant factor in their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  The majority noted the importance of having daily, weekly, and long-term polestars to guide their daily lives.  Those who had made no plans tended to drift through the first several months of retirement. For these pastors, an unplanned life wasn’t always a negative experience. For the first time they accepted the grace of a day without agenda.  As Tolkien says, “not all who wander are lost.”  Eventually however these retired clergy felt the need to create flexible visions for the future.  As one pastor confessed, “I don’t have to preach or get involved in the community as part of my job.  Now it’s pure grace with no pressure and I’m doing more in the community than I did before.”

Many retired pastors reflected on the importance of theology, spiritual practices, and service in shaping a lively and positive retirement.  Time in theological reflection provides guideposts for the journey and gives us perspective in responding to the aging process.  Spiritual practices enable us to experience the sacrament of each new day.  Service expands our spirits and joins us with our fellow pilgrims.

Clergy retirement can be a time of abundant life and generative service. The right blend of intentionality and flexibility, service and serendipity, and solitude and relationships can make retirement a Jubilee, a season of delight and transformation, in which we claim our vocation as good ancestors for the generations to come.

Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including, The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement; Hope Beyond Pandemic; Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism;  and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Clergy Selfcare.