John Beeble recently retired from his job as construction executive in Denver, Colorado. Not wanting to fully retreat from working life, John started his own consulting company.
“There’s only one rule about my consulting company—no employees. I did that for 20 years,” he said, with a note of weariness in his voice. Yet he violated his rule less than a year into starting his firm. As clients multiplied, he needed an executive assistant to manage the demands on his time.
“I’m trying to discern what’s next in this phase of life,” said Beeble, feeling the tug between rest, family, and work. “I want to stay engaged, but not in the same way as during my career. Give me some time to figure this out.”
He’s not alone. Baby boomers are retiring at an average of 10,000 per day; over the next 20 years, an estimated 70 million boomers will stop working. Those over age 65 are the fastest-growing age demographic in the United States.
It’s not just America, either. The world is rapidly aging.
“From 2025 to 2050 the older [over age 65] population is projected to almost double to 1.6 billion globally,” the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2015, only 8.5 percent of the world was over 65; by 2050, that number is expected to reach 16.7 percent.
For most of them, retiring from work is not a financial option. Among those who can, many—both Christians and their neighbors—are expressing a growing sense of unease about the future.
Across the developed world, the dominant paradigm for retirement is about vacation—how to afford it and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit—a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. A wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.”
Yet older Christians are sounding the alarm that retirement as a never-ending vacation promises more than it can ever deliver.
The closest the Bible comes to our modern idea of retirement is found Numbers 8:25: “And from the age of 50 years [the Levites] shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.”
Since hauling tabernacle furniture was hard physical labor, older Levites were commanded to instead “minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting”—a hint that God doesn’t intend for our work to completely stop, but rather to morph and mature with age.
Though retirement may be foreign to Scripture, the Old Testament idea of becoming an elder is not. Far from being an insult, the term “elder” was associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability—the assumed fruit of experience and age.
“Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is always used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. One example is the elder teaching wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10).
Scripture is replete with elders playing a critical role in redemptive history. Sarah was 90 when she miraculously gave birth to Isaac. Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they confronted Pharaoh. Anna, an 84-year-old widow who devoted herself to fasting, prayer, and worship, “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Far from being whisked off to desert golf courses or Caribbean cruises, elders were sought out for time-tested wisdom (Proverbs 31:23).
Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, believes two ideas—wisdom and blessing—comprise the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes. Elders are called lay down former titles and professional roles, yet take up a mantle of wisdom and affirmation for a coming generation.
From Retirement to Sabbatical
The issue in today’s culture is twofold: We don’t have clearly marked rites of passage into “eldership” (outside of the formal New Testament church office), and most men and women entering retirement feel the need for renewal—sometimes physically, most often spiritually.
Because of this, rather than completely ceasing from work, a growing number of older adults entering retirement are taking a sabbatical—an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months to rest, worship, remember, and listen for God’s voice in order to discern next steps. The idea is rooted in Leviticus 25, where God gives instructions for a sabbath year to allow the land to rest before resuming productivity.
“When we moved to a new state following my retirement, I decided to take a private sabbatical,” says Lowell Busenitz, a retired professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma. “One goal of my sabbatical was to use it to get a clearer perspective on this phase of life in order to get my future launched in the right direction.” Busenitz used early retirement to take long walks in the Colorado sunshine, read, study the life of King David, visit family, and reflect how God has shaped his career and working life.
“While I do not want to continue the teaching and research with the same intensity as before, the Holy Spirit has brought home in me that I was to stay reasonably close to my roots in entrepreneurship,” Busenitz said. “Some directions remain a puzzle right now, but I am becoming increasingly okay with that.”
Some older Christians elect to live out their vocation right where they are.
Ellen Snyder, a retired lifelong hospital volunteer, continues to serve at a day center for the homeless. Verona Mullison, a retired Cru missionary, sees retirement as an opportunity to explore the sciences, which she’s loved since she was a child. Joanne Butler, 68, a cashier at an Einstein Bagels in southern Colorado, makes a countercultural choice to wake up each morning to coffee and cinnamon crunch bagels.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be retired,” Butler said. “But I like talking to people. This is where I belong.”
After a sabbatical, Barry Rowan, the former CFO of Nextel and Vonage, decided to return to business.
“I came to see that the purpose of business is to bring about a better society as seen through the eyes of God,” Rowan said. After his sabbatical, his work was endowed with renewed peace and purpose. He saw his work as not just a way to make money, but a God-given opportunity to build businesses around “responsible value creation, creating an environment where employees can flourish, serving customers, and being good corporate citizens.” Now in his 60s, he is also seeking to mentor young Christian business leaders. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire,” Rowan said.
For many, retirement is a new season to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10), yet from a heart being ever renewed by the gospel (2 Cor. 4:16).
Perhaps the coming “gray dawn” of the global church will not produce an economic apocalypse, but rather a movement of older Americans who choose a truly uncommon path for retirement—one of a deeper rest, a deeper sense of peace, a deeper acceptance of the realities of aging, and a deeper sense of responsibility for the world God so loves (John 3:16).
“Give me some time to figure this out,” says retired executive John Beeble. Indeed, now is the time for pastors, scholars, and Christian leaders to paint a more beautiful picture of work, rest, vocation, and aging for the millions of older adults longing to hear God’s voice for the next season of life.
This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition, and is an adapted excerpt from my forthcoming book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.