Tom Brady, the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and seven-time Superbowl champion, announced his retirement this past week (for the second time). Brady retired a year ago but changed his mind a few days later to return to the physically demanding sport of pro football at 45 years of age, telling fans there was “unfinished business.”   

    However, after struggling this past year, Brady faced reality and concluded, “I’m retiring for good.” He briefly thanked those who had helped him “live his absolute dream” and, choking back tears, quickly turned the video off.

     Good for Tom Brady. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). That includes retirement. In some occupations, retirement is voluntary. In others, it is mandatory. The appropriate age is different for a pro football player than a Walmart greeter. Regardless of the nature of your employment, there will come a time to step down and make room for younger leaders.

     Retirement is in the Bible
On occasion, I’ve heard Christians insist, “There’s no such thing as retirement in the Bible.” They argue that church leaders should go full force until they die. “Better to burn out than rust out!” they quip. Yet, while the Bible commands us to be “faithful unto death,” the principle of retirement is actually in the Bible.

     Numbers 8:23-26 reads: “The Lord said to Moses, ’This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.’”

     Notice God required the priests to retire at age fifty! However, that does not mean the older priests were to quit altogether. Although they were to stop performing the rigorous and stressful labor that was required of a priest –  handling and slaughtering livestock, for instance – they were to continue assisting the younger priests in fulfilling duties at the tabernacle.

     I speak from experience. Retirement is terrific!
I retired as Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, when I was 62. I had served in that role for 40 years. While I was still healthy and alert, I retired for two reasons:

     First, the future of our church would need younger, more energetic leadership. Churches were just beginning the trend of establishing satellite campuses. I had been the senior pastor through five new construction building programs for our church and numerous other stressful situations. I felt I did not have the energy to go through another significant project. I concluded that I needed to step aside for the good of the church.

     Second, I retired to start another meaningful chapter in my life. I wanted to encourage younger pastors, speak at other churches and events, and continue writing while I still had the health to do it. So I needed to step away from the pressure of pastoring a megachurch. I had witnessed other older ministers stay at their church too long, and they ended up tearing down what had taken years to build up. Another megachurch minister later acknowledged, “I preached at my church for 44 years. It should have been 40.”

     Rare is the person who retires in a timely fashion. Consider college basketball, where there have been more Adolph Rupp’s than John Wooden’s.  John Wooden of UCLA retired on top after winning his 10thNCAA national championship. Contrast that with legendary Kentucky Head Coach Adolph Rupp. Despite having led the Wildcats to four NCAA championships, at the end of Rupp’s career, he had not won a championship in over a decade. Frustrated fans murmured that the game had passed him by and wished for him to step down.

     As of June 2023, I will have been retired for 17 years, and it has been the best chapter of my life. I wish I had known how enjoyable it would be to live into my late 70s. I am still active, mentally alert, and healthy. I enjoy being with my grandchildren and playing golf. I go to fitness training three times a week. I get up early each day to study the Bible. Each year I am able to preach 35-40 times throughout the country and facilitate numerous mentoring retreats for younger pastors. And each week, I spend time researching and writing an article for this blog.

     Yet recently, I have noticed that preaching requires significant energy, and I feel more drained than when I preached two decades ago. A few months ago, I was a guest preacher at Southeast Christian, and during the first hour, I inadvertently left an important paragraph out of my message, and I was upset by that. I would have rarely made that mistake years ago, but I did the very same thing the second hour! The repeated mistake was a subtle reminder that my alertness is slipping away.

     Comedian Mark Lowery once said he was at that age when he had to make a daily decision, “Do I want to tie my shoes or do I want to breathe!” The Bible tells us that “We waste away.” Slowly, our body weakens. Our energy wanes. Our patience diminishes. Our mind slows. It is nearly imperceptible at first, so we do not notice it. But it happens.

      Eighty years old is too old to be the Leader of the Free World.
Since I am now 79 years old, I have concluded an 80-year-old person has no business being the president of the United States. Can they be a wise counselor? Yes. But whether it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump, “There is a time for everything,” and if you are in your eighties, it is not the time to run for President again to lead the world’s most influential nation. Since the Old Testament priests were required to step aside at 50, it is not unreasonable to expect politicians to step aside before they become octogenarians. Doing so prevents them from potentially endangering the country they have served for decades. 

         To make the most of retirement.

  • Be realistic. Everyone ages. We all reach a point of ineffectiveness.
  • Get your self-worth from your identity in Christ and not your occupation.
  • Set a retirement date in advance and stick to it. You think you will know when it is time, but most do not. Be proactive. Make an unemotional decision long in advance.
  • Retire to something, not just from something. It is not enough to step away from the pressure. You need something meaningful to do.
  • Stay active! Identify your “sweet spot” and find ways to use your primary gifts in service to others. Author Bob Buford calls it “moving from success to significance.”
  • Learn to be content even though you are not as important in the eyes of the world as you once were. Who cares? You still matter to your family, your close friends, and, most importantly, to God. You are not in competition with anyone.
  • Be joyful and make the most of every day. Say with the Psalmist: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it”(Psalms 118:24 KJV).
  • Increasingly focus on eternity. Regardless of what happens to your mind and body, the best is yet to be!

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).

                        Bob Russell is retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.