Pandemic Shifts Clergy Retirement Plans

By Neva Rae Fox

Clergy who retired during the pandemic are not necessarily taking it easy. Rather, many are facing busy schedules, often turning their well-honed talents and experiences to new prospects and ministries. C. Curtis Ritter, head of corporate communications for Church Pension Group, said the number of clergy retirements has not been affected. “It appears retirements have been average, and no uptick given the pandemic,” he said. “There were 475 retirements from March 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021.”

Clergy who retired during the pandemic faced some losses, such as the lack of a formal sendoff and goodbye from their parishes. “We have had a few clergy retirements during the pandemic, difficult given that ‘gratitude and Godspeed’ gatherings have not been possible,” said the Rev. Jeanne Person, the Diocese of New York’s canon for pastoral care.

With many churches closed by pandemic restrictions and moved to online worship, the need for supply clergy — ideal for retirees — has dwindled. That doesn’t mean retired clergy have been idle. Some have shifted their ministerial focus.

In lockdown, “I have been doing quite a bit of pastoral counseling via phone and email,” said the Rev. Canon Linda L. Moeller, who retired in January 2020.

“As chaplain of the Burlington [New Jersey] Convocation, I have mostly written short reflections via email on occasion, contacted folks by telephone, and communicated announcements of importance or interest as needed,” said the Rev. Alan K. Salmon. “Lockdowns are lockdowns, and since some of us my age are less than technically savvy on devices a 3-year-old today can manipulate, we muddle through.”

The Rev. Charles Kramer retired in January from historic St. James’ in Hyde Park, New York. The pandemic postponed his retirement by six months, Kramer said. “It didn’t seem responsible to leave.”

While he did some supply — in person and online — he focused on writing novels, “none of which have been published,” Kramer said, laughing. He wrote a mystery written for a child. “I had an audience of one in mind — she is delighted with it,” he smiled. “My wife said, ‘Now that you have time, you should pursue publication.’”

His writing skills meshed well in retirement with his work on the Diocese of New York’s Reparations Committee. His first project was a play, New York Lamentation. “We have a lot to lament in the past and today,” he said. “It is one of the favorite things I have done.“ Throughout the pandemic, Kramer has focused on the next big endeavor for the committee: “I am in conversation with Bishop Allen Shin to participate in a project related to reparations.”

Also busy is the Rev. Jack Gilpin, who retired as rector of St. John’s in New Milford, Connecticut. His planned October 2019 retirement waited into August 2020. “I could not leave,” he said. Gilpin is a known face to TV viewers, especially Law & Order aficionados. His previous work as an actor, he said, helped ease the transition to online worship. “It is all communication,” he said.

Since his retirement he has been supplying online worship while working on a new HBO series written by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey), set to debut in 2022. His years of ministry provided a different focus. “I feel that I am a missionary now,” Gilpin said. “My experience as a priest has fed me in a way. What I look for in my secular life is the opportunity to show people that what we talk about in church is real. It’s often in a language that people aren’t familiar with, but it’s real life.”

The Rev. Dr. Shaw Mudge planned a March 2020 retirement. Then, COVID-19 hit Connecticut and he found a creative way to use his experiences. “The parish was not enthused about going onto Zoom or other platforms before COVID hit,” he said. Mudge took the lessons he learned from developing online seminary courses for the Anglican Diocese of Belize. “I was able to connect three continents, as a missionary. So, I basically brought my knowledge into the parish setting, and now it has become the norm.”

Mudge’s retirement has found him as half-time priest in charge at St. Mark’s, New Britain, Connecticut.  He offered a pointer for online services: “One thing that helped was a tactic that I developed as a missionary: use a backdrop photo of the altar area for Sunday mornings. I sensed a spiritual nudge to spend a lot of 2019 and into 2020 taking photos of the outside and inside of the building, to have in case I needed them. They have been helpful as backdrops, as well as other resources. The altar photo that is my backdrop helps draw people into a worship atmosphere better than a background from my kitchen. It’s like we’re in church.”

His online ministry extended into a new area. “What has been helpful for some elderly people in a Morning Prayer service that my wife and I attend … is a white backdrop that has words like ‘Saturday’ at the top and ‘Easter’ at the bottom. I put the words in English, Spanish, and French, in keeping with a General Convention resolution a long time ago. My pastoral visits to long term shut-ins have informed this practice, because many times people in long-term situations lose track of time and days, a similar phenomenon to the COVID experience, and my showing up each day with the day of the week helps keep people grounded.”

The Rev. Bob Legnani, chaplain to retired clergy in the Diocese of New Jersey, addressed a recent change in his ministry. Pre-pandemic, retired clergy luncheons attracted about six to eight, a number that has recently jumped. “During the pandemic, I have had two successful Zooms which included out-of-state clergy,” he said. “Relying on Zoom during COVID has expanded our number in a way we didn’t anticipate.”

The Rev. Dr. Cathy Bickerton, who retired as the clinical pastoral education supervisor at Overlook Hospital in New Jersey, offered advice to clergy considering retirement during COVID. “I had been considering retirement for a while. People told me I needed to have a plan. In the end, there was no plan. There was a pandemic, and I still didn’t have a plan. … I love it. I have unstructured time to make my own plans. For absolutely no schedule, I am a very busy person.”


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