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The Challenges of Retirement

For Lutheran school professionals, retirement is one of those goals that fall into the “sounds like a good idea but will never happen,” category, along with such other goals as, running the Boston marathon, hang gliding off the Rockies, and owning a taco food truck called the Lunch Dash. Yes, Lutheran school professionals do not consider retirement an option, for the Call of the Lutheran professional is more than an occupation. It is a vocation that defines a life of service. In addition, the prospect of life without a steady paycheck, no matter how small, causes one to stay in the classroom. For many the thought of doing something other than leading children to drink from the well of knowledge and kneel at the feet of their Savior causes anxiety, sleepless nights and stress, that rivals that caused by the administrator announcing that one must report to the office—immediately. But retirement happens. Retirement from the Lutheran school setting presents challenges and opportunities:

Finances: Life without payday

The first payday that passes without a check from the school is the day one realizes that yes, life is different. Monthly social security deposits and pension checks replace the steady paycheck two times a month. The challenge of “fixed income” budgeting demands close attention to expenses and creates a stake in proposed tax increases.

The challenge of reduced income creates opportunities heretofore not available. For example, senior discounts allow the retiree to take advantage of savings on groceries, movie tickets, airfares, restaurants, department stores, train fares, hotel rooms, bowling alleys, and a host of other venues. These percentage savings allow one to stretch the dollar and continue to maintain one’s lifestyle.

Another opportunity available in the golden years comes via tax benefits for elderly citizens. These tax breaks provide the opportunity to earn extra spending money with a reduced tax liability. Many retired professionals have been able to supplement their income through the manufacture and selling of craft items, works of intellectual property, substitute teaching, and the like.

An observation: Afternoon casino runs are not always the best way to supplement income.

Health: Nutrition, exercise, and sleep

The big three factors for a healthy body—nutrition, exercise, and sleep—often are problems for the retired professional. After a lifetime of living by regimented days and forced evening meetings, retirement suddenly thrusts one into the world of six Saturdays and one Sunday.

Freedom from the alarm clock challenges one to develop and maintain healthy sleep patterns. There can be a temptation to catch up on a career of missed sleep by arising at the crack of noon, putting in a full six hours of wakefulness, followed by a good night’s sleep. No matter how good this sounds, it is not. Make an intentional effort to maintain a healthy sleep pattern.

An observation: Binge watching full seasons of Gilligan’s Island all night is bad – and one is stuck with a song in one’s head.

Nutrition may suffer from skipped meals, due to a lack of appetite, money, or the desire not to dirty pots and pans. Meals can deteriorate into inexpensive fast food runs, good for the budget but bad for nutrition. No matter how convenient, a steady diet of starches and fats is not good for the body.

Often forgotten, you must guard against dehydration especially if you replace water consumption with better tasting, but alcohol-infused, liquids. The freedom to consume a little wine for the stomach’s sake also challenges one to avoid the “If one is good, two is better and three is even better” approach.

An observation: Eating an apple pie paired with a good bourbon is not really a balanced meal.

The lack of a daily classroom routine means that activity levels will change, many times leaning to the sedentary—not a good thing. You need to make a conscious effort to get up and get moving each day. The elderly body may not need 10,000 steps a day, but 100 steps isn’t enough.

An observation: Walking from room to room looking for your eyeglasses really isn’t exercise.

The challenges of sleep, nutrition, and exercise provide an opportunity to actually become healthier in retirement. The retired professional has the time to spend in the gym, free through programs like Silver Sneakers. Eliminate the fifteen-minute lunch period and you will find time to prepare and consume balanced meals. Freedom to use the restroom at any time of the day leads to increased water consumption.

Aloneness: An audience of one

Having spent over 30 years interacting with others, you may find it hard to spend time with only yourself as company. Being alone is especially challenging for the retired professional whose spouse has been called home to heaven and the children making a life of their own out of the house. But even if others are in the house, the challenge is to be comfortable alone.

One challenge of being alone involves conversation. Talking to one’s self may be a sign of mental illness or mental health—depending on whom you listen to. One advantage of talking to oneself is the conversation will not be contentious, but it might be less than stimulating.

An observation: The public usually frowns upon talking to yourself, especially if you have a hard time hearing and must constantly ask, “What did you say?”

Aloneness offers the opportunity to be comfortable with oneself, even liking the solitude of the mind. Free from the demands of social interaction and response means opportunities for meditation and reflection on a level never before possible. Retirement offers time for reading, reflecting, and meditating on Scripture not previously available.

Mental Alertness: Teaching an old dog new tricks

The mind of Lutheran school professionals is constantly being challenged and growing. Each new change in curriculum, unexpected classroom dilemma, changes instituted after an administrator attends a conference, or the demands of the classroom result in mental exercises that stretch the mind. You may find it difficult to keep your mind active and growing without the discipline of these mental exercises. Mental alertness is an element that can help delay dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Old dogs can, and need to, learn new tricks.

Some retirees respond to the challenge by reading books, immersing themselves in the challenges of Sudoku, Words With Friends, Angry Birds, Twitter, Facebook, or learning a new skill, sport, language, or hobby. All of these activities, coupled with daily exercise, will keep the mind active and fit.

Lutheran school professionals are uniquely suited to stay mentally active as they seek out and stay current with the latest educational trends and treatments, mentor and tutor children and parents, teach Sunday school, and become active in local civic activities. Preparing adult Bible studies, organizing outreach efforts at the local congregation, and volunteering for congregational boards and committees all provide opportunities for mind growth.

An observation: The difference between being in the groove and stuck in a rut is just a matter of depth.

Time Management: Living life by the calendar

A watch or a clock are common retirement gifts. These timepieces are often expensive and suitably engraved to commemorate the time spent with the organization. The reality of retirement, however, is that time is not kept by a watch, but rather a calendar. The fluidly moving opportunity to create one’s own appointment book replaces daily fixed routines.

The newly retired professional is quick to accept any and all engagements, for a full day means activity, and activity means purpose. The result is the common complaint many retired professionals voice, “I am busier now than I ever was.” The challenge of time management is to find the balance between the “have-to,” “want-to,” and “get-to.”

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenge of time management. You must discern which activities are personally meaningful and fulfilling. Class periods, meetings, and professional demands no longer define your day, thus each day is an opportunity to choose your own activities. Getting dressed and out of the house each day is very important. What you wear and what you do is a matter of personal choice.

An observation: Active workers don’t always appreciate bragging about not having to attend meetings.

Purpose: Why am I still here?

Lutheran school professionals will often struggle more with the issue of purpose than any other profession. They have dedicated a lifetime to selfless giving to others: their students, their families, and the school. Lutheran school professionals define purpose in life not just in terms of a profession but also a Calling. Their purpose is a vocation of ministry, and inability to dedicate one’s time and efforts to the training of young minds diminishes the very purpose for life.

The challenge of retired Lutheran school professionals is to understand that they are still Called—Mathew 28 applies to them—but now the audience is different. When you read the words from Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” you want to put emphasis on the word, “teaching.”

After retirement, Matthew’s words take on a new dimension, with an emphasis on the word “Go.” This word in the biblical language is more correctly translated, “As you are going,” or “In your daily walk.”

What a joy that is! Every day one has an opportunity to teach and share the Good News of Jesus in settings only dreamed of before retirement. Trips to the grocery store, mall, or visits with the neighbors are mission moments. Doctors’ visits become a witnessing time as the calm assuredness of heaven can do much to help those facing illness. Each day allows an unexpected witness opportunity to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus to a hurting world.

For many Lutheran school professionals, their gifts and talents connect directly to the classroom. But you can use many of these gifts and talents to bless others. The patience of an eighth-grade teacher can be used when visiting the homebound. The arts and crafts gift of the kindergarten teacher can benefit those who are setting the tables for the senior meal site. The gusto of the music teacher can sing songs of praise and thanksgiving to those at the store, the mall, the neighborhood. The inventiveness of the grade school science teacher can bless those who struggle with resources. Purpose does not evaporate when your career ends and you enter the next phase of life free from other obligations.

An observation: To teach one’s spouse the correct way to do something may not be the best purpose in life.

Retirement happens.

Another major retirement challenge is the realization that one is closer to the end of one’s life than the beginning. The body that once was healthy and strong now betrays the years of use as steps slow, breathing labors, and every illness is a little more severe. Fears of dementia come forward each time a name is lost, the purpose of walking into the room forgotten, or the end of the story won’t come out. Fears of being alone and abandoned are reinforced by commercials touting the peace of mind one has knowing that one can fall, not get up, but push a button for instant help.

With longer life comes the yearning for the past—a time when one’s abilities, purpose, and mind were at their peak. Rigidness replaces resilience and obstinance replaces openness as the world spins by.

Retirement is a serendipitous journey! Each day allows unexpected opportunities to use one’s gifts and talents. The lack of a rigid schedule and bells announcing the next period allows for a spontaneous walk in the countryside, a drive to see fall colors, days spent visiting friends and family, travel to new or favorite destinations, and more. The challenge is not to endure this stage of life but to enjoy it and live it to the fullest. Praise Jesus!

Richard Cohrs retired in 2014 as manager of district and congregational relations for Lutheran Hour Ministries. Prior to joining LHM, Rich was a principal and teacher at various institutions in Michigan, Texas, and Illinois.

Photos © iStock/Malerapano, Gord Horne, Mioden Zivkovic, Avlntn, Steve Debenport