Latest from the Wayne Oates Institute
Avoiding the Helplessness of Forced Retirement
A Legacy Presentation by Dr. Wayne E. Oates
taken from Chapter 6 of The Struggle To Be Free: My Story and Your Story
A third example of the dilemma of helplessness that I have managed to avoid thus far is forced retirement. I am in my sixty-fifth year, but I have had skirmishes and battles with the threat of forced retirement. If you are a younger reader, my story may give you a pattern of action for long-term planning for your later years. If you are in your fifties or sixties, this may be a sharing with a fellow struggler. If you are past sixty-five or seventy, you may be able to share secrets of dealing with the realities of forced retirement.
The first intimations of the threat of retirement grabbed me when a colleague of mine, eleven years older, was forced, much against his will, to retire. He did not really know what his work status was until six months before he had to retire. Nor could he get a straight story as to his status. The days passed, the weeks passed. He began to feel increasingly helpless because his pension funds had been poorly handled by his employer. Finally, he asked his immediate supervisor what his status was. He was told that his contract could not be renewed because the decision makers questioned his loyalty to the institution.
Immediately I urged my friend to join me in the search for another job. Providentially, former colleagues of ours saw to it that he was happily employed elsewhere. That was in 1972. Today, ten years later, he is still working quite productively on that job, though he is “retired” from the previous one.
I tell you this story in order to say that at that time I was fifty-five years of age. The gut-level question was thrust at me as to my stance toward being caught in that state of helplessness, powerlessness, and even the feeling of uselessness that he endured for a span of six months. God had delivered him. What could I learn from his painful experience?
As if this were not enough, I began to get letters and long-distance telephone calls from widely diverse areas of the country in which people told me that they had heard that I was retiring. The rumor persisted. I think it may have been at least partly due to the close association friends of ours knew existed between me and the colleague ofwhom I have just spoken. Yet the long series of such messages still remains a mystery to me.
The creative value of the strange confluence of events was to force me to face the issue of forced retirement ten years before I was to be faced with mandatory retirement at sixty-five. Ibegan to search the literature on retirement. I conferred with my physician about my health. I surveyed the options for other employment for myself. I sought foundation grants to support my tenure as a professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary, to no avail. Nevertheless, I decided to create an open-ended kind of work situation that would permit me to work after the age of sixty-five. I resolved that pension funds, Social Security, and savings were “disability insurance” to me, not retirement money. I decided that for me retirement, as such, was not a necessity and not an option to be considered. I would work as long as God gave me good health. I committed myself to use the intelligence he had given me to pursue a way of life that would contribute to health and not disease.
I have told you, in the chapter on “factory education,” some of the most important events that led to my resignation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1973, ending my tenure there in 1974. One of the more profound reasons for that change of work was that I too would be terminated at the age of sixty-five regardless of the significance for my well-being. It was a rule handled legally and not personally. I would be no exception. There was no use debating, discussing, or fretting in helplessness over it. That would be wasted breath, sleep, and peace of mind, all of which are precious necessities for a healthy life and an unhindered witness for Jesus Christ.
I went to the University of Louisville School of Medicine on a “three-fourths” contract, quite the same as physicians in academic medicine. This contract requires three-fourths teaching time of me. The other fourth of the time I have complete freedom on a schedule that I arrange to lecture in other parts of the country, to do research, to write, and to do personal counseling on a fee-taking basis. The income that comes from these is my own, although I return the counseling fees to the budget of the program in ethics and pastoral counseling, which I direct. It has been my purpose to develop this “one-fourth” of my work into a self-employment structure. I have been effective in accomplishing this goal. My work as a lecturer, an author, an editor, a consultant, and a pastoral counselor has enriched the teaching I do with theological students, pastors, medical students, and psychiatric residents. The internal consistency of the diversified efforts presents a minimum of frustration and a maximum of satisfaction and creativity. The opportunity to make new friends and expand the horizons of my understanding has been awe-inspiring to me.
Until the spring of 1981, I fully expected to retire from the University of Louisville. The difference would be that I had developed my self-employment capability to the point that it could—and still can—be turned rather quickly into a full-time earning capacity. I did not feel trapped, helpless, and at the mercy of circumstances beyond my control. The struggle to be free from these feelings was being rewarded by the Providence of God and the renewal, fresh strength, and intensified sense of purpose and calling God gave me. My health improved dramatically and the level of physical pain decreased and became more manageable. The freedom to plan my own schedule was a real liberation. A minimum of administrative meetings and a maximum of student and patient contact were invigorating.
Not the least of the renewal I experienced has been the opportunity to reestablish old friendships as well as form new ones. I have found that this is one of the secrets of grace for the person in later maturity: the recementing of relationships formed in the past. Doing this taps sources of power for the renewal of my life and also for influence to commend, introduce, and encourage younger men and women who are “getting their start” in the ministry, in medicine, and in the other professions as I have opportunity.
These have all been fruits of the struggle to be free from the threat of forced retirement. As if this were not enough, the chairman of the department and the dean of the School of Medicine and the president of the University in 1981 recommended to the trustees of the University to extend my tenure from 1982 to 1987. Thus the end of my contract with the University extends until I shall have become seventy years of age, the Lord willing. I said to our chairman, Dr. John Schwab: “You have not only given me life and freedom to work, but you have now given me more of it.” The astounding thing about this set of events is that I did not ask for it to happen, nor did I know that it was in the making. I was surprised by joy and generosity!
The reality of retirement happens to people all around me. One friend becomes ill at sixty-one and struggles with what he calls “burnout” on his job. In his helplessness he considers “early retirement.” He has no avocation, no all-consuming hobby, and his retirement benefit shrinks in its worth before his eyes. I struggle and contend with him that his life is not “over.” Another friend is a part of a “reduction in force” of the company with which he has worked for thirty years. He is fifty-nine. He demands full disability pay and gets it. Now—what is he going to do with the rest of his life? Stay angry? Get fat? Stay drunk? Just work at amusing himself? Or does he have skills that can put him to work at a self-employed task that earns money, enriches his life with new purpose, and extends the days of his years?
Masses of people are in fretful helplessness now because of the “insecurity” of the Social Security system. Others who are still working see their contributions to Social Security decrease their monthly earnings more and more while the nightly news leaves them feeling that this is a shaky investment. Yet neither group can do anything specific about it beyond writing letters to Congress, lobbying, and voting. Even so, all of us are comparatively helpless in dealing with this system. We can be genuinely grateful that these benefits make a real difference in millions of people's lives. Yet at the same time we ask to be spared the fate of having this as the one alternative for life's basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Specters of the Great Depression haunt people in their late fifties, in their sixties and their seventies. Before God, what can we make of all this endemic helplessness?
- Published: 31 October 2008