2016 is the year my odometer turns from 49 to 50. I’ve never given much thought to other age milestones. Life was too busy to slow down and consider the impact of turning 30. Turning 40 didn’t prompt a moment’s worth of reflection. But turning 50 has been different. It doesn’t bother me. (I don’t mean that.) But it has made me stop and realize that I am in the middle of the biggest life transition I have experienced in decades.
I was in my 20’s the last time I experienced anything like this. Like most folks, during that time I transitioned from student to worker, single to married, and carefree young adult to responsible father. I put my childhood behind me and stepped into a lifestyle that would define my life for the next 25+ years. It’s the only adult life I have ever known.
But now I’m 50. The career I graduated from school to pursue is established, the married life I anticipated having is a blessed reality, and the children I held for the first time with a mixture of heart stopping love and terror are now in their 20’s making lives of their own. In other words, the goals that consumed my life for the last few decades have been achieved. The only adult life that I have ever known has drawn to a conclusion.
I recognize that is a terrifying thought for many. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve had a moment or two of pondering whether or not anything important is left. But then it occurs to me that I’m only 50! I’ve got decades of life left if the Lord grants them! There is still so much left that I can do. Overlooking that possibility is what makes this particular transition so dangerous.
Especially for those of us in ministry.
It is easy for pastors my age to acknowledge the sunset of the first stage of adult life without acknowledging the dawn of a new one. When that happens, drift sets in. We convince ourselves that we know it all, so we no longer need to learn. Or, we convince ourselves that improvement in our preaching or leadership or pastoral care is now impossible because, at this stage of life, “we are what we are.” In other words, we begin to push back on the notion that we have limitations or resign ourselves to them. We begin to drift.
The tidal force of spiritual apathy carries this drift along. Spiritual disciplines wane. Passion dies. Resolve weakens. Sin erupts. Midlife crises may be cliché, but only because it’s real. When we convince ourselves there is nothing left to shoot for; nothing left for which to prepare, we join David on the palace porch looking for something to make us feel alive and vital again when we should be in battle. Suddenly, all that we lived our entire adult life working for is wrecked.
How do we avoid the carnage?
We are all familiar with Paul’s autobiography recorded in Philippians 3; a life that he deemed an utter waste until he found Christ. As he tells it, it wasn’t until finding Christ that his journey really began. As a result, he was committed to “press on toward the goal for the price of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). What can we learn from Paul’s spiritual journey that will keep us from wasting the new day that mid-life represents?
We learn that we must press on in our pursuit of God. We must remember that we are stewards of the life God has given us and that this stewardship is demanded for every day, every decade, and every stage. Mid-life should bring with it a humility that we need Christ more than ever that makes our relationship with him more vital than ever. We’ve lived long enough to see the dogged darkness in our own lives and in the lives of people we shepherd. That should drive us to the feet of Jesus with a passion we couldn’t have fathomed when we were younger and less experienced.
We learn from Paul that we must also press on in the stewardship of our call. Mid-life should bring with it a commitment to plan for our future in ministry. Don’t arrogantly ignore your limitations and don’t resign yourself to them. You should be better at preaching right now than you have ever been. But get better. You should be more skilled as a leader after decades of ministry than you have ever been. But get better.
Read more. Learn. In fact, why not go to school again? The advent of online options has made it possible for our generation of mid-lifers to pursue more education than those who went before us ever dreamed. Seminary prepared many of us for the life we currently have. Why not use seminary to help prepare us for the life God has waiting?
Finally, don’t believe the lie that a youth-centric culture tells you about your life. Those of us who are a little older know better. The best part of life is ahead. For me, this is a time of great joy. I enjoy my wife. I enjoy my kids. I enjoy my church. God has allowed me to experience a harvest joy from the seeds of grace He sowed into my life up to this point. How ungrateful would it be to lament the passing time when God has done so much to fill our lives and our hearts?
So, mid-life pastor, look back with gratitude. But look forward with hope. God isn’t close to being done with you yet.