The Roman god Janus is depicted in a two-faced profile, symbolizing looking backward and forward simultaneously. He was the god of beginnings and endings, therefore, of transitions. That image rings true for those in mid-career, a time often perceived as stable, an epoch of feeling “settled.” Adventures are behind us; goals and dreams of the younger self have either been realized or deferred.
But as the Janus image represents, the stage of vocational mid-career is one of movement and change, even as one looks back while looking ahead. For those experiencing the years of mid-career, the poise and confidence that comes with experience and competence belies internal stirrings of the heart.
Mid-career can bring confidence and accomplishment but also uncertainty, angst, restlessness, and new challenges. Some embrace feeling “settled,” while others may experience restlessness and dissatisfaction. Some need to reclaim a vocational calling; others need the courage to take on new challenges. At the same time, others can only hope to manage plodding in the face of pressures and limitations too complex to overcome.
When asked what challenges they face in mid-career, here is what a group of clergy shared:
TRANSITIONS AND DISCERNMENT
“I struggle with the ‘now what?’ question. Having been in ministry for 17 years, 12 in my current congregation, I wonder what I am called to be and do next. I’m uncertain if it will be parish ministry, though staying provides some sense of security. But is this where God wants me?”
“I am exploring other forms of ministry other than the church or congregational parish ministry. I am anxious about whether it’s too late to make a career change into a chaplaincy or a non-profit organization. I still don’t know what form a new ministry context may take. I am feeling more and more that my calling is changing.”
“‘What next?’ is the question that most often shadows me. I’m happy in my church, but finding myself this side of 50, I wonder what else may be out there for me for the next fifteen, twenty years?”
“Some of my questions have to do with the forms of church in the future. I do not think I could keep the demanding pace a pastor experiences today. I have personal tastes in worship styles that differ from the more contemporary styles widely used among newer churches. What will church and ministry look like in the future? I serve as a resource person for churches and their leaders. What will that mean a decade from now and beyond?”
STEWARDSHIP OF TIME AND ENERGY
“For one, I have been forced to ponder retirement and how I will spend that time. I do not plan to retire until about seventy-five, so I have twenty more years of full-time ministry. However, I now feel a little more pressure to prepare for that time and reflect on how I will spend these last years of full-time ministry.”
“My biggest challenge right now is staying energized in a ministry setting that is ‘stuck,’ while not necessarily unhealthy regarding good relationships and committed members. However, I wonder if what my members are committed to has much to do with what the Church is supposed to be about. The congregation is growing grayer. And while they care for each other, there is not much motivation to care for the needs of those outside the church. It challenges my sense of calling and purpose, even as they affirm and love me.”
“My wife retired a few months ago. Someone asked me, ‘When will you retire?’ I answered, ‘It depends on how jealous I get.’ I think my answer has something to do with aging. I do not have the physical stamina or resilience I once had. I feel physically tired and emotionally weary. I have gotten more tired and started to tire of the parts of ministry that drain energy from me rather than energize me. I find it harder to stay invested, to work creatively, and to initiate new things rather than tend to existing things. That can stagnate a vital ministry and, for my personality type, can lead to boredom.”
“I still experience the joys of ministry, and I carry a token in my pocket that reminds me to ‘finish strong and well.’ Yet I feel tired. The fatigue, in whatever form, makes it hard to keep up with the increased workload. I have gifts and experience that equip me for the work, and I find it harder and harder to have the weekly personal Sabbath time that refreshes me.”
“I struggle to find energy to maintain my spirituality amid the demands of church and family. Finding any sense of ‘balance’ eludes me. Dealing with the mundane issues of church management has become numbing: budgets, buildings, committees, etc.”
“Last year, I sank into a depression that took me completely by surprise. With no specific crisis in the church, I can only describe this as a Dark Night of the Soul experience. I’m finding it harder to find meaning in what has become predictable patterns and the endless chores and demands of ministry.”
“A more positive challenge I now face is the transition from the person asking for advice to the person younger ministers come to for advice and encouragement. I like this part of aging and would not return to the early years. I am learning to embrace my station in life and feel “real” for really the first time in my life.”
“I know that I need to cultivate new friendships and a supportive community of peers. I no longer have significant relationships with my seminary peers. Some have left ministry, relationships have drifted, and most now have different interests from my own. I have not found others with the same questions I do at this stage in life and ministry.”
If you are in mid-career, can you relate to these sentiments and experiences? What are you doing to thrive in your mid-career years with its transitions and opportunities for discernment? The Center for Lifelong Learning provides avenues for self-discovery, discernment, and thriving in its Pastoral Excellence Programs.
We invite you to invest in yourself and your calling by joining us in a program that meets your needs. Click HERE to learn more.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary.