Thank God I am in charge of next to nothing. Mostly I take care of the garden and pets these days (Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway; Random House, 2017).

Earl is my hero. At age 95, he volunteers as a greeter in the hospital lobby two days a week. I chat with him when I volunteer, giving rides to patients from parking lots A and B in my six-passenger golf cart. “Why do you keep doing this?” I asked him. He replied, “Because I want to make a difference, John.” 

Six years into retirement as a pastor, I still wonder what it means to make a difference. The riddle remains. The clues keep changing. 

Whatever you were doing for years, the question doesn’t go away. What does it mean to make a difference when you cross over this frontier, this life passage? People assure you that you still make a difference, but they often stammer when you ask how.  

I’m not certain how being a retired pastor differs from other callings. On the one hand, it’s much like anyone who has been in a public position. 


What does it mean to make a difference when you cross over this frontier, this life passage? People assure you that you still make a difference, but they often stammer when you ask how.  


On the other hand, though you don’t bear the “indelible mark” of Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood, neither do you vacate the ministerial office of your public vows. When you go to the gym and the front desk person greets you with “Hey, Reverend,” even theologically it sounds just fine. 

Don’t get me wrong. There is a certain grace in being “irrelevant.” After all, many of us complained for years about evening meetings with the finance committee and Friday night wedding rehearsals. Supply preaching and interim ministries may fill the gap for a season or three or four. But even those worthy endeavors fade into the “old documents” file of your formerly polished résumé. 

While recognizing that everything in our world is judged by its supposed usefulness, theologian Henri Nouwen came to believe that in questioning this worldly creed, faithful and effective ministry is born. “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. This is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love,” he wrote in In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad, 1992). 

Nouwen was thinking of ministry in general and of the importance of personal authenticity and appropriate vulnerability. But who knew that sooner or later we might be led to this surprising grace of being “irrelevant” by something as commonplace as retirement. Perhaps it is only when all our striving has ceased, when anything that counts as an activity becomes impossible, that we fulfill our baptismal vocation.  

Whatever the season of life, making a difference is always for Christ’s sake. Our faith tradition from Martin Luther likes to speak of the “doings of the saints.” Essential to that “doing” is allowing others to greet us, visit us, touch us, befriend us, pray for us and, yes, wash our feet when we can no longer stoop down. 

Could it be that sooner or later the difference we make is the difference we welcome others to make with us? I may not live up to Earl’s example, but I count on his greeting me one day at another door. 

John Berntsen
Berntsen is an author and a retired pastor of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. He resides with his family in Bucks County, Pa.   

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