“Do you know why retired pastors always sit at the back of the church?” he asked, with a knowing wink.

I smile back, shaking my head. “I have absolutely no idea. Why?”

His grin broadened even more, and he leaned back in his chair with a hearty laugh.

“Because we can!”

For years, there have been numerous unwritten rules that govern the lives of pastors (and, by extension, their families):

  1. When you retire from the position, you must leave that particular church.
    • (At the very least, it made things easier for the new pastor.)
  2. Ideally, you should leave town, too.
    • (Same rationale as #1. Pragmatic, but a little heartless.)
  3. While you still have the position, you must be seated in the front row.
    • (And in most cases, that meant your family should as well. And your children had better behave angelically.)

Little wonder that retired pastors (and their grateful spouses) revel in the freedom to sit at the back of the church for a change. Or anywhere they like.

Because they can.

They are free of the expectations of the parishioners. Free of the subculture that declares: ‘this is what pastors must do’. Free of the weight of responsibility for leading. (I’ll bet Moses was the happiest retiree of his generation, after forty years in the wilderness with the merry band of cutthroats he’d been given to lead.)

But aside from congregational expectations, I suspect there is a much deeper reason for their new-found appreciation of the back row in the sanctuary.

Even in the healthiest, most team-based leading environments, there is a very real weight that pastors carry. A burden of responsibility that few can fully appreciate or relate to. As St. Paul put it:

“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28)

To not have this sense of concern — or responsibility — would make the pastor a “hired gun”; just filling a position, putting in time doing a job, callously earning a paycheque.

Jesus is THE Shepherd of His flock, the Church (John 10:1-16). Nobody is suggesting otherwise. But pastors do carry a weight of responsibility for the people they are leading. If they don’t, they’re not pastors. They could be any one of several other options — entertainer, charlatan, snake-oil salesman, or to use Jesus’ phrase, a “hired hand”.

But not pastor. Pastors care, and deeply.

Sitting in the back row after retiring may mean much, much more than simply being free of the ‘traditional’ seating arrangement expected by church-goers. It could easily also be a sign of the release of the responsibility that comes with the position — a time to rest from hard, but hopefully rewarding, labour in the Body of Christ.

If, perchance, you know any back-row pastors, take a moment the next time you see one, and thank them for their years of service. Maybe share an encouraging word. Perhaps you could even pray together, just for a moment.

Make the back row a seat of honour.