Most pastors aren't dreaming of retirement. A 2009 study of Church of Christ pastors, for example, found that only 1 of 4 had plans for full retirement; more than that said they didn't plan to retire at all.

But for the senior pastor of one church, retirement was practically unthinkable. On February 28, Pope Benedict XVI became the first Roman Catholic pope in nearly six centuries to leave the position without dying in office.

In some ways, Benedict's resignation sent the most important message of his papacy, said Chris Castaldo, director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal at the Billy Graham Center and author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic. The First Vatican Council, with its emphasis on papal infallibility and "supreme apostolic authority," distanced popes from their flocks. This resignation highlights the leader's vulnerability and limits, Castaldo said.

"Ministry is not about us as pastors or church leaders—it's about the needs of the church," Castaldo said. "When we realize that we no longer have the strength, then as a matter of stewardship it's appropriate for us to step down."

Protestant leaders could take a cue from Benedict's choice, said Will Willimon, 66, who retired last year as a bishop in the United Methodist Church and now teaches at Duke Divinity School. He said he has always been afraid of staying past his usefulness in a ministry role and promised when he was elected as bishop to serve for only eight years.

"I don't want to stay so long that I become a liability," he said.

However, other leaders say pastors are leaving the ministry too soon and instead should be encouraged to stay and pass ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.