" A Change of Career "

Peter Sipple
Bryn Mawr, PA
November 16, 2005

I address this web site piece to those of you still pursuing a career: I admire you. And to those not still pursuing a career: I admire you. I am ambivalent about what all of us are doing, beginning with myself.

Some of our generation are adding codas to our life-sonatas, tails that complement the themes developed in the body of our work. Drawing on architecture rather than music, we might say we're designing small out-buildings — tea-houses or gazebos — that reflect the motifs carried out in the main. (I once knew a boarding school mathematics teacher who built a retirement house he called "Aftermath.") Only time will tell whether these after-thoughts will have made positive contributions to society — or for that matter to ourselves.

Our parents' generation was more fixed on "retirement" as a distinct point in time. They charted one part of life ending at 65, with a new one underway, distinguished by the absence of work. As I think of the fathers of classmates I knew best — the thirteen whose sons sang in the '62 Whiffs — only one I'm aware of, Ben Cutler, continued on well past "retirement," leading his dance band as if age meant nothing.

My father was more like the others, marking the end of his teaching career by a move to Florida to pursue his woodworking hobby, play golf, and help my mother deal with the uprooting she'd undergone for his sake. He had talked of, and later regretted not pursuing, another line of work — fixing up older homes and reselling them, something he would have been good at; and given the growth in Broward County in the thirty years my parents lived there, he might have succeeded beyond all expectations. But something held him back, and I now think that something was the social norm that said enough is enough —now it's someone else's turn. Hobbies are in; career is over.

Our fathers' sons are not receiving that message as clearly. For one thing, we will live a bit longer on average. Turning 65, we realize that the two to three decades we may have left span nearly as long a period as our career. For another, we've helped create a work place more dependent on technological know-how, communication skills, and "counsel" — attributes that elders are supposed to possess. Yes, we deserve to relax and have fun, but for many that's not enough. The mind is still good, the energy level OK, and the vehicle still in "drive" mode.

This message has its down side, however. Some of us may be hearing that we should continue working — that our achievements to date aren't quite what they could be — or could have been. We need to listen carefully to what we're hearing.

I spent thirty years in education, first as college teacher and then school administrator. Preparing for this career and nearing the end of graduate school, I decided to undertake one more degree and followed my wife Margaret to the theological seminary she'd been attending. Originally neither of us meant to pursue ordination, but a few years and more study later (1974) a bishop ordained me deacon and then priest in the Episcopal Church. The three schools I headed were Church-related, and I thought of my work there as teaching, administration and school ministry. Parish ministry would have represented an obvious alternative, but I didn't consider a move to it in those years.

Peter addresses the congregation

Leaving schoolwork in 1998, I spent some time at Yale Divinity School, pursuing my interest in church music and then serving as a development officer. Time spent around all those religious types started me thinking about parish work. In light of my age, an obvious vehicle was interim ministry — a likely option in our denomination given the turnover in clergy and the length of time (1-2 years) between rectors (the term used for the head clergy-person in an Episcopal Church).

So it was with some pleasure that I answered a call to interim ministry in early 2000 at a church in Bryn Mawr, PA. I was about to get my liturgical feet wet! Margaret and I loved the year at the Church of the Redeemer. During our time there, she accepted a leadership role with the Diocese of Pennsylvania, a position from which she just retired. So we sold our home in New Haven and bought a small row house in Philadelphia. I worked for two years for a Church-led social service agency in the city, and then was called to a parish in Chestnut Hill for another year's interim.

Having determined that interim ministry was what I was good for and at, I was astonished to receive a call from the bishop last December asking if I would consider returning to the church in Bryn Mawr, but this time as Rector. I'd had my 65th birthday and wondered out loud how much sense that would make. The bishop, and soon thereafter the "senior warden" — the top lay leader in the parish — suggested that I think about a fixed term of five years, to age 70, allowing the parish some stability with a "known quantity" and me a "tail" to my career. "OK," I said, and ducked.

Sipple at the Church of the Redeemer

Having pursued this new line of work for six months now, I can't say for sure that the move to full-time ministry was a smart one for me. I like what I'm doing, but the demands on time and energy are designed for someone twenty years younger. Those demands are similar to what I experienced heading schools. They include supervising a team of ministers (three of us clergy and a staff of 12); working closely with a vestry — the leadership group that resembles a school board; helping people deal with major spiritual life-experiences (e.g. baptisms, marriages, and funerals — a.k.a. "hatchin', matchin' and dispatchin'"); planning and offering worship services; writing sermons; helping the parish stay fiscally solvent (the budget is about $1.5 million); keeping committees productive and their members engaged; and making lots of pastoral calls.

During most of my first half-year, I worked seven days a week, but doing it all for the first time with the stakes higher rendered me less time-efficient than I will have to be to make it through the next 4½ years.

If you've read this far, thanks, classmate! Let me know what you think and whether you're still engaged in your life-work. If so, I will look to you for inspiration! Or next reunion, ask me how it's going?

(Peter's e-mail address is sipplemp@comcast.net)