Forever Calling

Tom Scott

MY FIRST ACT IN retirement was to turn off my phone at night. The second was to change my socks. More about the socks in a moment.

I’m an Episcopal priest. My decades of fulltime active service were spent leading several parishes. Upon retirement, turning off my phone at night meant I was no longer readying myself for emergencies and crises. My wife—and our children in the early years—would no longer have me leaving suddenly because something awful was unfolding in the lives of others. Dinners, holiday celebrations, even vacations would no longer be interrupted—either briefly or at length—by whatever the phone might bring. Others, of course, live the same way, everybody from doctors to firemen to plumbers.

A parish is a nonprofit corporation with staff and property, which a rector manages as head of the board of directors known as a vestry. In addition, as a parish leader, I was responsible for all worship, education, community involvement and pastoral care.

Not all Episcopal clergy serve congregations. Some work in the business world. Others are school and university faculty. Clergy may be therapists, chaplains, counselors, physicians, lawyers and so on. Some serve in the military and as research scientists. All have assignments as clergy, but they aren’t on call 24/7/365.

No parish cleric is a solo operator. We advise and support each other, and we also encourage members of our congregation to care for one another. I certainly encouraged such service, and I remain forever grateful and inspired by what these congregants offer.

Still, as a rector, I was the one who would get the calls, usually without warning: victims of terrible accidents, people at the end of life, babies not able to survive, families having to discontinue life support and donate a loved one’s organs, people in hospice at their life’s end, nurses and doctors devastated when a patient died.

For these emergency calls, I was taught it was important to wear “the uniform”: a dark suit with a black clergy shirt and white “dog collar,” and traditional black cap-toe Oxfords with over-the-calf plain black socks. I was to be both immediately identifiable and personally invisible. I was to be an icon, a visual symbol of the church before I even opened my mouth.

I also got the calls for all church matters, from no light or heat to robberies, flood and weather damage, and all manner of uproar in the congregation. I was called to help find runaway children, locate wandering older people, help families cope with the painful and disruptive consequences of addiction, infidelity and scandal, and more.

I wore the uniform every day.

There was nothing special about me in any of this. It is what parish clergy do. There are men and women doing this work everywhere you look. For those who know better, the jokes about clergy working a half-day a week fall on deaf ears.

Retiring meant I was no longer always on call. I was quite ready for the change: 60-plus hour weeks were a labor in my 30s, but a burden in my 60s. Four factors helped me move into retirement smoothly:

  • It was a choice. I had served fulltime for more than 30 years. This qualified me for some retirement benefits. I know not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
  • I had accomplished the tasks I was given when I was called to serve the congregation. They didn’t need me any longer.
  • I was bone-deep weary. Giving a younger priest the opportunity to serve was a good thing all around.
  • I was only leaving my paid work, not my calling. I am a priest forever. Only the work changes.

Now, about the socks. I still wear clergy shirts for calls and services, but I wear brightly colored socks most of the time, as a reminder to myself that I am retired. I still wear black ones when I need them.

As I write this, I have on hot crimson socks covered with music notes. I wear really silly socks on Sundays when I’m helping out somewhere.

I have become the “silly socks” priest. No one knows what I’ll wear next. I’ve got rainbow socks, screaming yellow socks with electric guitars on them, pale green socks with fishing lures, Nancy Drew socks, and many more. Church folk give them to me, and we laugh about them. And, it turns out, they recognize me, even without the uniform.

Tom Scott is a retired Episcopal priest. He and his wife live in Evanston, Illinois. They love retirement because they get to see more of their children and grandchildren, and they can spend more time at concerts, the opera and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Tom’s previous article was Starting Late.

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