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Leading by retiring: Three Oklahoma spiritual leaders discuss decisions to step down after long ministry

Three Oklahoma City-area religious leaders — Rabbi David Packman, Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius J. Beltran and the Rev. Norman Neaves — talk about their lives as retirees and their views on retirement of spiritual leaders.
by Carla Hinton Modified: October 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm •  Published: October 13, 2013

Instead of giving his weekly sermon, the Rev. Norman Neaves plans on sitting in the pew of his Oklahoma City church Sunday.

Neaves retired as founding pastor of United Methodist Church of the Servant, 14343 N MacArthur, in 2007. He said his “Type-A personality” likely caused some people to wonder if he would ever step down from his clergy post, but he said retiring wasn't difficult.

“They thought I was wed to Church of the Servant in such a way that I'd never be able to let go of it, that it was ‘my baby' in a sense, to whom I had given birth, but you know, even though many perceived it that way, and that's OK, that's not the way I ever looked at it myself,” Neaves said.

Neaves, along with other retirees — Rabbi David Packman and Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius J. Beltran — said the decision to retire is sound.

He said he never felt the church he planted in 1968 belonged to him or to the United Methodist Church or the congregation. He felt it belonged to the Lord.

“And I think when you come to terms with that, it's not difficult at all to lay down your own leadership role and to let someone else pick it up, knowing that, finally, it's all in God's hands and not in mine or ours and anyone else's.”

Knowing when to go

The retirement of religious leaders is sometimes a sensitive subject.

No time was this more evident than in February, when Pope Benedict XVI retired from the papacy — the first papal retirement in 600 years of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Emeritus Benedict's example is a unique one, but the conversations that arose when he retired at age 86 are similar to those that occur when clergy and spiritual leaders in other, less high-profile posts retire.

While some groups of Catholics in The Vatican's St. Peter's Square voiced their views that the pope should not have retired because he was chosen by God, according to several news outlets, some scholars and outsiders said why not?

The New York Times reported that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told Vatican Radio that Benedict's retirement meant that “the pope is not like a sort of God-king who goes on to the very end.” Rowan added that the pope's retirement was a statement that “the ministry of service that the bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service, and it's therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand.”

Neaves said it's important to know when to step away from a leadership role — no matter who you are and what role it is.

“Knowing when to step aside is just as important as knowing when to step up and lead,” he said.

Packman, 75, who retired as rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in 2004, said he still has a spiritual calling to the Jewish temple, where he is rabbi emeritus, though his role has changed.

“You should always be a clergy exemplar of the values of your faith community. I consider it a call to lead what various religious leaders consider a righteous life,” Packman said. “My role in this congregation is to be a good congregant.”

Beltran, 78, said he, too, feels called to serve his faith community, though in a different capacity since his 2011 retirement as archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He said he serves churches on a regular basis, often at the request of parish priests, and he recently conducted several parish mission retreats.

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by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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