On Retiring and Changing Jobs: "Leaving Well" As a Spiritual Exercise

05/27/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016


This is the season in many people change jobs or retire. Some of those changes are governed by the academic calendar, some by the change in seasons, and some by tradition. There has been a great deal written on preparing for the work world and the challenge of navigating its demands, but far less has been written on leaving well and retiring.

"Leaving well" can be a spiritual exercise. Here are some things to bear in mind:

If at all possible, anticipate leaving.

Circumstances may not afford you that opportunity, but if you can, plan ahead. Leaving well is intellectually, emotionally, and physically challenging. In that sense "leaving well" has two meanings. It means finishing in a fashion marked with integrity and responsibility. It also means leaving spiritually, emotionally, and physically in one piece.

Planning can help you to leave well in both ways. Taking time to name any losses or grief you may be experiencing can help you to avoid being held captive to the past. Naming the new experiences that lie ahead can nurture constructive energy and renewed focus.

For spiritual and religious people that exercise can be enhanced by planning in God's presence, trusting both the past and the future to God's care.

Identify the tasks that need to be completed.

The modern work world is a revolving door. No one can ever claim to be finished. But "endings" have a way of defining what needs to be done.

Some of what we need to do before leaving well is a part of the regular cycle of work that your job demands of you. Leaving well entails staying focused through to the last day.

Other responsibilities fall under the heading of things that only you can do. Each of us do work that is unseen, but necessary. Complete as many of those tasks as you can. Don't hide the unseen work from your successor. Make sure that someone knows where the keys to your desk and the password to your files are kept.

The great spiritual and religious traditions nurture a sense of responsibility to something larger than ourselves. Attention to the tasks that need to be completed can be a tangible way of assuming that responsibility.

Make the hard decisions that remain.

Take the time and the moral energy to deal with difficult decisions and situations that may be tough for your successor to confront as the new kid on the block. Leaving with grace means not leaving a mess for someone else to clean up, even if you are not leaving willingly.

The richest spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of cultivating character and virtue. Making the difficult decisions that remain before you leave is an important part of that experience.

Let go.

We are hard-wired by our culture to identify with our work world and for many of us that identification is so complete that it can be hard to let go. Job changes and retirement, in particular, can leave us struggling for a sense of worth and identity. Both experiences can also bring us face to face with our mortality and the very real limits to any life's work.

In an effort to avoid those realities, we can be tempted to assert control over the jobs that we are leaving -- by hanging on, by dictating to work for our successors, or by trying to insure that the work we have done will go unchanged. Our spiritual work in such cases is to let go and to leave the future of that position and the work associated with it in God's hands..

Don't look back. Don't meddle in the past.

Accept the freedom that comes with endings.

Far too many of us navigate our lives fearfully, convinced that our jobs or the demands of the moment are a referendum on our self-worth. Endings remind us that the significance of our lives is not tied to those transitory experiences, but to the loving relationships that we nurture with our God and with one another.

Let the freedom of that realization shape the journey ahead. Choose freely, live boldly, and find joy.

Embrace the future.

A friend of mine once told me that it is more important to decide what it is that you are retiring to, than to focus on what you are retiring from. Those were wise words and they apply to leave taking, whether we are retiring or moving to a new job somewhere else. Spend some real time in prayer and discernment about your future.

Live into the future and its possibilities.