Discerning the Necessary and the Optional

Epperly pic July Gateway

Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD

Often my fellow retirees tell me some version of the following: “I’ve got so much to do now. I don’t know how I held a job before I retired.” They often share how busy they are, and how they don’t have time for taking a walk, exercising, recreational activities, or getting together with friends, not to mention volunteer projects. I’m usually tempted to ask, “Have you looked at your schedule? What activities are optional, a matter of choice, and what are absolutely necessary, given your commitments and values?”

Often, I begin to get that “busy feeling” of too many things to do, and not enough time. At such times, I choose to step back, and ask myself, “What is important to do today? What have I chosen as important, which is solely a matter of preference?” While my answers are subjective, I discover that what is causing stress doesn’t need to and then I prune my schedule back. I don’t have to go that meeting; say “yes” to a committee about which I have no passion; or, in my case, write that article or start a new book.

“Necessary” means different things to different people. For me, the “necessary” involves daily meditation and my sunrise walk; time with my wife Kate; doing homework, going to games, and hanging out with my grandchildren; teaching lay and academic classes; being civic-minded; paying bills and preparing tax materials; and trying to be a good ancestor. The “optional,” in contrast, I can put off until tomorrow, or discard altogether. For example, I have made myself available to serve on denominational Association and Conference committees, except those involving administration. I happily say “yes” to committees involving clergy wellbeing, faith formation, spirituality, and theology, where my passions lie.

A joyful retirement involves intentionality. We can’t always control the events of our lives and we know the realities of unexpected emergencies and the interruptions that turn our days upside down. But, having a vision of how you want to spend your retirement, looking both at the far horizon and the day-to-day, adds zest to life and enables you to embody your values daily.

Perhaps, because I am a Myers-Briggs “J” or “Judging” type, I like to make lists – daily lists and long-term lists. For me, list-making is a spiritual practice. When I list the day’s activities, I realize that much of my day is a matter of choice and that I can choose spaciousness over busyness. Most days, I cross off the things I have done. At some point, I also drop things from my list. A long walk with my wife Kate trumps working on a manuscript; going to a soccer match or basketball game with the grands supersedes paying bills that are due in two weeks; welcoming an unexpected guest or offering a ride to a friend whose car is in the shop leap ahead of preparing for a lecture I will be giving in two months.

I encourage you to treasure the time of your life. While we all need to “pay the rent” and “put out the trash,” even these can be meaningful if they are seen as part of a larger vision. I encourage you to ask questions such as:

  • What’s truly important – and unimportant - to me in this season of life?
  • What expectations of others matter, and which ones don’t?
  • What commitments require my attention and are non-negotiable?
  • Where are my passions? What elicits boredom, inertia, and procrastination?
  • What activities add beauty and joy – and justice – to the world?

These questions are really a prayer form and involve asking God’s guidance in the quest to be faithful to our vocation in this “third season” of life. “This is the day that God has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Rejoice and celebrate this day filled with possibilities and choices and ways to embody God’s loving creativity in the world.

Bruce Epperly is a "retired" UCC and Disciples of Christ pastor, seminary professor and administrator, and author of over sixty books in theology, spirituality, health and healing, scripture, and ministerial spirituality and wellbeing, including The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement, 101 Soul Seeds for Grandparents Working for a Better World, and 101 Soul Seeds for a Joyful Retirement. His most recent book is The Elephant is Running: Process and Relational Theologies and Religious Pluralism. Recently retired as Senior Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, he lives in Potomac, MD, and spends his days writing, teaching, walking, and taking care of his elementary school grandchildren. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..