A Life Lesson for Former Pastors and Staff

I like the attitude and perspective of former President George W. Bush. In an interview with C-SPAN, he said that as a former president he didn’t want to go out and campaign for candidates. He said to Brian Lamb, “I don’t want to be viewed as a perpetual money-raiser.”

In October of 2010, I had the privilege of being invited to an event where the former president was speaking. It was the second time I had met him, the first being in the Oval Office in 2002. What impressed me was that little had changed in the eight years since that meeting and the two years since he left the White House. He was still down to earth, real, transparent, and grounded. During that event and in the C-SPAN interview, Bush noted that he didn’t think former presidents should resort to punditry or comment on the decisions of the current occupant of the White House. He wasn’t going to second guess another president’s decisions.

Some former presidents can’t go gracefully into the night. Some are driven by such incredible egos that they have to be at the forefront, making news, demanding attention. It’s beneath the office. Bush said, “I think it’s bad for the country, frankly, to have a former president criticize his successor. It’s tough enough to be president as it is without a former president undermining the current president.” Bush said, “Being out of the press, at least in this stage of the post-presidency, is something that makes me very comfortable. It’s somewhat liberating, frankly.” Maybe that’s why I like Bush so much. Maybe it’s why I liked Reagan. Maybe it’s why I like Eisenhower. Those men didn’t try to figure out how to still be king of the world. They retired to their ranch in Crawford or California. Eisenhower retired a national hero to lead a quiet life on his land in Gettysburg.

Transitions are difficult at best. No leader ceases to be a leader. But there are moments and transitions when roles change. Responsibilities change. The older give way to the younger. The new are allowed their moment in the sun. All are accountable to God for how they handle both.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (3:3-9).

I like what Warren Wiersbe says here, “The mature Christian practices love and seeks to get along with others. Children like to disagree and fuss. And children like to identify with heroes, whether sports heroes or Hollywood heroes. The ‘babes’ in Corinth were fighting over which preacher was the greatest—Paul, Apollos, or Peter. It sounded like children on the playground: ‘My father can fight better than your father! My father makes more money than your father!’ When immature Christians, without spiritual discernment, get into places of leadership in the church, the results will be disastrous. More than one brokenhearted pastor has phoned me, or written me, asking what to do with church officers who talk big but live small. (In all fairness, I should say that sometimes it is the officers who write asking what to do with an immature pastor!) The work of the pastor is to help the church grow spiritually and mature in the Lord. This is done by the steady, balanced ministry of the Word.”

Please note that Paul didn’t say or encourage someone to come in and uproot the seeds already planted. One plants, one waters, God gives the increase. One reason there is conflict in times of transition is that the new person tries to uproot what has already been planted. Or the one who planted doesn’t like the way the new person is watering the field. It is important to remember: it’s God’s field, God’s church. We are merely stewards and caretakers.

I’ve been at it long enough to know it’s tough to follow someone. It’s also tough to hold your tongue when someone who follows you doesn’t do things “your way.” I’ve served churches where former pastors and staff members tried to keep their hands in the pie and make sure they still had some level of influence after they were gone. These men felt the Lord was leading them to leave the church, but somehow still wanted to have a say in how the church was run. It wasn’t good for the person who followed them, and it wasn’t good for the church. I know of one former pastor who at one point was calling a member every Monday to find out what the new pastor preached on, what the offering was, and what Sunday School attendance was. Really? Did his new church not create enough challenges without worrying about the old one?

I have a friend who followed a “legend.” I know for a fact, he honored the legend and sought counsel from the former pastor. One day, after several years, the church was honoring the former pastor on a special day. He stood up and did nothing short of crucify the new pastor, criticizing everything he had done. It was the beginning of the end. Although the church had grown spiritually and numerically under the new pastor who was a sound expositor and a soul winner, the former pastor just couldn’t let go. In the end, the church lay leaders had to ask the former pastor to never come back. A legacy was ruined by a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t let go.

There are no easy answers here. All of us who have invested in a church have some personal interest in it. But that doesn’t mean we have the right to meddle or infringe on the new pastor or staff member. When I left a church I pastored in another state, I decided the day I left that I would not come back for funerals or weddings unless I was invited by the new pastor. Did I like everything he was doing? Not really. Was it my business? Not really. I was the one who moved, and I needed to move on.

I live by a principle that I would encourage other pastors to live by: Never stand in another man’s pulpit without his permission. If someone asks you to do a funeral or wedding, make sure the man who now fills the role of pastor gives you his blessing and permission. It will keep the enemy from finding a crack in the door through which he can break in and undermine the church.

I must say, I let my emotions get the best of me with a church I used to pastor. The deacons were giving fits to the man who followed me. They were doing to him what they had tried to do to me. My frustrations came out. I got sucked into a controversy at that church. I let my guard down and shared my feelings (which are my humble and accurate opinion which I highly respect) with a member. That member shared my thoughts with the deacons, and it ultimately hurt me and the church.

I was, in fact, standing up for the pastor and honestly telling that individual that the deacons were a power-hungry group and didn’t represent the people and were not godly men (which they weren’t). In truth, that wasn’t my business or my problem. I should have prayed and kept my mouth shut.

There are some incredibly smooth transitions. In some churches, the pastor or staff member creates an environment where people will trust the new leadership. They use their influence and longevity to make the path smooth for the new leader. One of the best examples I know is of a pastor who stayed until the new pastor was called. It reminded me of Moses picking Joshua, Paul choosing Timothy. But once the new man was on the field, the former pastor left for a year. He refused to come back and preach funerals or weddings. He said, “You have a new pastor. You need to get to know him and trust him the way you’ve known and trusted me.” This church didn’t have the slightest hiccup in that process and continues to grow and flourish today.

Then there’s another situation I’m familiar with where a long-term pastor wasn’t honored the way he should have been. The new pastor came in and seemingly tried to tear down everything the former pastor had given three decades to. Today the church is running 1,000 less than it was when the “aging” former pastor left. That once great church is rarely mentioned around our denomination today. There is no vision, and the church lacks the influence it once had in the region. What appears to be arrogance or insecurity on the part of the new man has made the former pastor “persona non grate” in a church he had practically built from nothing into a mega church.

This is not the end-all blog on this subject. I know there are various and varied opinions. You have a story. I have other stories. The track record is flawed. Some can leave a church and move on. Others want to relive the good old days. (If they were so good, why did they leave?) I know far too many pastors who have former pastors undermining them as they seek to make their own mark on a fellowship. I know it’s hard to follow a legend. I can’t imagine having to follow W. A. Criswell or Adrian Rogers. Or today, Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah, or some other “famous” pastor.

Sometimes, the new guy just can’t win. He is either intimidated by the shadow of the former leader or tries too hard to change things and put his name on the church. Following a legend demands the patience of an oil tanker captain. You have to take eight to ten miles to turn around an oil tanker or it will capsize. If you are a new leader in an established situation, can I make a suggestion? Listen, learn, and only make changes that are necessary. Don’t try to leave your mark in two years. It will take you at least five years to be the pastor. Don’t worry with non-essentials. Don’t try to whip a skunk, it’s not worth it. Learn which stumps to blow up and which ones to go around.

Eventually, there has to be a successor. I do believe that a long-term pastor should have some input into who the next pastor will be. After all, no one invests their blood, sweat, and tears into a church for decades and wants to stand by and see it go down the tubes because of a reactionary choice or a committee with no spiritual insight for finding God’s man for the hour.

I find it interesting that our system in the denomination I serve is for sheep to pick a shepherd. If they had followed that line of logic in the Scriptures, Moses would have stayed in the wilderness and been forgotten. David would have remained with the sheep. None of the prophets would have been chosen. Jesus certainly wouldn’t have left the Great Commission in the hands of a ragtag bunch of fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors. Paul wouldn’t have given the reins in Ephesus over to a timid Timothy. Peter wouldn’t have chosen John Mark to help him write the Gospels.  Throughout Scripture, God has chosen His leaders. Often they come out of obscurity. Sometimes they don’t have the pedigree, degree, or diplomacy to play church politics. But they are chosen and used by God. We would do well to go back to the model of Scripture.

As I’ve observed churches in this “democratic” process, I’ve discovered a few flaws. One, they survey the church to see what kind of pastor the people want. What people tend to want is a leader who will leave them alone, pat them on the back, and tell them what they want to hear. That’s not leadership, that’s a hireling. Two, they react to the strengths and weaknesses of the past leader. If he’s a prophet, they look for mercy. If he’s a mercy, they look for a prophet. If he’s a “pastor but not much of a preacher” they look for a “preacher who may or may not be much of a pastor.” It’s reactionary, and it always results in an identity crisis for the church.

Three, they get people who “represent the church.” So they put someone on the committee from every age group and interest group in the church. Lacking an understanding of what it takes to be a man of God in a divine institution, they try to fill a job description that will make everyone (and no one) happy.

Paul picked Timothy for Ephesus. The late Ray Steadman is one of my favorite preachers and authors. His church never had to form a committee. They found within their ranks a pastor, and that church continues to flourish. At Skyline Wesleyan Church, Pastor Butcher had a long-term pastorate as the founder of the church. He was followed by John Maxwell, and the church continued to grow. I often heard John honor Pastor Butcher and his vision.

Although they were as different as night and day, First Southern Del City continued to prosper and grow through at least four different pastors. I’m not as in tune with what they are doing today, but I know that even in the midst of economic crisis and relocations, the church followed strong leaders like Jimmy Draper, John Bisagno, Bailey Smith, and Tom Elliff.

When I first came to the church I currently pastor, I was constantly hearing about the former pastor. He would come to town to preach meetings in churches in the area. He’d have breakfast and powwows at the local establishments. He never dropped by the church to say hello to people he once served with. He would call members, inviting them to come hear him preach.

I invited him to preach on at least two occasions. I endured people in the church who criticized my leadership within earshot of my wife and kids. I ignored people using Bible study time to encourage others to go hear him at a church down the road. It wasn’t easy. To my knowledge, he has never acknowledged what has been accomplished here. I’m not sure he ever honored me. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt. But, if I’m honest, it stung a little when he told someone directly, “Catt is ruining my church.” Really? It’s his church? I don’t think so. And, for the record, it’s not my church now, even though I’ve been pastor for twenty-one years.

I’ve already told my wife and some friends to confront me if I ever become “that guy.” I don’t want to be a bitter former anything. I want to be a cheerleader for those who come after me. I’m eternally grateful for the founding pastor of Sherwood. He and I would have been at totally different ends of the theological spectrum, but he honored me as the pastor. He told me privately and told the church publicly how grateful he was for what was happening at Sherwood. He prayed the dedication prayer when we moved into our new worship center.

I’ve been at Sherwood since 1989, and I hope God allows me to have another ten to fifteen years. But one day I’ll pass the baton. I hope I’m not a bitter old preacher. I hope I am as encouraging to the new pastor as others have been to me. I don’t want the “best years” to be “my years.” I want to pastor and leave a legacy where the church continues to flourish, grow, reach people, and think outside the box. God has given us incredible opportunities at Sherwood, but I believe the best is yet to come. I am watering, and at some point someone else will do more watering and planting. In the end, it’s God’s church, God’s harvest, and God’s increase. Any other attitude would be beneath the office of pastor.

I know every leader makes his own mark. That’s understandable. We aren’t created in the image of cookie cutters; we are created in the image of God. But God works through personalities. Every youth minister that followed me (I was in youth ministry for fifteen years) was different than I was. I wanted them all to succeed. It had to be about the kids, parents, and church I was leaving. I wanted and still want God’s best for them. A person would have to be sick or need counseling who wanted things to go downhill when they left. Anyone with such a mindset would be insecure at best.

Do I hope to have some voice in who the next person is? Yes. If I said no, I wouldn’t be honest. No one invests this much of their life into a ministry without wanting to insure the church or ministry continues on a positive track. One day the mantle will be passed, though I hope it’s later rather than sooner. I feel younger than I am. I want to stay fresh in my preaching. I want to invest in the church in such a way that everyone knows the foundation is Christ and I just happened to be one of the builders (but not the only) on that foundation.

I’ve watched too many preachers become old, cynical, and critical. It’s beneath the office. It’s the flesh, not the Spirit. It would do us all well to remember, whether we are pastors, staff, or lay leaders, that we will one day pass off the scene. How will we be remembered? What will people say of us when we are gone? Will the prevailing attitude be, “Thank God that’s over,” Or, “He positioned us for better things”?

Jesus positioned His disciples for better things—“greater works.” He equipped and empowered them to carry on the ministry and spread the gospel. Should we, as followers of the living Lord, do anything less?

2 thoughts on “A Life Lesson for Former Pastors and Staff

  1. I was surfing the web when I can across this wonderful reading. A Pastor wife of a small church in the South this information helps us to know (my husband and I )are not alone on how we feel. What we are going thru,what God wants for His church, and our lives. We want God to do a great work for the people here. This was very encouraging words.God Bless
    Great nuggets to live by.

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