Pastors, someone else is always “on deck.” Do your job, then get off.

“He must increase; I must decrease” (said by a very powerful preacher about the One who took his place in the minds and imaginations of the crowds).  –John 3:30

Watch how Barnabas acted when Saul of Tarsus gradually moved ahead of him so that their team became Paul and Barnabas.  Acts 13.

When I said we would be writing about retired pastors who stay on to make life miserable for their successors, people began sending me their horror stories.

You don’t want to hear them.  They are too painful.

One old guy refused to vacate the pastor’s office, so the new pastor was given a house trailer as his office until the old fellow died.  Solution: The lay leadership developing a spine.

Another old guy made sure to elevate himself in the minds and hearts of the church members so that his successor would not be able to live up to the standard he had set.  Then, he sat back smiling while people tore the young pastor apart for not doing that very thing.  Remedy:  The lay leadership rising up and speaking the hard truth both to the former pastor (and encouraging him to move his membership) and to the congregation (get your eyes off men and onto the Lord!).  That did not happen.  The younger pastor carries scars to this day.

I am a pastor.  I love pastors and pray for a long list of them often.  I am a friend of pastors and sometimes their counselor/advisor/mentor.  I believe in the role of the God-called shepherd, and I encourage church members to honor their minister and obey Hebrews 13:17.

But that is not to say all preachers get this right.

This is the place to confess that after I left the last of my six churches–the FBC of Kenner, LA, across the street from the New Orleans airport–I stayed on.  When Dr. Tony Merida came as pastor, I was director of missions for the SBC churches of New Orleans Association and rarely present, but I loved Tony and supported him.  He was followed by Dr. Mike Miller, who moved on the same street where I lived, and we became great friends.  So, I did not move away.  Nor did I criticize or undermine these dear brothers.  No one on the planet can say otherwise. To this day, I love them and pray for them.  They are great men of God.  Tony is a professor, pastor, and author of some amazing books on Scripture.  Mike has taken a church in his home state of Texas and is destined for some wonderful things.

So, I am not making a blanket suggestion that the former pastor leave the church.  He probably should, if you want to know the truth, but there are exceptions.

What follows is the most telling story on this sad subject that I know…

The pastor was retiring after a fruitful ministry of nearly forty years in that one church.  I read the mailout bulletin where he made the announcement.  To my surprise, he also informed the congregation of four conditions involving his retirement.

One. He would continue to maintain an office at the church.

Two. He would be named as Pastor Emeritus.

Three. The church would continue to send out a monthly mailing of his taped sermons at its expense.  At one time, I was told they were mailing out 300,000 cassette tapes annually.  The cost would have been astronomical.  (Don’t miss this:  He didn’t ask the church, but informed them!)

Four. Each year on the anniversary of his retirement, he would be bringing an annual message.

Now, I knew that pastor from a distance.  In the first decades of his ministry in that church, he received great acclaim.  His strong personality lent itself to forceful preaching and generated a huge following.  In the last years of his ministry, he was being acclaimed as a champion to many and he ate that up.  Even when it came out that he was copying verbatim the work of a prominent preacher in another denomination, he never skipped a beat but kept right on.  I was on the list to receive his free sermon tapes. The best way to describe his preaching style was take-no-prisoners.  He had no patience for anyone who saw an interpretation of a text differently.  He was painful to listen to.

So, now, he was retiring from that church.  But he would not be going away.  

I read his announcement and had three thoughts….

–First, what kind of church allows a pastor to make such decisions all by himself and simply announce them to the congregation?  No church I’ve ever been associated with.

I’ve seen some churches do the exact opposite. When the pastor announced he would be retiring in one year, the leadership rose up and decided he was off a tad, that they would not have a lame-duck preacher for a full year and that his retirement would come in six weeks.  In another, when the retiring pastor said he wanted to mentor his successor for a full year, with both ministers working in tandem for that time, the leadership nixed that in a hurry. He retired, they brought in the new guy, and the church moved forward.

Churches do not allow the retiring minister to set the conditions of retirement or decide how things will be after his departure.  He walks out the door and he is history.  And, frankly, that’s how it ought to be.

“Let his office be desolate and let another one take it” (Acts 2:20), spoken about Judas, should also apply to the departing pastor.

Second, I pity the pastor who follows this old man.  He will be the old guy’s assistant as long as the man is alive.

Third, I pray the Lord never to send me to that church. 

But He almost did.

Two years later, after a long and arduous time of fruitless preacher-hunting, that church’s pastor search committee showed up at my door.  (No one was more surprised than I.)  After several visits and a few meals, they invited my wife and me to visit their city and take the grand tour.  One member privately informed me that when they reached this point, they had their new pastor.

They thought I was the one.

There was just one problem.  The former pastor was still around and still making his presence known.

It came out later that two members of the search committee told the old fellow every thing that happened in their sessions.  So, nothing was a secret to him.  And when I did not answer one question–just one–to the satisfaction of the fellow, who wasn’t even present, of course, he decided I was not worthy to follow him in that pulpit.  He instructed his lackeys on the committee to vote against my coming as pastor.

Frankly, while that did my ego no good, in the long run that suited me just fine.

The Lord had not told me I was to become pastor of that church.  However, looking back, I seriously think had they called me, the temptation to move to that large and influential congregation would have been overwhelming.  I think of Joel Gregory’s book about going to the First Baptist Church of Dallas in the footsteps of W. A. Criswell, “Too Great a Temptation.”  That would have been my situation exactly, and probably would have ended in the same way (short, painful tenure).

So, the committee moved on and soon brought a friend of mine in as pastor.  To the surprise of the clueless search committee, the old man turned on him and blackballed him.  Even though the committee moved forward and the congregation accepted the young pastor, the old curmudgeon worked to undermine him on every side.

The man’s campaign against the young pastor ended abruptly when he died after a couple of years.  (It’s hard not to conclude the Lord was stepping in and protecting His church and His pastor, but let’s leave the judging to Him.)

In addition to the damage the old fellow did to the young pastor and to the congregation, he also undermined his own legacy in that church by his refusal to go quietly and let the Lord Jesus Christ rule His own church.

Some six months after the new pastor had come and word had filtered out about his mistreatment, I called the chairman of the committee.  I asked, “Are you aware of what Doctor (name) is doing?”  He said, “Brother Joe, this has been the shock of my life.  You could never have told me my beloved pastor would sink so low.”  I said, “I hope you are supporting your new preacher.”  “Believe me, I am,” he said.  And that is the sum total of my contact with anyone in that church.

The new pastor stayed on a few years, then when a great church in another state beckoned, he moved on.  The pastor who followed him had none of that old baggage to deal with and had a long, fruitful ministry.

Someone is always on deck…

In any baseball game, when a batter stands at the plate, the television cameras on him and every eye watching his every move, behind him and a few feet off to the side, another batter is standing, bat on his shoulder, waiting for his turn.

Someone else is always on deck.

Windy Rich spent the last decades of his rich (no pun intended) ministry serving churches as interim minister of education.  He provided invaluable help to two churches I pastored.  Always, as he arrived to begin his ministry for a few months, Windy would announce, “I have come to leave.”  He had no plans to work this into something permanent.

I told Windy I liked that.  And I added, “Everyone working here has come to leave.  Pastors and staff may stay fifteen years in contrast to your fifteen weeks.  But we all leave, and someone else follows us.”

It’s a wise pastor who leads a church with his successors in mind.  I guarantee you the preacher will appreciate his predecessors having done the same.

So, here are my five suggestions to the retiring pastors…

One.  Keep telling yourself and informing the congregation in your preaching that “This is the Lord’s church” (Matthew 16:18).  He owns it and He is the Operator.

Two. Do not inform the congregation how things will be.  Assemble the leadership and get their input and stand together on this.  Do not undo all the good will you have built over the years by letting your insecurities call the shots.  If you will go quietly and sweetly, the congregation will forever rise up and bless your name.

Three. Plan for your departure for the final couple of years, but without telling anyone what you are doing.  Set up ministries so they will function well when you step aside.  Make fewer and fewer things dependent on you.   (If you have been handling all the hospital visitation yourself–and I’ve seen pastors of huge churches do this–stop it.  Involve the other ministers and some well-trained laymen.)

Four.  Pray for your successor in private, and ask God to lead you in how to encourage him.

Five. If you possibly can, it’s probably best to move your membership to another church.  If you’re in doubt, seek the counsel of a few people inside and outside your church, people who will speak truth to you.

In 1972, S. R. Woodson retired from the First Baptist Church of Columbus, MS, where he had labored a full quarter of a century.  Then, he and Mrs. Woodson moved to Jackson, TN, where they had gone to college.  Thereafter, anytime they were returning to Columbus (he kept seeing the same dentist, among other things), he would send me a note in advance.  They always stayed at a local hotel.  And I would often run by and pay their bill.  We had him back to preach a few times during my nearly 13 years there.  He never failed to call me Doctor McKeever, even though I was three decades younger than he.  In time, I led the church to honor him by naming an education building for him, as it had been built during his tenure.  For the rest of his life, we honored one another, and I was happy to do a few things to bless this good couple.  But I will be quick to admit, the fact that they had moved north 200 miles sure did make it easier. 

That’s not all to this subject, but the article is overly long as it is. So I’ll stop here.




10 thoughts on “Pastors, someone else is always “on deck.” Do your job, then get off.

  1. I always enjoy your articles so much; never have I read one that wasn’t applicable! However I’m wondering if many pastors read your writings.

  2. In my last two churches, former long-tenured pastors were still there. Both of them were some of the best church members I’ve ever had. The reason is that they loved me, supported me, and defended me from unfair criticism. They were also willing to speak hard things to me when necessary, but they did so privately and with love and grace. One of them–Joe McKeever—quickly became one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I’ll forever be grateful. It can be done, but only by the most spiritually mature, wise, and secure of men.

    • Thank you, Mike. I’ve never had a pastor I treasured more. My family will love you forever for many reasons, but chief among them is the leadership you gave in Margaret’s memorial service. That remains as the gold standard for me, forever.

    • I asked Joel once if he ever regretted writing it. After all, it has some strong stuff in it. He said, “Not in the least. Many a pastor has told me it saved his ministry.”

  3. I am anxious to read the next installment. We retired three months ago after 21 years servce in a small rural church. We were in our mid-fifties when we went to the church and have lived in the same this town all our lives. Retiring and moving away was not an option, so we live in the same house we lived in for almost 50 years. We decided early on that we would attend another church. We should have changed our phone numbers. What I am trying to say is the the other side of the coin is equally important. The congregation (or certain members of) should not run to the old pastor complaining about every change. The only thing that happens is the old pastor(s) feels the need to defend his / her legacy. Our legacy will stand on its own merit.

  4. The counterpart to this “cautionary tale” is the pastor who leaves a church yet continues to return often to perform weddings, funerals, various and sundry other weekend and week long special events, leaving his own “flock” with what amounts to a procession of fill-ins.

    • Perhaps there is a need for an article on what to do when asked to return for a funeral, wedding, etc. I found it best to tell a family, I’ll be glad to help your pastor in any way he asks. I never go to any church to do anything without first contacting the pastor, and it has resulted in good relationships with them. Sadly, some other preachers did not show the same respect to me. I would like to see a blog address this.

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