“I’m retired and wondering if I need to join another church. The present pastor doesn’t quite seem to know how to relate to me. I feel I’m in the way around here. So, I’m wondering: should the retired pastor join another church or can he remain in the one where he has invested so many years of his life?”
My answer: That depends.
The pastor asking this added: “Have you ever written on that subject?”
Not until now.
He said, “I feel so awkward, like I’m in the way.”
I need to say up front that I feel a tad awkward myself even addressing the subject. I am still a member of the church I pastored from 1990 to 2004. As of September, I will have belonged to First Baptist Church of Kenner, LA, for one third of my life. (In fact, Pastor Mike Miller has invited me to preach on September 20, the 25th anniversary of my coming to pastor here.)
I may not be the one to write such an article since I’m still in this church. Mike and I live a half-block from each other, and sometimes walk together at night, chatting nonstop. My son is a deacon and his wife is Mike’s administrative assistant. We all adore Pastor Mike and his family, so I have to conclude that our situation is not at all typical.
If all churches were like this one and all pastors were like mine, I’d say you should stay right where you are.
Unfortunately, they aren’t.
That’s why I consulted a friend whose predecessor remained in the church after pastoring it for a generation or more. The older man had grown the church into a rather large congregation, and yet he personally handled all the hospital visitation and pastoral calling himself. Once, when I was preaching a revival for him and saw all the things he was doing, I said, “You’re going to make it impossible for a normal pastor to follow you.” He laughed.
It turned out to be prophetic.
By “normal,” I meant someone who would share the pastoral duties with other staff members. Sometimes people in the hospital would be visited by another minister. The other ministers would help with funerals. A “normal” pastor would not try to do it all himself.
The pastor who followed him–likewise a friend of mine–stayed ten years. In answer to my question, he said, “Joe, I followed a pastor who would not let go. He rushed to get to the hospitals before me. He courted the dying so they would ask him to do their funeral.”
After a few years, the older man left the church and joined one nearby. However, he stayed in constant contact with his cronies who undermined everything the pastor did.
The older retired pastor forgot one huge fact, a truth that should be carved in granite in the churchyard and tattooed on every minister’s forehead: It’s not your church.
It. Is. Not. Your. Church.
Even if you start it and stay a half century and watch it grow to mammoth proportions, it’s not your church. “I will build my church,” Jesus said (Matthew 16:18). “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
Jesus is both Owner and Operator. He is the Chief Shepherd of the flock. He is the Head, of which the church is His body.
Another friend remained in the church which he had pastored for perhaps 20 years. The neighborhood was declining and the church was in freefall and he felt they needed him. However, his successor had a tough time there. Members constantly ran to the older man to complain about the new fellow.
One day as we were talking about this, I said, “My brother, get out of that church. You have paid your dues there. You owe them nothing.” He said, “Joe, I feel that they need me.”
I said, “In my opinion–and that’s all this is–they don’t. They need to grow up and follow their pastor, and you need some peace of mind.”
He and his wife joined another church where they have been happy. That new pastor did not survive, but left under duress. The church called another preacher and he’s trying hard to turn it around.
The bottom line–and this constitutes my pitiful attempt to answer the question–is this:
1) Much depends on you. If you need the constant affirmation from church members and feel incomplete without it, leave. You would be a threat to any successor.
But if you will get out of his way, speak well of him to everyone, pray for him and love him, and even rebuke those who are making life tough for him, you should be able to stay in that church.
2) Much depends on the next pastor. If he is secure within himself–with good mental health and a healthy self-esteem–unless you are competing with him, you should be able to keep your membership there.
Unfortunately, not every pastor is mature or healthy. Some are insecure and resent that his predecessor still lives and breathes. In that case, the former pastor should do everyone a favor and leave.
3) Much depends on the church. If the congregation refuses to turn loose of you and follow their new shepherd, you need to get out. The Golden Rule–doing unto others what you wish they would do for you–dictates that you honor this God-sent man and give him room to become the pastor of the church.
So, even if you and your successor have your heads on straight, if the congregation is needy and refuses to transfer their devotion from you to him, leaving is your own option.
4) Everything depends on the Lord. It’s His church, after all. The people are His flock, the new pastor is His man, and you are His, too. So, ask Him. Presumably, you have learned by now how to discern the voice of the Lord saying something you might not normally wish to hear. If not–if all you hear when you pray is your own desires–then you have more problems than we can address in this brief piece.
I will give my pastor the last word.
In answer to the question, Pastor Mike Miller said:
“If ever I’m not a pastor, I’m going to be the biggest supporter my pastor has. I will encourage him and pray for him and defend him. I will never cause him any anxiety or stress. And even though I can be very critical of preaching (Mike is a seminary professor!), unless he is preaching heresy or asks for my feedback, he will never hear anything from me lest it be positive. That is exactly the kind of church member I have in you.”
Thank you, Mike. And may it always be so.