Retiring pastor, it’s not your church, your pulpit, your office. Be faithful!

A pastor friend was serving a large church in a metro area.  Even though his staff had half a dozen ministers, he handled all the hospital visitation himself.  Every bit of it.  I said to him, “My brother, you are making life impossible for the pastor who will follow you.  Because no pastor is going to want to do all the hospitals, not when he’s got plenty of help. And the congregation is going to be unhappy with him.”

He smiled and said, “This is what I do.”

I know the rest of that sad story.  He retired, remained in the church, and the congregation called as pastor another friend of mine.  I watched from two states away as the congregation turned on the new pastor and criticized him mercilessly for not pastoring them the way they’d been used to.  The retired pastor friend wallowed in their misery, indicating, he was convinced, that he was so well loved no one could follow him.

He sabotaged a great preacher’s ministry.  (They’re both in Heaven now, so the Father will be sorting this out, but I’d hate to be in his shoes.)

Once when I announced my plan to write about retired pastors who stay on to make life miserable for their successors, people began sending me their horror stories.

–One retired pastor 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 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.

Confession: After I left the last of my six churches–the FBC of Kenner, LA, across the street from the New Orleans airport–I kept my membership there.  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. They are great men of God.  Tony is a professor, pastor, and author of some amazing books on Scripture.  Mike moved to a church in his home state of Texas and is destined for some wonderful things.  And I’m living 200 miles north where I worship with the FBC of Jackson, MS, a church I served exactly fifty years ago as a staff member.

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…

After a fruitful ministry of forty years in that church, the pastor was retiring.  I read the mailout bulletin where he made the announcement.  In his resignation, he informed the congregation of four things that would be happening…

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

—He would be named as Pastor Emeritus.

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

—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 had 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 it up.  Even when it came out that he was plagiarizing 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.  The man was painful to listen to.

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

Reading his announcement, I 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. It was a scary near-miss….

Two years after the old guy retired, 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 quick meals before they drove back home, they invited my wife and me to visit their city and take the grand tour.  One member informed me that when they reached this point, they had their new pastor.

They thought I was the one.

The church was three times the size of the one I was pastoring and easily the most historic, prominent church in their state.

There was just one problem.  The former pastor was 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, I suspect that 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.  Exit.).

So, the committee moved on and soon brought a fellow I knew as the new pastor.  To the surprise of the clueless search committee, the old man turned on him also 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 we shall 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.

The new pastor remained a few years–constantly dealing with the residue of the opposition from the previous pastor–and then moved to a church in Texas.  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 Humbolt, TN where he grew up.  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.  Often 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 other 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. 


1 thought on “Retiring pastor, it’s not your church, your pulpit, your office. Be faithful!

  1. I found your blog a few weeks ago, and enjoy reading it. Thank you for this article. It brings to mind many biblical & secular quotes concerning pride, including this one which I’m sure you’re familiar with: Proverbs 16:18 ~ “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
    It still amazes me that a man called by God to minister to God’s people doesn’t have the discernment & humility to understand that it’s God’s ministry, not his, & that his talents are solely a gift from our Lord.

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