The former pastor comes back for a wedding or funeral. Is this okay?

Short answer: If it’s okay with the Lord, your wife, and the present pastor, go for it.

Smiley-face goes here.

But I’m not into short answers, as you may know.  So, let’s look at the subject…

I suppose I’ve broken every rule and violated every common sense suggestion here. My apologies to every pastor who preceded me and those who came after me.  Wish I’d been more thoughtful and much wiser.  Thank you for always being kind and gracious to one who didn’t always get this right.

The retired pastor comes back to do a funeral.  The former pastor returns for a wedding.

Yes or no?  Good or bad?

That is the question before us today.

As the new pastor of a church in North Carolina, I went over a year without being asked to do one wedding.  As painful as that felt, I understood it.  Young people want a minister whom they know and have grown up with to do their ceremony.  In fact, the only reason I was doing funerals that first year is we had an assistant pastor, an older gentleman who had been at that church a decade or longer, and I was assisting him.

These are realities of pastoring.  The preacher who expects to move to a new situation with no transition period is not being realistic.

That’s the main reason they keep inviting the former pastor back.

Since no one in the pastor’s new church is asking him to do weddings or funerals, he thinks to himself (or says to his wife), “Why shouldn’t I accept this?  No one is asking me here.” He further rationalizes, “I love those folks.  I gave years of my life to that congregation.  And they don’t know the new guy yet.”

Careful now, preacher.

Now, the former pastor may be retired and still living in the only home he’s known for the last thirty years, three blocks from the church.  Or, he may have moved 300 miles away and is serving a church in another state.  Either way, he will be invited back to his former church, and should find a way in advance to deal with the invitations.

This much is a given: A congregation does not appreciate their new pastor running back to his old church for weddings and funerals.  They feel it’s unfair to them, it is probably unwise for his relationships, and definitely not healthy for his old church.  He should master a very difficult art.

The pastor should learn to say, “No.”  Although it will come out as something like, “I’m so sorry.  I won’t be able to come back for your funeral/wedding.”

He does not need to say anything more.  Those of us who find saying ‘no’ the most difficult thing we have ever done–and I plead guilty–feel we need a good excuse, a fuller explanation.  “I have something else scheduled.”  Or, “My new church needs me here.”  “I plan to have an operation that day.”  “I’ll be speaking at the White House.”

You need nothing more than, “I’m so sorry, my friend.  But I won’t be able to do that.  I hope you understand.” And then quit talking.

Don’t make it harder for yourself than is necessary.

And yes, there will be exceptions.

The retired pastor can be a great help to the present minister, especially if the church is short-handed in staff.  When the new pastor and the retired preacher are good friends, they can be a strong team.  They will do weddings and funerals together and complement each other’s best efforts.  The new guy won’t need to drop everything and return home from his revival or vacation if the former pastor is available and their relationship is solid.

The two requirements for those two pastors–the present one and his retired predecessor–are humility and self-confidence.  Neither is insecure with something to prove.  They can serve (see what Scripture says about our Lord before He stooped to serve.  John 13:1-4) and give and love, without the other being threatened.  They can bless one another and get on with their lives.

The congregation loves it when the present pastor and the retired preacher appreciate one another and work together.  The feeling is not unlike a small child who sees mama and daddy hugging and knows he is loved and secure.

I went back to a church I had served for nearly 13 years for the wedding of a staff member’s daughter.  Later, I returned for several funerals, including one for an Air Force officer whose fighter jet had crashed.  He had grown up with my sons.

Two big questions.

One.  When the former-or-retired pastor gets invited to return for a wedding or funeral, what should he do if he wishes to accept it?

Two. What can the retired pastor who still lives in the area do to establish a cordial relationship with his successor so there will be no conflict?

First Question:  You have been invited to return for a wedding/funeral.  You want to accept it.  What now?

–Make sure your spouse is on board with this.  Most married men need the sensitivity of the woman we’re married to, to help us with discernment.  This is not universally true, of course, but almost.

–Make sure the people inviting you are including the present pastor in the event.  The last thing you want to do is supplant him, or give the appearance that you are hanging on.

–If those inviting you say, “Well, we really haven’t gotten to know the new pastor,” as they probably will, you need to be ready with a response.  The best is simply, “I would not feel comfortable doing this without him being involved.  So, I need you to start with him, please.  I’m willing to assist him, but it’s not healthy for me to return and act like I’m still the pastor.  I hope you understand.”  Whether they do or not, quit talking.  You are no longer their pastor.  Their friend, yes.  But you cannot take responsibility for how they will react to this.

–Sometimes, in declining, it will help to say, “If I were the new pastor, I wouldn’t appreciate the old guy running back for everything.  So, as much as I’d like to, please let me decline.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

–If they assure you the new pastor will have a part in the service/ceremony, pick up the phone and call him.  We will assume here that you and he have previously touched base.  As the predecessor, it would have been good if you’d called or written him when he arrived to welcome him and offer your prayer support.

–When you phone the new pastor, your question is: “I wanted to run this by you.   The last thing I want to do is get in your way.  So, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.”  If he stutters and stumbles in search of a response, or if he hesitates, you have your answer.  Ignore his words; listen to his spirit, his heart.  Pay attention to what he does not say.  Respect that he is the pastor and you are not.  Honor the pastor.

–It’s not the worst thing in the world to call the inviters back and say, “I just don’t feel right about returning.  So, please let me decline your sweet invitation.”  And quit talking.  Whether they deal with it well or not is up to them.

Second Question: What can the former pastor do to nurture a healthy relationship with the new minister?

–If the new pastor does not want a “healthy relationship”–or any other kind–there is nothing you can do.  And let’s face it, some ministers will not. Whether from insecurity or as a result of tales told to him by certain church members, he may wish you lived on Jupiter.  When that happens, you need to take the hint and move on.  But you will not mention this to your friends in the church.  You. Will. Not. Mention. This.

The Golden Rule is always applicable.  Do unto the new pastor as you would want your predecessor doing to you.

-When the pastor is new at your former church, do two things.  First, write a warm letter. Make it brief and gracious. Second, if you are retired and still in the area, find an opportunity to meet him.  Or pick up the phone and invite him to lunch.  Thereafter, the ball is in his court.  You must be careful not to overdo the contacts to his office, lest you give the impression you’re trying to cling.  (Every new pastor has known people in his churches who want to become his best friend and thus overdo the overtures.  When the preacher is new, one can wear out his welcome real quick.)

–Speak positively about the new preacher to anyone mentioning him to you.  Say nothing that can be construed as negative or critical.  If you do, count on it that will be repeated and distorted, and it will get to the preacher.  Every church has a few members who delight in reporting gossip to the new preacher.

–Pray for the new pastor and his family.

–Make no demands on him.  And go slow in doing anything to leave the appearance you are trying to hold on to your old job or want to be his intimate friend.  Let him see that you are trustworthy and on his team without your having to tell him in so many words.

When David Crosby came as the new pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans in the summer of 1996 and I was serving the FBC of Kenner, about 10 miles to the west, I was laid up recovering from surgery.  I heard his first two sermons on live television and the third Sunday, visited his church.  That Sunday, I handed him a cartoon I’d done for him and later dropped him a note.  Then, I did nothing.  Even though everything inside me loved what I had seen of this good brother and I knew he would make a wonderful friend, he had a big church to pastor and a lot of people who wanted a tiny slice of him.  Furthermore, if I came on too strong, he would conclude I had some kind of agenda of my own and would naturally pull back.  So, later, as I returned to my own pulpit, David and I connected in meetings and sometimes had lunch.  Eventually, we became the best of friends.  I treasure his friendship to this day.  I’m neither his predecessor norretired from his church, but cite this to make a point. 

Every pastor appreciates a few great friends in the ministry. Pray the Lord to give you several, and to make you one whom others will cherish.





6 thoughts on “The former pastor comes back for a wedding or funeral. Is this okay?

  1. As always excellent advice and wisdom. I have been pastoring for many years and the insights you offered are spot on. Your points of humility and self confidence are absolutely critical – on the part of the present and former pastor. Thank you Joe! Blessings to you and your new bride!

    • True enough. And there are times when they cannot have that luxury and have to go with what is available. The mature can handle that, but the self-centered will become angry and demanding. And this is a tiny snippet out of the frustrations pastors have to deal with every day of their lives.

  2. Thank you for your wisdom. My church, where I serve as an elder, is going through a pastor transition right now and we are having a hard time. We’ve hired a mediator to help us as there is so much confusion and hurt feelings. I pray we’ll get through this time, but it is difficult. I’m sure the Lord has a plan for us.

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