Question from a retired pastor–
I recently retired from full-time ministry, and my wife and I find ourselves in the position of having to find a new church for the first time in 43 years. It’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Part of the problem may be our location. After spending the last 27 years of our ministry in a metro area of California, we retired to a small town in a nearby state. We’re close enough that we can easily visit our children and grandchildren, who still live in California. Problem: In our little town, there’s only one church of our denomination. We attended twice, and then because of Covid watched at least two dozen services online. Expository preaching is at the top of my list of what I’m looking for in a church, so we would not be happy going to this particular church. Then, we considered the other churches in town: one Methodist church, two Presbyterian churches, two Lutheran churches, two non-denominational churches, and one Catholic church. We’ve looked into each of them and so far, we don’t seem to have found where we belong. Some neighbors of our denomination drive nearly 50 miles to a larger city for church. With a population of 100,000 there are a couple of fine churches of our denomination. We may end up doing that too, but we’d prefer to belong to a church in our little town if possible.
What do we do?
I don’t like being in a position of having to be “critical” of churches, yet now that we’re looking for the church that will be our home, it’s hard not to look at them with a somewhat critical eye. So perhaps another way of framing my question would be, what should one look for in a church? What things are important? What things are not important?
An unsolicited note came this week. The retired pastor and I do not know each other and have never met. He asked if I had written anything on this subject. I said I have not but invited him to give a fuller description of his situation. The above is his response. Below is mine.
As a retired pastor, I fully identify. In my case, after retiring from a pastorate of 14 years, my wife and I remained in the same church. She was a semi-invalid and I was in denominational work and preaching somewhere every Sunday, so we were not greatly involved and needed less from a congregation than at any time of our lives. Your situation, of course, is vastly different.
It’s tempting to question your decision to move to an area where you had not looked into the church situation, but we will leave that alone. It is what it is. Let’s talk about your quandary.
FIRST, I tossed this out to my Facebook friends. Twenty-four hours later, we have fifty-seven comments, each one giving their take on your situation, making suggestions, etc. A large percentage of my friends are pastors themselves and some have even been where you are now. I did not attempt a tabulation, but here is a summary of the responses–
–Several people wondered why you found the church of your denomination “unacceptable.” I assured them that word was my choice, not yours, and that you did not say why this one was not going to be your church home.
–Quite a few suggested you make that Sunday drive of one hour to the city church. “That’s not so far these days,” several said.
–Some wanted you to try the other denominations in your town. God has His people in all these other churches, many of them doctrinally consistent with you on all that is essential.
–Others want you to start a church. A pastor who has started several churches over a long ministry said you should befriend unchurched people in your town and then invite them to a gathering in your home. He said, “I’ve started several churches that way.” God could be giving you an entirely new ministry.
Okay. Now, here is my attempt to answer your question….
One. I accept the reality of your situation. Every church does not work for everyone. And the fact that you are a veteran pastor makes you non-typical in your needs for a church. For the past 12 years I’ve preached in different churches all the time, and I will admit, I preach in a lot of churches where I would not be happy as a member.
Two. Ask the Father.
I’m going to tell you what I say to people asking me “how to choose a church”: Ask the Lord. He made you, redeemed you, and loves you. The churches are all His. He knows where you are needed and knows where you would fit.
I have seen people join a church not of their first choice simply because “the Lord impressed upon my heart this was where He wanted me.” Within a year or two, it becomes obvious what God was up to. Sometimes, their presence makes it a better church, sometimes they elect him to a leadership position, and sometimes other good things occur.
Three. How important is it for me to be “happy” in church?
This is not a trite statement. As a veteran pastor, no doubt you have had members let you know that certain things/sermons/programs made them unhappy. I keep remembering the little committee that told me one day, “Some of our people are unhappy with your preaching.” I said, “So?” They said, “Well, we would think that should matter to you.” I said, “It does. But not much.” The leader responded, “Then, we have a misunderstanding. Our understanding is that the pastor serves at the pleasure of the people. And if the people are unhappy with him, he’s failing at his job.” I said, “There is a misunderstanding, but it’s yours. God does not send the pastor to make the people happy, but to make them holy. And to make Himself happy.”
So, I would suggest you drop that from your list of requirements for a church home.
Four. Neither am I real big on your demand for expository preaching. There are so many ways to communicate the gospel, with expository only one. So, I would suggest you reconsider this requirement.
While the preaching is important, as a veteran pastor what you personally will be needing from sermons is different from almost everyone else in the church. You could probably preach circles around most of the preachers in your small town. My wife has a word for you in this regard…
Quit expecting to be fed from the pulpit. You can feed yourself.
Now, my wife is anything but harsh. What she is expressing is precisely what she and I say about our church. We’re both 81 and have been in the ministry all our adult lives. When our pastor preaches the word and connects with the congregation, we love it. But rarely do we hear something that we’ve never heard before. And that’s just fine. We’re not here for “new” things. We love the old, old story.
Five. Let me pose a “What if” situation…
What if you and your wife drove the fifty miles for church on Sunday. And what if one night each week you invite your neighbors who are making the same drive into your home for a time of fellowship. Call it whatever you want: “small group” or a weeknight prayer meeting or Bible study
This would fill two important needs: a) give you a wonderful church in which to worship on Sunday and b) provide for a presence in your own town. In time, that weeknight session may grow and even become a church.
If you consider this, then also think about asking the pastor-in-the-city to attend the first gathering. That would stimulate the attendance from the others. The pastor might even see the need to start a new church in your town. (But I would take it one step at a time. See what God is up to.)
We have not mentioned your wife in this discussion. You said nothing about her in your note. But she is a huge part of this decision, I’m sure you agree. I’ll say as a husband of nearly 60 years (in total) that my wife is more sensitive in some of these matters than I can ever be. She will pick up on things I miss. So, listen to her, pray with her, and work as a team.
I’m praying for you. Please let me know what you do and how it goes, and I’ll share it with the group.