How to treat your celebrity predecessor

I said to a pastor search committee, “Wait a minute. The former pastor of your church lives a hundred miles away, but he’s still the chaplain of the local high school football team? And he comes back for every game?”

For this and a few other reasons, I declined their invitation to become pastor of that church.

Dealing with a former pastor who is well-loved and will not go away and stay gone is a huge challenge for the preacher who follows him.

But there are those who do it well.

We could all take a lesson in how to deal with our predecessor from Paul Mainieri, the baseball coach of LSU’s consistently championship team. His predecessor, Skip Bertman, is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame.  And with good reason….

Skip Bertman took over as coach of LSU’s baseball program when it was little more than a poorly run high school thing. Between 1984 and 2001, he built this into one of the nation’s elite programs, going to the College World Series in Omaha a dozen times and winning five national championships. Out of 1203 games, Bertman’s team won 870, for a winning percentage of .724. 

Afterwards, Bertman became athletic director for LSU.  Seven years ago, he brought in Paul Mainieri to be the coach.  In 2009, Mainieri’s team added a sixth national championship to Bertman’s five.  This year, his team was consistently ranked in the top three in the nation.

When Paul Mainieri goes to work, he passes Skip Bertman Drive. His parking spot is a few feet over from the one for Skip Bertman. And today, Friday, May 17, his team will play baseball on Skip Bertman Field.

And how does Mainieri handle all this adulation his predecessor is receiving?  And wouldn’t this be like taking over as coach at Alabama with Paul “Bear” Bryant watching over your shoulder?

In today’s The Advocate, Mainieri says how he feels about his predecessor, Skip Bertman.

His remarks should be noted by every pastor as the gold standard on how to treat your predecessor….

Mainieri says he had a very blunt conversation with Bertman when he interviewed for the coaching position over 7 years ago. “I said, ‘I can’t be you, Skip. I didn’t play for you or coach under you. But I want you to advise me and counsel me. I will never be offended by any suggestions you make.”

Then he added, “You just can’t tell me who to pitch on Friday night.”

“And he has been a great counsel to me.”

He said some LSU officials told him not to be surprised if Bertman passed through the dugout during a game, and if he got in Mainieri’s way, they would be glad to speak to Skip about interference.

Mainieri said, “I told them, ‘I want him to walk through the dugout. I want him to go anywhere he wants. The man has earned that respect. Nothing that we enjoy here today would be possible without what he did.”

“I tell our players to wrap their arms around Skip Bertman. He’s the one who built this. I want to celebrate him.”

How does Coach Mainieri feel about naming the field for his predecessor? And wouldn’t this be like renaming your church for the pastor who preceded you?

“When they announced that it was going to happen, I said how honored and privileged I feel to go to work every day on Skip Bertman Field.”

He added, “I consider Skip–next to my father–the greatest college baseball coach in history, and I consider him a great friend.”

“He gave me the opportunity to come here, and to see his name upon the field every day warms my heart. It makes me very proud to be the coach here.”

One smart man.

In one city where I pastored, the retired pastor of the First Baptist Church had traveled the world and built a great reputation for his preaching and denominational leadership. His successor walked in and announced in his opening sermon, “Now, I want you to know I will not be gallivanting all over the world to preach in this little country and that one, but I plan to stay at home and pastor this church.”

Many in the congregation took that as criticism of their beloved former pastor, and they never got past that. The new pastor did not stay long.

No one has to write me with tales of interfering former pastors. I’ve heard all the horror stories. Many pastors move away but cannot turn loose. They keep running back for weddings and funerals, they stay on the phone counseling those who do not like the new guy, and they end up undercutting his ministry, all in the name of “doing what’s best for the church.”

The best thing a former pastor can do is move away and turn down those invitations to return as much as he possibly can. He should pray for his successor and rejoice in his accomplishments, even if some of what he does ends up undoing what the old preacher had thought his finest deeds. And, he should do or say nothing over the phone to his former members which could be interpreted as negative or disloyal.

New pastors should go out of their way to honor the pastors who preceded them, particularly the last one, and especially if his ministry was a lengthy one and he is held in high esteem by the congregation. The members will appreciate his kindnesses, the old guy will eat it up, and before long everyone will be ready to close the door on the past and get on with the present and the future.

Personally, I never had this problem in any of my six pastorates. In every case, either the pastors moved a considerable distance away and could not be running back to our town or those who retired moved to other states and returned rarely. When they did, we honored them.

My personal challenge was that I was sometimes the former pastor who kept getting invitations to return for this wedding or that funeral. Then, a couple of times, the phone rang off the wall as the pastor who followed me was going through a crisis and church members sought my counsel on what they should do.  That is an awkward situation to be in, and I hope I handled it all with grace, loyalty, and wisdom.  If I did not, if I failed in any way, then I ask John Bookmiller, Hugh Martin, Bobby Douglas, Charles Page, Tony Merida, Shawn Parker, Mark Harris, and Mike Miller to forgive me. (Note: There was one more pastor who followed me, in 1967 at Paradis, Louisiana, but I’ve forgotten his name. Sorry.)

We pastors should never forget that some day we will be the “beloved former pastors.” Let us so live and conduct ourselves each day that we may say with the Lord’s favorite cousin, “He must increase; I must decrease.” Amen and amen.





2 thoughts on “How to treat your celebrity predecessor

  1. This post kind of reminds me of reading Too Great a Temptation a few years ago. It was a train wreck–I couldn’t stop reading.

    I greatly appreciate your insights here.

  2. The congregation I serve has no living former pastors, but for the first 12 years I served here, I was called by the most recent predecessor’s name a lot. (with apologies each time). I simply said “from what I’ve heard of him, that’s the greatest compliment you could give me….wish I could have known him.” Now, it looks as if I will be the longest-running pastor. How do I prepare them for the fact that either the Lord’s call, death, or disability will take me away one day?

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