Why churches love their former pastors so much

(Not every church loves its former pastors.  Of the six churches I served, exactly one has shown evidence of remembering my years with appreciation.  And I’m fine with that.) 

“Most churches are two pastors behind in their appreciation.”  –Ron Lewis 

A cartoon shows a weary, embattled pastor standing beside a statue of a man on a horse.  The sign at the base reads, “Our former pastor.”  The preacher is saying, “Most popular guy in town.”

The host pastor said to his guest preacher, a former pastor, “They sure do love you here.”

That former pastor was Dr. Landrum Leavell, at the time President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and celebrated as a distinguished denominational leader.  They had invited him back for a special day, a homecoming or something.  Everyone was excited to see him and to hear him preach.  The attendance was good.

Dr. Leavell looked at the pastor and said, “Really?  Did they tell you that?”

“Uh, yeah.  They say they really do.”

The president was quite a moment, then said, “Listen. That monument they built to me was made from the stones they threw at me.”

They threw stones at the preacher? And now they’re saying how much they love him?

Yep.  Ask any veteran pastor.

You serve a number of years at a church and have the typical experience of good and bad times.  You are loved by some and despised by others. It’s life.  It happens. And then, eventually, you retire or move on to another church.  After a few years and a couple of pastors, they invite you back for some big occasion.  To hear them tell it, yours were the glory years for that church.  Those were the best times, yours was the greatest staff, everything was perfect back when you were here.  They rave about all the inspiring sermons you preached and the unforgettable moments in the history of the church.

That’s what they say.  And, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they probably mean it.

They just suffer from a poor memory.

And that’s not entirely bad. So, don’t misunderstand me here.  We would just as soon forget some of those slings and arrows from those years ourselves.  And we will not fault the members for doing the same.

But there’s an insincerity about it.  The present pastor sometimes suffers by comparison with the false memory of our years in that church.  And they have good biblical precedent for that.

In Stephen’s benedictory address–his sermon to the religious zealots who were about to stone him to death!–he gave them a little history lesson.  Stephen knew these Pharisees idolized certain figures of past Jewish history, including Joseph and Moses.  So, he tells how “the patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into slavery”  (Acts 7:9). Then, God called Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt’s slavery.  “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him and repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39).  Then, he brought home the lesson of this message….

You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.  You always resist the Holy Spirit.  You are doing just as your fathers did!  Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:51-52).

It has been pointed out that the church in the wilderness praised Abraham and persecuted Moses.  The church of Canaan praised Moses and persecuted the prophets.  The church of Jesus’ day praised the prophets and persecuted Jesus.  The next bunch praised Jesus and persecuted the apostles.

It’s what religious people do when their little fun-and-games are more important to them than honoring God and doing the will of the Father in Heaven.

Now, let’s admit two obvious things here…

Some churches love all their pastors, period. They honor them while they are present and love them just as sincerely after they depart.  The new preacher is loved and honored to the full extent the old one was loved.  These churches are the exception, sad to say.  Testimony: In my experience, the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi comes as close to perfection in this way as it’s possible to get.  They loved J. D. Franks (1921-1946), loved S. R. Woodson (1946-1972), loved McKeever (1974-1986), loved Bobby Douglas (1987-2002), and loved Shawn Parker (2004-2021.  That speaks far more of the church than the preachers, although these are all excellent servants of God, with the possible one exception.

And, some churches have little use for the former preachers.  After he leaves, he is history.  I have served a couple of those.  For reasons of their own, the leadership (and I suspect the subsequent pastors) chose to have no further contact.  One of those churches I served faithfully during seminary. We had an amazing three years there. Thirty years later, when they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a large bash, even though I was the oldest living pastor and lived only ten miles away and would have enjoyed being a part of the events, I heard not a word from them.

However, those are exceptions.  Most churches seem to exaggerate their love and appreciation for the “dearly departed” (said tongue in cheek) preachers.  The question is why.

So, let’s get to it.  Why do churches love their ex-pastors so much?

From my experience, here are some of the reasons…

It’s safer.  The present pastor is the one they have to sit across the table from and work with on various projects, the one they have to listen to Sunday after Sunday.  But you are here for today only.  Your preaching will be a nice change.  So, while they would think long and hard about vowing undying love to the present pastor, they have no trouble expressing their devotion to you.  There are no strings attached and you will not be around to make them back up their words with action.

It’s easier.  It’s cheaper and costs nothing.  It takes little effort, and frankly, is meaningless.

It’s deceptive.  Saying how much they loved you deceives them into thinking they supported you from the beginning.  If they give you their heartfelt appreciation now, perhaps you will forget what they said when you were here.

It’s a trap. To some, this gives them a license not to love the present guy.  In the same way an old love from college days may seem a better choice than the spouse we ended up with–a dangerous kind of deception!–people do that to preachers.  They remember poorly, and grab anything they can to compare the present pastor unfavorably.

I said to a pastor who had succeeded me, “These people seem to remember me as a fundraiser.  But if they ever tell you the church had no money problems when Joe was pastor, they’re suffering from a bad memory.  We had the same issues every other church experiences!”  He laughed, and promptly found it out.

Such protestations of love are falsehoods.  But they’re mostly harmless, so we will let them go.  We former pastors will thank those who express their love to us even if they are exaggerating the impact of our ministry.  We will greet the old men, hug the old ladies, and ooh and ahh over the babies. Then we will get in our car and drive home.

Arriving back at home, we will give thanks to the Lord for our years in that church, give Him praise for getting us through them, and exalt Him forever for getting us out of there!

Please smile, and don’t take any of this little discussion too seriously.  It’s perfectly fine to honor the former pastor and say nice things to him.  Just don’t fail to love and honor the present guy who is bearing the burdens of leadership at the moment.

2 thoughts on “Why churches love their former pastors so much

  1. Joe,
    I so appreciate you! I have been a Pastor for 33 years, and from time to time find myself reading your work, and being blessed every time!
    You sketched my wife Laura and I in Baltimore at the SBC convention in 2014:)
    I loved the line “and exalt Him forever for getting us out of there!.”
    Retirement is approaching, (7-10 Years) and I am looking forward to what God, has planned for next:)
    I think, If you were able to sketch my post-retirement face, it would be the biggest smile you ever drew:)
    Thank you for refreshing my spirit today!

    • Thank you, Mark. How wonderful. blessings on your upcoming retirement. I hope it will be as enjoyable, fulfilling, and (at least as) lengthy as mine.

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