The perfect way for a pastor to lead a different church

“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Imagine this.

You’re the captain of a mighty airship–a 747, let’s say.  It’s a huge job with great responsibility, but one you are doing well and feel confident about.  Then, someone alerts you to another plane that is approaching and has a message for you.

You are to transfer to the other plane and become their pilot.

So, you push back the canopy–I know, I know, the huge planes don’t have canopies, but we’re imagining this–and crawl into the contraption the other plane has sent over. You are jettisoned from your old plane to the new one.

As you settle into the captain’s seat in your new plane, you find  yourself surrounded by an unfamiliar crew and you notice the controls in front of you are not the same as in the old plane.  This is going to take some getting used to.  Meanwhile, you and your crew and passengers are zooming along at 35,000 feet.

Your new flight attendants send word, “Captain, welcome aboard. Everyone is asking what is our destination?  Can you tell us your goals for this flight?”

And you think to yourself, “You’re asking me? I just got here!”

This is an apt parable for what happens to pastors.

You are serving/leading a congregation, which you have finally figured out how to do with a certain degree of competence, when suddenly the Lord and another church lift you out of the captain’s chair and you drop down in the middle of another congregation, one in a different city, made up of all-new crew and membership, complete with its own set of problems and challenges, and with a different direction and destination.

And they ask you where you’re taking them.

It’s almost funny. Except nothing about it is humorous.  This is serious stuff.

In fact, in this case the passengers voted you in as the new captain. And if they ever figure out that you do not know what you are doing or are not capable of flying a plane as complex as theirs or they do not like the destination you have plotted, they are fully prepared to take a vote and eject you.

It’s been done.  In fact, it’s being done somewhere in this country several times a day.

Pray for the Lord’s churches. Pray for the pastors.

No one should ever attempt to lead a congregation of the Lord’s people without a specific and direct call from God in Heaven.  Without such a call–and the gifts and assurance and promises that go with it–a pastor will give up on those exasperating people and pull the ripcord himself.

Ask Moses. Many a time he wanted to bail out, and would have except for one thing: The call of God on his life.  (That’s Exodus 3-4.)

The wonder–the absolute miracle of Heaven–is that any pastor would be able to make this transition, from Church A to Church B and stay airborne without crashing and burning. That some pastors do it well numerous times over a long ministry is nothing short of amazing.

I was thinking this morning of a church I came within a hair-breadth of pastoring back in 1985.  It was twice the size of the Mississippi church I had led for eleven years. The governor sang in the choir of the new church and people around the state looked to its pastor as something special. Now it appeared that the Lord was going to send me there.  I was excited, and more than a little apprehensive.

It did not happen, and one year later the Lord moved me to a different church in another state where I had my own set of challenges to deal with.  But I know what happened to that first church and how disastrous it would have been for me to have tried to lead it.

The old retired pastor, a cantankerous know-it-all who had led that church for 40 years, was interfering in its internal affairs.  Two members of the pastor search committee reported to him on everything they did, every candidate they interviewed, and the gist of those interviews.  The only people who did not know this, it appeared, was the other members of the committee.  Other pastors knew it and told me.

I was not surprised.

For several years, I had received that church’s weekly mailout bulletin and regularly listened to that pastor’s sermons on cassette tape.  He had convinced his church that reproducing his sermons and mailing them out free of charge to anyone asking for them would be a worthwhile ministry.  As I recall, they shipped out 300,000 tapes annually. As for the content of his messages, suffice it to say he took no prisoners.  His word, his interpretation of Scripture, was the only valid one and anyone daring to say otherwise was anathema.

When he retired, I read in their church bulletin his announcement and was aghast.

The retiring pastor told the church how things would be, and did not ask them.  “I will be named Pastor Emeritus and will continue to maintain an office here in the church.  The church will continue mailing out cassette tapes of my sermons. And each year, on the anniversary of my retirement, I will preach in the pulpit.”

I said to myself, “Whatever unfortunate soul the Lord sends as the next pastor is going to be his assistant as long as he lives.”

It was a full two years before their pastor search committee got to me. They had worked their way through a lot of great pastors and excellent preachers, no doubt.  A woman on their committee told me in all this time they had not invited the first pastor to their city to even see their church. “When we do that,” she said, “we have our new pastor.”

After several visits of their committee to my church and after a couple of interviews, they called and invited my wife and me to fly to their city and see their church.  It looked like this was going to happen.

The old pastor shot it down.

He did not like some answer of mine to something or other. (I know what it was, but it’s immaterial now.)  When he informed his two lackeys that “McKeever will not do,” they returned to their committee and voted ‘no.’

They probably saved my life.

The next pastor they visited was a stronger man than me. He was an excellent preacher and had published books and was well known.  Both he and the committee decided God wanted him to move from his old church to their congregation.

But what the old preacher did to him was something awful.

When a certain hot-shot denominational bigwig called that old pastor to say, “Do you realize that young preacher is a liberal?” the old man went into action.  He began working to undermine him, even though now he was in place as the new pastor.

A crisis resulted when the new pastor had to terminate a lazy minister of music who saw his job as directing 30 people in the worship choir and little else, and a lot of older members departed. Meanwhile, the old former pastor was behind it all.

The new young pastor, from my vantage point a couple of states away, did well.  He stayed the course, loved everyone, acted like a Christian gentleman, and the church survived.

Meanwhile, the Lord in Heaven called the old cantankerous curmudgeon home, praise His holy name for that.  (smiley-face goes here.)  But before He did, while this mess was going on, I made a phone call to the chairman of their pastor search committee, the man I had gotten to know fairly well a year earlier when they dealt with us.

I said, “Do you remember what I said to you while we were talking last year? I told you that ‘the word in the boonies is that Doctor Whatzit is calling the shots.’ And you said, ‘Oh no. Not our beloved pastor.’  And now, look at what is happening!”

Give him credit. He said, “Brother Joe, this has been the greatest disappointment of my life–that my beloved pastor, the one who led our church so well for so long, would be so mean and under-handed.”

I said, “Well, I hope you are supporting your pastor,” referring to the new guy.

He assured me he was.

Numerous times over the years since I have reflected on that church, that old man, and how things would have gone had the Lord actually sent me there.  (I was in my early 40s at the time.)

They would have killed me.  I could not have taken the harassment, the slander, the anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, the church members leaving in droves.  I would have caved, I expect, and after a month of sleepless nights, would have died of a heart attack or stroke or something.

Only now, some 30 years later, have I realized something.

I’m now ready to pastor that church.

I’m dead serious. No “smiley-faces” here.

The reason I say that is that a) my life has been de-stressed, b) I have gotten all the previous churches out of my system, and c) I am more confident in my preaching than I’ve ever been in my life.

In the early 1980s, our two sons were in college and our daughter was a senior in high school and they were testing us in a hundred ways.  My wife had just gotten her college degree and was running a shelter for battered women. We had just finished a capital funds campaign and building project in our church.  I had been traveling a lot, preaching and doing mission work, while trying to lead our church staff and minister to the large congregation.  Our deacons were a constant challenge.  And my wife and I had come through a year of marriage counseling.

It was one thing after another.

And you know what? All that stress has disappeared. It’s been over 15 years since I’ve had a deacons meeting with dissent, and 10 years since I’ve even been to a deacons meeting.  I’m retired, preaching all over, and feeling good about life.  (This is where you can insert the smiley-face.)

Some wit put it like this: “Too late smart; too soon dead.”

No pastor being asked to move to another church is able to pull aside for 10 years in order to detox before taking up the new challenge.

But that’s the only way to do it perfectly.

Otherwise, expect it to be hard and some members to be dissatisfied with the new pastor.  Churches should cut the new preacher some slack and pray for him with a great intensity. And the preachers and their spouses should stay close to each other and to the Lord for that’s the only way they’re going to survive.

Mid-air collisions happen.

So, now I’m ready to take on the cantankerous old curmudgeon.  Of course, the funny thing is that I’m probably 10 years older than he was at the time. Oh well.





1 thought on “The perfect way for a pastor to lead a different church

  1. Transitions are tough on the pastor and on his family. It has been almost 14 years since my last move. I left a denominational position to return to pastor a church. Soon after one of my pastor friends asked, ” why in the world would you do that? You were out man.” I told him I believed it was God’s will, and I meant it. That fact is all that kept me at the controls of the 747 I had taken control of. I tell the Lord all the time I will go anywhere and do anything He wants me to do, but honestly I transitioning to a new flight crew and passenger list seems almost unthinkable. That is why we must put our lives totally in the Lord’s hands and trust Him to lead us along. Since taking my current pilots seat, I have become a grandpa (3 of the sweetest baby buddies just a mile and a half from my driveway). My wife has established herself in her career and because of the non-recovery of the economy… we have little or no equity in our home… so all of those things make moving to a different plane seem impossible, but I find myself these days praying…(not like I first prayed…”Lord help me not to leave for the wrongs reasons”) to… “Lord, help me not to stay for the wrong reasons.” Joe thanks for your insights, they are encouraging as usual. May those of us still flying listen carefully to the ultimate air traffic controller.

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