LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 30–“Be Kind to Your Predecessor; Someday You’ll be One.”

There’s something about us preachers. Maybe it’s in the DNA. It’s one more indication of our fallen nature, as though we need more of those. Here’s what we do.

In order to make myself look good, in order to impress you with my situation, in order to show you what a great job I’ve done at this church, I put someone else down.

The first time I saw it to know its true character, a preacher acquaintance had gone to pastor a downtown church in a huge city. He was always a let’s-think-outside-the-box type, before anyone had ever thought to put it that way. He was an innovator, a motivator, a let’s-get-‘er-done type. And that’s what he did at that church.

Within a year, he had that church packed to the rafters with people he had attracted by his unorthodox ways, captivating preaching, and bright personality. He was baptizing a thousand people a year when no one else on the planet was doing that. And he led that church to relocate, to get out of the concrete jungle where they owned no parking and to erect a great campus on the interstate where they would be visible to the world. He was a natural born fund-raiser and inspired his people to contribute millions of dollars–not one or two, but many millions–to pay for that vast acreage and the spacious state-of-the-art buildings. Everything he did was the biggest, the best, the brightest.

Most of us were understandably in awe of him.

When the invitations to speak in other places began to pour in, opportunities to tell the story of his church and how God had used him there, he saw this as an open door to help other pastors and churches to reach their communities. That’s when most of the pastors of my generation learned about him. And it is fair to say that along with most everyone else who ever heard him, we sat in awe of his preaching and fell in love with his personality. He became a genuine star.

“When I arrived,” he would tell his audiences, “that church was dead, dead, dead. There might have been 300 souls sitting in that cavern of a building, all of them waiting for the undertaker. They had not done anything for years.”

Prior to his coming, the previous pastors had been status-quo types who could not see the vast opportunity God had placed before them. He didn’t use the actual word, but we all knew those guys had been real losers.

He went on, “One day I asked the treasurer, ‘What is this $60,000 doing in a savings account?’ He said, ‘It’s for a rainy day.’ I told him, ‘Good lord, man! It’s been raining for years!!'”

We all laughed. Great fun, good entertainment for the preacher crowd, sharp put-downs for the sightless leadership many of us in the audience were saddled with in our churches. It felt good to see someone go in to a dead church, weed out the do-nothings, and establish a mighty work of faith.

One day something occurred to me. With the nation-wide publicity this preacher brother is getting for the phenomenal work God has done through him in that city, with the acclaim that comes through resurrecting a dead church and building one that is attacking the very gates of hell, with all of us bowing before this preacher in our best “we’re not worthy” manner, I wonder.

I wonder about his predecessor. Who is the pastor who served that church before him, back when it was “dead, dead, dead.” And how is he feeling along about now? Is he still pastoring, or I found myself hoping, was he in his grave so he doesn’t have to listen to this?

Alas, he was not dead. He was very much alive and well and not some old stick in the mud, either. In fact, he was not even all that old, either, and pastoring a good church in another city. Holding his head up high, someone said when I inquired. Trying not to be wounded by the jabs of his illustrious successor.

From that moment on, the shine went off the star preacher for me. I still admired what he had done and came to know him personally and had him in my church. To this day, I still think of him as one of the good guys.

I just wish he had been kinder to the man of God, a dear brother in Christ, who had served that church before him. I know nothing of what that brother had done there. But he was not the culprit, he was not a tool of the devil, not the church’s problem. At the worst, he was in the wrong place, not up to the challenge of resurrecting that old church.

This syndrome–putting my predecessor down in order to make me look better–remains alive and active in the ministry today. It rears its ugly head regularly, and mostly can be seen afflicting the young pastor or evangelist who is experiencing some unusual success in the ministry. He is so surprised, so relieved, so overwhelmed, he has to talk about it and make sure others see it. In telling the story, he gets carried away and starts emphasizing how bad conditions were when he arrived.

That’s when he sins. Nine times out of ten, he transgresses in two areas: he makes the situation look worse than it actually was when he arrived, and he exaggerates all that has been accomplished since he took the matter in hand.

For our purposes here, we’re only dealing with the first transgression: putting down the work of one’s predecessor for selfish purposes.

The truth in these matters is probably something like the following.

A pastor, let’s call him Bobby, served Crestview church for several years. They were running 230 when he arrived, and he managed to build the attendance up to 300. However, before he resigned and moved to another church, an argument occurred between him and the leadership. He wanted to build a gymn, what we call a “family life center,” and they wanted a children’s building. As the dissension spread, some grew angry and left. When Bobby resigned, Crestview’s attendance had dropped to 200.

The church then elected a search committee to locate the next pastor, a process that took nearly a year. In the meantime, attendance continued to decline. It was just the usual attrition, but without a pastor, Crestview was not bringing in new people to replace them. That year, they baptized three people, down from 30 the year before. By the time, Pastor Sammy arrived, a good attendance was 150.

The day the search committee introduced Pastor Sammy to the church, the local football team was playing out of town and a lot of pews were empty. The attendance that day was a lowly 125.

Pastor Sammy was a shot in the arm to the church. He was young and dynamic and full of a lot of things, including himself. He preached strong sermons and built an aggressive program of evangelism. Within a year, attendance was up to 200. The deacons were thrilled, particularly when the offerings kept pace with the attendance. Pastor Sammy was as overjoyed as anyone.

When the attendance hit 250, he decided it was time to revise his resume’. “In the first two years of Pastor Sammy’s ministry at Crestview,” the self-promotion sheet puffed, “attendance doubled.”

Pretty impressive stuff, huh?

The fact that it’s not exactly right, that it leaves the impression that the 125 in attendance when Sammy visited the church was the church’s regular attendance, well, that’s just a minor detail.

Unless one values truth. Unless one holds his integrity as a sacred trust. Unless one believes he should honor the Savior in even these details.

In Sammy’s case, he went even further. When homecoming day was placed on the calendar, he decided this was the time to bring in a celebrity and break all attendance records. That day, by a count that some said was not all that accurate, they numbered 425 people in the building. To be sure, it was just that once, not a regular attendance, and it never happened again, but such details are minor things, aren’t they, Sammy?

Soon his resume’ read: “In the first three years of Pastor Sammy’s ministry at Crestview Church, attendance has tripled.”

Sammy knew that if a church leader read that, he would know that the pastor had shaded the truth a little. But then, who reads preachers’ resume’s? No one but outsiders, in churches where preachers like Sammy are invited to make guest appearances. They don’t know any better, and besides, those inflated numbers will be used of the Lord, Sammy rationalizes. They will gain him a better hearing and they might attract the attention of a pastor search committee from some great church somewhere, people eager to bring in the kind of pastor who can resurrect a dying church in a big city. Someone like Pastor Sammy.

I actually called one pastor about his numbers.

“I read the material you put out about your church in the years you’ve been there. It’s pretty impressive, Roger. But, can I ask you about those numbers?”

He was a good guy and asked what was on my mind.

“They’re not exactly right, that’s all. Roger, the situation was not all that dire when you arrived, not as bleak as you make it sound. I knew your predecessor, friend, and he was a good guy. You have more gifts for the ministry than he does, and it’s true that God has blessed your leadership.”

“In fact,” I said, “the actual numbers about your ministry here are impressive enough without your dressing them up. I guarantee you that if you will go back and redo those numbers in a way that will allow you to hold your head up, you’ll still impress a lot of people.”

I cannot report whether he did or not. But it needed to be said.

What we did not get into was why he felt the need to impress people in the first place. One of bits of DNA evidence proving that we preachers are born into original sin, I fear.

Oh. One more thing.

The reason I know so much about this syndrome of putting down the predecessor’s work to bolster the appearance of your own contributions is that I’ve been there and done it and I am ashamed. I just hope the dear brother in Christ who preceded me never read any of my self-promoting writings about that church where he had invested so much of his life, and I might add, did some pretty incredible things.

But I was not comparing myself with the full record of his accomplishments in the ministry. Only with the last year of so when the church was in decline and he was preparing to retire. Just the numbers I needed to make my work more impressive.

Not very fair. Not fair at all.

As with most of the leadership lessons in this series, I learned them the hard way, by violating them.

I hope you won’t. That’s the reason for writing them here.

(Note: I learned last week that Pulpit Helps magazine (out of Chattanooga) has selected seven of these lessons for a series they will be running soon. We’re grateful.)

One thought on “LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 30–“Be Kind to Your Predecessor; Someday You’ll be One.”

  1. Thanks Joe. I recently arrived as senior pastor of a church, following a great pastor of 15 years. The church has indeed numerically declined in the latter years, but in every conceivable way, my predecessor left me in a great situation. In other words, I needed to read this today.

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