After a Successful Long-Term Pastor
Moving forward on a firm foundation, out of the shadow
The pastor who has successfully led your congregation for 12 or 20 or even 30 years has
moved on. During that time wonderful things have happened. Your pastor presided over
many major life events: funerals, weddings, baptisms. Together you have seen the
church grow and change. Perhaps there is even a new church building or addition as a
result of that pastors ministry. Now another church or retirement has called this
firm fixture of your congregation away.
Of course, you will seek another pastor. And knowing how wonderful the last pastor was,
you may well want someone like them. And this is how problems start.
No one will ever be like your Beloved Former Pastor. Your Beloved Former Pastor
[BFP] was one of a kind. God will have shaped no one else exactly like them.
Your next pastor will have grown up in a different place, a different time, with different
experiences. He or she will have different talents, different deficiencies and different ways
of doing things. Most of all, your next pastor will not have the same history with you.
Members of the congregation who felt close, even friends, with your BFP may find that
the new pastor treats them like
It will dawn on everyone that your BFP is truly gone. Many will pine for that wonderful time
that is now past. Grief, that passage of adjusting to life after a loss, very often will take
hold and inhibit church ministry. Many churches go into decline when this happens.
Anxiety infests the congregation. Of course, with a new pastor we dont
truly know what to expect and at some level we understand this. Anxiety, an undefined
fear about what the future might bring, can grow among members. Since we all respond
to anxiety in different ways, people begin to do different and even contradictory things.
Some people cling to the past, like a grieving parent preserving a lost childs room.
We have undergone enough change with losing our BFP. We cant risk any
more change. Others want to sweep their lives clean, like a jilted lover tossing out
their past. We have to move on and just forget the past. Still others,
at a loss because this fixture in their life is gone simply quit showing up. Church
is just not the same without
The clingers and the sweepers (and others with still more different reactions)
will, of course, run afoul of each other. And when they see some members quitting or
going to another church, they may even blame each other for the loss. Church fights
start this way.
Finding the Way Forward.
In order to move forward a church needs to move out from the shadow of their Beloved
Former Pastor. Neither abandoning the past nor enshrining it will do this. A church
needs time to grieve and a path to follow.
And that leads us to your future. Having adjusted to life after the Beloved Former Pastor, and
having perceived the ways God is calling your congregation to walk in the future, what
sort of pastor would best guide you along that path?
- A Time to Grieve. Grief is not an emotion, but an adjustment to a new
reality. Grieving people can have a number of emotions sadness, anger, fear,
and even joy, sometimes all at the same time. These rise out of the memories of what
they have lost. (See my elder training PowerPoint on
Elder Visits for a graphic presentation.) Only as we find new ways of continuing
the things we treasured, or new things to do instead, can we fully grieve and resolve
When my Grandfather died, Grandma immediately thought of moving back to the old
homestead in West Virginia. Mom suggested she wait and see what she wanted to do
before making any snap decisions. Grandma did that and ended up going back to school
and starting a new career as a receptionist/nurse for a private practice doctor.
This gave her a brand new life and even a new family (becoming the de-facto
Grandma for the doctors young children.
Likewise, your church needs time to grieve, time to learn how to live without your
BFP. Before your next pastor comes a church needs to let go of demands that the next
pastor be just like (or sometimes very different from) your last one.
how to live without the previous pastor.
- A Path to Follow. Like my Grandma, many churches find that a new path
leads from their front door. The particular gifts and leadership of Your BFP pulled
you in one direction. Now that he or she is gone, you discover talents and passions
you never noticed before. New directions of ministry can open up before you.
Again, this does not mean throwing away the past. Quite often this new path simply
adds to the firm foundation of ministry for Jesus that your BFP helped you build.
Sometimes it means noticing that the limitations of your BFP kept you from seeing
opportunities and people in your community. Maybe your neighborhood is changing.
Ministries that work well with people who are moving away need to change to reach
people who are moving in. Or perhaps you realize that, though your BFP could not
help you achieve your dream of a neighborhood childrens choir, the right
This is the task of Specialized Interim Ministry [SIM]. SIM grew out of
the realization that churches experience a great deal of grief and anxiety when a successful
long-term pastor leaves. The SIM comes in to give the congregation time to adjust
to the absence of their BFP, to discern anew where God wants to lead them, and to
describe and search for the new pastor who will be equipped and passionate for that
path. If your Pastor is about to become your BFP (or if you perceive that you have
not completely grieved a BFP in your past) I encourage you to contact your
denomination and inquire about Interim Ministry. And If I can help, please feel free to