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 pastor’s 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… church members!

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 don’t 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 child’s room. “We have undergone enough change with losing our BFP. We can’t 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.

  • 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 these emotions.

    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 doctor’s 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 children’s choir, the right pastor could.

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?

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 contact me.