When a church experiences a change in leadership, it can be almost an earth-shattering experience for pastor and laity alike. It is important in the midst of such change to emphasize the continuity of ministry that pastors and churches have as disciples of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, some folks in the pews think only of their church in relationship to certain pastors they liked. In a previous church I served, there was a wall in the main hallway that held photographs of the current and former pastors. I referred to it as the "Wailing Wall" because it was the place where (so I said) parishioners stood and wailed over the former pastors they loved and the current ministers they did not like. Laity can tend to define eras of the church's ministry by the tenures of pastors.
The same thing is also sadly true of some pastors. They come into a new church and see the previous pastor as a threat or as irrelevant to their current ministry. I know some colleagues who have made a habit of running down their predecessors in order to build themselves up in the eyes of their parishioners. Not only is such behavior unprofessional, it does not glorify the God who calls those who precede and follow us in our ministries.
We must never forget that the church of Jesus Christ was around long before we were born and it will be around after we are dead. No pastor and no disciple sitting in the pew are indispensible when it comes to God’s Kingdom work in this world. As important as each of us is to Jesus, each of us can and will be replaced. In every church I have left, someone has come up to me and said, "I do not know how this church will make it after you are gone." Every church I have left is still doing quite well. It’s amazing how that happens!
So, if as a pastor you are preparing to move to a new congregation, or if, as a parishioner, you are preparing to receive a new pastor, allow me to offer some thoughts:
1. Do not publicly criticize your predecessor. It is unprofessional and no one will be impressed with you. It may indeed be the case that you would do some things differently from the way she or he did, or you may become convinced that the previous pastor failed in some things, but keep your thoughts to yourself. When you criticize the former pastor your own insecurities will be revealed for all to see.
2. Make sure that you publicly express the appreciation you have for the former pastor. All pastors make some important contributions to the ministry of the church. Do not fail to mention such things when it is appropriate. Such compliments will discourage people from criticizing the former pastor to your face, and those who really appreciated your predecessor's ministry will be thankful for your professionalism and your acknowledgement of the importance of the pastor’s ministry before you.
3. Continuity of ministry means that, while there are things that you will do differently, there are also things that should remain the same. Pastors should not change things for the sake of change. If you change things without prayerful consideration, or if you change things too quickly, you will send the message to the congregation that the way they have been doing worship and/or ministry is wrong. Make sure that you do not simply brush aside the things they have come to deem as important. At the same time, the church moves forward most effectively when things change. Do not let the status quo, who desire that nothing be done differently, hold you captive to moving the mission of the church forward.
1. Do not compliment your new pastor at the expense of her or his predecessor. To do so is a sign of immaturity, and you put your pastor in the uncomfortable position of having to respond positively to a compliment without appearing to agree with your criticism. A compliment without a swipe at the former pastor will be greatly appreciated.
2. Do not criticize your new pastor by comparing her or him to the former pastor. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in biology to know that your new pastor is not your former shepherd. Whether you like it or not, that it is the way it is. Get over it. Most pastors I know are more than willing to hear constructive criticism, but offer such criticism in love and on its own merit, not in comparison with another pastor.
3. Continuity of ministry means that there will be some things that your new pastor will leave the same and it also means that there will be changes made over time. The existence of the Christian Church is a reality only because of the new work that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. Some things are meant to be done the same way over a long period of time; other things need to be changed or gotten rid of completely. Do not fall into the "We’ve Never Done It That Way Before" mode. Had God listened to Peter and the other disciples, Jesus would have never journeyed to the cross; after all, the Messiah was not supposed to secure salvation in that way. Be open to the new opportunities that God is presenting you in a new pastor.
Over time pastors come and go, parishioners live and die, but the mission of the church in this world as it proclaims the gospel remains the same.
Thanks be to God!
As a pastor who is transitioning to another appointment, these words of wisdom come at the best time. Thanks. Dr. Bevere.
Great insight Dr. Bevere! I was wondering if you had any helpful hints for a struggling Associate Pastor who wants to move things along while honoring the way things have been done in the past. Any type of movement on the Associate Pastor's part has been met with opposition due to the leadership being complacent, lacking vision, purpose and direction for the church.
Anon: Drop me an email: arbevere(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Hey Allan - quit knocking the wailing wall - I really liked the pastors back in the mid-1800's.
You hit on some very good points and I hope they help you and your current and new congregations as you make your transition.
It really is an important transition time, if for no other reason than it's an opportunity for growth and greater understanding.
excellent points of advice.
One of my former congregations had a "wailing wall." There was a picture of every pastor going back over 100 years. I stayed there for quite some time, longer than average, and my picture never made onto the wall. What does that say?
Amen and Amen! I recently served a church in which certain people who have worked in the past on searches and building campaigns made it apparent that THEY knew best how to run the church. when we take that tack, little room is left for others to sit at the table and make contributions. It also stunts growth--as if only certain people have something to contribute and only certain people can do it "right". I became of the opinion that it wasn't Jesus' church, but theirs.
I would also say for those transitioning like the first commenter on this post, one of the dangers for pastors is going to a new church and not knowing who all the players are. Who the movers and shakers are, who really pulls the strings behind the scenes without holding an official position in the church, who has a secret agenda based on previous decisions, etc. Pastors do well to tread lightly and not get too close to even those on the search committee unless they discern a true spirituality, lest they find themselves forever beholden to that person.
Great piece, thanks. Any suggestions for interview questions for a potential new pastor? We just had word that our pastor is to be reassigned.
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