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May
29

How Pastors Accidentally Ruin Their Church

By Andy Flowers

Most pastors really love their church. They understand their calling as under-shepherds tasked with guarding the bride of Christ. Caring for the thing that Jesus died for is a heavy responsibility. Pastors will endure stress and criticism, they will work long hours, and they will sacrifice to protect the church.

Yet, I’ve seen these same men inadvertently bring their church to the brink of ruin. They are good preachers, caring counselors, and men of prayer, yet their church suffered. These pastors followed the play book, but their church nearly closed the doors. It wasn’t on purpose. They never meant any harm to come. But they sat and watched as the church they loved crumbled.

The weakness was not in how they served the church, but how they left the church.

It is as inevitable as death and housing allowances; all senior pastors will eventually move on. No one preaches forever. They will either retire or expire or go to a church where people are nicer. Every church must face this dreaded transition.

But most pastors don’t really think much about that day. They are too busy preaching and leading and serving. It’s not something a normal pastor wants to think about. It’s scary and sad. But planning for a healthy transition is something that any good leader must do.

I am amazed at how many pastors don’t think that the process of pastoral transition is their job. They run a great race all the way up to the last lap, and then just drop the baton in the dirt and walk away. The church is left with a huge void in leadership. The new guy has the near impossible task of guiding them through the change.

We’ve all seen it happen. The old guy leaves, the new guy comes, and then everything falls apart. Usually the blame lands on the new guy. He’s just too different. He’s not as good as the old guy. He does things wrong. He’s the reason people are leaving and giving is down. There is even a name for the replacement pastor- “sacrificial lamb”. A church might go through two or three “sacrificial lambs” before a pastor is able to stick.

Sometimes the blame lands on the search committee. They were the ones who recommended the new guy. They should have screened him better. They are responsible for the decline.

Often the church becomes divided with some people supportive of the new guy and some opposed to him. The two groups blame each other for the church decline. “Those petty, shallow people have ruined the church!”

This scenario is so common that new ministries have been established that provide an intentional interim to serve as the sacrificial lamb. These are guys that are hired for a short time to help prepare the way for a permanent pastor. That’s a great solution for churches that are unprepared, but whenever possible it is the outgoing pastor’s responsibility to prepare the way for the new pastor!

There is vulnerability to which every church is exposed at the point of transition. Satan has exploited this weakness for far too long. He will sow discord, demoralize new ministers, and render ministries ineffective; all because pastors don’t finish the race.

There are a number of reasons why pastors fail to lead through the transition. It’s hard to think about leaving, some guys just ignore the whole thing right up until the retirement party. Some think that it’s the search committee’s job to find a replacement. I had one guy tell me that the reason he wasn’t more involved in the transition was because he doesn’t believe in apostolic succession. Another guy wanted the church to be able to decide what direction they wanted to go next.

All those arguments are lame! I know it’s sad to think about leaving, but it’s inevitable. You need to put a plan in place. A search committee is not a transition strategy! It might be a part of a transition strategy, but if that’s your whole plan then you are putting your church in grave danger.

If you’ve spent the past few decades casting vision and establishing the direction for the church, why would you all of a sudden stop doing those things when the church needs you the most? You know the strengths and weaknesses and needs of that church better than any other person. If you remove yourself from the transition process you are setting them up for failure.

Pastors, God has called you to protect that church. Part of the job of pastoral leadership is finishing well. I don’t think Paul believed in apostolic succession, but he took the time to train and mentor the next generation of church leaders. He invested in guys like Timothy and Titus, helping to establish them as leaders in the church, and then left them to carry on the work.

Here are a few things that you can do to make sure that you don’t accidently ruin your church when you leave…

  1. Understand that it is your job to hand the baton off to the next guy. It is your job to train and equip a replacement. It is perhaps one of the most important aspects of pastoral leadership. A good leader will leave the church in good hands!
  1. Start planning right now, even if you are young. Talk to your board about a transition plan. What would happen if you suddenly die? What would happen if God called you to a different church? What are some things that the church can do to prepare for the inevitable? Pastoral transitions will cost money. It is way cheaper to invest up front than to see the budget dry up as people leave. Don’t let fear or insecurity keep you from planning wisely.
  1. Prepare the church. That means preaching grace so that people will be patient with the new guy. It means building in structures that rely on a ministry team, not just you. It means constantly pointing to Jesus so that people learn to put their hope in Him, not you.
  1. Train your replacement. Hire him well in advance. Work with him after he’s called. Allow the transition to be a gradual one. Point out landmines. Explain the culture. Allow people to form relationships with him. Do whatever you can to help him succeed.
  1. Humble yourself. The guy who takes your place will be different than you; that is not only hard on the congregation, but it will be hard on you at times. It will take a huge amount of humility on your part to hand over control. You must be a model for the rest of the church to follow.
  1. Get out of the way. At some point it will be necessary for you to step away from the center stage so that the new guy has a chance to be seen as the leader. Make yourself available as a resource for guidance and support, but hand the keys over and back off.
  1. Pray for wisdom and grace and strength and unity. Pray for God to protect and guard His church during the transition.

As Paul sat in a cold damp prison with martyrdom looming, he wrote one last letter. He could have written to the other apostles, or to one of the churches he helped plant, but he chose to write to Timothy. The letter is filled with encouragement to lead and preach well. It was his last chance to help Timothy be a better pastor so that the church would be strong and secure.

Paul says, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” What a simple transition plan. Entrust the gospel message to reliable men who will keep the ball rolling.

Paul understood that an important part of his ministry was not just building churches, but making sure that they were left in good hands. Let us follow Paul’s example!

Andy Flowers, a Western Seminary graduate, is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California and Adjunct Professor at Western Seminary Sacramento.

Comments

  1. Jim Hislop says:

    Thank you Andy for stating this critical message so succinctly, clearly and directly. This issue is the “Elephant in the Boardroom” that Weese and Crabtree talk about so wisely in their book by that title. Every pastor and board member needs to read this and that.

  2. Excellent article. There is no question that in my circle (Southern Baptist) this thing is almost always handled poorly. Most SBC churches do not have elders and this usually leaves the deacons (a group comprised of true deacons/servants and spiritual leaders/elders) attempting to step forward and provide leadership, which is something they are not routinely asked to do. Add in the fact that many pastors leave under some kind of compulsion or unrest within the body, either being asked for a resignation or even terminated, and it becomes a nightmare.

    I will ask this question for the smaller churches out there. In point #4 you suggest the old pastor train the new pastor and even that the new pastor be hired early. How could a smaller church, on a tighter budget, make something like that work?

    • I agree with the article completely and as a young pastor I pray that whenever the day comes for me to no longer serve God in this church that this is what the transition looks like, but what about a small church. A church of just under 100 that is on a tight budget. How does this look? How is it possible?

  3. An excellent artice. (See Darryl Hill’s post above) Right now my church can barely afford to pay me. And truthfully, their pay for me is inadequate. I do have another source of income. With that said, how do I train my replacement (unless that individual is a member of the church) when the church cannot afford (rt now) to bring someone on board?

    • You’re right training your replacement is an ideal that is impossible in the majority of churches due to budget/resources. But the real issue is training the leaders of the church. Far to many churches are dependent on the professional for a variety of reasons. One the church has hired the pastor for a job, they expect to get something for their money. So the job description usually has very little to do with discipleship and training leaders but rather focuses on pastoral care, administration, preaching/teaching. All very visible and ego stroking, which leads to a second reason for this co-dependance: Human nature. Let’s face it we like the adulation. Andy spoke of humility and getting out of the way which is key to training the “non-professional” in the church. If a pastor is training a leadership team, and the team is really leading the church dependance upon the pastor is greatly reduced, and the vision for the church isn’t generated from the pastor. If we train the leadership of the church to do the ministry, and the church to be ministers what is developed with outlive your tenure. There is hundreds of years of culture to counter act, with a ton of work that is inconvenient to move from a pastor focus to a team focus enabling the training of leaders to be leaders. Be prepared for a battle when moving from Pastor to Trainer.

  4. The only situation in which this could possibly work is the case where a long-term pastor is planning his retirement 12 to 18 months out. In normal transitions, pastors have been quietly looking for another place of service for months or years. They can’t afford to let that be known until the call has come, because the minute anybody in your church knows you are looking to move, you become a lame duck.

    Yes, this is probably the ideal. But it is too idealistic to work in the vast majority of cases.

  5. Thanks Andy. I’m twenty years in the same church and 8 years away from retiring. I’ve just recently talked to the elders about transitions, so over the next year, we will be determining our course for the inevitable hand over. Even though it is years away, a sudden tragedy could change everything very quickly. I also want to ensure that the next minister gets a clean sheet to work with.

    One thing that I’m very focused on saying when I describe the congregation is that ‘it is the church that I serve.” I try very hard not to say ‘my church’ at all. I hope that this will let people know that I am just one of those who are called to serve this church, but not the owner of the franchise.

    Thanks again for the ideas…:)

  6. NameisWithheld says:

    Having experienced this horrible scenario first hand, I find this article dead-on. The only thing I’d add is be prepared to see relationships end if family, friends and staff members entrench on opposite sides of the dispute. And when one side decides to sit-it-out and throw stones via Facebook and send angry representatives to hijack board meetings, recovery will be slow and rocky, if at all.

  7. After 19 years, I left the church one Sunday and the next pastor was welcomed the next Sunday with no break in pastoral care. Great move.
    After four years in an established work, no vision, little hope, no one to take over when I resign in a few months.

  8. I think the underlying presupposition of this concern is that there is “one guy” who is leading the church. If you are led by a biblical plurality of elders, as scriptures require, the transition is much less of an issue. As is pastoral burn out…. potential for pride… lack of accountability… etc. etc. etc. perhaps a better solution to the transition problem is not for the “one guy” to have a well planned transition to the next “one guy” – but to transition to a biblical plurality of elders.

  9. This is not specific to pastors. Many, many times people in the workplace a very happy with their jobs and careers until a manager retires or gets promoted to another job. The replacement manager comes in and either wants to shake everything up or bring in some people she/he is comfortable working with and suddenly the “workers” are looking around wondering why they are so unhappy with the same job they loved before.

    Transitions are hard no matter if it is church or not. Training a replacement is a great concept.

  10. Another vital transition: Closing a church. By the time you get to that point, the pastor is usually exhausted, but that is when you have to dig in and serve them well to the end. I am currently closing a church after 7 years and everything it very painful and there is the temptation to just take off, but we must be faithful to the end.