I have this dream of serving a group of saints in a congregation, retiring there, celebrating with them at a big, tearful farewell party and then sticking around to help mentor the young, talented, man of God who follows me. It is a great dream, a well-intentioned dream. There is only one problem, sin gets in the way. It is vital to understand that this dream of making a good transition from being the current pastor to a retired one, breaks down because sin interferes in two critical ways: through pride and legacy.
The writer of Proverbs shares these words of wisdom for us, “The empty-headed cause conflict out of pride; those who take advice are wise.” The reason pride gets in the way of a smooth transition is obvious in this illustration. As a retiring pastor, I have by the grace of God figured out just how to lead this group of saints. We have had many holy and some unholy battles over the years, but through it all, we have developed a routine, a rhythm that works well. Our relationship has stood the test of time and we know what we have developed works.
At this point in our history, no one is challenging the wisdom of what we have developed, no one has tried to change it until this new young, talented man of God comes along. Now he has all kinds of new-fangled ideas. He bounces in with his new gadgets and begins asking uncomfortable questions that undermine all the things the previous pastor has battled to put into place. “Hey, maybe we should try this? Or have you thought about why you do things that way instead of like this?” Doesn’t he realize the former pastor is feeling threatened by all this change?
Pride has now messed up my dream of being a blessing, now I am in danger of becoming a burden. How I handle this perceived threat will determine which of those two paths I travel down. If I as a former shepherd entertain all the members who come to me with complaints and give those complaints a fertile ground to grow and flourish, I am becoming a burden and sin has a foothold. On the other hand, if I support this young, talented man of God and speak well of him, support him, then I can be a blessing to help make his difficult transition smoother.
We all have a need to be loved, respected and remembered. Now that we are no longer “the guy” we miss those words of affirmation, the interactions, the energy we got from our members. It is hard to sit back and watch these accolades being showered on a younger man of God, talented in different areas. The key question for the retiring pastor and congregation to find a solution to is: “How do the pastor and congregation replace what gifts and abilities the retiring pastor provided in such a way that it does not stunt the growth and development of the new shepherd?” It will require the ability to have honest conversations and willingness for the former pastor to move on if necessary. I know the retiring pastor wants to help, wants to be a blessing, wants to maintain the long relationships that have been forged over time, but staying could prevent the new shepherd from forming some of those same relationships the retiring pastor has grown to love and cherish.
This post is not designed to create hurt or push out a former pastor, but to bring awareness to the growing concern I see in congregations. Think of the situation this way. When you buy a house you don’t keep pictures up of the previous family that lived there. You don’t keep their traditions, celebrate their family’s birthdays, or even their choice of color patterns. You want to put your own unique touches on the house, make new family traditions and memories. When the house reaches the end of its life cycle it can tell a story of not just your family’s small moment in time there, but instead, paint a rich mosaic of several generations of families and celebrate a variety of traditions, births, deaths, disappointments, and mistakes, but ultimately point to the love that flowed through its walls. Should we expect any less from the Houses that God build? Shouldn’t they also reflect the many different traditions, shepherds, and congregants who had to figure out the ministry for that time and community, in order to uniquely proclaim God’s love to groups still outside of God’s grace? We are not building a legacy for ourselves, but a house for generations to come.