The Possibilities and Perils of Following Long-Tenured Ministers
We were a few weeks shy of moving to a new church. I was reading one of those Lyle Schaller books on the realities of church dynamics, and I got scared. I learned I had a very good chance of failing. Why?
I was going to follow a minister who had served and served well for 38 years. He was rightly honored and loved. Schaller said that when a minister follows a minister who has served 15 years or more and who dies in or retires from that pastorate, the chances are 3 out of 4 that the immediate successor will fail. He will serve as “the unintentional interim” or as some say, “the sacrificial lamb.”
Nine years later I was still there. God had blessed with modest success. Attendance grew; the missions program was revamped; the Sunday School program was strengthened; a capital campaign was undertaken; some building renovations and a building expansion were completed; and such like. During the same time I was able to serve for 6 years as a member and then president of the local Christian school board and as a member of a study committee and of the missions committee of my denomination. Of course, the more important questions have to do with whether the people were cared for, nurtured, and enabled to grow and whether the congregation enjoyed spiritual growth and health. That is for others to say, but I think there was some good in these areas, too. Then I made the worst and most fateful decision my pastoral life.
I left to accept a call to follow a minister who had served for 43 years. Within three years I was gone, and life has never been the same.
Why did the first pastorate work? These are my guesses:
(1)The church leadership and to some extent the congregation knew that changes were needed and were ready to support change even though neither I nor they knew all that would entail. They wanted strong leadership to accomplish change.
(2)The previous pastor handled the transition in an exemplary way. When I “candidated” he took me into his office after the evening service and said, “If you come here, it will be your church.” He meant it. He never interfered though, I am sure he did not agree with some of the changes that occurred.
(3)The elders were supportive and forgiving. There was no behind the scenes maneuvering. No encouragement was given to malcontents within the congregation. And, though they saw much of the worst of me in terms of sin and weakness, and though I made a great many mistakes, they more than put up with me. When I left, I felt that to a man every elder was my friend.
(4)I was able to hire my own secretary not long after I began, and I was authorized to find and then recommend to the Session our assistant pastor. I know all the ideals, but the reality is that staff whom you find are almost always more loyal than those you inherit. (BTW, that assistant, later associate, proved another Schaller statistic: that in the senior – assistant/associate relationship 90% of the getting along is done by the associate.)
(5)Though ministers are obliged to say it, it is no less true, that whatever good was accomplished was because of God’s grace and blessing. We plant and water, but it is God’s field, and he alone gives any increase.
What happened the second time around? The truth of this situation is the truth of all my failures as a pastor. The primary cause of all my pastoral failures is me. Here are some factors:
(1) I gave in to restlessness. I began to feel that, if I ever were going to move again, the time was now. Best to sing often, “I would not have the restless will that hurries to and fro, seeking for some great thing to do or secret thing to know; I would be treated as a child and guided where I go.”
(2) I responded to flattery. The retiring pastor approached me and told me he could leave in peace if I succeeded him. When I asked the chairman of the search committee why I should come, he told me there was a unique match between me and the congregation. I should not have taken such things to heart.
(3) I made a wrong guess about myself. I thought that, since it had “worked” to follow one long-tenured minister, perhaps there was something about me and my “style of ministry” that made me well suited to such transitions. If you can’t identify and name the factors, don’t guess there are such factors.
(4) I followed the money. Simply put, I was offered more money. I thought I needed more money. I saw the advantages of more money. Money is hard to resist, but sometimes it should be resisted.
(5) I made some wrong assumptions. I assumed that I could play well with engineers and accountants. I assumed that the leaders and people wanted me to do what I had done in the previous pastorate in terms of preaching and of leadership of elders, deacons, and congregation. I assumed I could do a lot in short time. I assumed I could build a consensus for some big changes. Some things were accomplished with regard to missions, church relocation, and other pressing matters, but I used up too many chips too fast to sustain the momentum.
In the end ministers are pawns – not of fate but of God. He puts us where he sees fit, uses us as suits his purposes, and sets us aside according to his timing. He need not explain his ways to us. Perhaps that is the most important lesson of all.