Twenty years ago, I was introduced to a common problem for pastors who followed a beloved, long-tenured pastor. The new pastor usually turned out to be an “unintentional interim” because there was no way the new pastor could measure up to the former pastor. “That’s not how Rev. ______ did it,” members would grumble.
New vision was snuffed out; changes in pastoral duties were not tolerated. The failure to let go of the old pastor and accept the new was especially true when the former pastor stayed attached to the church. After a short tenure, the new pastor would become a ministry fatality, leaving ministry for life and leaving the church in turmoil.
Today, I recognize this scenario is still alive and well. However, there’s another likely scenario that is just as common—if not more common—following long-tenured pastors.
Pastor Bentley experienced a decade of success. Loved, followed and trusted, the congregation became more and more like Pastor Bentley in its personality and practice. Unfortunately, what worked in the beginning, what GREW the church originally, quit working after 10 years. The gradual decline went unnoticed for about five years. Then, the church spent another five grumbling and wondering why.
Younger families had left; the church had grown older. Under the surface, everyone knew the church and pastor both needed a fresh start. However, the pastor was by then approaching retirement age and feared unemployment and loss of income. “No one would call someone my age to be pastor,” Bentley reflected—likely a true observation—so resigning was off the table.
What did change was that Bentley began to slack off, thinking, “I’ll just keep working at half-pace until they fire me.” Still, no one said a word. No one wanted to hurt their beloved pastor’s feelings. The slow, annual rate of decline increased until a church that once ran 300-plus dropped to 125, and was soon counting only 50 senior citizens on an average Sunday morning.
Finally, a small group of leaders asked (or rather, demanded semi-nicely) the pastor retire. The pastor did, with whispers about being “forced out.” With the horrific decline now attached to conflict over the pastor’s departure, the church found itself beyond desperation. It would take a miracle for it to recover. In fact, most outside observers would declare, “The church died long ago. It just hasn’t been buried.”
This scenario’s name is “Legion,” for there are many, many, many churches in this state.
In this case, the lay leaders were right and wrong. They were right to call for change; they were wrong to have waited so long.
The third lesson: As painful and scary as it may seem, if a time comes when you have given up, then … give up. Pray. Get counseling from an honest and impartial source—not a friend. Trust the Lord. It’s time to find another job. There’s nothing shameful about secular work. Your church is made up of people involved in just that. Or, find a new call that matches your abilities and energy level. It’s amazing how a new start can re-energize a pastor! Or, maybe it’s a combination of the two—part-time secular and part-time ministry employment. Indicators say this is the growing area of future ministry. But for the sake of your church, let them try something new before it’s too late to change course.
News Flash: One doesn’t have to be a long-tenured pastor for the above scenario to take place. Sometimes, it just isn’t working and can’t be fixed.