Following The Long-Term Pastor/Youth Pastor
By Don Nordin
I have been in ministry a little over 29 years. During that time I have followed four long-term pastors. I define a long-term pastor as one who has stayed in excess of 15 years.
I pastored my first church when I was 19 years old. In that church I followed a lady pastor who had been in that church for 16 years. I had preached for her on numerous occasions, and had a wonderful relationship with her. In fact, more than 20 years later I was invited back to that church to conduct her funeral. In following her, I made a number of mistakes, mostly out of inexperience. (I heard “When Sister Blankenship was our pastor” until I could scream.) One night in a board meeting a deacon said “When Sis. Blankenship was our pastor,” I replied, “Sis. Blankenship is no longer the pastor, and the sooner we accept that, the better off we will be.” I regretted that statement before I got it out of my mouth! The board members never said a word, but I knew it was disrespectful, and I am sure that it negatively affected my stature in their eyes.
As I look back on the fact I was so young, and Sister Blankenship had been such a long-term pastor; I am shocked I was able to follow her successfully. We had a wonderful ministry in that church; the church grew tremendously; and we left on our own.
Five years later I followed another lady who had pastored the church for 16 years. In this particular case the former pastor stayed in the church, taught a Sunday School class, and remained very involved. In addition, her son was the head deacon, and she had a large extended family that remained in the church. (You can see disaster coming can’t you?)
I should say, that I did not directly follow this pastor. The pastor before me only stayed 6 months. Pastoring that church was, without doubt, the most difficult assignment of almost 30 years of ministry. On the other hand, it was probably the greatest learning experience of my life. I stayed in that church for only 3 years. During my time there, I was afforded the opportunity of honing my people skills.
Eight years after what I perceived at the time to be a total failure I was once again called upon to follow a pastor who had a tenure of almost 20 years as youth pastor and then as senior pastor. This minister was not only popular in the church, but also known by almost everyone in the county. I must say I was somewhat frightened at the prospect of doing such a thing; in fact, I almost refused to accept the invitation of the church board to be a candidate as their senior pastor.
Eventually, I allowed myself to be considered, was elected, and spent 11 wonderful, productive, years of ministry in that church. Incidentally, that former pastor and his wife remain good friends to this day.
In August of 2001 I received a call from the board of Christian Temple asking me to consider following a pastor who had spent 25 fruitful years pastoring that church. So, Christian Temple did not fit my criteria of what I was looking for.
Honestly, I had decided that if I was going to change churches I wanted to follow someone who had just finished a major train wreck. I thought it might be easier than following the long-term pastor. I have followed both heroes and train wrecks in my ministry and let me assure you a train wreck is much easier than following a long-term pastor. Following the long-term pastor or youth pastor is not an assignment that should be considered by the faint of heart, those who are easily threatened, or those who need constant affirmation.
I have a personal philosophy regarding long term ministry:
- Not everyone is called to long term ministry – There is a lot of pressure on pastors to stay a long time in ministry positions. If you don’t, you do not get the respect of those who do. It is my opinion that most ministers are equipped for effectiveness to stay in a church 5 to 7 years.
- The pastorate is a relay, not a marathon – You are eternally connected to your predecessor and successor.
- The number of years a pastor should stay in a church varies from minister to minister, and church to church. Some pastors should have never accepted the assignment. Some should have left earlier, while some should have stayed longer. Others have left at just the right time.
- It is possible to stay beyond your effectiveness – How do I know when to leave? I believe you should use three indicators when deciding your exit date. (Your exit date is at least as important as your date of entrance.)
- When you can no longer articulate your vision, goals, and dreams for that ministry position.
- When you no longer believe your vision can be accomplished in that place.
- When you believe you could be more effective somewhere else.
- If you fail the test of these three indicators you should do yourself, your family, and your flock a favor and leave.
- Determination to leave the church in better condition than you found it.
I believe there are three factors that determine the effectiveness of the minister who receives the assignment of following the long-term pastor:
The Attitude Of the Successor
The attitude of the successor may very well be the most important key to the effectiveness of the person attempting to follow the long-term pastor. The following checklist should be followed by the successor:
- Avoid the savior syndrome. The person who follows a long-term ministry must be prepared to exemplify humility. Walk humbly before God, your predecessor, and the congregation. Remember you are not the savior; there was only one Savior and they falsely accused and crucified Him.
- Avoid the pitfall of jealousy. Ministers seem to be extremely susceptible to the evils of jealously. If you are pronged to jealousy, the one thing you don’t want to do is attempt to follow a long-term pastor. If you are pronged to jealousy and you are in a situation where you are following a long-term pastor, you need to go home and do one of two things:
- Find someone to help you walk through the process of deliverance
- Update your resume, and send it to every open church in America.
- Sing the praises of your predecessor. Give him credit for anything that can possibly be traced to his leadership.
- Readily accept responsibility for things that do not turn out right. You will have to accept some blame for things you did not create. If I am going to be the pastor I am going to be in charge; if I am just going to be the preacher I am going to be an evangelist.
- Willingly share credit for accomplishments with your predecessor. If you are going to assume the failures of a previous administration, for the sake of balance you must also find a way to take some of the credit for things that turn out well. When taking credit for things that turned out well include your predecessor in the equation as much as possible.
- Honor your predecessor in any way possible. Have them back to preach. Speak affectionately about them publicly; do not contradict yourself privately.
- Never speak negatively of your predecessor. (You can speak negatively about your children, but it sounds different when someone else does it. Remember, people who are willing to talk to you, will talk about you.)
- Constantly assure the congregation that your vision is an extension, continuation, and fulfillment of your predecessor’s vision. Before attempting to articulate your vision to your church you should find a way to connect it to your predecessor’s vision. When you unveil your vision you must explain how the new vision fulfills the old vision.
It would be well to note that the final outcome of your success or failure is not totally within your power. There are two other factors that will be part of the equation:
The Attitude Of the Predecessor
The attitude of the predecessor will be almost as large a factor as the attitude of the successor. Leaders sometimes have a difficult time with releasing responsibility and walking away. There are three reasons for this:
- The long-term leader is in possession of more pertinent information than any other team member. This includes both positive and negative information.
- The long-term leader has long-term personal relationships. These will not go away over night.
- The long-term leader will pass through a process of disconnecting. This is easier said than done.
When considering the task of succeeding the long-term pastor the following questions must be answered with regard to the former leader:
- Was the former pastor an effective leader? If he was, you should evaluate your own leadership skills before tackling the task. A weak leader cannot follow an effective leader successfully.
- Was the vision of the former pastor such that it is compatible with your vision? Is your overall ministry vision compatible with the vision that has been projected by the former leader? Can you take the vision the long-term leader has placed in the house, your ministry vision, and marry the two together in such a way that you can be satisfied with where that will take you?
- Was the personality of the former pastor such that it is compatible with your personality? Was he a people person? If he was a people person and you are not you should not seriously consider the job offer; it will be a train wreck. A choleric or melancholy personality should not attempt to follow a sanguine or phlegmatic personality. A sanguine or phlegmatic can successfully follow a choleric or melancholy personality. A choleric can follow a melancholy, or a melancholy can follow a choleric. If you don’t know what personality type you or your predecessor are, there are tests you can take to determine your personality type.
- Did the former pastor leave of his own volition or was he forced out? If he was forced out he may still want to be in charge. If he does, he may very well attempt to exert influence behind the scenes. If this is the case, it will usually be done in such a way that it cannot be traced directly back to him. Remember, if the person has been the long-term leader, he knows to whom he should speak to accomplish his agenda. If he left on his own, you should find out where he is going and what is he doing. Sometimes long-term leaders resign to pursue life-long dreams. If this is the case the transition can be enhanced by assisting him in accomplishing his dream.
- Did the former pastor decease in office? If this is the case, you should proceed with extreme caution. The most difficult thing in the world is to follow a dead man. When a person is deceased their enemies become their friends; every bonehead thing they have ever done is quickly forgotten. It takes an extremely patient, loving, gentle, and secure person to follow a leader who is deceased while in office.
- Is the former pastor going to stay in the church? If he is you need to proceed with caution. It would be a rarity for anyone to successfully follow a long-term pastor who decides to stay in the church, unless the successor is a relative of the long-term leader.
- Is the former pastor going to stay in the immediate area? This too can be difficult, but not nearly as difficult a problem as staying in the church. Accessibility is sometimes a difficult problem to overcome.
As you can well see, the success or failure of the new kid on the block has much to do with the behavior of the adult who decided to move off of the block.
The Attitude Of the Church
In the case of a pastoral change the church is being faced with a paradigm shift in the way it is being administrated, and the way it approaches ministry. When I speak of the attitude of the church, I am referring to the attitude with which the church body faces the possibility of change in its leadership. The successor to a long-term leader must be cognizant of the fact that a pastoral change is similar to the change of leadership in a family.
When considering the task of following a long-term pastor the successor should determine the answer to the following questions:
- Is the church grieving the loss of their leader? When a long-term pastor decides to retire or move on, the church is often grief stricken. When a church is grief stricken the new leader must walk softly and proceed cautiously. This often necessitates a period of maintenance in which little or no progress can be made. This is where many successors make a fatal mistake; they try to lead, or drive a grief stricken audience forward when they have not finished the grieving process. Patience; Patience; Patience; and there seems to be a woeful lack of it in ministry circles.
- Is the church angry about the loss of their leader? In the grieving process people often go from being sad to being mad. If this is the case the successor should proceed lovingly and gently. When the church is grieving the loss of their leader and they become angry about his absence they often take it out on his replacement. The successor must realize this is not a personal vendetta, but a process of grief that if allowed to run its course will pass fairly quickly. This is where some successors get into an attack mode; engage what they perceive to be the enemy. If this happens, the battle lines are drawn, people choose sides, the big loser will be the church, but the successor will be the one who is unemployed!
- Is the church happy with where they are? Depending on what kind of leader the long-term pastor is, the church may have fallen into a comfort zone and be totally happy with where they are at. In such a case anyone who comes along and attempts to move them forward becomes the odd man out.
- Is the church ready to embrace a new leader?
- Is the church ready to embrace a new vision? Sometimes a church that has had a long-term pastor is ready to embrace a new leader and a new vision. In such a case the successor must:
- Be ready to step up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park in the area of leadership.
- Be ready to articulate vision.
- Be ready to set goals.
- Be ready to lay out a plan to accomplish the vision and goals.
All this must be done amidst the process of settling into a new house and community, learning a host of new names, and learning the personality of the church. This could possibly be the most challenging test of the successor’s leadership skills the successor will ever face. This can be an exhausting process.
Remember, the attitude of the church will be an extremely important piece of the puzzle that determines whether the successor and church will succeed or fail.
There are three areas of your association with the church and predecessor that you must ensure to be of the highest quality of dignity, integrity and humility.
Don Nordin is senior pastor, Christian Temple Church, Houston, Texas