Throughout our years of ministry, my husband and I have had some wonderful relationships with former pastors of our church and their wives. Normally we see them at funerals—many times my husband and some of the former pastors conduct funerals together, and sometimes we see them around town at local restaurants. We have a deep admiration and respect for them. But that isn’t the case for everyone.
A pastor friend of ours told me about a church he served where many of the people just couldn’t let go of the previous pastor. This gentleman had been a long-term pastor of the church, and when he resigned it was because he wanted to retire. Of course, he was called back many times to conduct funerals, but then it began to be more than funerals. He was asked to be the narrator for a program at the church, and our friend later found out the former pastor was a part of a weekly Bible study some of the church’s men had started in one of their homes. The current pastor had not been invited, but the former pastor was. It wasn’t long after that our friend was forced into resignation from the church. He and his wife tried to give the former pastor the benefit of the doubt early on, thinking the man didn’t have the heart to say no to these members. The former pastor apparently did nothing to promote a relationship between the new pastor and the church folks, and these members just couldn’t let go.
Another pastor friend was asked to officiate a funeral with a man who had pastored the same church in years past. It was rare that our friend encountered this former pastor, but when he did, a small group in the church would practically drool over this man. At the funeral, you would have thought the man was a candidate running for office, instead of conducting a funeral, from the way he was shaking hands, kissing babies, and handing out business cards.
Although we have friendships with former church members, and stay in touch with them, when we have left a church we have done just that—we left. Members need to bond with their new pastor; it is not in the church’s best interest for a former pastor to constantly be in the picture.
Back to our own experience, a precious, retired former pastor of one of the churches we served told my husband he had joined a church across town because didn’t think it was right for him to stay at the church he retired from. He felt it was best that the people learn to follow the new leader, and he did not want to hinder that. What wisdom!
If you are in a situation where it seems a former pastor just won’t get out of the way, just be yourself. Don’t be intimidated by him—personalities differ, and you can only be you. God made you a gifted individual, and He knows why He called you to serve a particular church at a particular time. Keep your focus, and love your people as you have always done. At some point, you may be a former pastor, so please read on.
If you are a former pastor, please have the professional courtesy to truly leave the church. There is a reason you are the former pastor. Hopefully, it is because God has moved you elsewhere. The Apostle Paul said, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14, italics mine). It is fine to retain your friendships and officiate funerals if you are asked and choose to do so. There are two other things you need to do for your former members: (1) encourage them to support their current pastor and follow his leadership; (2) look ahead, as Paul said, and move on!
Maleah Bell is a freelance editor and pastor’s wife. She and her husband make their home in Middle Tennessee.