Part 5 of series: Letting Go of a Church
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When pastors leave a church, they need to let go. This is essential for the health of the church, both in the present and the future. When pastors who leave continue to assert their influence, almost inevitably future pastors are undermined. Love and friendship continue, but pastoral leadership comes to end.
At least for the most part. If a pastor has let go of a congregation, there is a time when involvement, even pastoral activity to some extent, can be appropriate. For example, a friend of mine is the senior pastor in a Presbyterian church. A former senior pastor of that church is actively involved in the congregation in a way that is consistently helpful. Why does this work so well? For one thing, the former pastor is not my friend’s immediate predecessor. One installed and two interim pastors stand between them, as well as about ten years. Furthermore, the former pastor is a staunch supporter of my friend’s leadership. If he has any misgivings, he keeps them to himself. Period.
A second example comes from my own experience at Irvine Presbyterian church. I was the second installed pastor of the church. Ben Patterson, now the campus pastor of Westmont College, was the founding pastor of the church. When he left the church after fourteen years, there was an eighteen-month interim period before I came as the new pastor. At my invitation, Ben preached at my installation service, offering enthusiastic support for my leadership. Ben continued to preach at the church about once a year for many years, and I’d have been happy to have him more often. One of my all-time favorite memories of my ministry at Irvine Pres was our 25th anniversary worship service when both Ben and I preached and then we shared in serving communion together. Ben was always one of my strongest supporters, and his support aided my leadership and encouraged me personally. If Ben ever thought I made a poor decision – and I expect he must have done so because I made plenty of them – he never let me know and never said anything about this to anyone who might influence the church. (Photo: my installation service in 1991, with Ben Patterson [left] and Lloyd Ogilvie [right]).
In both of the cases I’ve mentioned, the pastor who truly lets go of a church is able to receive it back, even in some sense in a pastoral relationship. The two essential elements in this process are:
Time: It takes time for a church and a former pastor to let go of each other enough so that they might receive each other back in a new and healthy way.
The behavior of the former pastor: If the former pastor supports the new pastor and church leadership consistently, then a new, edifying relationship between church and pastor is possible.
This second factor raises the question of what former pastors should do if they don’t truly support the actions of new pastors and leaders. In my opinion, the pastors should almost always keep their concerns to themselves. The only exception I can imagine is if a church were actually abandoning essential theology. But, even then, the former pastor might choose to keep quiet and let authorized church officials deal with the theological aberration.
Unfortunately, many pastors mess around with their former churches, openly and/or covertly undermining new leaders. The result is a painful mess, and usually leads to the weakening of the church that the former pastor pledges to love. These days, it’s increasingly common today for former pastors to open up shop right down the street from their previous congregations and start a new church. The net result is rarely a positive one for the churches involved, not to mention the kingdom of God.
As one who is in the middle of letting go of my former church, I can understand the temptation to stay too involved. But, in the end, I truly want Irvine Presbyterian Church to be everything Christ wills it to be. This will happen, I believe, as he guides the current and future leaders of the church . . . without my involvement. My chief task at this point is to take my love for this church and turn it into heartfelt prayer, trusting Christ to be Lord of his church. In the classic phrase, my job now is to “Let Go and Let God.” By his grace, I’ll be able to do so more and more.