Seven Thoughts about Retiring Pastors Who Stay at Their Churches

Every seven seconds a baby boomer retires, about 10,000 a day. That is the pace of potential retirement taking place every day since January 1, 2011. At the pace will continue until the end of 2029.

A lot of baby boomer pastors are retiring. Concurrently we are seeing many of these pastors retire and stay in the church where they retired. Frequently, I am asked my thoughts on this issue. Allow me to share seven of those thoughts in this post.

  1. Don’t expect retired pastors to sever all of their church relationships. That would not be a fair expectation. That is one of the primary reasons pastors hang around post retirement.
  2. If the relationship is healthy with the new pastor, the advantages of having the retired pastor in the church can be numerous. The retired pastor can offer wisdom and experience that can benefit the new pastor. The retired pastor can also be the advocate of the current pastor.
  3. Because the church needs to allow the new pastor to develop an identity as the shepherd/leader, it is advisable for the retiring pastor to take an extended break from the church. I typically advise retired pastors to take at least a year off from attending the church where they retired. This will give new pastors time to establish their leadership and personal approach to ministry.
  4. The longer the tenure of the retired pastor, the longer the break should be from the church. While I recommend a break of at least one year for all retired pastors, that break should be longer for those who had long tenure at the church. I define long tenure as more than seven years.
  5. Retired pastors should not try to be the pastor to church members. That is the role of the new pastor. Though a cry of help from a church member may be tempting to answer, retired pastors should point church members to the new pastor. Otherwise, a true transition will not take place.
  6. The retired pastor should not be perceived to be second guessing the current pastor. Retired pastors create an “us vs. them” scenario when they express displeasure at something the current pastor is doing. Members then are compelled to take sides. It is disastrous for churches.
  7. The current pastor should not denigrate the former ministry of the retired pastor. Again, this approach creates the division noted above. It is a classless act.

I know this topic is on the minds of many of you readers because you share that with me via comments and social media. Now is the opportunity for you to weigh in on this issue. Let me hear from you.

Posted on October 26, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Rev. Ron Grossman says on

    Good morning
    I just read a short article of yours about retiring pastors.
    I’d like your thoughts on the following:
    A church I have attended and still have friends at, the pastor announced his retirement. He has told them he is leaving in 3.5 months. After 2 months on ‘vacation’ he has told them he is coming back to attend with them. He has been there 26 years. Over those years membership and weekly attendance has reduced SIGNIFICANTLY. They had as many as 250 ppl when this pastor came. Over his 26 years this has gone to 35-40. A year ago he told me face to face, “nobody wants to listen The Gospel in our community.” Later that same day I stopped for supper en route to speaking that evening at another church in the same area and my server said she needed help. Husband left her with two kids. She had to work the waitressing job to now support herself/kids. I shared The Gospel with her and directed her to the church this same pastor was at.
    My question(s).
    1) should this pastor step away completely?
    2) should he come back to regularly attend as a member
    3) any other thoughts?
    Thank you
    Shalom in Christ

  • It is especially difficult for a pastor who pastored that particular church to remain in that church. The hard part is he will always have a following and many men just can’t say no to sharing their opinion and often usurp the new pastor on board. I have seen this happen to often. As a baby boomer pastor when I retire from a church, I want to give the new man love and support by simply letting him pastor the flock of God without interference or issues from me in anyway (1 Peter 5:1-5). If he is called to be a shepherd let him shepherd unhindered in his calling before God and men.

  • While I can understand that a retired Pastor cannot be the active leader of the church, I think it is cruel to force total abandonment of the members and associates from the Pastor. They have been the Shepherd to the sheep. The new Pastor will become a Pastor as well. However, trust and rapport that sometimes has taken many years to build should not be torn down overnight. Kindness and Love should continue. The minister is interacting as the “face of God” to the church. Just because a minister chooses to retire does not mean all relationships need to be or even should be severed. Unless God not people order a minister to stop communication, I think it’s a cruel practice.

  • What practical activity can the retired pastor conduct – i.e. diakonia instructor – outreach to homeless – join demonstrations against police brutality. Write. Practice a practical hobby like learning to play a musical instrument. Raise a foster child.

  • Lawrence Marais says on

    We attend a non- denominational church where we have husband and wife pastors of relatively young age (late 30s). The parents of the wife pastor were founders of this church and retired 2 years ago at age early 60s. My wife and I feel there is a vacuum in the ministry now as the new pastoral team cannot really relate to people 50-70s who have adult children and may have
    problems in their families that the young pastoral couple are not mature enough to pass counsel on. We feel that the addition of more mature pastoral couple to assist them in their ministry would be a solution. Even if a mature Christian couple were identified in the church who could serve this purpose. Young pastors are also in need of mentoring by more mature Christians. How would I go about sharing this with my pastor?

  • Linda Jenkins says on

    At our church we have been in a somewhat different situation. A retired pastor (I’ll call him Fred) who grew up in our town and was once an elder at our church has returned here. He was offered office but refused it, saying that he and his wife were called to a travelling ministry. However, they know many people here, involved themselves in church activities and also involved themselves with the church elders, listening to their gripes about the present pastor and siding with them.
    The power struggles in the church came to a head during a time when the pastor was very ill and had several months off. When he tried to return, he was told that he was not yet well enough and should stay home. Three months later, he tried again and was again told not to return, so he obtained a doctor’s certificate to say that he was well enough to return to work. However, the situation continued to be very difficult, so he called in the denominational leaders. These leaders said that the problem was that there were not enough elders and insisted more were appointed – and Fred, the retired pastor, became an elder. The current pastor then resigned saying that it was because of his wife’s ill-health, but most people believed that it was because of the disrespect shown to him. His detractors said that it was because he was running away. I was a Bible teacher appointed by the pastor. I experienced constant harassment and ‘put-downs’ from the retired pastor. He is difficult to stand up to, but after many months of patience, I have done so. His verdict is that I am not ‘in submission’. This, I know, is likely to be spread through the leadership. The new pastor was formerly an elder here and is an evangelist rather than a pastor and teacher, a lovely man but not very experienced and not always wise. He has now appointed his relatives to most positions of leadership, with the sanction of the area superintendent.
    The outgoing pastor is deeply hurt and has cut himself off from everyone, in an attempt to secure the ongoing stability of the church. He knows that he is loved and that his presence would divide the church. (He is not without faults, but is a real pastor and a wise man). He lives locally but is actually in hiding. In the eyes of his detractors, this is simply a sign of his weakness and unfitness for office. He is not ‘spiritually qualified’ for leadership, they say.
    The retired pastor who joined us is the catalyst in most of these events and he is now in some ways the true leader of the church, though he’d strongly deny this. He is very experienced and has achieved much and he has quite a lot of support in the church. Power struggles are unpleasant and there are winners and losers. He won.
    With regard to his old church, this man returns frequently to conduct weddings and funerals and to visit friends. He says his successor there is not a true pastor and this is why he is forced to continue with his activities. He was pastor there for 22 years and his son is the youth pastor. They are both very successful and popular and have had a great ministry. The ‘new’ pastor was not popular and finally left. When a new one was appointed, the retired pastor had a part in the choice.
    It should be an axiom that a retired pastor supports the current pastor, keeps his nose out of church politics and finds other outlets for his gifts. Otherwise his successor will always seem like the junior pastor.
    In our church, the same should have applied. He did not support the old leader but actually worked to undermine him, all because he was ‘obeying God’ and dispensing wisdom, of course.
    Everyone in the situation wanted the glory of God. Tragic!

  • CARL C RICHMOND says on

    Is an “extended break” a biblical principle?

    • Helen Jenkins says on

      Dear Carl, there are some examples of extended breaks in the Bible. For example, Paul had a number of forcible extended breaks in which to think, pray and write letters when he spent half of his ministry in prison. Moses had an extended break in which to pray and hear God when he had to flee to the wilderness and become a shepherd instead of a prince. The whole of humanity is on an extended break from the paradisal Garden of Eden, in which to learn important lessons. I think perhaps Lord considers extended breaks are a good idea!

  • Frank DeLange says on

    My name is Frank DeLange and I am a retired pastor who remains at the church in which I served for seven years. For the most part it has been a great arrangement. I believe the pastor and I have very different personalities and views of how the church should operate. I have kept my mouth shut with respect to his leadership. He is the pastor. I have performed funerals and a couple of weddings, with his approval, I think.

    My purpose in writing is to pick your brain with respect to scholarly literature on the topic of the role of the retired pastor, recommendations for a retired pastor in choosing to remain at the church. I am in my late seventies and have began pursuing my Doctorate in Christian leadership. I am planning to write my dissertation on the subject of retired pastors and their role. If you have any information I would really appreciate it . My e-mail address is [email protected]

  • rpsabq says on

    Moody Church is making all of the common mistakes a church can make when dealing with a beloved, former Pastor. With his picture and title still prominent on the website and his high profile presence and influential role on the church’s radio station, the church is in its fourth year of its search for a senior pastor and still hasn’t found one. Why? Well, it’s obvious. The former pastor hasn’t left yet.

  • trevor says on

    Moody Church is making all of the common mistakes a church can make when dealing with a beloved, former Pastor. With his picture and title still prominent on the website and his high profile presence and influential role on the church’s radio station, the church is in its fourth year of its search for a senior pastor and still hasn’t found one. Why? Well, it’s obvious. The former pastor hasn’t left yet.

  • Just came across this article and found it very helpful. Any thoughts about areas of ministry for a retired pastor? I took over for a man with a 28 year tenure, and after a brief time a way I invited him to come back as I valued his presence more in the body than I did his time away. He has been a mentor to me (I’m about half his age) and I try to encourage him, and we read books together and have a great relationship. But I’m running into issues with things like funerals. Since he’s had almost 30 years of relationships with the people, he kind of expects to do their funerals and many of the people desire that as well. I don’t want to make something like a funeral into a “turf war”, however, I feel like as the pastor I’m missing out on vital opportunities to minister to the family and loved ones when I’m not very involved in the funeral. In the past this has looked like me leading the service while he did the preaching, but even then I feel like I’m playing such an insignificant role yet putting in a lot of time and prep work and not making great connections with the family. Any thoughts what this should look like or how to handle this? The previous pastor had encouraged elderly individuals to make advance funeral plans, so many of them made plans with him to do the funeral, not anticipating that they might have a new pastor before they die.

  • Well I think Moody Church is in trouble. They are going the “Pastor Emeritus” route and I find that very surprising. They should know that any intelligent Pastor worth his salt would be very reluctant to go within 10 feet of that church until they have decided that Lutzer truly has retired and have truly said goodbye. Pastor Emeritus is just a way for a pastor to retire, but still be there and it is simply not fair to the new pastor, it confuses the congregation, opens the door for controversy and in the end hurts the Church. Churches are extremely fragile anytime they are without a pastor and i think Lutzer and Moody church are making a very dangerous, very selfish mistake. For a Church which is also attached to a Bible School where they prepare leaders for ministry they should know better.

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