Seven Thoughts about Retiring Pastors Who Stay at Their Churches

October 26, 2015
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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.

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  • Christopher says on

    I have followed a pastor who retired after 26 years. He does not attend but he still lives in what was the parsonage across from the church. He ‘s a nice guy and does not try to get involved in church business but members still ask him to do funerals. This doesn’t at all hurt my feelings since I don’t particular enjoy doing funerals, but it does rob me of the chance to be a pastor to those families in a time of great emotional need. His presence in the community (a small town) is also problematic because he knows everybody and everything and church members expect the same of me even though I’ve been here less than a year.

  • I have really enjoyed and found many of your blogs really helpful. But in the case of ‘Seven Thoughts about Retiring Pastors Who Stay at Their Churches’ I cannot sadly agree.

    Can you give any scripture to support your argument that a Senior Pastor who retires should leave his church/ spiritual family for at least a year? His church is his family, and yet we are asking him (and his wife) to leave all he knows and loves and where God called him and he maybe sowed the best years of his life so that the new younger man can strengthen his position as leader.

    If God tells him to leave that is fine but we must do all we can as local church family to look after and support our old pastor, yet at the same time show love and honour to the man God has now called into that position, to lead us for a new season.

    On paper yes what you say makes sense, to a CEO of an organisation yes It might make sense but to us who are the living stones being built into His spiritual temple, we follow a different route, its called Love.

    The new pastor must seek the wisdom of God on how to honour and respect the old pastor and deal with issues that might arise out of peoples loyalty to their old pastor who they love. How sad to think churches in effect would kick out an old pastor just to make it easier for the new pastor. I am sure it is not the heart of God.

    If I have misunderstood your view points in regard to this matter I am sorry, but I hear to often of lovely men and women of God who are treated without love or compassion when men discern they are no longer required and are in the way.

    Blessings Glenn

    • Christopher says on

      Obviously you have not been in this situation. Furthermore, no one is saying that the church should “kick out” the old pastor, but that the old pastor should have enough wisdom and respect for the new guy to step aside and allow him to be the pastor. As for Scripture, when Paul appointed Timothy as more or less the pastor of the church at Ephesus, did he stick around looking over his shoulder? No, he trained Timothy and then got out of the way, which is what a good leader does. This would be no different then if Nick Saban retired but was still on the side line at games. It just doesn’t work.

      • Christopher thank you for your reply in regard to the point raised. Theological if you can only produce one scripture about this issue in reference to Paul and Timothy it makes the argument even weaker then it was before.

        Paul was operating as an apostle over churches and was not the elder over any one church. Can I remind you of the following verse “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” 1 Thess 5:12-13

        I agree in some cases you may have an immature Elder/pastor who will block the work and vision of the new leader when he steps down. Yet I say again in those cases it is up to the elders of the church to deal with him in love and show him as much honour as possible. If what he is doing is a sin and grieving Gods heart and there is no repentance then we have scriptures that guides on how to deal with him.

        My concern throughout this debate is really for those who are retiring/stepping down who feel tremendous pressure to leave the church they love and their heavenly family. Should it not be the role of the church to look after and care for their old pastor as he enters old age?

        “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:32

        I do believe the key issue is to understand Gods heart for the Elder/pastor who has retired. In Love Glenn

      • Christopher says on

        I’m not sure I follow your logic of “one passage = a weak argument” Is it or is it not all God’s Word? As far as I know, there’s only one passage in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Does that make it a weak argument? In any case, the point remains the same: if Paul had stayed at Ephesus, no one would have looked at Timothy as the leader.

        If churches today were led by a true plurality of elders we possibly wouldn’t be having this discussion. However, you know as well as I do that, good or bad, most churches are built on the personality of the pastor. The longer the tenure, the more deeply the personality becomes ingrained. That’s just the reality of the culture in which we live. Because of that fact, it’s hard enough for a new pastor to establish himself without the continued presence of the old pastor. If the old pastor continues to be on staff or make his pastoral presence felt then the situation becomes virtually impossible for the new guy. That’s just reality.

        You can argue all you want from an idealistic point of view, but if you insist that the old pastor maintain a position of prominence in the church, you are going to hamstring the new pastor.

      • Dear Christopher, I don’t want to repeat all I have said before, as I want to keep this as short as possible. My whole point in talking about the weakness of your case (and Thom) in using one scripture (out of context) is this:

        Scripture is the Word of God and I totally believe in its Inerrancy (orginal) but when we are planning to teach in the church we have to take the whole of scripture on a particular subject to see what it has to say.

        This is called Systematic Theology, you cannot use one scripture out of context to teach the church. In this instance, Pastors should leave the church when they retire. (In fact show me in the Bible where it says an Elder or Pastor should retire, but that’s another subject!)

        I pray God continues to bless you in your ministry – Love in Christ – Glenn

      • Christopher says on

        Yes Glenn, I know what systematic theology is. You should know that the weakest argument is the one made from silence, although I don’t think the Bible is silent on this point. You asked for an example from scripture and I gave one. Here’s some more:

        When it was time for Joshua to lead the nation of Israel, did Moses stick around offering advice? No, God actually took his life even though he was still physically fit. I know you will say that it was because of the sin at meribah, but if God had not taken Moses out of the way, no one would have followed Joshua, which was obviously God’s plan. In fact, Moses’ presence was so powerful that God would not allow the Israelites to even know where he was buried.

        When Elisha took over the prophetic ministry of Elijah, did Elijah stick around to help out? No, once again God took Elijah out of the picture.

        John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase while I decrease.” No sticking around for John once Jesus showed up.

        And then there’s Jesus Himself. Is He still walking the earth peaching? No, He turned over that mission to the Apostles and ascended to heaven.

        As for pastors not retiring, again that’s an argument made from silence. The Bible says nothing on the issue of retirement so it is up to us to use our God given common sense. People often retire because they are physically or mentally unable to do their job effectively. Pastors are no different and having the expectation that pastors should never retire would create an impossible burden for many to carry. And when a pastor does retire, he is making the decision to no longer be the pastor. A wise and humble pastor will understand this and will do everything he can to empower the new pastor which most often means getting out of the way.

  • As a young pastor, I have seen too many of my Bible college friends damaged at their early ministries by former pastors. The worst one was a church where the previous pastor had been 47 years, run up a ton of debt, and was still living in the parsonage. The church was not upfront with the new pastor about the debt or that they intended to still pay the retired pastor. Ideally the church would have giving the parsonage to the retired pastor to honor his legacy, but they could not because of the debt. After 2 years, he split the church and started holding separate Bible studies in the parsonage, leaving the new pastor in the awkward position of leading the weakened church that still holds the mortgage and makes the payments on the parsonage where the retired pastor meets with the dissenters.

    On the other hand, my father who is also a pastor left his church of 17 years to plant a church in another part of the state 3.5 hours away. He never initiates contact with people of the former church, and always shows support for the new pastor. He has done a few funerals with the current pastor’s approval, and does not even get together with any of his closest friends from the old church for rare casual times like fishing without checking with the current pastor first. This has worked very well, with the current pastor able to have a relationship of deep respect with my father instead of intimidation.

  • Richard Woodruff says on

    Thank you for the seven thoughts. I have served in a pastorate where one of the retired pastors returned to the church over twenty-five years after he and his wife left. It was during my third year that they became members. I enjoyed their connection to the past and fervent prayer support. It is interesting to note that even after such a long time after leaving he was still called Pastor _____________ by all.

    I also had a another retired pastor of the same church who would fill the pulpit for me when my family and I were on vacation. This other pastor had followed the first one mentioned and had been retired 12 or more years before I became the pastor. Both men were a help to me because the church had voted out two successive pastors before I was called there. After having some ten difficult years with two pastors, being able to reach back in time to the influence to more stable days of the two retires pastors was a huge blessing. The key issue is that both retired pastors were a blessing because they were gone for so long and the church had been through troubled times. While I do not believe one can put an exact figure on the length a pastor should stay away, it would seem that one year is not enough since the folk are only getting to know the new pastor during that time. I would suggest five years for a retired pastor to stay away since it takes about that long for the fruit of the ministry under the new pastor’s leadership to develop.

  • Les Ferguson says on

    I am glad that, with few exceptions, our denomination generally prohibits a departing or retiring pastor from continuing to attend the church where they pastored. Yes, there are exceptions in smaller and isolated rural towns but there is a general prohibition on priests staying at their final church. Additionally, many diocese (Episcopal Church) require retired clergy who remain in their current location to have approval of the Bishop and incumbent.

    In the few cases I’ve seen where this rule is not maintained there are horrible consequences as have been described already.

  • My father in the ministry asked me to follow him as pastor to my home church. He said he was ready to retire and believed I should follow him. The former pastor remained in the church, continued to draw a salary and had an office right next to mine. Needless to say I lasted only 8 months. I resigned with nowhere to go the day I discovered the former pastor was meeting with the Deacons at a local restaurant, an hour before they met with me. My encouragement is pastors need to decide if they truly want to retire and if so, they need to find a new church.

    • Les Ferguson says on

      Ironically, my father also serves as an Episcopal priest nearby and I was asked if I would like to follow when his church opened up. Categorically no. There is no exception in my book – prodigies in ministry have difficult work. I know, even as I am slightly removed from his ministry location, it is difficult to have my own identity although in 5 years I’m getting close.

    • Ouch. That’s just not right.

  • I could probably use up my word count on this topic. I am following a 52-year pastorate and the pastor still remains in the church. He also maintains a broadcast ministry outside of the church. It has gone as well as it could, I suppose.

    When I came, I came with the understanding that he was staying (he’s only known two different churches in his lifetime) and I honored him and the past with the title, “Pastor Emeritus.” I believe that was a smart move so both he and the people knew I appreciated but was not intimidated by the past. He has become a very good friend and always publicly and privately supports me. I don’t believe anyone could have played his role better under the circumstances.

    He does not attend business meetings. He’ll only participate in funerals with my permission. With an aging congregation, I have appreciated his warm personal touch with people that I don’t know. I do, however, handle the majority of the funeral service and arrangements. I’ve invited him to preach a few times, but have since decided not to do it again. He is not the problem. It empowers my critics and those longing for the past when he does preach.

    The significant problem, however, is with his legacy and his family. Because he does maintain a broadcast ministry outside of the church, there are a number of people whose greatest loyalty is there even though they attend and give to the church. It manifests itself from time to time, but it is not the greatest problem. The greater problem is his family who are used to being empowered and still function as if this is “their church.” They are gifted and highly committed. It is easy to see why it would be this way.

    In the end, I will be the first “sacrificial lamb.” I don’t know how it can be any other way. I’m tired and weary, battling lack of support from my leadership dealing with loyalty to a misaligned staff member who was here before me. I also think that it will probably be 10 years or so before the family influence has been diminished enough that the church can move into a new day. We are in a small city where people don’t move and everyone is related to each other. Kind of hard and unnatural to ask the patriarch and the family to move on.

    It is what it is. There are good people and some good things happening. But for the next pastor, it most likely will continue to be a challenge to lead this congregation.

    • Bob –

      Thank you for sharing. You have presented a difficult issue fairly. Like other comments in this post, I know it will be read by many.

    • Pastor Dr .Thomas Rawls says on

      Pastor ,
      You’re sending conflicting messages . If the ex Pastor supports you publicly and privately as well, it seems to me your only problem is you failed to bring with you a Big Dream and even a Bigger Vision .
      Instead of that you’ve resorted to the blame game . Don’t leave go back to God and get your Dream and Vision back , things will be fine .
      Romans 8:28

      Think on this : Stay in your pea patch

      Pastor Rawls
      29 year at same church and planning to stay .

    • Richard says on

      I feel for you, Pastor Bob. I’m in a situation where the former pastor resigned and took on another ministry which has flourished since he left the church. At first, he talked to me and wanted the church he left which I pastor now to become involved in his ministry. I rejected that but he threatened to go through the back door by virtue of his connections in church. He has laid low since then and seemed to be more friendly to me now although I sense he still wants to get involved in the life of the church. In fact, he and his wife are active in a chat group which a member has added them to. But the high point of his insensitivity to my being the pastor of the church is when he accepted the invitation to conduct the renewal of vows of a member-couple to celebrate their 25th anniversary without even asking me first.

      It just boggles the mind how some pastors don’t know where their real place is which results in hurt and confusion. If anyone can comment on my situation and give me advice on how to deal with this pastor or situation, I’ll appreciate it.

  • Jeff Sexton says on

    I have served under the shadow of the previous pastor for the last 11 years. He had served here for 23 years before me when the leadership asked him to find another position, which he eventually did.
    In his first nine years away from our church he would often visit his friends, family and former members while on vacation and worship with us. He never allowed me to be identified as the pastor of the church because he would accept wedding, funeral and singing engagements in our church.
    To top it off he resigned from the church he was serving to come back to our town and start a competing church while taking 1/3 of our attenders.
    Of course, he implied that God called him back to our community. Now we have two struggling churches whose continued viability is in question.
    I signed a code of ethics that said when I resign or take another church that I would cut off all contact from my former position so I would not interfere with the ministry of the new pastor and the church.
    Why don’t ministers understand how they might interfere with their former churches. I’m not saying they should ignore their old friends and church members but he has crushed me and my ministry. Furthermore, he refuses to meet with me to even discuss the subject.
    Why do ministers do this to each other and their churches?

    • That’s a tough situation, Jeff. I hope many will read your story.

      • David Roseberry says on

        The strangest part of that comment was that the retiring sr. pastor came back to sing?? What????

      • That’s the best part of the comment. Singing is a discipline of the Christian life, and it should be as expected for a pastor to sing as to pray.

    • I feel your pain. I really do. I’ve been on both sides of this in different ways. I don’t think we should have to sever ask relationships with former churches but their is a health way through it that most don’t find.

  • Dave in Maryland says on

    After a 15 year pastorate in one church, I retired. To provide the necessary space for me, the new lead pastor, and the congregation, I accepted the kind invitation of a local pastor of a different denomination, and attended his church for 6 years. Then I returned to my former congregation. During my nearly 9 years of retirement I’ve said “Sorry, I’m not available” when asked (rarely because I was clear about this before I retired) to perform a pastoral function (wedding, funeral, visit, baptism) by former members. This is my way of supporting the present pastor.

  • Excellent article and I agree the longer the tenure of the retiring Pastor the longer a break is required. I see too much allegiance to a man rather than the church body, or vice versa, We are an older church and it’s sad to see how many leave after Sunday school but flood the Sanctuary when the previous Pastor comes around.

  • Mark Dance says on

    Excellent post which applies to other former pastors who are still active in ministry as well. You identified the hardest and most important part of a healthy transition, in my opinion:

    “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.”

  • I am the 52-yr old son of a retired pastor. Dad answered his call to preaching ministry at age 18 as the son of a rural farmer. I never knew anything but church life from birth. Mom was a prodigy musician who’s dad was also a farmer and bluegrass country musician from a large musical family.

    Dad pastored churches of 20 members and 500 members over a 30-plus year journey. He did his best to help churches transition between pastors and it was never easy. People are human and some people are extremely emotional about their pastor.

    As dad retired, and mom moved on to a different ministry career following their divorce, my wife and I continued in church music and youth ministry. I’ve always had a keen sense of respect and honor for the role of senior pastor, obviously.

    The churches who seek to transition the pastor’s job best, are those who have held their pastors in high esteem, who have cared for them financially to the very best of their ability, and who planned a healthy succession strategy. I’ve observed this healthy transition only twice in my 30-plus years of ministry. This is by far the church’s most difficult leadership challenge today, in my humble opinion.

    My prayer: O Lord, give is great wisdom, grace, and peace in the days ahead until You come for Your Bride. May we seek the Father’s heart in all that we do to spread Your Gospel throughout the earth. Amen.

    • Great thoughts, Robby. Thank you.

      • eddie dantes says on

        Lot of divorce in the church and people bring it up like it is nothing at all. Thom – maybe you could have a series on how Jesus loves the church and hates divorce. Of course, the series on how Jesus loves the church might take forever. But I think many forget that especially in their marriages and often don’t apply that love in their marriages. Whereas I don’t think it is always God’s will that 2 should marry, I firmly believe that it is His will that marriages last. He did provide the answer to divorce in the church. Sadly, it has gotten so easy over time to get a divorce and give excuses for it. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, is just one of many marriage scriptures.

        Thom I do believe everybody would benefit from hearing the many ways Jesus loves us and from people telling about how they see the love of Jesus in their lives.

      • trevor says on

        Why are we so obsessed with how other people live their lives? Do we honestly believe God needs us to do that?

      • The Lutheran Church requires their pastors to move a specified distance from their last church. Though a bit extreme the
        reasoning is sound. It is too tempting for a retired pastor to influence the congregation causing difficulty for a new pastor especially if the new pastor is young and inexperienced.

    • I guess we are all affected by our own experiences. I had a former pastor who stayed and he was a blessing to all of us. The key to me is in does the former staff member allow himself to be seen in the place of the pastor. I ask myself what I will do when I am the retired pastor. I have decided I will not accept funerals, weddings, baptisms but rather point the person to the pastor for these. It will help give that pastor the opportunity to minister to that family. I will not look to fill in, but will be available for what he needs. if he calls me to fill in and preach, or gets sick and needs me to fill in with a baptism, wedding, funeral, etc., I will, but only at his request. I will not influence decisions against his leading, but will support him and his decisions as much as I can in good conscience. I want him to see me as helpful, and the church to see me as respectful of his leadership and not in competition. Plus I want to be a person who can help him financially in addition to giving generously to the church. A former pastor or staff member can be a great blessing, or a problem. I hope to be a blessing.

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