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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  • This is an interesting discussion and raises many issues for me. The priest I followed left the area and had only been in the parish for a short time. His predecessor had remained in the parish and with his encouragement had remained active in the parish. Only once did she interfere with a decision I had made and she immediately phoned and apologized and then phoned the family and told them she had been wrong to say what she had said. On many occasions she said quiet words to support me when there were conflicts in the parish and she prayed for me daily. When she died I grieved deeply and I still miss her. Many of my friends, however, have had much tougher experiences with former rectors.
    I’ve served my parish for a long time and God willing hope to be there for a long time yet. So I think about what it would be like to leave them and make myself scarce. The thought it not a happy one for me. Someone asked the question of what you do with friendships you’ve made in the parish. I have had colleagues who have said that you should never be friends with parishioners. That doesn’t seem healthy to me. Yet I understand why ongoing relationships with parishioners can cause real problems for a successor. I don’t know what the answer is to this dilemma. I pray that I am as gracious and supportive as my predecessor was.

  • Gary L. Coleman says on

    In the 4 churches I have pastored, I have had 5 retired pastors as members. The only ones who were not a problem were the 2 who had never pastored that particular church. The other 3 all promised to be good and supportive, but reality never matched promise. Do I blame the pastors? Only in part. The dynamic that ought to take place between a pastor and his sheep cannot be simply severed by a new man stepping in. The trust and love that has been established will remain an issue going forward. It is unavoidable.

    Imagine turning your family over to a new father, while you sit and watch. How easy would it be for you to sit idly by while this new guy does what you don’t like with your family. The same dynamic is in place when the pastor stays where he has pastored. I strongly advise against it.

  • In most instances it is certainly wise for an outgoing minister not to be in regular contact with their former church. This is the wise and gracious thing to do. The pastoral transition is very, very important. The church must grow to trust and respect the incoming pastor as their pastor. He or she will be the one going to see them in the hospital, will be presiding over funerals, will be giving direction to the church’s life, will be conducting their weddings. Even if the outgoing minister is well-intentioned, the transition process can be harmed. Dear old Aunt Sadie is very sick in the hospital, do you call the new pastor or the one you’ve known for years even though that person isn’t actually the pastor anymore? After a few years have passed in which a pastor will have gotten to know the people and is established, a former pastor might be able to return. One of the former ministers of the church I currently serve has retired back to this church, but he had been away for some 8-10 years and has been very gracious. I know that if I need him to fill in for me or visit someone in the hospital he’ll be glad to do it, but I also have complete confidence that he’d never try to undermine my own ministry.

  • Sadly, my experiences with these situations are quite poor.

    When I was a youth pastor, I watched our retired former pastor constantly undermine our new pastor. The new pastor left after 7 years, and the retired pastor did the same thing for the next two pastors. For 15 years he hindered the work of that church. It only ended when he got too old and had to move.

    I’m now facing the same thing–only our retired pastor is not only a church member, but on the board. He sees himself and the sheriff and protector. He undermines just about everything I do, holds secret meetings, and stands against me publicly.

    What’s sad is that he has destroyed his legacy. When he moves on or goes home to the Lord, a great many people will only remember him as a toxic curmudgeon, intent on clinging to some last vestige of control.

    I only hope that when I retire I have enough wisdom to stay out of the way and let the next generation lead.

  • I followed a pastorate of 15 months. Why? Because he followed a pastorate of 37 years, and because the short-term pastor was a seminary placement.

    After 5 years (and a lot of battle scars), it became obvious that there are situations where another pastor should not return to the parish, regardless of how many friends he has there or what help he feels he can be. It also becomes obvious that, when the adult children of said pastor are in leadership positions, no pastor who follows begins ministry in that place with an even footing.

    I may be embittered by the fact that I saw my wife and children verbally abused by the ‘faithful’ who adored the former pastor, or because I saw a certain group doing their best to ‘run me out,’ but whatever benefits may be realized by having a retired pastor remain are far overshadowed by the sinfulness in the heart of all.

  • I retired this year from a wonderful congregation. My wife and I deliberately moved away — because I have never seen a situation in which a retired senior pastor did a good job of empowering the ministry of the new pastor. Sorry, but never. My closest friend and mentor when I was young retired in place and haunted the church for years. It saddened me.
    In the past, when I have accepted a call to a new pastorate, I have not gone back to that congregation without the specific invitation of the new clergy. As for funerals, my wife and I are quite fine sitting together in the congregation at the funeral of dear friends. I do not have a need to be up front with the new clergy.

    The advantages of the retired pastor staying away far outweigh the supposed advantages of hanging around and being “helpful.”

    Jesus calls us to new experiences even in retirement, obviously, and those experiences can be discovered in joining a congregation new to us.

  • I wish I had seen this when it first posted because I have some experience here being the new pastor who followed a retiring pastor. While I appreciate that it can work in some (few very rare) circumstances I can also tell you that the most basic starting point is that the new pastor has to both know the retiring pastor intends to stay or return and fully and willingly agree to this. Even then I am honestly highly skeptical that this can work in most circumstances.

    For our church I knew it was going bad when (in addition to the retired pastor not telling me of his intention to return or asking if I was ok with that) his first Sunday “back” I watched a church member go directly to him and start complaining about changes I had made. I think the pastor staying can only work if the retiring pastor and new pastor truly have the same vision for the church. This gets back to point 6 above and the key is that all that is required is the perception that the former pastor disapproves. In my case the retired pastor didn’t agree with the complaints of this person but he listened to them and, in her mind, validated them and that was enough to create the tension between us. I have been here 3 years now and we still haven’t really recovered from that situation and the eventual fallout (the deacons and I had to encourage him to move on).

    I have come to believe that leaving the church when you retire is simply a sacrifice that this job calls for. It is best for the church in the vast majority of situations. Is it hard for the pastor? Yes. But we are called to give up our rights for the sake of the church.

  • Bill from Maryland says on

    I pastor a congregation in Baltimore City that has had five senior pastors in 107 years. My predecessor had the shortest tenure (11 years) having succeeded a beloved pastor who retired after 24 years. My immediate predecessor insisted publicly that his predecessor and spouse (who was just as beloved) depart and have extremely limited contact with the congregation. In so doing, he created a sense of animosity with his predecessor, long-established families and the predecessor’s children (all of whom no longer have any relationship with any church). When I arrived, I befriended my now twice removed predecessor, invited him “home,” and invited both the predecessor and spouse into the ministry. That predecessor has been a faithful partner and my best supporter. I accord them my highest respect and have only received that and more in exchange – from both predecessor and congregation. I’ve been around the block a few times, I know this isn’t how it always (often?) works. Nevertheless, I believe that some of the “troubles” stem from the insecurities of the successor. I had a similar relationship with my predecessor in a previous congregation, as well. Not a day passes where I do not thank God for these spiritual giants in whose steps I follow and who faithfully stewarded these ministries before me. I pray for my predecessor and I know they pray for me – it has made a difference. Establish a relationship, give it a chance and ask God to bless it. One of the greatest honors I have experienced is when my predecessor and spouse introduce me to others as their pastor.

    • Gary L. Coleman says on

      As the “successor” I did not struggle in any way with insecurities. Perhaps it would have been better if I had. I was vilified by the retired pastor because I did not consult with him. He had been in the ministry 60 years and I only 30, so I obviously did not know what I was doing and needed his supervision (his view). The problem in a nutshell: He could not let go.

  • Dear Thom, I retired as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pelham,AL in May,2014 after a career of 44 years as pastor and 35 of those were at Pelham. I announced my retirement in November, 2013 and the church formed a Search Committee that December. I asked the church to help me finish strong. During my last month in the pulpit I told the church to be ready to follow the new pastor and to never say ” Brother Mike didn’t do it that way!” Dr. Daven Watkins came as pastor in March ,
    2015, and asked me to join him for a breakfast the Friday before he came to preach at the invitation of the Search Committee. I told him that I planned to stay in the church but hoped to serve as Interim or Supply pastor. My only request was that he would continue the strong support of the Cooperative Program (10%) thar the church had been giving and he assured me that he felt that same way. Since he has been my pastor ( I reserved the privilege of being pastor to my wife with his approval), we have come to love him as we love our two sons. I have promised him that if he ever feels that I am a stumbling block to his ministry that all he needs to do is tell me and we will quietly move our membership, but that I will support him with all my heart. No one in the church wants him to be successful and blessed by God anymore than I do. God has used me to help one pastor nearby to take a Sabbatical, and now I serve as Interim at a local church that we helped plant years ago. First Baptist Church of Pelham has had 200 additions since Dr. Watkins has been here and my wife and I turned in our pledge card Sunday to help raise disciples and reduce debt in addition to our tithe. Dr. Charles Carter served as Interim at Pelham and also has given me valuable advice about serving as Interim and about staying in the church after a long term of service. God can use a former pastor who is willing to support and encourage the new pastor with no strings attached.

  • My preaching professor in seminary used to encourage us to make a clean break with any church we left. That included retirement. I’ve seen a few cases where the pastor stayed in the church and things continued to go well, but in my opinion, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The comments on this thread have only confirmed that opinion.

  • I just retired after 36 years as Pastor of this church, and will remain in the church and community–by mutual agreement between me, the church, and the incoming Pastor. I will not have a title (like Pastor Emeritus or Assistant to the Pastor). The new Pastor is 26 years old, and a recent seminary graduate. My intention is to help him and the church prosper; I will consider my ministry a failure if I am a hindrance instead of a help or if my presence divides the church.

    My presence during the initial transition seems to be very helpful (it would have been much easier for me just to leave!). I did not understand how the advantages and the role of advocate in No. 2 of the post corresponded with the suggestions in No. 3 and 4 for an extended time away from the congregation.

    The new Pastor and I talked together this morning about this post. We agreed that I will not “second guess” the new pastor, and he agreed not to denigrate the former ministry of the church. I am a Yankee who graduated from TEDS; the new Pastor is a southerner who graduated from SBTS. I want him to succeed here in Maine, and believe it is possible.

    So far we are thoroughly enjoying our ministry together. I have heard enough horror stories of former pastors who were not only not helpful but also did much damage, so I am aware of the dangers. But I see no reason why we cannot display unity, mutual affection and appreciation–for the glory of God.

  • Jim Watson says on

    In light of the article (and many of the comments)….

    How does a pastor manage the need for friends in his current church with the knowledge that he will need to abandon them when he retires? That seems to make the pastor a user rather than a friend.

    I understand the need for a retired pastor to leave the church they had been serving for a time. In some cases, they need to leave forever. But, forcing them to cut ALL ties with the friends they had there seems wrong (for many reasons).

    What would be so wrong with having my friend do my funeral, for instance?

    • It’s okay for a pastor to maintain friendships with people from his past churches, but they need to understand – and he needs to help them understand – that he is no longer their pastor.