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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90 Comments

  • Hey Thom,

    Are the exceptions to #3 that pastors should take a break?

    I am 30 years old and succeeding my Father in the next couple of years. He is 59. I’ve heard many people say it doesn’t work when the former pastor stays and doesn’t take a break.

    My parents are excited about working for me. And I am too. They are my heros. We have a great relationship and they would follow all the other points you mentioned well. I think the benefits far outweigh the struggle it may be. Their influence is so great at our church!

    But I’m a little concerned about it their view to stay. They don’t want to take a break but “gradually” want to make me our churches’ new senior pastor. For example, if my Dad is doing 90% of the work and preaching while I’m doing 10%, then eventually, I’ll be doing 90% and him 10%, so that one day it’s a no brainer that by influence, I’m become the new pastor.

    People have already identified me as the successor and I have great influence with our people too. I’ve been the worship leader here for 10 years and preach often. I am highly involved.

    I’m just concerned that the “no break approach” make things difficult, and even more challenging for me. But can it work? Have you seen it work anywhere?

    Thank you,

    Daniel

  • Thanks so much for this discussion. I have a little bit of different slant on the issue. I had to retire due to failing health. The doctors say the average life span for someone diagnosed with my disease is five to seven years. I served my last pastorate for 21 years and, as you might suspect, developed a deep love for those people. I am wondering, does being seriously ill change your thinking? Is it more of a reason to leave?

  • Jason Salley says on

    Here is my situation. I am the pastor of a small rural church. I have been there about 6 months. My Assistant Pastor which I did not choose is the former pastor. He served 25 years. After he retired his grandson became pastor. He served 4 years before moving to Tennessee. Also his other grandson is the youth Pastor. His daughter is the secretary. One family has most of the leadership in the church. I am the outsider. Everything I do is looked on as wrong or that’s not how we do stuff. I am to the point of resigning because I am not making any headway. I have even had my asst. Pastor (the former 25 year tenure pastor) go against publicly my sermons or put his spin on the message. What should I do?

  • Aaron Wheaton says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    I have now been retired 13 months and live about 1.5 miles from the church where I served for 22.5 years. I have stayed away so that the new pastor can gain traction and trust. The succession has been obviously successful. I see former parishioners here and there, but would love to have my successor’s permission to attend the church occasionally. I am already attending two other churches in the city. Should I ask him for this permission and wait until the Spirit moves him to invited me back?

    • My predecessor retired and stayed away a year to allow me to get established in the church. He returned after a year with my permission. He didn’t have to get my permission, but he was an incredibly gracious man. There is nothing wrong about your approaching the new pastor to make certain he is comfortable with your return. He should see by now that you are not a threat to his ministry.

  • I do not see any biblical reason for a pastor to take a break from a church just because he retires, especially if he is still living in the same city. From my reading of Scripture it would make much more sense for a pastor to stay around after retirement. If the church is characterized by unity and love for one another, how could it be considered wise for him to take a break from that? If church family is truly family how can anyone recommend a year long break from family? It seems that this post views the church as more of an institution/organization than a family.

  • I have had the privilege in two different churches of following pastors with successful long term tenures. In my first senior pastorate I followed a pastor who had served 23 1/2 years and was dearly loved by the people. My second pastorate, which happens to be my home church and where I served previous to my first senior pastorate as assistant pastor, was led by a well loved pastor for 38 years. I had a successful 6 1/2 year ministry at the first church and only left because of God’s call to my second pastorate. I have been here over 14 years and have had a great ministry.

    In both pastorates I made it a priority to honor and continually recognize the previous and continuing influence of both men on their respective congregations. They both served as mentors to me previous to me succeeding them. They both recommended me as their successor leading to both congregations overwhelmingly voting me in as their pastor. We have shared a mutual love and respect for each other. I made it a point to schedule both men to preach for me on a regular basis. If I hold a funeral for someone who they served during their pastorate, I always ask the family if they would like to have the retired pastor take part in the service. Usually I defer to my predecessor concerning what part they want to take in the service. I always appreciate their involvement and ministry to the grieving members.

    At my second pastorate I suggested that my predecessor be given the title Pastor Emeritus and that he be given a small salary to supplement his social security and retirement income. We also paid off and gave him his nearly new ministry car. Throughout the last 14 years we have had regular celebrations to honor him including his 50th year of ministry and his 80th birthday. During these times and at other times we try to be generous financially. He is always in attendance at our church unless he is preaching elsewhere. He is in extremely good health and very active at 81 years of age.

    One of the greatest words of advice I could give anyone following a long term pastor is to realize that it is essential for the successor to die to self. You cannot take the love that church members have for the former pastor as a lack of love for you. They will brag on him and express gratitude for his ministry. This should be expected and encouraged. They will at times mention strengths that he has that you do not possess. Even some of his worst critics during his pastorate will praise Him frequently and openly when they become critical of the new pastor. This is more of an attempt to hurt the new pastor than to really lift up the former pastor. However, a new pastor must realize that a good church can love more than one pastor and a great church will love them both for who they are and appreciate them for what they do.

  • Mark Epperson says on

    Thom,

    For as near a perfect example as you can find regarding this situation – in every aspect – I would refer you to First Baptist Church, Kissimmee, FL. Former pastor (my father) and current pastor (my friend), of whom I served under both before becoming a pastor myself, would serve as a great example of how it works well (should you choose to do some kind of statistical study – or book)!

    Roll Tide!

  • Dr. Rainer:
    Thanks for this article. Reading the comments helps me to solidify my position on this matter- “when you leave a church, leave it completely!” I am inching closer to retirement (5-10 years) and my experiences lead me to believe that a church filled with fallen creatures, yet now redeemed, often find it difficult to do what we ought to do and are taught to do in scripture.

    I’ve pastored 2 churches where the former pastor of 30+ years remained. I honestly say there were good days and bad days. I tried to hold the former pastors in high esteem at all times. I hope they each did me as well. I am certain I did things they disagreed with. At the best, it is a precarious situation.

  • let me add that I have had preachers in every church I have pastored, even the small ones, and only had one problem and he had a problem with alcohol and abuse. all the other ones had never pastored the church we were in and were always supportive and I used them all over the church in leadership and pulpit supply with wonderful results. experiences vary widely.

  • Wow! Been on both sides as well as just returning to a former church for a funeral.

    I followed a retiring pastor of over 20 years who just moved around the corner from the parsonage. I tried to befriend him but he resented me taking his place. he former a small group to try to oust me and do everything in his power to destroy my ministry. fortunately the overwhelming majority of the church supported me but it was always clear he was around the fringes nibbling away. he did not attend the church but went to visit member to ask if he could do their funeral! He had two sons who followed him into ministry and see his handiwork all over their churches, mostly negative.

    Now I’m retired and moved far away from the church. I only went back to do one wedding for the son of a man I led to the Lord and who I also led the family back into church and formed a great bond with. their pastor was new and did not know them and agreed that it was fine for me to do it. I went back to another church to do the funeral for a man I had spent many hours with and led to the Lord and their family refused to take no for an answer , even having the deacons call me to come.
    I do much preaching and interims so am limited in the time I am actually in the church our member ship is in but seek to encourage the pastor even when I see him failure etc and refuse to allow members to talk bad about him to me.

    Certainly I’m not perfect but when a pastor leaves a church for any reason it is important for him to truly leave the church. Even giving up friendships may be best for the health of the church. Friendship can interfere with the new pastors ministry.

    Each pastor need to truly seek God in this matter and the act accordingly.
    jc

  • I think most of the problems indicated here are due to selfish, self-centered people (yes that’s what we deal with, including ourselves, in ministry). The suggestion for a pastor to leave the church for a time so that the new pastor can build his leadership is pragmatic pandering to the selfishness in the church (not to mention in many cases a failure to raise disciples and new leadership within the church).

    I’m teaching through Philippians right now and it is very clear (as it is in other letters) that if we don’t root out this selfishness; (1) we are playing games, (2) not Gospel-centered, (3) not walking worthy of the Gospel, (4) not loving Christ or each other. We need to have the self-sacrificing mind of Christ that was shamed and humiliated and then exalted on high.

    Here’s to brothers who are shamed by those within the church (Phil 2) rather than those outside the church (Phil 1) and to future exaltation. Your fellow slave, co-laboring for the Master that all the world will be filled with the knowledge of His glory (Hab 2:14). Keep on – we’re not dead yet!

  • Gene Shively says on

    Having served in both a denominational and nondenominational setting, and having served under “founding pastors” it is my experience that the problem is exacerbated in the nondenominational setting.

    I have been in my current pastorate for less than three years. The previous pastor who was retiring had been there eight (following his father-in-law who had been there over twenty years). He refused my offer for him to remain saying that the former pastor had done that to him initially and he was not going to do it to me as well. Within the last few months, his predecessor has returned. He has been welcomed with open arms and does participate but never has attempted to reclaim a leadership role. We are human and it does take time to adjust to a new role. The premise of the original post is a good one.