The statistics continue to show the general aging of pastors serving churches. One recent study stated that over the past 25 years the average age of a senior pastor in the USA has risen from 45 to 54. Consciously or unconsciously as a pastor ages everyone connected quietly thinks, “when is he or she going to retire?” So we have more and more churches, church boards and pastors beginning to talk about this and thinking intentionally about the transition out.
There are so many facets to consider in the transition of a well-loved retiring pastor who has been perceived to be successful. Factors include the following:
- Rural or Urban: A rural retiring pastor may be linked to the community because of the employment of a spouse, location of children and grandchildren, value of current home, value of established friendships in the community. It may be hard for a retiring pastor to consider going to a different church as options may be few or of different traditions that his or her own. An urban pastor may more easily find another church to attend, but it will not be like his or her own.
- Stay or go: If a pastor stays in their church after retirement there can be difficulties. The level of difficulty depends on the pastor’s ability to settle in and be supportive of new leadership. In candidating for the pastorate almost every pastor will say they are a ‘team worker’, when in fact many are not. Some are self-deceived and do not have accurate self-knowledge. The same is true of retiring pastors who think their presence will not be an imposition on the new leader or new leadership in the church they used to pastor. Many who stay end up being grumpy, perhaps even bitter cynics.
- Plan succession or let things go: Plans while a pastor is still in place can be good, but I would caution against being too committed to them too early. Personally I have seen several situations where an associate was hired with a view to having that person become the senior pastor, but seldom has that plan worked out. It is not the norm for an associate or a youth pastor to become that church’s senior pastor at a later date. Churches are more likely to want some new skills, a new presence and they resist having what they have already had to date. It may be best for a pastor to ‘let go’ of their ministry and to commit its future to God. Likely the fruit of a pastor’s discipleship over the years will reveal itself. If good principles have been passed down, then the remaining leadership will make good choices. After His resurrection Jesus left his work to a dozen men who were not united, were of questionable experience, and wrestled with what to do next. Often leadership succession feels like that to the one stepping down or retiring.
I know having left ministries before that it is hard to watch from a distance the decisions of a former church. You have loved those people and invested yourself into that ministry. For whatever the reason God now has a different path for them. Even in my current role I’m thinking more intentionally about having some people grab onto the principles of this position, but I will not be appointing my successor, whenever that is done. I too will have to let go. For this season let me not coast … let me be helpful to the Kingdom!
Your co-worker, Dennis