Pastoral Succession (Part 4): The Retirement of a Founding or Legacy Pastor


We continue our conversation on Pastoral Succession. Read the previous articles here, here and here.

Every week we sit with pastors who have been at their church for a very long time, and are bringing us in to talk about their succession plan. Some of these are founding pastors--they have been there since before it was a church. I love hearing stories about the sacrifices that were made when “it was just me and my wife sitting around the table after the kids were in bed, dreaming about what could be.”

Right now, I’m working with a pastor in California who planted his church 48 years ago. Another in Georgia started his church 34 years ago. These men are still leading strong, but know it’s time to hand it to the next generation.

Often, we also work with long-time pastors, which we term “legacy pastors.” They weren’t there when the church was started, but after you’ve been at a church for more than 20 years, in many ways you function like a founding pastor. Typically, there are only a few people who remember the church before you were the pastor. Legacy pastors (who are not leaving in the middle of a scandal) tend to have a great deal of influence and credibility.

There are unique challenges when a Founding or Legacy pastor is beginning to think about transitioning away from the church:

Challenges for the Pastor

  1. Starting the conversation. Often there is an internal fear that if he or she opens the door for a transition conversation, that it will get out of control and move faster than desired. This is usually based on watching real life situations that have happened to others. This is a real and valid fear, which is why external, objective coaching through this conversation can be very helpful.

  2. Discerning the timing. It can be very difficult for the pastor to be objective about whether now is the right time. Is it the right time for me and my spouse? Is it the right time for the church? Does this church need a younger leader? All of those questions are loaded with context and need carefully navigated.

  3. One more season. Even when a church has been in decline for a number of years, a founding pastor will have optimism about the future. They want to go out on a “high,” not when the church is struggling, so they can convince themselves that this year is going to be different. Attendance will begin increasing again. We’ll get the debt paid off. This hopeful internal conversation often happens year after year. The hole might be getting deeper, which makes it even more difficult to have objectivity about leaving.

  4. Grieving. When you’ve invested your life anywhere for 20+ years (as I did at the church where I pastored), there is a definite grieving period that is often unexpected in its depth and unpredictable in its timing. When you know it’s going to be your last baptism, last Christmas service, last Easter, last family many “last” events that have become a very part of the fabric of your being, the disentangling from the church can be very emotional. This is not only true for the pastor, but often for their spouse as well.

Challenges for the Church Board

  1. Starting the conversation. As difficult as this is for the pastor, it is equally difficult and extremely awkward for leaders at the church. When I sit with Boards, they often tell me how much they love their long-time pastor. They tell me stories of how their life has been personally changed through the ministry of their pastor. They believe it is time to start talking about succession, but they don’t want to say anything that makes their pastor think they are kicking them out the door.

  2. Moving to preservation rather than vision. There can be a tendency of a church--especially if transitioning from a founding pastor--to want to preserve rather than grow. When the founding pastor began, it was all about growth. There were no people or buildings to preserve, so the DNA was about reaching out. Often established churches get focused on “not losing anymore people” rather than a vision toward reaching more people with the message of the gospel.

  3. Swinging the pendulum too far. Conversely, I’ve seen church boards or search committees want to hire someone entirely different than their previous pastor. They swing the pendulum so far that it will be very difficult for the congregation to move that quickly or that far.

  4. Not sure what to do financially for the retiring pastor. This is a conversation we often navigate for church Boards. It can be very awkward and emotionally devastating if not handled well.

  5. Not sure whether the founding pastor should remain on staff in some capacity. This is also a conversation wrought with emotion and tension. Should the pastor move into emeritus status? Should they remain on the Board? Should they move into another role on staff and work for the new senior pastor?

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Imagine a pastor who serves faithfully at a church for 20 or 30 or 40 years, and is well-loved by the congregation. Then in their final months when engaging conversations about succession, feelings get hurt, things are said in the emotion of a moment, and they leave their church feeling dejected and pushed out, and subsequently completely pull away from their closest friendships and only network of support.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. It happens all the time! That is why these conversations are so crucial to get right. Let me know if I can have a conversation with you about how our team can help you or your church navigate this season.

Tim StevensComment