Posts Tagged ‘pastors and their predecessors’

Pastor Henry felt all alone.

Along with his wife and two sons, Henry had just received an invitation to become the next pastor of Grace Church, a thousand miles from his last ministry.

Henry and his wife Mary surveyed the congregation when they initially visited the church but couldn’t seem to find anyone they might want as personal friends.

But one morning during his first week, Henry received a call from Bret, a longtime member who told Henry he’d come by the church at 11:30 to take his new pastor out to lunch.

Exhausted from the move, Henry was glad that someone was taking the initiative to get to know him.

Bret took Henry to an expensive restaurant, telling his pastor all about the community, the church … and the previous pastor.

In fact, Bret told Henry a lot about the previous pastor.  Pastor Mark was a good preacher who led the church through a time of unparalleled growth.  This information made Henry feel insecure.  How could he hope to compare favorably with a predecessor he didn’t know and might never meet?

But Bret didn’t just recite the previous pastor’s virtues.  Bret also slammed Pastor Mark’s leadership in many aspects of ministry, and told Henry that Mark was pushed out of office due to his shortcomings.

Henry felt better as he realized that Pastor Mark wasn’t perfect, but had his own issues.

And then Bret told Henry, “You know, I’m so glad you’re here.  You’re just what this church needs at this time.  And whatever you need, I’ll be glad to help.”

As Bret drove Henry back to the church, the new pastor felt a bond developing with his new friend.  “Finally, somebody believes in me” he thought.

Over the next several months, Bret and his wife Hope invited Henry and Mary to their home for dinner.  The two couples quickly hit it off and became best friends.  They went to movies together, ate in each other’s homes, and saw each other nearly every week.

Six months later, when it came time to suggest names for elders, Henry recommended that Bret be considered.  The others on the nominating team remained strangely silent, not saying yes or no.  Henry backed off.  Two others were selected instead.

For the next several years, the two families got along famously … and everybody at church knew it.

One Tuesday night, Hope called Henry and asked him to come over right away.  When Henry arrived, he found Bret in a foul mood.  According to Hope, Bret had been drinking and had verbally and physically abused his wife.

Henry did not like what he was hearing.

An hour before the next meeting of the official board, Henry met with Jeff, the board chairman, and asked Jeff what he knew about Bret and Hope.

Jeff was reluctant to say anything.  After all, everybody knew that the two families were tight.

But Henry insisted, and Jeff finally said, “Bret has a drinking problem, and he refuses to get help for it.  Bret wants to be on the church board, but we can’t let him because, in Paul’s words, he is ‘given to drunkenness,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘quarrelsome.'”

Henry suddenly felt very foolish.

Jeff went on, “Pastor, I don’t know how to say this right, but your relationship with Bret and Hope is causing some people in this church to question your judgment.”

After the board meeting, Henry went home and told Mary what Jeff had said.  Mary and Hope had become very close, but Hope had never shared with Mary anything about Bret’s drinking … or any other weaknesses they had.

Several weeks after visiting Bret’s house, Henry started noticing that Bret and Hope were no longer attending services.  Henry thought about contacting Bret, but he knew such a conversation would drain him of much-needed energy to run the church.

A couple months later, chairman Jeff called Henry and told him that a campaign was underway to remove Henry from office.  When Henry asked Jeff who was behind the campaign, he was told, “Bret and his wife Hope.”

Henry’s heart sank.

As a longtime member, Bret had developed friendships with many people in the church over the years, and he had a good idea who he could influence to join his “throw out the pastor” team.

Henry decided to ask Jeff a question that he had never asked before: “When Pastor Mark was forced to leave this church, who was most responsible for his departure?”

Without hesitation, Jeff answered, “Bret and Hope.”


Insecure pastors … and there are thousands of them around … often compare themselves to other pastors … especially their predecessors.

A wise pastor quietly gets to know the previous pastor so he can (a) form his own opinions about his personality and ministry; (b) learn about that pastor’s influence and tenure firsthand; and (c) tap into that pastor’s wisdom concerning key junctures in that church’s past.

A foolish pastor rejoices when the previous pastor is denigrated, thinking it makes him look good by comparison.

But the same person who criticizes the previous pastor will eventually criticize the current one.

And the same person who supported the previous pastor will eventually support the current one as well.

Many years ago, I learned the wisdom of Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Pastors need to choose their church friends carefully, or the friends they latch onto early in their ministry make turn to bite them later on.


I once met a man (I’ll call him Peter) who had served as the senior pastor of a church I had known my entire life.  That church’s first pastor lived two houses down from my house, and I went to school … and later church … with his children.

My uncle, aunt, and cousins had attended that church as well.

Years later, I made many friends in that church.

And eventually, I was called to be on their staff.

While Peter and I were talking, I shared with him some conflicts that occurred during my time in that church … conflicts that became so embedded in that church’s culture that they later affected Peter’s ministry.

I could tell that Peter had an enlightened understanding of what happened to him in that church.

Why don’t more new pastors contact their predecessors and gain that wisdom and understanding up front?

Could it be because of people like Bret and Hope?

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“Jim, you have no idea how much you’ve been undermined.”

Those words came from a megachurch pastor who spoke with me via telephone just days after the official board at my last church tried to force my resignation.

This pastor – who had been in contact with one of my strongest church supporters – wanted me to know that the opposition to my ministry ran much deeper than anyone suspected.

Several months later, my wife and I met with this pastor for a three-hour lunch and we began to put together the final pieces of our nightmare.

A second Christian leader backed up everything the megachurch pastor told me, and a few years later, a third Christian leader informed me that the plot against me had been in motion for at least several years.

Who was the primary force behind my eventual ouster?

My predecessor.

In some ways, I was in denial about his part in my leaving because I didn’t want to believe it.

My predecessor and I had been friends for more than a decade.  We were part of a pastors’ group that met monthly for lunch for many years.  We had spoken in each other’s churches and shared meals in each other’s homes.

In the fall of 1998, my predecessor invited me to become his associate pastor with the idea that I might succeed him when he retired.

When I resisted his initial overtures, he suggested that I visit his church anyway.

Since I never sought to go there, I can only conclude that God called me there … a powerful truth that my opponents have always chosen to ignore.

My predecessor and I served together for eighteen months.  I thought our working and personal relationships went very well.

And after he retired, I became the church’s second senior pastor.

Before his retirement, my predecessor and I were walking past a field on the church property one day, and he told me, “That’s where you’re going to build the new worship center.”

I was surprised at how well the handoff went.  Because we worked well together for those eighteen months … and because my predecessor seemed to grant me his blessing … I received little flak during my first few years.  Call it an extended honeymoon.

Until the church grew to the point that we needed more room.  Then we made plans to design, fund, and construct that new worship center.

Even though every vote the church took on the worship center was unanimous … and the congregation had lots of input … two individuals in the inner circle did their best to sabotage the entire project.

And I had factual information they were in contact with my predecessor.

I don’t know why they opposed the new worship center.  The most likely reason is because they didn’t want to make a three-year financial commitment over and above their normal giving and that made them feel left out.

And they weren’t the only ones.  We lost about eight percent of our people during the fundraising stage because while most people were wildly enthusiastic about the project, not everyone wanted the church to expand … and not everyone liked our bringing in a professional fundraising team.

The building program came right at the time I was finishing coursework for my Doctor of Ministry program and preparing to write my doctoral dissertation/final project.

In many ways, it was the perfect time to sabotage my efforts.  I didn’t have the energy to deal with critics because I had to focus and stay on track.

Somewhere around this time, I began having trouble with several members of the church staff.

They either resisted or rebelled against my clear directives … and they were all friends with my predecessor.

Should I have ferreted out the truth?

I chose not to do so … but I kept the board chairman informed.

Another time, I spoke with a Christian leader who knew my predecessor quite well.  When I mentioned the staff sabotage to him, he gave me a three-word warning: “Watch your back.”

Later, someone in the church wrote a bizarre email to one of our staff members suggesting that I needed to hire my predecessor as associate pastor.  I immediately called this individual and spoke with him on the phone, but I began to suspect that my predecessor was telling people that I didn’t know what I was doing and that only he could fix whatever was wrong with the church … even though the great majority of the congregation seemed to think matters were going fine.

One day, about two years before the attack on my leadership surfaced, I went to lunch with my predecessor, and he told me that he had chosen the wrong person to succeed him … even though the church had done very well.

Why tell me that?

For starters, I suspected that when he chose me to follow him, he was hoping that I would consult with him about any issues that I had inside the church.  In this way, he could still have an influence on the ministry.

But I had been in church ministry for twenty-five years when I became pastor … I already had a network of Christian leaders to consult with … and I had a great church board (at the time) to assist me.

I also suspected that he wished to take at least partial credit for any of the good things that were happening in the church.

After all, if I did well … hadn’t he chosen me to be the pastor?

And if we built a worship center … wasn’t that originally his idea?

He may also have been upset that I didn’t invite him to be a frequent guest speaker, though the one time I did invite him, I later regretted it.

But in retrospect, I think he was sending me a veiled warning that he was coming after me.

Several years after I left that church, a well-known Christian leader confessed that my predecessor had told him that he was coming back to the church … at least a few years before the attacks began.

But, of course, I had to leave first.

Sixteen days after the attack upon me surfaced in 2009, I sat in someone’s home and heard the district minister confirm that my predecessor had advised the church board … which was doing all it could to get rid of me … even though I wasn’t guilty of any major offense.

And as I began to piece things together, I noticed that everyone who opposed me was connected to my predecessor.


And I wasn’t a bit surprised.


Now why bring this up?

The title of this article is not, “Pastors and Their Predecessors.”

It’s “Pastors and Their Successors.”

After I left my church in December 2009, I became a predecessor to the new pastor, who became my successor.

And I had to think carefully about how I was going to treat him:

*Would I undermine his ministry?

*Would I listen to the complaints of staff members?

*Would I encourage people to leave the church?

*Would I try and harm his reputation?

*Would I collaborate with the church board to get rid of him?

In other words, would I do to him what was done to me?

I laid out the blueprint for the way I would treat my successor during my final sermon at the church:

“Sometime soon, a search team will be assembled to find this church a new senior pastor. I don’t know how the team will be chosen, but working on a search team is painstaking work.  Team members will have to listen to and watch lots of sermons, do background and reference work, and put together and review questionnaires.  But eventually, God will bring you a new pastor.  He will do some things better than me and maybe some things worse than me, but most of all, he will be different than me.  Some of you will welcome that, while it might take others time to adjust.  But treat him as well as you did me and he will love you as we have loved you.

“When I leave, I encourage you not to call and complain about the interim pastor or the new senior pastor.  It is a violation of ministerial ethics for me even to listen to such complaints, and besides, what could I possibly do about them?  If you have a problem with any of your new leaders, speak to them directly, but please don’t involve me.  And I won’t be able to return for a wedding or a funeral because you will have your own pastor, and he should be the one to conduct those services.”

I stand behind every word you’ve just read.

Based on this outline, let me share five principles as to how a pastor should treat his successor:

First, determine to know as little as possible about what’s happening at the church.

I know the current pastor’s first name.  In all honesty, I don’t remember his last name.

I don’t know what he looks like.  I never visit the church website.  I have never heard him preach.

The church’s name and location are the same, but beyond that, I’ve been told that I wouldn’t recognize the church if I visited … which I never will.

I won’t even visit the city where the church is located.

I served at the church from 1999-2009.  God blessed us wildly during that time.  Our work stands.

But after I left, God did not want me to influence the church in any way … and I haven’t.

Second, defend the pastor against any criticism that comes your way.

When the pastor first came to the church, some people wrote and told me gingerly that they were struggling with the way he did things.

I encouraged everyone to stay at the church and do their best to support him.

Sometimes I’d hear things and I’d ask myself, “What in the world is going on there?”

But if I weigh in with my opinion, and someone adopts my view and things go south, haven’t I undermined the ministry there?

And what right do I have to do that?

My wife and I may discuss the church on occasion, but what passes between us stays between us.

Third, stay out of the church’s inner circle.

I had a couple of friends in the church’s inner circle after I left, and I hope we’re still friends, but I haven’t used our friendship to criticize the pastor or to sabotage the ministry.

If the current church board called me and wanted to complain to me about their pastor … a scenario that would rightly never happen … I would tell them, “You’re talking to the wrong person.  Talk directly with your pastor first.  Consult with a conflict manager or a church interventionist next.  But I am the last person you should talk to about your pastor.  It’s unethical for me to be involved, and I won’t do it.”

Everybody already knows that’s how I feel, which is why nobody in the inner circle has ever solicited my counsel.

Fourth, keep a few friendships but try not to discuss the church.

I’ve kept friendships from nearly every church I’ve ever served.  That’s normal.

If a friend left the church where we served together, I’m comfortable sharing what I think about something as long as I sense that the discussion stays between us.

If a friend is still attending that church … and more than 90% of my friends from the last church have moved on … then I don’t want to discuss their ministry at all.

I don’t even want to hear anything about the church from current churchgoers.

Those old emotions – good or bad – can return in a heartbeat, and I just don’t have time for them anymore.

Finally, realize that the way you treat your successor is the way you will ultimately be treated.

Where do we find that in Scripture?

This is a valid application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

If I’m harsh on my successor, then some people will be harsh with me.

If I’m gracious toward my successor, I can expect the same treatment.


I once met a pastor who retired from ministry and then stayed in the same church as a parishioner.

Eight years later, he was consumed with frustration at his successor.

In fact, he made an appointment with his current pastor and really gave it to him … and was proud of how he handled things.

Why didn’t he just leave and find another church?

I have no idea … but he should have left.

The single best verse in Scripture concerning pastors and their successors is found in John 3:30.

John the Baptist says about Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John wasn’t just saying in a pietistic tone, “There should be more of Jesus and less of me in my life.”

No, he was saying, “It’s time for Jesus’ ministry to increase … and it’s time for my ministry to decrease.”

Every pastor who leaves a church should utter the same words about his successor:

“He must increase … I must decrease.”

And based on my experience, they should say those words every day.
























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A friend sent me an article yesterday reporting that Dr. Robert Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, was voted off the church’s board.  He had retired as the church’s pastor five years before.

Christians often have strong opinions about Dr. Schuller.  I have met believers who watched the Hour of Power every week without fail and loved it.  Others have not been as complimentary.

Dr. Schuller once lived across the street from my uncle and aunt when they lived in Garden Grove.  He invited them to help him begin his drive-in church.  They ended up at a different church instead.

When I was a kid, our family took a Sunday off from our own church and visited Garden Grove Community Church, as it was known then.  We all sat in our car and watched the service from the parking lot.  While it was definitely different, it was hard to see what was going on from our car’s back seat.

Years later, when I was in seminary, I read Dr. Schuller’s book Your Church Has Real Possibilities!  The book upset me.  There was little Scripture to back up Schuller’s approach to church growth.  Instead, he married American business principles with church ministry.  I probably wrote more disparaging comments in the margins of that book than any other book I’ve ever read, even though his ministry seemed “successful” at the time.

Eleven years ago, my son lived about a mile from the church, so one Sunday I decided I’d attend a service at the famous Crystal Cathedral.  While I didn’t care for the dueling organs or the TV cameras, Dr. Schuller spoke on “You shall not commit adultery” and absolutely nailed the message.  But when I looked around at the congregation, it was obvious the church was aging without reaching younger people.

Let’s put it this way: several years ago, there were twice as many kids at Vacation Bible School at my former church in the Bay Area than they had at VBS that year at the Crystal Cathedral – their multi-story children’s building notwithstanding.

There are many ways to look at the decline of the Crystal Cathedral: aging leadership, overly optimistic growth projections, too much debt, a watered-down gospel message, an ostentatious property (complete with statues and a cemetery), several unfortunate suicides on church grounds, and an inability to connect with younger people, to name just a few.

But there’s another possibility (no pun intended): Dr. Schuller’s inability to take his hands off the ministry.

Founding pastors have enormous clout in a church.  Their family members form the original core group even before the pastor selects his own.  Everyone who attends the church likes the pastor’s preaching and leadership.  If the average pastor gets two votes on the governing board, the founding pastor gets five.  The power can become intoxicating.

But … when a pastor resigns or retires, he needs to leave that church for good.

For starters, it’s wise for him to leave the community.  If a pastor leaves a church but chooses to live in the area afterwards, his presence will linger like a long, dark shadow over his former church.  And whenever people are disgruntled with their new pastor, they will be tempted to consult with their former pastor.

A friend of mine was the associate pastor in his church.  When the senior pastor stepped down because of a medical condition, my friend was asked to be the senior pastor.  However, the previous pastor remained in the church and the community, gradually undermining my friend’s leadership until he was forced to resign.

People inside the church chose not to follow my friend’s vision for the church because his predecessor failed to support him.  But if the previous pastor had moved away, my friend could have led the church unhindered.

There are exceptions to this practice, of course.  The pastor or a family member might be ill and need to stay in the area for medical treatment.  Or the pastor might have a daughter who wants to complete her senior year of high school before moving.  But even if the former pastor stays in the community …

Next, he should never intervene in that church’s affairs.  My former denomination had a code of ethics for pastors, and those ethics clearly state that once a pastor leaves a church, he is no longer to interfere in the way it’s governed.  If a pastor does intervene, he should be called out on his lack of ethics, but this only works well in hierarchical denominations – and many former pastors know this, which is why some undermine their successors from the cover of darkness.

The pastor, staff, and governing board have been given both the authority and responsibility under God to lead a given local church.  A former pastor – no matter how wise or powerful or popular he is – must relinquish his influence to God.

John the Baptizer said it best while talking about Jesus in John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John was saying, “My ministry is nearly over, while His is just beginning.  It’s time for me to step aside and give someone else the spotlight.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Third, it’s crucial that departing pastors direct complainers back to church leaders.  Let’s say that while I’m writing this article, a friend from a former church calls and wants to tell me about an issue involving the new pastor.  Ethically, I shouldn’t even listen to her concern.  Instead, I need to encourage her to speak directly with her pastor and the church’s governing leaders.

I’m not on campus.  I don’t know all the facts.  Besides, I’ve only heard one side of the story and may never hear the other side.  While I want to help my distressed friend, the best way I can help is to stay out of it and encourage her to resolve matters on her own.  Later on, I wouldn’t want to hear that that pastor was mistreated and wonder if I had something to do with it.

Finally, it’s all too common for pastors to have vendettas against their successors.  Let’s say that I’ve been the pastor of a church for fifteen years.  I’ve grown to love the staff, the leaders, and the people, very, very much.  We did some great things together: increased attendance, baptized new believers, and built a building.  The memories are precious.

But eventually I resign and move out of the area.  And after a while, the church calls a new pastor, someone who doesn’t know me and all the great things I did for the church.  While I’m bewildered as to why the church chose him, I share my opinions with my wife and no one else.

But as time goes on, I begin hearing about some decisions that the new pastor has made, and they baffle me.  When some friends from that church visit me, they tell me how much they despise the changes … and I have a decision to make.

If I agree with my friends at all, I validate their complaints and indirectly embolden them to take action against their pastor.  It’s like I have become their pastor-in-exile – and if they look to me as their pastor, they may want to remove their current pastor from office – and use my words to do it.

Because make no mistake, my opinions still carry enormous weight with some people.

The truth is that some pastors are egomaniacs who always view a former church as their church.  They want to take credit for every good thing that happens at that church even after they’ve left.

They haven’t learned to give all the glory to God.

Let’s return now to Dr. Schuller.  He retired as the senior pastor of Crystal Cathedral at the age of 79 but remained on the church board five more years until he was removed on July 3.

Wouldn’t it have been better for him to leave the church a few years ago – and possibly the entire Orange County area – so that his successor could lead and teach without his gigantic influence?

In fact, Dr. Schuller chose his son to succeed him, and less than three years later, removed him as senior pastor.  Now his daughter leads the church, and a lot of people don’t like the changes she’s made.  The church continues to decline.

While Dr. Schuller did build the church (humanly speaking), the church desperately needs to turn around – and it’s an axiom of leadership that the same leader who built the church cannot turn it around.

Wouldn’t the church benefit without any Schullers but with fresh leadership?

And haven’t attempts to control the church fractured their own family unity?

But here’s the problem: the Schullers can’t take their hands off the ministry.  They seem to view the Crystal Cathedral as their church.  In the process, they’re running it into the ground.

When Dr. Schuller dies, he won’t be able to control the church anymore.  Why not just “die” to the church and walk away right now?

Why not leave it in the capable hands of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ?

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