Posts Tagged ‘pastors and their successors’

“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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