I have a lot of friends saying goodbye to pastors and mentors right now. While the number of people who “church-hop” in America is a staggering figure, there are still many of us who have stayed in our local congregations long enough to build deep, lasting relationships with our pastors. Whether campus ministers, youth pastors, assistants, and in some cases senior or lead pastors, eventually you will have to say goodbye. I have been in my current congregation for about 20 years, and in that time I have said goodbye to more than ten men who have profoundly shaped the way I think about, worship, and follow Jesus. I thank God often for the way they have shared their lives and knowledge with me. But at some point they go. And it is hard when they do. For those of you feeling the emptiness of this situation, here are a few thoughts I have that may be of some help to you, the guy who is leaving, the guy who is coming in, and the church as a whole.
1. Don’t Get Mad When They Don’t Call
When your pastor takes a new call (either to another church or to retirement) you lose one shepherd. The shepherd passes an entire flock off to the next guy. His loss is greater. And in the event that he has been called to a new congregation, he has a new assignment. This means he has hundreds if not thousands of new sheep. This is crucial for parishioners to understand. Put simply, no matter how much the pastor loves you, do not expect a call, at least for a while. In the case of my church, when a pastor leaves to follow a new call, he is leaving about 1000 people. He might have close relationships with 300 of those people. He may have been actively discipling 30-40 of them. He may have five close companions. The chances are, you are not one of those five people. And that’s ok. But that also means that you may not hear from him for a while. Can you imagine having to contact and have a meaningful exchange with 1000 people in the next 6 months while fulfilling all of your other commitments? It would be a daunting task, even if it were pure joy to do it. He loves you, but that love is a distant love now. If you want to communicate with the pastor, reach out to him by writing a letter. Give him some time to settle in, and then make contact. As he can, he will respond.
2. Don’t Call the Old Guy to Complain About the New Guy
Do I really have to explain this one? I do? Ok. Your pastor has had a hard enough time making the decision to move on to his next assignment. It was a gut-wrenching decision (more times than n0t). The last thing he needs is to have the added stress of knowing that his sheep don’t like the new shepherd. I’m not suggesting you lie to him about the state of things if he asks, but don’t call a man who has moved 400 miles away to complain about things that:
a) he has no control over
b) he is no longer called to engage
c) will probably cause him consternation and even depression
Instead, it would be better to
a) give things time to even out
b) trust God (Heaven forbid!!)
c) go to your current church leaders with the problem
As one of my former pastors said, “if you are talking about an issue, you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.” When you call a former pastor to complain about a current pastor, you are probably part of the problem.
3. The New Guy is Going to Do Something You Don’t Like
Every relationship experiences disappointment. The angriest people I know are people who expect everyone to please them all the time, and then they are surprised and appalled when it doesn’t happen. We are broken people. Our relationships as a result are always, to some degree, broken. So when the new pastor comes to town, he will not, he cannot, do everything the way you want it done. And know this. HE IS GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES. Love him through those mistakes rather than running him out of town if he changes the order of worship or rotates a table in the foyer. His call is not to keep things exactly as they were. His call is to preach God’s word to you week in and week out, counsel you, lead you in worship of the Triune God, and challenge you to reach your community for Christ. Your call as a member of your church is to love, worship, and serve Jesus, and to be his witness in your neighborhood, country, and the world. So when the new guy does something that makes you angry, ask yourself this question: “Is the thing I am angry about keeping me from serving God?” Usually the answer to that question will be no. And if you are focused on the Lord and the mission he has given you, to be his witness, you just might make it through transition when it comes.