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I once knew a young pastor who headed out with great enthusiasm to his first pastoral assignment in a rural farming community. It was a small town with just a few thousand residents, two stoplights, one high school, and eight other Christian churches. There was only one problem: one of those eight churches was pastored by his predecessor, Reverend Hawkins.
After a short and unhappy tenure, Reverend Hawkins had packed up, set up shop across town (less than a mile away), and taken a third of the congregation with him. There was no avoiding this awkward reality. Trips to the grocery store, football games, and even ministerial prayer meetings were all reminders of the church’s contentious prior chapter.
How could the freshly minted pastor honor his still-disgruntled predecessor who haunted the town like a ghost of church conflict past? Was Reverend Hawkins due honor at all?
Maybe you haven’t had to navigate a situation quite that complicated, but you’re probably familiar with awkward predecessor relationships: whether the former pastor keeps coming back to conduct all of the funerals, likes to drop in to the office unannounced, or simply exists in frequently told stories of the glory days of old.
You may want to “give honor where honor is due,” but sometimes that can be a challenge. You may even wish they would just go away for a while.
The good news is that generally, relationships with our pastoral-predecessors can be positive and affirming. In my own ministry, there is a long-time former pastor who worships every week in the church, and three others who live close and are regular guests. These predecessors are some of my biggest encouragers and most public supporters. Still, on one or two occasions, dealing with predecessors was more difficult. I know that it can take some work.
During the early days of one pastorate, my predecessor remained in the area and continued to invite the ministry staff to fellowship nights at his home … without inviting me! It may not have been an intentional slight, but it did put the staff and me in a difficult position. I didn’t want to damage our pastoral rapport, but I also knew that I had to reach out and communicate that these gatherings were problematic. It was an awkward call to make, but in the long run, addressing the issue with him cleared the air and made it more comfortable for him to remain as an ongoing presence. Why go to all the trouble to honor your predecessor, especially if the situation is awkward? Because honoring those who have led before is a way for you to demonstrate that ministry is not about you, even when it is difficult. Your ability to honor your forerunner has a significant impact not only on the leader who has gone before but on how the congregation you are leading perceives God’s work in the church.
Beginning with Honor
After coming to Christ in college, Aaron Jayne went on to help his good friend Matthew Barnett in founding the Dream Center, a congregation in downtown Los Angeles with 273 ministries that serve, day and night, those who are hurting within the city. In October 2010, after 17 years of fruitful ministry at Dream Center, he sensed God leading him to take on his first senior leadership at Coastline Church in Carlsbad, California.
However, Pastor Aaron’s pastoral call almost didn’t happen. During the interview process, he gave one non-negotiable to the church board that nearly derailed the process. He informed them that if he were called, he would ask to bring back their former pastor and publicly honor him before the church. If they weren’t willing to honor their former pastor, he was not willing to be their next pastor.
Pastor Aaron did not know the former pastor, but he did know that the ministry had not ended well. His predecessor had served for 15 years and was also the founder. Though steady and faithful, under his watch the church had stagnated and was nearing financial collapse. Before the former pastor could arrange his own graceful exit, he was fired. Suddenly forced to leave the church, he began painting houses to pay the rent.
“If I come here as your Pastor, I am going to bring him back for a ‘Founder’s Day,’” he announced to the board. “The entire Sunday will be a worship celebration, built on honoring him as our former pastor. We will thank him, give him a generous love offering, and bless him toward his future in ministry.” Pastor Aaron assumed that would be the end of the conversation with the Coastline board. To his surprise, they invited him to come and begin his ministry by helping them honor the pastor they had fired.
The former pastor did return and preached the farewell message he had wanted to deliver two years prior. The congregation celebrated his years with them. They gave him a generous gift and extended to him a formal blessing. He in turn blessed the church and endorsed its new, young leader.
Despite the picturesque beachfront resort landscape of Carlsbad and the brand new church building, the congregation inside was badly broken. With a hundred people attending on a good week, the congregation was in financial crisis, in risk of losing their facility, and marked by lingering conflict. Pastor Aaron candidly describes the challenge of those early days: “The first year of transition was brutal. Finances were a roller-coaster. Many people left, and the unhappy ones that stayed caused drama.”
Despite this difficult beginning, four years later the church is thriving. The average weekend attendance is more than 800, a steady stream of people are giving their lives to Christ, and the church is funding its growth through budget surpluses every year.
Honor Begins with Taking Interest
In I Thessalonians 5:12-13 the apostle Paul writes: “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other” [emphasis mine].
In this verse, the emphasis is placed on the concept of acknowledging one another, or taking an interest in them. In this verse, acknowledgement is the first step to honoring another.
Especially when we’re the new leaders, often our first instinct is to distance ourselves from those who have gone before. If they left as heroes, we may be eager to move past their previous glories and prove that we are now the ones charting the course. If they left as goats, we may be quick to disassociate ourselves from the dark cloud of their departure.
We may assume that from all of the second-hand accounts we already know most all there is to know about those who have led before, but honor always begins with taking interest in the person. That means picking up the phone or paying for lunch, and listening with interest about the history and the legacy of the one who has led before. Only foolish leaders assume that their arrival ushers in a glorious new era of ministry to which all else has been prelude.
Honor Gives Perspective
A wise sage once said, “Never tear down a fence until you understand why it was put there in the first place.” It is careless to bring about significant change without taking the time to listen and understand the history and heart of the structures that we intend to now deconstruct. We may be pleasantly surprised to discover that some of our changes actually reflect the original values of the congregation and that we can actually become a champion for our church’s heritage even while pressing for present-day reform.
Ask your predecessors what they were leading toward, about the most difficult challenge they faced, what they are proudest of, and what they would do differently. You can take it with a grain of salt, but by hearing what they have to say, you are more likely to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary for success in ministry.
I asked Pastor Aaron why it was so important for him to begin his leadership at Coastline Church by honoring his predecessor. “My predecessor wasn’t perfect,” he reflected. “None of us ever are. But I believe that extending honor and experiencing blessing go hand in hand. If I don’t honor the past, God isn’t going to bless the future.”
It seemed to me a striking statement, especially from such a young pastor. When I asked where he acquired this wisdom he replied, “I was raised up in a culture of honor,” he said. “I can’t imagine it any other way. Most young leaders are too insecure to extend honor. They are trying so hard to prove that they are in charge that they miss out on the blessing of God on their ministry.”
Honoring your Predecessor Honors the Church
Your predecessors represent the shared life of those who were there, despite their shortcomings. There is no easier way to acknowledge a church congregation’s journey than to honor those who led them on it. In those former days, the congregation and their pastor gave, built, served, laughed, cried, worshipped, and prayed together. Those people are now your people.
I once asked a young pastor how much contact he had with a nearby predecessor who had led his church when it was at its high-water mark. “I’m not sure what the point would be,” he responded. “We really aren’t even the same church today. We’ve changed our name. We’ve revised our constitution. We’re a completely different church than we were thirty years ago.” As he said these things I looked around at the church facility the former pastor had built. I thought about the reputation, for better or for worse, they had earned in the community. I wondered about the long-standing members that remained from that time. The old and new chapters of that church weren’t as disconnected as he was making them out to be.
When the High Road Is Rocky
Sometimes relationships with predecessors can be so painful that it makes relating to them nearly impossible. They may be serving time in prison. They may have left after a moral scandal. Maybe the predecessor is now leading a nearby splinter congregation, or feels so wounded that he refuses any contact with your church.
How do you take the high road to “honor thy predecessor” in such difficult circumstances? Here are three steps that are always within your power together with your church.
- Keep them in the story.When former pastors have left in scandal, there is a temptation to edit them out of the church’s story as if they were never there. You don’t have to make them out to be anything they weren’t, but find occasional times both privately and publicly to speak their name in the most affirming possible way. As the pattern of the Bible shows, the story of our collective journey is not an airbrushed account that goes silent on the awkward parts. Embrace the good in your story, acknowledge the worst, and move forward with grace toward the best that is still to come.
- Invite a process of relational healing.When a former pastor’s departure has been hurtful, there may be an instinct to steer clear of contact to avoid any further pain. However, you should invite a process as appropriate that would bring relational healing. Sometimes a kind letter is as much as can be done. Sometimes (as in the case with Reverend Hawkins) a private connection between the two pastors is all that he can accept. One group of church leaders met a former pastor and wife off-site when coming back to the church itself proved too painful. However the evening of prayer and encouragement opened the doors to greater healing.
- Pray for God’s best in their life.Even if all contact proves impossible, you and the church can still pray for God’s blessing upon the predecessor. If the Spirit of God empowers us even to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us, then certainly this same Spirit can enable us to pray for those who proved themselves to be less-than-perfect shepherds.
Every congregation is filled with people who find themselves desperately stuck in broken relationships. They struggle to honor parents who disappointed them and spouses who divorced them. They don’t know how to pray for the boss who fired them or to speak kindness to the neighbor who sued them. When you walk the congregation through a process of honor, even in a painful situation, it provides a model for applying reconciliation to the other broken relationships in their lives as well.
Honor Gives Freedom to Others
Giving honor to those in the past acts as the bridge your people can walk across into the future. Honoring those who have come before dispels any misconception that the people will have to choose between loving them and loving you.
Honoring your predecessors also gives them the freedom to support you. Former pastors are flawed humans who may be unsure about how much of a difference they really made. Acknowledging the ways they have been used by God can give them greater freedom to celebrate how God is using you.
If your predecessor can’t return or left in scandal, find occasional times both privately and publicly to speak his name in the most gracious possible way. In the pattern of the Bible you will show that the story of our collective journey is not an airbrushed account that goes silent on the awkward parts and forgetful on the imperfect leaders. We embrace the good in our story, acknowledge the worst in our story, and with grace move toward the best that is still to come.
The Rest of the Story
What happened to the freshly minted young pastor and his disgruntled predecessor? The young pastor picked up the phone, met Reverend Hawkins down at the corner diner for breakfast, and made sure to pick up the tab. Then they kept meeting until it was no longer a novelty. While the two never became close, they moved past the initial awkwardness toward genuine warmth. Their relationship with one another helped those in both of their churches move past the hurt and toward God’s blessing.
By learning more about his predecessor, this young pastor taught his church what it means to love and honor one another, including its former leaders. One day, when his time comes to step down from ministry there, he’ll be glad he did.