When a pastoral change involving a long-term, previous pastor takes place, it is not unusual to hear the statement, "The new pastor will be a sacrificial lamb." The assumption is the church will go through some really trying times. Many people will leave. The new pastor is condemned to short tenure. What a tragic defeatist attitude to take. Since it is God's church, what he does should set an example for how people should interact when change takes place in our lives.
A smooth transition can be made, and the church can surge forward rather than going through turmoil and losing a lot of people.
An example of such a transition occurred at Wichita, Kansas, First Church of the Nazarene.
Brent Van Hook, the newer pastor, states:
Interacting closely with predecessors is nothing new to me. In every church I've pastored I have had direct involvement with a predecessor or with their family members continuing to live in that town. In every situation these people did their best to support me. My relationship with Gene Williams at Wichita First Church has reached all-star status and has become unusually close and productive.
Gene Williams, the retiring (again) pastor, states:
After I retired, we were basically gone for over 10 years. When the pulpit became vacant the board requested that I return as "interim pastor." That lasted for 15 months. You will understand that during this time I re-established relationships that had been vital in my first term as pastor and built relationships with those who had begun to attend while we were away. Returning as interim pastor renewed my love for that great church. However, I knew that at my age my role was very temporary. My love for the people greatly increased my desire for the church to have a pastor who would love them as I did. I worked and prayed to that end and God sent the perfect answer in Brent Van Hook.
Brent faced the challenge of following a 29-year veteran who had reconnected with the people. To some people this posed numerous potential problems. In fact, he was advised by some that he should not take this assignment. He was cautioned that he would be a "sacrificial lamb." Fortunately, he listened to God rather than negative advisors.
No way would he be a short-term pastor. Brent felt God's clear call and accepted the challenge. In fact he is gratified that none of the predicted nightmares have occurred. He graciously asked me to stay on staff as pastor emeritus and do some part-time work with the church. We have a clear understanding of my role in the church. I am his biggest fan and booster. We truly love each other and everyone knows it.
Two key factors make my relationship with Gene extraordinarily close.
First, as a consultant of pastors through his Shepherds' Fold Ministries, he developed a clear understanding of the difference between the method and the message. I encourage all predecessors to continue to fine-tune this skill. Most of us pastors have more work to do in this area than we might think. This understanding from him gives me the feeling of being free to minister according to my gifts, dreams, and visions of ministry. I am not bound by his preferences or style.
Secondly, Gene's support of me is global. He supports the things he likes and he does not withhold support when I do something he might not choose to do. This is important. It's one thing to be a loud supporter when you are personally in favor of a choice. His all-encompassing support of me takes our relationship to a higher level than otherwise possible. Perhaps this element of our relationship is so strong because our communication is so great. We talk several times a week. I can share anything with him (and I do), and he shares with me. Therefore, he's not blindsided with my church decisions. Since thoughts are aired out in private, his support is pure. Genuine support cannot be faked.
To the two of us, the kingdom is far more important than any personal issues or differences.
Brent and I have different styles and abilities. So we do things his way. He fights in his own armor. And that is the way it should be.
The key is the obvious love we have for each other, and the congregation sees that. I look for every opportunity to compliment and boost him. He is very open about how he feels about having a veteran around to help out now and then. His self-confidence enables us to have a relationship that is enabling this great church to sail smoothly through what could have been stormy waters. We just decided to carry out the transition God's way. It is working beautifully.
In a way, we are living out 2 Samuel 21:17. David's men realized that he was no longer a warrior but still recognized that he was needed in the kingdom. Pastor Van Hook is the warrior. I can no longer do what I could in the past. However, he believes I am still of value to the church and God's kingdom. What a wonderful relationship for both the church and us.
I am grateful that he feels secure enough that he does not see me as a threat to his leadership and ministry. I believe that is the critical key factor enabling smooth transitions. He feels secure in his role and knows that all I want is to support him and to relieve some of the load he carries, whenever possible. When this is done the lost are found, the church soars forward, and God is honored.
In one of his devotionals William Barclay discusses the relationship between Paul and Timothy. It was so special Paul called Timothy his "beloved son" (I Corinthians 4:17). He later reveled in the fact that Timothy was "like-minded" (Philippians 2:19-20). Paul saw in Timothy the one who would carry on his work-perhaps not in the same way but with the same fervor.
Happy indeed is the pastor who is able to see his burden for the kingdom perpetuated with new strength when he lays it down.
After all, it's the kingdom that really matters.
Brent Van Hook is pastor of Wichita, Kansas, First Church of the Nazarene.
Gene Williams is former pastor of Wichita, Kansas, First Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2012