How to successfully follow a long-term/beloved pastor

Oh, “you have big shoes to fill” has been uttered through the vocal chords of church members for decades without a scriptural filter to stop it. Both seasoned and unseasoned pastors have been on the receiving end of the “sharp” message meant to acknowledge what was and forewarn what is. Nothing could be more gut-wrenching, heart-piercing and head-spinning than to accelerate an already heavy calling with the “four letter word” of pastoral ministry. Like many of the pastors who have had the unfortunate word-slinging aimed at them, most have taken the high road of respectable responses: “Oh, I know,” or “Yes, he was amazing,” or my favorite, “No one could ever replace him.” It’s cookie cutter responses like these that may temporarily appease the masses, however, make for an early pastoral exit to the showers of resignation.

Despite the ever-growing, ill-timed membership jargon, low hanging, harvest worthy fruit can be gathered from following a long-term and well-loved pastor. Can you imagine the “young guns” Barnabas and Timothy having to follow the likes of the Apostle Paul, or Joshua replacing the most prestigious leader of the Israelites, Moses? Or King Solomon replacing his father, the great King David? Undoubtably, these men heard similar vernacular from their membership, and like many of us, found the best wordsmith responses at the most awkward of times. Maybe Paul’s message before the Colossian’s gives the best advice “Let your speech be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Colossians 4:6). Here are 5 practical points to consider for a new pastor following a long-term/beloved pastor.

  1. First, applaud the pastoral work and accomplishments of the previous pastor. Nothing could be of more value to a new pastor and current, skeptical congregation, than to highlight the hard work from its departed pastor. Although one need not mention his name in every sermon illustration or at every church calendared event. Periodically reference how profitable and praiseworthy were the efforts that were established long before your hiring. This simple act of affirmation can quicken the weld of established membership with the green of the new pastor.
  1. Second, develop thick skin to the words people say but really don’t mean. In other words, it’s not a hill worth dying on. Remember they just lost their best friend, teacher, preacher, counselor, golf partner and coffee club member. Oh, the words of James 1:19 resonate in such times: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” Nothing says “I want to be here for the duration” more than to say nothing when deep down you want to say something.
  1. Third, maintain a healthy rapport with the previous pastor. Once again, this does not mean a weekly film study, but rather a quarterly conversation as a way to keep lines of communication open. You might be surprised at the nuggets of pastoral wisdom offered that can keep a new pastor on track personally, spiritually, and professionally. Let him be your greatest cheerleader while also setting expectations between the two of you regarding future ministry connectedness within his former church.  
  1. Fourth, think long term and not short term. Most likely, the current congregation/church experienced days of success because of the faithfulness and relational mindset of its previous pastor. It’s likely the expectations they had for him are the same expectations they will have for you. Apart from God calling you away, plan on staying put and invest, which will provide lasting stability, comfort, trust, and permission to make the needed changes to continue to be a successful church. What you will soon discover is that you will become that beloved/long-term pastor that you once followed.
  1. Ditch the measuring stick!!!! Remember you will not preach like, lead like, study like, minister like, or sing like the previous pastor. In other words, be who God created you to be and not the previous pastoral box you’re pressured to be in. Each pastor has unique gifts and abilities that can eternally impact its congregation, so do it well and with grace, mercy, and longsuffering. 

Ryan Wells is the pastor of FBC Dewar and can be reached at rwells@dewarfbc.com.

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