Should retiring ministers move on when they step down?

There is a standard convention that retiring ministers should leave the church they pastor at the end of their tenure. There is a broad consensus that outgoing ministers should go and worship somewhere else. It’s best for them to get out of the way of the incoming guy and have a fresh start elsewhere. I understand, in Methodist circles, it is not only a suggestion but an enforced point of principle.

I do understand the logic. It can be hard for blokes used to being in leadership to transition back to the pews. Even apart from the ministry, many men struggle giving up their work roles, especially if they have been in influential leadership positions. Pastors aren’t immune from this struggle. It can also be hard for the guy coming in too. It is easy to see how an incoming minister might feel inhibited any time they want to change things for fear of treading on their predecessor’s toes, particularly if it is something the former minister had to fight to bring in. It can also be difficult if, everytime the new man wants to say or do anything, three-quarters of the church turn round to see if the previous minister is nodding approvingly or scowling with contempt.

But I want to suggest that this ought not to be the norm. Call me naive if you like, but I’d like to think that if a bloke was qualified for eldership last week whilst he was in post, why he would suddenly start acting in ungodly ways this week now he isn’t leading the church seems odd. I’m not saying that sort of thing never happens but is it really the norm? Unless your minister has been removed for some ungodly lapse, if he was a godly guy when he led the church, I imagine he’ll be a godly guy in the pews and would, therefore, behave like a godly church member. I’d at least want to err on the side of charity on this front before insisting they worship somewhere else.

What that means is if the church are all looking for the assurance (or otherwise) of the former minister, he will hold his peace. When people are sniping at the new minister – having, no doubt, experienced something of that himself – he will defend the minister against baseless accusation (as scripture calls all godly members to do). If he is godly, he will be uniquely placed to support the pastor because he will have experienced, in some measure, the very same struggles with the precise relational dynamics that other ministers at other churches cannot quite grasp.

What is more, we forget that here is an experience believer who could help advance the gospel work of the church. It strikes me that if the former minister leaves when a new one begins, as far as gospel workers go, we have broken even in terms of gospel workers and thus potential to further gospel ministry. If the old guy sticks around, you keep an experienced gospel worker within your membership and receive an additional one in the form of a new minister. That would appear to be a net gospel gain. If somebody is asking me to give up all that experience and the subsequent potential for expanding the gospel work of the church, I think I’d want to a better reason than, ‘it might be hard’.

As we joined Oldham Bethel Church, we faced this very issue. The outgoing minister wondered whether he should stay around or not. He was wise enough to at least recognise it might be an issue and decided to have a chat with me before taking any final decisions about the matter. Whilst we recognised the potential for difficulty, we decided that was a risk worth taking for the sake of the gospel work. We recognised we could do more if he and his wife stayed than if they left.

They transitioned into membership just before I arrived and spent the follow three years simply serving as good members in the church. I have no doubt there have been things done that were not things he would have done. But he has never given the sense of that. There have been no times at which I felt inhibited because I was worried the former minister would kick-off about the decision and raise a loyal rabble to defeat any proposal he didn’t like at a members meeting. That’s not to say he refuses to tell me when he’s not sure, or keen, about something. It is to say that, when he does, he does it in the kind of way I would expect a godly person to do so. I don’t say this to give the guy a big head because it is the sort of behaviour that I would expect of any godly member of the church. It is just to say that the kind of things that are often considered problems have not been in our case. Nor do I think they necessarily have to be in any other.

In fact, having served in the church as a member for three years, we decided to bring the former minister back onto the eldership. He had shown that he could be a godly member of the church and would not try to use his store of relational capital to enforce his own agenda. When faced with a man who evidently meets the criteria, who had shown over the course of years that he could serve happily as a member and has years of solid pastoral experience to boot, to us it seemed like the proverbial no-brainer. My point, then, is that outgoing ministers sticking around can be a huge blessing to the church.

I don’t pretend it would always turn out this way. The one caveat I would put on this is that you need to know your man. It is evidently true that some men just would not cope remaining in the pews without taking authority upon himself and happily seeking to pull strings. In such cases, it would be better to let him go elsewhere. But I question whether this should be the norm. I would like to believe that most godly pastors would make godly members and their remaining in the church would, by and large, be beneficial to the gospel work of the church.