Pastors: Help Your Successor Succeed

Funny: I was planning to write about my predecessor in ministry, and then I read Jan Edmiston’s post, “Please. Get Some Non-Church Friends,” which is about much the same thing. Here’s a personal perspective from the other side—not as the pastor who retires, but as the pastor coming after that pastor.

I hit the jackpot in terms of predecessors. J was pastor of Tiny Church for almost 30 years. When he retired, he retired. He maintained good distance during the interim process, and when I first arrived four years ago, we got together so he could wish me well and make clear that he had no intention of inserting himself into the day-to-day operation of the church.

Here are a few things that retiring (or otherwise departing) pastors can to help those who will come after them.

1. Please, please. Make the most of your retirement. As Jan said, some people find themselves floundering in retirement. That’s understandable on one level. Ministry is a lifestyle and can be all encompassing. But with all due respect, it’s on you to find friends, interests, hobbies and a ministry to engage in. How does this help the pastors who will follow you? Let’s just say that J is having way too much fun to get sucked into the particulars of life at Tiny. He still cares for the people, but the administrivia? The inner workings of session? Please.

2. Know whom to call. J has maintained warm relationships with a few people in the church. I appreciate this, because they are friendships, not pastoral relationships. But sometimes people call him in a pastoral capacity. I don’t take this personally. Old habits are hard to break, and what good would it do me to feel threatened? But I do appreciate that in those cases, I’m his first phone call. This happened just this week when our dear patriarch of the church was near death. It was my day off and I had a car full of girls on the way to choir and didn’t get the call right away. When a church member couldn’t get me, she tried him. By that time I had picked up the message and was doing the mad minister-mom scramble to figure out how to get the girls taken care of so I could speed over to the hospital. When he called me I was able to say, “I’m on it.”

3. Blame the policy, not your successor. In the PCUSA at least, it’s the norm for a departing pastor to step aside and no longer fulfill pastoral roles. Keep any attempts to draw you back into that role focused on the norms, not the personalities involved. That is, say stuff like “This is the practice of our denomination and why,” not “Mean old Pastor Jane-come-lately won’t let me bury your beloved great-aunt.”

4. Be your successor’s biggest fan. I know for a fact that J sings my praises to Tiny Church folks he does come in contact with. This is a choice and a practice on his part, and I deeply appreciate it. This helps inoculate him from any attempts at triangulation.

5. Share stories and information that might be useful. A member of the church passed away earlier this year. By the time I met her, she was at the very beginning of some dementia, so I never got to know her as the force of nature that she truly was. J is a great source of information and stories, and he shares these freely.

6. Give your successor a wide berth in terms of colleague relationships. There’s a group of Presbyterian pastors in my area of town who get together for lunch once a month. J intentionally stayed away from this group for a year or two so I could get to know them without him lurking about. He probably would have stayed away longer if I’d asked, but the truth is, he’s a great part of that group and I enjoy his company.

7. Come back when asked. J preached while I was away a few times this summer, and people loved having him there. I’m not threatened by his presence because of how he’s conducted himself regarding numbers 1-6 of this list.

Here’s the irony of being a good predecessor. I know pastors who never really leave a congregation, which puts the next pastor in a terrible position of having to impose boundaries and thus be “the bad guy.” Because J is so clear about who he is and who is not, I feel more free to invite him to participate in the life of our congregation. By letting go, you are invited in.

What would y’all add to the list?

5 thoughts on “Pastors: Help Your Successor Succeed

  1. Fred

    In the spirit of #3—Blame the Policy, Not Your Successor—I would add to the list: Do not put your successor in the position of having to say “No.” The retired pastor is obligated to say “No” right off the bat—right off the bat—not say something wormy like, “Oh, only if the New Pastor says it’s okay.”

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  2. Mandy Sayers

    Set up a healthy place for your successor to come to, by taking your sabbath day and vacation and turning in your mileage, so that your successor doesn’t have to establish those things as new patterns with the congregation.

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  3. Erica

    You are, at all times in a call, a steward of the call for the next person. Everything from working appropriate hours (so the next person doesn’t have to meet unrealistic expectations) to keeping things organized (or finding the people who can help with that if it’s not your gift) will affect what happens with the next person. I pray for the person who succeeded me, and have even sent him a note when I know it’s a week (youth group mission trip!) that was especially crazy to let him know that I’m praying for him. I don’t really know him, but I care about him because he is a caring for a group of people I love.

    What I really love about this, though, MaryAnn, is that you and J are modeling a way to maintain a healthy relationship between current and former pastors. Some sort of strange emotional cut-off is not the way to go (if we could all just be healthy).

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  4. Jules

    This a great list. My terrible experience with a predecessor (really, if I wrote about it here you would not believe half of what I’d say; it was that bad) was a gift in one regard, and one regard only: it taught me how to be an awesome predecessor. I just have done the exact opposite of everything he did. Exact. Opposite.

    I wish my successor well in that I love the whole church and want all communities to flourish, but I’m still waiting almost 4 years later for the invitation to coffee he mentioned once in a phone call his first week at the church I used to serve. I’m guessing he hasn’t needed to ask me anything. Good on him, I guess.

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