Monday, December 26, 2011

Plodder goes to church, formerly his own

One of things that always interests pastors is their relationship with their predecessors and successors in the pulpit. Unless a pastor starts a new church or closes down an established one, he has predecessors and successors, probably a bunch of them.

I'm pleased to say that, so far as I know, I have always had good relationships with the my predecessors and successors. I even had a cordial relationship with one man who was both my predecessor and successor - he bracketed me by serving the same church twice.

In my case, I've always moved far enough away so that it was not very convenient or feasable to go back for a lot of events. I've also had sense enough not to think I was able to or needed to pastor more than one church at a time and thus never tried to continue serving as unofficial pastor of a church I'd resigned and left.

But retirement is different. I'm around the same folks and am aware of the routine matters of the church and members. Did I mention that occcasionally I'm told "we miss you" and other nice flattery? It takes deliberate effort to not pastor the folks I've pastored for so long.

Over the years, my ears have always perked up when my ministerial colleagues have shared their stories about predecessors.

One pastor friend shared that the former pastor, a 30+ year man, was not only still a member of the church but was on the search committee that called him. Since he accepted a call to that church, one presumes that he (a) considered himself bulletproof, (b) was exceptionally desperate for a place to serve, (c) was incredibly naive, and/or (d) was perfectly willing to be called the senior pastor but function as the junior pastor. He indeed had a difficult time. What were both of these men thinking?

Another followed a man with 30+ year tenure. While the departing pastor did not stay in the church, he told the new pastor that he would support him but admonished not to "change anything that I did." The new pastor did a good job. He did what he thought the Lord wanted rather than assuming that all of his predecessor's actions were handed down from Mt. Sinai and written by God's finger on stone tablets. Predictably, he did suffer much unnecessary grief at the hands of his goofball predecessor.

There are more tales but these two are among my most notable. I'm sure you have yours.

I understand that other denominations, United Methodists for example, have specific, enforceable rules for this sort of thing. Wouldn't that be great? Having trouble with a predecessor? Call the denominational pastor police.

Alas, our system doesn't allow for such. Rather, it presumes good sense and reasonable judgment on behalf of all of the churches and ministers, a ridiculous proposition proven to be not just false but preposterous. While we wouldn't stand for any rules imposed from above on pastors and churches, I suspect that we secretly envy our hierarchical brethren and sistren for such things. Being local church autonomophiles has a price.

So yesterday, we attended the Christmas Day services at my former church. A professional singer (opera) who used to be in the church was home and was to sing. We wanted to see and hear him and enjoyed doing so. Besides, yesterday was the fifth Sunday since I left and we had yet to hear a pastor preach in any of the churches we have visited. The interim pastor preached and did a good job. I also knew where to sit so as to not take anyone's regular pew.

I don't intend to attend the church I just left. In the meantime, while the church has an interim pastor with limited duties, it's not an issue for me to visit or attend occasional events.

When my former church calls a permanent pastor, I'll make myself scarce. I'd hate to end up as the subject of some blog.


Dave Miller said...

You are wise to give your church space. Must be a weird time for you.

Stephen Fox said...

Dr. Thornton: You were pretty transparent here and it was interesting reading; the kinda of story and subject my father deliberated on good deal.
I remember his last Sunday in Gaffney, 4th Sunday of June 1978. May share one of his anecdotes with you in person from that occasion at some point.
Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church may be timely for you. Her story is little different than yours, but you will find a lot in common with what DAve Miller has rightly named a weird time for you

Gene S said...

I think there should be a course on ministerial ethics with fellow ministers.

I had one flat out lie to me about the hostile nature of the church I was considering. Took the call and found out a number of them wanted to put his officer furniture on the sidewalk along with him.

My rule has always been: When I leave, I am gone!

It is the rare ego which can stand a predecessor lurking in the corners!

Anonymous said...

Or you could be like a pastor I know and apologize to former members for the actions of the former pastor for the way he destroyed the church and then send a letter to the former church only to have it published on the internet therefore making the former pastor and his employer blush from coast to coast.