Have you ever felt “haunted” by the ghost of the presence of the former Pastor?
You’re not alone. I’d venture to say that every pastor (except mission planters!) has had to deal with comparisons, fair and unfair, with his predecessors.
He may have relocated two thousand miles away, but he never leaves. He may be in heaven, but he never leaves. He may have been in heaven for a century, but his fingerprints, his impact (for good or for bad), and his memory still rumble around the intricate web of history, legends, defeats and victories of the congregation you serve.
He may even still be a member of the congregation! More on that below.
Let me offer a little encouragement and a few suggestions for a common frustration about life and ministry in the church.
And I know. I experienced different degrees of “The former Pastor never leaves” at all three congregations I served over my own thirty years as a pastor.
I’ve had a retired founding pastor, still a member, seek me out to criticize my sermons. I’ve exorcized a pastor’s bad decision from fifty-eight years earlier that was still hounding the relationship of Pastor and people. I’ve also been welcomed as the heroic successor. (By the way, few of us are well suited for the role of Savior!)
Often the problem stems from decisions made when you were called. No pastor gets all the gifts. We all have strong suits and weak ones. If you were called because your giftedness matched a beloved predecessor, you’ve inherited areas of ministry poorly tended to in the past for which you are equally ungifted. That won’t sit well.
If you were called to complement his strengths with your own, you’ll likely show weakness where he was strong.
“Well, the new guy is sure no Pastor Higginbotham, is he?”
See, I told you you weren’t alone. We all face this. It’s part of congregational life.
So, what can you do? This isn’t easy, but I think it’s worth trying for the sake of your own vocational, emotional, relational, and spiritual wellbeing.
First, be completely honest with yourself. Find out everything you can about your predecessor. Two eighty something women from my church, who were about nine in 1942, shared the legend of the bad decision that I mentioned earlier.
Next, assess your own strengths and weaknesses in ministry. Get some help on this if you need it (we all do).
Then come to grips with the fact that you are who you are, that he was who he was, and that the Lord of the Church knows what he’s doing when he gifts and calls people into ministry, and sends them to follow each other.
Be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. Commit to finding ways to blend your gifts with theirs for the sake of the ministry and the advance of the gospel of Christ.
And find appropriate ways ways to share what you’ve learned with the church.
Finally, if the former Pastor is still an active and disruptive presence, lovingly confront him. Seek the help of a trusted member who is committed to your flourishing in ministry (or your DP or CV if needed). Together, ask for the Pastor’s help. Encourage him to be a Barnabas for you. Tell him what his support, advice, counsel and wisdom mean to you.
Churches are a peculiar amalgam of history and tradition; their pastors are a big part of that. God bless you as you navigate these messy waters. Remember that you’re not alone.
Thanks for reading.