Reading time: two minutes. A recently seminary graduate placed at a long established church suggested that the six elders (who had all served for decades) might, from time to time, step down and let someone else serve. “Maybe we could rotate elders!” Their reply? “Son, at this church we don’t rotate elders; we rotate pastors.” There’s a lesson to be learned in this nugget of truth that could help us all have longer, healthier, more productive tenures in service in the church. Many of us are called to churches that were established long before we were born and will be around long after we’re gone to glory. The stewardship of holding the office of pastor, teacher, deaconess, musician or DCE is a privilege, but a temporary privilege. Churches do rotate their called workers. I’d love to hear what you think about my four words of counsel for your time of rotation.
- Enter the congregation carefully, gently, wisely. Listen, listen, listen, especially in the early years. Discover the unique story of what God has been doing and is doing. Learn the history of the church and the community, but especially the faith stories of the members. Remember that some will have the attitude of the long time member who told the departing pastor, “Our next pastor won’t be as good as you! I’ve been here for the last fourteen, and not one has been as good as the one before him.” Do everything you can to build trust and respect by trusting and respecting God’s people.
- A congregation is a system, just like a family is a system. It’s a tangled web of relationships, some healthy and some not so healthy, and entering onto those relationships is a complicated process. I highly recommend Peter Steinke’s “How Your Church Family Works,” and Ed Friedman’s “Generation to Generation.” Church systems value homeostasis. Your entry disrupts the balance. Establish your presence with humility and gentleness!
- You can become the greatest influence for positive change in the system, but acquiring that position is not automatic. It takes considerable emotional intelligence to navigate the turbulent waters of the history of your predecessors, past ministry successes and failures, and the often unreasonable expectations the members have for your performance. If done well, with the Spirit’s blessing, the congregation will be less inclined to rotate to their next pastor!
- Always keep your successor in mind. Someone will have to follow your act. The Boy Scouts always leave a campsite in better condition than they found it. All of us in ministry have a stewardship responsibility to do the same, to handle the office and calling with tenderness and care so that those who follow will not have messes to clean up, but rather will find a gracious welcome from the church and reason to be thankful for all we’ve done to prepare for them.