How to Follow a Long-Tenured Pastor

Following a pastor who has run well and gone the distance is only a problem for those who lack the character or the stamina to do the same. Taking the baton of leadership from someone who has served the church for twenty years or more is certainly not without daunting challenges and discouraging obstacles, but the advantages of stability—even when “stability” has morphed into apparent intransigence—are usually preferable to following a rapid succession of pastors who did not stay long enough to lead the people in any meaningful sense of the word. 

    In 1990 at only 30 years old I was called to be the third pastor of the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. My two predecessors had served for fifty and twenty-three years respectively. One of them, Clarence Walker, was legendary. Both Jerry Falwell and W. A. Criswell told me about his impact on their lives. My immediate predecessor, Ross Range, was the quintessential pastor, a dignified and refined man who mowed his yard wearing a tie. 

    The church I now serve, Buck Run, has a very different history, one marked by a long succession of very short pastorates with one notable exception: my immediate predecessor, Dr. Bob Jackson. He served the church twice for a total of two decades (his last tenure was thirteen years) and under his expert leadership the church exploded with growth and grace, morphing from a sleepy rural church on the banks of the Elkhorn Creek to one of Kentucky’s most vibrant and missional congregations. He led Buck Run to found the Romanian American Mission, which today has planted over 400 churches and continues to impact Europe. His emphasis on prayer and evangelism led Thom Rainer to include a chapter, “The Miracle Called Buck Run” in his book on church growth, Eating the Elephant. When Dr. Jackson resigned, many members grieved his departure, even years later.

    I am acquainted with the ups and downs, the blessings and not-so-blessings (curses is too strong a word!) of following long-tenured legendary pastors. While I have benefitted from the stability and unity that it brings, I have faced the monolithic intransigence it fosters as well. Here’s what I have learned.

 

The Two Great Challenges

    You aren’t him. Furthermore, you are never going to be him. You don’t have his abilities, convictions, wisdom, skills—you can simply fill in the blank here. In fact, church members will do this for you. I lost count of how many times someone looked me in the eye with no intent to hurt or discourage but flatly stated something like, “Now I think you’re really good at __________ , but when it comes to _________ , you’re no (Clarence Walker, Ross Range, Bob Jackson).

    Everything in a man wants to defend himself at this point, to point out one’s own strengths and value added, but the best move is simply and humbly to plead guilty. “I aspire to be as great a pastor as my predecessor. He certainly sets the bar very high. Would you commit to pray for me that the Lord might, for His glory, make me the best shepherd that I can be to His flock? I desperately want to be.”

    If the goal were to be more loved or revered than the previous pastor, one might have a tough and trying tenure, but the objective is faithfulness, and that lies completely in one’s own control. I do not have to be revered, applauded, or appreciated to be faithful. I simply have to submit to God’s will. The example of my predecessor, even the humiliation of constant reminders that I am not him, motivate me to cast myself on Christ and beg the Holy Spirit to help me be faithful. 

    Preferences become convictions. The longer a pastor stays and does things a particular way, the less congregations distinguish between biblical mandates and pastoral quirks. Consequently, some members will be prepared to defend the practice to the death when a new pastor suggests an alternative. Children’s ministries, worship styles, Sunday School practices, altar calls, and even the way the offering is received might become sources of tension and division he will encounter. 

    Since longevity and faithfulness were the source of the last pastor’s credibility, any new pastor would be naïve to think he can make significant changes without enough time to establish them. Some problems—even some people—must be outlived or outlasted. No pastor gets a shortcut to character or credibility because they are forged in the furnace of life and experience.

 

The Two Great Benefits

    Stability means predictability. Long-tenured pastorates usually indicate a stable church family. A pastor typically does not have new crises that threaten his position arise after about ten years. Through the years of his ministry those who opposed him left or changed, and every new member came in at least partly because they resonated with him. The effect is that over the course of years, the congregation coalesces behind the pastor’s leadership and enjoys great unity.

    While a new pastor certainly will feel the pressure of change and even of possibly disappointing all those people, he also has a church with established patterns and habits that make them predictable. Whatever challenges follow a long and successful tenure, they aren’t as bad as those presented by the church that cycled through 10 pastors in 20 years. Those churches grow accustomed to instability. They typically place far more trust in key lay leaders than in any pastor because so many pastors come and go while a key leader or two seem constant and dependable. That kind of congregation may even see those lay leaders as their protectors from pastoral overreach and vicissitudes. 

    While one can always find exceptions, the general result is that the steadiness of a church accustomed to a long pastorate is easier to lead than the instability of one that has cycled through multiple short tenures. In the strength and consistency of the former, a pastor will at least get the opportunity to build bonds and relationships in a congregation that knows what long-term commitment looks like.  

 

    They know how to overlook faults. Like any lasting committed relationship, the bonds between a pastor and a congregation work best when they love one another across their differences and disappointments. Frankly, the necessary skill is even more stark than that. People in happy relationships that endure acquire the ability not even to notice one another’s faults. Pastors will find that true in church life as in marriage, otherwise, no pastor could last long because all men have great flaws. 

    Following a pastor who stayed at a church a long time means, at the very least, that this church learned how to follow a man in spite of himself and his weaknesses. Greater still, they may have learned to love him so much that they didn’t notice or dwell on his flaws. If they have done that for one man of God, perhaps they can learn to do it for another.  

The Two Great Moves

    Never criticize your predecessor. If he went insane one night and slaughtered a local herd of goats with a machete, you brag on his ability to sharpen a blade. That may be an overstatement, but the point of the hyperbole is to drive home a hard and fast rule: just don’t criticize him at all. Find the good things that you can say about him and say those things even if they are small. Do not be fooled by the church members who feel comfortable criticizing him to you. They will still think you petty and insecure if you join in. Just don’t do it. Ever. You gain nothing and lose a great deal.

    Even if a predecessor did much worthy of criticism, anyone who follows him should leave that to the Lord and others to judge. No successive pastor ever had to suffer criticism because he was not critical enough. A man with a lengthy tenure did enough right things that he survived all the business meetings, crises, funerals, deacon elections, and church splits for a long time. Do not discount that. Even if his tenure ended in shame and sin, speak only of your commitment to purity and transparency, but never in contrast to him. Everyone either already knows the truth about him, thus you need not say it, or they believe him to be better than he is, and you only anger and frustrate them when you say it. 

    If you are blessed to follow a man who was faithful and honorable and whose service ended well, then thank God for him, honor him, bless him, and speak well of him openly and often. I have been blessed to follow men of character and distinction in my pastorates, and I have taken every opportunity to praise them sincerely, thank God for them, and invite them back for special occasions. Even after the death of Dr. Jackson, when we dedicated our new campus 13 years after he left, I publicly thanked God for him and made sure that his widow and family were present to receive our gratitude and honor and to witness the continuing fruit of his ministry. Honoring my predecessors has never taken anything from my leadership. To the contrary, it has added value and leadership currency. The people who were loyal to my predecessors did not see me as an interloper trying to deprive their beloved pastor of his legacy, but as a fellow admirer and a grateful servant happy to build on the great foundation that they laid. They easily and quickly gave me that same loyalty and respect because I gave them permission to keep loving the man who had shepherded their hearts faithfully. I learned long ago that people have a great capacity to love and I don’t even have to be their favorite pastor so long as I am a faithful pastor.

 

    Stay a long time and be faithful. Every time I had someone give me the “you’re no Bob Jackson” speech, I knew that if I would just be faithful to love the people, preach the Word, and point people to Christ, the day would come in which someone looks at my successor and says, “You know, you’re a good guy, and we like you, but you’re no Hershael York.” In all candor, I take no solace that anyone might ever be compared unfavorably to me, but I understand human nature well enough to know that will happen if I am a faithful shepherd who walks through life with the precious people God has entrusted to my care. After a few years of preaching the Word, loving the people, and shepherding hearts, I have earned trust and leadership collateral, and, I pray, so will my successor. So I end where I began: following a pastor who has run well and gone the distance is only a problem for those who lack the character or the stamina to do the same.