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.

Pastoral Pointer | Leading Your Church to be Welcoming

No one likes to go where they feel unwanted—especially church. How can a pastor train a congregation to welcome guests and project a warm, inviting spirit so visitors feel at  home and are more receptive to the worship and the Word? Dr. York shares some practical insights and strategies that can make the difference between a church that hopes for growth and one that actually grows.

Listen to a sermon where I coached my own church on how to do this very thing.

View all other Pastoral Pointers HERE

When You Cannot Find a Place of Ministry

Hardly a day goes by that I do not receive some communication from a young minister, often someone I taught in seminary, who cannot find a place of service. Forced to work a secular and usually unpleasant job while sending out countless resumes and networking as much as possible, the disappointment and frustration mount almost to the point of despair. These men contact me in hopes that I will be able to help them find that fit, the opportunity for ministry for which they beg God or at least give them a word of encouragement.

To put it mildly, I sympathize. I know exactly what that feels like. With years of ministry experience and a Masters degree in Classical Languages, I once served as the janitor at the Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. I argued with God and explained to Him why so many churches out there needed my particular brilliance and expertise, and the Holy Spirit kept humbling me until I was willing to honor Christ through cleaning toilets. Only when I found joy in that was I ready to serve the Lord through ministry elsewhere.

So with empathy and experience, here is the answer I give to my young pastor friends:

Dear Friend,
I am sorry that you are going through such a difficult struggle. By this I mean that I am sorry you have to endure the emotions of it. I always find it hard to see someone I care about hurting. 
On the other hand, I often have had to remind myself that my Father has denied me no good thing, that His promise is, in every circumstance, to work everything together for my good. He so carefully superintends the events of my life, including the denials, that every stream of experience results in a confluence of grace even when they seem more like floods that may drown me.
As always, I will do whatever I can to share your availability with churches and ministry opportunities, but I encourage you simply to be faithful. Faithfulness when no one is paying you and ministry when no one is asking you are marks of genuine love and devotion to Christ. Live out your calling to the best of your ability with whatever time you have after working in a job you do not like. 
I have been there, and I know it’s not fun, but in retrospect I think I learned more about honoring Christ with my life during that time than at any other. I have seen that same phenomenon in the lives of many others. Don’t fail to see what God is teaching you in this. Embrace the lesson. By all means, keep sending out the resumes and looking for the right fit, but try—as hard as it may be—to do even that as unto the Lord in the same way you would do some church ministry itself. If our dependence on Christ rather than self is the goal, then anything He does to make us lean on Him is ultimately a good thing, regardless of how it feels. 
We usually walk much better after God has touched us in the hollow of the thigh and given us a weakness that reminds of our striving with God than we ever could in the strength (or naiveté) of youth or natural abilities. Jacob had a limp, Joseph a prison cell, Paul a thorn, Ezekiel a spouse’s death, Peter a failure. 
Jesus had a cross.
 You and I are not going to escape that pattern of preparation in our lives.
I remember when I was in your situation years ago I called my dad one night and poured my heart out to him and told him that I was sick of being a janitor, that I thought my talents and training were being wasted, and I did not understand why I had invested so much only to see my family living on rice and beans. He offended me a bit when he replied that he wouldn’t change it if he could because he knew that God was doing a work in me that would make me much better prepared to shepherd His people in the future. 
I didn’t like it when he said it, but he was right. And my words to you may not make your frustration and weariness go away, but I hope they at least help you see that you are being trained by God every bit as much as when you were in seminary. Every situation has a way by which we can honor Christ. Ask Him for that more than for a job in ministry. The Holy Spirit has one ministry—to glorify Jesus. The Spirit is not interested in helping us get a church or find the right position or become a great preacher. The Spirit’s single focus is to glorify Jesus, and when we get so possessed of that goal, even when working as a janitor or bagging groceries or mowing lawns, that we can delight in it regardless of the venue, then He is willing to use us in ways we could never imagine.
So I pray for you to find the right fit and ministry through which you can bless many and use the great gifts God has graciously given you, but most of all I pray for you to find joy in exalting Christ in the frustrating, sorrowful, and mundane things of life. Do that, and you will have succeeded at the thing that matters most.

Pastor Well: An Interview with Dr. David Hatcher

Listen in as Hershael York interviews Dr. David Hatcher, pastor of Nova Igreja Batista in Manaus, Brazil about his church's amazing growth to become the largest church in northern Brazil. Hear his pastoral insights on leading a staff, congregation and satellite congregations and implementing salvation decision follow-up on a large scale.

The Long and Short of Sermons

“How long, oh Lord?

That lament echoes through the Psalms, appears in Habakkuk, recurs in Revelation—and pervades the meandering minds of restless parishioners obliged to suffer the pastor’s preaching past the point of effectiveness and endurance. An expression of extreme suffering and bewilderment is hardly the response a pastor hopes for when he delivers himself of a week’s worth of preparation.

How long should a sermon be? As a preaching professor and a pastor, I’ve asked and been asked that question a hundred times. Today, after 35 years in ministry, I have a definitive answer: You can preach as long as you hold their attention.

Obviously (though perhaps not to everyone) that means some preachers are able to preach longer than others, not because of mere natural gifting, but because of faithfulness to biblical and practical techniques, which are not at all contradictory. In fact, they go hand in hand. Many preachers have on the one hand consoled themselves that their churches are filled with people who have itching ears, and on the other prided themselves that they don’t compromise the truth when really all they’ve done is preached God’s Word badly.

While such situations certainly exist—and my heart goes out to any faithful preacher who lovingly and skillfully preaches the Word to people with cold, indifferent hearts—we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the problem lies exclusively in the pew with no responsibility in the pulpit.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing for shorter sermons. If anything, I believe many churches need to devote more time to preaching, not less. The preaching of the Word is the central act of worship for the gathered church. The widespread biblical illiteracy among professed Christians neither will diminish because pastors shorten their exposition, nor will it change because pastors preach longer dull sermons.

How can one preach better and still afford to preach longer? Faithful preachers who are also interesting learn four key moves to delivering the kind of sermons that help listeners remain engaged.

First, fill your sermon with biblical substance. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but the way to keep the attention of disengaged church members is not by feeding them a steady diet of spiritual cotton candy. It may be sweet to the taste, but it has no nutrition; too much of it will make them sick! The Word of God is what will draw and keep them interested. Don’t dumb it down; serve it up! Christ promised that if He is lifted up He will draw them to Himself. So, point to Christ in text and type, in redemption and relationship.

Second, arrest their attention. Once you know the content of your text, think on the perceptual level in developing the sermon. Find a way to get their interest at the very beginning. Peter did it on Pentecost. Paul did it on the Areopagus. Ezekiel did it by building a model city and laying siege to it. Jesus did it in Galilee with eight promises of blessedness. Spurgeon did it. Jonathan Edwards did it. Listen to the preachers you admire and notice how they adorn the gospel with thought-provoking and engaging delivery.

Third, constantly weave personal application into biblical explanation. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 drove his audience to ask, “What shall we do?” Explanation without application leads to frustration. Content without conviction breeds boredom. The inherent power of the Word and the Spirit demand a response, repentance, renewal. Without that, sermons may seem to be merely Bible trivia games.

Fourth, the best preachers develop audience awareness, always discerning how well folks are listening. Respond to their restlessness with energy, focus and excitement about the text. Is your voice lulling them to sleep? Change your pitch, pace and volume. Let the Word that has saturated you in your study overflow in your pulpit to them in the pew. You may preach as one who knows the Word, but do you preach as one who loves the Word? They’ll listen better—and sit longer.

This article was originally written for Preaching.com

The Funeral I Most Dreaded

July 27, 2015

This morning I will preach my father-in-law's funeral. 

For 32 years of our marriage, I dreaded this terrible task because he was not a believer. He wanted no part of Christ or his gospel. We prayed for him, witnessed to him, sent others to talk to him, and five years ago even took him to Manaus, Brazil to go fishing for tucunaré (peacock bass), but with the real intention of sharing Christ on the entire trip. We colluded, cooperated and conspired for his soul. 

While in Manaus we attended the Nova Igreja Batista, where our close friends David and Pennie Hatcher serve and we stayed in their home. They and all the members of Nova became co-conspirators in our redemptive plot. 

I will never forget sitting on the front row of their massive sanctuary surrounded by thousands of bouncing Brazilians worshiping and praising their Savior, smiles beaming from their brown faces. Gene could only recognize one word that they sang over and over--Jesus. He looked at Tanya and said, "These people really believe what they are singing." She took the opportunity to drive home the point that He had changed their lives and that is why they sang so fervently. 

When we got back to Kentucky, our niece met us at the airport and drove her grandfather home. She later told us that he did not stop talking—about the church and about David and Pennie. The three days of fishing the Rio Uatumã or seeing freshwater dolphins, caiman, howler monkeys or any of the things that he went to Brazil to see did not even merit a mention. Instead he was fixated on the obvious deep, meaningful belief in the gospel now so evident to him in so many people. 

A few months later his body failed him. One night his legs refused to work for him anymore and he never walked again. Too big and with too many medical needs for any of us to care for at home, the man whose life was as big as the great outdoors suddenly found himself limited to the four walls of a single room and flat on his back in a nursing home. 

For the first four or five days we had to go through red tape to get him a television and, coupled with his near deafness, he had nothing to watch or hear when we weren't there. The strange providence of God had twisted and brought him into the last place on earth he wanted to be but precisely where he needed to be and there, in the silence of that room, God brought to his mind all the times someone had shared the gospel with him, the simple message that Jesus saves by grace through faith. The effect in the lives of his children and grandchildren and his deceased wife and so many others that he knew was undeniable. 

The next day Tanya and I came to see him and were amazed by his attitude. Frankly, we had anticipated that he would hate the nursing home and might be terribly uncooperative. Instead he was positive, focused, and met this challenge with the same spirit that helped him survive World War II. We were, to be candid, stunned. 

As we got up to leave, Gene put out his hand and said something strange to me. "Preach to me, Hershey." He had never said that before. I thought he was confused or that asking me to pray for him was so unusual that he just didn't know how to do it. In 32 years, until this episode, he had never asked me to pray for him or with him about anything. A few days earlier he had held out his hand and said, "Say some good words for me," and I had taken that to mean pray for him and I had. Now I was trying to interpret, "Preach to me" and thought surely he meant for me to pray. 

So Tanya took one hand and I the other, and I prayed. I asked God to strengthen and heal him according to His will, but then I prayed for God to save him. I begged God to help him see that Jesus was the only way. I told God that Gene had had his way for far too long, and I pleaded with him to overwhelm him with His love and to overrule his stubborn heart and grant him repentance and faith in Christ alone. 

When I said, "Amen,” Gene patted my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “I've done that.” Tanya and I shot each other a skeptical and confused glance, both of us worried that he might say such a thing too lightly--though he certainly never had before. “What?” I asked. “I've done that!” “You're telling me that you have repented of your sins and you are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life?” “Yes,” he answered. "I have.” “Now, Gene,” I pleaded, “I really need to be sure about this because more than anything I want to spend eternity with you.” “Well you will,” he said, “because I have done that.” 

I wish I could tell you how sweet these last three years of his life have been, even in difficult circumstances none of us would ever choose. We saw God's grace at work in his life even as it had a profound effect on us as well. So today, I am not preaching the funeral I dreaded. I am preaching the funeral that I could preach for a Rahab, or a Ruth, or the thief on the cross. It's the story of redemption, of God's love extended to one whom many thought beyond His reach. It's the story of the five o'clock worker who gets the same reward as the one who's labored since dawn. It's the story of grace. It's the story of Jesus.