Every pastor called to serve the church of Jesus hopes that the fruit of his ministry lives on for generations to come. Scripture promises a godly heritage to those who serve him faithfully. Every committed pastor knows he’ll one day pass the torch of leadership to his successor, but the transition remains remote until its inevitability becomes clear.
A line from Fiddler on the Roof has the main character, Golde, nostalgically singing at his daughter’s wedding, “I don’t remember growing older.” Age we will, and as we do we’re forced to concede the limitations of our strength and endurance. Nearing the conclusion of his ministry, Paul told Timothy:
I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim. 4:6–7)
Paul’s looming death was the context of those words. Transitioning from the pastorate was a departure, and a death of sorts, for me. It involved a dying to self. It meant a separation from those whose lives had become precious to me.
To provide time for our people to call my successor, I’d announced a year in advance I’d be stepping aside. Following one morning service a church member said, “I’m interested in seeing what kind of church member you will be.” Little could she have imagined how that remark would lead me to wonder the same thing. Pastoring had been my identity for so long I’d given little thought to what a transition from the pulpit to the pew might look like.
Would I have it within me to faithfully serve the church when I was no longer the senior pastor? The answer may seem obvious, but for a shepherd whose weeks have for years been characterized by hours of preparing sermons, praying, caring for the sheep, and preaching God’s Word, a sudden change in routine can be unsettling.
No matter how long one anticipates his transition from the pastorate, it’s a season filled with emotion.
Left unguarded, feelings of uselessness can easily replace the busy schedule that used to typify each week. A loss of identity can also result if once-filled hours aren’t replaced by other significant investments.
As the Lord redirects my focus toward fresh avenues of service, I often rehearse several prompts to help clarify my ministry objectives.
1. I must find my identity in Christ.
Before the Lord I am a blood-bought sinner, graciously called to fulfill a shepherding role within the body of Christ. A pastor is not just something I was, but something I still am. Only the venue has changed.
2. I must continue serving the Lord.
I must keep loving and serving him with all my being. That may mean becoming an encouraging “Barnabas” to fellow pastors, or a mentoring “Paul” to younger and aspiring ones.
3. I must pray for my new pastor.
Some retiring pastors will remain in the churches they have faithfully served. Others will sense the need to distance themselves so as not to impede their successor’s ministry. Regardless of which course is pursued, he must faithfully pray for the pastor and staff of his current church while assuming the role of a servant.
4. I must look for unmet needs.
Recognition of needs now determines where and how I serve. Perhaps a retiring pastor’s experience will allow him to be a resource person to the pastor. Maybe he can provide occasional preaching and teaching.
No role or task is insignificant for the one who desires to continue serving his Lord.
There may also be less public roles that will test his humility. No role or task is insignificant for the one who desires to continue serving his Lord.
5. I must continue to serve with all my heart.
Any pastor who steps away from his church will find the transition difficult. There’ll be days of discouragement and even despondency in adjusting to a new normal.
The antidote is not to retreat into oneself; it’s found in investing in other believers or young pastors. Any “visions of grandeur” associated with retirement will likely evaporate into nostalgic feelings of emptiness. Instead of preaching every Sunday, a retired pastor is now seated in a pew hearing the Scriptures proclaimed by another. It can and should be a time of fresh perspective and growth.
6. I must persevere in service because Jesus is worth it.
I must persevere in my service to Christ in this new season of life because nothing he asks of me is too great. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). I must continually bear in mind that any decrease I feel translates into an increase for his glory.
I’m persuaded that God is not yet finished with me. I’m hopeful of serving him in ways I cannot now conceive.
7. I must remember how hard this is for my wife.
This is a transition for her as well. Her relationships and roles are being altered. I must remain sensitive to her needs and continue to listen as well as to lead her into and through this new season. Failure to do so will strain our marriage. The only safeguard is for us both to remain close to Christ. This will result in our drawing closer to one another.
New Season, New Opportunities
Now having greater opportunity, I must allow myself time and space to take a deep, guilt-free breath, to enjoy the blessings of life that may have simmered too long on the back-burner. Perhaps I can read—or possibly write—that book that’s been on hold for too long.
Maybe now I can attend a few ballgames or coach a youth-league team. Perhaps we can travel to places we’ve longed to visit. Whatever the pursuit, it is a season to praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Whatever the pursuit, it is a season to praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Although I’m only a few months into my transition, my time in the Word and in prayer has been greatly enriched. No longer do I read passages of Scripture as future sermon texts to be preached to others, but I’m better able to see them as his personal Word of exhortation and encouragement.
One day soon I’ll cross the finish line, but until then my goal remains to “run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2).