Pastors, no less than other mortals, are resistant to change, preferring the security of the tried and familiar. This was vividly impressed anew on my mind recently when I experienced, for the fourth time, the challenge of being transferred to a new pastorate.
Those of us in denominations given to moving pastors frequently may have come to accept these uprootings as part of pastoral life. Yet, say what we will about "expanding horizons and fresh challenges," pastoral transitions are times of inevitable strain and complications, both personal and professional. As a recent survivor, I offer the following suggestions for making such transitions smoother. They will certainly simplify life for the one who follows you. (And you can always hope that the one whom you follow will read this article and carry out at least some of its suggestions!)
Making the announcement
Be honest! You need not reveal every chapter in your pastoral journal, but do, at least, give the essence of your reason for leaving. Your people have been loyal and have supported your ministry more than financially, so they deserve to know. But be careful at this emotional moment; your flock will remember the reason you give for leaving far longer than your reason for coming.
If you are in an organization that arranges these transitions by fiat, and you know your successor's name, build him up before your members have a chance to doubt his potential. (Of course, if you can't honestly do so, don't! At any rate, you can assure them that Jesus Christ is head of His church on earth and that He will lead it under your successor as He has under you.) Try to pave the way for his strengths.
The greatest gift you can leave your successor is not curtains for the parson age, but an up-to-date file! And one of the most important items in that file should be a current membership list, complete with addresses and phone numbers. In rural areas, brief directions or a sketch of how to locate hard-to-find homes will cause the new pastor to rise up and call you blessed! If you have a pictorial directory of your congregation, think how helpful a copy could be if mailed to the incoming pastor a few weeks before his arrival.
Upon arriving at one new pastorate, I was told, "Everything you need to know about the church is in that cardboard box on the office desk." My predecessor had been told the same thing when he arrived, I discovered, and was now bequeathing it to me untouched. No one had gone through the box for several years. I culled a large wastebasket full of old, meaningless papers. Incidentally, in the process several important items came to light, among them the crumpled title to the church van (everyone thought it was lost forever), as well as a set of architectural blueprints for the entire church plant. No current information or lists surfaced, however. You can save your successor days of detective work by leaving him a current file of the information he needs.
A list of present church officers is invaluable to the incoming pastor. Along with this, leave him a weekly schedule of officers on duty (unless the church secretary, if there is one, has this information), financial statements, copies of past and present budgets, and all correspondence crucial to the church program.
One of the most valuable files you can pass on to your replacement is the list of prospective members and individuals interested in the church. One pastor, it's true, told me such names were of no more interest to him than my old sermon notes! But few of us feel that way. I have baptized several persons within the first month or so of arriving in a new pastorate because the former minister left accurate, up-to-date lists of interests. Such a list can be invaluable to your successor.
Be sure the new pastor has access to the clerk's books or secretary's notes, as well as church board minutes for the past few years, to enable him to get a feel of the program atmosphere. Often much unfinished business can be attended to quite expediently by a simple reading of such records. An informed pastor, like an informed member, is the most efficient.
If you know who your successor will be, a nice gesture would be to send him a packet of information about the local area from the chamber of commerce, including maps. Introduce him to the local ministerial association by mailing the president a letter with details of the pastoral change. (Be sure to send a copy to the new pastor as well.) If you are participating in a chaplain's rotation at local hospitals, the schedule would be helpful to your replacement.
If circumstances permit, introduce your successor personally to key individuals in the community. In my last transition, the departing pastor took me with him to meet the most generous nonmember contributor, the manager of the best dry cleaners in town, several people with whom he was studying the Bible, and others with whom I would need to be acquainted in my work there. He was not threatened by my presence in his domain prior to his leaving, and this was a great help.
Since we would be living in a church-owned home (for the first time), this contact also gave us the opportunity to measure for window curtains and learn about the heating system and the home-maintenance contracts. We also went together to each of the utility companies in the city, allowing us in one visit to have the electricity, water, garbage, gas, and phone service to be transferred from his name to mine. This saved hours and hours of potentially lost time scouting out the territory on our own for the first time. Such an ideal opportunity is not always possible, of course, but when it is, take advantage of it.
If you've ever been the "new minister," you can probably remember having to call around among the members (assuming you know their phone numbers) to discover how to obtain a set of keys to the church facility. In one new pastorate, I actually had to borrow the key to the main door from the janitor and have one made at a nearby hardware store! Yet how easily you can eliminate this frustration for your successor. Sim ply assign the head deacon to present the new pastor with your complete set of keys while the pastor's furniture is being unloaded, if not before. If you want to go the extra mile, tag each one for the door it fits.
A list of any pecularities concerning the church plant is also helpful. It can come as quite a surprise to your successor to discover the day before a baptism that the baptistry water heater burned out six months earlier! This isn't an example plucked from thin air; I speak from experience!
Probably you can do nothing to make your successor feel quite as welcome as being sure that when he arrives at the church building he will find his name already on the church sign—correctly spelled. Few pastors like to be seen scrubbing off the former .pastor's name and applying their own.
A copy of the church program certainly helps the new pastor keep the church seams together when he arrives. This is true, of course, only if he is not an "out with the old, in with the new" type. It helps your successor, for example, to know that you were only five more weeks (at a chapter a week) from finishing the book of Acts at the midweek service. Knowing this, he can pick up right where you left off and endear himself to the congregation. A little forethought on your part is all it takes.
Last but not least, a word about your members. Except for a few accolades for outstanding service and a short sketch of current critical membership problems, allow your successor to formulate his own unbiased opinions of his new flock. He will learn quickly enough without your telling him who are the troublemakers, who are faithful, where the feuds lie. After your departure, one of his parishioners will undoubtedly say to him, "I'm sure Pastor Departed told you all about me!" Imagine that dear saint's happy surprise (and your successor's relief) when he can answer truthfully, "No, the former pastor told me nothing!" We all deserve a new start once in a while— even the butting rams and jealous ewes of the flock.
These suggestions will undoubtedly help the new pastor in your church to have a happier and smoother transition than any he has likely experienced. But, who knows? He may not be the only winner!