By Mike Hess
What made the likes of Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, and Peter such great leaders? Among other things, they prepared those under their care for their inevitable departure.
Likewise, a good pastor effectively prepares his church for his own pastoral “expiration date.” Specifically, he stewards his own retirement well. Over the past several years, I’ve witnessed several churches fall into bitter fighting and unhealthy patterns after their pastors retired. By God’s grace and by following Biblical principles, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Allow me to make the case here that part of good discipleship and faithful shepherding includes preparing your local church for your retirement.
1. Teach dependency on God, not you.
In 2 Timothy 4:6 Paul spoke candidly of his own “departure.” He used that occasion to emphasize the importance of proclaiming the Word (vv. 1–4). Like Paul, do everything in your power to focus your congregation on God and His truth instead of your personality and giftedness. Create a culture of dependency on God instead of codependency on a particular pastor.
2. Remind your church that one day you’ll be gone.
This is another key component of Paul’s ministry: he reminded others of his own mortality. While I’m not advocating that you be morbid when you convey this truth, you should, however, communicate that your goal is to point the sheep to the eternal God, not attachment to temporary leaders.
3. Build a culture of mentoring and reproducing leaders.
Take ownership of the Great Commission. Make it your personal responsibility to bless your church and others by investing in young leaders for the purpose of sending them out to other local churches. Churches that reproduce leaders don’t need to go into panic mode when influential leaders move on. Why? Because they’ve built a culture of investing, training, mentoring, and sending out leaders.
4. Make a succession plan earlier rather than later.
If your security and identity are firmly rooted in Christ, you’ll have no sense of insecurity speaking of your departure. You serve your church well by developing a systematic plan to help them through the process of looking for your replacement. Don’t be afraid to develop this plan early. In the long run, it will bless your church and better prepare them for the man who follows you.
5. Avoid forcing your church to ask awkward questions.
The harsh reality of living in a fallen world reminds us that as we age, both our physical and mental capacities begin to wane. Never take advantage of the love and good intentions of your church body. When you’re not functioning at the level that best serves your church, you’re forcing your church to ask awkward and tough questions that could be avoided if you shepherd them well through the retirement process. Be honest with yourself about your ability to function at the level necessary to faithfully shepherd God’s sheep.
6. Refuse to stubbornly hang on.
Yes, the church and ministry will move on without you. Hanging on and refusing to hand the baton to someone who could more effectively serve the church could be an issue of pride. It can also take the church hostage to your personal ambitions. Make sure that your decision to retire involves wise input from godly and Biblical thinkers. It’s best to be upfront with the church about your retirement timeline. Be wise and humble enough to get counsel.
7. Recognize that passing the baton well is an issue of discipleship.
Jesus prepared His disciples well for His departure when He took them aside in the Upper Room the night before the Cross and taught them the importance of servanthood, sacrificial love, the coming of the Helper (the Holy Spirit), their dependence on Him for fruit, unavoidable trials, prayer, and the importance of unity (John 13—17). We must do the same by Biblically equipping the church, not just for the present but also for the future as the Lord tarries.
8. Be a constant cheerleader for your successor.
Use every opportunity the Lord gives you to speak well of your successor, in both private and public interactions. Take advantage of your platforms in ministry and even on social media to speak in encouraging ways of the man God has ordained to take your place. Few things can hurt or cause more division than when a predecessor speaks or postures himself in a manner that does not support his successor.
9. Seriously consider moving to another church after you retire.
In most cases, a retired pastor should move on from his previous church to give the new pastor as much liberty as possible to lead in the way he believes God has called him to lead. Years ago, former GARBC National Representative Mark Jackson told me that he strongly recommended to every retiring pastor that he move his membership to another local church. He indicated that this was the best move for the church, the church’s leadership, the new pastor and his family, and the retiring pastor. When a church votes a new pastor in, they’re asking him to lead the church. Graciously give the new pastor that opportunity by removing any shadow of your influence.
10. Prepare yourself financially.
I intentionally did not mention this in a previous point. One of the reasons that many pastors hang on for too long is, I have learned, that they are financially ill equipped to retire. I do realize that not every financial downturn can be avoided. However, you can put in place certain mechanisms to help prepare you and your wife for retirement. If you don’t already have a personal retirement set up, seriously consider investing in the GARBC Retirement Plan, which is available to every employee of a church in fellowship with the GARBC. Second, consider purchasing your own home (if possible) for the purpose of building equity over the years to position yourself well financially. No matter what age you might be, consider now how you can better prepare yourself for the future if the Lord tarries.
Not one inch of ministry should exclude having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:3–5), that is, considering the other person as more important than ourselves. You serve your wife, family, church family, and your successor well when you prepare your church for your retirement.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.