A PASTORAL TRANSITION
By: Edwin Harper
I would like to share a wonderful experience that could serve as a textbook case for every minister. The story reveals how a senior minister who needs to retire and a young minister who is taking his place can make a successful transition. Let me go back to 1950.
This story begins in a business meeting with fifteen people in attendance. A vote was taken on a young man who pastored four miles away in another small community. The church he pastored had almost one hundred people in attendance. The talk was so strong about his success that the elders of the voting church wanted to bring one of its sons home to be their pastor.
Almost unbelievably the people the young minister grew up with sided against him. They said he was too young to pastor, even though he was thirty and the father of three children as well as pastor of a congregation seven times larger than the home church. When the vote was taken, he won a slim majority.
Statements began to fly. Some of his contemporaries said they would leave and go elsewhere. The pastor weighed the matter. He dreamed two dreams. One concerned his seven-month-old baby girl and the other a mountain to climb. At the top a beautiful, fertile valley full of a bountiful harvest, a voice spoke, “This is what I will make of this church with you.” He accepted the call and came to the church.
Some of the original voters left. The first Sunday, counting five members of the pastor’s household, the attendance was thirteen.
To tell stories that brought the church from 1950 to 1989 would take a book. In 1989 the minister was seventy years old, and a thirty-nine-year-old man had come to pastor in his place.
The little baby who was seven months old in the senior minister’s first dream was now thirty-nine and married to the younger pastor. The courage of this Christian woman alone is a book in itself. However, she said to her husband, “Darling, if we go back to that church and there is any problem at all, no one will be in the position that I am in. You are my husband and I have always been loyal to you. However, he is my father and I’ve never ever allowed anyone to give my father any disrespect or grief.”
The thirty-nine-year-old minister was leaving a district office and what was then the largest church in his district. He stood to be greatly criticized because he would leave abruptly when everything was going very
well. Although there were no problems and no reason to leave, rumors did fly from people who wanted something to be wrong for him and his family to leave and go home.
After the younger minister served three and a half years in the new, subservient setting, the real drama unfolded. The younger minister had come home to honor an elder. The elder had to consider his age and the importance of the church’s continuation. The younger could not look as if he was taking the church away from the elder. The elder needed to make sure that his extended family, which now numbered over one hundred, would accept that the right things were being done for himself and his congregation. The
younger had to make sure that none of the elder’s family, friends, or programs were damaged or removed in any way. The elder had to do the opposite: give the younger a free hand to pastor as he saw fit, just as the
elder had. In short, these two men had to do everything to strengthen the church and not harm it.
At one point in the transition of three and a half years, a communication gap developed – not because either one intentionally avoided the other, but because both did not want to infringe upon the other. For instance, the younger would take an idea to the elder. Since it was already planned, the elder would assume it was already executed and would agree. However, the plans were only on paper; no steps had been taken to implement the plans. Later the younger would learn that the plans upset the elder. Eventually the younger ceased to make any plans.
Another time, the elder would see people he had counseled over the years go into the younger’s office. He believed everyone was turning away from him. What he did not know, until later, was that the younger was sending the people away, telling them he was willing to listen but those situations needed to be discussed with the elder.
Once the elder, in a conversation, made some strong statements about baptizing. The younger thought it was intended to stop him from participating. The truth was, there was another person not qualified to
baptize who was trying to conduct baptismal services when the pastors were not present.
However, with patience and tedious attention to detail, the is understandings were finally resolved. The younger’s wife, who was also the elder’s daughter, came to explain her posture again to her father after
three and a half years. The spirit of John the Baptist, who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” came to the elder.
From the pulpit, the elder acclaimed the younger as his pastor. “I am retiring,” he said. “I am not retiring from preaching; I am retiring as pastor. I am called of God. I intend to work and plan, as I always have. I
am available, but I deem it time for me to retire and support the pastor as I have always been supported by all of you.”
The elder still teaches a Bible class, conducts Sunday night services, and is even the church treasurer. He has a new office, which he occupies every day, in the new sanctuary and a plaque in the foyer recognizing his years and the monuments to Christ he has built.
The younger never makes a major church decision without asking the elder how it will affect the church, since he knows the congregation so well.
Today was a unique day here at the church. It saw two weddings conducted, one by each minister, the elder and the younger. The elder walked among old acquaintances who did not attend the church and complimented the church to them. One lady later said, “I received a ten-dollar tour of the new facility.” The elder introduced children and relatives and said, “You really need to come to church and hear the younger preach, and hear the choir his wife directs” (which the elder used to direct). As he walked among people, he enrolled in Sunday school fifteen to twenty people.
The elder marches for the church missions fund-raiser, preaches funerals, conducts weddings, and tells everybody how they need to come to the church. The elder is a gentleman and a saint, and he loves the work of God more than himself. He contributes thousands of dollars annually to the work and conducts Founders Week every April.
At his retirement week of services, he commented that he never dreamed such honor would come to him. Now the city is naming the street in front of the church in his honor.
The younger had said he did not understand why elder minister had to leave the churches that they had spent forty years building and not have the freedom to go back and be a part of that church. Well, now they can. However, it takes two real men, and I mean men, to make it work.
My hat is off to my father-in-law, an honorary member of the General Board of the United Pentecostal Church International, the Reverend Greene Kitchen.
(The above material appeared in the April/June 1992 issue of FORWARD.)
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