When an indispensable pastor leaves…


20130725-171342.jpg A highly gifted man I know has just moved to pastor a new church. He’s a good preacher, down to earth, warm and greatly loved – and in the decade he’d been at the previous church it had more than doubled. He’s left multiple services, a packed church, a growing staff team and a building development well on the way to breaking ground.

So the church is looking for a new pastor. What they want is someone to do it again. They want anther highly relational leader who will, by the same practices as the previous guy, continue the church on its growth path. They loved him, and they want it to happen again.

The trouble is, it wouldn’t happen. I’m convinced that even if they appointed the same man again it wouldn’t happen. Why? Because the church has already reached the limit of what that style of leadership can achieve. That style is based on everybody personally relating to a single leader, and there’s a limit to how far that can be stretched before even a highly relational leader can do no more (I think it was Rick Warren who made flash cards of the church’s membership so he would know everyone by name – even he maxed out at 2,000. But if you find another Rick Warren, hire him). The old pastor grew the church to around 700, and that is a remarkable achievement.

What they need is someone who will be relational and personable, but sees networks of relationships as critical, and actively encourages multiple horizontal relationships within the church. Everybody needs to know lots of people.

As so often, there are only three futures: the new leader will have the different style necessary to take things on further; the new leader will have the same skill set as the previous minister and the church will plateau at best or, given the highly gifted nature of the predecessor, decline into a relational pattern that is more sustainable for that style; or the pastor will start to burn out, like an engine driving fast in a low gear.

By the way, the pastor who left went to lead a smaller church in a big city: over the next decade, he’ll probably grow that church substantially too.

8 comments on “When an indispensable pastor leaves…”

  1. Thanks for this, just one question – how does your final sentence fit with Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 3:7?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I see any contradiction between our active responsibility, and God’s sovereignty in using us. He is the one who gives us gifts, and blesses them so that they are fruitful in his plan. In the same way that we are more likely to learn well from someone with the gift of teaching, so non-Christians are more likely to be won by those who are God’s gift of evangelist.

      1. Dear Chris,

        Thanks for the reply. I’m not suggesting that there is a contradiction between our active responsibility, and God’s sovereignty in using us. My question is more aimed at what seems to be an underlying premise in your otherwise very helpful article that it is the minister that grows the church. I guess looking at the converse of the above might help to illustrate – if numbers don’t grow at a church under a minister, does that mean that he’s somehow not doing it right, or not being faithful, and is therefore ‘dispensable’? Further does it mean that he’s unlikely to be God’s instrument for growth were he to move to another church?



      2. Got it.

        No – I wasn’t saying that ministers are the only ones who cause a church to grow, or if it’s not growing there’s something wrong, or anything like that (though see my post, ‘Bonsai Leadership’)

        But – some people are naturally gregarious, and people flock to them. They have lots of friends, and not just of Facebook! When such a person is a pastor, the church becomes unusually attractive on that highly relational level. It can grow quite rapidly, and conversely, when that minister leaves, can decline quite quickly too.

        My friend is that kind of person, and he uses his personality/gift for evangelistic reasons. It is therefore probably inevitable that a small church under his leadership will grow strongly and happily up to around 200, and beyond if he knows how to equip others.

        That’s not saying it ought to happen everywhere. If every minister were like my friend, books wouldn’t get written, sermon series prayed through etc. etc. It was an observation about what that style can do and its limits, and therefore appointing his body double as a successor would not produce a continuation of the growth curve.

  2. So -do pastors who move on or retire owe it to the congregation to make sure that the style changes before they leave so that there is a readiness not just to change person but to change style. Where there’s an overlap of leaders then the previous pastor could help the church think through getting someone not like him

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