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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - When the Senior Pastor Phones it In

Our question this week comes from a lay leader with a sadly common problem: a senior pastor who seems to be biding time till retirement. Our matriarchs have some great wisdom to share. Read on:

I’m a lay person on the governing board of my church, where I’ve been a member about 5 years.
Our pastor is on track to retire within 3-5 years. I’ve had the impression for a long time that he was sort of “phoning it in” and recent conversations with more than one of the church staff indicate this is definitely true with regard to his leadership of the staff…there doesn’t appear to be any. So what ends up happening is that one of the staff who has a very extroverted personality (and who has been a member of the church for many years) is essentially running things…the pastor sits back and does whatever this person suggests. Lots of resentment ensues.

The church has good leadership from an associate and two retired pastors who help out, as well as from dedicated lay leaders. But finances are suffering, numbers are dropping, and the staff and church need more. 

What should I/we do? If you were this pastor, what would you hope your board would do? 

Jennifer responds:

In a perfect world, I’d hope that trusted leaders in the life of the church would the staff approachable and could ask questions and seek to provide help and leadership in this time of perceived detachment and distancing. In addition, I would hope that my governing board had a great personnel committee in place, with regular evaluation of all staff, including the head of staff. 

If it hadn’t happened regularly, I would ask that it could happen. I’d hope that any concerns could be directed to them, even if there were concerns about my leadership. I would hope that if the church I served were connected to a higher governing body, and if problems couldn’t be resolved internally, they would contact the presbytery/bishop/conference/appropriate body and ask for help and guidance. 

And Mompriest offers:
Sadly this is a frequent occurrence in churches when a Pastor is preparing to retire several years out. The transition for a congregation begins as soon as a Pastor announces that he or she is leaving or retiring and lasts until about 18 months after a new Pastor is called. This means that your congregation is already in a transition stage and feeling that instability.

A number of approaches might steady the congregation for the years ahead. If it hasn't happened already someone (maybe two people) in the leadership team needs to have a heart to heart with the Pastor.This conversation needs to help him understand how this time is being experienced by the congregation and others in leadership. From there a plan needs to be put in place that clearly articulates the role the Pastor will have in these last years, the role of the leadership team, and the role of the congregation.

One way I have seen this develop: the Pastor acknowledges a need to focus her/his ministry in a certain area for his/her final years (say counseling or raising endowment funds, etc) and that others on the staff are going to take over the remaining aspects of the Pastors leadership. This will make it intentional for someone else on staff to have more leadership responsibility. The benefit of this is it helps that person(s) grow in their skills - preparing them for their next step in leadership - perhaps as the Sr. Pastor in another parish. It also prepares the staff and congregation for changes that will come with any change in leadership, while still having the Pastor on staff to support and guide the direction. If this is the approach then it needs to be spelled out clearly so that the leadership team has approved the details of the approach and how it will be lived into. Then this needs to be laid out for the congregation so they understand it, hopefully support it, and pray for it. Congregations usually manage times of transition better if there is a clear plan in place and the steps of those plans have been spelled out as well as possible, noting that not every eventuality can be planned for. 

That said, during times of transitions, especially as a Pastor leaves, it is "natural" for churches to go through some changes. People, who have been "waiting" for this time will finally begin to leave. Congregations can anticipate about 10% of the congregation to "move on." There will also be a shift in finances as people leave or hold onto their money during the transition. In time there will be new folks coming in, again a congregation can anticipate about 10% new growth with the new Pastor, essentially replacing, over a few years time,  those who left. Some resentment over the changes will be natural. No one likes change, but change that is managed with some teaching and intentionality can bring renewed health to a congregation. 

Most important will be the ability of the leadership team to manage their anxiety and that of the congregation by modeling a non-anxious presence and a clear path forward. That's not to say that anxiety won't be present or part of the process, but neither the people nor the process should not be ruled by that anxiety.

It will also be helpful if the leadership team learns about times of transition and what to expect. There are numerous resources available through the Alban Institute: on this topic. It may be helpful to hire a consultant who helps the team navigate this time.

Prayers for you and your congregation as you go forward, may it become a time of new life.

Some great advice here! What about the rest of you? What thoughts or experiences do you have? Please share in the comments section. Also, please do send your questions to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com. Our queue is nearly empty, so we could address your question quite soon!


  1. As one who has just retired, I understand this both from the about-to-retire pastor and from the frustrated staff and congregation's point of view.

    From the pastor: Sometimes retirement doesn't come soon enough for our energies. Your pastor most likely is burned out. S/he probably has not taken upon themselves the burden of self-care during their minstry but has given more and more to the parish rather than give themselves opportunities for renewal. Often congregations are at the root of such fatigue, not encouraging the pastor to take proper vacations, continuing ed or collegial support. At the same time the pastor may not have taken advantage of such offerings. In any event, the pastor most likely is just plain too tired to address the running of the church and he comes to a halt in harness, so to speak. OR she may have come to a place in which the changes in the Church have so confounded her that she does not have a way to address the staff direction.

    I would also want to remind the laity of that parish that this time in Church history in America is unique. No mainline church in the US has ever seen the kind of decline in church attendance that has come upon the Church in the past 5-7 yrs. If the parish is loosing attendance, it is most likely for reasons not having to do with your pastor at all. It has to do with the interesting covergence of events that comes every 500 years (see: Diana Butler Bass or Phyllis Tribble's works)

    Most assuredly there needs to be a meeting of the parish's leadership, both ordained and lay to evaluate their COMBINED leadership. Best done with a consultant who understands the state of the American mainline churches. With everyone in leadership taking responsibility for the direction and hopes for the parish, then loss of membership, or lack of direction does not need to be laid at the feet of one person. Also, you have to remember that this is a systemic issue and the sr. pastor has not seen this phenomenon in his/her ministry either. It will take the combined efforts of all. Please remember that your pastor is tired--perhaps too tired to have an answer to this new phenomenon in the church.

    You are a FAMILY of faith and you don't ask grandma to figure out how to work an Iphone! You don't ask grandpa to move mountains. You work together cajoling the elders to tell their tales and persuading the young to see their visions. You don't suggest that the pastor retire, you allow his visions to be seen and heard. You work together to support your sr pastor and support the younger one's and their ideas and energies. Yes, someone who is trusted by the pastor can put the "bug" in his/her ear about 'showing up', but always couched in the thankfulness for the service already rendered by this faithful pastor.

    In my last parish, I had an hour commute and somedays it got too hard to drive all that distance when I could easily do the work on the computer--but I also knew that having my car on the parking lot meant to the people of the small town I served that I was there--I was present and that was a sign of comfort. The simple sign of my poor ole battered Jeep meant so much to those people even if they never entered the office. We never know what signals the presence of God to folks. And I have always been surprised by what that ministry of presence means. Maybe the sr. pastor needs to know how much he is really WANTED--rather than how much he/she is needed.

  2. Muthah+ thank you so much for sharing from your experience, and with such grace. I really appreciate your wisdom.

  3. earthchik, I blogged on this over at

  4. Muthah+ -- Phyllis Tickle, I think, rather than Phyllis Trible?


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