by John Ellis
As a preacher’s kid, I frequently heard my dad express his opinion about the ways in which pastors should conduct themselves. Two such pieces of advice that I heard my dad give on a regular basis were that the church administrator’s office shouldn’t be enclosed and that a pastor should find a new church upon retirement. The first piece of advice receives my hearty “Amen!” While empathizing with my dad’s motives, I disagree with the second piece of advice, though.
Like the first piece of advice, I still occasionally hear my dad utter the second piece of advice. For years, I thought that I agreed with him. As the Holy Spirit has deepened my understanding of ecclesiology and revealed to me, both existentially and intellectually, the glorious means of grace that is a Christian’s church family, I’ve changed my opinion. All things being equal, when pastors retire, I believe that they should remain with their church family.
To be fair to my dad, he pastored at churches dominated by the ghost of past pastors, deacon boards that paid weekly homage to past pastors, and congregations that were often segmented into adversarial camps. For my dad, the phrase, “Well, Pastor Ellis, that’s not how Pastor So-and-So did it,” was a frequently heard phrase and signaled another contentious round with a distrustful deacon board or a loud, unproductive business meeting. I can only imagine how much having the ex-pastor around would’ve exacerbated the tension and created even larger roadblocks to ministering.
The belief that retired pastors should attend a different church than the one they pastored is not a belief that is unique to my dad. I’ve heard anecdote after anecdote from many about churches in which the retired pastor stuck around and caused problems for the new guy. Those anecdotes are tragic and speak to an anemic ecclesiology among vast sections of American evangelicalism. Retired pastors causing problems in the church is a symptom of a larger illness, but more on that in a bit.
I think (at least, I hope) that few would argue with Mark Dever’s claim that, “the church is to be full of live, active cultures – relationships that are mutually encouraging and help people grow spiritually.” Dever goes on to list five aspects that a loving, vibrant church will exhibit. In one of those aspects, he writes about the need to encourage church “members to prioritize the corporate life of the church by teaching about the biblical place of the church in the life of the believer.” He goes on to add, “The local church is a family.”
Sadly, many evangelicals view the local church as merely a part of their life. An important-ish part, to be sure, but just a part, nonetheless. However, if Mark Dever is correct that “the local church is a family,” then any sort of compartmentalization by church members in reference to their church is wrong-headed and harmful. The local church isn’t merely a part of the Christian’s life; it should be part and parcel of their life with Jesus, the head of the Church, at the center of that life.
When that happens, it’s not easy to walk away from your church family, nor should it be easy.
Church families are called church families because they are exactly that – families. I’ve written before about the importance of being intimately plugged into your church, and by God’s grace, my family lives that out. Thankfully, and, again, by God’s grace, our church family makes it easy.
One of the things, out of many, that I value about being intimately involved with our church family is the fact that I can text, email, or call any number of men at a moment’s notice about a struggle, need, or simply for counsel, and they will drop what they are doing and act as a means of grace to me. I have zero doubt that I have brothers in Christ at my church who place a priority on our relationship for the sake of the gospel. Thankfully, by God’s grace, I am able to return the love and serve as an instrument of edification, encouragement, and admonishment in the lives of many of the men who are part of my church family. As we’ve promised by signing and regularly affirming in our church’s covenant, “We will rejoice at each other’s happiness and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows.” I zealously guard and foster those relationships.
Those types of relationships don’t happen overnight, or even over the course of several months. Friendships like that require an extended period of time dedicated to fostering meaningful relationships for the glory of God and the mutual sanctification of each other. The longer a Christian spends in a church family, the more connected that Christian becomes with their church family. That’s right and good. So, why should we expect a pastor and his wife, upon retirement, to abandon their church family and the deeply edifying relationships that they’ve developed over years of service and living life together?
The norm should be that the pastor and his wife are plugged into their church family and that over the years they have developed deep relationships inside their church family. During times of change, it’s vital for Christians to cling to the means of grace. With change comes uncertainty; with uncertainty comes the temptation to doubt God’s goodness. It seems that expecting a pastor to leave his church family is an act of cruelty that doesn’t view the pastor’s sanctification as a priority. The norm should be that the pastor stays with his church family as he transitions into a new stage of life.
Problems arise, however, when Christians view the church as merely a part of their life. Pastors are guilty of this, too. Often, pastors view the church they’re at as a stepping stone to a larger and “better” church. According to research compiled by Thom Ranier, pastors stay on average at a church for only four years. That seems like an astonishingly short amount of time, and speaks to how the consumer culture has pervaded American evangelicalism – you know, the thought that eschews surrendering our rights in order to serve and love others in favor of a self-centered view of church that asks “what do I get out of the exchange?”
Going back to the reality that the church is a family, the norm for pastors and the membership as a whole should be that you don’t leave your church. Obviously, there are things outside of the norm – for example, your church apostatizes and begins teaching aberrant theology. Less extreme, it could be that a group goes to an unchurched area to plant a church, a family leaves to be missionaries, or, in some cases, work moves people away. And “don’t leave your church” applies to pastors when they retire. After all, pastors are part of the church family, too.
The only thing that the anecdotes about how retired pastors undermine the new guy prove is that many men who are pastors probably shouldn’t be pastors. The amount of pride, self-centered, and idolatry required to actively undermine the pastor disqualifies a man from the ministry, to begin with. When Paul provides Timothy with a list of qualifications for Elders, he includes “above reproach … not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:2-3).”
A pastor who truly loves God, truly loves the flock that he has been privileged to serve over the years, and truly desires to continue to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ is a man who will joyfully submit to the church leadership upon his retirement. He will joyfully continue to join hands in service with his church family for the glory of God and the mutual sanctification of the Body. A man characterized by the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 will not seek to undermine the authority of ministry of the new pastor.
All things being equal, pastors should seek to stay with the church family that they have faithfully served. They should stay because, well, it’s their church family. They should stay because their church family already knows the ways in which the retired pastor and his wife struggle, need prayer, and how best to encourage them so that they can continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. They should stay because there is no reason why they should stop serving their church family that they’ve so faithfully served over the years. They should stay, because unless they’re filled with pride, which should’ve disqualified them from the ministry anyway, there’s really no reason to leave their church family.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 109.
 Dever and Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 111.
 Dever and Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 111.