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Windows of Opportunity

Pastor, is the prospect of retirement making you nervous?  I understand completely.  In fact, if you’re like me, you don’t even use the word retirement.  You may prefer bishop, pastor emeritus or senior minister.  Some would rather keep the term pastor, but move another minister into the office of lead or senior pastor.  Whatever term you use, the end result is that you will relinquish the full authority of the leader and transfer it to another.  It is a huge decision. 

This article will not address all the ramifications of that transition.  They are legion.  Let’s just assume that everyone in your situation knows what you mean when you say to want to turn the office of pastor/leader over to someone else.  (Okay, I will deal with those details in a future article.)  For now, your decisions to initiate the change are time sensitive.  I refer to them as windows of opportunity.  Each window represents a unit of time.  All of them move across the spectrum of time; none are stationary—or optional.  Missing one window may be so crucial that you may as well miss all of them.   

At least five windows must be negotiated for a successful transition: 1) the age of the pastor, 2) finances, 3) the preparedness of the congregation, 4) the health of the congregation, and 5) the availability of the prospective leader.  Some windows are wider than others; some move faster than others; some more flexible than others, but timing is still critical.  The key is to get all the windows aligned in order to safely pass through each of them simultaneously.  It might help to think of them as lining up telescopic sights or, more dramatically, the alignment of the planets.  What are these windows?

The age of the pastor.  There is wisdom in the old saying, “young men are for war; old men are for wisdom.”  Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”   I know of pastors who were ready to retire at age sixty; others were still going strong at nearly eighty.  The pastor’s personal stamina, health and mobility do factor into the retirement decision, but there are other major factors as well.  Just because a pastor still “feels good” is not enough.  The rapid pace of the cultural revolution, the new complexities of business, advances in technology and changing communication norms (to name a few differences between today and the last century) make it extremely difficult for the older pastor to stay on the cutting edge. 

Perhaps the main reason why age is a monumental factor is the ability to reach and retain younger people in the church.  It’s not altogether what a pastor thinks about himself; it is more about what others think about him.  Another popular saying now becomes a cruel truism:  “perception is reality.”  In speaking about this, I have often made the following comment: “Young people may love me, they may respect me, but they don’t want to be like me!”  As much as I try, I am no longer a role model for the under-thirty crowd.  I talk funny (as in odd), I dress funny, I comb my hair funny, and I sing funny songs. I represent the past.  If they are going to see a future for themselves in the church, they must be able to relate to the leader.  Whenever I try to talk myself out of this notion, I simply recall how I felt about older ministers when I was in my twenties.  Pretty much the same.

The window of opportunity with regard to age varies widely from person to person.  It may span from ten to twelve years.  As a pastor approaches age seventy, however, it is definitely time to get serious.  The brevity of this article will not allow me to enlarge on the things that can happen if this window is missed, but suffice it to say that they can be catastrophic.  The pastor who keeps a finger on the pulse of the church, as well as his own pulse (literally), will know when it is time to make a change.  One thing is for sure: time marches inexorably onward.  To remain oblivious to this fact is an inexcusable indulgence in self-deception.

Finances.  The number one reason why many ministers put off retirement is that they can’t afford it.  It is true that the pastor who procrastinates in establishing his financial resources until retirement age is in trouble already.  Yet, the answer is not more procrastination!  If this is the case, recruit the assistance of a professional financial planner.  Many options present themselves in preparing for an adequate retirement income, and each situation is different.  Here are a few important points:

  • Start your financial planning twenty-five years or more before retirement age.
  • Late starters need to set aside a much greater portion of monthly income—like 50%!
  • Social Security income is not nearly enough.
  • If a pension from the church is possible, get the plans in order now.
  • Begin paring down debts and obligations. (Smaller house, less furniture, fewer toys☺).
  • Assess your net worth and ask for professional help to show you ways to use it.
  • Pull your head out of the sand, bite the bullet and forget that these are clichés.

Remember, this is a window of opportunity.  It may narrower than you think, and it is definitely traveling across the horizon much faster than you realize.  If you miss it, you may never get another chance.  A retirement forced by ill health or diminished ability to do the job rarely becomes a pleasant end to a ministry.  Get serious about it today!

A prepared congregation.  Assuming the pastorate of a church means digging in and taking charge.  Conversely, turning the pastorate over to someone else means letting go and allowing someone else to take control. This cannot be done successfully without the church being prepared.  Preparation includes an informed congregation, the buy-in of the church in supporting the pastor’s retirement, an understanding of who will be affected by the change, and a sense that the congregation is participating in the selection and empowered to make the choice.

The retiring pastor needs to understand the deep, personal nature of the pastor/saint relationship.  Few relationships eclipse the role of the pastor in the life of church members, and, once established, people cannot easily disengage and follow another leader.  The pastor needs to make them aware of the elements of change, assure them that everything is okay, and encourage them to accept the transition.  Although others may help, the pastor is the key to this change.  His voice, his optimism, and his calm spirit will make this change as smooth as possible.  Any reluctance or hesitation on his part signals the church that he is not ready.  They will respond in kind.

There is also danger here, and the wise pastor needs to understand this as well.  The church might be ready for the pastor to leave before he really wants to!  If he talks about retiring, but drags it out or reneges on a commitment to follow through, he damages his own credibility and aggravates the people.  One man opined that a pastor has only one, good resignation and he had better use it well. 

Congregational preparedness is a wide window and it moves fairly slowly.  If it is missed, however, the church body is at risk of disunity, rebellion and strife.  The words and actions of the pastor will determine the optimal time for the transition.

The health of the congregation.  The church whose status is immature, carnal, confused, deeply hurt by some tragic event or suffering from a power struggle is not ready for a pastoral change.  Should one be forced on it at this time, it may likely fall apart.  It is possible that switching leaders may be the only solution to monumental problems within the congregation, but it will undoubtedly come at great expense—loss of unity, loss of people and/or loss of property.

The ideal moment for a pastor to step down is when the church is doing well.  He can then exit with honor, and the incoming leader can go right to work to initiate his vision without having to solve major problems or deal with troublemakers.  Of course, we are not talking about perfection; we are still dealing with imperfect people, after all.  Even pastors of healthy churches have to confront people problems from day-to-day.  Major upheavals, however, are different, and the pastor who is working towards retirement needs to get these problems resolved before making a change in leadership. 

Church health is a narrow window, and it can move fast.  A younger church which has had multiple pastors over a few years may be volatile.  An older congregation served by long-term pastors is more stable and is an easier scenario.  Health and stability is the key to a smooth transition.

Availability of a prospective pastor.  More than one pastor has lamented to me that they are ready to retire, but they don’t know of anyone who can come and take the church.  Indeed, this is an alarming situation.  It may become an organization-wide crisis in the next few years.  The pastor may be ready, he may have his finances in order, the church may be prepared and healthy, but if he has no one whom he can bring in as the new pastor, he has no choice but to hang on beyond the optimal moment for retirement.

Faced with desperation, some pastors simply default to an available person who wants the church.  Vince Lombardi, famed football coach said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”  Likewise, a tired pastor who just wants to get out from under the load may choose an incompetent man to replace him.  Such scenarios are tragic; once thriving churches have turned into train wrecks; strong and powerful congregations have been gutted of orthodoxy and holiness; growing churches have lost their fervor and have become barren wastelands.  All of this is because the out-going pastor did not pay close attention to the limited number of qualified prospects available. 

Other pastors are so paranoid of getting the wrong man to come in that they refuse to make a move at all.  If they wait too long, however, poor health or becoming incapacitated may force the transition.  In this case, the pastor himself becomes the wrong man for the church!  Prayer and fasting for the right person is vital, but an active search is also necessary.  God certainly has someone out there, but it is largely up to the pastor to find him.

This window of opportunity is extremely narrow and moves swiftly.  The person whom the pastor has in mind may be here today but gone tomorrow.  A growing number of churches now chase a shrinking pool of prospective pastors.  This reality must sink in to the aging pastor’s mind. 

When all these windows are in alignment, it is time to move.  The unique role that every leader must fulfill is that of the decision-maker.  Others may have the knowledge, but no one else has the authority to decide.  Pastor, the decision about your successor has the profound potential to affect the future of the church more than anything else you may do.  Monitor these situations closely.  Make the decision.  As much as you love doing what you are doing, the future belongs to others.  Hand it over.  Time is of the essence.  It is the best decision.  It is your decision!

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