By Mark Dance
This Sunday I will say goodbye to a metro Nashville church I have loved and led for the last 17 months as their interim pastor. Previously, I have had the honor of being a senior pastor to three other churches.
In a real sense, we are all interim pastors. But in another sense, we are an integral and intimate part of a faith family with whom we will always be somewhat connected.
I want to offer some practical advice on how to stay connected in a healthy way to your former churches.
Be a bridge-builder
Some are not invited back to a former church because of the insecurity of their successors. Others are not invited back because they burned bridges on their way out. How you leave a ministry will often determine how you stay connected to it.
Some exits are awesome, some are awkward, and some are downright ugly. The only thing you can control is leaving on the highest road possible, then staying on that road for the duration of your life.
If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:18 (CSB)
Be a bridge-burner
One of the best ways to stay connected is by burning the bridge to coming back as their senior pastor. My recent surprise visit to my Arkansas church was a lot of fun (see below). Because that church is currently between pastors, I made it crystal clear that I was there for encouragement, not an interview.
This is a rule of thumb, not a rule, as there are several noteworthy exceptions to this. For example, there are former student pastors who have been asked to return as a senior pastor. I’ve also seen several retired pastors rock the Pastor Emeritus or Senior Adult Pastor roles.
Develop only your closest friendships
Life and ministry form a natural bond that does not completely break when you leave. I believe you can keep a healthy connection with those you were close to when you shared the same zip code.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar says most people are capable of about 150 friendships. His research concluded that only five of those breach our closest emotional layer (American Way, 7/18).
Admit it; you unofficially unfriended some before you left that church. It’s just creepy trying to keep up with all of your former members, but it is normal to stay in touch with those you got closest to.
Let some in. Let some go.
Support your successor consistently
You should support your successor privately and publicly if you are asked to come back and speak. I have had the honor of speaking at all three churches I have pastored, and each time I seek to give “double-honor” to their current pastor. Here is what that looks like for me:
- I don’t invite myself to speak
- I don’t take an honorarium (unless they insist)
- I don’t overshadow my successor in the pulpit
- I rarely do weddings and funerals in former churches
The most important way to support your successor may be in private conversations with disgruntled members. If you criticize the direction or decisions of your successor, you have overconnected and overreached.
So keep loving them after you leave them, but do it like a grand-pastor, not a lead pastor. You are still their brother, but you are not their leader anymore. Simply love them like the family and friends that they have always been.
MARK DANCE (@markdance) serves as director of LifeWay Pastors, is the husband of Janet, father to Holly and Brad, and recently ended an interim pastorate at First Baptist Church, Mt Juliet, Tennessee.