Ministry Transitions

Last summer, I watched the movie, “The Last Word.” Shirley MacLaine plays the character, Harriet Lauler. She lives in comfortable isolation, friendless and alone. She is aware that death is closing in on her, so she commissions a local obituary writer to do her story. She does not want to leave it to chance. Summing up a person’s life is a tough job, made more so because the person who knows the most about the deceased is no longer around when it’s written.

Harriet wants someone to compose her obituary while she is alive. She wants to be sure it is a true reflection. She doesn’t want the typical obit, where every line is generous, but most of it is phony. But this creates a huge challenge for the newspaper writer because nobody likes Harriet. Harriet knows this down deep, so she uses what life she has left to make a difference. But it really is too late.

Eventually we all transition—either from one ministry to the next, ministry to retirement, or life to death. We hope we have made a difference—a positive difference!

I recently attended a memorial service to remember Don Jensen. Pastor Jensen (PJ) was my predecessor at Village, where I pastored for sixteen years. I can only wish every pastor would have such a forerunner. PJ did not wait until the end of his life to live a life that counts. An obituary writer did not have to fill in the lines with artificial, synthetic fluff. Don was beloved. He touched thousands of lives. He walked the talk. The Word of God was his compass. His passion to see people come to Christ was legendary. Having him on an ordination council meant it would be rigorous. He had tough questions and high expectations. As it should be.

Each tribute at this service was done with grace and eloquence. Nothing feigned. You could not exaggerate Don’s life. He was bigger than life. I am sure all of us sat in silence and pondered how much more we could be doing with our own lives—and must. PJ wasn’t perfect, but he was close. It was one of those services you wish the world could witness. True gravitas is hard to come by.

When I came to pastor Village, Don was my friend and supporter. Former long-term (and much-loved) pastors can be a threat, but not Don. There are many memories, but one that stands out for me is Don, with an orange reflective vest, directing parking on a typical Sunday morning at Village. Having retired, he came each Sunday to simply love the people he had shepherded and serve where needed. It’s a contrast with how so many others leave.

In my leadership courses at Western, I talk about transitions. A helpful book comes from the secular world: The Hero’s Farewell: What Happens When CEO’s Retire. The author, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, interviewed fifty prominent retired CEO’s. He wanted to find out how leaders leave, and he discovered four principal models.

Some twelve percent of retirees are like aging athletes who won’t give up. They are deeply attached, believe they are not yet finished, think no one can replace them, choose weak successors, and leave (maybe leave) bitter. They are called Monarchs. W.A. Criswell of Dallas Baptist Church reminds me of this (note the tragic story in Joel Gregory’s book). Some pastors find it impossible to relinquish control.

There is another category that comprises approximately twenty-one percent. Sonnenfeld refers to them as Generals. They love their stature, choose a strong (“but no one is as strong as I am”) successor, leave reluctantly, and plot a comeback during organizational turmoil.

On the other end are what Sonnenfeld refers to as Governors. They have little attachment to the office, serve a term, accept succession, do not necessarily mentor a future successor, break ties, and leave willingly to pursue new interests.

There is one more group. They make up thirty-eight percent. Their identities are not attached to the position. They are content with their accomplishments, mentor strong successors, believe ministry can succeed without them, step aside gracefully and remain as trusted confidantes. They are Ambassadors.

Don was an Ambassador—maybe more than an Ambassador. He stepped aside, but he always kept close. He never stopped mentoring. Never content with his accomplishments, he kept pressing on (Phil. 3:12). He did keep his identity—pastor (after all, how does someone stop being a pastor?). The calling becomes a part of one’s spiritual DNA.

One of the tragedies in current ministry transition is that pastors leave too soon. Most do not stay longer than four years. It takes at least five before ministry gains traction. The greater tragedy is that all too many do not leave as Ambassadors. But once in a while, there is a stellar model to point to and say, “yes, like that!”

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.