Reprinted from the April 2014 issue of “Gospel Advocate” Magazine.
Division has plagued the Lord’s church since the first century. When Christians seek to place themselves or their opinions above the Lord’s work, division will always result, and healthy church growth will be stunted. The book of 1 Corinthians records one of the most destructive sources of division – pledging allegiance to preachers rather than to God. Of the many problems Paul addresses in Corinth, this issue was the first (1 Corinthians 1:11-16).
Paul’s divinely guided solution to petty sectarianism is found in the following words: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 esv). In other words, “we are God’s fellow workers” (v. 9). The preacher is merely a servant through whom (not in whom) we believe.
In many congregations today the preacher seems larger-than-life. Long-tenured ministers especially can come to be viewed as models for all preachers. Their lives are intertwined with the lives of their congregants. Their habits and actions become accepted (and expected) behaviors. But then the minister retires – and then he decides to continue worshiping in the congregation. Such a scenario could make for a nightmare. But, for me, the opposite has been true.
I have been working with the Thomasville Church of Christ in Thomasville, Ga., since February 2013. Among the members of our congregation is Garland Basford, the former minister who retired after 25 years. He has been one of my greatest assets as he continues to serve the church humbly and effectively. If ever there was an ideal retired minister, it would be brother Basford. His understanding and experience of the preacher’s work, coupled with his practical wisdom and genuine humility have provided me some tremendous advantages.
My story has been positive because Garland and I understand the balance necessary for us to continue the work of our Lord. Both of us are mindful of the biblical principles intended to dissipate division and to provoke the church to love and good works. Here are a few pointers for ministers to coexist successfully.
• Understand the foundation. The purpose of being a minister is to serve God by serving the spiritual needs of people. Preaching is not about popularity. It is about pointing people to Jesus. As a retired minister, brother Basford understands and embodies this aspect of service. If he or I insisted on our own agenda, our relationship would fall apart, and the church would suffer. But because we are willing to lay aside our pride, we can work together for the benefit of the church. We are simply tools to be used for God’s glory. Far too many people get lost in the battle of wills. Let us surrender our will to God. Let us understand that the work of the church is not about us. We are servants of Christ.
• Understand the need to facilitate change. Change often occurs slowly and with much resistance. Hiring a new preacher is a significant change. It is important to communicate the change effectively, especially when the retiring minister still attends the congregation. Because the preacher is the most publicly recognized member of the church, people may not always respect the new minister as much as they do the retiring one. Family problems and exciting news may still filter through the retiring preacher. The new minister must remember that trust and respect are earned and not assigned. He must conduct himself with patience and humility as he earns his reputation within the church.
In my case, brother Basford has been especially helpful. He frequently and publicly refers to me as “preacher.” Although the congregation is still in “transition mode,” he recognizes the importance of communicating the change himself. Just as Moses commissioned Joshua before “all the congregation” (Numbers 27:19), so also the former minister publicly acknowledging confidence in his replacement can be a tremendous benefit.
• Understand the future by means of the past. As a young minister, I must acknowledge that the retired minister knows more than I know. He knows more about the Bible and how to apply it. He knows more about the people in the congregation. He knows more about the community in which we live. In our congregation, brother Basford is more than twice my age with more than three times the amount of preaching experience. He has had a relationship with the community and congregation for more than 25 years. Furthermore, he has a long-standing personal relationship with each person and family within the church.
Although the particulars may differ from congregation to congregation, the retired minister will always know more than any newcomer who enters the church. Again, humility is essential. As the new minister, I cannot enter the work as a cowboy with “guns a blazin’ ” in an effort to “whip the church into shape” – an unfortunate attitude that some young and inexperienced ministers have. As God’s servant, I must take people where they are and lead them to where they need to be. I am merely continuing the work of my predecessor. I am planning the future by means of the past.
I have made the emphasis of my first year to learn the people. My goal has been to visit with each family within my first year. Brother Basford has proved immensely helpful by his willingness to share beneficial information and insight. Rather than being at a disadvantage, I am at a tremendous advantage. I know what has been preached and the example that has been set. I know the man who helped to shape the spiritual lives of those I serve. By learning from him, our relationship with one another is strengthened, and I am able to build relationships with members of the congregation.
• Understand the framework. The framework necessary to ensure a good relationship between a new and retired minister involves four parties: the new minister, the retired minister, the congregation, and the Lord. The new minister has the responsibility to be a “faithful man” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). Changing preachers is frightening enough, but when the new preacher lacks qualities befitting a faithful man, uneasiness results and, too frequently, leads to irresolvable issues.
The retired minister, in my opinion, has the heaviest burden to ensure a harmonious relationship. Throughout the tenure of his ministry, the congregation will adopt some of his qualities and personality. This means that whatever he emphasizes will be ingrained in the congregation. The new minister may have different emphases. He may have a different personality. It is essential for all parties to be patient as the transition is made. Give the maximum amount of latitude in areas of opinion or personal preference. With a positive attitude the new preacher will thrive as the congregation begins to fall in love with him and his family.
Ministers come and go, but congregations continue to survive. We must beware lest we overestimate the importance of preachers. We must beware lest we judge the new minister by the standard of the previous one. The preacher is never as important as what is being preached, and the work of the church is much greater than one man. Once we balance properly our work as Christians, God will bless our efforts (1 Corinthians 3:6). As Paul said, “We are God’s fellow workers” (v. 9); and as God’s fellow workers we “do all to the glory of God” (10:31).
Rick Kenyon serves as evangelist for the congregation in Thomasville, Ga. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.