The Problem of Replacing One Sinner with Another

A pastor is a sinner who, having been saved by the grace of God, has been called and equipped to lead the people of God, preaching the Word and equipping the saints.  How’s that for a definition?

We don’t necessarily think of a pastor as a sinner, unless we had a pastor who sinned against us or fell into some kind of scandalous sin.  Otherwise, we have this persistent notion that the pastor is above the world, untouched by the feeling of our infirmities, unvarnished by the sins that so easily beset us.

This view of the person of the pastor is false.  We know this.  A church is a body of sinners.  The pastor belongs to that body.  There may be times when we are more aware of his fallenness – like when he steps on our toes.  But we know – at least in theory – that  he is in our same condition in most ways.

But in a good relationship between pastor and church, we might forget that the pastor is a man, and a fallen one at that.  For mysterious reasons, when the pastor is ready to hand over leadership and end his ministry to our church, we tend to forget his faults and promote him to sainthood.  Woe unto the next pastor in such cases.  His every move will be scrutinized and he will be measured endlessly against his predecessor, Pastor Donowrong.  Frankly, this is unrealistic and wrongheaded.

In my introductory article on churches in transition, I pointed out that when a church changes leadership, the leadership passes from one sinner to another.  This is fundamental doctrine, and should not require a detailed defense.  The fallen nature of man is as foundational to the Christian faith as the deity of Christ or the unity of the Godhead.  Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rails?

Here’s the problem: we expect our pastors to be “above the fray.”  Some of that expectation comes from our fascination with power, and the fact that some pastors are impressive and powerful men to begin with.  Blame it on our humanity, but we tend to think that power means perfection.  Too often, we think of the pastor as if he has a walk with God not available to the average Christian, as if he had already attained.  We are shocked to learn that he even has faults.

Some of our expectations about the pastor come from the pastor’s presentation of himself.  The pastor himself may believe that he cannot ever let anyone know about his faults.  In order to conceal the ugly truth, pastors fake it.  This can lead to disaster – be sure your sin will find you out.  But some men are better than others at concealing their faults, and so the church will not be made aware of the problems in a man’s life and ministry.  This is an unhelpful reality in too many churches.

Over years, a church grows accustomed to a pastor’s faults, which helps foster these delusions about our pastors.  Because we love our pastor, and because we try to be gracious, we get used to overlooking those faults and sometimes even excusing them.

Enter the new pastor.  He has faults, the former pastor has faults.  But his faults have become part of the woodwork, and nobody notices anymore.  The new guy on the other hand, his faults are all fresh and unfamiliar, and the church notices these.  Especially if he is replacing a well-loved, well-respected pastor, the new pastor will find himself under a microscope.

What then is a church to do?

First, Keep Things in Perspective

If we enter a leadership transition looking for Pastor Perfect, we will be sadly disappointed.  Every pastor has his own set of sins that are unique to himself.  Brace yourself.  Don’t look for his faults, but when you find them, don’t be surprised or shattered by it.

Secondly, Recognize That Temptations Change

Seasoned pastors have a unique set of temptations that are very different than those a new pastor will face.  The new pastor has temptations unique to his new position; the entrenched pastor has temptations unique to his longevity.  Older men are tempted one way, younger men another.  Martin Luther has been quoted saying that a young man is tempted by girls, a middle-aged man by gold, an older man by glory.  Sometimes we overcome our temptations, sometimes we simply outgrow them.  Our temptations may not be constant, but temptation certainly is.  We are always tempted, but not always the same way.  We can expect, in a leadership transition, that new temptations will creep in all around.

Thirdly, Be Gracious

Extend the same kind of grace to the pastor that you would want extended to you.

For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

Pastors sometimes hold a double-standard.  But the double-standard is not a pastor-only problem.  Church members also hold the occasional double-standard.  In truth, the pew is often as guilty as the pulpit.  We are commanded to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  This means, among other things, that we ought to judge Scripturally rather than preferentially.  we must have a true standard, which would be God’s Word.  When we find fault in our pastor, we have some Scriptural responsibilities.  The Bible is not silent in such cases. Galatians 6:1 gives a general command in any case when a brother is overtaken in a fault.  I Timothy 5:1 gives a more specific command regarding pastors who sin.

…ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; (I Timothy 5:1)

These are not options or suggestions for dealing with sin in the pastor.  These are commands.  One sin is not corrected by another; nor does one sin give us an indulgence to commit another.

Fourthly, Respect the New Pastor

Respect takes time to earn.  Recognize that.  But it shouldn’t take time for us to give respect to a new pastor, even when it has not been earned.  Respect the office, and learn to respect the man.

Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. (Hebrews 13:7)

You cannot claim to respect the office when you clearly disrespect the man.

Part of respecting the pastor involves understanding his role in your life.  God calls a pastor to live among his people, and sometimes that means we see things we did not want to see.  Recognize that his battles will help you with yours, so long as he approaches his own Scripturally.  We do not want a pastor who has no conflict with temptation or sin.  Such a pastor cannot guide us, encourage us, lead us, or help us with our own struggles.  Pastors learn how to fight against sin in the arena, not in the study.

The man in the arena is likely to have a little mud and maybe even a little blood on himself.  The guy with the clean uniform at the end of the game didn’t play.  When your pastor comes out with his hair messed up, understand that he has been in a battle.  This is good.

Finally, Pray for Your Pastor and Encourage Him

Certainly, there are times when we must sit in judgment.  But those times are thankfully very rare.  In most of our interactions with people, we should behave as those who will be judged, not as those who must judge.  In the past century, we have become much more casual towards authority, and as our culture has become more egalitarian, we have made every effort to free ourselves from our obligations towards authority.  These things ought not to be.  We must act in a Scriptural way towards the pastor, just as he must act in a Scriptural way towards us.

Leadership transitions in a church become difficult when we forget this simple truth – that taking a new pastor means taking a new set of flaws, faults, and failures.  It is no good to expect the new pastor to be what the old pastor wasn’t – which is to say, without sin.

A First Take on Churches in Transition

Every church will face a time of transition – a change in pastoral leadership – at some point in their history. Though transitions in leadership provide a church with an opportunity for growth and blessing, navigating these transitions can be like running a gauntlet.

The Bible is not silent on the issue of leadership change. In the weeks ahead, I hope to outline a Scriptural approach to this most important issue. To begin with, I have five thoughts which I hope to develop more fully in the future.

First, transitions pass leadership from one sinner to another

We know this fundamentally, but we forget about it practically. Churches believe and teach the fallen nature of man as foundational to the Christian faith. Why then are we surprised when someone goes off the rail? When problems surface in the process, we have a sin problem. Every person from pew to pulpit, from pastor to pastor, must recognize the temptations unique to his role in the transition.

Secondly, the church is still God’s church

Forgotten in the process of passing leadership from one man to another is the idea that the pastor is a steward. When stewardship passes from one leader to another, both men must remember that they are but servants. The Master has not changed. Christ is still head of the church. As head of the church, God has determined to bring some changes to His church. This is intentional. We should recognize God’s hand in bringing about this change, and we should rejoice and be glad. We must trust the Lord to lead the new pastor as we trusted Him to lead the old, and we must not hold stubbornly to the old ways of doing things.

Thirdly, we must learn the virtue of forbearance

God knows we will have plenty of opportunity. Forbearance requires patience and longsuffering, a restraint of our own passions and an indulgence towards those who slight us or injure us. There will be perceived slights and actual slights once the “honeymoon” period is over and the reality of the transition sets in. Every person involved in the transition must determine to “let all your things be done with charity.” As I Corinthians 13 teaches us, charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Charity teaches us to think the best of others, rather than assuming the worst. This will be a necessity if we want a change in leadership to bless the church.

Fourthly, transitions can demonstrate that we take humility seriously

Many a pastor has declared that the church can survive without you. God doesn’t need any of us: He chooses to work through earthen vessels. When leadership passes from the pastor to a new leader, the pastor finds himself at the receiving end of that maxim. He will be thoroughly tested on that point. Did he believe that for others only, or does he also believe that for himself? The old pastor has a pretty simple duty: get out of the way. Christ is still head of the church. On the other hand, the new pastor must not allow pride of position to cause him to think of himself more highly than he ought. He must study to avoid novice pitfalls, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.”

Finally, we must concern ourselves with the enemy under our own skin

While Satan provides us with a convenient scapegoat, in leadership transitions Satan only needs to appeal to our own baser natures. Self is our great enemy. Selfishness and self-centeredness are the ruin of a good transition, and we must guard against our self above all else. When we scrutinize each other rather than ourselves, problems will follow. Paradoxical though it seems, we defeat our selfish concerns by being concerned with ourselves. In a sense, self-concern is inescapable. We must be concerned about our own selfish nature. We must not concern ourselves with slights and injuries against our person.

In the weeks ahead, I hope to expand on these ideas. But above all else, for a change in leadership to bless a church, we must concern ourselves first with the glory of God and the honor of His name. If we will obey the first two commandments – love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves – then a transition can be a blessing.