Why Churches Love Their Former Pastors So Much

Why Churches Love Their Former Pastors So Much

“Most churches are two pastors behind in their appreciation.” –Ron Lewis (taken from David Chancey’s response at the end of this article)

A cartoon shows a weary, embattled pastor standing beside a statue of a man on a horse. The sign at the base reads, “Our former pastor.” The preacher is saying, “Most popular guy in town.”

“They sure do love you here.”

The host pastor was talking to a former pastor, then the president of a theological seminary and celebrated as a distinguished denominational leader. They’d invited him back for a special day, a homecoming or something. Everyone was excited to see him and to hear him preach. The attendance was good.

The distinguished guest looked at his host and said, “Really? Did they tell you that?”

“Uh, yeah. They say they really do.”

“Listen,” said the seminary president. “That monument they built to me was made from the stones they threw at me.”

They threw stones at the preacher? And now they’re saying how much they love him?

Yep. Ask any veteran pastor.

You serve a number of years at a church and have the typical experience of good and bad times. You are loved by some and despised by others. It’s life. It happens. And then, eventually, you retire or move on to another church. After a few years and a couple of pastors, they invite you back for some big occasion. And to hear them tell it, yours were the glory years for that church. Those were the best times, you had assembled the greatest staff, everything was perfect back when you were here. They rave about all the inspiring sermons you preached and the unforgettable moments in the history of the church.

That’s what they say. And, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they probably mean it.

They suffer from a poor memory.

And that’s not entirely bad. So, don’t misunderstand me here. We would just as soon forget some of those slings and arrows from those years ourselves. And we will not fault the members for doing the same.

But there’s an insincerity about it. The present pastor sometimes suffers by comparison with the false memory of our years in that church. And that’s why we’re commenting on it today.

Before analyzing why churches play this little game—idolizing the pastor more in memory than when he was on the scene—we need to admit two obvious things here…

Some churches love all their pastors, period. They honor them while they are present and love them just as sincerely after they depart. The new preacher is loved and honored to the full extent the old one was loved. These churches are the exception, sad to say. Testimony: In my experience, the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, comes as close to perfection in this way as it’s possible to get. They loved J.D. Franks (1921-1946), loved S. R. Woodson (1946-1972), loved McKeever (1974-1986), loved Bobby Douglas (1987-2002, I guess) and they love Shawn Parker (2004 to the present). That speaks far more of the church than the preachers, although these are all excellent servants of God, with the possible one exception.

And, some churches have little use for the former preachers. After he leaves, he is history. I have served a couple of those. For reasons of their own, the leadership (and I suspect the subsequent pastors) chose to have no further contact. One of those churches I served faithfully during seminary. We had an amazing three years there. Many years later, when they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a large bash, even though I was the oldest living pastor and was only 10 miles away and would have enjoyed being a part of the events, I heard not a word from them.

However, those are exceptions. Most churches seem to exaggerate their love and appreciation for the “dearly departed” (said tongue in cheek) preachers. The question is why.

So, let’s get to it. Why do churches love their ex-pastors so much?

From my experience, here are some of the reasons…

It’s safer. The present pastor is the one they have to sit across the table from and work with on various projects, the one they have to listen to Sunday after Sunday. But you are here for today only. Your preaching will be a nice change. So, while they would think long and hard about vowing undying love to the present pastor, they have no trouble expressing their devotion to you. There are no strings attached and you will not be around to make them back up their words with action.

It’s easier. It’s cheaper and costs nothing. It takes little effort, and frankly, is meaningless.

It’s deceptive. Saying how much they loved you deceives them into thinking they supported you from the beginning. If they give you their heartfelt appreciation now, perhaps you will forget what they said when you were here.

It’s a trap. In a sense, it seems to give them a license not to love the present guy. In the same way an old love from college days may seem a better choice than the spouse we ended up with—a dangerous kind of deception, believe me!—people do that to preachers. They remember poorly, and grab anything they can to compare the present pastor unfavorably.

I said to a pastor who had succeeded me, “These people seem to remember me as a fundraiser. But if they ever tell you the church had no money problems when Joe was pastor, they’re suffering from a bad memory. We had the same issues every other church experiences!” He laughed, and probably found it out.

Such protestations of love are falsehoods. But they’re mostly harmless, so we will let them go. We former pastors will thank those who express their love to us even if they are exaggerating the impact of our ministry. We will greet the old men, hug the old ladies, and ooh and ahh over the babies. Then we will get in our car and drive home.

As we arrive back at home, we will give thanks to the Lord for the years in that church, give Him praise for getting us through them, and exalt Him forever for getting us out of there!

Please smile, and don’t take any of this little discussion too seriously. It’s perfectly fine to honor the former pastor and say nice things to him. Just don’t fail to love and honor the present guy who is bearing the burdens of leadership at the moment.

This article originally appeared here.

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Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever has been a believer over 60 years, has been preaching the Gospel over 50 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian Publications over 40 years. He lives in New Orleans.