The summer of 2011 I started a role at a church that was paying the previous youth minister’s way through seminary. He had only been at the church a few years, but he made quite an impact. Even though he was in school, he seemed to always be around. A few times a semester he would pop in to give a report on how school was going. He and his family would spend vacations nearby and always made a point to stop by. Whenever he was in town he’d get a group of kids to go to lunch or hang out at someone’s house after church, and it drove me nuts. Part of me was jealous of the relationships he had with students that I was having a hard time making headway with, and another part of me just wished that he’d use the relational capitol he had with them to encourage them to give me a chance. After a few years the students who knew him best graduated, and the ministry grew enough that only a small percentage of students knew who he was, but I still resented him.
Last summer I left that church to take another. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t interfere with my successor’s ministry, and have tried to have minimal contact with my former students, but it isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. A few weeks ago I got a call from a former student who was struggling. He hasn’t been involved in the church since I left, and has no relationship with the guy who came after me (who is doing an incredible job BTW). I asked him if he had reached out to the new guy, and his response to me was, “he is not my pastor, you are, and I need your help.” In about thirty seconds the resentment and frustration I had harbored for my predecessor dissipated. I met the former student for coffee, prayed with and for him, and I encouraged him to get back involved in the student ministry at my former church. He did not, but he did show up at my new church last Sunday morning.
In seminary I was taught the concept of “courteous finality;” the idea is basically that when you say goodbye, you really say goodbye. But how do we do that? How do you honor someone else’s ministry, while still trying to be all things to all people? As I’ve been praying through and processing these things, here are a few questions I have been asking myself:
Does this relationship meet my needs or theirs?
Ministry is lonely, especially in a new place. We are drawn to the comfortable familiarity of people we share inside jokes and powerful memories with, but just because it refreshes me, doesn’t mean I am supposed to be involved.
Am I really needed, or do I need to feel needed?
If a senior leader of the church doesn’t reach out to me about an issue, they probably don’t need my input on it. Just because I like to be asked doesn’t mean that my opinion is needed.
How would I feel if I was the other pastor?
As thrilled as I am that a fifteen year old likes me more than the new guy, I probably shouldn’t have the conversation if I wouldn’t want my predecessor having the it.
Is the Kingdom of God stronger or weaker by my involvement?
If there is a death or a tragedy, and I show up, is the church (not a specific church, but THE church) going to be strengthened by my presence? If not, why should I go?
Here are a few practical things I am doing to keep myself in check:
I champion the new guy, always.
This is easy, because he is awesome. If a former student ever hears me disparage my successor, I hurt both of our reputations.
I don’t reach out.
I’ll like something on Instagram, but I am not going to send a text about it. If a student or their parent reaches out to me I’ll have a conversation, but I won’t start one.
I focus on where I am.
It is impossible to be in two places at the same time. I know that I cannot lead and serve the people that God has called me to in the place where I am if I am focusing my time and attention on the place I was.
As I navigate this territory I am grateful for the graciousness of the pastor that replaced me, and the affection of the students who still consider me to be their pastor, but I am also excited that there is a day rapidly approaching when his students will have no idea who I am.
Andrew grew up in Safety Harbor Florida and is a proud graduate of Clearwater Christian College and Dallas Theological Seminary. After serving in student ministry for nearly 15 years, Andrew and his family returned to Safety Harbor to be the pastor. Andrew and his wife Melissa have four young sons.