Acts chapter 20 contains the Apostle Paul's only farewell sermon. For three years, Paul worked hard to build up the church at Ephesus. In verse 25, Paul tells them that he is really leaving and they will not see him again.
I remember what the Bishop at my ordination as an Elder said, "the preachers should really leave when they move and churches should really let the preachers go when they left." The lack of practicing such good etiquette continues to trouble many pastors and churches.
Reading one chapter from the late Bishop Harmon's book, Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette might benefit every pastor. It will definitely help those who are moving as well as the health of our present and former appointments. I dare not assume that everyone has read this book or desires to buy it. So, I will share some of the Bishop's exhortations in chapter four concerning duties to one's predecessor and to one's successor.
Almost every year as we approach moving day, some clergy are heard sharing their stories. Much of this "shop talk" concerns how the health of their or someone else's appointment was damaged by poor clergy etiquette. I've heard many of these stories over these twenty years of pastoral ministry. If I remembered and wrote down every one of them, you would find a multi-volume work at the Cokesbury table during Annual Conference. I could throw in a few of my own stories for good measure. Then we could wallow as victims together.
However, I do not see anywhere in the Bible where we are permitted to adopt a victim mentality. So, let us consider what the dear Bishop says for us concerning this important matter of clergy etiquette. It is important and imperative for us as clergy to take some responsibility for the healthiness of our own appointment and ministry and for others within our connection by practicing good etiquette.
Duty to the Predecessor
* Recognize that at first your work will reap what others have sown.
* Endeavor to carry out ministries, methods, and plans already in place.
* It will do no good, but actual harm to inaugurate immediately sweeping changes in order to let the people know that the new pastor is at the helm. After one gets to know the lay of the land, the needed changes for the best will be much clearer.
* Deal gently with your predecessor's special friends. They are in a time of grieving.
* Remember that those who so freely discuss their dislikes of your predecessor will give a similar introduction to your successor.
* Do not let anyone hear you build yourself up by running your predecessor down.
* Nothing worries a pastor more than for a former pastor to meddle with the affairs of his pastorate. This is a breach of etiquette on the part of the predecessor. Bishop Harmon advises the current pastor to discern the former person's motives. If it is intentional meddling, then it may be necessary for the pastor to be perfectly frank with pastors who interfere and then let know in plain words that they are no longer in charge and their visits, phone calls, and/or letters are not welcomed.
Duty to the Successor
* According to Bishop Harmon, the unanimous voice of pastors asserts that it is a prime duty of every outgoing pastor to meet with and advise the new person of local conditions. Advising the new pastor is best done by a broad survey of the field and its work. If time permits, details may be discussed. At the same time, the outgoing pastor should be on guard less he or she seems to be directing the new pastor's future work.
Some pastors of the older school do not consider the advice above wise. However, if there are hidden rocks in the channel, the new pilot should be apprised of them. There are some things, though, which every pastor should be allowed to find out for himself or herself.
Give your successor a good "send off" with the people. The tone and the content of the comments you make about your successor will largely determine the welcome he or she receives. It will also have a powerful influence upon the entire history of the person's pastoral ministry there.
If fears or doubts about the successor are made even to discreet friends, the brother or sister comes with a mountain of prejudice to scale and silent opposition to conquer.
* Above all, when a pastor leaves a charge, let him or her leave it. No pastor should be constantly going back to gossip with the members or hear comments on the work of the new pastor. Great harm has been done in this way by some pastors. "Get out and stay out" is the injunction here.
* Handle the difficult question of requests from former parishioners to return and officiate at a wedding, or to conduct a funeral by requesting that such invitations be extended through the new pastor. On the other hand, it is considered "positively reprehensible for an ex-pastor to take advantage of his or her personal attachments to secure the honor of doing marriages or funerals in his former charges."
* The breaking of the pastoral ties is not light matter. Often pastors and their families make friends and form connections which transcend the pastoral tie and which only death may dissolve. It would give much pain and add nothing special to the glory of the church were such ties to be severed when the pastor moves. If he or she is tactful, a former pastor will know how to continue as a friend and yet cease to be pastor.
* It is considered unethical for a pastor on leaving a charge to leave the parsonage property in other than first-class condition, with all dirt, rubbish, etc., removed. Common courtesy to his successor demands the observance of the golden rule.
As with the Paul's ministry with the church at Ephesus, so it is with any pastor's ministry. You never know exactly what will happen after you leave. In my pastoral experience, I've found it best to follow Paul's example in Acts 20 by commending everyone to God and to the Word of God's grace-the Bible. In some charges I feel free to say, "after moving day I will always be your friend, but I will no longer be your pastor." In other charges, I've felt led to say that only to a few but only commend the entire congregation as Paul did. In a few, charges, the Holy Spirit has only led me to share Paul's word from Acts 20, shake the dust off my feet in private and leave.
May this outline of exhortations for preceding and succeeding pastors from Bishop Harmon's book give you wisdom that will benefit the health of our covenant relationship as clergy, the health of the congregations we share in pastoral ministry, and truly reflect our covenant relationship with Jesus Christ.
Rev. John Marshall Crowe, D.Min.