Following a Long-Serving Leader

July 12, 2015 No Comments »
Following a Long-Serving Leader

By Dr. Bill Patterson

Consider the following scenario: You are asked to teach a Bible class for your church. The request fulfills your heart’s desire. It seems God trained you for the task by deepening your understanding of his Word over the years and by increasing your love for people you’ve been asked to teach. In the current leader’s absence, you have taught before and loved it. However there is one caveat: the beloved, three-decades-long leader retiring from teaching the class will continue to attend. Will you accept this position? 

Whether the situation is in church, at your place of employment, or in a community position, the question remains: what do you do when following a long-serving leader?

A Biblical Example: What to Do

Scripture holds many examples—some good and some bad—of stepping in when a longtime leader steps down. For instance, Joshua followed Moses. Moses had led the children of Israel for 40 years. He had challenged Pharaoh with God’s words: “Let my people go.” He had successfully led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the desert, in receiving the Ten Commandments, and to the border of the promised land. In good times and in bad, Moses led them well. Plus he was the only leader the new generation had known. A humble man with great leadership skills and a deep prayer life, Moses was a leader like no other. Who would dare follow such a man as Moses? But God called Joshua to do exactly that. 

The Bible only records positive things about Joshua. A man of faith, Joshua apparently had learned much from his mentor, Moses. Joshua also led with humility. He knew when to call the people to make clear decisions for the Lord (Joshua 24). When asking commitment of the people, Joshua preceded the request with his own commitment (v. 15). In other words, he didn’t ask the people to do what he himself would not do. He learned prayer from his teacher too. The Bible depicts Joshua praying about decisions. In short, Joshua learned much from Moses. He never criticized Moses before the people but gave proper honor. 

A Biblical Example: What Not to Do

On the other hand, consider the example of Rehoboam. His father, Solomon, had successfully followed Rehoboam’s grandfather, King David, on the throne of Israel. A man of great wisdom, Solomon formed strategic alliances, built the temple, and increased wealth and trade across Israel. Under Solomon’s leadership the country held the most territory it would ever own. Solomon didn’t always act as he should, however. He hoarded wealth for himself, increased the tax and service burdens of the people, and, in his later years, even built places of worship for foreign gods. 

Rehoboam became king after Solomon. Rather than listen to the wise men of the day to “lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and . . . be kind to these people” (2 Chronicles 10:4-7), Rehoboam chose to crack down harder than ever on the people. As a result, they rebelled against him and the country split into two kingdoms. The division remained for hundreds of years, caused immense suffering for the Israelites, and made it very difficult for those in the northern kingdom to follow the Lord. This happened because Rehoboam, in his pride, refused to listen to the advice of able counselors. 

From Rehoboam we learn that there are times when changes must be made from the practices of longtime leaders. Following the Lord is key. It is as wrong to blindly stay with past ways as it is to blindly change past ways. Learning from predecessors, listening to able counselors, and keeping our hearts attuned to the Lord are all necessary.

The Other Side of the Story

When people speak highly of a past leader, the present leader can feel threatened. A seminary professor counseled, “Don’t feel threatened by some previous minister. Remember, these people served the church for years. They celebrated with families at their weddings and births and graduations. They counseled with families and ministered to them during sicknesses and funerals. Remember that if the people loved them, given time they will also love you.” 

Those words have encouraged me over 40 years of ministry. I have learned to rejoice with folks when they compliment a former minister, knowing that if I faithfully follow the Lord and serve the people, they will compliment me one day.

Many of us have heard horror stories about following an entrenched leader. Usually those stories describe how the longtime leader inserted himself or herself into present activities in such a way as to inhibit growth or to make the current leader look bad.

Let me give the other side of the story. I’ve had the privilege of following five long-serving leaders who carried the title “emeritus”—four in a church setting and one in a different organization. I know it took work from both sides, but I can honestly say I have benefitted greatly from following each of these men, learning from each of them, and having their assistance both in personal and organizational growth.

One thing that helped was knowing these leaders genuinely wanted the best for the people they led. They wouldn’t have given so many years of their lives if they had not. I made it a practice to personally visit each predecessor either before I began my position or during my first week. I befriended them. I sought their advice.

Whether in a church or a volunteer organization, these practices are helpful.

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due 

The apostle Paul counsels us to give honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7). Each time I had a chance to lift up previous leaders or their work before the people, I did it. I also offered the opportunity for the predecessors to speak, if they desired, when I was out for vacation or when church anniversaries occurred. The people saw that I wasn’t jealous of previous ministers when they conducted a funeral or wedding or when they spoke before the church. The congregations learned by those actions that the church is God’s church and we are all working to build it. The workers change but the work continues. That is as true in the business world as in the church.

I became the beneficiary of the service and expertise of former leaders. Frankly I hadn’t learned how to do funerals at seminary. When I saw how expertly two of my predecessors conducted funerals, I asked their advice and began incorporating their procedures to show love and care to hurting families. Also I learned how to bless fellow ministers who unexpectedly showed up at services. And I benefitted both by my predecessors’ teaching and by their encouragement of others.

Before any significant changes, I sought the advice of my forerunners. Knowing that change in any organization is a time of potential backlash, I made it a practice to talk with the leader emeritus to seek advice. For instance, when one church outgrew the sanctuary, I asked advice before beginning two services. Later when a committee determined we needed additional Sunday school space and a new fellowship hall capable of seating more people, I sought counsel from two predecessors before moving forward. They advised to add plenty of bathrooms and to keep the new building looking similar to the old—and they were right on both counts. Once the committee incorporated their solid advice, the church acted with confidence, knowing not just today’s generation but retired leaders from two previous generations favored the plans.

Some might consider seeking the advice of predecessors as another hoop to jump through. I saw it as honoring others (Romans 12:10) and felt privileged to benefit from their wise counsel. I knew any progress made under my leadership was built upon the backs of those who went before me. The previous leaders had given the best years of their lives in service. I wasn’t about to forget them. In short, I determined to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). I found the Golden Rule not only blessed my predecessors but, through them, blessed me and the work of God as well. 

I hope you see that my experiences can apply not only in the church but in leadership roles in the business world, in community councils, and in many other settings. We never go wrong when we treat our predecessors right. 

Dr. Bill Patterson is a minister and freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.

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