Leaders Who Last: sustaining yourself and your ministry (New York, New York: Seabury Books, 2009)


Leaders Who Last is a good introduction to Family Systems or Bowen Theory. It’s easily understood. I’ve read it with the staffs of two congregations where I’ve done interim ministry. Family Systems is the best explanation I know of how groups work. For my summary of Family Systems, read this post and the five that follow: What (Who) Is the Problem? can we fix it quickly?

Here are some “mustard seeds” from this book, Leaders Who Last:

Lasting as a leader does not mean finding an easy way to do it: there is no easy way. We will always face setbacks and discouragements, and at times we will throw up our hands in despair. But as we persevere, we will also find times for satisfaction faction and celebration. (Kindle Locations 69-71).

Human systems, too, both families and larger groups, achieve a certain balance over time. There is an interdependency among the parts.When one part makes a change, even a positive change, it upsets the balance. The other parts will try to restore the balance. If a leader charts a substantive course forward, parts of the system automatically push back, attempting to restore the balance. To make real progress, one must stay on course in the face of reactions that amount to unintentional sabotage. (Kindle Locations 146-149).

It is important to remember “the presence of the past,” as scientist Rupert Sheldrake calls it. Patterns are established over time, and old problems (and old solutions) of a congregation are likely to crop up again. The past need not determine the future, but if we ignore it, we are more likely to be tripped up by it, as powerful patterns persist without our awareness. Better to be curious, to look for the threads that continue and experiment with ways we might claim and use them without being governed by them. (Kindle Locations 265-268).

Change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. As a pastor, I developed oped a mantra: “Everything takes five years.” Substantial developments in congregational life, the kind that will last, take even longer. (Kindle Locations 341-342).

When we unconsciously act from our family script, our choices are limited. It tells us how to be angry, or how to hide, or how to protect others. We learned our lines as soon as we learned to talk. (Kindle Locations 375-376).

When you are more motivated for people to change than they are, then you have a problem-and they have all the power. The more they resist, the more you get sucked in. The more energy you spend trying to change them, the more things stay the same. This is equally true in a marriage, in parenting, or in leading a choir, a church, a judicatory, or a denomination. (Kindle Locations 603-605).

Churches, like families, can view money as a weapon, as evil, as emotionally fraught, as dangerous, as scarce, as a possession. A more neutral, open view of money sees it as a resource, a tool, an opportunity, a gift. This neutrality makes it easier to make decisions that can benefit the future of the family and its members-and the church and its members. (Kindle Locations 1003-1006).

We simply have to tough it out sometimes, and remember that things will settle down if we can keep our heads. Courage does not mean we are not anxious or afraid, but that we can act in spite of our fear. Instead of being surprised by crisis, we can simply be prepared for the fact that we have a hard job, and crises are going to arise. (Kindle Locations 1201-1203).

If You Appoint a New Elder, I’ll Quit!

and that transition will happen whether I do it or not

I’ve been resigning since 1988. I’d been in Dalton, Georgia, eleven years. I was looking for another place to preach. I talked with sixteen congregations. Eight of the sixteen churches had released their preachers. In each of the eight congregations where the preacher was moving without being self-motivated, they had appointed new elders within two years or less.

I reflected. That’s not the first time I’d heard of that.

Sometimes the older elders had been considering it. When new shepherds come on board, the seasoned overseers communicate their burden with the new men, “Brethren, we want to share something that’s heavy on our hearts. We’ve been thinking for some time a change of preachers may be just what this church needs to get it going again. What do you all think?”

Generally, the newly ordained bishops are apprehensive about their responsibilities and reply, “Brethren, you certainly know better than us. We’ll cooperate with whatever you think.”

One of the interesting twists to this discussion was when one of the brothers who introduced the topic continued, “We’ll write the letter. We’ll all sign it. We’ll let one of the new men read it to the church Sunday morning because you read better than we do.”

I talked to the man who read the letter on more than one occasion about his learning experience.

Many of the preacher’s friends forgot who signed the letter. Everyone remembered who read it. Click To Tweet

They weren’t happy.

Another situation — new elders may come with the agenda that it’s time for a preacher change. Click To Tweet

Often there is non-verbal communication at first:

  1. The elders begin to exclude the preacher from their meetings.
  2. There is a salary reduction, no raise, or less of a raise than in the past.
  3. New requirements are instituted such as keeping a log of all activities, new items on the job description, and a more negative evaluation than in the past.

When these changes come to a seasoned, astute preacher, he sees the handwriting on the wall and hears the Lord calling him to a different work. That process often takes about two years of misery to complete its cycle.

During my move in 1988, I was enjoying my first computer. I decided to take notes and record observations. My “mustard seed” from this process was a decision to resign each time one or more elders were added in the congregation where I was preaching.

The opportunity came in 1995. On Father’s Day, two of the three elders resigned. We were without an eldership. We appointed four new elders November 19. None of them had ever served before. On the Wednesday night before they were ordained on Sunday, I talked with them: “I appreciate your willingness to accept leadership of this church at this critical time. One of the first decisions I want you to make is who’s going to be the preacher for this church. I’m resigning. It wouldn’t be right to impose myself on you. None of you were elders when I came. Different elderships have different ideas of who and what a preacher should be. I’ll bring you a letter of resignation.

“I would like to apply to be the next preacher for Berry’s Chapel. I love the church and like the people. But, you have my resignation. It was my idea — not yours. If you think in two or three years you want to change preachers but don’t want to upset the people now, let’s do it now. They’re already upset. Please let me know when you decide.”

Not long after they were appointed, we met and they asked me to be the preacher for Berry’s Chapel. We discussed my job description, contract, and our relationship. We recorded our agreements, signed them, and distributed copies to each person in the group.

Three years later, another elder was added to the group. I resigned again.

A few years later, we added three more elders. The first leadership meeting with the new elders, someone said, “This is Jerrie’s night to resign.” He was correct. I meant each resignation.

During one of my interims, a new elder was added. The next meeting of the elders and preachers I turned in my written resignation along with a request to finish the interim. They asked me to stay. The new group of elders and I discussed our relationship and how we would work with each other.

In every situation, I would have cooperated in every way if they had wanted to change preachers. If that is the wisdom of the elders, there is no point in aggravating each other two years, ending in anger and frustration.

There’s a new relationship each time the group changes. Click To Tweet

We can acknowledge it, discuss it, and consider how we can or cannot work together and proceed according to the wisdom God gives us from those prayers and discussions. Or we can silently watch the group change three or four times over several years assuming everything is the same because I have a contract with a group of men who are no longer here and wonder what happened.

Here is the substance of the resignation letter:

Since we have a new eldership, I submit my resignation as the interim preacher for this congregation. This is a different eldership from the one that selected me a year ago. I think each eldership should select a preacher that works best with them. Should you choose to accept this resignation, I will cooperate with you in every way. This is my idea.

I would like to apply for the position of interim minister working with the new eldership. Gail and I have enjoyed our time here and we have learned to love and appreciate you. I have never worked with a more cooperative eldership and congregation.

Please let me know when you decide. I will cooperate either way.

The general rule is that family rules are unconscious, unspoken, but understood. I think it’s better to think about our rules and relationships, discuss them, and know what to expect of each other.

My choice to encourage that discussion has been to resign as the preacher, apply for the new relationship, and respect the choice of the eldership.

How have you handled transitions in elder-preacher relationships?

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Releasing Your Preacher and Quickly Replacing Him

how often do you want to enjoy a preacher search?

A few months ago, within a short time, I received two emails from good elder friends. One had, and the other was about to release his preacher and start the selection process. Each asked for men to contact for their next preacher. Here’s the email I sent:


  1. When will your preacher be informed of his dismissal?
  2. Will Sunday be his goodbye sermon?
  3. Have you considered that quickly getting a new preacher gives you a high probability of having an unintentional interim?

Here’s what I’ve observed in fifty-five years of ministry, by following a long-tenured preacher, and working with congregations in intentional interim ministry for nine years:

The general rule is after a long ministry (five years or more) a church will have an interim minister — either an intentional or unintentional minister. The next preacher will stay a short time. If he is an unintentional interim (he thought he was coming for a settled ministry), it will be a time of misery. He’ll be compared to the previous preacher. He’ll not be like the previous preacher. It’ll be an impossible job description.

I’ve served both as an intentional and an unintentional interim. I can assure you intentional is much preferred. The five most depressing years of my fifty-five years of preaching were following a preacher who stayed a long time and was released by the elders — not to his desire and a large part of the congregation. The congregation was stuck in grief, confusion, and resentment. I bore the brunt of something I had nothing to do with except I happened to be the next preacher. It’s now worth it. I had an opportunity to experience what I’d read in books about being a preacher following a long ministry. But the pain was real and sustained while I was learning the lesson.

People are often concerned about the widow or widower who starts dating after the sudden death of a spouse. People aren’t machines.
[tweetthis]For a good new relationship, there needs to be a time of grieving over the past relationship.[/tweetthis]

See two blog posts relating to the interim concept:

  1. How Long Will it Take?
  2. How Can We Improve Without Changing?

The rule of thumb is there should be one month of interim ministry for each year of ministry of the previous preacher.

My advice for preacher friends who follow a long-term preacher with no intentional interim period: “You need to understand part of your job description is being unfavorably compared to the previous preacher in preaching, teaching, dress, visitation, name memory, and the way he related to people. It’ll be done repeatedly for ten years. If you can endure that for ten years, it’ll get slightly better during the next five years.”

There are exceptions to the rule. But from my experience, it’s the rule:

[tweetthis]The preacher who quickly follows a long-term preacher will have a short and painful tenure.[/tweetthis]

One of my most productive interims in the past nine years was with a congregation who tried the immediate replacement plan with two preachers following the retirement of their long-term preacher. After much pain, and a split, they decided an interim was worth the time and money. I worked with them twenty-three months. They now have a good preacher. They are at peace and reaching their community.

When you get ready to look for a preacher, Don Viar has the best material I’ve read on the preacher search. Note this post on his website: Sometimes an Interim Is Better Than a Hire.

Don has other resources that can be helpful: www.ministermatch.com.

When you get ready for the search, his book has a good plan: The Search Committee Handbook.

Please pray, think, and look at options before you immediately do what you’ve always done.

Here’s more information on the interim concept and process: Between Preachers Blog.

What have you found helpful during a preacher transition?

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