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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14 thoughts on “If You Appoint a New Elder, I’ll Quit!

  1. Excellent article. I appreciate the insight; especially the thought that even with the addition of one new elder, that particular eldership did not hire the current preacher as such. This philosophy takes faith, courage, and humility, but may very well save much conflict in the future.

  2. Craig,

    Thank you.

    This approach has served me well and, I think, the churches where I’ve served. It has clarified our relationship.

  3. Jerri, though you did not say it, this approach has the added of advantage of retaining a level of control over your life. This is important. I remember a mentor who, upon moving to our congregation, began building a house. An Elder, who was frequently wont to remind preachers that they served at his pleasure, told him: “Well, I guess you are planning to stay.” My mentor replied: “My bags are always ready to be packed, but until I use them, I’ll need a place to live. That’s why I’m building a house.”

    The problem with the approach you suggest is that too many preachers live entirely too close to the margins financially (we’re not alone. Most everyone lives close the first 20 years of their employment — some longer). This move you suggest cannot be a bluff. You must follow through if they take you up on your resignation and refuse to re-hire you. Which leads me to this piece of advice: The preacher must aim for financial independence. He must be able to walk, and willing. Once you are able to do this, it’s surprising how little you need to fear doing it.

    There is another issue: Preachers who have a bit of tenure with a congregation are often the most valuable source of institutional knowledge in the church. When there is an Eldership transition/shake-up, the preacher provides for a continuity of leadership in the family. Preachers are not shepherds, but there is nothing an Elder is called on to do in shepherding (biblically anyway) that a preacher is not called on to do — we just call it “being a preacher” rather than “being a shepherd.” In that sense, preachers are a part of the leadership in the congregation — though not Elders — and if we are doing our job, the family will not flounder in heavy seas. Probably your resignation should come a while after the transition when the waters are calmer, and be a private discussion between just the preacher and the Elders (perhaps you said that and I missed it).

    I appreciate your comments and work. They are a valuable part of the on-going discussion about the role of leadership (and preachers in particular) in the church.

    • Mike,

      Thank you for taking the time to write and post your response.

      You are correct. There are many facets to this process.

      I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow my example and go to a new elders meeting and resign Wednesday night. If it’s done, it should be with much thought and prayer, understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

      I appreciate you discussing the implications of this. You are on target with your observations.

  4. That practice would seem to require the preacher to have faith that God will provide for his family no matter the elders’ decision. It would seem to require great courage and submission. It would seem to require a tremendous amount of selflessness, putting the good of the congregation before self. Thank you for sharing your blog. You are very wise.

    • Chris,

      You are correct. There is a risk.

      Mike Tune makes the point in another comment, it’s good to establish an emergency fund to help provide in time unexpected lack.

      At one congregation, the elders wanted me and my family to make up the budget shortfall by taking a cut in our income of several thousand dollars. I told them I was willing to increase my contribution, along with others when they made that need known to the congregation. However, if they wanted me to make up the entire amount, I assured them I had a place to live, a place to store my furniture, and enough money in the bank to hire a mover to leave town.

      The tone of the conversation changed. All bullies are not on the playground.

  5. I was visiting with a friend awhile back, who had been our County Sheriff. He had been a deputy for several years, the Sheriff he worked under retired. He then ran for the office, against one of his fellow deputies and as local politics go, the race got a little heated. Some of the other deputies took sides. My friend won and served for four years. He was telling me one regret he had was that he didn’t fire everyone, had them re-apply and re-hire them. That way they would have been “his” employees and not his predecessors. Kind of fits with your resigning, re-applying and being re-hired by the new eldeship.

    • Jerry,

      It’s the same principle.

      We assume everybody understands the rules, thinks like we think, and understand multiple, complicated relationships.

      Assuming isn’t good communication.

      Thank you for sharing this illustration of the same dynamic in the blog today.

  6. I certainly understand your thinking, but this should also operate in the opposite way. If an existing eldership is increasing in size, the man/men coming on board should be agreeing to accept what is in place unless there is a problem. It seems to me that what is outlined in this article puts all the responsibility on the preacher, never the elder, and that is hardly the “golden rule” in action. In my judgment you went WELL BEYOND what is required, but some elders also had the opportunity to short change you and your family on many occasions.

    • I appreciate your comments.

      It’s good when everybody has this discussion at the same time.

      However, I am 100% responsible for my communication with you.

      You are 100% responsible for your communication with me.

      If we both are committed to that, we can both fail 50% of the time and still have 100% communication.

      I think it is good to have this discussion at the beginning of leadership relationships (elders, deacons, teachers, preachers):
      1. How long do you plan to stay in this ministry.
      2. How do you plan to leave?

      Many mar years of ministry by the way they leave. We need to commit to leaving, or continuing, with the best interest of the church in mind.

  7. I have actually been the “full time preacher” for three congregations but have worked with several others on a kind of interim basis. I have always loved working with mission type of works including foreign. There are always signs that indicate there needs to be a change. The last was my failing heart. In retirement I was encouraged to become the Senior Saints Minister and I did that for 5 years. At age 75 I still occasionally preach but don’t have the strength to work full time or to do mission work in India.
    I would rather preach Jesus than anything that I have ever done. Each of the places where I did work seem to still love me though I did leave them. How and when you resign a work is very important as you look to a eternal relation with them in the future.

    • Paul,

      Thank you for your service.

      You make a good point of keeping a good relationship with our brethren at all times.

  8. Another practical post Jerrie. The eldership at my first work changed 4 times in 10 years, and not always smoothly. I handled it as well as I knew how in each instance but I could’ve used this article around 2004. Haha thanks for the insights.

    • Much of my education came from the University of Hard Knocks. That’s where I get the material for these posts.