Reflections of a Former Senior Pastor

From 1980-2017, I had the honor of serving as the Senior Pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC) in McLean, VA., in the suburbs of Washington, DC. 

When I first came to faith in Christ in 1971, as a Jewish college student, I never imagined that the Lord would lead me to pastor a church. After my seminary and doctoral work, I fully expected to be teaching at the seminary level for the rest of my life. And I did serve as a seminary professor for 5 years, teaching Hebrew, Greek, English Bible, and Homiletics. Teaching was easy for me and I enjoyed the relaxed schedule of evenings, weekends and summers off from classes.  

But then in 1979, in a clear and unambiguous way, the Lord made it clear to me that I was to go to MBC as the pastor. Of course, the church family at MBC had to agree with this idea and vote to approve it, which they did in June 1979 by only three votes. The odds were so against my being voted in, that this approval was just one more confirmation from the Lord that MBC is where He wanted me. 

As I reflect back over almost 4 decades of leading a church, I have come to realize that there are three major seasons through which a church and its senior pastor can pass. Any senior pastor and church family that are blessed enough will reach the third season and hover there together for many years.  

Season #1 is when the new senior pastor arrives, and he and the church family are getting used to each other. In this stage, the senior pastor has the title, but he doesn't yet have the heart of the people. He will often hurry to explain his vision for the church to the people, who listen respectfully and dutifully to their new pastor. But the pastor and the people are still just acquaintances. In this season, many in the church family have the attitude: "We were here before you came, and we will be here after you leave--so please don't tell us how to run our church." This season usually lasts 5-10 years, depending on a number of factors. In so many denominational settings, where pastors are moved in and out of local churches every few years, local churches sadly never get out of season #1, thus hampering their ability to get any sort of spiritual momentum going. Senior pastors often underestimate the time it takes for them and their sheep to process together through this season, thus attempting to do too much, too soon before their mutual relationship is ready. This is often a hard time for senior pastors and many of them choose to leave rather than slug it out in this season….as unto the Lord. 

Season #2 is when the senior pastor and the church family become good friends. The pastor and the sheep have worked, served and suffered together through many crises and challenges, both on a church-wide level and on a personal level. The church family now begins to believe that the senior pastor is there because he really cares about them, and he is in it for the long haul. The church family begins to let their guard down and they are anxious now to have the pastor exert leadership and vision, which they are willing to obediently follow as unto the Lord. The elders and the pastor begin to bond as co-leaders of the flock and trust each other's motives and actions. This season usually lasts another 5-10 years, bringing the senior pastor's tenure to some 15-20 years. In this season, the pastor who has been careful not to exert too much controversial leadership in season #1, needs to read the signs of the times and switch into a much more pro-active leadership posture. The ironic thing is, that the many people in the church family who might have resented the senior pastor exercising too much leadership in season #1, will be the same people who will be frustrated with him if he exercises too little leadership dynamic in season #2! 

Season #3 is the final season, where the senior pastor and the church family fall in love with each other. This usually only happens after the senior pastor has been leading the flock for 20 years or more. It is for this reason, that I have often said, only long-term pastorates can really bring a church to its full potential for the Lord. You see, in season #3, the senior pastor has earned the full affection, admiration, and trust of the people, that they now follow him out of love and trust, not just out of obedience to God and the Bible. Furthermore, the senior pastor has fallen more in love with the church family than he is with himself. His motives are driven by what is truly best for his sheep. In this stage, the pastor begins to really understand the words of the Apostle Paul when he said in 2 Corinthians 12:15-"And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you" and 2 Corinthians 11:28-"There is on me every day the load of my concern for the churches", because he begins to carry a deep burden for the church and its people. It's a burden that no one can understand, except a long-serving senior pastor, because it is a spiritual burden that the Holy Spirit lays only on him. His staff, the elders and prayerful people in the church family can help him carry this burden, but none of them will ever fully experience or understand it. It is uniquely the pastor's. And even though the Spirit will give him grace to carry it, the burden is still unrelenting and often quite heavy. This final season is beautiful--a church in love with their pastor and he in love with them. This is part of what makes it so hard for a long-serving senior pastor to step away. It's not just a retirement--it's almost like a death. And the grief on both sides is real and tangible. 

It was my great honor and I was humbled to have been with the people of MBC through all three of these seasons. We were in season #3 together for the last 20 years or so and now I realize I should have appreciated that season more than I did at the time. I think I sometimes failed to look beyond all of the crises, challenges and demands of leading a church the size and complexity of MBC, and to fully appreciate the special relationship that the congregation was developing for me and I for them. I came to love MBC and the church family there with all that was within me. And when I was suddenly confronted with the prospect of stepping away as Senior Pastor, I was overwhelmed by the personal grief that I felt coming. I discovered that it was much harder to step down than I expected it would be--not because of power or prestige or visibility, but because of the people with whom I had fallen in love with a godly love--for so many years.  

And now, I often think of how amazing and beneficial and how great the impact would be to believers and their communities if churches made it to season #3! I believe most church families are capable--if they as people--by the Spirit's enabling--will grant their pastors the grace, kindness and understanding, that they would like other people to grant to them. I believe that most senior pastors can build season #3 churches if they will exhibit--by the Spirit's enabling--the stick-to-it-tive-ness, the tenacity, the patience, and the loyalty to their church calling that Jesus desires. May God help us--church families and senior pastors--to build season #3 churches for His Glory!