Pastoring in the Shadow of Your Predecessor

by Jonathan Shradar September 23, 2015

I am having a hard time writing the first sentence of this post. How do I begin a piece where I talk about the difficulty of pastoring in the shadow of my predecessor? Do I say that all pastors have a shadow of the style, preaching and leadership of the guy that served before them hanging over them? Do I contrast good shadows and ones that are a little darker? Or do I just let the reader know my situation and what I am learning?

Yeah, I think that will work.

I am pastoring in the shadow of my predecessor. Without a doubt, I was fully aware of the situation. Here was this church hanging on by a thread. Each of the elders had resigned after years of disagreement and confronting the lead pastor with his sin. That’s my predecessor, a man that resigned rather than drag the church through a discipline process. And depending who you ask, that was a good decision or the worst thing ever. I have tried to avoid coming to a conclusion myself. No one was sure the church would exist in a year, but would I be willing to come and preach the gospel and see what Jesus would do with his church?

So here I am, pastoring people that have been through trauma and I am doing my best to not mind the shadow. His preaching compared to mine. His promises compared to my unwillingness to make promises. His experience and intellect compared to my . . . well, lack of experience or intellect.

Most days I am not affected much by it. If I have heard the gospel rightly, I am approved and my worth is not based on anything other than Christ’s work. But every now and again a comment or a counseling conversation will leave me wishing the light would shift so the shadow would disappear.

There are both people in the church that have an infectious expectancy for the future and those that are troubled by a sense of abandonment. There are unresolved hurts and unanswered questions and as the former pastor begins a new ministry at a church across town, I know the opportunities to face the shadow could increase.

Come what may, I am learning that three things are essential in this situation. 

1. Love the people.  

I could be the most talented speaker, gifted with words of wisdom and able to translate Greek on the spot but not have love and I am nothing. I could be the super-Christian I want people to think I am and have faith to end the California drought but have not love and I gain nothing.  The people of the church could have a polished and published pastor but if he has no love, they have nothing. The only way I know to shepherd and care for those Christ has called me to, is in love. Love them with words, with actions and with persistence.  

2. Preach the Gospel.

What more could I preach? There is nothing else that is equipped to heal hurts, restore and bring reconciliation. Every answer must be drenched in gospel truth and every interaction filled with grace. This can’t only be a pulpit issue, it must be pervasive in our churches. There will be some that will be uncomfortable with it, especially if you are in a place used to a steady diet of law, but faithful preaching of the biblical gospel is and always has been the way to a healthy church.

3. Lean into the future.

The Lord has a purpose for his church, and rarely is it to stare at the past lest they turn to salt. Along with difficult transition can come great opportunity to share a vision of what both gospel doctrine and gospel culture can do in the life of a church and how it can be used to reach those far from Jesus. A church with a forward looking vision will also be more appealing to new members that feel like they can be part of something rather than having missed out on the past. When the shadow feels like stagnant air, and you experience the drop in attendence that can be expected during pastoral transition, lean into the future and see how God might blow some vision and transformation into the church and you. Encourage people to dream and sweat along side others as Jesus builds his church.

Maybe you are experiencing some moments of shadow in your ministry. While your situation may look different, I can’t think of a better way to face it.

I am a long way from knowing how to pastor well under my predecessor’s shadow and I pray daily for the light of Christ to remove all shadows. Until that happens, I will love the people, preach the gospel and lean into the future.