A few years ago I was speaking at a week-end conference at a church in Washington state affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. I was there a few weeks before the formal retirement date of the pastor – a pastor who had served as the senior minister with that congregation for many years. We chatted during one of the breaks and I asked him whether he would be retiring in the area or moving elsewhere. He assured me that that small city was his home and that he and his wife would definitely stay put: they would not be moving or changing houses. I then asked him about Sunday worship. And his responses was in two parts. He told me that the PCUSA has a very clear policy: a retiring or departing minister cannot worship in the church where he or she has been serving for one full year except with the leave and ‘permission’ of their successor. And second, he bemoaned this policy stressing that this was his home church; this is where he and his wife had worshipped for many years. And he felt it was entirely arbitrary that he would not be able to worship there in his retirement years. As he noted: to attend the Christmas pageant that would include performances by his grandchildren, the policy required that he get “sign off” from his successor.
Then earlier this year I was visiting with a pastor in my own denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He will be moving into “retirement” mode later this year. I say “retirement” because in fact he is moving into another chapter of life and work. But he will freelance; so it is not so much retirement as that he is “retiring” from pastoral ministry. And I asked him: would he move? No; he and his wife will continue to live in the home they have now, which is situated not very far from the church where he is currently the senior pastor. So, of course, I asked: where will you worship on Sunday after your last day as the pastor of this congregation? And he was very clear: he and his wife had already identified another Alliance church where they would worship and, he said, he would keep a discrete distance from his current church and completely free his successor to move in and be the new pastor avoiding any possibility that his presence might compromise or complicate the ministry of the person coming into the role he was vacating.
There is a certain beauty to the US presidency; I delight in the image of George W. Bush and Barack Obama walking to the helicopter that would fly Bush and his wife, Laura, away. It was very clean. And the tradition within the US presidency is so good: Bush refused to comment publicly on anything and was available anytime for Obama to call him on any matter or question or issue where he might be helpful in terms of advice or perspective.
My sense is that this is as it should be; the PCUSA got it right; my colleague and friend is doing it right; the protocol with the US presidency makes sense. If you have been either a pastor or a senior leader in an organization and you retire or more to another assignment, then step away. Leave time and space and distance so that your successor can create his or her own voice and presence in the organization. Do the right thing. Do not assume that you are above it all or that you are sincere and only want to be helpful. Your presence muddies the waters for those who have served with you or been part of your congregation. Take a sabbatical; give your successor at least a year – at the very least. And then only re-enter the organization or the congregation with the blessing of your successor.