Question: "How can a church survive/recover when a pastor leaves?"
Answer: There is no doubt that losing a pastor can be a time of upheaval for a church, especially if the pastor leaves under difficult circumstances. If a pastor simply retires after long and faithful service, or if he moves to another area in response to God’s leading, it can be a time of sweet sorrow. His congregation can honor him with farewell gifts and celebrations, thank him with personal tributes and remembrances, and rejoice with him as he moves into another area of life and ministry. He and his family can continue to be on the hearts of his former flock and be upheld in prayer as well.
But what about when a pastor leaves in less-than-ideal circumstances, such as moral failure on his part, dissatisfaction with his performance (whether real or perceived), or a church “split”? How do those who remain behind repair whatever damage there may be, hold the church together for the present, and move forward into what can seem to be an uncertain future?
The first and most crucial factor in answering these questions begins with an understanding of exactly whom the church belongs to. The church does not belong to the pastor or to the leadership or the congregation. The church belongs to Christ, the Head of His church. The word church means literally the “assembly of the called-out ones.” These called-out ones gather together to worship their Head. They are committed to following His lead in all they do, to obeying Him, and to presenting an accurate picture of Him to a watching world. The church is the body of Christ. He died for His body, and His body lives for Him. Until and unless the leadership is committed to this biblical model and the congregation comes to grips with this truth, no pastor can be truly successful. So the first step in surviving the loss of a pastor under difficult circumstances is a regrouping of the leadership to define the church. Additionally, there must be unanimity among the leadership in their understanding of and commitment to the church, both the local church and the Church universal. Much church dissention comes from a lack of uniformity in the beliefs and commitments of its leaders, and, in fact, many pastors leave for just this reason. So, before beginning to seek another pastor, the church leadership must agree on the Headship of Christ.
Second, the leadership must understand and be committed to the sovereignty of God in all things, but most especially at the time of the departure of the pastor. Nothing that happened was a surprise to God; either He caused the pastor to leave or He allowed it to accomplish His divine will and purposes. Either way, He has assured us that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), and the church can take comfort in the knowledge that they are being led by the sovereign God who is involved in every detail of the life and ministry of the church, as well as that of the pastor. A clear and grounded confidence in God’s sovereign control over the church will lead the people to say with Paul, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
Third, the departure of a pastor is a good time to reevaluate and/or redefine the mission and work of the church. There are obvious mandates from Scripture—teaching and preaching the Word, worshiping and glorifying God, and fulfilling the commission to spread the gospel—but how exactly are these things prioritized in the church, and what kind of pastor is needed to help achieve the church’s goals? If the church has an emphasis on missionary outreach, for example, a pastor with the same vision should be sought. If the church feels especially called to minister to children, to the poor, to the elderly, or to local immigrant populations, the potential pastor should have a heart for those ministries. Church splits have occurred where the pastor and the leadership have different visions of their calling, and that can be avoided up front by a clear and well-thought out vision of the role of the church in the community and the world.
Finally, before any attempt is made to replace a pastor, the leadership should analyze objectively why he left. If the problems that caused his untimely departure still exist, avoiding a painful repetition will be nearly impossible. For example, if there is a problem of sin in the congregation that was never effectively dealt with, that must be resolved before calling another man to the church. The apostle Paul dealt with an extraordinarily sinful and stiff-necked group of people in the Corinthian church, which was continually divided and wracked with conflict. They were selfish, disorderly, and worldly. Sin stained the Lord’s Table. They fought with each other, sued each other, took sexual advantage of each other, and were proud. To ask a new pastor to come innocently into a church whose members exhibit such behavior is terribly unfair and only invites another painful pastoral departure. It is up to the church leadership to institute Matthew 18 discipline, preferably before the new pastor arrives or soon thereafter, as long as he is fully aware of the situation.