By John Plunkett
In September 2011, I had preached at Creve Coeur (Illinois) Christian Church for 33 years, more than half its existence. But I was ready to retire.
I had been thinking about this for some time. As early as 2006 I proposed a plan with an associate minister that would have implemented a three-year transition moving me to retirement and him to the senior minister’s role. But that plan fell apart when the associate was called to be senior minister of another congregation.
In September 2011, I told the elders of my pending retirement and that my last Sunday for preaching would be October 28, 2012. That gave the elders two options: (A) a year to act, or (B) a year to wait and then transition. Option A was uncharted territory. Option B would be an experience similar to what churches go through when a minister resigns and gives 30 days’ notice, plunging the leadership into a scramble mode to find a new minister ASAP. The elders went to work on Plan A.
The elders formed a search team, eventually composed of 10 church members representing a cross section of age, gender, and social status. (The team leader and one other team member were babies when I began my ministry at Creve Coeur!)
The team began meeting in January 2012, planning strategies for seeking candidates and interviewing them. They moved expeditiously, yet deliberately. Rather than advertise for candidates, they approached others for possible recommendations. By March they had a half-dozen possible candidates and were beginning interviews. A man who was serving in a ministry about two hours away seemed like the best candidate. Over the next few weeks, every search team member visited that candidate’s church and heard him preach. After subsequent interviews, and conversations with references and other acquaintances, the minister’s discernable successes made him a strong candidate. With the search team firmly behind him, the elders soon affirmed him and set a date for a congregational meeting to call him.
Nick Oyler received 99 percent confirmation in June 2012, five months before my retirement. Nick would give his 30-day notice and move into the area by mid-July.
Passing the Mantle
I began a series of sermons on Elijah and Elisha, leading up to passing the mantle to Nick. In one of those sermons, we projected an image of well-worn shoes, and I asked folks to consider how comfortable older shoes become. This is where we were as a church. Then I projected a pair of brand-new shoes on the screen, and I spoke of breaking them in and getting used to their newness. The new shoes might pinch a bit at times, cause aches, and maybe even a blister, but if you keep wearing them, they too, soon start to feel comfortable. That simple illustration seemed to be a turning point for some of the few people still hanging on to the idea that they could never feel secure with a new minister.
I concluded the sermon series on July 22, and introduced Nick as the new senior minister-in-waiting. We preached the sermon together—I assumed the role of Elijah and Nick was Elisha. Since our modern culture would have little understanding of what a mantle was, both literally and figuratively, I passed my preaching Bible to Nick (even though Nick preaches from his iPad). But the real test of this transition was not technology, but relationships, logistics, and finances.
Relationships are foundational to a smooth transition. Can two senior ministers work together? In our case, I, the retiring minister, was considerably older; it was something like the situation of Paul who gave ministry direction to Timothy. Nick was willing to work in this situation, learning about the church’s position in the community, its vision and direction, and its history.
Nick and I had four months to work together. The first month, I led and Nick listened and observed. The next two months, we walked through everything side by side. The last month of transition, Nick set the agenda and I observed, offering only constructive insights, if anything at all. It’s notable that during the first month, Nick preached from the text I assigned him from my preaching plan. In the last month, I preached from what he assigned to me.
This cooperation made for a seamless transition.
In the four months Nick and I served alongside each other, there was little doubt in the minds of the people what Nick would do as their next minister, but there was a lot of speculation about what I would be doing once the transition was complete. In all of it I consistently told people Nick would be their new minister and I would do everything possible not to cast a long shadow over his ministry. That could mean severing all ties with the church and finding a new church home or it could mean sitting in the pew like everyone else and volunteering to serve where needed. This was a relationship question that could be answered only with time.
During such a transition, the families of the two ministers, especially their wives, must be considered. The wife of a minister is generally held in high-esteem by a church, especially if she and her husband are perceived to be a team. In many cases, not only is the minister retiring, but so is his wife. When there is an overlap of ministers who are working on a smooth transition, churches and church leaders do well to help each wife find a comfortable place in this move.
Logistics was the second test. Should the retiring minister keep his comfortable office until his last day, with the new minister occupying space in another part of the church building? In our situation, it seemed logical we should try to minimize time-consuming moves, and work to create effective workspace. It was inevitable I was going to move at some point, so I started sooner rather than later. Besides, I had a 50-year-old library and no place to move all of it.
When I discovered my successor was a connoisseur of books, we quickly agreed he would keep shelved what I couldn’t move. When moving day came for Nick, he moved into the “minister’s office.” I still used the office when necessary, but I had moved my personal things to my new office. This office move was hard for some people, and it raised a few questions, such as, “OK, who is the senior minister now?”
The third test, finances, is one that needs careful planning and could require a significant amount of time. Not every church can afford to pay two full-time senior minister salaries, even for a relatively short time. Therefore, if a church can budget a savings account into the annual budget for a year before a minister’s retirement, a church the size of ours could pay a second full-time salary for four to six months. At one point, our leadership briefly considered a short-term loan. We were stretched, but with some frugal short-term balancing, part of my compensation was deferred for a couple of weeks until offerings caught up the general fund. It worked for us.
Nick’s ministry is now completely geared up. I sing on one of our alternating praise teams in the first service, my wife is active in the women’s ministry, and we have done something a minister never gets to do: we work in the nursery during the midweek service.
My wife and I had considered leaving. Other friends who retired from long ministries did that—some voluntarily, and others by request. We are present, fitting in where we can be used, but also taking the opportunity to visit churches we have served.
I have begun doing pulpit supply when called. I am being welcomed by my successor to fulfill three weddings that were scheduled and placed on my calendar long ago. We have done some funerals together for families I have been with for nearly 35 years.
Two senior ministers are enjoying the best of their times together. One is retired and enjoying activities the demands of ministry had prevented him from doing for many years, but still ministering. And the other, with great vision and energy, is working to lead the Creve Coeur Christian Church forward.
John Plunkett is retired after serving 46 years in ministry, 35 with Creve Coeur (Illinois) Christian Church.