What “Honor Thy Father” Says About Ministry Succession: A long time ago, my father had a stroke. Well into his eighties, he’d already had three heart attacks and two open heart surgeries, so this was the icing on a very bad cake. About the same time my mother started her long slide into Alzheimer’s, which was slow and painful as well.
Within a few months, my father started recovering from the stroke, but we learned in the process, his heart was so weak that from time to time he’d literally zone out for a few moments because his brain wasn’t getting enough blood. It was strange to be sure – especially in public places – but other than those odd moments, he still had his wits about him.
We found an excellent assisted living facility in their hometown, but it didn’t take long for them to hate it. So my parents moved back home. It wasn’t long before more health problems ensued, and we found another facility, but after so much fighting, we caved and let them move back home with a full-time attendant.
My sister Beth lives in North Carolina near my parents, and since I live in Los Angeles, she bore the brunt of their care – and their anger. As mom descended into Alzheimer’s, she fought everything around her, and I discovered my sweet Southern pastor’s-wife mom would suddenly lash out with the kind of expletives a sailor would find distasteful. She would hit people, argue about everything, and throw regular fits. And it was Beth who got the late night calls that one had fallen, dad had taken the wrong medicine, or the neighbors were complaining again.
We know these are the last years of our parent’s lives, so we’ve been torn between giving our parents as much freedom as possible, and yet putting them in a professional facility that would give them the round-the-clock care they desperately need. The last few years have been frustrating to say the least.
Finally, a close friend and family counselor told my wife Kathleen and I that the Bible admonition to “honor your parents” sometimes meant doing things for them – even if it was against their will. It’s about being willing to take the heat of their anger when you have to make the tough decisions that in the long run are for their benefit.
So that’s when we decided to end the nightmare and move them – against their will of course – into a facility that could help my father physically, and deal with my mom’s rapidly escalating dementia.
My father has always been a small church pastor, and the best years of his ministry were in the 1960’s and 70’s. About the same time, an enormous number of major churches and ministries where started which have had a significant impact for the Kingdom of God. Some were evangelistic outreaches like Billy Graham, others expanded into universities like Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell, others were media focused like Robert Schuller or James Dobson. Before we knew what a “mega-church” was, men like Adrian Rodgers, D. James Kennedy, and Lloyd Ogilvie led very large churches with a major influence in the Christian community, and in the wider culture. But now many of these leaders have either passed or retired.
And like my father, many are finding it difficult to step aside.
Like the famous “man in the grey flannel suit,” my dad didn’t find his identity in who he was, but what he did. He was a pastor, so when couldn’t preach anymore, he found no reason to go on living. That’s why he fought with everything he had to keep his freedom and stay in the pulpit. And it worked, until the Sunday he started rambling aimlessly and almost fell. Painfully, the church’s leadership decided that would be his last message.
When my father got the news, it almost killed him.
As I look around at others from my father’s generation, many of these aging leaders are making that transition with grace, while a handful are fighting tooth and nail to stay in the pulpit (or at least in leadership) until their last breath. A few powerful leaders have even been willing alienate their most loyal supporters or create a split in their own families – some even using behind the scenes manipulation to stay in control.
But in cases I’ve personally encountered, they’ve done it with the help of enablers. Elders, board members, or family who sincerely want to honor the legacy of the founder, and believe – however misguided – that preserving his control will somehow extend the life of the church or ministry. In the worst cases, a few simply want to stay on the payroll, and fear that a change in leadership means losing their meal ticket.
Even in the face of a changing culture and declining support, for whatever reason, they can’t – or won’t – say “no.”
My father always said he would preach the gospel “until his dying breath.” It sounded noble – until his deteriorating condition caused him to make bad financial, management, and leadership decisions. Fortunately, in his case, the church leaders had the courage to make the right decision, even though it was enormously painful at the time.
That’s why I keep thinking about my friend’s advice – “Honoring your parents sometimes means forcing them to do something against their will.” As difficult and painful as it seems, one of the responsibilities of elders, board members, and other leaders is to make leadership transitions work – even when that means voting against the wishes of the founder.
Jesus knew it would happen when he told us in John 21:18: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
Transitions are part of living, and especially when it involves major churches and ministries – effective evangelism and ministry, the spiritual life of many, and significant amounts of money are often involved. It takes courage, but the bottom line is that someone must speak up.
It took my sister and I seven years to realize that real love meant putting our foot down. Only when you love someone enough are you willing to make the hard choices – sometimes, the very decisions they will hate the most. Occasionally I’ll turn on the TV and see a great ministry leader get confused, look a bit lost, or stumble over something he would have never thought twice about just a few years earlier. I’ve seen the same thing in various pulpits as well.
I always cringe, because it’s a look I’ve seen in my own father’s eyes so many times.
If you truly care about a founder or great leader’s legacy, his effectiveness, or his memory, have the courage to speak the truth, and help him understand when the time has come to step aside.