Creative Leadership

Leaders: When It’s Time to Step Aside

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.

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  1. This has to been one of the hardest issues facing the older generation today. When the younger crowd decides that it is in the best interest of letting the senior pastor go, there has to be an incredible amount of tact.

    I'm in the same boat as Phil is being a media producer and having a father who is a preacher. My dad has the same qualities of Phil's dad and I am not looking forward to the day when it might be necessary to go against what he thinks is best and what I know is best for his health.

    Praying for you Phil! 

  2. Dear PhiL: As I read your article I realized that I know you father and your sister. MY mother is in the same facilty and Jan.22 is his birthday , your sister Beth had a party today for him at Carillon. Your sister is a 24 depends,ambulance runner and crisis person and I applaude her care and thoughfulness she exhibits to others and your parents.  

    This is a difficult walk for anyone however I have a brother in California as well and a Sister in S.C. it is the one who is locally close for the parents protection that has the harder walk emotionally and mentally, and physically,I know because I am in the same situation as your sister.. Being children we have to love them enough to let them get the help they need, however one parent is very tough but your Sister has two parents and the Lord has blessed her with Stamina and vision to care for both. I think you should do a movie on this disease that is growing in our aging and yes us Baby Boomers, to create awareness of the signs and steps and share life stories of those we know, Suggestion for title: Losing Seasons in time.

    IN conclusion we need to educate and spread the word to better care and be there when we have to act responsibly for our parents and what to do and how to adjust to enjoy the memory years before it is too late for all.

    KIndest Regards:

    Debbie Burleson

    Guardian of the Person for alice Burleson   

  3. Dear Phil

    As I am reading your writing… to me, there is more than your parents and your sister and the walk with them. I'm walking this road with my mother and I know it is not easy.

    Although I understand it, I know the story is not really about that, because you and your sister are well able to walk the walk with a loving heart.

    Yes, it is a big thing, as "fathers" don't step aside, as they don't understand generational shift, as they don't understand God's moving on into the next generation and most important as they don't trust there own offspring. It is revealing the heart of the builder and his building.

    The thing we think we have built has only value to God and His Kingdom, as we hand it over to the next generation and cut it of from our control! That's what God did in Creation, that's His heart. That is the real test of our heart! 

    It is all about handing-over and die or keep it and die with it!

    It is about creating a legacy…. 

  4. “Like the famous “man in the grey flannel suit,” my dad didn’t find his identity in who he was, but what he did.” This statement sums up why it has been so difficult for many of the previous generation of leaders to hand over the ministries they built up. That could have been their place of identity and in the process of time they became intertwined with that organisation. It is very important that this generation of leaders learn to detach themselves from whatever they are building or continuing so that they are creating more room and spaces for others (as well as freeing themselves up from too much responsibilities) and at the same time developing and building long lasting relationships with people long after their ministry lives are over – and their immediate family can enjoy them continuously. I think every ministry should create a process of renewal for their leaders so that they do not burnout, get tired and make silly mistakes and reevaluate their call and commitment to both God and His people. This makes the handing over process much easier. Ministry was never meant to be an empire building system but a reconciliation of people back to their Heavenly Father and that aspect of our lives goes on long after public ministry as relationships will continue to be formed beyond the business, career and the ministry.

  5. Your situation (and that of so many others) is very sad. I can relate to the idenity thing, in what you do, rather than who you are. I think most Americans do.

    It is hard, to say the least, to try and do what is right when it hurts the ones you love. God bless you.

  6. This is perhaps one of the best blogs I've read in a while. Maybe it's because my 92 year old father has fallen victim to Alzheimers as well. I just had this "Honor your parents" talk with my sister and it is so true.

    If you have a pastor who is showing signs of dimensia or Alzheimers, believe me, it isn't going to get better short of a miracle. Save them the embarrasment now and get them off the field while they can still play. Everyone wins.

  7. I am Phil's sister. I was delighted to see the responses to his blog. This is probably the hardest, saddest experience any child could probably go through.

    I have however discovered one thing only after trying 5 nursing homes and moving back home in between and that is the person I am taking care of every day is no longer my Mother. She is merely the shell of my Mother. It has taken 7 years to get here but I have arrived. Anyone who is facing this situation listen and take heed to that statement. Don't let it take you seven years. I take more medicine than my Mother. There comes a point when you no longer can make tham happy no matter how hard you try, so don't let it destroy you. My head knows this but there are still days my heart doesn't.

    Our Father on the other hand is mentally ok most days but declining physically. When I put him in his wheelchair last Monday and told him he could not walk again it broke my heart. I always said I would lay down and die if something happened to our Dad, now I pray; please God don't let him live like this. I wonder sometimes if modern medicine hasn't gone to far. 


    Beth Carpenter


  8. Phil and Beth, thanks for sharing your painful story.  We have the same thing here with my husband's parents (my parents passed away years ago of cancer).

    I watch and wonder how it will be for us in 20 years…or 30.  How can I prepare now so that my kids have it easier than we have it?

    I know the point of the blog was ministry leadership passing…but I am too much of a girl not to stay nailed to the story.  It is all of our lives at one time or the other.

    Praying for you all. 

  9. Mary: I know Beth and what a person she is. MY mother has this disease and is in

    the same facility as Beth and Phils Parents. The Best things you can do.

    enjoy them everyday: Laugh, music, engaging in productive conversation,painting

    movies, looking at photographs, trips and healthy nutrition is a key and prevention.

    However the first and most important is faith and prayers. This is walk of many

    demensions . however it does not last forever so pray and stay in faith all things

    are on God's watch and clock. Grab them by the hand, give them a hug from the

    heart talk with them in compassion and listen because one day it will not be

    there again for those moments we could and should have had more of.

    Walk everyday as if it were you last and give thanks for all that we have now.

    Prayers and Blessings:


  10. I too am taking care of my aging Dad.  I guess that will be the case for more of us going forward.  May God give us the grace to honor them as they deserve.  

    I have had the privilege of working with an aging ministry leader.  I thank God for the wisdom he gained with age and shared so freely.  I remember on more than one occasion when he walked into the studio and said to a few of us, "Pray that I finish well."  I remember feeling humbled because it showed his heart.  He was a gracious man and didn't want to do anything that would ever embarrass the cause of Christ; on the other hand he understood that he was human.            

    Something I've come to realize is that many of these ministry leaders are triple Type A personalities.  And God has used them.  But I can now see how it is very difficult for them to slow down and walk away when the time comes.  I think Phil has made valid points and perhaps we can also begin to pray for these leaders who have worked tirelessly and spent themselves in many cases for the Gospel — praying specifically that they will finish well!  It's something else we can do to honor them.

  11. Phil & Beth,

    These stories abound and are endless…some sad and others have a good outcome. I applaud you for your courage and love for your parents.

    With much coercion and pushing, my siblings and I moved our elderly parents off the ranch to a retirement facility.  Dad hated it from day one and had a mental breakdown in the moving process.  His mental state made it a nightmare for our mother.  She died at age 85 after depression and a heart attack….she really had a "broken heart."  My Dad blamed their plight on my sister and I who did most of the arranging of the move with oversight of their finances and medical care.  In retrospect, I always said I would have never made the move for them, if I had it to do over.  The outcome was too painful.  Another negative result of our parent's move was that our father changed their estate trust, cutting out much of my sister and I, adding more to the other two lesser involved siblings' inheritance.  After the other two siblings intervened…the trust is back to its original state.  The four siblings have, thankfully, always been in agreement. 

    Our father is 90, now, and still drives to the ranch two or three times a week…60 miles round trip.   He still has his mental faculties but is failing, physically…though takes no prescription medication for medical issues…he's been quite healthy.  When he cannot drive anymore…that will kill him. 

    Looking back, my mother was able to let go and recognize "today" for what it was…my father could not and still revels in the past. 

  12. This subject calls for wisdom and discernment. 

    When it concerns the Church or kingdom work, we must tread carefully in dealing with our aged leaders.  We live in a "pragmatic" world and all too often, the Church races to embrace worldly methods to achieve sacred ends.  Let us be mindful that service in the kingdom is a calling (and high calling at that).  Therefore, elders and Board members must enter into these sacred decisions with much "fear and trembling" as they must ensure that the Lord is indeed seeking to make a change and that it is not simply the ambitions or fancies of men.  

    David understood this principle well (1Sam 24, 1Sam 26; 2:Sam 1).  Even though David had been anointed the next king of Israel and, even though God had delivered Saul into his hands, David acknowledged and revered the Lord's decision to appoint rulers ("the Lord's anointed") and refused to harm Saul.  In essence, David left it in the hands of the Lord to appoint and remove rulers (Prov 21:1;Rom 13; Eph 4:11) when He saw fit.

     May we too remember this wisdom of old and cling to it that we might have The Lord's approval and honor faithful leaders that have paved the way before us.

  13. That is exactly the problem – when old leaders find it hard to let it go. In the terms of David & Saul, this was and is the struggle of so many in leadership then & now, when they fail to recognise that there has been a change and cannot allow for transitional phase of leadership to bring in the new. Yes, David did not kill Saul to achieve his aims because he recognised that was not the way to go about it – but he did have to leave israel. Many times it is because many in leadership then and now, cannot see a life outside of public ministry that they find it so hard to let go – as if the whole of God’s Kingdom has been relegated to the pulpit. What would have happened to Saul if he had just humbled himself and let go of the Kingship which was not his in the first place (remember it was given to him) and handed over to David? One thing is for sure he would not have died the death he died. And please don’t forget that David had to leave the Israel for a period of time because of this issue of leadership refusing to let go and embrace what God had ordained – I mean what more confirmation does one need to know that God was behind it – yet Saul refused and he knew it was God that anointed David. No one is saying they must kill, cut off or have a coup d’etat of the old leadership but it will mean that many will leave their Churches because of such stifling conflicts to adapt to the new ways of doing things. In the case of the world – they are no match for the ways of God – it is we Christians who are often very slow and inept at being the light in the world because we have sought comfort and easy life rather overcoming challenges that afflict humankind and living right. Focus on Jesus Christ and see the difference – you can never do things like everybody else – never.

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