Church transitions as pastor prepares to retireWritten by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
The Rev. Dave Claassen is one of Toledo’s longest-serving pastors. But after 37-and-a-half years leading Mayfair-Plymouth Congregational Christian Church, he’s getting ready to retire.
“I don’t think I’m called to be here forever,” he said in a recent interview.
Just as Claassen’s tenure at the West Toledo church at 5253 Bennett Road has been a model of commitment and longevity, his transition into retirement is an example of extraordinary planning and patience.
The transition is already in place, in fact, even though the 62-year-old minister will not step down until November 2015. By then, Claassen will have served 40 years at the helm at Mayfair-Plymouth, which belongs to the National Association of Christian Congregational Churches.
The Rev. Joe French, 30, an associate pastor at Mayfair-Plymouth, was approved as Claassen’s successor by a congregational vote in May.
The Rev. Rupert Loyd Jr., also an associate pastor at Mayfair-Plymouth, is playing a key role in the changeover as well, using his more than 30 years in ministry and a doctorate degree in organizational leadership to oversee the process.
The three ministers are taking turns preaching a sermon series titled “70 Days of Vision,” intended to help church members understand the purpose of church and what is expected of Christians.
“Sixty seven percent of the people who go to church every Sunday don’t know the purpose of the church,” French said. Most people mistakenly believe that the church is there to “provide a place of fellowship” and for people to “share God’s love with one another,” he said.
The real purpose, French said, is to make disciples — reaching people with the Gospel and training them to be strong, mature Christians.
Church Doctor Ministries, an Indiana-based consulting firm, has been working with Mayfair-Plymouth’s staff and its congregation of about 275 to help them better understand their strengths and weaknesses as well as their purpose and mission.
The two-year consulting process has included lengthy interviews with staff and church members, and Church Doctor has given Mayfair-Plymouth more than 200 recommendations. Some are minor, such as thanking God for the volunteers who greet people at the church door before services. Others are more intense and demanding, including getting more lay people involved in ministry and developing better programs to engage the community.
While Church Doctor was hired to help Mayfair-Plymouth move forward in mission and ministry, the evaluations are also helping French get to know the church he will eventually be leading.
“It wasn’t exactly planned that way, but God planned it that way,” Claassen said. “Joe will start with his feet on the ground, knowing everything there is to know about Mayfair-Plymouth.”
In the meantime, Claassen’s mentoring process includes weekly meetings with French in which the veteran pastor “downloads” his thoughts, observations, suggestions and history lessons to his successor.
Loyd, meanwhile, has created and is overseeing a four-step process for the transition, starting with “I do, you watch,” with Claassen doing and French watching, followed by “I do, you help.” The third step is “I help, you do,” with Claassen helping and French doing, and ending up with, “You do, I watch,” with French doing and Claassen observing tasks.
Claassen plans to spend more time in retirement with his grandchildren and pursuing his hobbies of writing, photography and raising chickens. He said he could not be more pleased with the way things are going and with the quality of people involved in the process.
He pointed out that French is an ordained minister who has served as a chaplain in a war zone, and also as the interim pastor of a troubled church that was going through its own kind of “war zone.”
“And Joe is six years older than I was when I became senior pastor,” Claassen added.
Church studies show a low success rate for ministers following long-term pastors. They serve on average just one month for every year of their predecessor’s tenure. But the average church doesn’t plan and prepare like Claassen and Mayfair-Plymouth.
“God’s anointing is going into Joe and I felt incredible relief — so much that it surprised me — when the congregation approved him,” Claassen said. “I feel that the church’s future has clarity, and that God has given me the grace to let go.”
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of Toledo Faith & Values (ToledoFAVS.com), a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.