Lessons learned in handing over a church to a Japanese pastor

I grew up as a missionary kid in Yamanashi and 40 years ago came back to Japan as an independent missionary. I want to share a couple of experiences I’ve had in handing over a church to a Japanese pastor.

In May of 1981, I started Asakura Yorokobi Kirisuto Kyōkai (Joy Christ Church) in my home in western Kōchi City, Shikoku. The next year, I started Ikku Nozomi (Hope) Kirisuto Kyōkai in eastern Kōchi City.

Both churches now have Japanese pastors and are completely out of our hands with their own land and buildings. But how we passed the baton was very different.

Early mistakes

From the very beginning, the Ikku and Asakura churches were considered one church, meeting in two locations. In 1986 the Ikku church only had one member, with three to five people attending on a Sunday. Asakura had five members, with about ten coming each week. We were running full programs at both churches.

That year, the assistant pastor of a large church in Takamatsu (northern Shikoku) asked if he could pastor the Ikku church. As a church, we decided to invite him to come to serve as pastor of the church. We didn’t feel it was fair to have him come to just Ikku, but the income from both churches could support him.

So, he came in April that year. The understanding was that he was to be the pastor of the church and I was to continue as the missionary. We decided to meet about once a week, to discuss church policy and evangelism, etc. Nothing was written down, though, and nothing was done about dividing the duties. This turned out to be a major mistake.

At first, I preached more than he did. Gradually, we took turns preaching every other week. As time went along, though, a rift developed between us. The pastor seemed to always be strongly forcing his ideas on us. Our times together seemed to consist of him presenting an idea that didn’t sound like it would work and me trying to talk him out of it.

There are many reasons why things did not work out between us. One was that although I had experience in church planting and he had none, he was older than me. In Japan, you usually defer to your elders. However, in this situation, I was the one with experience, so, to my understanding, I felt it would have been natural for him to be asking me about things. Instead, he tried to force his opinions on me.

Another major reason it didn’t work out was one of my own making. Since I’d never worked with a pastor, I was naïve. I thought that we had invited him as the pastor, and that I was still the missionary of the church. But there was no real delineation of what either a pastor or missionary was to do. In fact, everything I thought a missionary should do, he thought a pastor should do.

Of course, each of us came with a set of pre-conceived ideas about what we should be and do. But we never talked about those. As it turned out, his ideas were vastly different from mine. It seemed like we could never come to a consensus. By the fall of 1986, we had separated in all but name. The church continued to support him, not by giving him a salary but by paying his rent and utilities.

We separated one year after he arrived. The Ikku church could not really support the pastor with only one member. But the Asakura church could. Since most members had cars or lived on that side of town, we asked all the members of the Asakura church to go to Ikku. They agreed, with all five members and the other churchgoers going to the Ikku church. The Ikku church still continues, with its own land and building, though its membership is drastically reduced. They are an independent church, but very loosely affiliated with a national group of churches.

The separation left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. I feel it was a mistake that could have been prevented, but how? What could we have done? What did we learn from this mistake?

A better attempt

Our “success story” involves the Asakura church again. After restarting from zero in 1987, we had about five members by 1991. Close to ten people plus our family of six were attending worship regularly and our living room was feeling small. In January of 1992, we moved the church to a new location, very close to Kōchi University. Working in Japan, you never know when there will suddenly be growth. After ten years of ministry and only four baptisms, 1992 saw seven people baptized.

By 1993, I knew I wanted to hand over the church to a Japanese pastor. A Dōmei church in Okayama was moving along the lines we were thinking of (elder rule), so I began going to the Dōmei Kansai Block Pastors Meetings and attending area events. As a result, the Asakura church joined the Dōmei in 1994.

In April the following year, the Dōmei Board of Directors recommended a pastor. The first thing we did (the pastor and I with our wives) was sit down and discuss how things should operate. From the very beginning, I made it clear that I would give full responsibility to the pastor. The church had called him to be their pastor, so I would follow his lead. He surprised me by saying he wanted me to relinquish my duties to him slowly. He also wanted us to learn from each other, so we could present a united “front” to the church members.

We met together with him and his wife weekly to discuss how to run the church and what we wanted to do in the future. There seemed to be a camaraderie among us that made it easy to work together. It helped that we were a similar age and had almost equivalent pastoral experience.

By the fall, he was gradually taking over many responsibilities. I only preached once a month. In July, my wife and I started a new work in our newly-built house in Ino, just west of Kōchi City, called Tennō New Life Chapel. Though I had not expected it, the pastor applied to the Dōmei for our new work to have dendō-sho status, making it a daughter church. Over the next four years, we gradually shifted our focus (and participation) away from Asakura to our new work. Thus, we began to extricate ourselves from the Asakura church. As of 1999, the Tennō church has been totally independent from the Asakura church.

In 2001, the original pastor transferred to Saitama and another pastor and his wife took his place. In 2009, the church found land and built a building. And five years ago, that pastor was replaced by another man. The church we started is now a fully independent church led by Japanese.

Lessons learned

  • Go slowly. We purposely changed things gradually, even such details as the order of service and the bulletin.
  • Keep the end goal in mind. By doing things from the beginning like a Japanese pastor would, it is easier for the people to handle the change in leadership.
  • Be involved with the changes. Since I was always involved in the changes, the existing members felt at ease with them. It helped that we continued to be present in the morning service at Asakura for the first two years.
  • Be willing to completely let go. This was the major difference from our earlier mistake. Because I was willing to give the pastor all the responsibility, he felt comfortable enough to ask me to continue with many of my responsibilities.
  • Know who you are calling. Of course, being a member of a church group and having the board of directors recommend him made things easier. Personality-fit also makes a great difference.
  • Define and discuss roles. We made sure who was doing what and discussed it frequently. As I phased out of the church, the pastor slowly filled my position until he was ready to completely take over. It created a smooth transition.

In conclusion

I realize every situation is different, but perhaps there are things you can learn from my experiences. May God continue His work of building His church in our needy country! To God be all the glory and praise.

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20, 21 NASB).

Published in the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “Passing the baton”


Image: “Hands Passing Baton at Sporting Event” by flickr user tableatny

Ken Reddington and his wife, Toshiko, are church-planting missionaries in Kōchi-ken. Ken is an MK who returned to Japan as a missionary from the US in 1978.

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