In 2017, Tim Keller announced he was stepping down as pastor of New York’s Redeemer Church to begin the next chapter of his ministry—training the next generation of church planters and leaders.
Facts & Trends’ Maina Mwaura and the North American Mission Board’s Dustin Willis sat down with Keller to talk about church planting and how pastors can transition out of their leadership role.
This is part two of that interview. To read part one, click here.
What’s it like planting as a couple?
There is more than one model for a church planting marriage. Kathy went to seminary with me. We both got master’s degrees and so she has been much more of a ministry partner in the sense of teaching and writing and doing things inside the church.
I’ve had other couples look at that and say, ‘Oh, I can’t be like that.’ You can’t say there’s only one way to do it right. One thing that is for certain is that church planting spills out into the rest of your life. The whole family, not just the wife, has to be part of the church plant. [Your wife] has to be a partner.
The wife of a church planter doesn’t have to be a ministry partner on the staff actually doing active ministry inside the church. But she would have to be a partner in a sense of co-owning the massive enterprise that [church planting] is. But there is more than one way to do that.
Looking back at planting Redeemer, what disappointments as a church planter have taught you the greatest lessons?
That’s a good question. I think most people when they are asked a question like that you’re thinking about something major. I have made some mistakes. But the main place where the failures and disappointments have happened are the dozens of sermons that really weren’t very good. And then the dozens of pastoral connections where I wasn’t sensitive.
Sometimes I was too hesitant to say something, because I was being cowardly. Or I was too abrasive and I really should have been more patient.
So, it’s not the big ones. Those little pastoral and preaching fails are actually the most helpful to me.
How did you have the wisdom to know it was time to transition to another role in ministry?
I’m glad you’re giving me credit for the wisdom of the move. You don’t want to leave too soon or too late. So, it feels like I didn’t go too soon or too late, but I think it will take another year or so for me to be sure.
It does seem to me that the wise thing to do is not hold on to the power. It feels great to be the top CEO, senior pastor, president, or leader. But it’s dangerous to hold on when you’re not allowing other younger leaders to come up, and you’re not using what you know to train new leaders.
If you just hold on to power until you fall witless from the throne, that’s unwise.
Did I do it at the right time? I hope so. We’ll see.
The average age of a senior pastor in America today is 55, which is much older than what we’ve seen in U.S. history. What do you say to the pastor who is wrestling with transitioning to another ministry other than senior pastoring?
Number one is if you are 55, I don’t think you realize that every year you’re going to feel yourself aging faster.
Number two: you should have a bit of a ramp. If you’re going to prepare for a change, younger leaders need to know what the timeframe is. They can’t hang out waiting for you to suddenly say, “Oh, I think I’ll retire or I think I’ll step down.”
You need to go to some younger leaders and say here’s how long I’m going to be here because it does take time to prepare a church for a change. But you also can’t keep putting it off and every six months give people an update because people aren’t going to stick around. So, you have to give it a fair amount of time, but you also have to be definite.
In general, I do think that between 55 and 65, somewhere in there, you do need to make transitions to make room for other people. And to be more of a trainer, coach, mentor, shepherd. Younger leaders are desperate for people to be consultants and mentors.
Your heart for New York City is evident in the things you’ve written and spoken. Why are cities so important?
Probably the simplest thing—it may change 50 or 100 years from now—but right now cities are growing. Virtually everywhere, people are moving into the cities very fast. In the non-Western world, it’s enormously fast. In China, Africa, and Latin America it’s astonishing.
When Jesus says, “go and make disciples of all nations,” obviously you know the word nation doesn’t mean countries it means peoples. That means you have to go where the peoples are.
If the people of the world are moving into the cities faster than the church is, which they are, then the church is being disobedient to the Great Commission. It’s a little hard for me to say, but it’s true. You have to go where the people are and people are going to the cities.
What advice would you give the next generation of pastors?
I’m afraid they’re going to roll their eyes and say, “Yes, of course he would say that.” They don’t pray nearly as much as they ought to. They have trouble with solitude or at least they don’t know what to do with it. Or they don’t know how to find it.
When I look back, I just didn’t pray enough.
It’s an incredible struggle, and the culture we’re in now makes it harder than ever.
Even being a pastor it’s a struggle?
Yes, and we have no excuse because we get paid to do religious things. You can show up in your office, lock the door, and pray, and nobody’s going to say, “Hey, you’re not earning your salary.” But we don’t.
What’s one thing in the last five years of this journey you’ve learned about church planting?
It goes back to something we talked about a bit earlier, about how concerned I am about our culture. In the United States, it’s almost like there are two worlds we’re trying to evangelize.
There’s an older world of people who still have the religious dots. That doesn’t mean they’re Christians; it just means they have the mental furniture for normal kinds of evangelism and discipling. That’s an aging and somewhat shrinking world.
Most churches can actually still grow living almost completely in that shrinking circle.
Meanwhile, the growing world—which tends to be younger—they don’t have the [religious background]. We don’t have evangelism tools for that. Church planting is only going to work if we learn how to do evangelism for that other world.
Watch the full interview:
- Tim Keller Q&A: Wisdom for Modern Ministry
- 7 Keys to Successful Leadership Succession
- How Old Are America’s Pastors?
- Navigating Change: Guiding a Church Through Transition
MAINA MWAURA is a freelance journalist and minister who lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Tiffiney, and daughter Zyan.
DUSTIN WILLIS is executive director of marketing and events at the North American Mission Board. Willis is the author of Life On Mission and Life in Community.