Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership, Pastoral Theology


Last summer, I watched the movie, “The Last Word.” Shirley MacLaine plays the character, Harriet Lauler. She lives in comfortable isolation, friendless and alone. She is aware that death is closing in on her, so she commissions a local obituary writer to do her story. She does not want to leave it to chance. Summing up a person’s life is a tough job, made more so because the person who knows the most about the deceased is no longer around when it’s written.

Harriet wants someone to compose her obituary while she is alive. She wants to be sure it is a true reflection. She doesn’t want the typical obit, where every line is overly generous, but most of it is exaggerated and phony. But this creates a huge challenge for the newspaper writer because…because nobody likes Harriet. Harriet is a bitch. Harriet knows this down deep, so she uses what life she has left to make a difference. But it is minor, and it really is too late.

Such a contrast with a memorial service I attended yesterday. My predecessor, Pastor Don Jensen, went home to be with God. I imagine thunderous shouting in heaven. Don did not wait until the end of his life to live a life that counts. An obituary writer did not have to fill in the lines with artificial ingredients, synthetic fluff. Don was beloved. He touched thousands of lives. He walked the talk. The Word of God was his compass. His passion to see people come to Christ was legendary. He was interested in people–and people were interested in him. He lived the kind of life one should live under an open heaven.

Each tribute was done with grace and eloquence. Nothing feigned. You could not exaggerate Don’s life. He was bigger than life. I am sure all of us sat in silence and pondered how much more we could be doing–must be doing–with our own. PJ wasn’t perfect, but he was close. It was one of those services you wish the world could witness. True gravitas is hard to come by these days.

When I came to pastor Village, Don was my friend and supporter. Former long-term (and much-loved) pastors can be a threat, but not Don. There are many memories, but one that stands out for me is Don, with an orange reflective vest, directing parking on a typical Sunday morning at Village. Having retired, he came each Sunday to simply love the people he had shepherded and serve where needed. It’s a contrast with how so many others leave.

In The Hero’s Farewell:What Happens When CEO’s Retire, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld interviewed fifty  prominent retired CEO’s. He wanted to find how leaders leave. He discovered four principal models: Some twelve percent of retirees are like aging athletes who won’t give up. They are deeply attached, believe they are not yet finished, think no one can replace them, choose weak successors, and leave (maybe leave) bitter. They are called Monarchs.

There is another category that comprises approximately twenty-one percent. Sonnenfeld refers to them as Generals. They love their stature, choose a strong (“but no one is as strong as I am”) successor, leave reluctantly, and plot a comeback during organizational turmoil. (I’ve known some pastors like this). On the other end are Governors. They have little attachment to the office, serve a term, accept succession, do not necessarily mentor a future successor, break ties, and leave willingly to pursue new interests. (I know some of them too).

The largest percentage (thirty-eight) have identities that are not attached to the position. They are content with their accomplishments, mentor strong successors, believe ministry can succeed without them, step aside gracefully and remain as trusted confidants. They are Ambassadors.

Don was an Ambassador–more than an Ambassador. He stepped aside, but he always kept close. He never stopped mentoring. He did not rest on his accomplishments. Like Paul, he kept pressing on (Phil. 3:12). He let go of the title, Village Lead Pastor, but he did keep his identity–pastor. How does someone stop being a pastor? It was in his name (PJ). It was part of his spiritual DNA. Pastor. And that is the last word.


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